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Encyclopedia > Langland
Langland's Dreamer: from an illuminated initial in a Piers Plowman manuscript held at Corpus Christi College, Oxford
Langland's Dreamer: from an illuminated initial in a Piers Plowman manuscript held at Corpus Christi College, Oxford

William Langland is the reputed author of the 14th-century English dream-vision Piers Plowman. The attribution of Piers to Langland rests principally on the evidence of a manuscript held at Trinity College, Dublin (MS 212). This directly ascribes 'Perys Ploughman' to one 'Willielmi de Langlond', son of 'Stacy de Rokayle, who died in Shipton-under-Wichwood, a tenant of the Lord Spenser in the county of Oxfordshire'. Other manuscripts also name the author as 'Robert or William langland', or 'Wilhelmus W.' (most likely shorthand for 'William of Wichwood'). The poem itself also seems to point towards Langland's authorship. At one stage the narrator remarks: 'I have lyved in londe...my name is longe wille' (B.XV.152). This can be taken as a coded reference to the poet's name, in the style of much late-medieval literature (see, for instance, Villon's acrostics in Le Testament). Although the evidence may appear slender, Langland's authorship has been widely accepted by commentators since the 1920s. It is not, however, entirely beyond dispute, as recent work by Stella Pates and C. David Benson has demonstrated. Page from a 14th century Psalter, showing drolleries on the right margin and a plowman at the bottom. ... The word author has several meanings: The author of a book, story, article or the like, is the person who has written it (or is writing it). ... Page from a 14th century Psalter, showing drolleries on the right margin and a plowman at the bottom. ... Evidence can mean: Any objectively demonstrable circumstance which tends to indicate or disprove a proposition, see scientific method and reality. ... Villon can refer to: People François Villon (1431-c. ...

Almost nothing is known of Langland himself. His entire identity rests on a string of conjectures and vague hints. It would seem that he was born in the West Midlands: Langland's narrator receives his first vision while sleeping in the Malvern Hills (between Herefordshire and Worcestershire), which suggests some level of attachment to this area. The dialect of the poem also implies that its author originated from this part of the country. Although his date of birth is unknown, there is a strong indication that he died in c.1385-6. A note written by one 'Iohan but' ('John But') in a fourteenth-century manuscript of the poem (Rawlinson 137) makes direct reference to the death of its author: whan this werke was wrouyt, ere Wille myte aspie/ Deth delt him a dent and drof him to the erthe/ And is closed vnder clom ('once this work was made, before Will was aware/ Death struck him a blow and knocked him to the ground/ And now he is buried under the soil'). Since But himself, according to Edith Rickert, seems to have died in 1387, Langland must have died shortly before this date. Malvern Hills could refer to: Malvern Hills District Council, in Worcestershire, England Malvern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, on the border of Herefordshire and Worcestershire, England This is a disambiguation page — a navigational aid which lists other pages that might otherwise share the same title. ... Herefordshire is a county in the West Midlands region of England. ... Worcestershire (pronounced /ˈwÊŠstÉ™.təʃə/ or /ˈwÊŠstÉ™.təʃiːɜː/ or /ˈwÊŠstÉ™.təʃaɪə/; abbreviated Worcs) is a county, located in the West Midlands region of central England. ...

The rest of our knowledge of the poet can only be reconstructed from Piers itself. There is in fact a wealth of ostensibly biographical data in the poem, but it is difficult to know how this should be treated. The C-text of Piers contains a passage in which Will describes himself as a 'loller' living in the Cornhill area of London, and refers directly to his wife and child: it also suggests that he was well above average height, and made a living reciting prayers for the dead. However, it would be rash to take this episode at face value. The distinction between allegory and 'real-life' in Piers is by no means absolute, and the entire passage, as Wendy Scase observes, is suspiciously reminiscent of the 'false confession' tradition in medieval literature (represented elsewhere by the Confessio Goliae and by Fals-Semblaunt in Jean de Meun's Roman de la Rose). A similar passage in the final Passus of the B- and C-texts provides further ambiguous details. This also refers to Will's wife, and describes his torments by Elde (Old Age), as he complains of baldness, gout and impotence. This may well indicate that the poet had already reached middle age by the 1370s: but once again suspicions are aroused by the conventional nature of this description (see, for instance, Walter Kennedy's 'In Praise of Aige' and The Parlement of the Thre Ages), and the fact that it occurs towards the end of the poem, when Will's personal development is reaching its logical conclusion. Cornhill is one of the principal streets of the City of London, the historic nucleus of modern London. ... The Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster, which contains Big Ben London is the capital city of the United Kingdom and of England. ... Jean de Meun or Jean de Meung (c. ... Mirth and Gladness lead a Dance in this miniature from a manuscript of the Roman de la Rose in the Bodleian Library (MS Douce 364, folio 8r). ... Walter Kennedy (flourished 1500), Saint of Lord Kennedy, was educated at Glasgow, and is perhaps best known as Dunbars antagonist in the Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy. ...

