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 visions that he relates to the reader, each vision concerned with humanity’s relationships to God, relationships that concerned every aspect of life, according to medieval thought.
In the first vision, which is probably the best known, the poet dreams of a vast field of people going about all the tasks and activities of the poet’s world. The vision is explained to him by a lady named Holy Church, who informs him that the castle at one end of the field is the home of Truth, or God, and that in the dungeon in the valley dwells the Father of Falsehood, or Satan. When asked by the poet how he might save his soul, the lady replies that he should learn to accept Truth, along with love and pity for his fellow humans. The poet then envisions a long, involved sequence in which appears Lady Mede, representing just reward and bribery simultaneously. A king proposes to marry Lady Mede to Conscience, after her rescue from False, but Conscience proclaims against her and refuses. Bribery, it is implied, cannot be reconciled with conscience. Reason, sent for by the king, promises to serve him, too, if Conscience would be another counselor. One interesting part of this sequence of the poem is Conscience’s explanation of Latin grammar, with its declensions and agreement of noun and...
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