Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor Emeritus of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University



Pierce the Plowman’s Creed

In complaint literature, responsibility for the degraded state of society is attributed to institutions, groups and individuals, depending on the author’s observation and orientation.  As seen in many of the poems in this volume, the clergy is blamed for failing to lead the people towards virtuous living and for neglecting their duties in favor of worldly pursuits. Though all types of religious are criticized, none are more so than the friars.  Pierce the Plowman’s Creed (PPC), a poem of the late fourteenth century, is a standard work that depicts the ignorance and corruption of the four mendicant orders.

PPC is grouped in the Piers Plowman tradition, written in the alliterative style and shown to recall key words and phrases as well as important episodes from Piers.1  Less radical than Langland’s work, PPC still critically examines contemporary conditions.  Unlike Piers, PPC does not feature personification or allegory and has a single focus: antifraternalism.

The author is anonymous but recognizably a Lollard, a follower of John Wyclif, the Oxford philosopher.2  The PPC-poet openly states his sympathy with Wyclif, whose warnings about friars were given in a spirit of goodness and truth (528-29), and he repeats criticism voiced by Wyclif.  However, many of the complaints were common currency and reflect what appears in the literature as widespread antipathy towards the friars, and the controversies that had developed over the nature and practice of apostolic poverty compared to their rules.  While the friars’ spiritual failings were of primary concern, much also rested on economics, not only their accumulation of wealth, but the competition with monastic and secular clergy for sources of income, bequeathals and endowments.

In PPC the brunt of the attack falls on the Dominicans, perhaps because the proceedings at which Wyclif’s conclusions were condemned were held at their house in London, Blackfriars.  Earlier in the century, another major opponent of the mendicants, Richard FitzRalph, archbishop of Armagh in Ireland, brought charges against them in the papal court in 1357.  His complaints, delivered in the sermon Defensio Curatorum, focus on the Franciscans and issues of property ownership and begging, but apply to all friars and their spiritual inferiority to parish priests for ministering to the laity, and to their economic threat to the parish, community and church.  FitzRalph’s position began developing in 1350 and continued until his death in 1360 and is believed to have influenced Wyclif.

The message in PPC is clear and its premise clever, with a friar from each order criticizing another of the four groups, while failing to see the faults of his own and claiming its primacy. The occasional tedious or repetitious passages are compensated for by the ample vivid visuals.  Translating alliterative verse is a challenge due to its complex form; this prose version does not retain meter and attempts to untangle difficult syntax without sacrificing the poem’s spirit.  Alliteration has been employed, though not replicating the original, to give a sense of the form.  There are a number of lines that defy satisfactory translation into modern English and have been absorbed into the context.  The poem has numerous biblical references, and uses legal terminology, frequently in double entendre; but knowledge of these elements is not essential to appreciating the poet’s complaints about the mendicants, which center on hypocrisy, pride, ignorance and greed.

Pierce the Plowman’s Creed

May the Cross and courteous Christ assist this beginning, for the father’s friendship that formed heaven and through the special spirit that sprang from them both and all in one godhead dwell endlessly.

I have learned my ABCs and can repeat my Pater Noster each point after the other, and after all my Ave Maria almost to the end.  But all my care is to come, for I do not know my Creed.3  When I make my confession I shall be ruined; the priest will punish me and give me penance.  I must give up meat for Lent; after that comes Easter, which is hard going.  And Wednesday each week I’ll go without meat.  Also, Jesus himself told the Jews: “He who does not believe in me loses the bliss.”4

Therefore I desire to learn the faith if any man will make it known to me, either uneducated or educated, who lives by it and fully follows the faith and no other; one who never desires worldly success but lives in longing of God and holds his laws, never grieves him with the acquisition of goods but follows him completely as he taught the folk.  When asked, many manner of men, both learned and unlearned, say they believe wholly in the great God and keep his commandments, but many fail upon questioning.

My first inquiry was to the friars, and they told me that the fruit of the faith was in their four orders, that they held the coffers of Christendom, and that the key was locked in their hands.  One morning I met a Minor5 and said, “Sir, for great God’s love, tell me the truth; from what man on middle-earth might I best learn my Creed?  My care is great because I don’t know it; therefore, for Christ’s love, I beg for your counsel.  A Carmelite has promised to teach it to me, but since you know them well, I ask for your advice.”

This Minor looked at me and laughed: “Dear Christian man, I believe you are mad!  How can they teach the God that they don’t know themselves?  They are but minstrels and jokesters by nature, and lechers who keep lovers.  Neither in or out of the order, they live unconstrained and fool the folk with tales of Rome.  Deceitful and founded on jests, they claim to be Mary’s men and tell many lies about our Lady.  Those wicked folk betray women and beguile them with flattery to get their goods, and therewith hold their house through rogues’ works.  So save me God, I find it a great sin to give any support to men who destroy much good.

“They slyly say to fools in town that they came from Mt Carmel to follow Christ, and feign holiness that ill suits them.  They live more in lechery and lying than pursuing any good life; instead, they lurk in their cells and win worldly wealth and waste it on sin, wickedness they would not practice if they knew their Creed or believed in Christ.  Truly, I cannot find who first founded them, but the fools founded themselves Friars of the Pie6 and make themselves mendicants and harm the people. When one of these gluttons can catch any goods, he keeps them for himself and locks them away, and though his fellows are in need, he will let them starve.  They bear no obedience but do as they like with bequests they receive, and roam about like robbers at fairs and alefests, filling their cup and preaching pardon to please the people.

