Necessary Evil

The idea of hierarchy in the Prologue of Langland’s Piers the Ploughman.

by Kim Orsel (May 9th 2005)


Hierarchy is evident through almost everything mentioned in the Prologue of William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman, or Piers the Ploughman. The poem is an allegory: within its narrative abstract ideas and principles are represented by characters, figures and events. The people the narrator sees in the field in his dream are an allegorical representation of the world, but at the same time the allegory is also a distorting mirror of reality, and so the meaning of the poem moves towards the satirical. As Elaine Treharne writes, the poem can be considered as a “satirical assault upon the conventional abuses of the established church”¹ and the hierarchical structure in the Prologue is often used to support the satire the author wishes to convey, metaphorically or otherwise.

As soon as the dreamer falls into his dream he sees “A fair feeld ful of folk.”² But as he does so, he also immediately begins to distinguish; the people he sees are “Of all manere of men, že meene and že riche/Werchynge and wandrynge as že world askež” (18-19). The narrator seems to indicate that the “meene” (18) men, the lowly or poor people are working, while the “riche” (18) are wandering, doing nothing. The final part of the sentence seems to indicate that this is what is considered to be the natural state of things. So the first people the narrator introduces are a part of the worldly hierarchy. Some lines later it becomes clear that this permanent struggle between producers (the hardworking peasants) and consumers (those who idle about without working as they should) is one of the themes of the poem:

Some putten hem to že plouƷ, pleiden ful selde,

In settynge and sowynge swonken ful harde,

And wonnen žat wastours wiž glotonye destruyež (20-22)

This clearly indicates a hierarchical structure as far as the worldly perspective is concerned.

The narrator continues in this vein and explains that some rich people are excused because they do not all behave like that, and some indeed live in dedication of God as they should, hoping to attain heavenly bliss. Minstrels and entertainers are pardoned as well, though they do not, according to the narrator, have to work particularly hard for their money: “And somme muržes to make as mynstralles konne,/And geten gold wiž hire glee, synnelees, I leeve” (33-34). But the “japers and jangeleres” (35), the jesters and vulgar people do not get off very well, and neither do the “bidderes and beggeres” (40) the tramps and beggars, who do not work at all, but instead take advantage of the hardworking people by taking advantage of their hard work. The hierarchy presented here has the richest people at the top, and the working people below them, and the lazy layabouts who take advantage of the middle class’s hard work at the very bottom. But it is also clear who does all the work. As Morall writes in The Medieval Imprint: “there is little doubt that the whole structure of feudal economy rested on the labours of the peasantry.”³

From this worldly hierarchy the narrator moves to the hierarchy of the Church. He criticises friars of “alle že foure orders” (58) of preaching for profit, and interpreting the gospel to better themselves with clothes and money. A pardoner sells letters of indulgence and pockets the people’s money, and the sense conveyed is that the clergy is as bad as the jesters and beggars, because they deceive the people and take advantage of their hard work in a similar way. “The mooste meschief on molde is mountynge wel faste” (67): Great earthly mischief is indeed mounting up fast, especially within the Church.

The problem that the poem presents is that the religious state of affairs is in disarray. Though there are people who take advantage of the hardworking peasants, it is part of how the worldly hierarchy works; the worldly picture is hierarchical, and the religious should be as well, but this is not the case, and as such is a clear comment on the state of affairs in and around the church. The duty of ordinary people is to live devout lives in order to attain heavenly bliss; if they do not do this it is simply their problem. The general accusation towards the clergy, those belonging to the Church, seems to be that they are filling their pockets with money the lower classes have worked hard for. The implication that they do nothing to deserve it, and it goes against the vows they have taken. From this examination of the state that the Church is in, the focus moves to more kingly matters.

The short introduction to the kingly examination is further explained by a fable that is inserted into the allegory. The animals in this fable are presented in a hierarchical way, and in such a way that their hierarchy makes sense in the human world as well. There is “a route of ratons” (146) and “smale mees myd hem – mo žan a žousand” (147): these rats are clearly meant to represent parliamentarians, where the mice, which come in far greater numbers, represent the common people. The rats and mice are threatened by the presence of “a cat of a contree cam whan hym liked” (149). This cat pouncing on the smaller animals is a representation of the king, the kitten mentioned later on in the Prologue a prince or heir who will come to the throne after the king’s death.

The rats are on a higher step of the hierarchical ladder from the mice; it is from among them that “a raton or renoun, moost renable of tongue” (158) steps forward, and this eloquent and renowned rat proposes to attach a bell to the neck of the cat that hinders them so. It is also the troop of rats who assent to the plan: “Al žis route of ratons to žis reson žei assented” (175); the mice have little to do with it. The plan is executed in so far as that the bell is bought, and attached to the collar, but when it comes to it, no one dares to actually bind it around the cat’s neck.

It is a mouse “žat muche good kouže, as me žo žouƷte/Strook forž sternely and stood bifore hem alle” (182-3). And indeed the mouse who has stepped forward has more common sense than the rats, realising that “Though we killen že cat, yet sholde žer come anožer” (185): even if they would somehow manage to kill the cat, soon another would come and replace it, and their trouble would begin anew. Through the opinion of the narrator which is inserted as the mouse is introduced: “as me žo žouƷte” (182) it is indicated to the reader that the mouse has more common sense than the rest: the reader is to take what it says seriously. And its warning comes with good arguments; the cat keeps them from worse things: “For hadde ye rates youre wille ye kouže noƷt rule yowselve” (201). The mouse acknowledges the rats are the ones taking the decisions, but also points out that without the cat, there would be true misrule; they would not be able to rule themselves: “For many mennes malt we mees wolde destruye/And also ye route of ratons rende mennes clothes” (198-9): they would eat great amounts of malt and would tear apart people’s clothes violently: everything would run riot.

The narrator ultimately leaves it up to the reader to make up for themselves what this means: “(What žis metels bymenež, ye men žat ben murye,/ Devyne ye, for I ne dar, by deere God in hevene!)” (209-10). But whether he truly pronounces it or not, what he meant to describe is clear: The fable illustrates that the government and the people need the guidance of a king. They can think to get rid of him, but in the end, as the mouse points out, the king is a necessary evil to keep them all in check; if the king (or cat) is a threat to them, this is something they have to put up with, because it protects them from slipping into far worse situations. But at the same time there is also the idea that common sense is a characteristic of the common people: the rats come up with ambitious plans, but these plans turn out to be unfeasible; the mouse sees the situation far more clearly. Again there is a definite hierarchy presented, a hierarchy that must not be broken or disobeyed, but the common people, as the hardworking peasants, are presented as the axis around which it all revolves.


    ¹ Elaine Treharne, ed., Old and Middle English c. 890 - c. 1400 An Anthology, Blackwell Publishing: Oxford, second edition, 2004, p. 547.

    ² Elaine Treharne, ed., Old and Middle English c. 890 - c. 1400 An Anthology, Blackwell Publishing: Oxford, second edition, 2004, p. 549, line 17. All further quotations from Piers Plowman shall be taken from this edition.

    ³ John B. Morall, The Medieval Imprint, Penguin: London, 1970, p. 130.