e HTML> Piers Plowman (Middle English, tr. into Modern English); Prologue.


William Langland (Late 14th Cent.)


Piers Plowman






IN a summer season · when soft was the sun,
I clothed myself in a cloak as I shepherd were,
Habit like a hermit's · unholy in works,
And went wide in the world · wonders to hear.
But on a May morning · on Malvern hills,
A marvel befell me · of fairy, methought.
I was weary with wandering · and went me to rest
Under a broad bank · by a brook's side,
And as I lay and leaned over · and looked into the waters
I fell into a sleep · for it sounded so merry.

Then began I to dream · a marvellous dream,
That I was in a wilderness · wist I not where.
As I looked to the east · right into the sun,
I saw a tower on a toft · worthily built;
A deep dale beneath · a dungeon therein,
With deep ditches and dark · and dreadful of sight
A fair field full of folk · found I in between,
Of all manner of men · the rich and the poor,
Working and wandering · as the world asketh.
Some put them to plow · and played little enough,
At setting and sowing · they sweated right hard
And won that which wasters · by gluttony destroy.

Some put them to pride · and apparelled themselves so
In a display of clothing · they came disguised.
To prayer and penance · put themselves many,
All for love of our Lord · living hard lives,
In hope for to have · heavenly bliss.
Such as anchorites and hermits · that kept them in their cells,
And desired not the country · around to roam;
Nor with luxurious living · their body to please.

And some chose trade · they fared the better,
As it seemeth to our sight · that such men thrive.

Piers The Plowman, Prologue, p. 2

And some to make mirth · as minstrels know how,
And get gold with their glees · guiltlessly, I hold.
But jesters and janglers · children of Judas,
Feigning their fancies · and making folk fools,
They have wit at will · to work, if they would;
Paul preacheth of them · I'll not prove it here --
Qui turpiloquium loquitur · is Lucifer's hind.

Tramps and beggars · went quickly about,
Their bellies and their bags · with bread well crammed;
Cadging for their food · fighting at ale;
In gluttony, God knows · going to bed,
And getting up with ribaldry · the thieving knaves!

Sleep and sorry sloth · ever pursue them.
Pilgrims and palmers · pledged them together
To seek Saint James · and saints in Rome.
They went forth on their way · with many wise tales,
And had leave to lie · all their life after --
I saw some that said · they had sought saints:
Yet in each tale that they told · their tongue turned to lies
More than to tell truth · it seemed by their speech.
Hermits, a heap of them · with hooked staves,
Were going to Walsingham · and their wenches too;
Big loafers and tall · that loth were to work,
Dressed up in capes · to be known from others;
And so clad as hermits · their ease to have.

I found there friars · of all the four orders,
Preaching to the people · for profit to themselves,
Explaining the Gospel · just as they liked,
To get clothes for themselves · they construed it as they would.
Many of these master friars · may dress as they will,
For money and their preaching · both go together.
For since charity hath been chapman · and chief to shrive lords,
Many miracles have happened · within a few years.
Except Holy Church and they · agree better together,
Great mischief on earth · is mounting up fast.

There preached a pardoner · as if he priest were:
He brought forth a brief · with bishops' seals thereon,
And said that himself · might absolve them all
From falseness in fasting and of broken vows.

Laymen believed him · welcomed his words,

Piers The Plowman, Prologue, p. 3
And came up on their knees · to kiss his seals;
He cozened them with his brevet · dimmed their eyes,
And with his parchment · got his rings and brooches:
Thus they gave their gold · gluttons to keep.
And lend it to such louts · as follow lechery.
If the bishop were holy · and worth both his ears,
His seal should not be sent · to deceive the people.
But a word 'gainst bishop · the knave never preacheth.
Parish priest and pardoner · share all the silver
That the parish poor would have · if he were not there.

Parsons and parish priests · complained to the bishop
That their parishes were poor · since the pestilence time,
And asked leave and licence · in London to dwell
And sing requiems for stipends · for silver is sweet.

Bishops and bachelors · both masters and doctors,
That have charge under Christ · and the tonsure as token
And sign that they should · shrive their parishioners,
Preach and pray for them · and feed the poor,
These lodge in London in Lent · and at other times too.
Some serve the king · and his silver count
In Chequer and Chancery courts · making claim for his debts
Of wards and of wardmotes · waifs and estrays.
And some serve as servants · to lords and ladies,
And instead of stewards · sit in session to judge.
Their mass and their matins · their canonical hours,
Are said undevoutly · I fear at the last
Lest Christ in his council · accurse will full many.
I perceived of the power · that Peter had to keep,
To bind and to unbind · as the Book telleth,
How he left it with love · as our Lord ordained,
Amongst four virtues · the best of all virtues,
That cardinal are called · for they hinge the gates
Where Christ is in glory · to close and to shut
And to open it to them · and show heavenly bliss.
But of cardinals at Rome · that received that name
And power presumed in them · a pope to make,
That they have Peter's power · deny it I will not;
For to love and learning · that election belongeth,
Therefore I can, and yet cannot · of that court speak more.

Then came there a king · with knighthood before him,

Piers The Plowman, Prologue, p. 4

The might of the commons · made him to reign;
Then came Mother-Wit · and he made wise clerks
For to counsel the king · and the commons save.

The king and the knighthood · the clergy as well,
Planned that the commons · should provide for themselves.

The commons contrived · of Mother-Wit crafts,
And for profit of all · they plowmen ordained
To till and travail · as true life asketh.
The king and the commons · and Mother-Wit too
Cause by law and loyalty · each man to know his own.

