Home  »  Volume II: English THE END OF THE MIDDLE AGES  »  § 4. The Crowd in the Valley

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

§ 4. The Crowd in the Valley

We first see, with the vividness of the dreamer’s own vision, the thronging crowd in the valley beneath the tower of Truth and hovering on the brink of the dark dale. People of all sorts are there—the poor and the rich, saints and sinners of every variety, living as they live in the world. Singly and in groups they pass before us, each noted by the poet with a word or a phrase that gives us their very form and pressure. Satire there is, but it is satire which does not impede the movement of the thronged dream, satire which flashes and plays about the object, revealing its inner nature by a word, an epithet, a brief phrase. We see the false beggars shamming for food and fighting at the ale-house, “great lubbers and long that loth were to labour”; the friars, “preaching the people for profit of their bellies”; the pardoner, surrounded by the crowd of ignorant believers, whom he deceives with his papal bull and his fair speech; and the corrupt priest, taking his share of the ill-gotten gains, while the bishop, who is not “worth his two ears,” refuses to interfere. Then come a hundred lawyers in hoods of silk, ready to undertake any cause for money, but refusing “to unloose their lips once for love of our Lord”; “you could more easily,” says the poet, “measure the mist on Malvern hills than get a mum of their mouths unless money were showed.” After them appears a confused throng of churchmen of all degrees, all “leaping to London” to seek worldly offices and wealth. Wasters there are, and idle labourers “that do their deeds ill and drive forth the long day with singing Dieu save Dame Emme!” Along with the satire there is commendation, now for the ploughmen who work hard and play seldom; now, of a higher sort, for pious nuns and hermits; now, for honest merchants; now, even for harmless minstrels who “get gold with their glee.” But, neither satire nor commendation delays even for a moment our rapid survey of this marvellous motley crowd, or detracts from our feeling that, in this valley of vision, the world in miniature is visibly moving, living, working, cheating, praying, singing, crying for sale its “hot pies,” its “good geese and pigs,” its “white wine and red.”