The Fair Field of Folk. Piers Plowman: A Potted Adaptation of the B Text
When: 11 February 2023, to be repeated partially during the Medieval Mystery Cycle 22 April 2023
Where: St Edmund Hall, Queen’s Lane, OX1 4AR Oxford
Director: Eloise Peniston
Welcome to our mervelous sweven, the Middle English prose B text of Piers Plowman dramatized and brought to stage by an eclectic mix of English students, medievalists, business students, historians, even a mathematician! Starring
- 😴 Sòlas McDonald as Will the Dreamer
- 😜 Jonathan Honnor as Piers Plowman/False Tongue
- ⛪ Clare-Rose McIntyre as Holy Church
- ✝️ Chantale Davies as Theology/Priest
- 🤔 Rei Tracks as Conscience
- 🌾 Alexane Ducheune as Mede’s Handmaid
- 👑 Kate Harkness as The King
- 💃 Eloise Peniston as Envy/Lady Mede
- 💰 Sabrina Coghlan-Jasiewicz as Simony/Pride
- 😡 Sonny Pickering as Wrath
- 👩⚖️ Zelda Cahill-Patten as Civil Law/Covetousness
With original music by Anna Cowan (harp) and Rachael Seculer-Faber; ceremonial trumpet: Henrike Lähnemann, special advice: Jocelyn Wogan-Browne. Supported by Oxford Medieval Studies and St Edmund Hall
The play follows a man named Will, who falls asleep beside a stream on a May morning in Malvern Hills with a succession of dreams, beginning with a tower on a hill, a dungeon, and a fair field of folk. On his quest for Truth, Will meets a host of allegorical personifications, wandering through the marriage and later trial of Lady Mede, the confession of the Seven Sins, the Crucifixion, and the Harrowing of Hell. In the midst of all, Piers Plowman emerges, taking only momentary repose from his plough to guide Will towards Truth and, rather scandalously, chastise members of the clergy.
- Introduction from Holy Churche and Mede
Holy Churche and Mede will explain what to expect from our play.
The bugle breaks through the air, and the dulcet tones of our bard and piper will lead you to a May Morning on Malvern Hills
- Holy Churche and Will
Will searches for Truth, imploring guidance of Holy Churche. Truth is, of course, that one must Do Well, Do Better, and Do Best.
- Lady Mede
Mede, the incarnation of financial reward, bribery, corruption, arrives.
- Marriage of Mede
False and Mede attempt to marry but the King requests their presence at the court, as False is not deemed a suitable husband for the noble lady.
- Trial of Mede
Mede pleads her case, explaining the importance of ‘mede’ or reward in the world at large.
- Seven Deadly Sins
Pride, Lechery, Envy, Wrath, Covetousness, Gluttony, and Sloth come and confess their sins.
- Piers Plowman
Piers Plowman arrives and agrees to show the field of folk where Truth is, if they help him plough his half acre.
- Tearing of the Pardon
Truth sends a pardon for Piers, however it is discovered not to be a real pardon at all. Piers tears it in two and interprets the Latin better than a priest ever could.
Piers Plowman is an allegorical text that exists in different versions. The A text is the incomplete earliest version, the B text is the most broadly translated and edited, while also being highly scandalous, and the C text is highly censored, notably failing to mention the Peasants Revolt and the Tearing of the Pardon, which our performance presents.
The B text can be approximately dated to 1388, and has quite the volatile position in history, especially in relation to the peasant’s revolt and heresy. While locked inside Maidstone Castle, John Ball penned his radical Letter to Essex Men, citing Piers Plowman and Robin Hood as comrades in the fight. In short, Piers Plowman is a working class hero, a Billy Bragg if you will, representing the right of common man. The concept of class struggle is deeply entrenched into the text, carrying the relics of the Domesday Book serfdom, to the climbing taxes in the midst of the 100 years war, the dwindling population as the Black Death roamed the country. All of these tensions boiled over on the 30th of May, 1381, as John Bampton arrived in Essex to collect unpaid poll taxes. In consideration of 1990 Poll Tax riots, the UK Miners’ Strikes in 1984, and the recently unveiled Strike Laws, clearly class struggle repeats itself. With a ploughman at the helm, the voice of the working people is vital in the text. With all that in mind, sit back, relax, and enjoy the chaos. God spede þe plouȝ!
Eloise writes: I first discovered Piers Plowman at a bus stop. I was characteristically lost with a dead phone and only a charity shop book to keep me company. While no one murmured ‘Thou still unravished bride of quietness’, at me, I was acutely aware of being in the presence of the literary as I thumbed through the wind-swept pages. I was intensely confused, which, at the age of fifteen, I supposed was the hidden intention of all literature. With the charmed hand of A. V. C. Schmidt to guide me, I followed Will fallling asleep. I remember after being “found” an hour later how I, rather breathlessly, recounted the events of the B text to my mother as she, mid-flap, chastised me about reckless spontaneity and the need for charged phones.
At that bus stop, I knew that, by the fortuity of an Oxfam find, I had discovered something wonderful, but I had no idea that seven years later, I would be scavenging liripipes and slit-mittens in an attempt to bring this dream-vision to life. Now, I often take that humble copy with me to Malvern Hills, and it is positively crammed with pressed, may-morning flowers. However, little did I know then how deeply entrenched this text was in the public sphere or about the literary and literal rebellions that have emerged beneath the mouldboard.
From the pen of a man who described Piers Plowman as “not worth reading”, Gerard Manley Hopkins perfectly captured the flesh-good of the text:
And features, in flesh, what deed he each must do –
His sinew-service where do.
He leans to it, Harry bends, look. Back, elbow, and liquid waist
In him, all quail to the wallowing o’ the plough: ‘s cheek crimsons; curls
Wag or crossbridle, in a wind lifted, windlaced –
See his wind – lilylocks – laced;
Churlsgrace, too, child of Amansstrength, how it hangs or hurls
Them – broad in bluff hide his frowning feet lashed! raced
With, along them, cragiron under and cold furls –
With-a-fountain’s shining-shot furls.
G. M. Hopkins
This particular poem encapsulates the essence of Piers Plowman: pure inscape, or as Stephen Medcalf calls it, an “extraordinary combination of roughness and a delicate magic.” It is incredibly difficult to describe what happens in Piers Plowman but “churlsgrace” is certainly the perfect descriptor for the essence of the text. A mere ploughman knows the way to Truth and is gracious enough to guide the reader, in return for help in plowing and sowing a half-acre.
Piers Plowman is ultimately a text that encourages mental labour, in a field, at a bus stop, or even in the gardens of St Edmund Hall…
We invite you to toil with us at Teddy Hall. From a tower on toft, a trumpet shall hail the dream, before the gentle plucking of a harp will guide you to sleep. Come and set forth on a dream-pilgrimage, exploring political satire, social upheaval, and spiritual crisis.
We hope to see you soon in the fair field. God spede þe plouȝ!