Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature William Langland

Middle English Literature | Langland | Biography | Piers Plowman | Images | Essays and Articles | Additional Resources | Books



Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century


Historiated initial 'portrait' in Corpus Christi manuscript 201 fol. 1r
Detail from Corpus Christi MS 201 f.1r.

William Langland (c.1330-1387)

WILLIAM LANGLAND, the generally accepted author of the Medieval allegorical poem Piers Plowman, is a figure of whom there is no mention in contemporary records. Everything written about his life is educated conjecture based on Langland's texts and later allusions.

Langland was born sometime around 1330. In the B-Text of Piers Plowman, composed around 1377, Imagination says he has followed him "this five and forty winters." In the Dublin manuscript (D.4.1), a note in a fifteenth-century hand claims that Langland's father was one "Stacy de Rokayle." In mid-sixteenth century, Bale in his Illustris Majoris Britanniae wrote that Langland was from "Mortymers Clibury" (now Cleobury Mortimer) in Shropshire near the Malvern Hills where Piers Plowman opens. There was a hamlet named "Langley" nearby, which may explain his last name.1

The poet was educated, inferred both from his own testimony and the quality of his writing, but it is not known where. He seems to have taken so-called 'minor orders' in the church, but, perhaps because he had married, had never taken the 'greater orders'. In Piers Plowman, he mentions "Kytte (Kitty, endearment for Katherine) my Wyf and Kalotte (endearment for Nicolette?) my daughter." At some point, Langland moved to London, where he made a starving wage as a "singer" of masses and as a clerk copying legal documents. He had the reputation of a man who did not bow to his superiors, a man "loathe to reverence lords or ladies, or any soul else."

Langland wrote and rewrote the Vision of Piers Plowman from around 1362 to the time of his death, in at least three different versions or editions, now classified into the A-Text, B-Text, and C-text. Over 50 versions are known to exist in manuscript form, some of them fragmentary. The first edition (A-Text) contains twelve passus or cantos, the second (B-Text) twenty, the third (C-Text) twenty-three. The first group contains no allusions beyond 1362, the second group is thought to have been composed around 1377, and the third group in the 1380s. There is also a "Z-Text", which has been claimed to be a draft even earlier than the A-Text, but acceptance of its authenticity is not unanimous.2 The B-Text is the most complete and strongest poetically, and the one usually studied by college students.

John But, writing in 1387, described Langland as dead, so he can be thought to have died in 1386-7. Others, however, think it is possible that Langland was the author of a poem about the misgovernment of King Richard II, called "Richard the Redeless" (1399). If Langland was the poem's author, who was living in Bristol at the time, it would mean he returned to the west before his death, sometime around the year 1400.

"He was not only a keen observer and thinker, but also an effective writer. His intense feeling for his fellow-men, his profound pity for their sad plight, unshepherded and guideless as he beheld them, were made effective by his imaginative power and his masterly gift of language and expression. He sees vividly the objects and the sights he describes, and makes his readers see them vividly. He is as exact and realistic as Dante, however inferior in the greatness of his conceptions or in nobleness of poetic form."  — J.W. Hales.

  1. Hales, J. W. "William Langland." Dictionary of National Biography. Vol XI.
    New York: The Macmillan Co., 1909. 545-549. [link].
  2. Schmidt, A. V. C. "Introduction". Piers Plowman: A New Translation of the B-text. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. xii.
  3. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd Ed. Vol. 9.
    Farmington Hills, MI: Cengage Gale, 1998. 194.
  4. The Encyclopædia Britannica. 11th Ed. Vol. XVI.
    New York: The Encyclopædia Britannica Company, 1911. 174-6. [link].

Article citation:

Jokinen, Anniina. "Life of William Langland." Luminarium.
8 Mar 2010. [Date you accessed this page].

Backto Langland Main

Site copyright ©1996-2023 Anniina Jokinen. All Rights Reserved.
Created by Anniina Jokinen on July 26, 1996. Last updated on January 24, 2023.


Middle English Literature
Geoffrey Chaucer
John Gower
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
William Langland / Piers Plowman
Julian of Norwich
Margery Kempe
Thomas Malory / Morte D'Arthur
John Lydgate
Thomas Hoccleve
Paston Letters
Medieval Plays
Middle English Lyrics
Essays and Articles

Intro to Middle English Drama

Medieval Cosmology

Historical Events and Persons

Hundred Years' War (1337-1453)
Edward III
Edward, Black Prince of Wales
Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence
John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster
Edmund of Langley, Duke of York
Thomas of Woodstock, Gloucester
Richard of York, E. of Cambridge
Richard II
Henry IV
Edward, Duke of York
Henry V
Thomas, Duke of Clarence
John, Duke of Bedford
Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester
Catherine of Valois
Charles VII, King of France
Joan of Arc
Louis XI, King of France
Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy

The Wars of the Roses (1455-1485)
Causes of the Wars of the Roses
The House of Lancaster
The House of York
The House of Beaufort
The House of Neville

Henry VI
Margaret of Anjou

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York
Edward IV
Elizabeth Woodville
Edward V
Richard III
George, Duke of Clarence

More at Encyclopedia and at
Additional Medieval Sources    

Luminarium | Encyclopedia | What's New | Letter from the Editor | Bookstore | Poster Store | Discussion Forums | Search