“Their patience has all passed and been put out to farm7 and their poverty is prideful and not worthy of praise.  When lullabies of our Lady are sung for women’s pleasure and at miracle plays in which midwives appear,8 they make women believe that the lace of our Lady’s smock will ease childbirth. They don’t preach the teachings of St Paul or of penance for sin, but of the mercy and dignity Mary may bring them.

“With stiff, strong staffs they go briskly over land to where their lovers lie, and lurk in towns.  They tell the people that these women, who are wearing ornately decorated headdresses, are their sisters who accompany them in their travels, and thus they go about and betray good folk.  St Paul preached about such people: ‘Weeping, I warn you of those who walk about; they are enemies of the cross upon which Christ suffered.  Sloth is the aim of such slumberers and Gluttony is their god, with gulping of drink and enjoyment of merrymaking.  Many folk will laugh at the destruction of such people.’9  Therefore, friend, try to do better for your faith and don’t believe those rascals but let them pass, for they are false in their faith and much more.”

“Alas,” I said to the friar, “my purpose is failed and my comfort cast down.  Do you know where I might meet a man who may teach me my Creed?”

“Certainly, my fellow, without fail,” he replied.  “Of all men on earth we Minors most follow the apostles’ life with penance, sanctity and suffering.  We don’t haunt taverns or hobble about, and never meddle with markets or miracle plays.  We handle no money but live moderately and have hunger at each meal.  We have forsaken the world and lead hard lives in penance and poverty, preaching to the people and helping their souls by setting an example.

“In our poverty we pray for all our lay brothers10 who give us any goods to honor God, whether bell, book, bread for our food, cloth to cover our bones, or other possessions, money or valuables; their reward is in heaven!  We have built a large broad convent, a church, and a chapel; its tall chambers have windows and very high walls that must be decorated, painted and brightly polished, with gay glittering glass glowing as the sun.  If you help us with money of your own, you would kneel before Christ encompassed in gold in the middle of the wide west window, and St Francis himself will enfold you in his cope and present you to the Trinity and pray for your sins.  Your name shall be nobly written and wrought and read there forever in remembrance of you.  And, brother, have no fear in your heart although you don’t know your Creed.  Have no more care.  I will absolve you and set it on my soul; if you can make this contribution, give it no more thought.”11

“I certainly shall try, sir,” I replied.  He set his hands on me and absolved me fully, and I parted from him without any penance; with the agreement that I would return, he commended me to God.  Then I said to myself that there seemed to be little truth here: first to blame his brother and foully backbite him.  As Christ clearly said, “How might you see a mote in your brother’s eye and not a beam in your own? Look first at yourself and then at another; cleanse your sight and keep your eye clear, then attend to another man’s.”12  I also saw greed for gathering goods, which Christ has clearly forbidden, and told his followers truly: “Never covet your neighbor’s possessions.”  But charity and chastity have been completely chased out here.  As Christ said, “Men shall be known by their fruit,”13 and I said “Sire, certainly you judge truly.”

I then thought to question the first of these four orders and pressed on to the preachers14 to test their will and hurried to their house to hear more of them.  When I came to that court I gaped about; I had not seen such a bold building in a long time. I looked at that house eagerly and attentively, how the pillars were painted and finely polished and elaborately carved, with wide, well-wrought windows aloft.  I entered and went straight forward, and although the dwelling was wide, it was completely walled, with private posterns they could pass through when they liked.  There were orchards and herbers neatly edged, and a skillfully sculpted cross with recesses from which one could look all about; the price of a plough-land could not have decorated that pillar.

Then I went to the church and found a dwelling wondrously well built, with beautifully carved crockets15 on every side and gold flourishes at their corners.  The windows were thickly inscribed with shining shaped shields and merchants’ insignias interspersed in between, more than twice twenty-two.  No herald has half such a list, just as a ragman had newly counted them.16  Raised tombs in nooks which were set closely together had alabaster coats of arms made upon marble in various manners, knights clad in their identifying emblems; all seemed like sacred saints upon earth. Lovely ladies were wrought, lying on their sides in gay, gold-covered garments.  I believe the taxes gathered in ten years could not pay for half that house.

Next I came to the cloister and stared at how it was pillared, painted and fully decorated, all covered with lead to the floor, which was paved with painted tiles.  As it was enclosed all about with pure tin and had beautifully crafted brass basins, I believe the income of a great shire could not outfit that place from one end to the other.  The chapter house was fashioned like a great church, carved and covered, and quaintly engraved, with pleasing panels set above; it was everywhere painted like a parliament house.17

Then I went to the refectory and found a hall fit for a king’s household, with broad tables surrounded by benches, and glass windows like those in a church.  As I walked farther and went all about, I saw high halls and noble houses, chambers with chimneys and gay chapels, and kitchens suited to a king’s castle.  I saw their dormitory with its strong doors, their infirmary and refectory with many more houses, all with strong stone walls and gaily glazed garrets and grates, and other houses enough to lodge the queen. Yet these builders will beg for a bagful of wheat from a poor man who can barely pay half his year’s rent and is half behind.18

When I had seen everything I turned and found a friar in the refectory sitting on a bench.  He was a great, grim churl as large as a barrel, with a face as fat as a full bladder blown brimful of breath that hung like a bag on both of his cheeks, and his great jowls hung over his chin like a goose egg grown of grease so that his face quivered like a quagmire.  His double worsted cape was neatly folded and covered him down to his heels, and the fabric of his finely sewn, clean white kirtel was strong enough to carry grain.

