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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

§ 17. The Search for Do-well, Do-better and Do-best

We proceed, then, without further discussion, to examine the contents of the later passus. Their professed subject is the search for Do-well, Do-better and Do-best, or, rather, for satisfactory definitions of them. What were the author’s own views, it is very hard to determine; partly, perhaps, because he left the poem unfinished, but partly, also, because the objections which, as a disputant, he offers to the statements of other seem, sometimes, only cavils intended to give emphasis and definiteness to the views under discussion. It will be observed, however, that, on the whole, his model man is not the plain, honest, charitable labourer, like Piers, but the dutiful ecclesiastic. Other topics that are clearly of chief interest to the author are: the personal responsibility of sane adults, and the vicarious responsibility of guardians for children and idiots; the duty of contentment and cheerful subjection to the will of God; the importance of pure and honourable wedlock; and the corruptions that have arisen, since the pestilence, in marriage and in the attitude of laymen towards the mysteries of faith, though Study, voicing, no doubt, the views of the author, admits that, but for the love in it, theology is a hard and profitless subject. There are also incidental discussions of the dangers of such branches of learning as astronomy, geometry, geomancy, etc.; of the chances of the rich to enter heaven; of predestination; and of the advantages as to salvation of the ignorant over the learned. A brief synopsis of these passus will make the method of treatment clearer.

Passus IX opens with the author roaming vainly about in his grey robes in search of Do-well, not in a dream, but while he is awake. At last, on a Friday, he meets two Franciscan friars, who tell him that Do-well dwells always with them. He denies this, in due scholastic form, on the ground that even the righteous sin seven times a day. The friars meet this argument by a rather confused illustration of a boat in which a man attempts to stand in a rough sea, and, though he stumbles and falls, does not fall out of the boat. The author declares he cannot follow the illustration, and says farewell. Wandering widely again, he reaches a wood, and, stopping to listen to the songs of the birds, falls asleep.

  • There came a large man, much like myself, who called me by name and said he was Thought. “Do-well,” said Thought, “is the meek, honest labourer; Do-better is he who to honesty adds charity and the preaching of sufferance; Do-best is above and holds a bishop’s crosier to punish the wicked. Do-well and Do-better have crowned a king to protect them all and prevent them from disobeying Do-best.”
  • The author is dissatisfied; and Thought refers him to Wit, whom they soon meet, and whom Thought questions on behalf of the dreamer (here called “our Will”).

    In passus X, Wit says that Duke Do-well dwells in a castle with Lady Anima, attended by Do-better, his daughter, and Do-best. The constable of the castle is Sir Inwit, whose five sons, See-well, Say-well, Hear-well, Work-well and Go-well, aid him. Kind, the maker of the castle, is God; the castle is Caro (Flesh). Anima is Life; and Inwit is Discretion (not Conscience), as appears from a long and wandering discussion of his functions. Do-well destroys vices and saves the soul. Do-well is the fear of the Lord, and Do-better is the fear of punishment. If Conscience tells you that you do well, do not desire to do better. Follow Conscience and fear not. If you strive to better yourself, you are in danger; a rolling stone gathers no moss and a jack of all trades is good at none. Whether you are married man, monk, canon, or even beggar, be content and murmur not against God. Do-well is dread, and Do-better is sufferance; and of dread and its deeds springs Do-best. As the sweet red rose springs from the briar, and wheat from a weed, so Do-best is the fruit of Do-well and Do-better, especially among the meek and lowly, to whom God gives his grace. Keepers of wedlock please God especially; of them come virgins, martyrs, monks, kings, etc. False folk are conceived in an ill hour, as was Cain. His descendants were accursed; and so were those of Seth, who intermarried with them, though warned against it. Because of these marriages, God ordered Noah to build the ark, and sent the flood to destroy Cain’s seed. Even the beasts perished for the sin of these marriages. Nowadays, since the pestilence, many unequal marriages are made for money. These couples will never get the Dunmow flitch. All Christians should marry well and live purely, observing the tempora clausa. Otherwise, rascals are born, who oppose Do-well. Therefore, Do-well is dread; and Do-better is sufferance; and so comes Do-best and conquers wicked will.

    In passus XI, Wit’s wife, Study, is introduced. She rebukes him for casting pearls before swine, that is, teaching wisdom to those who prefer wealth. Wisdom is despised, unless carded with covetousness as clothiers card wool; lovers of Holy Writ are disregarded; minstrelsy and mirth have become lechery and bawdy tales. At meals, men mock Christ and the Trinity, and scorn beggars, who would perish but for the poor. Clerks have God much in the mouth but little in the heart. Every “boy” cavils against God and the Scriptures. Austin the Old rebukes such. Believe and pray, and cavil not. Here now is a foolish fellow that wants to know Do-well from Do-better. Unless he lives in the former, he shall not learn the latter.

    At these words, Wit is confounded, and signals the author to seek the favour of Study. He, therefore, humbles himself, and Study is appeased, and promises to direct him to Clergy (Learning) and his wife, Scripture. The way lies by Sufferance, past Riches and Lechery, through Moderation of speech and of drink to Clergy.

  • Tell him you were sent by me, who taught him and his wife. I also taught Plato and Aristotle and all craftsmen. But theology has troubled me much; and, save for the love in it, it is naught. Love is Do-well; and Do-better and Do-best are of Love’s school Secular science teaches deceit, but theology teaches love. Astronomy, geometry, geomancy, alchemy, necromancy and pyromancy are all evil; if you seek Do-well, avoid them. I founded them to deceive the people.
  • The author goes at once to Clergy and his wife and is well received by them. Clergy says that Do-well is the active life, Do-better is charity and Do-best is the clergy with benefices and power to help and possessions to relieve the poor. Runners-about are evil; there are many such now, and the religious orders have become rich. “I had thought kings and knights were best, but now I see that they are not.” Scripture interrupts with the declaration that kinghood and knighthood and riches help not to heaven, and only the poor can enter. “Contra!” says the author; “Whoever believes and is baptised shall be saved.” Scripture replies that baptism saves only in extremis and only repentant heathen, whereas Christians must love and be charitable. Help, therefore, and do not harm, for God says, “Slay not! for I shall punish every man for his misdeeds, unless Mercy intervenes.” The author objects that he is no nearer his quest, for whatever he may do will not alter his predestined end; Solomon did well and wisely and so did Aristotle, and both are in hell.

  • If I follow their words and works and am damned, I were unwise; the thief was saved before the patriarchs; and Magdalen, David, and Paul did ill, and yet are saved; Christ did not commend Clergy, but said, “I will teach you what to say”; and Austin the Old said that the ignorant seize heaven sooner than the learned.
  • Passus XII opens with the reply of Clergy: “I have tried to teach you Do-well, but you wish to cavil. If you would do as I say, I would help you.” Scripture scornfully replies, “Tell him no more! Theology and David and Paul forbid it; and Christ refused to answer Pilate; tell him no more!” Clergy creeps into a cabin and draws the door, telling the author to go and do as he pleases, well or ill. But the author earnestly beseeches Scripture to direct him to Kind-Wit (Natural Intelligence), her cousin and confessor. She says he is with Life, and calls, as a guide, a young clerk, Omnia-probate. “Go with Will,” she orders, “to the borough Quod-bonum-est-tenete and show him my cousin’s house.” They set out together.