Apparently, in its own day, The Vision of William, Concerning Piers the Plowman was a very popular work. More than fifty manuscripts of the poem in its various versions still exist. The poem’s four printings before 1561 are evidence of its continued popularity. The audience of Piers Plowman was not, as it was for most poems of the alliterative revival, a small group of provincial nobles; rather, as J. A. Burrow has shown, the poem would have been read by a broadly based national public of parish priests or local clergy whose tastes favored purely didactic literature. In addition, Burrow connects the poem with a growing lay public of the rising bourgeoisie, whose tastes were still conservative and generally religious. The didactic content of the poem, then, was its chief appeal in its own time.
By the sixteenth century, however, with the rise of Protestantism, William Langland’s poem became acclaimed for its aspects of social satire. This strain in the poem had been underlined even in the fourteenth century, when John Ball, in a letter to the peasants of Essex during the revolt of 1381, mentioned Piers the Plowman. Possibly because of this mention, the very orthodox Catholic Langland came, ironically, to be associated with Lollardy, and to be looked on as a bitter critic of the Roman Church and a precursor of Protestantism.
By the late sixteenth century, Langland’s western Midland dialect had become too difficult for any but the most ardent reader, and so no new edition of Piers Plowman appeared until 1813. Though nineteenth century readers deplored Langland’s allegory, they could still, like the readers before them, admire Piers Plowman as social satire, and in addition, they could appreciate and admire the stark realism in such scenes as the confession of the seven deadly sins in Passus 5 (B Text). Their chief interest in Langland was historical: They viewed the poem as a firsthand commentary on the fourteenth century.
Benson, C. David. Public “Piers Plowman”: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004. In his analysis of the work, Benson treats the poem as a public work, anchored in its medieval world, rather than a personal or elite work.
Brewer, Charlotte. Editing “Piers Plowman”: The Evolution of the Text. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. An account of the more than fifty editions of the poem that have appeared since 1550. Brewer examines the lives and motivations of the various editors and the relationships among successive editions.
Hewett-Smith, Kathleen M., ed. William Langland’s “Piers Plowman”: A Book of Essays. New York: Routledge, 2001. A collection of critical essays examining the relevance of Piers Plowman to contemporary literary theory and to fourteenth century culture and ideology. Includes bibliographical references and index.
Kelen, Sarah A. Langland’s Early Modern Identities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Kelen uses cultural studies and the book’s history to show how editors and scholars during the sixteenth through the early nineteenth century used their own concept of the Middle Ages to reshape the work.
Langland, William. Piers Plowman: The Donaldson Translation,...
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