Social Life in the Days of Piers Plowman

Excerpt

Few other works give a better insight into English life and thought in the fourteenth century than Piers Plowman. The loosely connected allegory enabled the writer to attack abuses he would not have dared to mention openly. Direct satire of great persons in Church or State would have been disastrous to him; but he could occasionally give mere personifications the characteristics and even the appearance of wellknown persons. In a more carefully planned work there would have been no room for the vague allusions and the detailed descriptions to which the allegory frequently gives place. It was safest for Dame Study to attack the customs of degenerate clerks and knights and for a visionary confessor, "coped as a. frere," to console Lady Mede. But frequently the personifications disappear; and pictures of ordinary men and women reveal, more satisfactorily than many abstract arguments, the bishop's lack of dignity, the pardoner's duplicity, and the labourer's independence. Descriptions of miserable homes and beggar-haunted highways expose the plight of lower orders of society in whom Chaucer took no interest. Fashions and habits of all ranks of society are preserved in the pictures of Lady Mede, the Field Full of Folk, Beton's tavern.

An attempt has been made to collect and arrange under definite headings the details given in Piers Plowman of fourteenth-century life and opinions. Where space permits, the original words, from whichever version seemed most suitable, are retained; but many interesting passages are too long to be quoted in what is merely an index. Since the three versions differ in many particulars, references are given to all three texts and remarkable changes are noted. It is then obvious when additions have been made or points omitted.

The account of society given in Piers Plowman is gloomy. The writer obviously wished to expose corruptions rather than to entertain his readers; and, in contemporary songs and poems, the period "sitthe the pestilence" is not represented as . . .

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