The Changing Plowman
Farrell writes about the changing character of Piers in the passages culminating in the identification as a Corpus Christi figure in XIX (pg. 36.). This kind of manifestation is seen in early parts of the passages that we have read for class which acts as a call to action for the common man to aspire towards the character of Piers. As discussed within the classroom we have focused upon the narrative piece as sermons that teaches how to live a better life and the focus of our readings have been upon the problem Langland perceives with the people, the Government, and with the Church itself. I would like to propose that this text concerns a ‘hipster’ rendition of Luther theology. (Being Luther before Luther was cool). As the text takes the reader through a redefinition of what it means to be a commoner within the time of the 14th century Langland offers an interpretation of theological ideals for the common person, as illustrated through Piers’ changing role, from dedicated worker into leader of the pilgrimage.
In this response I want to deal with the changing of the story itself up to the introduction of Piers as a character within the narrative. Through the Prologue and Passus IV the story consist of how a political climate should marry themselves to certain aspects of humanity, specifically Meed. The use of this as a narrative plot reflects the turmoil of the status quo of the individual concerning Temporal power versus Spiritual Power, the role of the layman to that of the clergy (power differential and expectations), and the responsibility of the individual within their own spirituality following the plague.
Langland would seem to blame the problems of society with a focus upon those who do not do their job in an authentic manner. We see a problem with laziness from both the commoners which results in becoming pseudo pilgrims, hermits, and anchorites (Prologue lines [PL] 15-35); and also within the church itself with clerics, beadsmen, and cardinals (PL 50-70). Both of these parties are a continuing theme throughout the Passuses’ and remain a thorn in the side of Langland, they do not show a change such as Piers does as a worker and then a pilgrim leader. One of the most puzzling contras that Langland employs that sets up the seen dispute within the church itself is the questioning of the power of the Pope in PL 100-115 in which the narrator questions who should have the power of Peter and what role should the Church itself play within society. This speaks towards a then growing common thought that Kingdoms should hold power over the peoples, land, and title giving while the Church should focus upon the souls of the people. This role is expressed clearly within PL 111-115 (Bold and Italics added):
Then there came a king, knighthood accompanied him,
Might of the community made him a ruler.
And then came Kind Wit, and he created clerks
To counsel the king and keep the commons safe.
This clearly gives the role of ruler to the king even though he is helped by Kind Wit in the creation of clerks, it would seem that like Luther; Langland fell upon the side of Temporal power over spiritual power.
Following the Prologue, the Passus I- V there is an argument off the marriage of Meed into the community at large. This speaks towards a problem that is identified within the system of the Church itself. We see this within the lines in Passus III in which Meed has come to the king, with a company representing the seven deadly sins, in order to be wedded unto the court and blatantly bribes her confessor (PIII l. 50-60). The confessor is given the option to overlook the sins that are committed by the majority of people in exchange for the building and refurnishing of his Church. Meed in the lines uses the words of scholars and biblical passages to twist the focus of the Church in order to have allowances for her company that took her to the king. This highlights the faults of the Church as a character within the story that is ran by men whom are faulty and liable to give into temptation. The fallacy of man is further exemplified through the denial of the character of the knight Conscious to wed Meed (PIII L. 130). The willingness exemplified in line 112 by Meed with “Lord forbid else!” and Conscious in line 130 “Christ forbid!” parallels the dichotomy of how much the Temporal power should allow a union of the tainted practices of bribery within the Church into their kingdom. Man here is presented as being able to use attribute that are found within themselves, not from the Church, such as Conscious to provide a place for the maturation of Lewte, Truth, and Wisdom. In the following lines the party members of Meed’s company are cast to the winds and rejoined by Merchants, Clerics, and Friars. Langland here would seem to propose that it the role of the clergy to layman has been disrupted by Meed being a part of their group and the acceptance of the Seven Sins that accompany her by the representatives of the Church being corrupted by their own want for Meed.
The culmination of this transformation of Church and Temporal power is depicted within the anthropomorphizing of the Seven Deadly sins as characters that are pushed to seek Repentance in Passus V. The narrator ends the previous dream sequence and begins anew with this narration in mind. Each of the Sin characters take their turn in confession unto Repentance as not only a corruptor of themselves but leaders of the people into corruption. Beginning in line 55 and continuing to 485 the Sins are represented of seeking out the comforts of earthly desires and the human condition unto their own satisfactions. Repentance continually asked if they have repented for their pursuits and is allowing an opportunity to delve into the responsibility of the laymen to take accountability for their own actions. The narrator then continues with a sermon type writing starting with line 476 in which Repentance absolves all the parties who sought him and the dream introduces the representative exemplar Piers Plowman in line 515. This common person who is enveloped with the work that he does for the glory of God and keeping all things in accordance to the law (Lewte) represents the culmination of representative to the people. Piers’ directions for the pilgrims consist of the reimagining of the ten commandments into actually places to be overcome upon the pilgrimage (lines 560-585). The choice of Langland to portray Piers in this manner immolates the responsibility of the layman upon their own spiritual journey. This simplistic message could relate unto the common man that could be what Farrell himself points towards within the secondary text regarding the reworking from the ABC texts (pg. 49-52). The espousing by Farrell is that Piers is represented as the Corpus Christi in that he is the body of Christ both in the literal sense of the Church and by giving Bread to the people in a Eucharistic manner (pg. 49). This would indicate that the laymen have the ability to self-regulate their own spiritual life, but the path is a difficult one that requires a large amount of manifestation from commoners to spiritualist. Piers then is a manifestation of this thought into which Temporal power and Spiritual power find common ground by the people changing their own ways and denying Meed and the Seven Sins.