Piers the Plowman's Crede: Introduction

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Piers the Plowman's Crede: Introduction

PPC, also known as Pierce the Ploughman's Creed, is an anonymous alliterative verse satire of 850 lines written between 1393 and 1401. The poem exists complete in two sixteenth-century paper manuscripts, Trinity College Cambridge MS R. 3. 15 and British Library MS Bibl. Reg. 18. B. XVII; in a fragment, British Library MS Harley 78 (fol. 3r); and in a black-letter edition (London, Reyner Wolfe, 1553). There are two modern editions, those of Thomas Wright (1856) and Walter W. Skeat (1867 for the Early English Text Society). Skeat's edition, based on the Trinity MS, remains standard, although it needs revising and updating.

The author, who probably came from the Southwest Midland region but who had connections in London, was influenced by Langland's Piers Plowman and by Wycliffite writings. PPC is especially significant as a witness to antifraternal literature of the late fourteenth century. The poem has both literary and cultural value - indeed, it is difficult to separate the literary from the cultural.

PPC, like Piers Plowman, concerns a poor man's quest for spiritual truth. He wants to learn the Apostles' Creed - the simple pre-Nicene statement of faith - but at the beginning of the story he does not know where to find someone to instruct him. He consults friars - a Franciscan, a Dominican, an Austin, and a Carmelite, respectively - hoping to learn what he calls the "graith," the plain truth, but is dismayed that the friars instead denounce the rival fraternal orders or try to dun him for money. The implication is that the friars do not know the Creed, which was a charge often leveled against the fraternal orders. In despair the narrator encounters a plowman, Piers, who condemns the friars as hypocrites and who teaches him the Creed in simple, unglossed language.

The poem is often vivid in its portrayals, for example, of the venal friars, who, like Jean de Meun's Faussemblant, indict themselves through their words. The Carmelite calls the narrator a "fool" for not giving him money, since the Carmelites do not bestow their pardons and prayers gratis but always receive a donation: "Oure power lasteth nought so feer, but we some peny fongen" (407). The friar hastens away to a housewife who has agreed to favor the Carmelite order in her will. The Dominican friar, whom the narrator locates in the refectory, is described as being fat as a barrel, "With a face as fat as a full bledder / Blowen bretfull of breth" (222-23). His chin frames a jowl that "lollede / As greet as a gos eye [egg] growen all of grece, / That all wagged his fleche as a quyk myre" (224-26). This passage bears comparison with Langland's "doctour" of divinity at the feast (Piers Plowman B passus 13).

The narrator also describes Piers and his family with a keen eye for detail. As in the C version of Piers Plowman, which includes Will's domestic circumstances in Corn Hill with his wife Kit (passus 6), Piers in PPC is characterized as a ragged plowman who toils with his wife, while nearby sit a "litell childe lapped in cloutes" (438) and a pair of two-year-olds. The wife carries a long goad with which she prods the feeble oxen; and she, like her husband, is meanly dressed, wearing only "a cutted cote, cutted full heyghe," and "Wrapped in a wynwe schete to weren hire fro weders, / Barfote on the bare ijs [ice], that the blode folwede" (434-36). To a certain extent these passages of description exist for the satire, but they also help convey a memorable idea of the character - Piers - who speaks authoritatively about spiritual issues in the poem. His very poverty, and his marked difference from the pampered friars, give him considerable power as a spokesman and norm for spiritual values.

As a cultural document, almost a treatise, PPC provides a gauge of antifraternal and Lollard sentiment in late Ricardian England. Antifraternal attacks originated in disputes between the secular clergy and friars in thirteenth-century Paris, and the themes were taken up by later writers, including Jean de Meun and Chaucer. In the mid-fourteenth century, Richard FitzRalph, Archbishop of Ireland, wrote influential tracts and delivered sermons attacking the friars for usurping privileges traditionally associated with the secular clergy, especially rights to preaching, hearing confession, and burial. In De pauperie Salvatoris (On the Savior's Poverty, 1356), FitzRalph carefully defined Christ's poverty as a natural state of lordship, "the renunciation of civil dominion and a reliance on the original dominion by which all the just share in common the goods of this world" (Szittya); and in his most important work, Defensio curatorum, an address delivered at the Avignon consistory before the Pope (8 November 1357), FitzRalph demanded that the friars be stripped of their privileges. John Wyclif formulated similar concepts for clerical disendowment.

