William Langland is the conjectured author of the fourteenth-century English poem Piers Plowman. Almost nothing is known of Langland himself, and if he authored any other works of literature they are no longer known to us. Nonetheless, on the basis of Piers Plowman alone, Langland is one of the most important figures in Middle English literature. Langland was writing during a period of significant cultural and linguistic change in England. The English language itself had been rapidly changing as a result of the Norman Conquest and increased interaction with the European continent; and English culture had entered a period of significant strife. The rampant corruption of medieval Roman Catholicism had incited a great deal of unrest among the English populace, and a number of authors, Langland among them, would directly address their own thoughts on Christianity, the Church, and the state of England as a whole through the medium of poetic allegory. In so doing, Piers Plowman became (intentionally or not) a rallying-point for one of the largest revolts in medieval history, and the poem would be appropriated by a number of radicals throughout England.
In addition to Piers Plowman's political role in its own times, the poem is still influential today due to its outstanding literary qualities. The poem is difficult for modern readers; Langland's Middle English is too archaic to be understood without the aid of a glossary or translation. Nevertheless, whether read in translation or in the original, it is clear that the poem is one of the finest works of literature to emerge out of the fourteenth century. Langland's elegant imagery and straight-forward style make the poem one of the most unique of its age. With the exception of a handful of other works written near the same era, Piers Plowman is one of the earliest poems in the English language to be written for a general audience rather than a member of the educated elite. As a result, it is an early example of literary realism, and its plain style would be adopted by a number of other poets in the succeeding decades of the fifteenth century.
Almost nothing is known of William Langland the man, and even his authorship of the widely influential Piers Plowman is only scantily documented. The attribution of Piers to Langland rests principally on the evidence of a manuscript held at Trinity College, Dublin. This document directly ascribes "Perys Ploughman" to one "Willielmi de Langlond", son of "Stacy de Rokayle, who died in Shipton-under-Wichwood, a tenant of the Lord Spenser in the county of Oxfordshire." Other manuscripts also name the author as "Robert or William Langland," or "Wilhelmus W." (most likely shorthand for “William of Wichwood”). The poem itself also seems to point towards Langland's authorship. At one stage the narrator remarks: “I have lyved in londe...my name is longe wille” (B.XV.152). This can be taken as a coded reference to the poet's name, in the style of much late-medieval literature. Although the evidence may appear slender, Langland's authorship has been widely accepted by commentators since the 1920s. It is not, however, entirely beyond dispute, as recent work by Stella Pates and C. David Benson has demonstrated.
Langland's entire identity rests on a string of conjectures and vague hints. It would seem that he was born in the West Midlands: Langland's narrator receives his first vision while sleeping in the Malvern Hills, between Herefordshire and Worcestershire, which suggests some level of attachment to this area. The dialect of the poem also implies that its author originated from this part of the country. Although his date of birth is unknown, there is a strong indication that he died in c.1385-1386. A note written by one "Iohan but" ("John But") in a fourteenth-century manuscript of the poem (Rawlinson 137) makes direct reference to the death of its author: whan this werke was wrouyt, ere Wille myte aspie/ Deth delt him a dent and drof him to the erthe / And is closed vnder clom ("once this work was made, before Will was aware / Death struck him a blow and knocked him to the ground / And now he is buried under the soil"). Since But himself, according to records, seems to have died in 1387, Langland must have died shortly before this date.
The rest of our knowledge of the poet can only be reconstructed from Piers itself. There is in fact a wealth of ostensibly biographical data in the poem, but it is difficult to know how this should be treated. The C-text of Piers contains a passage in which Will describes himself as a “loller” living in the Cornhill area of London, and refers directly to his wife and child: it also suggests that he was well above average height, and made a living reciting prayers for the dead. However, it would be rash to take this episode at face value. The distinction between allegory and real-life in Piers is by no means absolute, and the entire passage, as some have observed, is suspiciously reminiscent of the false confession tradition in medieval literature (represented elsewhere by the Confessio Goliae and by Fals-Semblaunt in Jean de Meun's Roman de la Rose). A similar passage in the final Passus of the B- and C-texts provides further ambiguous details. This also refers to Will's wife, and describes his torments by Elde (Old Age), as he complains of baldness, gout and impotence. This may well indicate that the poet had already reached middle age by the 1370s: but once again suspicions are aroused by the conventional nature of this description, and the fact that it occurs towards the end of the poem, when Will's personal development is reaching its logical conclusion.
