Home  »  Volume II: English THE END OF THE MIDDLE AGES  »  § 12. The Way to Truth

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

I. “Piers the Plowman” and its Sequence

§ 12. The Way to Truth

With this passus V closes; but the movement of the narrative is uninterrupted. Some spurious lines printed by Skeat do, indeed, cause a semblance of at least a momentary delay; but the authentic text is better constructed.

There were few so wise, however, that they knew the way thither (i.e. to St. Truth), but blustered forth as beasts over valleys and hills, till it was late and long that they met a person apparelled like a pilgrim, with relics of the many shrines he had visited. He had been at Sinai, Bethlehem, Babylon, Armenia, Alexandria and in many other places, but had never heard of St. Truth, nor met a palmer seeking such a saint.

  • “By St. Peter!” cried a ploughman, and put forth his head, “I know him as well as a clerk his book; Conscience and Kind-Wit directed me to him and taught me to serve him ever. I have been his man these fifteen years, sowed his seed, kept his beasts, diked and delved and done his bidding in all things.”
  • The pilgrims offered him money to show them the way; but Piers, the ploughman, cried:

  • Nay, by the peril of my soul! I would not take a penny for the whole wealth of St. Thomas’s shrine; Truth would love me the less. But this is the way. You must go through Meekness till you come to Conscience-that-Christ-knows-that-you-love-him-dearer-than-the-life-in-your-hearts-and-your-neighbour-next. Then cross the brook Be-buxom-of-speech by the ford Honour-thy-father; pass by Swear-not-in-vain and the croft Covet-not, with the two stocks Slay-not and Steal-not; stop not at Bear-no-false-witness, and then will be seen Say-sooth. Thus shalt thou come to a court, clear as the sun; the moat is of Mercy, the walls of Wit, to keep Will out, the cornells of Christendom, the brattice of Faith, the roof of Brotherly Love. The tower in which Truth is is set above the sun; he may do with the day-star what him dear liketh; Death dare do naught that he forbids. The gate-keeper is Grace, his man is Amend-thou, whose favour thou must procure. At the gate also are seven sisters, Abstinence, Humility, Charity, Chastity, Patience, Peace and Generosity. Any of their kin are welcomed gladly, and, unless one is kin to some of these seven, he gets no entrance except by grace.
  • “By Christ,” cried a cut-purse, “I have no kin there!” And so said some others; but Piers replied, “Yes; there is there a maiden, Mercy, who has power over them all. She is sib to all sinful, and, through help of her and her Son, you may get grace there, if you go early.”

    Passus VII opens with the remark that this would be a difficult way without a guide at every step. “By Peter!” replied Piers, “were my half-acre ploughed, I would go with you myself.” “That would be a long delay,” said a lady; “what shall we women do meanwhile?” “Sew and spin and clothe the needy.” “By Christ!” exclaimed a knight, “I never learned to plough; but teach me, and I will help you.” But Piers rejected his offer and bade him do only those services that belong to knighthood, and practise the virtues of a kindly lord. The knight promised to do so, and Piers prepared for his ploughing. Those who helped were to be fed. Before setting out on his journey, however, he wished to make his will, bequeathing his soul to God, his body to the church, his property to his wife to divide among his friends and his dear children.