Translation by David O’Neil

Translator’s note: Piers Plowman is a late medieval allegorical narrative poem, believed to be authored by William Langland, which describes several visions experienced by the poem’s narrator, called Will. The language is Middle English,* but the meter belongs to the poetic tradition of Old English alliterative poems such as Beowulf. The alliterative meter lacks rhyme, and the metrical beats fall irregularly. I have translated the following passage from Pearsall’s C-text using a quite different form: rhyming couplets in iambic tetrameter (with some license in the translation). In the lines preceding the passage, Conscience and Clergy have invited Will to dine with Reason. Several additional abstractions are in attendance, including Scripture, Patience, and Contrition. There is also a learned cleric—described as a doctor, master, lawyer, and friar—seated at the high dais. At the opening of my translation, Conscience, Clergy, and Scripture attempt to comfort Will, who has become scandalized by the cleric’s behavior.

*The italicized lines are translated from Latin.


Then Conscience, Clergy, and His Word,
Were wary we were reassured:
Dear God,” they prayed, “you’ll spurn no part
Of a true, contrite, and humble heart.
Patience was pleased to hear this said
In rightful rites as we broke bread;
She merry made, the meal enjoyed,
While I sat sullen and annoyed
To see the learned, laughing clerk
Buckle from Bacchus’ handiwork.
Woe to you all, you fat and fine,
That drink yourselves incarnadine!
And dour I watched that wastrel eat
Assorted sauces, sundry meat,
Black bacon, boar, fried eggs and duck,
Rich puddings boiled—a fine potluck.

Then sotto voce, but not so low,
I said to Patience through that throe,
“Just three days hence, with my own eyes,
I saw that master sermonize
At St. Paul’s where the congregants
He called to pallid penitence,
To starve, abstain, in fasting thus,
If they should hope for happiness;
And then he added therewithal
The penance paid by good St. Paul,
Who grieved to honor God above,
As scripture says, for our Lord’s love:
In cutting hunger and in cold,
And all the rest the Good Book told.
Yet I was stunned, nor understood,
Why he should shield the prudent good
Apostle Paul would wisely teach
When all his brethren he’d beseech,
There’s danger there and no true kin
When brothers’ faith be false therein.

Thus sacred Scripture, Heaven’s bard,
Forewarned us wisely to safeguard
Our souls from flattery’s false smile
And baneful blandishments—meanwhile,
Though I’ve learned Latin, as you know,
I’m loth to flog a factio,
For even factions are kinsfolk,
Whatever clan our clothes invoke.
Still, they’re not known to be disposed—
I mean the mendicants from those
Five orders of the begging friars—
To speak a sermon that inspires
Plain folk to find a hypocrite
Among the men of holy writ.
Instead they urge us to atone
And find those faults that are our own
And focus on our Father’s pain,
The suffering for which we’re to blame.

Back to that learned lawyer then,
Most theological of men;
His greed could find no gratitude,
Though chubby cheeks he stuffed with food.
He felt no pity for us poor,
No, not a whit, and what is more,
Of all he preached he’s practiced none.”
To Patience thus I spoke, then done,
Made one last wish and private plea,
A heartfelt hope, though secretly,
That in the paunch of that bad priest
Would bulge the foods from at that feast,
With dishes, goblets, platters too,
Then forty sweets to force things through!

Still I could not restrain my wrath
And forth I leapt to forge a path
To fence with that potbellied friar
Regarding penitence and fire,
How purgatory’s coming cleanse
Should make his words and actions friends.”
But Patience plainly had enough
And held me calmly by the cuff.
“You’ll see when he can eat no more
What penance he has got in store.
His guts will grumble, paunch will puff.
His treats will treat him pretty rough.
By revelation and God’s saints,
He’ll figure out from flesh’s complaints
That boar and bacon and savory stews,
Rich greasy meat and raucous brews,
Are truly food for penitence,
To learn a lord to learn some sense.
And that’s the time, when he’s in strife,
To ask about a friar’s life,
About the lore from which he’s learned,
Of penance paid and tortures earned.
Inquire, good Will, of those three blessed:
Do-well, Do-better, and Do-best…”


David O’Neil is an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern Indiana. His scholarship on medieval poetic meter has recently appeared in The Mediaeval Journal, Enarratio, Philological Quarterly, and Essays in Medieval Studies.


Original Middle English 

Thenne Conscience confortede vs, bothe Clergie an Scripture,
And saide, ‘Cor contritum et humiliatum, deus, non despicies.’
__Pacience was wel apayed of this propre seruice
And made mery with this mete, ac Y mournede euere
For a doctour that at the hey deys dranke wyn faste –
__Ve vobis qui potentes estis ad bibendum vinum! –
And ete manye sondry metes, mortrewes and poddynges,
Brawen and bloed of gees, bacon and colhoppes.

