Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Thomas Heffernan

Committee Members

Laura Howes, Joseph Trahern, Thomas Burman


The purpose of this study is to examine William Langland’s continual wrestling with issues of poverty, both voluntary and involuntary, in Piers Plowman. The poem raises a multitude of questions, but to each question a multitude of contradictory answers is proposed, none of which is long permitted to remain unchallenged. The initially bewildering complexity of the representation of poverty found within the poem, however, may be clarified through the recognition of two fundamental underlying themes: caritas and justitia. Langland relies throughout the poem upon well-established tenets of medieval theology; what sets Piers apart is not that the central tenets of the poem’s theology are unorthodox, but the indefatigable rigor with which the poet explores their implications for day-to-day life within the temporal world and his adamant rejection of popularly-accepted practices which, when subjected to close scrutiny, are shown to be incompatible with the full scope of Christian teaching. The resulting text is notable both for its complexity and for its unrelenting insistence on the responsibility of both individuals and society to reshape themselves and reform their lives accordingly – an adamant insistence on the necessity for belief to be borne out in action, for the theological ideal to be put into daily practice. With poverty as my focus, then, this study examines the essential role played by Langland’s rigorous understanding of divine law as difficult theological, ethical, and social questions are raised throughout the poem. Langland’s persistent probing of the issue of poverty leads both Will and the reader far beyond superficial answers, culminating in a deeper understanding of charity, justice, and, ultimately, the path to redemption.

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