The Hermit in Lore: Langland's Piers Plowman

Piers Plowman, the late 14th-century medieval allegory composed by William Langland, proposes a look at the world and society through the eyes of a clear-sighted observer, scrupulously honest, a genuine seeker much like the sage or the fool of myth. Though near contemporary of the more celebrated Dante, Langland is not so eloquent a poet. His narrator has no Virgil to accompany him, nor does he meet famous people along the way, ascending supernatural realms as does the narrator of the Divine Comedy. Langland's simple device is the dream, and his narrator is a simple and unpretentious observer. Langland's narrator has a profound sense of his own solitude in the world, alone in his quest. Ultimately, his model is the hermit.

At first, the model seems nothing by a cunning device. In the Prologue, the narrator has donned the ragged attire of a shepherd, of an "easy-living hermit,"  setting out "to roam far and wide through the world, hoping to hear of marvels." But the false model misleads, for the attire of a hermit is more like a shepherd's, and the narrator is like a sheep going into a world of wolves.

No class of society is spared Langland's moral criticism, and the pages of his dream-journey inveigh against the immorality of pilgrims, priests, peasants, towns-folk, lords, and peasants. The dream-journey is the search for truth, pursued in the world, in society, among" all kinds of people, high and low together, moving busily about their worldly affairs." And the journey is made among people we encounter according to our station. Langland meets embodiments of virtues who assist his journey (Patience, Conscience, Intelligence) or vices who obstruct it (Fee, Gluttony, Crime).

Part two of Piers Plowman  is the search for Do-well, Do-better, and Do-best. Having survived the false paths of many vices in his search, the narrator finds himself in old age, after spending much fruitless time and effort with Learning and Scripture, concluding that neither is essential to the pursuit of truth but can be a hindrance. He is held in a forty-five year stupor by Fortune. Then his advisory guides bring him to full knowledge and the ultimate guide and model is not Faith, Anima, or Charity but none other than a human being, Piers Plowman.

Piers Plowman is a character in the story, not an abstraction like the virtues. He becomes the model for the narrator, but at first glance the plowman seems to contradict the hermit-wanderer model that the author presents at the beginning of the journey. The resolution will be addressed at the end of the tale. It is necessary first to see what the eremitical model represents for Langland.

Langland's model

The hermit, like the shepherd, wear russet, a coarse homespun wool of brownish-red, the garment of rural workers or peasants, including shepherds. Russet is hence the clothing of the poorest classes in contrast to those for whom they labored, who "spent their lives in vanity, parading themselves in a show of fine clothes." In contrast also to those who, on the other hand,

led strict lives devoted to prayer and penance: the hermits and anchorites who stay in their cells and are not forever desiring to roam about and flatter their bodies with sensual pleasures.

Langland thus identifies three social classes of note: 1) peasants, 2) hermits, and 3) false hermits. The false hermits are obvious imposters. The narrator sees them in a dream:

Troops of hermits with their hooked staves were on their way to Walsingham, with their wenches following after. These great long lubbers, who hated work, were got up in clerical garb to distinguish them from laymen, and paraded as hermits for the sake of an easy life.

Thus Langland makes clear the fact that vagrancy -- at that time for social and economic reasons to which he adds plausible moral ones -- has created a suspect class of pseudo-hermits. This reality is confirmed by historical sources (cited by Mary Rotha Clay, among others) and explains to some degree the Church's skepticism of eremitical motives and of hermits outside of its discipline and anchorholds.

Among the "all kinds of people, high and low together, moving busily about their worldly affairs" that the author enumerates are entertainers, beggars, pilgrims, friars, pardoners, bishops, and finally a king and his knights. The station of each is assigned by God and "Common Sense," but Langland criticizes each for its respective vices. The classes are not in themselves to be conceived as life-styles or paths to pursue. For this the author returns to the intriguing analogy of virtues between plowman and hermit.

First, it is clear that Piers labors in fields of crops but also in allegorical fields, for he has been working for none other than Truth. When a crowd of men profess to look for him (Truth) they stubbornly refuse to reveal that they don't know how to find him. But Piers pushes through the crowd and explains what he knows.

