Monday 4 July 2011

Piers Plowman and alms for the poor


From Piers Plowman - by William Langland (c 1332-c1400) -  Translated and edited by Donald and Rachel Attwater.

This is considered by Nevill Coghill to be the greatest Christian poem in English (i.e. greater even than Paradise Lost by John Milton).

One of the main themes of Piers Plowman is the necessity for compassion to the poor, and the argument that the virtuous poor have a special salvation (or 'pardon') when they are hard-working, loving and lawful.

But things are very different for the undeserving poor. What follows is one of the sections when the Everyman/ Christ figure Piers deals with the idle and feckless. 

The attitude of this extremely devout medieval Christian towards the undeserving, lawless and parasitic poor seems extremely tough to modern sensibilities - living in a society where most alms are directed at the modern equivalents of such.

But it is modern Christians who are wrong; and the devout and impoverished Langland who represents the properly Christian discrimination with respect to alms-giving.


Then sat down some · and sang over the ale
And helped plow his half acre · with `Ho, trollo-lolli!'

`On peril of my soul!' quoth Piers · out of pure anger,
'Unless ye rise swiftly · and speed you to work,
Shall no grain that groweth · gladden you at need,
And though ye die for dole · devil take him who cares.'

The false fellows were afeared · and feigned themselves blind;
Some laid their legs awry · in the way such louts know,
And made their moan to Piers · and prayed of him grace;
`For we have no limbs to labour with · Lord, thanked be thee!
But we pray for you, Piers · and for your plow too,
That God of his grace · your grain multiply
And yield to you for your alms · that ye give us here;
For we can not Swink nor sweat · such sickness us aileth.'

`If it be sooth,' quoth Piers, 'that ye say · I shall soon it espy.
Ye be wasters, I wot well · and Truth wots the sooth!
I am his old hind · and am bidden by him to wam
Those in this world · who have harmed his workmen.
Ye waste what men win · with travail and trouble,
But Truth shall teach you · his plow-team to drive,
Or ye shall eat barley bread · and of the brook drink.

But if one be blind, broken-legged · or bolted with irons,
He shall eat wheat bread · and drink with myself,
Till God of his goodness · amendment him send.


... anchorites and hermits · that eat not but at noon,
And no more ere the morrow · mine alms shall they have,
And my goods shall clothe those · that have cloisters and churches. 


But Robert the runabout · shall have naught of mine,
Nor friars; unless they preach well · and have leave of the bishop --
These shall have bread and pottage · and make themselves at ease:


Then Piers the Plowman · complained to the knight
To keep him, as covenant was · from cursed wretches
And from these wolfish wasters · that do the world harm:
`For they waste and win naught · and meanwhile there'll be
No plenty for the people · while my plow be idle.'

Courteously the knight then · as his nature was,
Warned the waster · and told him to mend:
`Or, by the order I bear · thou shalt suffer the law!'

'I was not wont to work,' quoth Waster · `and now will not begin' --
And made light of the law · and less of the knight,
Set Piers and his plow · at the price of a pea
And menaced Pier's men · if they met again soon.

`Now by peril of my soul · I shall punish you all!'
Piers whooped after Hunger · who heard him at once.
'Avenge me,' quoth he, 'on these wasters · who worry the world!'

Hunger in haste then · seized Waste by the maw
And wrung him so by the belly · that both his eyes watered;
The Breton he buffeted · about the cheeks
That he looked lantern-jawed · all his life after.
He beat them so both · that he near burst their ribs;
Had not Piers with a pease-loaf · prayed Hunger to cease
They had been buried both · believe thou none other!

`Suffer them to live,' he said · `let them eat with the hogs
Or else beans and bran · baked up together,
Or else milk and mean ale' · thus prayed Piers for them.

Loungers for fear thereof · fled into barns
And flapped on with flails · from morning till eve,
So that Hunger less hardily · looked upon them,
For a potful of pease · that Piers had made.

A heap of hermits · hung on to spades
And cut up their capes · to make themselves coats,
And went out as workmen · with spades and with shovels
To dig and to delve to drive away hunger.

The blind and bedridden · were bettered by thousands;
Those that sat to beg silver · soon were they healed.


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