In This Article Piers Plowman

  • Introduction
  • Journals
  • Textual Studies
  • Language and Meter
  • Biographical Contexts and Interpretation
  • Relation of Versions
  • Particular Figures
  • Latin in Piers Plowman
  • Gender Studies
  • Modern Theory
  • Followers and Literary Tradition
  • Other Primary Texts

British and Irish Literature Piers Plowman
by
Andrew Galloway
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0100

Introduction

In its three (or four) versions, modern readers often find the allegorical, dream-vision alliterative poem Piers Plowman more difficult and alien than other major poetry of its period, such as that of Geoffrey Chaucer or Pearl. Yet this has not inhibited criticism of and interest in Piers Plowman or weakened its claim to be considered a major work. Highly intellectual, the poem does not serve as a vehicle for predictable ideas; highly dramatic, it does not mainly serve to entertain. It raises increasingly difficult aspects of topics through dramatic allegorical encounters and debates, rising to lyric intensity and satire as sharp as anything in Chaucer’s work, then has a notorious habit of dropping scenes at moments of intellectual or spiritual crisis and starting again, a pattern that may seem all too realistically dreamlike. Study of the poem has always involved an unusual degree of debate. Yet the idea first fully asserted by the late-19th-century scholar W. W. Skeat, that we should consider it in three versions (“A,” of about 2,500 lines, to c. 1365; “B,” of about 7,200 lines, to c. 1378; “C,” of about 7,300 lines, to c. 1390), all by one author, William Langland (who indicates that name in coded ways in the poem), has generally withstood a century and more of argument. Still unsettled is the status of “Z,” a unique copy of the A text in about 1,600 lines that may represent the author’s initial version. All surviving medieval copies show an unusual degree of “participation” by those copying the poem; as an editorial focus, it is an object of fascination and frustration. The author “signs” his poem only by its protagonist’s name, Will, and a set of what are agreed to be wordplay on the name “Langland” (e.g., “Y have lyved in londe, and my name is Longe Wille”). A memorandum from an early-15th-century copy of the poem declares that William Langland, son of the nobleman Eustace de la Rokele, made the book called Piers Plowman; after decades of argument this seems more confirmed than ever. Early-21st-century work on the Rokeles has identified a plausible candidate for “Will” in William de la Rokele, priest of Redgrave, ordained in Worcester, near Malvern Hills (where the poem opens), who spent some years in Essex in the 1350s; if this is the poet, he then presumably headed toward the world of London and Westminster that the poem fitfully surveys. Yet we still do not know precisely in what forms its author first “published” it, how he revised it or when or where, with what kinds of learning or literary knowledge, or under what patronage. Copies were owned by lawyers and speakers of Parliament, but it was quoted by rebels in 1381. It survives in at least fifty-five full copies and fragments plus several printed editions that drew on yet other lost medieval copies, indicating a readership far wider than any other work from the “alliterative revival,” but it has never been as popular as the poetry of Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton. Still, scholars of the work regularly draw comparisons to those more famous authors, while stressing its unique nature.

General Overviews

Comprehensive guidance is offered by the works listed in Introductory Works; more-detailed guidance appears in Companions and Commentaries. A few older studies and essays have been seminal in critical developments—and remain current reference points—for appreciation of Piers Plowman: Bloomfield 1961 shows its interest in terms of broad, long-term intellectual history, and Middleton 1978 discusses how its literary style and “voice” may be linked to contemporaneous poetry written in its ambit. More-recent general studies present major examples of approaching the poem as a whole: Burrow 1993 considers issues of genre, Schmidt 1987 focuses on rhetorical and metrical features, and Hanna 2005 considers manuscript evidence in relation to the poem’s role in shaping literature in London. Kerby-Fulton 2002 offers the closest thing to an explicit brief introduction, but Burrow 1993 also offers a very approachable overall discussion of the poem by focusing on it as a work of “potent fiction”: literary craft rather than a vessel for complex learning or religious sentiment or dogma. Burrow 1984 does not explicitly purport to canvass the main information about the poem but is a classic essay, whose treatment of the allegory and the basic method of the poem has been more influential than many books.

