The Vision of Piers Plowman by William Langland


Piers Plowman is one of the greatest poems of the English Middle Ages, surviving in many manuscript versions, and preceding and possibly influencing Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Written around 1380, in the wake of the Black Death, the poem describes a series of allegorical dream visions experienced by the dreamer ‘Will’. The poem begins when he falls asleep ‘one May morning in the Malvern Hills’. The author, William Langland, is critical of late medieval society and uses Piers Plowman to explore the sinful nature of humanity and the challenges faced by those trying to live virtuously in late medieval England. The poem is an often-humorous satire with a serious point. 

In his dream-visions, Will hunts for ‘Piers the Plowman’, an elusive farmhand who can teach him how to live a good Christian life. Along the way he encounters a cross-section of fourteenth-century society that includes people of all classes and professions, along with personifications of various medieval virtues and vices.

Will’s second dream begins with a sermon, delivered by the personified figure of ‘Reason’ (who acts as archbishop). In the dream-world, Will sees Reason preaching to the whole kingdom. The archbishop laments the sinful state of England’s inhabitants and calls the plague a punishment from God. Moved by Reason’s words, the Seven Deadly Sins each approach the figure ‘Repentance’ (acting as the Confessor) and ask for forgiveness. 

This scene is one of the most original portrayals of sin in the Middle Ages. Langland’s sins are not anonymous horrors, but ordinary and deeply flawed people, with desires, fears, doubts, and professions! Gluttony is a rich knight, while Sloth is an incompetent parish priest. These markers of status mean that this passage is not just a moral farce, it is a class commentary too. 

‘Estates Satire’ was a popular fourteenth-century literary genre, in which writers critiqued the three ‘estates’ of medieval society: the Nobility (those who fight), the Clergy (those who pray), and the Commons (those who work). Each of Langland’s sinners is held up as a corrupt member of one of these estates and all of them are later compared unfavourably to a simple ploughman (Piers). Langland’s political critique would have been clear to his contemporaries and may even have proved dangerous for the poet. During the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, one of its leaders, John Ball, used characters from Piers Plowman in letters and speeches which justified attacks on nobles, merchants, and the established church.

Readers may also be surprised by the coarse body humour, especially in the Gluttony tavern scene. Early twentieth-century translations of the poem skipped the passages about Gluttony’s urine, vomit, and bowel movements. They have been restored in this translation to give a full representation of medieval humour, which was more earthy than you might imagine. The account of Sloth is also worth noting because it is considered the first written evidence for the Robin Hood myth (Sloth prefers to hear the stories of robbers and bandits than attend to his sermons)!

—Frederick Morgan




Now begins Gluttony
To go to confession,
And carry himself church-ward
His fault there to show;
But Betty the brewer
Bid him good day,
And asked him
Whither-ward he went.

‘To holy church’, said he,
‘To hear the mass
And then I will be given absolution,
And sin no more.’

’But I have good ale’, says she,
’Won’t you try it Glutton?’

‘Is anything else in your bag?’, he asks,
‘Any hot spices?’ 
‘I have pepper and peony, 
And a pound of garlic too,
And a farthing’s worth of fennel seed
For your fasting days.’

Then in goes Glutton,
And great oaths welcome him.
Cis the shoemaker
Sat on a bench;
Watt the gamekeeper,
And his wife both;
Tim the tinker,
And his two apprentices;
Hick the hackneyman,
And Hugh the needler;
Clarice of Cock Lane,
And the parish clerk;
Davy the ditcher,
and a dozen more.

Sir Peter the priest
And Pernell of Flanders;
A rake, a ratcatcher,
A sweet sweeper of Chepe,
A hangman, a horse rider,
And Rose, the dish seller;
Godfrey of Garlickhythe,
And Griffin the Welshman;
All early in the morning,
Gave Glutton with good cheer,
Good ale to enjoy. 


There was laughing and chattering,
And, ‘Pass the cup round!’;
And so they sat till evensong,
Singing all the while, 
Until Glutton had gulped down,
A gallon and a mouthful more.
His guts began to grumble,
Like two greedy pigs;
His pissed a pot-full
To the timing of a prayer,
And blew his round horn,
At the back-bone end,
And all that heard it,
Held their noses after,
And wished it had been stopped up
With a handful of brush. 

He could neither step nor stand,
Till he had his staff
And then he began to walk 
Like a circus dog
Sometimes to one side,
And sometime the other,
Like a man who lays nets
To catch wild birds.  

And when he reached the door,
Then his eyes dimmed;
He stumbled on the threshold,
And fell to the earth.
Clement the cobbler
Caught him by the waist,
To lift him aloft;
And lay him on his knees.
But Glutton was a heavy lout,
And grim in the lifting,
And he coughed his stomach-contents
Into Clement’s lap;
There is no hound so hungry
In all Hertfordshire
That dared lap up those leavings,
So unlovely they smelt.

With all the woe of this world
His wife and his daughter
Bore him home to his bed
And laid him therein;
And after all this excess
He had a lie in,
All Saturday and Sunday he slept,
Till the sun went to rest. 

Then woke he from his winking,
And wiped his eyes;
The first word that he said
Was ‘Where is my tankard?’
Then his wife began to chide him,
For how wickedly he lived;
And Repentance as well,
Rebuked him then:
‘As you with words and actions
Have wrought evil in this life, 
Confess and be ashamed of it,
And show it with your mouth!’