Thenne saide Y to mysulue so Pacience hit herde,
‘Hit is nat thre daies doen, this doctour that he prechede
At Poules byfore the peple what penaunce they soffrede,
Alle that coueyte to come to eny kyne ioye;
And how that Poul the apostel penaunce tholede
For oure lordes loue, as holy lettre telleth:
__In fame and in frygore, &c.
Ac me wondreth in my wit why that they ne preche
As Poul the apostle prechede to the peple ofte:
__‘Periculum est in falsis fratribus!’
(Holy writ byt men be waer and wysly hem kepe
That no fals frere thorw flaterynge hem bygyle;
Ac me thynketh loth, thogh Y Latyn knowe, to lacken eny secte,
For alle be we brethrene thogh we be diuerse clothed.
Ac Y wiste neuere freek that frere is ycald of the fyue mendynantz
That toek this for the teme and tolde hit withoute glose.
They preche that penaunce if profitable to the soule
And what meschief and male-ese Crist for man tholede.)
__‘Ac this doctour and dyuynour,’ quod Y, ‘and decretistre of canoen –
And also a gnedy glotoun with two grete chekes –
Hat no pyte on vs pore; he parformeth euele
That a precheth and preueth nat compacience,’ ich tolde,
And wishede witterly with full egre
That in the mawe of tha maystre alle tho metes were,
Both disches and dobelares with alle the deyntees aftur!
__‘Y schal iangle to his iurdan with his iuyste wombe
And apose hym what penaunce is and purgatorie on erthe
And why a lyueth nat as a lereth!’ ‘Lat be,’ quod Pacience,
And saide , ‘Thow shalt se thus sone, when he may no more,
He shal haue a penaunce in his foule paunche and poffe at vch a worde
And thenne shal gothelen his gottes and he gynnen to galpe.
Now he hath dronke so depe a wol deuyne sone
And preuen hit by here Pocalips and the passioun of seynt Aueroy
That nother bacon ne brawn ne blaunmanger ne mortrewes
Is nother fische ne flesche, but fode for penantes;
And thenne shal he testifie at a trinite and take his felowe to witnesse
What a fond in a forel of a frere lyuynge,
And bote the furste leef be leysnges, leue me neuere aftur!
And thenne is tyme to take and to appose this doctour
Of Dowel and of Dobet, and yf Dobest be eny penaunce.’



David O’Neil is an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern Indiana. His scholarship on medieval poetic meter has appeared recently in The Mediaeval Journal, Enarratio, Philological Quarterly, and Essays in Medieval Studies.

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6 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    It’s hard to read Langland today, precisely because of the things Prof. O’Neil mentions: the irregular stresses, the lack of rhyme, and the insistent alliteration. None of these things in itself would be a major problem, but Langland’s Middle English is in a dialect somewhat different from and less familiar to modern readers than that of Chaucer. It can be a tough slog.

    Nevertheless, this is a very creditable and imaginative modernization that opens up the text for readers who cannot deal with the original. Tetrameter rhyming couplets are a wonderful choice.

    • David O'Neil

      Exactly right. Though Chaucer and Langland are roughly contemporary, Langland’s West Midlands dialect is much farther off from our modern standard than Chaucer’s London English. And the Old English alliterative style that Langland uses, already somewhat anachronistic in the fourteenth century, has much better “modernizations” in Middle English poems such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

      But Langland still has interesting things to say. I appreciate your kind words about my attempt to render the language and verse in a more accessible idiom.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        The Pearl Poet’s dialect from Cheshire or South Lancashire is even more obscure, but his work in Sir Gawain, The Pearl, and his other surviving poems is absolutely world-class.

      • David O'Neil

        Yes, SGGK undoubtedly takes more effort, though the payoff is greater. I’m starting work on a comparative study of fourteenth-century alliterative poems. The Pearl Poet seems to favor relatively tighter metrical structures even when working in a tradition that’s fairly loose in its requirements.

  2. Jan Darling

    What a pleasure it is to make Piers Plowman’s acquaintance once again (it must be more than sixty years) and in such a wry rendering. The choice of tetrameter rhyming couplets perfectly suits the scene described. Is it part of an entire work? It is hugely enjoyable – thank you, Mr O’Neil. I hope it finds its way into senior classrooms.

    • David O'Neil

      I am very happy to hear my work has brought back memories of PP. It’s in the back of my head to render the entire poem, but it’s an intimidating thought. Such an undertaking would probably have to wait until our kids are older (two girls, 4 and 1).


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