Meed, Mercede, and Mercy:
Langland's Grammatical Metaphor and
Its Relation to Piers Plowman as a Whole

In his 1886 edition of Piers Plowman, W. W. Skeat charges that

The long illustration from grammar in ll. 335-409 is barely intelligible, and very dull; yet it may very well have given great satisfaction to some of his readers, who delighted in such subtilties. (Skeat 49-50)
And with these words Skeat almost damned the passage to oblivion. For the next sixty years, critics for the most part agreed with Skeat. Some went even further to argue that the passage was proof that the C-text could not have been written by the poet of the A and B texts.1

While such critics question the necessity or benefits of a close reading of this relatively short passage in the very long poem (7,340 lines), we must remember that the poet found it necessary to create the metaphor, which appears only in his third and final revision of the poem, to allow his readers to understand more clearly a major theme in the Visio section of the poem, the detrimental influence of Mede, the allegorical figure representing reward or payments. Though the character Mede and the concept meed are present in both the A and B texts, in C, Langland coins and introduces mercede to discriminate more precisely between good and evil rewards.2 Since he was limited to the use of the term mede in the first two texts, Langland apparently could not unravel what John Alford calls the "morally ambiguous nature of Meed" (38) and found it necessary to introduce the new term and to invent the lengthy metaphor to attempt his unravelling. For Langland's contemporary audience, this metaphor "may very well have given great satisfaction," but many modern readers have not been so delighted due, I believe, to their having no appreciation for the subtleties of grammar that a learned medieval audience may have had.

E. Talbot Donaldson was the first modern critic to praise this passage in his important study `Piers Plowman': The C-text and Its Poet (1949). Donaldson writes: "This is certainly an ingenious and, on the whole, effective presentation of an idea" (79). Arguing that the problem of understanding the passage comes not from the poet but from the reader, though, he scolds those who ignore the passage. Donaldson agrees that the passage is quite difficult for modern readers, but he suggests that "before we damn the passage as an outrage, we make a less hostile attempt to understand it, even if we have to go to school, as Langland did, with medieval grammarians" (79-80).

Conscience introduces the distinction between meed and mercede early in Passus 3 when the King asks Meed to marry Conscience. While Meed agrees to this union, Conscience states that he is absolutely against it, for Lady Meed destroys everything she touches. He proceeds then to show that there are two kinds of rewards: "Ac ther is mede and mercede, and bothe men demen/ A desert for som doynge, derne oþer elles" (290-91). He defines meed as money or rewards given for services before they are actually performed and mercede as money or rewards given only after the services are completed; and based on this distinction, "Mede . . ./ . . . is nother resoun ne ryhte ne in no reawme lawe" (292-93), and mercede is "a manere dewe dette" (304). However, while meed is very easy to find in society, examples of mercede, appear only in three instances: in the relationship between the master and a loyal servant; in "merchandise"; and in the relationship between a king and his loyal subjects. In all three, guiding principles above the reward itself are identified: loyalty or faith, fair exchange, and love.

The grammatical metaphor itself begins with Conscience's eight-line introduction of the theory he will use and in which Conscience compares meed and mercede to the grammatical relations between a direct and an indirect pronoun and between a substantive and an adjective (335). In Latin grammar, of course, a direct relation is one in which a pronoun and its antecedent agree in gender, case, and number. An indirect relation is one in which agreement is limited to gender and number. (A modern English example of a direct relation is "The man who wrote The Aeneid is Vergil." An indirect relation is "The man, by whom The Aeneid was written, is Vergil." In the first example, who as nominative agrees with its antecedent man, which is also nominative; in the second, whom is correctly accusative as the object of the prepostion by rather than in the nominative though its antecedent is a subject.) However, agreement between a substantive and adjective must exist in gender, case and number, and if either of those is lacking, the grammatical construction is faulty. Conscience clarifies that meed is that reward which either comes before one's task is complete or is taken or received as exchange for an immoral deed and is therefore comparable to an indirect relation and to an adjective that is not in agreement with its substantive; to receive or ask for this kind of reward is wrong. On the other hand, mercede, like a direct relation and like an adjective that is in complete agreement with its substantive, is good to receive because a worker gets it only after he has completed his morally acceptable task or deed, and it is his right then to receive payment.

