Plowman Writings: Introduction


1 See Six Ecclesiastical Satires, ed. James Dean (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1991).

2 Medieval Culture and Society, ed. David Herlihy (New York: Harper, 1968), p. 359.

3 This famous Harleian manuscript also supplies Thomas of Erceldoune's Prophecy. See above p. 11.

4 An Introduction to Chaucer (London: Longman, 1984), p. 173.

5 The Canterbury Tales: Fifteenth-Century Continuations and Additions (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1992).
Print Copyright Info Purchase

Plowman Writings: Introduction

The success of William Langland's Piers Plowman (three versions: 1368-74, 1377-81, and 1381-85) inspired a tradition of what might be called English "plowman writings," an important subgenre of late medieval political satire and complaint. Even before Langland certain authors, notably the anonymous poet of Song of the Husbandman (printed here from MS Harley 2253 of about 1330), idealized the hard-working farmer as a symbol of spiritual truth in the face of oppression and material deprivation. But Langland was the first to equate the plowman with Christ (Petrus id est Christus); and because Langland offered satiric attacks on the clergy in his poem, later writers, including Chaucer and John Ball of the Peasants' Revolt, used Piers the Plowman to represent true Christian virtue as opposed to the corrupt established ecclesiastical order. These plowmen not only labored, uncomplaining, for the common profit, they also came to represent faith performing good works. Through their charitable examples they tutor even the knightly classes, as when Piers instructs the world in labor and asks the knight to defend and protect the other estates (PP B passus 6). The best-known writings in the later plowman tradition are Piers the Plowman's Crede and the pseudonymous Plowman's Tale.1

The figure of the plowman has political dimensions -- and poems about plowmen belong in this volume -- because the plowman, in fact and in literary portrayals, was integral to the commonwealth but yet suffered poverty and hardship. The word plough was synonymous with the Commons, as in What Profits a Kingdom, line 143, "The plough, the chirche, to mayntene ryght," where plough and chirche represent two of the three estates. In the literature he provides a sharp contrast to the pampered regular clergy and to venal prelates concerned only about their temporalities.

Not all fourteenth-century English depictions of the peasant classes were positive. In his recreation of the Great Rising (Vox Clamantis), John Gower portrays the third estate as lazy, grasping, and proud. In this negative representation Gower is less interested in overturning the estates ideal than in recording his personal reaction to the frightening events of 1381. But Langland himself, in B passus 6 and the Prologue, shows how manual laborers in good times will turn away from hard work and become slothful. They become wasters rather than winners, as in Wynnere and Wastoure, the alliterative poem of the early 1350s, which represents the wasters -- an army of friars and merchants -- as big spenders and revelers who yet help stimulate a sluggish economy. In How the Plowman Learned His Paternoster (STC 20034), the plowman may be expert at husbandry -- indeed, his house is as fully stocked with foodstuff as a typical waster's -- but he must be instructed in the Lord's Prayer by the local parson.

In fact, the plowman was not always idealized. During the years of the Great Plague in England (1348-49), labor became scarce and laborers could command increased wages for their services. In a society that had depended on serfdom and a system of tenant farmers, the rise in wages, hence higher market prices for food, combined with flight from the manor, alarmed king and parliament. As early as 1349 Edward III issued a proclamation about labor that parliament would write into law in 1351. Edward complained of "excessive wages" brought on by the death of "workmen and servants" after the plague; and he predicted "grievous incommodities" as a result of "the lack of plowmen and such laborers." He commanded that any able-bodied laborer under sixty years old not engaged in a craft "shall be required to serve in suitable service" of whosoever "shall require him." Most important, such persons shall be bound "to take only the wages, livery, meed, or salary which were accustomed to be given [five or six years previously] in the places where he oweth to serve."2

The first work in this section is Song of the Husbandman, a poem of complaint from British Library MS Harley 2253 fol. 64r (Index § 696, earlier fourteenth century):3 seventy-two heavily-alliterating long lines, composed in alternating eight-line and four-line stanzas rhyming abab (cdcd), with touches of chain verse or concatenation. This lyric has often been regarded as an important witness to the so-called "alliterative revival" and as a precursor of Winnere and Wastoure and Piers Plowman and of later writings of complaint and satire. Unlike many poems of morality and complaint, this lyric, written as a first-person testimony, includes vivid, convincing descriptions of oppressions committed against peasant farmers. The poet, for example, depicts beadles -- petty officials with their account books -- as harassing the bondman with extortion:

   Yet cometh budeles with ful muche bost:
       "Greythe me selver to the grene wax.
   Thou art writen y my writ, that thou wel wost!"
beadles; arrogance
in; well know

Later the narrator characterizes the "maister budel" as being "bruste [bristled] ase a bore." In this poem we find a cast of unscrupulous rogues -- the heyward (in charge of grain or perhaps of boundaries and fences); the bailiff (who enforced the law); the woodward (in charge of forests). The husbandman looks to the king for relief but is always disappointed; the poor rob the poor, and the wealthy prey upon rich and poor alike. The text for this edition is based on a photostat of the manuscript and is checked against the editions of Wr (in PSE) and RHR.