‘I Glutton’, said the man,
 ‘Confess myself guilty […]




Then came Sloth all beslobbered,
With two slimy eyes;
‘I must sit’, said the man,
‘Or else, I might nap.
I cannot stand or stoop,
Or kneel without a footstool;
Where I put to bed, 
Unless nature called,
No bell ringing could make me rise
Before I was ready to dine.’
He began penance with a belch,
And struck his breast,  
And he stretched and he yawned,
And slept at last.

‘Wake wretch, wake!’ cried Repentance,
‘And hurry to confession!’

‘If I should die on this day,
I would not trouble to look [for salvation];
I hardly know my Paternoster,
As the priest sings it;
I know the rhymes of Robin Hood,
And Randolph earl of Chester,
But of our Lord [Christ] and our Lady [Mary],
Not even the shortest ever made. 

I have made forty vows 
And forgot them in the morning;
I never performed penance,
As the priest commanded me;
Nor properly sorry for my sins,
Yet was I ever.
And If I pray any prayers
It is only in anger,
What I tell with my tongue
Is two miles from my heart.
I am occupied each day,
Holy days and every other,
With idle tales over ale,
Even in churches;
God’s pain and his passion?
Seldom do I think about it.

I never visited sick men,
Nor chained folk in prisons.
I would rather chat with harlots,
Or join the cobblers’ summer games,
Or laugh at lying tales,
And slander my neighbour,
Than follow the example of Mark,
Matthew, John, or Luke. 
And vigils and fasting days?
I let them all pass,
And lie in bed all of Lent
A woman in my arms,
Till matins and mass are done
And then I go visit the friars.
If I make the end of the service
I consider myself served;
I do not make confession,
Unless scared by the sickness, 
Not twice in two years,
And then I can only guess at my sins.

I have worked as a priest and a parson
For over thirty years
And yet I can neither sing the service,
Nor read the saint’s Lives;
But I can find in a field
Or in a furrow, a hare;
Better than Beatus vir, 
Or Beati omnes [the first lines of two Psalms],
Construe this clause well,
And teach it to my parishioners.

I can hold a friendly meeting,
And read a shire’s account,
But in a mass book or Pope’s edict
I cannot read a line.

If I beg or borrow anything,
Unless the debt is tallied
I forget it soon;
And though men ask me about it,
Six times or Seven,
I deny it with oaths;
And thus I have cheated true men
Ten hundred times. 

And as for my servant
His salary is behind;
He is sad on settling day,
When we should read the accounts.
So with wicked will and anger,
My workmen do I pay. 

If any man does me a benefit
Or helps me in need, 
I am unkind for his kindness,
And I cannot understand it;
For I have, and have had, 
The temperament of a hawk:
I am not lured by love,
Unless there is some meat under the thumb.

The kindness that my fellow Christians
Showed to me formerly,
Sixty times have I Sloth,
Forgotten it since. 
By what I said and left unsaid,
I spoilt many a time
Both meat and fish, 
And many other dishes,
Both bread and ale,
Butter, milk, and cheese, 
All wasted while I kept them
Until they could save no man.

I ran about in my youth 
And made no attempt to learn,
And ever since I have been beggared,
Because of my laziness.
Heu mihi, quod sterilem vitam duxi juvenilem. [Woe is me! How barren in truth, was the life I led in youth!]’



Some themes and questions to consider 

  • Repentance: A tension running through these portraits is the extent to which these confessions can be considered genuine. Do the sins truly repent? Can they? 

  • Revolution: The late fourteenth century was especially politically volatile. Aside from the Peasant’s Revolt, England also saw the rise of a new Lollard movement, led by the theologian John Wycliff, which critiqued the established church and argued that ordinary people should have direct access to the bible in English. What traces of this atmosphere of social unrest are in these excerpts?

Full text

The full text of A Vision of Piers Plowman, in a Middle English 1887 edition, can be found for free at Project Gutenberg.

The translation was based on a 1912 poetic translation by Arthur Burrell. This text is also freely available online at the Internet Archive.

A more accessible prose translation has also been produced for Oxford World’s Classics by A. V. C. Schmidt (1992). Readers who would like to read the whole of Piers Plowman with the help of notes and a useful introduction are recommended to start here. 



If you’re looking for a longer reading experience you could bring this text alongside Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale from Season 1.



Medieval Dream Visions

For those looking for a quick breakdown to the literary genre, a good place to start is the British Library’s short introduction to Medieval Dream Visions (which includes a short section on Geoffrey Chaucer and Piers Plowman).

Piers Plowman Electronic Archive

The Piers Plowman Electronic Archive is an open-access source, which provides critical editions of the three distinct versions of Langland’s Poem (A, B, and C) and offers detailed notes on the manuscript tradition.

The Peasants’ Revolt: A Timeline

British Library flash timeline on key events of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt.

Piers Plowman as a political emblem

Lawrence Warner’s book, The Myth of Piers Plowman: Constructing a Medieval Literary Archive (2014) gives a long account of how the Piers Plowman tradition evolved over the centuries and attempts to isolate what we know about the ‘real Langland’. The text is freely available online.

About the Contributor

Frederick Morgan is a DPhil candidate at Merton College. He specialises in late Middle English devotional writing and art history, with a particular focus on medieval understandings of body and spirit. Fred is currently working on Walter Hilton, a late fourteenth-century mystical writer, as well as a number of church wall paintings, including a large mural of the Seven Deadly Sins in Raunds, Northamptonshire. Fred also acts as a tour guide for Merton College, where he leads groups around the fourteenth-century library and the thirteenth-century chapel. Outside of work he is a keen climber and printmaker.