Piers Plowman opens with narrator and main character, Will, wandering the world as a hermit. One day, Will lies down by a stream and slips into a deep sleep, where he experiences an extraordinary dream.
In the dream, Will sees a “field full of folk”—a large swath of land bustling with people from all walks of life. The field is sandwiched between a beautiful castle on a hill and an ominous-looking dungeon in a valley. Will watches the people in the field as the king is chosen, and the peasantry, clergy, and knighthood are established.
Suddenly, Will finds himself watching a court procession of a thousand rats. The rats voice their bitter complaints about the local cat, who torments them daily. One rat suggests they tie a bell to the cat’s collar, so the rats can at least know when the cat is approaching and can keep clear of it. When a bell is brought out, however, none of the rats are willing to risk their safety by being the one to tie it to the cat’s collar. A single mouse commands the rats’ attention and lectures them about trying to change the status quo. He reminds the rats that even if they managed to tie the bell to the cat’s collar—or went so far as to kill the cat—another cat is certain to come along someday to torment them again. Plus, says the mouse, even if the cat were out of the picture, the rats wouldn’t be able to effectively rule themselves.
The rats disappear, and Will finds himself once again observing the “field full of folk,” where he meets a beautiful and gentle woman named Holy Church. She teaches Will a number of lessons, most of which center on Truth, a representation of God as Creator of mankind. Will desperately wants Holy Church to teach him how to save his soul, as well as how to recognize evil. Holy Church points him to a scene where several people are rushing around in preparation for a wedding. The bride-to-be is a magnificently dressed woman named Meed, who is draped in jewels, furs, and luxurious textiles—she also happens to be Holy Church’s greatest enemy, as Meed is just as well-connected with the papacy and has just as much clout as Holy Church herself. Holy Church says that Meed was instructed by God to marry Truth, but instead, Meed is trying to marry a man named False, who only loves her for her riches. The ceremony is arranged by several of False’s friends, including Favel (Greed), Simony, Civil, Liar, and Guile. During the ceremony, a man named Theology objects, demanding Meed and False go to court in London to ask Conscience if their marriage is just, or if Meed must marry Truth.
The group travels to London, where the King has already been warned about False’s bad intentions behind marrying Meed. Knowing the King is after them, False and his companions flee, leaving Meed alone at court. The King asks Meed if she will take one of his knights, Conscience, for a husband. Wanting to evade punishment for almost marrying False, Meed readily agrees. Conscience, however, refuses. In front of both Meed and the King, Conscience lists all of the reasons why Meed is evil and dangerous. The King tries to make Conscience agree to marry Meed by force, but Conscience is adamant in his refusal, and says he won’t even consider marrying Meed unless Reason says it’s the right thing to do. The King tells Conscience to find Reason and bring him back to court so that the whole situation can be settled.
Reason arrives, but the King must first see to a legal case between two men named Peace and Wrong before dealing with Meed. In the legal battle, Peace accuses Wrong of three serious crimes. Wrong’s lawyers, Wisdom and Wit, try to buy Wrong’s way out of punishment. Now guided by both Conscience and Reason, the King knows that financial payment isn’t punishment enough. Meed steps in and tries to bribe Peace into dropping the charges, which angers the King even more. As the King calls for a harsh punishment for Wrong, Will wakes up.
Will drifts back to sleep moments later and sees Reason standing before the people in the “field full of folk,” urging them to repent for their sins. One by one, the Seven Deadly Sins make their confession to Repentance—Parnel Proud-Heart (pride) goes first, followed by Lecher, Envy, Wrath, Covetousness, Glutton, and Sloth. Repentance prays for the group’s sins, spurring a crowd of a thousand people to change their ways. The crowd searches for Truth but has no idea where to look. They ask for directions from a knowledgeable-looking pilgrim, but much to their dismay, he’s never even heard of Truth.
