The Fair Field of Folk. Piers Plowman: A Potted Adaptation of the B Text
When: 11 February 2023, 2–3pm
Where: Broadbent Garden (behind the library church of St-Peter-in-the-East) at St Edmund Hall, Queen’s Lane, OX1 4AR Oxford. Part of the National Garden opening day 2-5pm. The performance ticket is included in the charity donation of 4GBP to see the gardens
Director: Eloise Peniston
- Solas Macdonald as Will
- Jonathan Honnor as Piers Plowman
- Clare-Rose McIntyre as Holychurche
- Rei Tracks as Conscience
With original music by Anna Cowan
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 a man named Will, who fell asleep beside a stream on a May morning in Malvern Hills. There he falls into 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. 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 into 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 on the 11th of February. 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. Maybe salvation will be found in the ridge and furrow but if not, you will- at the very least- have a pilgrim badge to take home as a souvenir.
We hope to see you soon in the fair field. God spede þe plouȝ!