The second poem printed here, God Spede the Plough, exists in a unique manuscript in the British Library: MS Lansdowne 762, fols. 5r-6v (Index § 363; early sixteenth century). In this refrain poem various clerical and civic officials -- parson, clerk, sexton, purveyors, bailiffs, beadles, friars, summoner, priests, students, constables -- demand tithes and food from the beleaguered husbandmen. To this extent the poem includes estates satire with the farmers as plaintiffs; they produce food for the common good whereas those who prey on them are managers and bureaucrats. The husbandmen are normative in that they represent the oppressed and overtaxed elements of society. The present text is based on a photostat of the manuscript checked against Skeat's edition in Pierce the Ploughmans Crede (EETS 30). A corner of the manuscript at the bottom right of fol. 5r and 5v is missing. I reproduce Skeat's speculation as to the missing portions.

The third poem in this section, "I-blessyd Be Cristes Sonde" (entitled by modern editors God Speed the Plough), exists in a unique manuscript: Oxford University MS Archbishop Selden B. 26 fol. 19r (Summary Catalogue No. 3340; with music; Index § 3434; Supplement § 1405.5). This poem, which Chambers and Sidgwick date about 1450 (citing E. W. B. Nicholson's dating in Early Bodleian Music), celebrates husbandmen and asks God to bless the plow and to ensure plenty. The tone is quite different from the other two plowmen works in this section, which feature complaint and satire. The present text is based on an excellent electrostatic print of the manuscript and is checked against the facsimile and transcriptions in Stainer's Early Bodleian Music and against the editions of Chambers and RHR.

The final piece is Chaucer's portrait of the Plowman from the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales: Fragment I[A].529-41. Chaucer's Plowman is one of three estates ideals -- that of the commons (laboratores: those who work), the other two being the Knight, representative of the chivalric class (bellatores: those who fight) and the Plowman's brother, the Parson, representative of the clergy (oratores: those who pray). Like Langland's Piers the Plowman, Chaucer's Plowman is spiritualized, with few touches of individualism. As Derek Brewer has written:
The Parson, and especially the Ploughman, are the most idealised of all the pilgrims, and the least individually realised. They are theories rather than persons. But the concrete details of the descriptions, and the moral beauty of the ideals when understood in their proper contexts, are extremely attractive and effectively presented.4
The Plowman works for the common profit "For Cristes sake, for every povre wight"; and he not only pays all his tithes, he is said to live "in pees and parfit charitee" and to love God "best with al his hoole herte." Although Chaucer's Plowman manifests none of the potentially revolutionary aspects of Langland's or John Ball's Piers, Chaucer does call him "a trewe swynkere," a phrase that recalls Ball's appeal to "trewe men" (those who would work for social reform). In the fifteenth century the terms "true men" and "true preachers" become code words for Lollards. The pilgrim Plowman stands as a silent rebuke to the luxurious friars and worldly monks satirized in estates literature generally and in The Canterbury Tales specifically.

Although the Plowman is one of Chaucer's three ideal pilgrims, he is also one of seven pilgrims for whom Chaucer wrote no tale. The reasons for his failure to include a tale for this idealized pilgrim have been a source for speculation. Perhaps he had no suitable material at hand; or perhaps the figure of the Plowman had become too highly charged politically in the aftermath of the Peasants' Revolt and Ball's invocation of Piers the Plowman. But later editors of Chaucer saw fit to insert the pseudonymous Plowman's Tale; and MS Christ Church Oxford 152 includes a version of Thomas Hoccleve's Sleeves of the Virgin, with a Prologue meant to resemble the prologues in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. This has recently been printed by John M. Bowers in the Middle English Texts Series.5

The present text is based on the facsimile and transcription of the Hengwrt MS -- National Library of Wales, Peniarth 392, abbreviated Hg -- edited by Paul Ruggiers (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979), fol. 6v (transcription on p. 29), and is checked against the "working facsimile" of the Ellesmere MS (San Marino, Henry E. Huntington Library MS EL 27 C 9), abbreviated El (Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer, 1989), fol. 6v, together with the versions in The Text of The Canterbury Tales, ed. John M. Manly and Edith Rickert (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940), 3:24-25; The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), p. 32; and The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robin-son, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. 22.