A modest peasant named Piers Plowman appears, claiming to be a dedicated follower of Truth, as well as a plowman on Truth’s land. Piers offers the group directions to Truth, but his directions turn out to be complicated and detailed, making the people anxious about making the journey without a guide. Piers offers to accompany them on the journey with the caveat that his half-acre of land needs to be plowed before they leave. To make the work quick and efficient, Piers assigns tasks to the people based on their social class and sex. Although the system runs smoothly at first, eventually, some people try to fake injury or illness to get out of working—leading Piers no choice but to call upon Hunger, who inflicts the fakers with starvation until they begin to work out of necessity. As Piers suspects, once Hunger departs, many of the people go back to lazing. Truth sends down a pardon to Piers, which states that those who help Piers work will be able to pass through purgatory quickly. There is no mention of those who can work but refuse to, but those who genuinely cannot work are fully excused. A priest asks Piers for the opportunity to translate the pardon out loud from Latin to English, as is part of his duties, and Piers complies. Upon reading the pardon for himself, the priest is surprised to only see two lines, and declares that it is not a pardon whatsoever. Angry, Piers rips the pardon in two and begins to argue with the priest, which startles Will awake.
Will wanders the world during the summer, thinking about how penance and pardons are helpful for salvation, but that it is better for a Christian to avoid sin and Do-Well. One day, he comes across two friars and tries to ask them where he can find Do-Well, but the friars are arrogant and claim that Do-Well resides permanently with them at their convent. Will politely excuses himself, knowing he will learn more by continuing his quest than by listening to the friars. Will journeys through the woods and pauses to rest, eventually slipping into another dream.
In the dream, a man named Thought teaches Will about the nature of Do-Well, along with two other Christian values, Do-Better and Do-Best. He says Do-Well engages in honest labor, Do-Better helps others, and Do-Best rebukes sinners. Will is still confused about the concept of Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best, so Thought recommends he speak with a man named Wit.
Wit turns out to be a thin, serious man. He explains the values as being people who reside in the heart of a Christian. Do-Well and Do-Better attend to the Soul (whom Wit refers to as a beautiful lady named Anima), while Do-Best offers guidance. The whole group is protected by a knight named Sir Inwit and his five sons, who are the five senses. Wit introduces Will to his wife, Study, who is openly suspicious of Will, as she thinks Will wants to learn for all the wrong reasons. Study gives her own explanation of Do-Well, which proves to be so hard to follow, that even her own husband feels confused. Study sends Will to her cousin Clergy, and his wife, Scripture, who can explain possibly explain Do-Well in a way that Will can understand.
As Will listens to Clergy and Scripture’s explanations of Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best, he falls into a dream-within-a-dream, where he is tempted by a woman named Fortune and her two maids. The women tempt Will into wasting several years of his life chasing pleasure. However, as Will grows old, Fortune and her companions abandon him, and Will falls into poverty. During this time, Will meets the Roman Emperor, Trajan, who was a non-Christian saved from the pits of Hell by Saint Gregory. Trajan explains to Will the value of living a moral, loving life—for these qualities are what saved Trajan from Hell and allowed him to go to Heaven, even though he wasn’t a Christian during his lifetime.
Will awakens from his dream-within-a-dream to a man named Imaginative, who answers Will’s questions about Trajan—that is, how a person who hasn’t been baptized can go to Heaven. Cutting their discussion short, Imaginative disappears, and Will wakes up.
Will spends several years wandering as a hermit, ruminating over his strange dreams. One day, Will slips into yet another strange dream, where he is invited to a dinner party with Conscience, Clergy, Patience, and Scripture, as well as a Master of Divinity. At the feast, the Master gluttonously stuffs himself with rich, fattening foods between slurps of fine wine. Meanwhile, Patience and Will—who are seated at the very edge of the feast at a side table of their own—are only given simple, sour food. Will asks the Master for his explanation of Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best, which turn out to all be centered on obeying the clergy and teaching other people. The mood gets tense, as Will openly criticizes the Master for his gluttonous behavior at the feast. To change the subject, Conscience asks Patience about his understanding of Do-Well. Patience admits his uncertainty, explaining that his confusion stems from hearing Piers Plowman claim that the only thing worth pursuing and studying is love. Patience shares a teaching he learned from someone named Love, who taught him to love all people—including one’s enemies—through words and good works. The Master of Divinity calls Patience a liar, claiming that all poor pilgrims are liars. Standing up for Patience, Conscience declares that he has decided to become a pilgrim himself and will travel the world with Patience in order to learn and have new experiences. Both Clergy and the Master are aghast—Clergy even offers to fetch his Bible to teach Conscience all the things Patience couldn’t possibly know—but Conscience is adamant.