Then looked up a lunatic · a lean thing withal,
And kneeling before the king well speaking said:
`Christ keep thee sir King · and thy kingdom,
And grant thee to rule the realm · so Loyalty may love thee,
And for thy rightful ruling · be rewarded in heaven.'
Then in the air on high · an angel of heaven
Stooped and spoke in Latin · for simple men could not
Discuss nor judge · that which should justify them,
But should suffer and serve · therefore said the angel:

`Sum Rex, sum Princeps: neutram fortasse deinceps;
O qui jura regis Christi specialia regis, hoc quod agas melius Justus es,
esto pius!
Nudum jus a te vestiri vult pietate; qualia vis metere talia grand sere.
Si jus nudatur nudo de jure metatur; si seritur pietas de pietate
Then an angry buffoon · a glutton of words,
To the angel on high · answered after:
`Dum rex a regere dicatur nomen habere,
Nomen habet sine re nisi studet jura tenere.'
Then began all the commons · to cry out in Latin,
For counsel of the king · construe how-so he would:
`Praecepta regis sunt nobis vincula legis.'
With that there ran a rout of rats at once,
And small mice with them · more than thousand,
And came to a council · for their common profit;
For a cat from the Court · came when he liked
And o'er leaped them lightly · and caught them at will,
Played with them perilously · and pushed them about.
`For dread of divers dangers · we dare not look about;
If we grumble at his game · he will attack us all,
Scratch us or clutch us · and in his claws hold us,
Piers The Plowman, Prologue, p. 5

So that we loathe life · ere he lets us go.
Could we with any wit · his will withstand
We might be lords above him · and live at our ease.'

A rat of renown · most ready of tongue
Said, as a sovereign · help to himself:
`I have seen men,' quoth he · `in the city of London
Bearing bright necklaces · about their necks,
Some with collars of skilful work · uncoupled they wander
Both in warrens and wastes · wherever they like;
And otherwhile they are elsewhere · as I tell you.
Were there a bell on their collars · by Jesus, I think
Men might know where they went · and get out of their way!
And right so,' quoth that rat · `reason me showeth
To buy a brass bell · or one of bright silver
Make it fast to a collar · for our common profit,
And hang it on the cat's neck · then we may hear
When he romps or rests · or runneth to play.
And if he wants play · then we may look out
And appear in his presence · the while he play liketh,
And if he gets angry, · beware and shun all his paths.'
All this rout of rats · to this plan assented.
But though the bell was bought · and on the collar hanged,
There was not a rat in the rout · for all the realm of France
That dare bind on the bell · about the cat's neck,
Nor hang it round her ears · all England to win;
They held themselves not bold · and their counsel feeble,
Esteemed their labour as lost · and all their long plotting.

A mouse that knew much more · as it seemed to me,
Ran forth determined · and stood before them all,
And to the rout of rats · rehearsed these words:
`Though we killed the cat · yet there would come another,
To scratch us and all our kind · though we creep under benches.
Therefore I counsel all the commons · to let the cat be,
And be we never so bold · to show to him the bell;
For I heard my sire say · now seven years ago,
"When the cat is a kitten · the Court is right wretched,"
As witnesseth Holy Writ · whoso will it read:

"Vae tibi, terra, cujus rex puer est."
No man can have rest there · for the rats by night;
While the cat catcheth conies · he covets not our carrion,
But feeds himself on venison · may we never defame him!
Piers The Plowman, Prologue, p. 6

For better is a little loss · than a long sorrow;
He's the fear among us all · whereby we miss worse things.
For many men's malt · we mice would destroy,
And the riot of rats · would rend men's clothes,
Were it not for that Court cat · that can leap in among you;
For had ye rats your will · ye could not rule yourselves.
As for me,' quoth the mouse · 'I see so much to come
That cat nor kitten never shall · by my counsel be harmed,
Nor carping of this collar · that cost me nothing.
Though it had cost me full dear · I would not own to it
But suffer him to live · and do just as he liketh:
Coupled and uncoupled · to catch what they can.
Therefore each wise wight I warn · to watch well his own.'

What this dream meaneth · ye men that be merry,
Divine ye, for I never dare · by dear God in heaven!

There hovered an hundred · in caps of silk,
Serjeants they seemed · who practised at Bar,
Pleading the law · for pennies and pounds,
And never for love of our Lord · unloosing their lips.
You might better measure the mist · on the Malvern hills,
Than get a sound out of their mouth · unless money were showed.
Barons and burgesses · and bondmen also
I saw in this crowd · as you shall hear later.
Bakers and brewers · and butchers a-many,
Woollen-websters · and weavers of linen,
Tailors and tinkers · toll-takers in markets,
Masons and miners · and men of all crafts.
Of all kinds of labourers · there stood forth some;
Ditchers and diggers · that do their work ill
And spend all the day singing · `Dieu vous sauve, dame Emme!'
Cooks and their knaves · cried 'Pies, hot pies!
Good pork and good goose! · Come, dine! Come, dine!'

Taverners unto them · told the same tale:
`White wine of Alsace · red wine of Gascony,
Wine of the Rhine, of Rochelle · to help settle your meat!'
All this I saw sleeping · and seven times more.


  This is the end of the Prologue of Piers Plowman; the section called "The Vision" (Passus I to Passus VII follows.

  Go to Passus I | Back to Langland Note



[This text is from William Langland, The Book Concerning Piers the Plowman, tr. Donald and Rachel Attwater, ed. Rachel Attwater (Everyman, 1957), printed with the permission of the publisher.]


Last modified: May, 2, 2006

Gold Texts on this page prepared and maintained by L. D. Benson (ldb@wjh.harvard.edu)