The England of Piers Plowman: William Langland and His Vision of the Fourteenth Century

The England of Piers Plowman: William Langland and His Vision of the Fourteenth Century

The England of Piers Plowman: William Langland and His Vision of the Fourteenth Century

The England of Piers Plowman: William Langland and His Vision of the Fourteenth Century

Synopsis

Professor Du Boulay's book is both a highly readable introduction to Langland's work and an original contribution to the history of religious thought. It rejects the view that Langland was primarily a political radical or a prophet of doom and sees him as both a great imaginative poet and a preacher of Christian charity. Writing in an age of intellectual subtlety and shifting social frontiers, Langland expressed deep anxieties yet offered to his fellow-Christians a way of interior repentance and practical love, guided by the enigmatic figure of Piers.

Excerpt

Piers Plowman sometimes gives the reader the sense that he is himself dreaming. Characters loom up and speak, and their words and actions generate emotion while the physical circumstances often, as in dreams, remain shadowy and vague.

What follows in this chapter and the next is an attempt to give Langland's world a physical, historical setting. That world is a part of England, not the whole, and we shall try to keep within the horizons which bounded Langland's own vision: the west Midlands and the swathe of country down to London and the south-east.

The student of literature may not feel a need for such explanations, but Langland cannot help being a historical source, and the historian may understand and enjoy what he wrote the better for a little history without forfeiting the poetry. Langland's poetic breath may stir the dead bones of his day.

The conventions of medieval poetry would sometimes have us believe it was always May-time, and even Langland with his selective care for detail leads us into his opening vision by way of a summer scene:

In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne,
I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were ... (B Prol. 1-2)

[I rigged myself out in rough clothes like a shepherd's]

Though conventional, there is an appropriateness about the opening image. For England was sheep country as well as corn country. To the south of Langland's Malvern lay the Cotswold hills and their great sheep-runs, where wool-merchants arrived every year to inspect and buy the finest fleeces. From Northleach at their heart the ride to London through the . . .

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