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 as everyone is working toward a common goal. In several instances throughout the poem, God (or another heavenly being) tries to encourage humans to work together as a tight-knit community, with each of the three estates helping one another. In every instance, however, this sort of idealized feudalism is short lived. The poem ultimately argues that as long as people choose selfishness—putting the individual above the community—feudalism does more harm than good. The interdependence of the first, second, and third estates means that like a drop of ink in a glass of water, it only takes a few selfish people to bring down society.
The poem defends social hierarchy as good thing as long as all people are oriented toward a common goal. In several instances throughout the poem, God or another heavenly force tries to encourage humans to embrace such idealized feudalism. For example, a heavenly angel and Kind Wit (common sense) create a system where the three estates live and work in harmony for the sake of a common goal: “The king in concert with knighthood and with clergy as well / Contrived that the commons [common people] should provide their commons [food] for them.” In this system, each of the estates provide for one another. Later, Piers Plowman, who comes to represent Christ, also creates an ideal, but short-lived, social hierarchy. Like Kind Wit, Piers Plowman divides labor based among the estates, so that all people are in charge of a job that they are well suited for. He explains the way this works to the knight, saying “I shall sweat and strain and sow for us both… / In exchange for your championing Holy Church and me / Against wasters and wicked men who would destroy me.” As a peasant, Piers will produce food to support the knight if the knight will support the peasants by keeping them safe. Similarly, Grace, God’s messenger, gifts people in the Christian community with different talents (the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit) so that they can each pursue different occupations for the common good. In doing so, the people are able to combat the evil forces of idleness, envy, and pride. Lastly, the ideal scenario of each estate working together as one is shown in Christ, who is “knight, king, [and] conqueror” while still being the Piers Plowman figure whose humble life is marked by honest labor.
Although Piers Plowman clearly illustrates the value of idealized feudalism, the poem ultimately argues that human selfishness has warped feudalism into a structure that currently does more harm than good. That is, since the social hierarchy is composed of several interdependent estates, the reality of feudalism is that it only takes a few people choosing selfishness and sin to bring down the entire community. For example, a handful of people disrupt the rhythmic cycle of Piers Plowman’s idealized feudalism (plowing the half-acre) by choosing sinfulness—refusing to work even though they’re in good health. Piers tries to correct the snag by having the knight restore order. The knight fails in doing so, forcing Piers to call upon Hunger. Everybody suffers from Hunger in one way or another, including those who have worked faithfully the whole time. Similarly, the opening of the poem illustrates how when a few people choose selfishness in a feudal society, other people are negatively affected as well. In the Prologue, friars change the scriptures out of selfishness in order to make themselves look good. This means that that the friars are teaching a distorted version of the Bible, consequently leading astray the unlearned people who depend on the friars and the priests for religious teaching and guidance.
Piers Plowman shows that social hierarchy—in this case, feudalism—is a powerful, positive force when all people are dedicated to the common good. Throughout the poem, such idealized feudalism is always established by God or one of his companions. However, the poem shows that every time idealized feudalism is put into place, it is ruined by human selfishness. Although Langland plainly points out the problems with fourteenth-century feudal society, he doesn’t provide a clear-cut political solution. Instead, his focus lies in the widespread impact of sin. Langland shows that an individual’s selfishness reverberates through the community, causing even more destruction. Thus, Langland’s aim is spiritual, not political, as he seeks to reveal the repercussions of sin and urge readers to place the community before themselves.
Social Hierarchy, Community, and Selfishness ThemeTracker
Social Hierarchy, Community, and Selfishness 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…
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
…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.