Further details can be inferred from the poem, but these are also far from unproblematic. For instance, the detailed and highly sophisticated level of religious knowledge in the poem indicates that Langland had some connection to the clergy, but the nature of this relationship is uncertain. The poem shows no obvious bias towards any particular group or order of churchmen, but is rather even-handed in its anticlericalism, attacking the regular and secular clergy indiscriminately. This makes it difficult to align Langland with any specific order. He is probably best regarded, as John Bowers writes, as a member of "that sizable group of unbeneficed clerks who formed the radical fringe of contemporary society...the poorly shod Will is portrayed 'y-robed in russet' traveling about the countryside, a crazed dissident showing no respect to his superiors". Piers-scholar Malcom Godden has proposed that Langland lived as an itinerant hermit, attaching himself to a patron temporarily, exchanging writing services for shelter and food.
The tradition that Langland was a Wycliffite—an early English form of Protestantism before Martin Luther's Reformation—is an idea promoted by Robert Crowley's 1550 edition of Piers and complicated by early appropriation of the Plowman-figure, and it is almost certainly incorrect. It is true that Langland and Wyclif shared many concerns: both question the value of indulgences and pilgrimage, promote the use of the vernacular in preaching, attack clerical corruption, and even advocate disendowment. But these topics were widely discussed throughout the late fourteenth century, only becoming typically associated with Wyclif after Langland's death.
Themes and Summary
Piers Plowman (written circa 1360–1399) or Visio Willelmi de Petro Ploughman (William's Vision of Piers Plowman) is the title of Langland's Middle English epic. It is written in unrhymed alliterative verse divided into sections called passus (Latin for "steps"). Piers is considered one of the early great works of English literature. It is one of only a few Middle English poems that can stand comparison with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The poem—part theological allegory, part social satire—concerns the narrator's intense quest for the true Christian life, which is told from the point of view of a medieval Catholic narrator who falls asleep in the English Midlands and experiences a series of visions. The poem consists of the narrator's visions, as he is guided by the virtuous plowman, Piers, of the title, and also includes an examination into the lives of three allegorical characters, Dowel ("Do-Well"), Dobet ("Do-Better"), and Dobest ("Do-Best").
The poem begins in the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire. The poet falls asleep and has a vision of a tower set high upon a hill and a fortress (dongeon) lying deep in a valley; the tower, in keeping with medieval allegory, is a symbol of Heaven, and the "dungeon" is a symbol of Hell. Between these two symbolic places, there is a "fair field full of folk," representing the world of mankind. In the early part of the poem, Piers, the humble plowman of the title, appears and offers himself as the narrator's guide to truth. The latter part of the work, however, is concerned with the narrator's search for Dowel, ("Do-Well") Dobet ("Do-Better") and Dobest ("Do-best"), three allegorical figures who, as their names suggest, illustrate the ways of virtue. In particular, Dowel illustrates the virtue of conscience, Dobet the virtue of grace, and Dobest the virtue of charity. A sample of the poem's language and style can be heard in the following excerpt, from the poem's prologue:
The poem is extremely difficult to summarize, due to in part to its nature as a densely allegorical series of dream-visions. The poem has no clear narrative to speak of; although there is a clear protagonist, Piers, and the poem does indeed follow his development as a Christian,. Piers Plowman is more an instructional poem rather than an epic story in the vein of Dante Alighieri or Geoffrey Chaucer. Moreover, Langland's style is somewhat erratic, and the poem frequently diverges into various tangents on political and theological subjects.
Langland's technique in Piers Plowman, however, is exemplary. Unlike Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, or indeed most literature of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries which has survived to the present day, Piers Plowman is written in an alliterative verse style reminiscent of Old English poetry, such as Beowulf. Langland's use of alliterative verse, however, is flexible, integrating a number of aspects of more modern verse styles; the poem is thus a bridge between the medieval poetry of the Anglo-Saxons and the Latinized poetry of latter centuries.