  • Bloomfield, Morton W. Piers Plowman as a Fourteenth-Century Apocalypse. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1961.

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    An earlier generation’s most learned overview, stressing Piers Plowman’s unique combination of a half-dozen genres, from sermons to commentaries to dream visions, and assessing its resulting literary form as an “apocalypse” (a genre not found elsewhere in poetry). Although the idea that the poem is an “apocalypse” was not widely influential, Bloomfield’s attention to its novel combination of genres has been seminal.

  • Burrow, J. A. “The Action of Langland’s Second Vision.” In Essays on Medieval Literature. By J. A. Burrow, 79–101. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984.

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    Although seemingly narrow in focus, the insight and accuracy of this essay elevate it to one of the major statements on Piers Plowman. Focuses on an underlying pattern of late medieval Christian processes but shows how Piers Plowman’s plot adapts those to resist merely “formal” piety. Piers Plowman’s plot often shows two steps of allegorical disruption of commonplace teachings, producing a “serpent-like” movement of thought toward more “inward” understanding.

  • Burrow, J. A. Langland’s Fictions. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198112938.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Explores generic and dramatic properties of Piers Plowman as key to its themes and self-presentations. Deft defense of close literary attention; readers need not be Christian to appreciate its “fictive power” (p. 112). Though informed by intellectual and religious history like that of Bloomfield 1961, Burrow demolishes at a stroke Bloomfield’s claim about the “apocalyptic” form: at the end, “Conscience does not speak as if the end of the world were nigh” (p. 26). Appendix displays links to Guillaume de Deguileville’s French poems.

  • Donaldson, E. Talbot. Piers Plowman: The C-text and Its Poet. Yale Studies in English 113. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1966.

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    Originally a 1949 dissertation, at a time dominated by the “author controversy” when A, B, and C all were claimed at various points to be by different authors; this study was key in shifting criticism toward literary concerns. An illuminating examination of the C text’s allegory, politics, and poetic skill, it remains important for discussing why C altered or removed earlier poetic features.

  • Hanna, Ralph. London Literature, 1300–1380. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 57. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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    Study of book history in London before the popularity of Chaucer. Developing literary history via codicology allows Hanna, a master codicologist, to discuss the genres of London writing that informed Piers Plowman, especially romance, legal collections, and debate. For example, the early manuscript history of Piers Plowman points to its being released as a “dialogus,” presumably an early version including only the early visions.

  • Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn. “Piers Plowman.” In The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. Edited by David Wallace, 513–538. New Cambridge History of English Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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    Overview of some basic backgrounds to Piers Plowman. Identifies a range of kinds of “monastic” writings behind the poem that evoke the approach of Bloomfield 1961, but selects different genres and forms: visionary writings, chronicles, satire, and early alliterative poetry. Some attention also to Franciscan traditions, especially poverty and the conversion of non-Christian peoples.

  • Middleton, Anne. “The Idea of Public Poetry in the Reign of Richard II.” Speculum 53.1 (1978): 94–114.

    DOI: 10.2307/2855608E-mail Citation »

    Situates Piers Plowman amid the London- and Westminster-centered poetry of the late 14th century, with which it shares features amounting to the poetic creation of a “common voice”; one dedicated to a notion of a public good, however elusive. Following J. A. Burrow on “Ricardian poetry,” the essay pioneered in treating such poetry in terms of shared social concerns, blending secular with religious ones.

  • Schmidt, A. V. C. The Clerkly Maker: Langland Poetic Art. Piers Plowman Studies 4. Woodbridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1987.

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    Presents wordplay, diction, and meter as key to the poem’s achievements. Emphasizes Piers Plowman’s complex patterns of alliteration, both within single lines and across two or more, including some forms apparently unique to Piers Plowman. Metrical analysis is appreciative rather than rigorously tabulating but points to possibilities for more-comprehensive identifications (fulfilled in the “Commentary” portion of Schmidt 2011, cited under Editions). See also Language and Meter.

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