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 its focus on the severity and impact of corruption in the Church, the poem does highlight that in fact all people, even commoners, are susceptible to corruption.
Because of the clergy’s authority in society, the text shows how corruption in the Church affects lay people (i.e. everyone who isn’t in the clergy) negatively. The Church functions as the roots of the tree of the Christian community. Since the Church (the roots) of the tree are rotten, the entire tree isn’t healthy. Some of the branches thrive while some are barren, pointing to the way that the Church’s corruption means that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Anima, who represents the soul, quotes John Chrysostomus, one of the Fathers of the Eastern Church, saying, “Just as when you see a tree faded and withered, you know it has a defect in its roots, so when you see a people undisciplined and irreligious, without doubt the priesthood is not healthy.” In his first dream vision, the protagonist, Will, sees friars from all four orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, and Augustinians) “Preaching to the people for their own paunches’ welfare, / Making glosses of the Gospel that would look good for themselves.” The friars are supposed to be trustworthy figures who guide other people in the community, but instead the friars teach a skewed gospel that works in their favor. The poem also closes with the friars’ corruption. In the final lines of the poem, Friar Flatterer leads the Christian community astray by, rather than preaching against sin, giving everyone “a drugged drink” that makes them not care about sin and punishment.
Even though those in power are most likely to give in to corruption, the poem makes clear that all people are at risk. For example, although the rats from the Prologue think the not-so-friendly neighborhood cat is a tyrant, the poem points out that the rats and mice would be just as bad if they were in power. A particularly wise mouse states that without the cat keeping them in check, the rats and mice would cause mayhem at court by disrupting people’s sleep and ruining people’s clothes. Besides, says the mouse, “For if you rats held the reins, you couldn’t rule yourselves.” Similarly, Meed, who represents bribery, unearned rewards, and profit, has “lain” with both “learned men and unlearned [men],” suggesting that all people, regardless of their social level, are susceptible to giving into corruption. At the end of the poem, when Conscience prepares the Christian community for the inevitable attack from Pride and other evil forces, a person from each level of society (called an “estate”) turns away from Conscience and instead chooses evil. That each estate is represented in the people who reject Conscience—first a brewer, then a vicar, then a lord, and finally, a king—emphasizing that all people have the capacity to choose evil over good.
Piers Plowman exposes the corruption that permeates fourteenth-century society, specifically focusing on the way that the major source of corruption, the Church, has the power to lead the other estates astray as well. However, Piers Plowman points out that the clergy is not the only group at fault. By demonstrating how all people have the capacity to give in to corruption, Langland encourages readers to remain alert in their own lives to avoid temptation. In addition, Langland’s illustration of the widespread corruption that has infiltrated the Church is not a rejection of the clergy but a call for reformation. Through his sharp criticisms of the Church’s current defiled state, Langland encourages the clergy to rid themselves of evil temptations and realign themselves with Christ and the core values of the Church.
Corruption Quotes in Piers Plowman
She makes men misbehave many score times.
In trust of her treasures she troubles a great many.
…Poisoned popes, impaired Holy Church.
…She’s as common as the cartway to comers and goers,
To monks, to messengers, to leper-men in hedges.
…I can find no pardon here—
Only, “Do well, and have well,” and God will have your soul.
And “Do evil, and have evil,” and hope nothing else
But that after your death-day the Devil will have your soul.
Can neither kinghood nor knighthood, as far as I can see,
Help at all toward Heaven when one’s hour comes,
Nor riches, nor revenue, nor royal lord’s estate.
Paul proves it impossible, rich men in Heaven.
Just as the plumes of the peacock impede him in his flight,
So there is an impediment in possession of pennies and nobles
To all those who hold on to them until their tails are plucked.
And though the rich man repent then and start to rue the time
That he ever gathered such a great amount and gave away so little,
His language will sound in our Lord’s ear like a magpie’s chattering.
And for an example see how on trees in the summer time
There are some boughs that bear leaves and some bear none.
There is some sickness in the root of such sots of trees;
Just so parsons and priests and preachers of Holy Church
Are the root of the right faith to rule the people;
But where the root is rotten…
Shall never flower nor fruit grow nor fair leaf be green.
…Piers’s fruit flowered and befell to be ripe.
And then Jesus should joust for it by judgment of arms
Which one should fetch the fruit, the Fiend or himself.
The bitterness that you have brewed, imbibe it yourself
Who are doctor of death, the drink you made.
For I who am Lord of Life, love is my drink
And for that drink today I died upon earth,
I struggled so I’m thirsty still for man’s soul’s sake.
He lies drowned in dream…and so do many
The Friar with his physic has enchanted the folk here,
And given them a drugged drink: they dread no sin.
…I will become a pilgrim,
…To seek Piers the Plowman, who might expunge Pride,
And see that friars had funds who flatter for need
And contradict me, Conscience; now Kind avenge me,
And send me heart and health till I have Piers the Plowman.