I greeted that shepherd19 graciously: “Good sir, for God’s love can you tell me of any man who could teach me my Creed and how to follow Christ, and who believed and lived faithfully, following Christ without falsehood?  I would surely trust such a man to tell me only the truth.  Yesterday an Austin20 encouraged me in good faith and promised to teach me and said, ‘Certainly, since Christ died our order was sinless and first founded.’”

“First, fellow,” said the friar, “fie on his furred clothes!  He is malformed, made up of ragged patches!  His order consorts with whores and thieves and, it is proven, practices the pardoner’s craft of selling privileges for pennies so round.21  If they have your money a month later, they will not acknowledge you if you return.

“But, fellow, our order was first, and our foundation is fully free of deceit.  We are known to be clerks learned in the schools, proven by process of law; there are many bishops from our order, and saints in various places who suffered hard. We have been proved to be the pride of popes at Rome, and of highest degree as told in the Gospels.”

“Ah, sir,” I then said, “your words are a great wonder, since Christ himself said to all his disciples, ‘Whoever of you who is the most, the most shall he work, and whoever goes first, first shall he serve.’  He also said, ‘He saw Satan sitting highest and laid lowest.’  In parables he told that the spirit’s greatest health is in poverty, and that arrogant hearts harm the soul.  Therefore, friar, farewell; I find nothing here but pride.  Your preaching is nothing but a mere mite.”

I left angrily and went to test the Austins.  I met a master of those men and said meekly, “Master, for the mother Mary’s love, do you know of a person anywhere who could teach me my Creed and inform me truly without flattery or falsity?  One who fully follows the faith and none other, and who glosses the Gospels without gabbing?  A Minor has wholly promised to heal my soul, for he says his sect is the surest on earth; they are keepers of the key to coffers of Christendom, and follow the apostles by living purely in poverty.”

The friar replied, “Alas, it almost drives me mad to see how these Minors beguile many men.  Truly, some of them have more goods than ten knights I know with possessions in their coffers.  They have the best refectory fare of all the four orders, and are hypocritical in all their works.  They preach of perfection, but even though one had more money than a wool merchant, if you proffer him a penny privately for a mass, if his knave is not ready to take it, you can put out my eye.

“Look how these teachers betray lords, saying that they follow Francis’ rule while there is more cloth folded in the cut of his cope than there was in Francis’ first frock.  And under that cope is a coat lined with fine marten, polecat, or beaver fur, cut to the knee and cleverly buttoned, lest any spiritual man detect the guile.  Francis bade his brothers to go barefoot; now they have buckled shoes that blister their heels and stockings in cold weather that are cut to the ankle, and spices spread in their purse to pass out as they please.  Lords love them well and bow low before them, but if they knew of their craftiness and cunning words, they would have little worship for them, the image of hypocrisy grafted upon fiends.

“But, son, if you will be secure, seek no further, for we friars are the first, founded on truth by Paul, the first hermit, who led us himself into the wilderness to reject the world.22  We stayed there long and lived a stern life.  All these other friars were founded in towns and taught untruly, which we saw well and for chief charity we charged ourselves with amending this.  We moved to the cities to guide the people by preaching and praying as prophets should.

“And so we are at the head of holy church and have power from the pope to purely absolve from sin those who help our house to save their souls: all who support us with money, grain, bedclothes, beads or brooches, bread for our food, or other goods.  If you have any possessions and will help yourself, help us heartily and I will undertake to make you a brother of our house and have your name sealed in a book at the next chapter meeting; then our provincial has the power to absolve all sisters and brothers of our order.  And though you don’t know your Creed, kneel down here and I will set my soul for yours and completely absolve you, with the agreement that you return and bring us goods.”  Then I knelt down and he granted me dispensation, and I left.

I said to myself, “There is no help here; pride is the paternoster prayer of sin, and greed is the Creed. Having learned nothing, I decided to examine the Carmelites.  I looked into a tavern and saw two of them with full cups.  I ventured inside and nervously said, “Dear sir, for love of the Lord in whom you believe, guide me to some man who can teach me my Creed, someone who lives a faithful life and loves no sin, and doesn’t garble the Gospels but keeps God’s commandments and works after his words without fail, stopped by neither money nor meed.  A professed Preacher promised to teach me truly, but if you would tell me if they are trustworthy, I would reward you as well as I could.”

“Truly, his truth is but a trifle!” the friar replied. “He has not dined with Dominic since Christ died.  Those Preachers dwell with the princes of pride and are as arrogant as the devil who dropped from heaven. They hallow their churches with haughty hearts and deal in divinity as dogs do with bones.  They act as messengers and meddle with marriages for the nobility, and they live with lords, telling them lies.  They buy bishoprics with bags of gold and desire honors, but consider their deeds: watch them at Hertford,23 and look at their lives and believe what you find.

“Christ knows the truth, how they counsel kings and curry their favor.  God grant that they lead them well in holy living and not deceive them for their goods to grieve their souls.  I ask you, when have they been intimate with any poor people who may not contribute to them or their house?  They preach with a proud heart and praise their order, and wish for worldly worship.  Believe it well, dear man, if men looked clearly, they would see that there is more pride in the Preachers’ hearts than was left in Lucifer before he fell low; they have as much dignity as the ditch water in which dogs drink.  Watch one of the rascals who cannot read his rule or his responses except by pure rote; he casts the laws as though he were a learned clerk, not humbly but lordlike with lies.  Just as Minors use hypocrisy, the Preachers have purely proud hearts.