The author of PPC articulates significant aspects of the Lollard agenda, including the usual attacks on friars but also specific allegations against the fraternal orders. He not only tries to document the claim that the friars fulfill Christ's warnings about hypocrites in Matthew 23, but he also charges that they premeditate their readings of Scripture rather than relying on divine inspiration (586-90); that they are ruthless in extracting money from housewives (408-14); that the Dominicans in their sumptuous convents include spying-holes and postern gates for coming and going (164-68); that they formulate intricate plots to visit their mistresses - "Grey grete-hedede quenes with gold by the eighen" - "in townes" (82-85); and even that they murder their brethren when the latter cannot produce sufficient cash through begging (626-28). That the friars themselves level many of these accusations only heightens the satire. Such attacks mirror similar charges in the Wycliffite sermon Vae octuplex (not before 1411) and in Middle English lyrics. In a poem ("On the Minorites [1382]"), for example, an anonymous poet declares:
Þai preche all of pouert, bot þat loue þai noght,
For gode mete to þair mouþe þe toun is þurgh soght;
Wyde are þair wonnynges & wonderfully wroght,
Murdre and horedome ful dere has it boght.
Details of this attack - the hypocritical preaching, love of good food, spacious dwellings, and vicious practices - all find their way into PPC. Similarly, in an antifraternal lyric entitled by Robbins "The Friar's Answer," a friar bitterly complains about his loss of revenue since lay people now have access to Scripture:
Allas! what schul we freris do,
Now lewed men kun holy writ?
Alle abowte wherre I go
Þei aposen me of it.
Þen wondriþ me þat it is so
How lewed men kun alle writ.
Sertenly we be vn-do
But if we mo anende it.
The author of PPC develops stereotypes for each of the four orders; and these stereotypes owe much to Lollard views. The Franciscans are the most hypocritical because they try to appear the most humble; the Dominicans are the most arrogant as well as the richest, most avaricious order; the Austins are the most vicious in attacking the other orders; and the Carmelites are the most straightforward, and outrageous, in begging for money. Piers, however, speaks approvingly of the founders of the fraternal orders, Francis and Dominic, but he censures their followers as evil. At one point Piers invokes Wyclif as a truthteller who cautioned the friars against their iniquitous behavior. He also speaks approvingly of Walter Brut, a Lollard and Welsh pacifist, who described himself as "a sinner, a layman, a farmer and a Christian" but whom the friars characterized as a heretic. Bishop Trefnant of Hereford put Brut on trial for his views; the trial ended in 1393, which may be considered a terminus a quo for the composition of PPC. PPC was written in the long line typical of the so-called Alliterative Revival, an English literary movement (perhaps self-conscious, perhaps not) of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Long-line poems of the Alliterative Revival, which include Wynnere and Wastoure, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, St. Erkenwald, and Parlement of the Thre Ages, usually contain four primary stresses per line and a varying number of unaccented syllables. Typically, but not invariably, alliteration (or assonance) occurs in three of the stressed syllables while the fourth stressed syllable remains unalliterated: a a / a x. In the first three lines of PPC, for example, alliteration (and stress) occurs on the letter c (line 1), f (line 2), and s (line 3).
Cros, and curteis Crist, this begynnynge spede,
For the Faderes frendchipe, that formede hevene,
And thorugh the speciall Spirit that sprong of hem tweyne. . . .
Although PPC resembles other poems of the Revival, it does not exploit the special diction characteristic of late fourteenth-century alliterative verse (except for Piers Plowman). As Turville-Petre says: "Langland had shown that alliterative poetry could appeal to a wider audience by avoiding the ornateness and verbal complexity that characterised the works of the northern poets. The lead was followed by the Wycliffite author of Pierce the Ploughman's Crede, who rigorously excluded all traces of the characteristic alliterative diction." This accessibility helped PPC survive as a living poem into the sixteenth century.

The text of this edition is based on a microfilm copy of Trinity College Cambridge, MS R. 3. 15, and is corrected by a microfilm version of British Library MS Reg. 18. B. XVII; by the black-letter edition of 1553, which has manuscript status; by Wright's 2nd ed. of 1856 in The Vision and Creed of Piers Plowman; and by Skeat's edition of 1867 for the Early English Text Society. I use Trinity because, as has been recognized since Skeat's edition, the text is superior to the 1553 edition even though it postdates the edition by as much as fifty years. I rely on Skeat and Wright for many reasonable corrections and emendations, but I often revert to manuscript readings, especially when Skeat's corrections involve spelling variants or normalizations (e.g., MS hathe for Skeat's hath at line 294; MS beyn rather than Skeat's ben at 364; MS covetun and covetyne rather than Skeat's coueten at 468 and 638). In these respects the present text is more conservative than Skeat's edition, but it contains the following normalizations: th for þ (thorn); y, g, or gh, as the context demands, for 3 (yogh); and for & (ampersand); and I for y or i as the first person pronoun. For the sake of emphasis and clarity, I sometimes introduce capitals, e.g., Chirche for MS chirche, Hym for MS hym [= Christ], etc.; and italics (e.g., A-B-C for MS A.b.c); and boldface to introduce the four fraternal orders (e.g., A Menoure at line 33).