Go To Plowman Writings
Select Bibliography


British Library MS Harley 2253 fol. 64r. (c. 1340).

British Library MS Lansdowne 762 fols. 5r-6v. (1500-40).

Oxford University MS Archbishop Selden B.26 fol. 19r. (c. 1450).

Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, Peniarth 392 (Hengwrt MS) fol. 6v (c. 1410).

San Marino, California, Henry E. Huntington Library MS EL 27 C 9 (Ellesmere MS) fol. 6v (c. 1415).

Previous Editions

Song of the Husbandman (Harley MS)

Brandl, A., and O. Zippel, eds. Middle English Literature (Mittelenglische Sprach- und Literaturproben). 2nd ed. New York: Chelsea, 1949. [Good edition of Song on pp. 134-35.]

RHR, pp. 7-9.

Wright, Thomas, ed. Political Songs of England. London: Camden Society, 1839. [Pp. 149-52. Edition of Song of the Husbandman with modern English translation at the bottom of the page.]

God Spede the Plough (Lansdowne MS)

Skeat, W. W., ed. Pierce the Ploughmans Crede. EETS o.s. 30. London: N. Trübner, 1867. [Good edition of God Spede the Plough.]

I-blessyd Be Cristes Sonde (Selden MS)

Chambers, E. K., and F. Sidgwick, eds. Early English Lyrics: Amorous, Divine, Moral and Trivial. New York: October House, 1967.

RHR, pp. 97-98.

Stainer, John, ed. Early Bodleian Music: Sacred and Secular Songs, Together With Other MS. Compositions in the Bodleian Library, Oxford Ranging from about A.D. 1185 to about A.D. 1505. 3 vols. Farnborough (Hants.): Gregg, 1967. [Facsimile of the manuscript in vol. 1, plate LXIX; Stainer's transcription of the manuscript in vol. 2, pp. 132-33.]

Chaucer's Plowman

Ruggiers, Paul G., ed. The Canterbury Tales: A Facsimile and Transcription of the Hengwrt Manuscript with Variants from the Ellesmere Manuscript. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979. [Plowman on fol. 6v.]

Hanna, Ralph, III. The Ellesmere Manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: A Working Facsimile. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 1989. [Plowman on fol. 206v.]

Manly, John M., and Edith Rickert, eds. The Text of The Canterbury Tales Studied on the Basis of All Known Manuscripts. 8 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940. [Plowman appears in volume 3, pp. 24-25.]

Benson, Larry D., gen. ed. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. [Plowman on p. 32.]

Robinson, F. N., ed. The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957. [Plowman on p. 22.]

General Studies

Hahn, Thomas, and Richard W. Kaeuper. "Text and Context: Chaucer's Friar's Tale." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 5 (1983), 67-101. [An important collaborative study of conditions surrounding the archdeacon's courts in the fourteenth century by a literary scholar concerned with historical issues and a historian interested in using literary texts as historical evidence. They demonstrate the insidious control exerted by laws and regulations on peoples' lives.]

Hudson, Anne. "Epilogue: The Legacy of Piers Plowman." A Companion to Piers Plowman. Ed. John A. Alford. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Pp. 251-66. [Analyzes the late medieval and Reformation texts that derive from PP.]

Kinney, Thomas L. "The Temper of Fourteenth-Century English Verse of Complaint." Annuale Mediaevale 7 (1966), 74-89. [Places Song of the Husbandman in context of complaint and satire.]

Mann, Jill. Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973. [Authoritative study of the tradition of estates satire keyed to the pilgrims of Chaucer's General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.]

Pearsall, Derek. Old English and Middle English Poetry. London: Routledge, 1977. [Song of the Husbandman on pp. 123-24.]

Scattergood, V. J. Politics and Poetry in the Fifteenth Century. London: Blandford; New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971. [Discusses Song of the Husbandman on pp. 351-52.]


Adams, Robert, and Vincent DiMarco. "Annual Bibliography." The Yearbook of Langland Studies 1 (1987), 161-89. [Annual Bibliography contains annotations of the preceding year's publications on Langland and on issues related to Langland, beginning with 1985.]

Robbins, Rossell Hope. "XIII. Poems Dealing with Contemporary Conditions." A Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050-1500. Vol. 5. Gen. ed. Albert E. Hartung. New Haven: The Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1975. Pp. 1385-1536, 1631-1725. [Discusses "Song of the Husbandman" (§ 26) on p. 1404, bibliography p. 1651; "God Spede the Plough" (§ 111) on p. 1449; "I-blessyd Be Cristes Sonde" under § 112, p. 1449 (brief mention), bibliography p. 1677.]