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

§ 8. Meed

“Then they lacked horses to carry them thither, but Favel brought forth foals of the best. He set Meed on a sheriff’s back, shod all new, and False on a juror that trotted softly.” In like manner for each of the abstractions was provided some appropriate, concrete evil-doer; and, thus equipped, the fantastic crew immediately set out. But Soothness saw them well, and said little, but rode hard and came first to court. There he told Conscience, and Conscience reported to the king, all that had happened. “Now, by Christ,” said the king, “if I might catch False or any of his fellows, I would hang them by the neck.” Dread, standing at the door, heard his doom, and went wightly to warn False. At the news, the wedding party fled in all directions. False fled to the friars, Liar leaped away lightly, lurked through lanes, buffeted by many and ordered to leave, until pardoners had pity on him and received him as one of themselves. Then he was in demand: physicians and merchants and minstrels and messengers wanted him; but the friars induced him to come with them. Of the whole wedding party, only Meed durst stay, and she trembled and wept and wrung her hands when she was arrested.

In passus III the king orders that Meed shall be treated courteously, and declares that he himself will ask her whom she wishes to wed, and, if she acts reasonably, he will forgive her. So a clerk brought her to the chamber. At once people began to profess friendship for her and promise aid. The justices came, and said, “Mourn not, Meed; we will clear thee.” She thanked them and gave them cups of clean gold and rings with rubies. Clerks came, and said, “We are thine own, to work thy will while life lasts.” She promised to reward them all: “no ignorance shall hinder the advancement of him whom I love.” A confessor offered to shrive her for a seam of wheat and to serve her in any evil. She told him a tale and gave him money to be her bedesman and her bawd. He assoiled her, and then suggested that, if she would help them with a stained glass window they were putting in, her name would be recorded on it and her soul would be sure of heaven. “Knew I that,” said the woman, “there is neither window nor altar that I would not make or mend, and inscribe my name thereon.” Here the author declares the sin of such actions, and exhorts men to cease such inscriptions, and give alms. He also urges mayors to punish brewers, bakers, butchers and cooks, who, of all men on earth, do most harm by defrauding the poor. “Meed,” he remarks, “urged them to take bribes and permit such cheating; but Solomon says that fire shall consume the houses of those who take bribes.”

Then the king entered and had Meed brought before him. He addressed her courteously, but said, “Never hast thou done worse than now, but do so no more. I have a knight called Conscience; wilt thou marry him?” “Yea, lord,” said the lady, “God forbid else!” Conscience was called and asked if he would wed her.

  • Nay, Christ forbid! She is frail of her flesh, fickle, a causer of wantonness. She killed father Adam and has poisoned popes. She is as common as the cart-way; she releases the guilty and hangs the innocent. She is privy with the pope, and she and Simony seal his bulls. She maintains priests in concubinage. She leads the law as she pleases, and suppresses the complaints of the poor.
  • Meed tried to defend herself by charging that Conscience had caused greater evils. He had killed a king. He had caused a king to give up his campaign in Normandy.

  • Had I been the king’s marshal, he should have been lord of all that land. A king ought to give rewards to all that serve him; popes both receive and give rewards; servants receive wages; beggars, alms; the king pays his officers; priests expect mass-pence; craftsmen and merchants, all take meed.