Though the grammatical metaphor occupies a small portion of the C-text, most modern critics seem now to accept the fact that it is indeed a very important passage for one's understanding of a major theme of the poem. A close reading of the grammatical metaphor 3 shows that Langland did in fact come up with a systematic, even if somewhat perplexing, approach to distinguish between good and bad rewards. I would suggest, further, that this passage is not, as some have argued, isolated from the rest of the poem at all. Rather, it appears that Langland carefully discriminated between meed and mercede in order to prepare his audience to recognize the evil and the ultimate rewards associated with ill-gotten money which he will discuss in later passus. For, from this point forward in the poem, all but one reference to meed are specifically to rewards taken or given when they are not rightfully earned, that is, clearly meed and not mercede as defined in the grammatical metaphor.

Passus 3 ends with Conscience's repeating his stand that Mede must not be tolerated in any form by those who aspire to live true lives. In lines 436-481, Conscience offers to the members of the court a picture of the world without Mede, a world in which "resoun shal regne and reumes gouerne" (437) and in which "o cristene kyng kepe vs echone" (441). In this new world order, "Shal no Mede be maister neuermore aftur/ Ac loue and lownesse and lewete togyderes,/ Tho shal be maisteres on molde, trewe men to helpe" (442-44). These lines echo the basic principles established in Conscience's case against Mede, reason and belief in one Christian God.

Though he has already ended his grammatical metaphor, Conscience maintains coherence first by repeating the distinction that only once a deed is done should the reward be given and second by retaining the grammatical term agree: "aftur þe dede þat is ydo the doome shal recorde/ Mercy or no mercy as most trewe acorden" (470-71). Another interesting term appears here, mercy. At no time during the grammatical passage does Conscience use mercy, but having based his whole argument concerning the difference between good and bad reward on the etymologically related mercede (both terms derive from the same Latin source, merces), his use of mercy in this context is understandable. As we will also see, from this point forward Langland no longer uses the term mercede which he himself created, but uses instead mercy in contrast with mede wherever he discusses the distinction between good and evil rewards, the distinction which had prompted him to Anglicize the Latin merces into mercede.4

This use of mercy as the opposite of meed re-appears first in Passus 4 during which Mede and her allies are making a last effort at securing the king's pardon for her crimes. Wrong tries to pay some "men of lawe" to help him in the case Pees has brought against him. This plan seems at first to work for Wrong, and the money is good enough to convince Wisdom and Wit to help him. The king, however, recognizes that Wrong is guilty, and he "swor by Crist and by his croune bothe/ That Wrong for his werkes sholde wo tholye" (79-80). In defense of imprisoning Wrong, Reason scolds all of those who allow themselves to come under the influence of Mede and argues that "by þe rode, y shal no reuthe haue/ Whiles Mede hath the maistrie þer motying is at barres" (131-2). He then ends his diatribe against Mede by saying that were he king, he would not allow her to influence him or his court in any way:

". . . and it so were
That y wer kyng with croune to kepe my reume,
Shulde neuere wrong in this worlde þat y wyte myhte
Be vnpunisched in my power for perel of my soule
Ne gete my grace thorw eny gyfte ne glosynge speche
Ne thorw mede haue mercy, by Marie of heuene." (134-39)
The whole passage hinges on the attempt by Mede and her allies to use her meed, an evil form of reward, to gain the best reward that the king has to offer, his mercy. However, due to the arguments of both Conscience and Reason, the king is able to make the correct judgement, and mercy triumphs over meed. Wrong, that is, gets his just reward.

The first reference to meed after Lady Mede's expulsion is in Passus 7:

3e lordes and ladies and legate of holy churche
That feden foel sages, flateres and lyares,
And han lykyng to lythen hem in hope to do 3ow lawhe
Ve vobis qui ridetis --
And 3eueth such mede and mete and pore men refuse,
In 3oure deth-deynge y drede me sore
Laste tho manere men to muche sorwe 3ouw brynge. (82-87)
It is clear here that the members of the court and of the church who pay entertainers and minstrels are not paying them what the poet would otherwise call huyre for work that deserves to be paid for. Rather, the work that such people do is itself wrong, and the money which is given for it is wrong also. Furthermore, those who pay for this will themselves suffer after their deaths.

