William Langland Biography


Virtually nothing is known of the poet who wrote Piers Plowman. At one time, in fact, there was some debate about whether a single author or perhaps as many as five were responsible for the three separate versions of the poem. That controversy has since ended, and scholarship has established a single author for all three versions.

That author’s name was almost certainly William Langland. Two fifteenth century manuscript notes attribute the poem to Langland, and there is a line in the B Text that seems to be intended as a cryptogram of the poet’s name: “’I haue lyued in londe’, quod [I], ’my name is longe wille.’” One manuscript declares that Langland was the son of a certain Stacey (Eustace) de Rokayle, who later held land under the Lord Despenser at Shipton-under-Wychwood in Oxfordshire; in all likelihood, Langland’s father was a franklin. It has been conjectured that Langland was illegitimate, but the difference in surname is no real reason to assume this, such differences being common in the fourteenth century. Langland was not born in Oxfordshire but rather in Shropshire, at Cleobury Mortimer, some eight miles from the Malvern Hills that serve as the setting for the first two visions in Piers Plowman. Because the B Text is dated with some accuracy c. 1377 and because the poet in the B Text declares himself to be forty-five years old, the date of Langland’s birth has been set at about 1332.

Whatever else is “known” about the author’s life is conjectured from passages in the poem that describe the narrator’s life and is based on the assumption that the narrator, “Will,” and the poet Langland are one and the same. In the C Text, the poet speaks of having gone to school, and most likely he was...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Like most medieval authors, the poet who wrote The Vision of William, Concerning Piers the Plowman is almost anonymous. His name is generally thought to have been William Langland. He is thought to have been born at Cleobury, Mortimer, Shropshire, England, about 1332 and to have died in London about 1400, though such claims are in dispute. His biography is mostly hypothetical, being drawn almost entirely from what seem to be autobiographical references in the poem. He was probably educated at a Benedictine monastery in the Malvern hills and became a clerk with minor orders in the Church. He eked out a living in London by singing in churches and by copying legal documents. He wrote the first version of his poem about 1362, revised and greatly expanded it about 1377, and revised it again about 1393.

The digressive poem consists of a series of visions concerning human conduct, the Church, and salvation. The verse is alliterative and without rhyme, in the older pre-Norman style. The use of allegory for satiric purposes, however, comes from the French tradition begun by Jean de Meung’s work in The Romance of the Rose in the thirteenth century. The Vision of William, Concerning Piers the Plowman advocates simplicity in religion and social relations and recognizes honest labor as the foundation of a healthy society. The poem was extremely popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and its values inspired the religious reformers of the sixteenth century. The vivid text offers modern readers a look at medieval morality.