Soon after departing on their journey, Conscience, Patience, and Will come across a man named Hawkin. Immediately, Will notices that Hawkin’s coat is disgusting and encrusted with stains. Hawkin explains that his coat is Christendom and the stains are his own frequent sins. Although he’s tried to wash the coat, it doesn’t stay clean for more than a few moments before it gets splattered with stains again. Patience patiently instructs Hawkin to use the combination of contrition, Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best to launder the coat effectively. According to Patience, contrition will scrape the scum off the coat, Do-Well will wash it, Do-Better will scrub it, and Do-Best will ensure the coat always stays clean. Hawkin begins to weep, overwhelmed by guilt for his past sins, and Will wakes up.
In his waking life, Will ruminates on his dreams so much, that other people begin labeling him as a lunatic. Reason takes pity on Will, allowing him to fall back to sleep and experience another dream. In the dream, Will meets a man named Anima, who introduces himself by several other names as well. Anima teaches Will that society is like a tree whose roots—the priesthood—are rotten, inflicting the rest of the tree with sickness as well. Anima also teaches Will about Charity—someone who, whether he is clothed in fine furs or a modest frock, will instantly give his clothing away to anyone who needs it. Will longs to meet Charity, for he’s never truly seen charity play out in his own life. Once again drawing upon the analogy of a tree, Anima says that charity is the fruit of the tree of Patience, tended to by Piers Plowman. At the sound of Piers Plowman’s name, Will faints, and enters a dream-within-a-dream.
In this dream, Piers Plowman appears and explains to Will that the tree of Patience is under attack by evil forces—namely, Covetousness, the flesh, and the Devil. Piers uses three wooden poles to beat the evil forces when they try to snatch any of the fruit that has fallen from the tree. A woman named Mary appears, declaring that Jesus will joust an evil force called the Fiend for the fallen fruits. Instantly, Will witnesses the events leading up to the Crucifixion rapidly unfold, including the Last Supper, Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, and Jesus’ Crucifixion.
Will awakens from his dream-within-a-dream and meets a man named Faith (Abraham), who is on the road to Jerusalem in search of a knight named Jesus. Faith tells Will the story of when God tested his devotion by telling him to kill his son Isaac. He also explains to Will that he is carrying a multitude of souls in his coat, to be saved by Jesus. They come across another man on the road, who introduces himself as Spes, or Hope (Moses). Hope explains that he is in search of a knight named Jesus who will seal the commandment that God gave to Hope on Mount Sinai. The men also see a Samaritan riding along, also headed to Jerusalem. Suddenly, all of the men notice a wounded man on the side of the road, who has been brutally attacked by thieves and left to die. Faith and Hope flee at the gruesome sight, but the Samaritan immediately jumps off his horse to help the man and tend to his wounds. The Samaritan hoists the wounded man up onto his horse, and they travel for seven miles to the nearest inn, where the Samaritan pays the innkeeper to take care of the wounded man. Will, following close behind, is curious about the Samaritan’s empathy toward the wounded man. Will catches up to the Samaritan and tells him that his own companions, Faith and Hope, fled. Samaritan explains that this is to be expected, as the wounded man was in such critical condition, that neither Faith nor Hope could save him. The wounded man’s only hope for survival is Jesus. After a short discussion, the Samaritan says he must depart, and Will awakens.
Once again, Will travels the world as a hermit. On Palm Sunday, he pauses to rest and experiences another dream. In his dream, he sees Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, standing barefoot on the back of a mule, as the crowd sings joyful songs. Will is startled to see that Jesus looks a lot like the Samaritan and Piers Plowman. Will calls out to Faith for an explanation, and Faith immediately appears. Faith explains that as Mary declared earlier, Jesus has come to Jerusalem to joust against the Fiend for the fruit of Piers Plowman. Suddenly, Will sees the crowd turn sour, as their joyful songs turn to bitter cries of “Crucifige!” In a flurry, the Crucifixion unfolds as Jesus is nailed to the cross and takes his final breath.
