Piers Plowman

by

William Langland

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Themes and Colors
Love Theme Icon
Corruption Theme Icon
Penance and Repentance Theme Icon
Good Works and Salvation Theme Icon
Social Hierarchy, Community, and Selfishness Theme Icon
Labor vs. Idleness Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Piers Plowman, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Love

Piers Plowman follows the protagonist, Will, through a series of eight complex dream visions (plus two additional dreams within dreams), where he learns from a wide variety of allegorical figures. With Will’s teachers as a mouthpiece, the poem asserts that the life of a Christian must revolve around love, just as Christianity itself does. However, such love must extend beyond loving God to loving others, especially one’s enemies. Piers Plowman asserts that although such…

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Corruption

Piers Plowman uses a series of dream visions, which are allegorical stories that unfold in a character’s dreams, to illustrate the corruption that William Langland sees as having poisoned religious, political, and social life in fourteenth-century England. Piers Plowman clearly points to the Church as the main source of corruption, suggesting that the Church’s far-reaching authority in Medieval society means that depravity among the clergy negatively affects the nobility and the peasantry as well. Despite…

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Penance and Repentance

While Piers Plowman is critical of Church corruption in general, the poem’s most prevalent grievance relates to the practice of selling indulgences. Indulgences (a promise that a person’s punishment in purgatory for their sins would be reduced), could be granted by the pope in exchange for charitable contributions called alms. However, these charitable contributions came to be conflated with financial transactions that let a person easily buy forgiveness—especially because the pardoners who were meant to…

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Good Works and Salvation

In the fourteenth-century Church (and even in the modern-day Roman Catholic Church), good works like feeding the poor were considered a requirement for salvation alongside having faith in Jesus. Piers Plowman echoes this idea, asserting that good works are necessary for salvation, and that those who do not do good works are unworthy of being saved. However, the poem stresses that doing good works isn’t just a box that a Christian can check at the…

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Social Hierarchy, Community, and Selfishness

The society of the Middle Ages was split into three groups, called estates: the clergy (first estate) the nobility (second estate), and the peasantry (third estate). Each estate was defined by a man’s occupation—whether the man prays as a Church official, fights as a knight, or works as a peasant. Piers Plowman asserts that these divisions aren’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the poem suggests that social hierarchy is a positive force as long…

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Labor vs. Idleness

Considering the poem’s title, Piers Plowman, and the way that Piers Plowman himself comes to be conflated with Christ, it makes sense that the poem praises honest labor and hard work, such as plowing the fields. The poem highlights that such labor can help lead a person toward salvation. Those who choose idleness instead of hard work, however, are depicted as being sinful and unworthy of salvation. Aligning with the poem’s commitment to…

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