Later in the same passus, we see two changes from the B-text to the C-text, and though slight, these changes demonstrate well how the poet clearly intended to carry throughout the poem the revisions he made in creating the distinction between meed and mercede. The B-text reads

"Ye! leue Piers," quod þise pilgrimes and profred hym huyre.
"Nay, by þe peril of my soule!" quod Piers and gan to swere;
"I nolde a ferþyng for Seint Thomas Shryne;
Truþe wolde loue me þe lasse a long tyme after." (5:556-559)
The C-text reads
"3e, leue Peres," quod thise pilgrimes, and proferede Peres mede.
"Nay, bi þe perel of my soule!" Peres gan to swere,
"Y ne wol fonge a ferthynge, for seynt Thomas shryne!
Were it itolde Treuthe at y tok mede
A wolde loue me þe lasse a long tyme aftur." (200-04)
The two differences here are the replacement of huyre with mede in the first line and the addition of the one line in the C-text. In Passus 3, Conscience clarified what is and is not meed so that the audience would understand that the money itself is not evil, but the potential for evil lies the way in which the money is earned or taken. For one to work and then receive money is not evil, but is right because the money in that case is huyre, an acceptable form of money. As if to emphasize that huyre is not bad, the poet has Piers say in the lines directly before these, "Ich haue ybe his foloware al this fourty ynter/ And yserued Treuthe sothly, somdel to paye" (198-90). Furthermore, Piers has received from Truth his wages: "Y haue myn huyre of hym wel and oþer whiles more/ He is þe presteste payere þat eny pore man knoweth;/ He with-halt non hewe his huyre ouer euen" (194-6), lines which echo a similar message in Passus 3:
And þat is no mede but a mercede, a manere dewe dette,
And but hit prestly be ypayed þe payere is to blame,
As by the book þat byt nobody with-holde
The huyre of his hewe ouer eue tol amorwe;
Non morabitur opus mersenarii. (3.297-07)
In the B-text, when Piers refuses to accept the huyre offered by the pilgrims, he seems to be contradicting himself; yet in the C-text, the poet has removed this contradiction by replacing huyre with the improper mede. Now Piers is refusing that which he does not deserve, but he rightfully accepts the money which Truth has paid him since he has worked for it. In the C-text, then, the poet clarifies that Truth would not "loue [Piers] þe lasse a long tyme aftur" for taking what is rightfully his, but would do so only for taking the pilgrims' meed, money that he does not deserve.

In Passus 9 we see another reference to the distinction between a reward received after a task is finished and that taken or given before the job is done:

Alle þe peple hadde pardon ynow þat parfitliche lyuede.
Men of lawe hadde lest þat loth were to plede
But they pre manibus were payed for pledynge at þe barre.
Ac he þat speneth his speche and speketh for the pore
That innocent and nedy is and no man harm wolde,
That conforteth suche in eny caes and coueyteth nat here 3iftes
And for þe loue of oure lord lawe for hem declareth
Shal haue grace of a good ende and greet ioye aftur. (43-50)
In this passage are two phrases that appear earlier in the grammatical metaphor, pre manibus and "Shal haue grace of a good ende and greet ioye aftur." Interestingly, while there is a similar passage in the B-text asking that lawyers serve the poor for little or no money (7.40-60), neither pre manibus nor "grace of good ende and greet ioye aftur" appears there. Both are unique to the C-text, and the fact that they appear in Passus 3 and Passus 9 is strong evidence of the importance that the poet gave to this concept of meed in contrast to mercede.

