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Historiated initial 'portrait' in Corpus Christi manuscript 201 fol. 1r

William Langland (c.1330-1387)

WILLIAM LANGLAND, the supposed English poet, generally regarded until recently as the single author of the remarkable 14th-century poem Piers the Plowman. Its full title is — The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman, together with Vita de Do-wel, Do-bet, et Do-best, secundum Wit et Resoun; usually given in Latin as Visio Willelmi de Petro Plowman, &c.; the whole work being sometimes briefly described as Liber de Petro Plowman. We know nothing of William Langland except from the supposed evidence of the MSS. of the poem and the text itself, and it will be convenient first to give a brief general description of them.

The poem exists in three forms. If we denote these by the names of A-text (or Vernon), B-text (or Crowley), and C-text (or Whitaker), we find, of the first, ten MSS., of the second fourteen, and of the third seventeen, besides seven others of a mixed type. It will be seen that we thus have abundance of material, a circumstance which proves the great popularity of the poem in former times. Owing to the frequent expressions which indicate a desire for reformation in religion, it was, in the time of Edward VI, considered worthy of being printed. Three impressions of the B-text were printed by Robert Crowley in 1550; and one of these was badly reprinted by Owen Rogers in 1561. In 1813 the best MS. of the C-text was printed by Dr E. Whitaker. In 1842 Mr Thomas Wright printed an edition from an excellent MS. of the B-text in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge (2nd ed., 1856, new ed., 1895). A complete edition of all three texts was printed for the Early English Text Society as edited by the Rev. W. W. Skeat, with the addition of Richard the Redeless, and containing full notes to all three texts, with a glossary and indexes, in 1867-1885. The Clarendon Press edition, by the same editor, appeared in 1886.

The A-text contains a prologue and 12 passus or cantos (i.-iv., the vision of the Lady Meed; v.-viii., the vision of Piers the Plowman; ix.-xii., the vision of Do-wel, Do-bet and Do-best), with 2567 lines. The B-text is much longer, containing 7242 lines, with additional passus following after xi. of A, the earlier passus being altered in various respects. The C-text, with 7357 lines, is a revision of B.

The general contents of the poem may be gathered from a brief description of the C-text. This is divided into twenty-three passus, nominally comprising four parts, called respectively Visio de Petro Plowman, Visio de Do-wel, Visio de Do-bet and Visio de Do-best. Here Do-bet signifies " do better " in modern English; the explanation of the names being that he who does a kind action does well, he who teaches others to act kindly does better, whilst he who combines both practice and theory, both doing good himself and teaching others to do the same, does best. But the visions by no means closely correspond to these descriptions; and Skeat divides the whole into a set of eleven visions, which may be thus enumerated: (1) Vision of the Field Full of Folk, of Holy Church, and of the Lady Meed (passus i.-v.); (2) Vision of the Seven Deadly Sins, and of Piers the Plowman (pass. vi.-x.); (3) Wit, Study, Clergy and Scripture (pass. xi., xii.); (4) Fortune, Nature, Recklessness and Reason (pass. xiii., xiv.); (5) Vision of Imaginative (pass. xv.); (6) Conscience, Patience and Activa-Vita (pass. xvi., xvii.); (7) Free-will and the Tree of Charity (pass. xviii., xix.); (8) Faith, Hope and Charity (pass. xx.); (9) The Triumph of Piers the Plowman, i.e. the Crucifixion, Burial and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (pass. xxi.); (10) The Vision of Grace (pass. xxii.); (11) The Vision of Antichrist (pass. xxiii.).

The bare outline of the C-text gives little idea of the real nature of the poem. The author's object, as Skeat describes it, was to " afford himself opportunities (of which he has amply availed himself) for describing the life and manners of the poorer classes; for inveighing against clerical abuses and the rapacity of the friars; for representing the miseries caused by the great pestilences then prevalent and by the hasty and ill-advised marriages consequent thereupon; and for denouncing lazy workmen and sham beggars, the corruption and bribery then too common in the law courts, and all the numerous forms of falsehood which are at all time the fit subjects for satire and indignant exposure. In describing, for example, the seven deadly sins, he gives so exact a description of Glutton and Sloth that the reader feels them to be no mere abstractions, but drawn from the life; and it becomes hardly more difficult to realize Glutton than it is to realize Sir John Falstaff. The numerous allegorical personages so frequently introduced, such as Scripture, Clergy, Conscience, Patience and the like, are all mouthpieces of the author himself, uttering for the most part his own sentiments, but sometimes speaking in accordance with the character which each is supposed to represent. The theological disquisitions which are occasionally introduced are somewhat dull and tedious, but the earnestness of the author's purpose and his energy of language tend to relieve them, and there are not many passages which might have been omitted without loss. The poem is essentially one of those which improve on a second reading, and as a linguistic monument it is of very high value. Mere extracts from the poem, even if rather numerous and of some length, fail to give a fair idea of it. The whole deserves, and will repay, a careful study; indeed, there are not many single works from which a student of English literature and of the English language may derive more substantial benefit.

"The metre is alliterative, and destitute of final rhyme. It is not very regular, as the author's earnestness led him to use the fittest words rather than those which merely served the purpose of rhythm. The chief rule is that, in general, the same letter or combination of letters should begin three stressed syllables in the same line, as, for example, in the line which may be modernized thus: 'Of all manner of men, the mean and the rich.' Sometimes there are but two such rhyme-letters, as: 'Might of the commons made him to reign.' Sometimes there are four, as: 'In a summer season, when soft was the sun.' There is invariably a pause, more or less distinct, in the middle of each line " (Ency. Brit., 9th ed., art. Langland).

