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 collect alms took part in unauthorized sales of indulgences, as well. Throughout eight intricate dream visions (and two dreams within dreams), Will, the poem’s protagonist, learns from a wide variety of allegorical teachers that financial transactions like indulgences can’t replace or satisfy confessing one’s sins to a priest and then receiving absolution. Piers Plowman argues that the Church has been so caught up in financial transactions that they’ve failed to provide proper guidance for those who wish to repent. Ultimately, Piers Plowman asserts that it is genuine repentance, not the purchase of an indulgence, which can save a soul.
The poem argues that financial payment is not proper penance for sin, nor is it a way to get around penance. For example, in the legal case of Peace vs. Wrong, lawyers Wisdom and Wit think that Wrong’s grave charges of rape, murder, and theft can be erased with payment, implying that Wrong should be able to buy an indulgence in place of punishment. The King firmly rejects this idea, stating that if Wrong “got off so easily, all he’d do is laugh.” Later, when Piers Plowman is frustrated by the people who refuse to work, Hunger tells him that if the people are sinful, leave it up to God. Hunger’s comment implies that the Church’s practice of selling indulgences is wrongly taking other people’s sin into their own hands, rather than leaving it to God. Ultimately, Will learns that financial transactions like indulgences are worthless after death: “I count your patents and your pardon not worth a pie’s heel.” A “pie’s heel” is the pie crust that is left over after the rest of the slice has been eaten—indulgences (patents) and pardons are even more useless.
Piers Plowman reveals that the Church isn’t providing the proper guidance for those who want to repent. When Repentance asks Covetousness to repent for his sins, Covetousness doesn’t know what the word “restitution” means, nor does he even know that his behavior has been sinful—a moment that seems to point to the Church, which should have been providing him with such guidance. Later, when society frantically seeks Truth after the confessions of the Seven Deadly Sins, they don’t know who to turn to. Even the pilgrim doesn’t know how to help them and can only point them in the direction of earthly shrines. Likewise, at the end of the poem, Friar Flatterer who is supposed to heal the sick gives people in the Christian community a “drugged drink” that, rather than help them resist sin, simply makes them numb to sin and unconcerned about its consequences.
The poem highlights that penance and repentance must be genuine to be effective. For example, rich people waiting till the very end of their lives to repent and give their money to the poor “will sound in our Lord’s ear like a magpie’s chattering.” In one of his many dreams, Will meets a man named Hawkin, whose coat is constantly stained with sin. Although Hawkin’s coat is cleaned by confession, it doesn’t stay clean for more than a few moments. To Hawkin, penance is no more than a habitual washing. Patience explains to him that alongside “confession of the mouth,” Hawkin needs “contrition of the heart,” or genuine remorse for his sins, to keep the coat clean for good. The combination of faith and “contrition,” or genuine remorse, can turn deadly sins into small, easily forgivable ones. Likewise, Repentance teaches, “sorrow for sins is salvation for souls.”
Piers Plowman argues that financial transactions, such as the Church’s practice of selling indulgences, do not count as penance. In addition, the Church’s preoccupation with selling indulgences means that they are failing to guide those who want to repent. It is genuine sorrow for one’s sins, not the simple purchase of an indulgence, which can help a person be forgiven and saved. By highlighting the clergy’s shortcomings, William Langland exposes one of the most significant religious and social issues of his time. In fact, anger surrounding the sale of indulgences was one of the catalysts for the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. Interestingly, hundreds of years after it was written, Piers Plowman was printed and distributed by early Protestants as proof of the clergy’s serious flaws. Langland’s emphasis on the importance of genuine sorrow for sin serves as a teaching moment for the reader, as Will learns alongside the reader the importance of contrition.
Penance and Repentance ThemeTracker
Penance and Repentance Quotes in Piers Plowman
…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…
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.
To scrape your coat clean of all kinds of filth.
…Do-Well will wash it and wring it with a wise confessor.
…Do-Better will scrub it and scour it…
…And then send you to Satisfaction, to let the sun bleach it.
…Do-Best will keep it clean from unkind deeds.
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.