In Passus 8, the poet returns to the use of mercy in opposition to meed in Piers's warning to the knight who is presenting himself to Piers as his protector. In order to be Piers's protector, the knight must do as Piers says, and one of the commandments is

. . . when 3e mersyen eny man late mercy be taxour
And mekenesse thy mayster, maugre Mede chekes.
And thogh pore men profre 3ouw presentes and 3yftes
Nym hit nat an auntur thow mowe hit naught deserue
For thow shalt 3elden hit so may be or sumdel abuggen hit. (37-41)
Mercy and mekenesse here are the forces which one should allow to control him when he is collecting money, despite the temptations which meed's power will bring. Also, the knight is reminded to command his money collectors not to take money or a bribe in the form of "presentes and 3yftes" since he and they "mowe hit naught deserue"; if they do take money they do not deserve, they will pay dearly. Asking for and receiving only the appropriate taxes is within the knight's power, but to ask for more would not be "resoun ne ryhte." Though he may enjoy the money while he is here on earth, the knight will have to suffer the consequences of his actions in the end. The one-line warning which shows clearly the consequences of taking undeserved payment, "thow shalt 3elden hit so may be or sumdel abuggen hit," replaces the two-line warning in the B-text, "For þow shalt yelde it ayein at one yeres ende/ In a wel perilous place þat Purgatorie hatte" (6.43-44). In both cases, the poet emhasizes the difference between taking what one does not deserve and what one does, between, that is, meed and mercede.

Mercy as a foil to meed is repeated twice in another passage unique to the C-text, 9.187-281. In an extended metaphor of bishops as shepherds in charge of their flock, the dreamer discusses the problems that will arise when the shepherd's master (that is, God) comes to gather and shear the sheep and sell the wool (that is, to judge whose soul has or has not been properly nourished by the bishops). The master discovers that the shepherd has dishonestly covered the sheep's scabs with tar in order to make the flock seem worth more than it really is: "When thy lorde loketh to haue allouance of his bestes/ And of þe moneye thow haddest therwith his mebles to saue/ And þe wolle werthe weye, wo is the thenne!" (271-73). At this point, the shepherd will be forced to give to the master what is rightfully his "or in arrerage falle" (274). The speaker predicts, however, that all the money the shepherd may have gained from his wages and deceptions will not be enough to repay his dishonesty, and, further, ". . . mede ne mercy may nat a myhte availe,/ But 'haue this for þat tho þat thow toke/ Mercy for mede, and my lawe breke'" (276-78).

The poet here reminds the reader of the distinction in the grammatical metaphor between the two different kinds of rewards, but he goes further to relate the rewards to God's rewards for man, not only the physical rewards. The poet here is discussing who is and is not guaranteed a share in the pardon Truth has given to Piers. Any person protected by the pardon receives God's mercy, the mercede he promises all those who are "lele lyuynge" (3.338). Those who fall outside of the pardon do so specifically because they, like the shepherd, have allowed meed to control their lives. The poet suggests here that once one has allowed meed to become such a powerful force in his life, "mercy may nat a myhte availe" in that person's life. That is, such a person has given up the ultimate heavenly reward he might receive, mercy, mercede, or "Grace of good ende and gret ioye aftur" (3.339) simply in order to enjoy the temporary earthly rewards he has now, meed.

The dreamer uses mercy similarly in a contrast to meed in the B-text's Passus 11 and the C-text's Passus 13, when Truth shows him "þe myrour of Mydelerthe" in which Piers

Man and his make . . . myhte se bothe,
Pouerte and plente, bothe pes and werre,
Blisse and bale bothe . . . at ones,
And how þat men mede toke and mercy refusede. (B:11.322-25;C:13.128-41)
Here also, the poet shows that the rewards one accepts when he takes meed hinder one's ability to receive God's mercy, the mercede given to those who deserve it by remaining in agreement with Him and who are therefore "lele lyuynge."

In a part of Passus 13 not found in the corresponding sections of the B-text, mede is used to describe the offerings that the wealthy give in contrast to the small amounts of money, "a myte," that the poor give:

For þe wil is as moche worthe of a wrecche beggare
As al þat þe ryche may rayme and rihtfuly dele,
And as moche mede for a myte þer he offreth
As þe ryche man for al his mone and more as by þe gospell:
Amen dico vobis, quia hec vidua paupercula, etc. (94-98)
Once again, mede refers to money which is used impiously, and another term, myte, refers to money used correctly. The Latin tag is from Mark 12:43, in which Christ compares the widow's two mites which she gives for an offering with the large amounts of money given by the rich, and He points out that the rich are using money which they do not need and which comes from the profits they have made by preying on people like the widow. Moreover, they place their money in the treasury not out of a love for God, but for the pretence of being religious. However, the two mites which the widow offers represent money essential to her existence, yet she chooses to give it in offering out of her love of God. For her sacrifice the widow will receive God's mercede, "grace of good end and greet ioye aftur"; for theirs the rich will receive eternal damnation.

