Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 723
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.
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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 educated at the priory of Great Malvern in Worcestershire. He would have gone through the usual training for the priesthood, but, according to evidence in the poem, the deaths of his father and friends left him without a benefactor and forced him to abandon his studies before taking holy orders. He would have been unable to advance in the Church, having left school with only minor orders, partly because of his incomplete education and because, as the poet writes, he was married—a right permitted only to clerks in orders below subdeacon.
Because of these apparent facts, E. Talbot Donaldson assumes that Langland was an acolyte, one of the poor, unbeneficed clergy who had no official way of making a living within the Church hierarchy. Certainly he was poor, but he seems to have claimed exemption from manual labor by virtue of his being a tonsured clerk. W. W. Skeat conjectures that Langland may have earned some money as a scribe, copying out legal documents, since the poem displays a close knowledge of the form of such documents. Perhaps he was able to pick up odd clerical jobs here and there in the city of London, where, according to an apparently autobiographical account in the C Text, he went to live at Cornhill with his wife, Kitte, and daughter, Callote. According to this passage, Langland seems to have earned money by going about singing the office of the dead or other prayers for the living and making regular monthly rounds to the homes of his wealthy patrons.
Langland describes himself, though perhaps with some ironic hyperbole, as a singular character, apparently very tall and lean (his nickname is “Long Will”), wandering about dressed as a beggar, showing little respect for the wealthy who liked to parade their own importance, and spending time scribbling verses. Some considered him mad. Certainly it is true that he spent a good deal of time writing and rewriting Piers Plowman. He seems to have labored some thirty years, refining the poem and perhaps was still revising it at his death; the last two passus of the C version show little change from those of the B Text, suggesting that Langland may have died before he finished the last revision. To be sure, the date of Langland’s death is even less certain than that of his birth; it is unlikely that the poet survived his century. If, as has often been disputed, Langland was the author of the poem Richard the Redeless, he was still alive in 1395.