The traditional view, accepted by such great authorities as Skeat and Jusserand, that a single author - and that author Langland - was responsible for the whole poem, in all its versions, has been so recently disputed that it seems best to state it in Skeat's own words, before giving briefly the alternative view, which propounds a theory of composite authorship, denying any real existence to " William Langland." The account of the single-author theory is repeated from Professor Skeat's article in the 9th edition of this work, slightly revised by him in 1905 for this edition.

" The author's name is not quite certain, and the facts concerning his life are few and scanty. As to his Christian name we are sure, from various allusions in the poem itself, and the title Visio Willelmi, &c., in many MSS.; so that we may at once reject the suggestion that his name may have been Robert. In no less than three MSS. [of the C-text; one not later than 1427] occurs the following colophon: 'Explicit visio Willelmi W. de Petro le Plowman.' What is here meant by W. it is difficult to conjecture; but it is just possible that it may represent Wychwood (of which more presently), or Wigornensis, i.e. of Worcester. As to the surname, we find the note that 'Robert or William Langland made pers ploughman,' in a handwriting of the 15th century, on the fly-leaf of a MS. copy [of the B-text] formerly belonging to Lord Ashburnham, and now in the British Museum; and in a Dublin MS. [of the C-text] is the note [in a 15th-century hand]: 'Memorandum, quod Stacy de Rokayle, pater Willielmi de Langlond, qui Stacius fuit generosus et morabatur in Schiptone-under-Whicwode, tenens domini le Spenser in comitatu Oxon., qui predictus Willielmus fecit librum qui vocatur Perys Ploughman.' There is no trace of any Langland family in the midland counties, while the Langley family were wardens of Wychwood forest in Oxfordshire between the years 1278 and 1362; but this consideration can hardly set aside the above statement. According to Bale, our author was born at Cleobury Mortimer, which is quite consistent with the supposition that his father may have removed from that place to Shipton in Oxfordshire, as there seems to have been a real connexion between the families in those places.

" The internal evidence concerning the author is fuller and more satisfactory. By piecing together the various hints concerning himself which the poet gives us, we may compile the following account. His name was William (and probably Langland), and he was born about 1332, perhaps at Cleobury Mortimer in Shropshire. His father, who was doubtless a franklin or farmer, and his other friends put him to school, made a 'clerk' or scholar of him, and taught him what Holy Writ meant. In 1362, at the age of about thirty, he found himself wandering upon the Malvern hills, and fell asleep beside a stream, and saw in a vision a field full of folk, i.e. this present world, and many other remarkable sights which he duly records. From this supposed circumstance he named his poem The Vision of William, though it is really a succession of visions, since he mentions several occasions on which he awoke, and afterwards again fell asleep; and he even tells us of some adventures which befel him in his waking moments. In some of these visions there is no mention of Piers the Plowman, but in others he describes him as being the coming reformer who was to remedy all abuses, and restore the world to a right condition. It is remarkable that his conception of this reformer changes from time to time, and becomes more exalted as the poem advances. At first he is no more than a ploughman, one of the true and honest labourers who are the salt of the earth; but at last he is identified with the great reformer who has come already, the regenerator of the world in the person of Jesus Christ; in the author's own phrase, 'Petrus est Christus.' If this be borne in mind, it a will not be possible to make the mistake into which so many have fallen, of speaking of Piers the Plowman as being the author, not the subject, of the poem. The author once alludes to the nickname of Long Will bestowed upon him from his tallness of stature - just as the poet Gascoigne was familiarly called Long George. Though there is mention of the Malvern hills more than once near the beginning of the poem, it is abundantly clear that the poet lived for 'many years in Cornhill (London), with his wife Kitte and his daughter Calote.'

He seems to have come to London soon after the date of the first commencement of his work, and to have long continued there. He describes himself as being a tall man, one who was loath to reverence lords or ladies or persons in gay apparel, and not deigning to say 'God save you' to the sergeants whom he met in the street, insomuch that many people took him to be a fool. He was very poor, wore long robes, and had a shaven crown, having received the clerical tonsure. But he seems only to have taken minor orders, and earned a precarious living by singing the placebo, dirige and seven psalms for the good of men's souls. The fact that he was married may explain why he never rose in the church. But he had another source of livelihood in his ability to write out legal documents, and he was extremely familiar with the law courts at Westminster.

His leisure time must have been entirely occupied with his poem, which was essentially the work of his lifetime. He was not satisfied with rewriting it once, but he actually re-wrote it twice; and from the abundance of the MSS. which still exist we can see its development from the earliest draught (A-text), written about 1362, to its latest form (C-text), written about 1393-4 " In 1399, just before the deposition of Richard II, appeared a poem addressed to the king, who is designated as 'Richard the Redeless,' i.e. devoid of counsel. This poem, occurring in only one MS. [of the B-text] in which it is incomplete, breaking off abruptly in the middle of a page, may safely be attributed to Langland, who was then in Bristol. As he was at that time about sixty-seven years of age, we may be sure that he did not long survive the accession of Henry IV. It may here be observed that the well-known poem entitled Pierce Ploughman's Crede, though excellently written, is certainly an imitation by another hand; for the Pierce Ploughman of the Crede is very different in conception from the subject of 'William's Vision.' "



      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed., Vol. XVI.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 176.





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