“But, Christian man, we Carmelites came first before them all, in Elijah’s time, and we live by our Lady and serve her loyally in clean communal life that keeps us out of sin.  We are not proud like Preachers but pray quietly for all the souls and the lives we live by.  We know no cunning, Christ knows the truth, but busy ourselves in our prayers, as we hold best.  Therefore, dear and loyal man, believe it when I say that a mass said by us humble men is worth more and surpasses all prayers of those proud friars.  If you will give us any goods, I would grant you here to take all your penance in peril of my soul and although you don’t know your Creed, completely absolve you so that you may improve our house with money, some property, grain, or silver cups.”

“Friar, to tell you the truth, there is no penny in my purse to pay for my meals.  I have no goods or gold but go about working hard to earn my food. But if you would for God’s love teach me my Creed, I would do you well when I had wealth.”

The friar responded, “Truly, I consider you a fool.  You would catch fish without wetting your foot.  Our pardons and prayers are not so dispensed; our power lasts not so far unless we receive some penny.  Farewell, for I must hurry to a housewife who has bequeathed us ten pounds in her will.  To tell the truth, she draws near death, but I still dread that she may change it, so I rush to receive her into our house and, if I might, obtain an annual24 for myself to help buy clothes.”  His fellow friar said, “God grant that she passes forth while she intends to give us her goods.  God let her live no longer, for she has made many other letters.”

Then I turned away and talked to myself of the falsehood of these folk and how faithless they were.  As I went on my way, weeping for sorrow, I saw a simple man hanging on a plow.  His ragged coat was made of coarse material and his hood was full of holes so that his hair stuck out.  His shoes were thickly patched and his toes stuck out as he worked.  His stockings hung over the back of his shoes on all sides, and he was spattered with mud as he followed the plow. His mittens were made of rags and the fingers were worn out and covered with mud.  He sank in the fen almost to his ankles as he drove four feeble oxen that were so pitiful their ribs could be counted.

His wife walked with him, carrying a long goad.  Her short coat was torn, and she was wrapped in a winding sheet for protection from the weather.  Blood flowed on the ice from her bare feet.  At the end of the strip a little child wrapped in rags lay in a scrapbowl; two twelve-year old children stood on either side, and they all sang a sorrowful song.  The poor man sighed sorely and said, “Children, be still!”

He looked at me and let his plow stand, and asked why I was sighing so hard.  “If you are in need I will loan you such goods as God has sent.  Let’s go, dear brother.”  I responded, “No, sir, my sorrow is much greater, for I don’t know my Creed, and can’t find a man who believes fully to teach me the true way and therefore I weep.  I have tried the friars of the four orders, who I thought would know, but now my wit fails me.  All my hope and heart was on them, but they are fully faithless and follow the fiend.”

“Oh, brother, beware of those fools!” he said.  “Christ himself warned of such, and called them false prophets in the faith: ‘They come in sheep’s clothing but inside they are wild werewolves who wish to rob the folk.’25  The fiend founded them first to destroy the faith, and through his wiles they came to burden the church and by the covetousness of his craft to assist the curates, and now they have a hold and harm many.  They don’t do as Dominic but harass the people, nor follow Francis but live falsely, and they reckon Augustine’s rule is but a fable, yet purchase themselves privileges from the pope at Rome.  They covet confessions to catch some earnings, as they do burials, but no other Christian cures26 unless there is profit.”

I asked him his name, and he told me:  “I am called Peres, the poor plowman.” Then I said, “Ah, Peres, please tell me more about these triflers and their treacherous ways of living; for each one has told me a tale of the wicked life of another.  I believe that some wicked wight wrought these orders, through the guile of that story called Golias27 or else sent by Satan himself from hell to overcome men with their craft to destroy Christendom.”

“Dear brother, the devil is very cunning. He plans hard and far ahead to defeat holy church and varies his deceit in many ways to destroy the people.  He cast the friars from Cain’s kindred and founded them on Pharisees who feign goodness, and they ruin many folk with their false faith.  Christ himself called them natural hypocrites, and I can tell you how often he cursed them; once he said to that troublesome people, “Woe to you, well learned of the law!’  Again he said to them, ‘Woe to you who build high tombs of the prophets that your fathers killed.’28  The friars are the same as the Pharisees: who wishes to be wiser of the law than unlearned friars, to be called masters by a multitude of men, and want worldly worship and to sit with the mighty and leave love of God and humility behind?  And in building their tombs they strive hard to fund their church floor and replace it often.

“The father of the friars defiled their souls; that was the devious devil that harasses men often.  Through his doting, he deceived the church and put in the Preachers, and through his cunning, they came to aid the curates but harmed them greatly and helped them little.  But Augustine’s rule was based on a good truth, and Dominic’s deeds were practiced inwardly.  Francis founded his folk fully on truth: pure perfect priests living in penance, love and humility and free from pride, grounded on the gospels as God bade. But now the glossing is so full of gladdening tales that the gospels are no longer grounded on truth.  I can prove that the friars are cursed by Christ, for without his blessing, they are bare in their works.  He said to his followers, ‘Blessed are those with humble souls,’ and God blesses all those who are poor in spirit.