Jesus descends into Hell, and Will follows. Will notices four beautiful sisters, Mercy, Truth, Righteousness, and Peace, arguing with one another about the events of the Crucifixion. Mercy and Peace are joyful, declaring that Christ’s death means that the prophets and patriarchs in Hell will be released, and that humankind will be saved. Righteousness and Truth are steadfast in their belief that Hell is permanent—even the prophets and patriarchs are eternally damned. The sisters are interrupted by a bright light that commands the devils to open Hell’s gates. Several devils, including Lucifer, Satan, the Fiend, and Goblin, bicker nervously with one another, wondering if Jesus really can enter Hell and steal away some of its souls. Their anxieties come true, as eventually, the gates break open, and Christ rescues all of the worthy souls, including the prophets and the patriarchs. Christ explains that because of Satan’s trick—appearing to Eve as a serpent and manipulating her and Adam into eating the forbidden fruit—Christ himself had to be a trickster, becoming human and allowing himself to be killed in order to descend to Hell and save those whom God loves. The four sisters celebrate, and begin to play music, which awakens Will.
Will prepares his family for Easter Mass and departs for church. Not long into the service, however, Will falls asleep again. This time, Will is faced with an image of Piers Plowman coated in blood and carrying Christ’s Cross. Startled and confused, Will calls out to Conscience to ask if the man before him is Jesus or Piers Plowman. Conscience affirms that the man is Jesus, although he is outfitted in Piers’ coat of arms. Conscience explains the way Jesus came to Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best through his miracles, as well as how Jesus granted Piers Plowman power to oversee the church.
Will witnesses Grace, God’s messenger, gifting Piers Plowman with four types of seeds to be plowed, along with four oxen, four horses, and two harrows. Among the common people, Grace distributes different talents so that the people can fight off idleness and the forces of Antichrist. Grace instructs Piers Plowman and Conscience to build a barn called Unity, which will house all of the grain. Once the barn is built, Piers Plowman and Grace depart to plow the fields all over the world. Pride sees that Unity is vulnerable and sends his evil followers to attack Conscience and the Christian community. Conscience cries for the Christians to take refuge in Unity—which becomes the Holy Church. Although most people obey Conscience, a handful of people refuse to listen and abandon Unity. Will wakes up and quickly writes down the contents of his dream.
Will continues to wander the world but feels somber and doesn’t know where to find his next meal. Still in his waking life, Will meets a man named Need. The man explains to Will why being needy is a good thing, ultimately trying to tempt Will into begging so that he never has to work. After Need departs, Will drifts asleep once more.
In his last dream, Will sees Antichrist and his followers attacking Unity. The Christians cry out to Kind to help them, so Kind sends Death, Old Age, and different ailments. Chaos ensues, and at one point, Will is hit on the head by Old Age, immediately making him bald, toothless, sick, and impotent. Death draws dangerously close to Will, but Will cries for Kind to keep him safe. Kind instructs Will to take refuge in Unity and learn to love—if he loves other people genuinely, he will always be provided for.
The forces of evil continue to attack, and Hypocrisy proves to be particularly deadly, seriously injuring many of the people in Unity. Conscience sends for a doctor to heal the sick and injured, but the people dislike the doctor because he forces them to do penance and the ointment he applies to their wounds stings greatly. The people ask for a doctor with a gentler touch, and someone suggests Friar Flatterer. Conscience reluctantly agrees, as he knows that the doctor they really need is Piers Plowman—not a friar.
Although Friar Flatterer is almost denied entry to Unity by Peace, Courteous Speech vouches for the friar and lets him in. Conscience begs the friar to heal the sick and the wounded, starting with his cousin, Contrition. Friar Flatterer says he is glad to help, as long as he is paid in silver. He doles out a drugged beverage to the people, which puts everyone in an apathetic daze that makes them all indifferent to sin and punishment.
Distraught that the Christian community has gone from bad to worse, Conscience declares that he will once again become a pilgrim and vows to search the world for Piers Plowman—the only person who can save Unity and truly heal the people. As Conscience cries out for Grace, Will wakes up.