I know him as well as a scholar knows his books. Conscience and Common Sense showed me the way to his place, and they made me swear to serve him forever, and do his sowing and planting for as long as I can. ... I have sown his seed and herded his beasts. ... I ditch and dig, sow and thresh, and do whatever Truth tells me -- tailoring, tinkering, spinning and weaving. I put my hand to anything he bids me.

But Piers is no simple subordinate. For Truth has, as a reward for Piers' labors and for that of his crew, issued a pardon that would absolve all his sin and punishment and that of anyone associated with him. Upon further scrutiny, the document turns out to be not a pardon but a restatement of a truism that simply says that all who do well will be saved and those who do ill will not. Piers, angry at the scurrilous use of such a document, tears the pardon in two and declares:

I shall give up my sowing, and cease from all this hard labor. Why should I work so hard just to fill my belly? From now on, prayers and penance shall be my plow, and at night when I should be asleep, I shall weep for my sins instead.

Renouncing fixed labor as a farmer further represents fixed labor after spiritual truth based on anything but simple "prayers and penance." So we have an affirmation of the hermit's dual way, renouncing worldly burdens as well as religious or institutionally prescribed burdens. The decision comes in anger not reflection, but it is a keen psychological insight.

The author, after several allegorical devices, has thus brought Piers to the center of the dramatic journey. For Piers had been contracted to hire workers to help in a field. Many were honest but many more were not, like the shiftless imposters and pseudo-hermits. As soon as the plowman turned his back, these shiftless ones would drop their work, even after shirking it all day anyway. Piers had been incensed at their sloth. Then came the pardon that covered all laborers, good and bad. For Piers this was unjust.

Piers reflects on how the gospel points to spiritual simplicity:

If one sincerely loves God, then a livelihood is easy enough to get, for it is written, "My tears have been my food day and night." And St. Luke teaches us to live like the birds, and take no thought for the pleasures of the world, nor to be solicitous, saying "What shall we drink?" He shows us by such example how to govern our lives. Who is it that gives the birds in the fields their food in wintertime? "They have no barns to go to, yet God provides for them all."

Given the context of the time, only hermits followed this evangelical dictate. As one observer notes:

In turning from the plough to "preyours and penaunce" [i.e., the life of prayer and poverty] and trusting to God to provide, Piers is forsaking the values and ideals represented by the plowmen of the Prologue ... in favor of those represented by the hermits. That this involves a repudiation of Truth's Pardon with its idealization of labor seems clear from Pier's response, tearing up the Pardon and rejecting Truth's commands.

At this point the dreamer awakens. Langland ends part one with his narrator musing on the meaning of the dream and concluding that while the Church may have power to issue such pardons, those who receive it cannot have the surety of a moral life.

The dreamer vows to find Do-well and learn from him directly what must be done to follow this newly affirmed path of prayer and poverty. In the meantime, the dreamer warns the rich and powerful who can buy such pardons that "unless Do-well helps you, I would not give a peascod for all your pardons and certificates!"

Part Two

In part two begins the narrator's search for Do-well. It is a more deliberate search than in part one, where the dreamer was a wanderer. However, the narrator is again garbed in rough woolen cloths of a shepherd or hermit. In this section, Langland shifts his focus from a critique of social classes to one of personal practice. He is unconvinced of the advice of a character called Friar to simply follow what the Church teaches, nor does he accept Thought's abstractions about virtues, insisting that he wants to know how the virtues actually work "among the people." Intelligence and his wife Lady Study mentions theological controversies not resolved by churchmen, a clear projection of Langland's own doubts, relevant here in injecting skepticism about abstract scholarship. It also emphasizes the distinction between these abstractions and the life of virtue which the abstractions do not address. As Lady Study puts it:

Theology has always caused me a lot of trouble. The more I pondered and delved into it, the darker and mistier it seems to me to be. It is certainly no science for subtle invention, and without love it would be no good at all.

Scripture defends St. Gregory's ideal of the monk but regrets its corruption, excoriating bishops and abbots alike, and like her predecessors cites the absence of love to explain the poverty and rapacity of the wealthy so common in society. These vices are cited as proof that few enter heaven, baptized or not. The dreamer tells Reason what he has concluded so far: "Do-well is to see much and to suffer more."

