Like Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), William Langland’s Piers Plowman is one of the great vernacular works of the fourteenth century. Unlike Chaucer’s poetry, however, Langland’s work is apparently of and for the people, rather than the court. That the poem was popular can be seen in the meter in which it was written and by the existence of more than fifty manuscripts. Within the manuscripts are three different texts, the second and third being revisions containing additions to the first and earliest. The three texts, or versions, have been dated respectively by scholars at about 1362, 1377, and 1393.
Langland’s poem is in part a work of social protest, written from the viewpoint of the common person. The last half of the fourteenth century was a period of disaster and social unrest, the time of severe visitations of the plague (with accompanying moral, social, and economic upheavals), of the Peasant Revolt of 1381, and of John Wycliffe’s Lollard movement. Langland often inserted, on behalf of the common folk, protests against unfair dealings by the Crown, the courts, the clergy, and even the tradesmen. Being of the common folk himself, the poet recognized the trouble visited upon them, and he cried out bitterly against the cheating of the poor by the butcher, the baker, the miller, and others.
Most authorities now grant that the poem was probably written by one person, although some doubt has been expressed in the past on this point. Internal evidence indicates the author to be Langland, a recipient of minor orders in the Church and a married man living in London. Despite allusions and references to himself and to happenings of the times, however, the author has retained the anonymity typical of the medieval author. The alliterative verse, much like the metrical structure used in Beowulf (c. 1000) and other Anglo-Saxon poems, was the native style of versification lost when the conventions of the metrical system were popularized by court poetry. In the hands of medieval writers, including Langland, the Old English alliterative verse had not the subtlety and power it once had in the ninth and tenth centuries. As used by Langland, the measure consisted of lines of any number of syllables, divided into half-lines. Each half-line was given two heavy beats in important words, with the heavy beats accentuated by alliteration, as in such a line as “And wo in winter-tyme—with wakynge a nyghtes.”
To emphasize the social or metrical aspects of Piers Plowman seems unfair to the poem, for it is essentially a religious work, filled with the religious doctrines, dogma, views, and sentiments of medieval Catholicism. In the poem, the poet has a series of...
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