“I would  like to know how the fell friars fare so well!  If they were examined by process of law and judged by their deeds, believe that they would grow extremely angry quite soon and shortly show you a sharp will and wrathful works.  Witness Wyclif, who warned them truly in good spirit to abandon their wickedness and sinful works, and soon those wretched men pursued his soul and accused him of heresy.  And so they have little of God’s blessing, which is given to the meek of the earth; but if you can find four friars in a flock who follow that rule, then I have lost all my taste, touch and judgment.  If you find a little fault with their life, they boldly leap up and belittle your name with proud words not befitting their rule and haughtily call you a liar.  A lord would be more loath to give to a knave rather than to such a beggar, the best in a town.29

“Look, now, dear man, aren’t these men like the Pharisees in many of these points?30  All their broad buildings have been built with sin, and their winnings are in worldly worship.  Their scapulars are fashioned wide and the hems cut high; they are made of white silk with seams elaborately sewn with stitches that shine like silver.  Unless they are seated first at suppers and feasts, they are extremely angry and glare if they are not at the lord’s table; these beggars must sit at the head.  And like the Pharisees in their synagogues, they must be seated first in their hellhouse of Cain’s kin!  If a man goes to their church to hear mass, his sight is set on sundry works; pennants, pommels and the paints of shields distract his devotion and darken his heart.31  I liken it to a limed stick32 to draw men to hell, and to worship of the fiend to vex men’s souls.  Christ said to such hypocrites, ‘He loves to be met in the marketplace with greetings from the poor, and praise from ignorant men at Lenten-time.’33

“They have bought bishops with their silver and purchased the privileges of penance to absolve the people, but money may make the measure of pain; unless a man has the power to pay, his penance shall fail.  God grant that it be a good amount for the health of his soul!34  Also, these men are called masters of which noble Jesus disapproved generally and prohibited to his apostles.  But friars have forgotten this and follow the fiend Lucifer, who loved mastery.  Neither Francis, Dominic or Augustine ordained that any of these dotards should become doctors, masters of divinity who forego matins and stay comfortably like a chieftain in his chamber with a fireplace and chapel, doing as he pleases and sitting like a lord and served as a sovereign.  Such a man glosses God’s words wickedly; I swear, he takes the text only as a tale.  God forbade his folk to study and stir their wits, but told them they should speak the same word given to them through the spirit of God.  Now a friar must seek and dip into tales, leaving his matins and singing no masses, and look for lies that will please the people in order to fill his purse to pay for drink.

“Brother, when barns are full and Christmas has passed, then come the friars, bowing low; a rascal, a limitour35 leaps over the land and makes sure he leaves no house without getting something.  And there they beguile themselves and twist God’s words, who bade that his folk forsake begging and only serve him and follow his rule, and that all who are in need should not go without.  But why do these men, who are not feeble and lack no furs or clothing, beg except to live a lustful life?  They live untruly without any labor; they are not crippled and lack no food, and are dressed neatly in fine cloth.  It is an ungoverned life such as lords lead, neither ordained in an order but living independently.

According to Christ, those who weep for the wicked deeds they had wrought before should be blessed.  Few are friars, for when they are nearly dead and ready to go into the earth, they curse, and weep and wish for heaven, and say “fie!” on their previous falsehoods.  But they may take their part of that blessing and pack it in a tar pouch!  Blessed are those who suffer hunger, the penniless poor who are past their prime of a life spent on penitential works, and may not labor because they are too weak, maimed from a mishap or leprous and their goods are gone and it grieves them.  There is no friar like this; unless he begs for his bread, his bed is prepared and he is put in a secret chamber where he won’t last long.

Almighty God and man the merciful blessed those who had mercy on men for their misdeeds.  But whoever finds fault with a friar found at the brothel and bloodies the back or side of his body may as well have offended a great lord.  He would sooner be shriven for having killed a comely knight and planned his murder than for beating a beggar friar.

Christ courteously blessed those with clean hearts who covet no possessions but Christ’s full bliss, who believe completely in God and loyally think about his teaching and law, and live in truth.  Friars have forgotten this and follow another way; they hold and hide whatever they can seize.  Their hearts are hidden in their high cloisters, as curs from carrion that is cast in ditches.  Perfect Christ blessed the peaceable who are patient and steadfast and who restrain anger.  As a test, there is no wasp in this world that will not readily sting the toe of a stinking friar.  They suffer neither sovereign nor subject and walk outside of all God’s blessings; in truth, men talk little of their patience.

All who suffer persecution in life have God’s blessing.  But look at a friar’s pursuits and the measure of these men’s meekness.  Look at Wat Brut36 who they busily persecute because he told them the truth, and though he could not harm them, men say he is a heretic and has evil beliefs that he preaches in the pulpit to blind people.  They curse that man for his good deeds, and so they chew charity as hounds chew chaff.  They pursue the poor and exceed in persecution out of desire to become so great that they can surpass any man’s might to murder souls: first to burn the body in a blaze of fire, then slay the poor soul and send it to hell.  And Christ clearly forbade his followers to judge folks by their faces.”

“Sir,” I said, “you seem blameworthy. Why do you despise these poor friars so much more than monks, priests, canons or Carthusians37 who serve the church?  It  seems that these men have offended you somehow with word or work, and you wish to ruin or shame them with your sharp speech, and harm them and their house.”