Imagination corrects many of the dreamer's misconceptions about the proper role of learning and wisdom. The proper interpretation of Scripture, for example, would show that Muslims and Jews leading virtuous lives can enter heaven regardless of baptism -- not the teaching of the Church or its theology. Inexorably, Langland is moving the reader to a new concept of virtue.

Then comes the lengthy interlude in the dreamer's life.

For many years I roamed the earth begging my bread like a pauper. And I puzzled continually over this [most recent] dream, remembering how Fortune failed me in my greatest need, and Old Age threatened me whenever I met him; how the Friars go after the rich folk and despise the poor and no one can be buried in one of their graveyards or churches unless, while he lives, he bequeaths them some money to pay off their debts; how priests and parsons are overcome with the same covetousness, and how unless God intervenes, simple laymen are led by ignorant priests to incurable torments.

This is the tortuous stage of the narrator's progress. He recalls benign Nature, kind to all living creatures, and remembers the example of Piers Plowman, who forsook all to travel the path of a true hermit.

Dreaming again, the narrator is comforted by Conscience. They go together to visit Learning in the latter's castle, where they also encounter Patience.

Patience stood in the courtyard, dressed as a pilgrim, begging his food for charity like a poor hermit.

Within the castle is a guest, a notable clergyman and Doctor who sits at a supper of fine dainties and wine while the hermit Patience accepts only bread and water. Conversation ensues, with the narrator eager to discuss the issue of virtue. The Doctor sums up the issue thusly:

Do-well is to do as the clergy teach. Do-better is to teach others. Do-best is to put into practice all that you say and preach.

Learning brings up the explanation of Piers:

A certain Piers Plowman has taken us all to task, and shrugged aside all the sciences except Love. The only texts he gives to support his words are "Love God" and "Lord, who shall dwell in they tabernacle, etc." And he maintains that Do-well and Do-better are two infinities, which by faith, discover Do-best; and that Do-best is the savior of man's soul. So says Piers the Plowman.

Patience adds that: "To learn is to do-well, to teach is to do-better, and to love your enemies is to do-best."

But the Doctor is unimpressed, dismissing these comments as old yarns, and adding that Patience should leave, saying: "Pilgrims are notable liars."

So Conscience rises and bids all farewell, announcing: "I intend to go with Patience and become a pilgrim, to gain more experience of these things." Conscience thus directly contradicts the Doctor and effectively renounces the oversight of clergy in "these" matters of virtue and right living.

Patience, Conscience, and the narrator depart. On their way they meet Activa Vita, or Haukyn, a baker or "waferer" by trade and a man of worldly mind. "Haukyn" plays on the word "hawking," and what he bakes are confections he peddles for money, alluding to the scurrilous friars who peddle pardons or indulgences, but ultimately referring to all who hold any power or worldly influence. Here Activa Vita is not the modern contrast of active to contemplative life but simply all that people do in their station in life, religious or lay. Haukyn's coat is stained, and its pockets full of deadly sins, the characteristic life of merchants and laborers.

Practice explains to Haukyn the virtues of poverty in a passage borrowed from Vincent of Beauvais:

Poverty is a hateful blessing, the putting off of cares, possession without fraud, the gift of God, the mother of wisdom, business without loss; an unsettled fortune, yet a happiness without anxiety.

Patience adds nine characteristics of poverty, here summarized:

1. Poverty is the opposite of Pride.
2. Poverty does not judge, therefore does not punish.
3. Poverty possesses without fraud or profit.
4. Poverty restrains extravagance and folly.
5. Poverty is the Mother of Health.
6. Poverty is the path of peace and fearlessness.
7. Poverty is a well of Wisdom and temperate of speech.
8. Poverty is an honest laborer, taking no more or less.
9. Poverty is sweetness of soul, a life without anxiety.

At these words, Haukyn laments his corrupt life, sobbing and bewailing his sins, saying:

If only I had possessed no land or had no position in the world. If only I had owned nothing, with no more control over others than I had over myself! God knows, I have made this suit of mine so foul, I do not deserve to have any clothes at all, not so much as a shirt or a pair of shoes, beyond what modesty compels me to wear.

