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 end of his or her life. Through a series of complicated dreams featuring a myriad of allegorical figures, Will, the poem’s protagonist, learns that good works should be given and received freely throughout the course of one’s life because they are a way for Christians to show their love for God and for other people.
Piers Plowman affirms that good works are required for salvation. Likewise, those who do not do good works are unworthy of salvation. Near the beginning of the poem, Holy Church teaches Will “That faith without works is worse than nothing / And as dead as a doornail unless the deed goes with it. / Faith without works is dead.” This idea is immediately drilled into Will as being important. Later, when Piers Plowman divides labor among the estates, he says he will help those who work, meaning those who dedicate themselves to hard, honest labor. However, the word “work” can also imply good works, an implication that is made clear by Piers Plowman’s later association with Christ and the idea that those who work alongside Piers Plowman are given the opportunity to pass through Purgatory and into Heaven quickly. Thus, this passage suggests that Christ will save those who do good works. Likewise, Piers Plowman rejects those who refuse to work, so Christ rejects those who refuse to do good works.
Besides being a requirement for salvation, doing good works is part of how a Christian can express love. At Patience’s feast, Patience says that love is shown “with words and with works.” Similarly, Wit explains to Will that a person can Do-Best when they act on their love and help others, showing that doing good works is an instrument of love. Just as giving help is giving love, refusing to help is refusing to love. Roman Emperor Trajan, one of Will’s many teachers, affirms that “whoever lends no help loves not.” Trajan also says, “Unless they’re learned for our Lord’s love, the labor’s all lost.” Drawing again on the parallel between work (labor) and good works, people must do good works “…for the love of our Lord and to love the people better.” Similarly, Imaginative references Paul’s Epistle, teaching Will that Do-Well is a combination of “Faith, hope, charity, and the greatest of these.” What Imaginative means is that charity is the most important value in a Christian life. In many translations of the Bible, this verse, 1 Corinthians 13:13, reads, “faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.” Thus, acts of charity—good works—are acts of love.
Because good works are rooted in love, they should be given and received freely. At the confession of the Seven Deadly Sins, Sloth says, “If any man does me a good turn or helps me at need, / I’m unkind in return for his courtesy and cannot understand it, / …I’m not lured with love unless something’s lying under the thumb” Sloth wrongly rejects help and love from others because of his own practice of only helping others when it benefits himself. In contrast, Piers Plowman is so committed to giving help freely to others that he won’t take payment for helping society find Truth. Piers’ behavior mirrors Anima’s lesson to Will that Charity loves and helps all people: “He’s glad with all who’re glad, and good to all wicked / And loves and lends help to all that our Lord made.”
Piers Plowman argues that good works are a necessary part of earning salvation, so those who fail to do good works are unworthy of being saved. This idea, which is foundational for the Catholic Church, appears in James 2:26, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” Good works are a necessary part of salvation and go hand-in-hand with faith. The concept of good works became a significant point of argument in the sixteenth century, when a monk named Martin Luther argued that faith alone—not faith coupled with good works—was needed for salvation. This argument over faith and good works proved critical, and soon resulted in the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation. (Interestingly, early Protestants printed and distributed copies of Piers Plowman to reveal corruption in the Catholic Church and consequently support Protestantism. While it’s true that Piers Plowman highlights the corruption in the Church, on the point of good works, the poem is clearly aligned with the Catholic Church.) Throughout Piers Plowman, Langland shows his readers that refusing to do good works is unacceptable, as is doing good works out of obligation. Good works should flow from the heart and be an instrument for Christians to show their love for God and other people.
Good Works and Salvation ThemeTracker
Good Works and Salvation Quotes in Piers Plowman
I saw a tower on a hill-top, trimly built,
A deep dale beneath, a dungeon tower in it,
With ditches deep and dark and dreadful to look at.
A fair field full of folk I found between them,
Of human being of all sorts, the high and the low…
For James the gentle enjoined in his books
That faith without works is worse than nothing,
And as dead as a doornail unless the deed goes with it.
Faith without works is dead.
…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.
Do-Well…and Do-Better and Do-Best the third
Are three fair virtues and are not far to find.
Whoever is meek of his mouth, mild of his speech,
True of his tongue and of his two hands,
And through his labor or his land earns his livelihood,
…Do-Well is with him.
Do-Better does the same, but he does much more.
He’s lowly as a lamb, lovely of speech;
…he helps where there’s need
…Do-Best is above both and bears a bishop’s crozier
That has a hook at one end to hold men in good lives.
A spike is on that staff to shove down the wicked…
Do-Well, my dear sir, is to do as law teaches,
To behave lovingly and humbly and harm no person;
But to love and to lend aid, believe me, that’s Do-Better;
To protect and provide for people young and old,
To heal them and to help them, is Do-Best of all.
And let folk of all factions, whether friends or enemies,
Love each other and help each other as they would themselves.
Whoever lends no help loves not, the Lord knows the truth,
And he commands every creature to conform himself to love
Other Christians as himself and his enemies as well.
For whoever hates us it’s our merit to love.
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.
“All these clerks,” I declared then, “that believe in Christ’s teaching,
Say in their sermons that neither Saracens nor Jews
Nor any creature of Christ’s likeness can be saved without Christendom.”
“Contra!” exclaimed Imaginative…
…“Salvabitur vix Justus in die judicii;
Disce…doce, dilige inimicos.
Disce and Do-Well, doce and Do-Better, dilige and Do-Best:
I learned this from a lover once—Love was her name.
“With words and with works,” she said, “and will of your heart,
…learn to love, for the Lord of Heaven’s sake,
Your enemy in every way even as you love yourself.”
Therefore by color nor by clergy, you’ll never come to know him,
Neither through words nor works, but through will alone,
And no clerk knows that, nor creature on earth
But Piers the Plowman, Petrus id est Christus.
This Jesus…when he was just a boy,
Turned water into wine, as holy words relate.
And there God of his grace began to Do-Well.
…And when he’d grown more mature…
…fed with two fishes and with five loaves
Near-famished folk, more than five thousand.
Then he comforted those full of care and acquired a greater name
Which was Do-Better...