Moreover, the language of Piers Plowman is remarkably plain; Langland went to extensive lengths to ensure that his poem was not bogged down by a dense vocabulary and obscure allusions, and it is quite clear that the poem was intended to be read and understood by a general audience of English-speakers. In this respect, the poem, although very difficult for modern readers, was one of the clearest and most accessible works of literature in its day.
Piers Plowman is considered to be the biggest challenge in Middle English textual criticism, on par with the Greek New Testament. There are 50-56 surviving manuscripts, depending on the number deemed to be fragments. None of these texts are in the author's own hand, and none of them derive directly from any of the others. All differ from each other.
All modern discussion of the text revolves around the classifications made by Walter William Skeat. Skeat argued that there are as many as ten forms of the poem, but only three are to be considered "authoritative"—the A, B, and C-texts—although the definition of "authoritative" in this context has been rather problematic. According to the three-version hypothesis, each version represents different manuscript traditions deriving from three distinct and successive stages of authorial revision. Although precise dating is debated, the A, B, and C texts are now commonly thought of as the progressive (20-25 yrs.) work of a single author.
According to the three versions hypothesis, the A-text was written c. 1367-1370 and is the earliest. It is considered unfinished and runs to about 2,500 lines. The B-text was written c. 1377-1379; it revises A, adds new material, and is three times the length of A. It runs to about 7,300 lines. The C-text was written in the 1380s as a major revision of B, except the final sections. There is some debate over whether it can be regarded as finished or not. It entails additions, omissions, and transpositions; it is not significantly different in size from B. Some scholars see it as a conservative revision of B that aims at disassociating the poem from radical views expressed by Langland on religious subjects, but there is little actual evidence for this proposal.
Skeat believed that the A-text was incomplete, basing his editions on a B-text manuscript (Oxford, MS. Laud Misc. 581) that he wrongly thought was probably a holograph—that is, written entirely in Langland's own hand. Modern editors following Skeat, such as George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson, have maintained the basic tenets of Skeat's work: there were three final authorial texts, now lost, that can be reconstructed, albeit imperfectly and without certainty, by rooting out the "corruption" and "damage" done by scribes. Other scholars have hypothesized the existence of a Z-text predecessor to A which contains elements of both A and C. It is the shortest version of the poem, and its authenticity remains disputed.
There are some scholars who dispute the ABC chronology of the texts altogether. There is also a minority school of thought that two authors contributed to the three versions of the poem. Neither of these reappraisals of the textual tradition of the poem are generally seen as very robust. Nevertheless, the troubled textual history of Piers Plowman is necessary to keep in mind when attempting to analyze and describe the poem as a literary work.
- Benson, C. David. “The Langland Myth,” in William Langland's Piers Plowman: a book of essays. Edited by Kathleen M. Hewett-Smith. New York: Routledge, 2001. pp. 83-99. ISBN 0815328044
- Bowers, John M. “Piers Plowman and the Police: notes towards a history of the Wycliffite Langland.” Yearbook of Langland Studies 6 (1992): 1-50.
- Godden, Malcolm. The Making of Piers Plowman. London: Longman, 1990. ISBN 0582016851
- Gradon, Pamela. “Langland and the Ideology of Dissent.” Proceedings of the British Academy 66 (1980): 179-205.
- Rickert, Edith. “John But, Messenger and Maker.” Modern Philology 11 (1903): 107-117.
- Scase, Wendy. Piers Plowman and the New Anticlericalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. ISBN 052136017X
All links retrieved October 4, 2020.
- Anthology of English Literature
- International Piers Plowman Society Website of international scholarly organization for the study of Piers Plowman and other alliterative poems; includes searchable database of annotations of all scholarship on these poems since 1986.
- Piers Plowman Electronic Archive A multi-level, hyper-textually linked electronic archive of the textual tradition of all three versions of the fourteenth-century allegorical dream vision Piers Plowman.
- William Langland page at Luminarium. With links to texts of A and B.
- “Piers Plowman and Its Sequence by John Matthews Manly, vol. 2, The End of the Middle Ages," in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature (18 vols). Edited by A. W. Ward & A. R. Waller, (1907-1921).
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