Langland here counsels not simply a temperate active life. Haukyen's confession points to fully embracing evangelical poverty, a through-going poverty not represented by a religious order. As one commentator sums it up:

The basis of these values is, in the view of Patience, not secular work but the austere life of beggar or ascetic. The word "poverte" is repeatedly used by Langland to refer to voluntary poverty, the ascetic life of hermits and others who forsook the world to follow Christ.


What we seem to have here ... is neither the ascetic life of withdrawal from the world, nor spiritual poverty in the sense of humility, nor quite the inevitable indigence of the peasant classes, but something very like ... a commitment to the world and work while repudiating the pursuit of wealth. Here there does seem to be a hint of the possible expansion of "poverte" as an ideal to lend some sanctity to the active life. But the primary reference to "poverte" and the teachings of Patience is to the eremitic life.

The story may be said to have reached its climax. After the climactic Haukyn episode, Langland's narrator commences the search for Do-better. Langland touches upon the example of the desert hermits Paul of Thebes, Anthony, and Giles. Through the figure Anima he argues that "every anchorite or hermit, monk or friar, if he follows the way of perfection, is on a level with the Twelve Apostles."

The narrator is told that charity is a tree

in a garden planted by God, for its root springs from man's body, and its soil is the heart. The land is leased by one Free Will, whose job it is to hoe and weed it under Piers the Plowman.

The narrator rejoices to hear again the name of Piers, who enters the dream to elaborate upon the tree of charity.

In subsequent chapters, the journey is preoccupied with defining the role of faith and hope, of the life of Christ, and the founding of the Church, where Piers is identified with St. Peter and the plowing of the fields of the world. Though the pace is not quick, this section represents a sort of obligatory denouement.

Piers harnesses four oxen (each gospel) and four bullocks (Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory, and Jerome), and sows seeds called the Spirits, respectively, of Prudence, Moderation, Fortitude, and Justice. A concluding chapter, "The Coming of Antichrist," pits the narrator's friends Grace and Conscience, against Pride, Envy, and Sloth among others, plus a conspicuously corrupt Friar.

All is lost, however, and Conscience makes a fateful decision, asserting that he will quit the world and the struggle to fix it. Instead he will "walk to the ends of the earth in search of Piers the Plowman," who alone can set the world aright.


The clear goal of Langland's poem is to illustrate the eremitic ideal and to distinguish it from the many false hermits and recluses of his day.  As one observer puts it:

In their quests for life everlasting, faithful hermits and the Dreamer over and over encounter the censure of unholy hermits, because there is a gulf between the eremitic ideal and the practice of contemporary hermits in real life, between the real world and the literary word, which Langland united in Piers Plowman.

Ultimately, the purpose of the poem is to point to the eremitic ideal as the only path to virtue.

Langland was himself a cleric who performed ecclesiastical functions not requiring a priest. With family and unpredictable income Langland doubtless suffered poverty and likely encountered the friars and clergy he describes. His occupation confirms his knowledge and his ability to write well, but also his concern for the nature and interpretation of poverty, conscience, morality, and salvation. His keen sense of social injustice and fraud shows a sharp mind that wrestled with expressing itself through the limitations of a literary device that at least would not endanger him with the authorities.

Langland amended his text twice -- thus the manuscripts are called A, B, and C -- but the gist of his purpose remained. He only offered hints about his life in the C manuscript, ever modest and dissimulating. Above all, Langland's love of the eremitic life shines through the complex but regarded allegory of Piers Plowman.


Translations based on J. F. Goodridge's edition, Piers the Ploughman published by Penguin, 1966 (revised edition). Secondary sources include Malcolm Godden, "Plowmen and Hermits in Langland's Piers Plowman" in Review of English Studies, vol. 235, no. 138 (1984), p. 129-163, and James E. Hicks, "The Eremitic Ideal and the Dreamer's Quest in Piers Plowman" in Essays in Medieval Studies, no. 2 (1985), p. 107-129.