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 love and helping others, the poem is careful to point out that those who genuinely cannot work—be it from sickness, old age, or motherhood—are pardoned by God and should be helped by those who can work.
Piers Plowman shows how honest labor can fight off evil and lead a person toward salvation. The praise of honest, hard work, and the sharp criticism of idleness appears in the very first page of the poem, in the “field full of folk.” The field is populated with people from each of the estates (classes), including the clergy, the nobility, and the peasantry. While “Some applied themselves to plowing, played very rarely, / Sowing seeds and setting plants worked very hard,” other people “…pursued pride, put on proud clothing, / …With some lush livelihood delighting their bodies.” Holy Church tells Will that it is “those who wish to work well,” like the plowmen from the field of folk, that will go to Heaven. Later, Will meets Piers Plowman, who knows Truth (who represents God) through work. Piers explains that Truth wants other people to engage in honest labor, too, regardless of what that labor is: “But you could work as Truth wants you to and earn wages and bread / By keeping cows in the field, the corn from the cattle, / Making ditches or dikes or dinging on sheaves, / Or helping make mortar, or spreading muck afield.” Truth says that those who helped Piers work, regardless of the craft, “Have pardon to pass through purgatory quickly.” Another one of Will’s teachers, Anima, explains to Will that even Christ’s followers Paul and Peter knew the value of work: “After his preaching Paul practiced basket-making, / And earned with his hands what his stomach had need of. / Peter fished for his food, like his fellow Andrew; / They sold some and stewed some and so they both lived.”
In contrast, sloth and idleness consume those who can work but choose not to, making such people undeserving of salvation. Expanding upon Isaiah 2:4, Conscience says, “Each man shall play with a plow, pickax, or spade, / Spin or spread dung—or spoil himself in sloth.” In Piers Plowman, Sloth, at the confession of the Seven Deadly Sins, admits to putting his own laziness above love of God and love of others. In the Middle Ages, sloth refers to laziness that plays out in a parasitic way, like the modern-day concept of a moocher. The poem emphasizes that if someone chooses to be a beggar even though they are capable of work, he “Is as false as the Fiend and defrauds the needy, / And also beguiles the giver against his will.”
Those who can’t work, however, are excused by God and should be helped by those who can work. While reprimanding those who choose idleness over labor, Piers Plowman excuses those who are “… blind or broken-legged, or bolted with iron— / Those shall eat as well as I do…” Likewise, Truth’s pardon clearly excuses beggars who have “a real reason that renders them beggars” and ask for alms out of “need.” Addressing false beggars, Truth says, “For if he were aware he was not needy he would give his alms / To another that was more needy; thus the neediest should have help,” affirming that those who cannot work are to be taken care of by those who can. Truth lists examples of those who are excused from work, including old men who have lost their strength, women who are nursing, and those who are blind, injured, or ill. Such people “Have as plenary pardon as the plowman himself; / For love of their low hearts our Lord has granted them / Their penance and their purgatory in full plenty on earth.” Truth points out that these people should be excused from work because they are also excused from purgatory from God, considering they suffer enough on earth.
Piers Plowman praises labor for the way that it helps the community and the individual. If those who can work hard choose to do so, they are able to help the needy who can’t work and can help earn their own salvation. In contrast, those who are fully capable of working but choose not to are sinful and align themselves with Sloth, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Though Piers Plowman presents many types of labor as being worthy and honest, there is an emphasis on occupations meant for the third estate, the common people (for example, tending to livestock, making mortar, and plowing fields). By praising the work of the commoners, William Langland highlights that peasants are worthy in God’s eyes even though they don’t have power like kings, riches like nobles, or theological training like the clergy. In fact, the commoners’ poverty and dedication to wholesome hard work actually makes them worthier of salvation than the other estates.
Labor vs. Idleness ThemeTracker
Labor vs. Idleness Quotes in Piers Plowman
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,
For I have and always have had some of a hawk’s manners;
I’m not lured with love unless something’s lying under the thumb.
I shall sweat and strain and sow for us both,
And also labor for your love all my lifetime,
In exchange for your championing Holy Church and me
Against waters and wicked men who would destroy me.
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…
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.
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.”
Surely you know…
That knight, king, conqueror can be one person.
To be named a knight is fair, for men shall kneel to him.
To be called a king is fairer, for he can make knights;
But to be called a conqueror, that comes by special grace,
…To make lads lords of the lands he wins
And foul slaves of free men who will not follow his laws.