Further details can be inferred from the poem, but these are also far from unproblematic. For instance, the detailed and highly sophisticated level of religious knowledge in the poem indicates that Langland had some connection to the clergy, but the nature of this relationship is uncertain. The poem shows no obvious bias towards any particular group or order of churchmen, but is rather even-handed in its anticlericalism, attacking the regular and secular clergy indiscriminately. This makes it difficult to align Langland with any specific order. He is probably best regarded, as John Bowers writes, as a member of 'that sizable group of unbeneficed clerks who formed the radical fringe of contemporary society...the poorly shod Will is portrayed "y-robed in russet" travelling about the countryside, a crazed dissident showing no respect to his superiors'. Malcom Godden has proposed that he lived as an itinerant hermit, attaching himself to a patron temporarily, exchanging writing services for shelter and food. Anti-clericalism is a movement that opposes religious interference into public and political life and more generally the encroachment of religion in the citizens lives. ...

The tradition that Langland was a Wycliffite, an idea promoted by Robert Crowley's 1550 edition of Piers and complicated by early Lollard appropriation of the Plowman-figure (see, for instance, Pierce the Ploughman's Crede and The Plowman's Tale), is almost certainly incorrect. It is true that Langland and Wyclif shared many concerns: both question the value of indulgences and pilgrimage, promote the use of the vernacular in preaching, attack clerical corruption, and even advocate disendowment. But these topics were widely discussed throughout the late fourteenth century, only becoming typically 'Wycliffite' after Langland's death. Furthermore, as Pamela Gradon observes, at no point does Langland echo Wyclif's characteristic teachings on the sacraments. Robert Crowley could refer to: Robert Crowley (c. ... Lollardy or Lollardry was the political and religious movement of the Lollards in late 14th century and early 15th century England. ... The frontispiece of Reyner Wolfes edition of Pierce the Ploughmans Crede, printed in 1553 Pierce the Ploughmans Crede is an alliterative poem of 855 lines, savagely lampooning the four orders of friars. ... Wycliffe may also refer to Wycliffe Bible Translators John Wycliff (or Wycliffe) (1328 - December 31, 1384) was an English theologian and early proponent of reform in the Roman Catholic Church during the 14th century. ... A sacrament is a Christian rite that mediates divine grace. ...

For further information, see the article Piers Plowman. Page from a 14th century Psalter, showing drolleries on the right margin and a plowman at the bottom. ...


  • C. David Benson, 'The Langland Myth', in William Langland's Piers Plowman: a book of essays, ed. by Kathleen M. Hewett-Smith (New York: Routledge, 2001), pp.83-99. ISBN 0815328044
  • John M. Bowers, 'Piers Plowman and the Police: notes towards a history of the Wycliffite Langland', Yearbook of Langland Studies 6 (1992), pp.1-50.
  • Malcolm Godden, The Making of Piers Plowman (London: Longman, 1990). ISBN 0582016851
  • Pamela Gradon, 'Langland and the Ideology of Dissent', Proceedings of the British Academy 66 (1980), pp.179-205.
  • Stella Pates, The Rock and the Plough: John Grandisson, William Langland and Piers Plowman, a theory of authorship (Cirencester: Fairford Press, 2000). ISBN 01285656999
  • Edith Rickert, 'John But, Messenger and Maker', Modern Philology 11 (1903), pp.107-17.
  • Wendy Scase, Piers Plowman and the New Anticlericalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). ISBN 052136017X

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