The School Bag

from Piers Plowman

William Langland
Middle English - 14th century
translated by E. Talbot Donaldson 

    In a summer season when the sun was mild
I clad myself in clothes as I’d become a sheep;
In the habit of a hermit unholy of works
Walked wide in this world, watching for wonders.
And on a May morning, on Malvern Hills,
There befell me as by magic a marvelous thing:
I was weary of wandering and went to rest
At the bottom of a broad bank by a brook’s side,
And as I lay lazily looking in the water
I slipped into a slumber, it sounded so pleasant.
There came to me reclining there a most curious dream
That I was in a wilderness, nowhere that I knew;
But as I looked into the east, up high toward the sun,
I saw a tower on a hill-top, trimly built,
A deep dale beneath, a dungeon tower in it,
With ditches deep and dark and dreadful to look at.
A fair field full of folk I found between them,
Of human beings of all sorts, the high and the low,
Working and wandering as the world requires.
    Some applied themselves to plowing, played very rarely,
Sowing seeds and setting plants worked very hard;
Won what wasters gluttonously consume.
And some pursued pride, put on proud clothing,
Came all got up in garments garish to see,
To prayers and penance many put themselves,
All for love of our Lord lived hard lives,
Hoping thereafter to have Heaven’s bliss —
Such as hermits and anchorites that hold to their cells,
Don’t care to go cavorting about the countryside,
With some lush livelihood delighting their bodies.
And some made themselves merchants — they managed better,
As it seems to our sight that such men prosper.
And some make mirth as minstrels can
And get gold for their music, guiltless, I think.
But jokers and word jugglers, Judas’ children,
Invent fantasies to tell about and make fools of themselves,
And have whatever wits they need to work if they wanted.
When Paul preaches of them I don’t dare repeat here:
Qui loquitur turpiloquium is Lucifer’s henchman.                              who speaks filthy language 
Beadsmen and beggars hustled about
Till both their bellies and their bags were crammed to the brim;
Staged flytings for their food, fought over beer.
In gluttony, God knows, they go to bed.
And rise up with ribaldry, those Robert’s boys.
Sleep and sloth pursue them always.
    Pilgrims and palmers made pacts with each other
To seek out Saint James and saints at Rome.
They went on their way with many wise stories,
And had leave to lie all their lives after.
I saw some that said they’d sought after saints:
In every tale they told their tongues were tuned to lie
More than to tell the truth — such talk was theirs.
A heap of hermits with hooked staffs
Went of to Walsingham, with their wenches behind them.
Great long lubbers that don’t like to work
Dressed up in cleric’s dress to look different from other men
And behaved as they were hermits, to have an easy life.
I found friars there — all four of the orders —
Preaching to the people for their own paunches’ welfare,
Making glosses of the Gospel that would look good for themselves;
Coveting copes, they construed it as they pleased.
Many of these Masters may clothe themselves richly,
For their money and their merchandise march hand in hand.
Since Charity has proved a peddler and principally shrives lords,
Many marvels have been manifest within a few years.
Unless Holy Church and friars’ orders hold together better,
The worst misfortune in the world will be welling up soon.
    A pardoner preached there as if he had priest’s rights,
Brought out a bull with bishop’s seals,
And said he himself could absolve them all
Of failure to fast, of vows they’d broken.
Unlearned men believed him and liked his words,
Came crowding up on knees to kiss his bulls.
He banged them with his brevet and bleared their eyes,
And raked in with his parchment-roll rings and brooches.
Thus you give your gold for gluttons’ well-being,
And squander it on scoundrels schooled in lechery.
If the bishop were blessed and worth both his ears,
His seal should not be sent out to deceive the people.
— It’s nothing to the bishop that the blackguard preaches,
And the parish priest and the pardoner split the money
That the poor people of the parish would have but for them.
    Parsons and parish priests complained to the bishop
That their parishes were poor since the pestilence-time,
Asked for license and leave to live in London,
And sing Masses there for simony, for silver is sweet.
Bishops and Bachelors, both Masters and Doctors,
Who have cures under Christ and their crowns shaven
As a sign that they should shrive their parishioners,
Preach and pray for them, and provide for the poor,
Take lodging in London in Lent and other seasons.
Some serve the king and oversee his treasury,
In the Exchequer and in Chancery press charges for debts
Involving wards’ estates and city-wards, waifs and strays.


Yet scores of men stood there in silken coifs
Who seemed to be law-sergeants that served at the bar,
Pleaded cases for pennies and impounded the law,
And not for Love of our Lord once unloosed their lips:
You might better measure mist on Malvern Hills
Than get a ‘mum’ from their mouths till money’s on the table.
Barons and burgesses and bondmen also
I saw in this assemblage, as you shall hear later;
Bakers and brewers and butchers aplenty,
Weavers of wool and weavers of linen,
Tailors, tinkers, tax-collectors in markets,
Masons, miners, many other craftsmen.
Of all living laborers there leapt forth some,
Such as diggers of ditches that do their jobs badly,
And dawdle away the long day with ‘Dieu save dame Emme.’
Cooks and their kitchen-boys kept crying, ‘Hot pies, hot!
Good geese and pork! Let’s go and dine!’
Tavern-keepers told them a tale of the same sort:
‘White wine of Alsace and wine of Gascony,
Of the Rhine and of La Rochelle, to wash the roast down with.’
All this I saw sleeping, and seven times more.

spoken = Tom Zingarelli