“Please put that out of your mind,” replied Peres.  “I say these words for the health of the soul.  I have little praise for monks and priests, for many have been influenced by the falsehood of friars and have forsaken charity and chastity and chosen a  life of pleasure, growing worldly and leaving the truth and service in the love of their God.

“I feel sorrow in my heart and soul, seeing the sinful life of these friars: how they wear the clean white of angels and archangels and all aldermen who stand before the heavenly throne.  Friars have taken these tokens, but I believe that few follow that cloth but use it falsely.  White signifies a clean soul, and if one is white inwardly, then he wears black outwardly as a sign of sorrow for our sin, and mourning for the misdeeds of those who misuse these tokens.  I swear that there are not ten friars who weep for sin, for their lustful lives in the refectory and infirmary foster sin.  Their main sustenance is food at each meal, but Hildegard38 told how their sustenance is sin, and surely, I swear, if their confessions were wholly discounted they should not bear themselves so boastfully nor build so high, for sin succors those fools.  They beguile the great with flattering words, and twist God’s word as they gloss the gospels, and surpass all the privileges that Peter followed.  They exceed the power of the Apostles in their speech in order to gain silver or meed by selling forgiveness and freedom from punishment for sins, and use the money and valuables they receive to make loans and financial dealings as do burgesses.39  Thus they serve Satan and beguile souls, those wretched merchants of curses!

“Some of these friars also use russet, which betokens toil and truth upon earth, but they devour the fruit that the folk loyally produce.  The labor of true men supplies the timber for friars’ houses, and the costly cloth of the copes they buy, as their reputation depends on the greatness of their income.  Just as drones do nothing but drink up the honey that the bees have busily gathered, so fare the friars with folk upon earth; they greedily eat up the first-fruit and live falsely.

“But each friar does not eat equally well; his welfare depends on his winnings, according to which his bed is prepared and he is served.  See for yourself how some of them walk in patched shoes and worn out, ragged clothes with torn hems, while his fellow wears a frock worth fifteen times more, and dresses in red40 shoes—it would be a pity otherwise—and has six or seven copes hanging in his cell.  Though his fellow were starving from lack of goods, he wouldn’t lend him a penny to save his life.  I might force those triflers to toil in the earth, tilling and living truly to temper their flesh.

“Now each cobbler must send his son to school and each beggar’s boy study books to become a writer and dwell with a lord, or falsely become a friar to serve the fiend.  So a beggar’s brat shall become a bishop, eager to sit among the peers of the land; lords’ sons bow low to such a lout and knights kneel and stoop  before him whose father is a cobbler soiled in grease, his teeth tattered like a saw from working leather.  Alas, that lords of the land believe such wretches and give support to such scoundrels for their low words!  They should make bishops of their own brothers’ children, or of some noble blood as seems best, and not foster false beggars41 or false friars to make them fat and full.  Their kind are more suited to clean out ditches than to be set first at suppers and served with silver.  A great bowlful of beans were better for their stomachs and the rinds of bacon to fill their bellies than roasted partridges, plovers or peacocks and exotic drinks that make such lechers practice whoredom and betray women with their wicked words.

“God intended that their dwelling be in the wilderness, and the chambers of fair ladies are forbidden to false friars. If lords knew of their conduct, truly, I swear, they would not welcome them into their houses at night or bed down such lechers in broad sheets, but shove their head in the straw to sharpen their wits.  Nor would they be kings’ confessors of custom or know the counsel of the realm, for Francis did not found them to behave in that way, nor did Dominic endow them to become such drinkers, and neither Elijah nor Austin ever led such a life, but spent their time in poverty of spirit.  We have seen ourselves in a short time how friars would consume no flesh among the folk; but now the rogues have hidden that rule and, for the love of our Lord, drowned it.   Would you believe there were so many such liars were it not for their worldly wealth and welfare? They should delve and dig and fertilize the earth, and have common corn bread42 for their food, vegetables prepared without meat, and water to drink. They should work and wear wool as we wretches do, but it would be a wonder if there were one in a whole hundred who lives so for God’s love in winter time.”

“Dear Peres,” I then said, “I pray you to tell me, who can teach me my Creed  in Christian faith?”

”Dear brother,” he replied, “retain what I say, for I will teach you and tell you the truth.


Believe in our lord God who wrought all the world, wholly formed holy heaven upon high, and is almighty over all his works, and that the world and the heaven was wrought by his will; and in noble Jesus Christ, born of him, his only son Lord over all, who was purely conceived, clearly in truth of the high Holy Ghost; this is the holy faith; and that he was born man of the maiden Mary, without sinful seed; this is fully the faith.

He was crowned with thorns, crucified, and died on the cross, and then his blessed body was buried in a tomb, and he descended down into dark hell and fetched our forefathers and they were very glad.  The third day he readily rose from the dead, and on a stone where he stood he ascended up to heaven, and he certainly sits at the right hand of his father, that almighty God over all other beings; and hereafter Christ himself is to come, to judge the living and the dead without any doubt.

And I believe wholly in the high Holy Ghost, and the universal holy church also hold in your mind; and in the sacrament,43 also that God truly is one, fully his flesh and his blood, who suffered death for us.44  And though these flattering friars will, for their pride, dispute this deity like dotards, the more the matter is discussed the more bewildered they become.  Let the louts alone and believe the truth, for Christ said it is so, so it needs be; therefore, do not study thereon nor stir your wits; it is his blessed body so he bade us to believe.