In another passage unique to C, a digression in the middle of a conversation between Lucifer and Satan concerning what to do as Christ approaches the gates of Hell (20.350-58), the poet uses the concept of meed to refer to the reward that liars receive:

Sethe þat Satan myssaide thus foule
Lucifer for his lesynges, lue y noen o þer
Bote oure lord at þe laste lyares here rebuke
And wyte hem al þe wrechednesse that wroughte is her on erthe.
Beth ywaer, 3e wyse clerkes and 3e witty men of lawe,
That 3e belyen not this lewed men, for at the laste Dauid
Witnesseth in his writynges what is lyeares mede:
Odisti omnes qui operantur iniquitatem; perdes omnes qui loquntur mendacium. (350-56)
This use of meed is similar to Conscience's discussion of the "mede þat many prest taken for masses þat thei syngen" (3.310), for in both cases the perpetrators of the sin receive an earthly meed for their actions, but they will also ultimately receive their just reward from a higher source. As the Latin tag that Conscience uses points out, "Amen Amen, Matheu seyth, mercedem suam recipiunt" (3.310a). The Latin tag in Passus 20 is more pointed than Conscience's, but the effect is the same: Any money the priests in Passus 3 receive for singing masses is mede as it is not deserved. Similarly, whatever earthly reward a liar receives for his lies is mede, and the liar has lost any chance for a heavenly reward, mercede. As he does in Passus 3, Langland retains the word mede here to emphasize to his readers the nature of liar's earthly reward and adds the Latin tag to underscore that the liar's rewards are destruction and hate. This passage is further tied to Passus 2 and 3 by the fact that Mede is prepared in Passus 2 to marry the character Fals Witnesse and the fact that Lyare is a member of Mede's retinue when she first appears in court. Once the king is convinced by Conscience of the risk presented by Mede's cohorts, he orders them arrested, but Fals, Fauel and Lyare escape (2.200-238). Lyare is protected from capture by none other than the friars who "for knowyng of comeres they copeden hym as a frere./ Ac he hath leue to lep out as ofte as hym liketh/ And is welcome when he cometh and woneth with hem ofte" (2.240-42). In this late passus, the poet reminds clerics who allow Lyare to dwell with them that they will receive the same final meed as he, detestation and destruction.

In conclusion, the concept of meed is first introduced in the early part of the poem and then re-introduced at important junctures throughout the poem, almost to the end in Passus 20. Further, as Langland developed and revised his poem in its three versions, he devoted much time to the revision of that concept, and these revisions involved not only major changes such as the coining of the term mercede and the addition of the grammatical metaphor in Passus 3, but also minor changes such as the replacement of huyre with mede and the addition of a line in Passus 7 in order to make as clear as possible the distinction between good and bad rewards.

These changes, both major and minor, indicate that Langland was aware of the importance of the influence of money on society and that he was intent upon clarifying as much as he could his views on this influence. What began in the A-text as money, an evil force in society allegorized as Lady Mede, was transformed throughout the revisions into what finally appeared in the C-text, a fully developed philosophy that money can be both good and bad and that it is not the money itself that is bad, but the motives behind its accumulation and its uses that are. Recognizing that by using only the term mede in the first two versions of the poem, he had not clearly distinguished between good and bad money, Langland coined the term mercede and used not only it but also the related term mercy to refer to all the instances of reward which are good and mede to refer to rewards which are bad. Furthermore, he revised the rest of the poem so that all references to money fit his newly created categories.

These revisions show that while Langland may not have completed revising the whole of the C-text, he judiciously chose to revise throughout the text at least the one concept of money. Once the reader appreciates this fact, he can also see that the grammatical metaphor is not an isolated passage in the poem, but that it has a clear purpose in the poem as a whole.

Go to Meed, Mercede, and Mercy: Notes
Go to Meed, Mercede, and Mercy: Works Cited
Go to Meed, Mercede, and Mercy: Appendix

Return to Meed, Mercede, and Mercy: Title Page

Return to Millers' Home Page