Though the poet is loyal to the Church, he proclaims a righteous life to be better than a host of indulgences, and God sends His pardon to Piers when priests dispute it. But he sings as a man conscious of his loneliness and without hope. It is only in a dream that he sees Corruption, " Lady Mede," brought to trial, and the world repenting at the preaching of Reason. In the waking life Reason finds no listeners. The poet himself is looked upon - he tells us bitterly - as a madman. There is a terrible despair in the close of his later poem, where the triumph of Christ is only followed by the reign of Antichrist; where Contrition slumbers amidst the revel of Death and Sin; and Conscience, hard beset by Pride and Sloth, rouses himself with a last effort, and seizing his pilgrim staff wanders over the world to find Piers Ploughman.
The strife indeed which Longland would have averted raged only the fiercer after the repression of the Peasant Revolt. The Statutes of Labourers, effective as they proved in sowing hatred between employer and employed, between rich and poor, were powerless for their immediate ends, either in reducing the actual rate of wages or in restricting the mass of floating labour to definite areas of employment. During the century and a half after the Peasant Revolt villeinage died out so rapidly that it became a rare and antiquated thing. A hundred years after the Black Death the wages of an English labourer could purchase twice the amount of the necessaries of life which could have been obtained for the wages paid under Edward the Third. The statement is corroborated by the incidental descriptions of the life of the working classes which we find in Piers Ploughman. Labourers, Longland tells us, "that have no land to live on but their hands disdained to live on penny ale or bacon, but demanded fresh flesh or fish, fried or baked, and that hot and hotter for chilling of their maw." The market was still in fact in the labourer's hands, in spite of statutes; "and but if he be highly hired else will he chide and wail the time that he was made a workman." The poet saw clearly that as population rose to its normal rate times such as these would pass away. "Whiles Hunger was their master here would none of them chide or strive against his statute, so sternly he looked: and I warn you, workmen, win while ye may, for Hunger hitherward hasteth him fast." But even at the time when he wrote there were seasons of the year during which employment for the floating mass of labour was hard to find.
In the long interval between harvest-tide and harvest-tide, work and food were alike scarce in the mediaeval homestead. "I have no penny," says Piers the Ploughman in such a season, in lines which give us the picture of a farm of the day, " pullets for to buy, nor neither geese nor pigs, but two green cheeses, a few curds and cream, and an oaten cake, and two loaves of beans and bran baken for my children. I have no salt bacon, nor no cooked meat collops for to make, but I have parsley and leeks and many cabbage plants, and eke a cow and a calf, and a cart-mare to draw a-field my dung while the drought lasteth, and by this livelihood we must all live till Lammas-tide (August), and by that I hope to have harvest in my croft." But it was not till Lammas-tide that high wages and the new corn bade "Hunger go to sleep," and during the long spring and summer the free labourer, and the " waster that will not work but wander about, that will eat no bread but the finest wheat, nor drink but of the best and brownest ale," was a source of social and political danger. "He grieveth him against God and grudgeth against Reason, and then curseth he the King and all his Council after such law to allow labourers to grieve." The terror of the landowners expressed itself in legislation which was a fitting sequel to the Statutes of Labourers. They forbade the child of any tiller of the soil to be apprenticed in a town.
They prayed Richard to ordain "that no bondman or bondwoman shall place their children at school, as has been done, so as to advance their children in the world by their going into the Church." The new colleges which were being founded at the two Universities at this moment closed their gates upon villeins. It was the failure of such futile efforts to effect their aim which drove the energy of the great proprietors into a new direction, and in the end revolutionized the whole agricultural system of the country. Sheep-farming required fewer hands than tillage, and the scarcity and high price of labour tended to throw more and more land into sheep-farms. In the decrease of personal service, as villeinage died away, it became the interest of the lord to diminish the number of tenants on his estate as it had been before his interest to maintain it, and he did this by massing the small allotments together into larger holdings. By this course of eviction the number of the free-labour class was enormously increased while the area of employment was diminished; and the social danger from vagabondage and the "sturdy beggar" grew every day greater till it brought about the despotism of the Tudors.
This social danger mingled with the yet more formidable religious peril which sprang from the party violence of the later Lollardry. The persecution of Courtenay had deprived the religious reform of its more learned adherents and of the support of the Universities, while Wyclif's death had robbed it of its head at a moment when little had been done save a work of destruction. From that moment Lollardry ceased to be in any sense an organized movement, and crumbled into a general spirit of revolt. All the religious and social discontent of the times floated instinctively to this new centre; the socialist dreams of the peasantry, the new and keener spirit of personal morality, the hatred of the friars, the jealousy of the great lords towards the prelacy, the fanaticism ofthereformingzealot,wereblended together in a common hostility to the Church and a common resolve to substitute personal religion for its dogmatic and ecclesiastical system. But it was this want of organization, this looseness and fluidity of the new movement, that made it penetrate through every class of society. Women as well as men became the preachers of the new sect.