Skeat believed that lines 817-21, witnessed only by the 1553 edition (printed by Wright as lines 1629-38), were sixteenth-century interpolations - he calls them "spurious" - so he printed the lines in brackets and italics. He conjectured that the editor of the 1553 edition inserted the lines to cover up for his deleting lines 822-23 and 828-30, which concern transubstantiation. I have not followed Skeat in questioning the lines, since they help "complete the Creed" in ways that harmonize with late fourteenth-century Lollard thought (Lawton).

Scriptural citations are from the Douai-Rheims version. Quotations from Piers Plowman B-text are from the edition of George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson (London: Athlone, 1975); quotations from the C-text are from the edition of Derek Pearsall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978). Quotations from the antifraternal lyrics in the Introduction and Notes are from Historical Poems of the XIVth & XVth Centuries, ed. Rossell Hope Robbins (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), abbreviated HP XIV & XV. Quotations from Chaucer are from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987). Citations from Middle English lyrics refer to English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century, ed. Carleton Brown (Oxford: Clarendon, 1932), and Religious Lyrics of the XIVth Century, ed. Carleton Brown and rev. G. V. Smithers, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1957), abbreviated, respectively, EL XIII and RL.

Go To Piers the Plowman's Crede
Select Bibliography

Manuscripts and Black-Letter Edition

MS Trinity College Cambridge R. 3. 15 [abbrev. A].

British Library MS Bibl. Reg. 18. B. XVII [abbrev. B].

British Library MS Harley 78 fol. 3r.

Pierce the Ploughmans Crede. London, 1553. 2nd ed. 1561 [abbrev. C].

Modern Editions of PPC

Wright, Thomas, ed. The Vision of Piers Plowman [includes edition of PPC]. London, 1832. Reprinted London: J. R. Smith, 1856.

Skeat, Walter W., ed. Pierce the Ploughmans Crede. Early English Text Society. Original Series 30. London: Trubner, 1867.

General Studies

Coleman, Janet. Medieval Readers and Writers, 1350-1400. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

Kendall, Ritchie D. The Drama of Dissent: The Radical Poetry of Nonconformity, 1380-1590. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Oakden, J. P. Alliterative Poetry in Middle English. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1930.

Peck, Russell A. "Social Conscience and the Poets." Social Unrest in the Late Middle Ages. Ed. Francis X. Newman. Binghamton, New York: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1986. Pp. 113-48.

Szittya, Penn. The Antifraternal Tradition in Medieval Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.


Doyle, A. I. "An Unrecognized Piece of Piers the Ploughman's Creed and Other Work by Its Scribe." Speculum, 34 (1959), 428-36.

_____. "The Manuscripts." In Middle English Alliterative Poetry and Its Literary Background: Seven Essays. Ed. David Lawton. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1982. Pp. 88-100.

Kane, George. "Some Fourteenth-Century `Political' Poems." In Medieval English Religious and Ethical Literature: Essays in Honour of G. H. Russell. Ed. Gregory Kratzmann and James Simpson. Cambridge, Eng.: D.S. Brewer, 1986. Pp. 82-91.

Lampe, David. "The Satiric Strategy of Peres the Ploughmans Crede." In The Alliterative Tradition in the Fourteenth Century. Ed. Bernard S. Levy and Paul E. Szarmach. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1981. Pp. 69-80.

Lawton, David. "Lollardy and the Piers Plowman Tradition." Modern Language Review, 76 (1981), 780-93.

Turville-Petre, Thorlac. The Alliterative Revival. Totowa, New Jersey: D. S. Brewer, 1977.

von Nolcken, Christina. "Piers Plowman, the Wycliffites, and Pierce the Plowman's Creed." The Yearbook of Langland Studies, 2 (1988), 71-102.


Robbins, Rossell Hope. "XIII. Poems Dealing with Contemporary Conditions" in A Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050-1500, Volume 5. New Haven: The Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1975. Pp. 1447, 1676-77.