Many of those masters of divinity, as I believe, do not follow the faith fully as do many of the uneducated.45 How may man know through his own intelligence Christ’s secrets that surpass all nature?  It may be that a man of humble heart might, with his virtuous life, receive that Holy Ghost; then he need never study, and he might not be called master, which Christ forbade, nor put a priest’s cap on his bald head, but preach by leading a perfect life and practicing no pride.46

All that ever I have said seems to me to be the truth, and all that even I have written is true, as I believe, and it is for correcting these men that I write; God wishes that they be aware and work the better!  But since I am an uneducated man, perhaps I might overstep by chance and err in some point, and will not avow this matter as a master.  But if I have made mistakes, I ask for mercy and pray that all manner of men amend this matter, each a word alone and all, if it is needed.

God of his great might and good grace save all friars who live faithfully, and fairly amend all those who have been false, and give them wit and will to work such deeds that they may win the life that shall last forever!


1  Carr 6.

2  See the introduction to Address to Sir John Oldcastle  for background on Lollardy.

3  The Apostles’ Creed, recited in daily services.  Though its composition by the Twelve Apostles, each contributing one point is legendary, it is ancient.  The title first appeared in the late fourth century, and the basic form was set by the eighth century.

4  John 3:18.

5  The Franciscans were known as the Friars Minor or the Grey Friars.

6  The Friars of the Pie (Pied Friars, Friars of the Blessed Mary) were founded in 1257 in Marseilles.  Suppressed in 1274, they joined and became identified with other orders such as the Carmelites by the early fourteenth century.  Their original garb was black and white, like the magpie’s feathers, hence the name “Pie.”  The Carmelites (the Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel) wore a brown scapular with a white mantle and were thus known as the “White” friars.  Founded in Palestine in 1154 but claiming ancient roots, they moved to England in 1244.  (All religious orders originated outside of England; the Gilbertines was the only order founded in England.) 

7  “Farm” or “fee farm” was a fixed annual sum paid corporately to the king by cities or boroughs, in exchange for the right to collect tolls and rents.  It was a privilege granted by royal charter. More generally, it was the privilege of collecting revenues or using land for a fixed payment: literally, to “farm out.”  In this passage, it connects the friars with commercial transactions, using their ecclesiastical privileges for profit.

8  The reference is to dramas that reenacted miracles, such as the birth of Jesus; midwives were portrayed in some nativity plays.  A Lollard treatise against miracle plays begins with the warning that “since the miracles of Christ and his saints were effectual (which we know certainly by our faith), no man should use in entertainment or play the miracles that Christ so earnestly wrought for our help; for whoever does so errs in faith, reverses Christ and scorns God” (Hudson 97).

9  An allusion to Philippians 3:18-19.

10  Members of a fraternity associated with the friar’s house.

11  It was common practice for religious in orders to pray for the forgiveness of their benefactors’ sins, and to perform the penance for a fee.

12  Matt 7:3-5.

13  Matt 7:16.

14  The Dominicans were devoted to preaching and are still designated O.P., Order of Preachers.  The narrator’s reference to them as “first” may refer to their scholastic prominence; they and the Franciscans were the most influential of the four orders.

15  A crocket is a small ornament, usually a bud or leaf, in a decorated ceiling.

16  “Ragemen“ was a derisive term for a document with many seals attached, and, by extension, one who carried it.

17  Parliament met in various locations including the Dominican Blackfriars convent in London, which scholars note is called to mind in this description.

18  The friars’ income theoretically came from begging, in keeping with the tenet of poverty, as well as fees for ministerial services, though this became controversial, particularly about the Franciscans.

19  The biblical image of the shepherd tending his spiritual flock was applied to the clergy.  However, it may be a double entendre here; the original text “herdeman” and the earlier “cherl” may identify the friar as a rustic, unlearned and unqualified for the clergy.

20  The Augustinian Friars were also known as the Austins.

21  A pardoner was a cleric or layman empowered by the pope to dispense indulgences, which pardoned a person from performing the act of penance; in return the receiver gave alms as proof of repentance to the church for building projects and other uses.  In time, the donation became a fee for the sale of indulgences, and pardoners gained a bad reputation, as they also hawked fake relics like the pig bones Chaucer’s Pardoner sells to poor people, and whose income is greater than a parson’s (GP 700-04).

22  Determining who was “first” is somewhat complicated, depending on dates of organization, foundation, establishment of rules, and papal recognition of the orders.  For example, the Augustinians were formed in 1256 by the pope from several existing eremetical Italian congregations.  The Franciscans were founded in 1209 and the rule written by Francis in 1223. The Carmelites claim ancient tradition but its foundation is dated around 1154, with the first rule set out in c. 1209, which received papal approval in 1226.  Common foundation dates for the orders are: Dominicans, 1215; Franciscans, 1209; Augustinians, 1256; and Carmelites, 1226, though these do not necessarily represent the history of the orders’ formation.

23  Hertford refers to the Dominican priory in Hertfordshire, Kings Langley, which was frequented and supported by Richard II, whose body was buried there, then later moved to Westminster Abbey.

24  An”annual” was a fee received for saying a mass for the departed on the anniversary of their death.

25  See Matt. 7:15.  This text was used frequently against corrupt clergy and is the basis of a Wycliffite tract against the friars (Barr 229).

