The poem opens with the narrator, Will, wandering around the world, clothed like a sheep in “the habit of a hermit unholy of works.” One day, Will grows tired from walking and pauses by a stream to rest, where he falls asleep and experiences “a most curious dream.”
Will’s sheep-like clothing suggests that Will is pretending to be holy and pure, just like a hermit who doesn’t actually live a morally upright life or do any good works (like feeding the hungry or caring for the sick) Will may look like a good Christian, even to himself, but he isn’t. The rest of the poem will first reveal this to him and send him on a quest to understand what being a good Christian entails.
In his dream, Will sees a “field full of folk” nestled between a tower on a hill and a dungeon in a valley. The field teems with people from all walks of life. Some people are peasants, dutifully plowing the fields and “play[ing] very rarely.” There are also merchants, foolish jokers, and overfed beggars. There are pilgrims who spend their days journeying to and from religious sites and embellishing the truth about their travels, as well as hermits who dress up in cleric’s clothing “to have an easy life” because they dislike working. There are also friars from all four orders, who “make glosses of the Gospel that would look good for themselves.” Many of the friars are richly clothed, “For their money and their merchandise march hand in hand.”
In Will’s first dream vision—an allegorical dream that imparts the dreamer with truth—he sees a “field full of folk,” which symbolizes society on a local and global scale. Will’s description of society illustrates what the social structure was like in Medieval England. The three estates, or social classes, are the clergy (first estate), nobility (second estate), and peasantry (third estate). Immediately, the poem seems critical of the first estate. Contrasting from the humble, hardworking peasants are deceitful, greedy friars and lazy hermits.
Brandishing a papal bull, a pardoner pretends to be a priest and tricks peasants into giving him their valuables. Meanwhile, the priests ask the bishops for permission to leave the town and live in London, where they plan to “…sing Masses there for simony, for silver is sweet.” As for the bishops, some counsel the king, while others are “like servants” to the nobility. Will thinks these bishops live “undevoutly” and worries that they will be condemned.
Pardoners were messengers who distributed pardons—the lessening of one’s punishment in Purgatory, as granted by the Pope. However, pardoners didn’t have the power to actually absolve people of their sins. Thus, the pardoner here exploits his job title for financial gain, just like the priests and bishops who perform their services for silver and serve the rich nobility more dutifully than the Church. Put more bluntly: this part of the poem describes corruption in the Church.
Will sees a king, followed by a group of knights, and the community names him their ruler. Someone named Kind Wit appoints clerks to advise the king and keep the common people safe. The king, knighthood, and clergy decide that the common people should be in charge of producing food for the community. Kind Wit establishes “law and lewte” for people in each level of society, and an angel from Heaven appears, granting the king unlimited power. The common people vow to always obey the king.
Kind Wit, who represents common sense, is the first of many allegorical figures (ideas or concepts embodied as people) that appear in the poem. In the social system he helps create—which the poem holds up as an ideal structure for society so long as each part of it acts morally and according to Christian teachings—each estate (social class) in society is responsible for a certain task that will help the community. Kind Wit also establishes “lewte,” which is a medieval word that means justice but has a heavy emphasis on relationships that the modern word “justice” lacks.
Still dreaming, Will sees a thousand rats and a few mice holding a “council for their common profit.” The rats complain about the neighborhood cat, who torments them endlessly for its own amusement. The cat’s behavior makes all of the rats and mice live in fear. One rat suggests they fasten a bell to the cat’s collar so that they can hear its comings and goings. That way, they can venture out while the cat is in a good mood and hide when the cat is angry. A bell and a collar are brought out, but no one volunteers to be the one to fasten it to the cat’s neck. The rats are sheepish and think their whole plan was silly.
The court procession of the rats is suggestive of the Good Parliament of 1376, which addressed royal corruption. Thus, the cat symbolizes the dangers of such unbridled power. The allusion to the Good Parliament of 1376 is helpful in dating this version of Piers Plowman (the B-text), suggesting that it is a product of the late 1370s.
A prudent mouse reminds the rats that even if they managed to go so far as to kill the cat, it wouldn’t be long until there was another cat in the neighborhood to torment them. The mouse urges the rats to leave the cat to its own devices and warns them not to show the cat the bell. After all, the cat eats rabbits, so at least the rats are somewhat safe. The mouse reminds the rats that if the rats themselves were in power, they would cause chaos in the town by nibbling on men’s clothes and disrupting their sleep with constant scuttling. The mouse claims that the rats wouldn’t be able to rule themselves if they were in power, so “neither cat nor kitten shall be grieved.” The mouse urges all creatures “to stick to what’s his own.”
Using the mouse as a mouthpiece, the poem’s author William Langland highlights that while the cat may be cruel and corrupt, the answer is not for the common people to revolt because they are incapable of ruling themselves. Should the common people gain power, Langland asserts, they, too, would fall into corruption and unearth an entirely new crop of problems. While the poem consistently highlights the problems in society, it never advocates destroying the underlying structure of society—instead it asserts that if people were to play their role as they should, then this structure will result in an ideal society. Of historical note is that, even though the Good Parliament of 1376 brought some success (impeaching several government ministers), all of these successes were undone the following year—similar to the way the rats’ plan is undone.
Back in the “field full of folk,” Will sees all kinds of people in the bustling town, including bakers, brewers, butchers, tailors, and cooks yelling about their freshly cooked food for sale, and tavern-keepers talking customers into buying lavish wines. Will says, “All this I saw sleeping, and seven times more.”
The busy “field full of folk” centers on earthly pleasures—beer, meat, fresh bread, fancy wine, fine clothes. This emphasis on the physical world sets the stage for a lesson from Will’s first allegorical teacher.