26  The “cure of souls” is the responsibility for people’s spiritual welfare (MED), hence ministration.

27  The tale is The Apocalypse of Golias, a twelfth-century Latin satirical poem attacking the church.  Golias, probably derived from Goliath or possibly “gula” (gluttony), was a mythical bishop and “archpoet.”  The Goliards were a group of riotous university clerical students and wandering scholars on the Continent and in England during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries who wrote ribald satiric verses that criticized the church and clergy.   By the fourteenth century, “goliard” also referred to wandering  minstrels.

28  This passage is based on the Gospel of St Matthew, Chapter 23, in which Christ warns his disciples not to follow the behavior of the Pharisees, who hypocritically deviate from their doctrine.  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” prefaces Christ’s criticism repeatedly.  The entire chapter provides the best context for the subject passage, but specific references are made to Matt. 23:6-10; 23:23; 23;27; 23:29-31.  Many are repeated, some verbatim in Luke 11:37-54.  See Luke 11:45 and 11:52-53 regarding lawyers.

29  Chaucer’s Friar is the “best beggar in his house” and gains exceeding  income.   Seemingly humble and virtuous, he would coax a farthing from even a poor widow (GP 251-55).

30  Barr notes the MED definition of “pointes” as having the legal sense of accusation (233), in addition to a subject, topic, theme or issue.

31  Images were disdained by the Lollards on the grounds that the Old Testament commanded that no likeness of God, heavenly or earthly things, be made.  And as Peres points out, men worship the image rather than the subject depicted, and are distracted from true worship.  Moreover, according to a Lollard teatise, the images made of costly materials erroneously depict Christ and the disciples as living in wealth rather than holy poverty and penance, and the money spent on such gold and silver images properly should be given in alms to the poor: “Dear Lord!  What kind  of alms is it to gaily paint dead stones and rotten wood with such alms that are poor men’s goods and livelihood, and allow poor men to perish for hunger, for cold and many other misfortunes, in prisons and other places” (Hudson 85).

32  A hunting device for catching birds.

33  Matt. 23:7.

34  Conversely, FitzRalph proposes that if a confessor is not in a state of grace, the penances and absolutions he gives are invalid.

35  Friars obtained licenses to beg within specific limited areas (thus “limitours) to prevent competitive begging.

36  Walter Brute, a Welsh esquire, whose unorthodox views were condemned.  He was associated with the influential Lollard William Swinderby, who was excommunicated, arrested and escaped.  Brute later joined Oldcastle.

37  The Carthusian order was founded by St Bruno of Cologne in 1084, and their first monastery or “charterhouse” in England was founded by Henry lI.

38  Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), an anchoress in her youth, founded and was abbess of St Ruperts monastery and later, another at Eibingen, both in Germany.  She had many visionary and prophetic experiences which she recorded in Scivias and Liber vitae meritorum  and wrote on other subjects such as medicine, botany, and theology.  She also composed hymns, poems and a liturgical drama.  Barr reports that her predictions of the corruption of the monastic orders were adopted by Wyclif and his followers as reference to friars, and that Hildegard predicts the damnation of the mendicants for their hypocrisy and deceit (240).

39  Burgesses were wealthy urban citizens, usually merchants.

40  Like the rest of the friars’ apparel, the color red was inappropriate for the clergy, and the dye was quite expensive.

41   “Faytours,” or false beggars, feigned poverty to earn income through charity rather than labor.

42  “Corn” was a generic term for a number of cereal grains such as wheat, barley and rye.  The lower classes ate rough brown bread, while the wealthy had finely sifted, often white meal for their bread.  Chaucer satirizes, somewhat caustically, the Prioress, who  has a rich diet and feeds her dogs treats of “wastel-bread” (GP 147), fine white bread, when she should have been eating simple food as suggested by Peres.

43  This refers to the Eucharistic doctrine of the Real Presence and the process that occurs during transubstantiation, which was challenged by Wyclif.

44  It appears that Peres has ended the Creed and continues his narrative, though there is no break between the two.  In a  sixteenth-century printed version, the following lines appear, which would  make a clear ending to the Creed if placed here:
                The communion of saints, for I truly say to you,
                And to receive forgiveness for our great  sins,
                And to be  cleansed only by Christ;
                Our bodies to rise again just as we have been here,
                And the life everlasting I hope to have.
However, they appear after the word “sacrament” and, due to other differences between the printed and manuscript versions, are considered spurious by many scholars (Barr 243-4).
Also, Peres’ commentary on the friars interrupts the Creed, which he finishes, through paraphrase, in the last stanza.  There were variations on the Creed, though all were based on the twelve points.  Peres’ is sermon-like compared, for instance, to a fourteenth-century primer version:
I believe in God, father almighty, maker of heaven and of earth; and in Jesus Christ his son, our lord, one alone: who was conceived of the Holy Ghost; born of maiden Mary; suffered passion under Pontius Pilate; crucified, died and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven; he sits on the right side of God the father almighty; thence he is to come to judge the living and the dead.  I believe in the Holy Ghost; the faith of the holy church; communion of saints; forgiveness of sins; resurrection of the body, and everlasting life.  So be it.

45  The debate over the spiritual superiority of the lered (learned) through education, or the lewed (unlearned) through humble faith is ongoing in Piers Plowman.

46  This and the following passage reflect the Lollard beliefs that virtuous laymen could serve as preachers as well, or better, than corrupt clergy (as Peres does), and that literacy was desired, indeed essential, for the laity for teaching and for reading the English version of the Bible.