The World of Piers Plowman

The World of Piers Plowman

The World of Piers Plowman

The World of Piers Plowman

Synopsis

Next to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, William Langland's Piers Plowman is perhaps the best-known literary picture of fourteenth-century England. Langland's work, more socially concerned and critical than Chaucer's, reflected an age of religious controversy, social upheaval, and political unrest. The World of Piers Plowman puts the reader in touch with the sources that helped shape Langland's somber vision. The representative documents included in this book, often cited in connection with the poem yet difficult to come by, disclose the background of Piers Plowman in social and economic history as well as folklore, art, theology, homilies, religious tractates, and chronicles.

The seven sections into which the readings are divided illustrate ideas concerning (1) the heavens, the universal Church, England, and London; (2) material and spiritual abuses; (3) the most influential literary genres of the period; (4) exempla, moral tales from hagiography, sermon literature, and tracts on moral theology; (5) types of practical instruction available to the devout layperson; (6) the multiple meanings in many literary works; and (7) the moment of death, the judgments on the soul, and the torments and rewards of the afterlife.

Excerpt

Between 1370 and 1399 an English poet and clerk in minor orders named William Langland composed three versions of a long poem in alliterative Middle English which he himself seems to have called by several titles, but which is generally known as Piers Plowman. The three versions, designated conventionally A, B, and C, contain about 2400 lines, 7200 lines, and 7300 lines respectively. They survive in fifty-one manuscripts, in approximately even division—a very large number for any alliterative poem in Old or Middle English. The poem appears to have found considerable immediate favor, particularly among clergy and pious laypeople, and it retained its interest into the sixteenth century, being printed by Crowley in 1550 and by Rogers in 1561. Although the work was not edited again until 1813, thus allowing its language to become more and more obscure to modern readers, William Langland retained a modest reputation as a poet and devotional writer during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1886 all three texts were edited in an elaborate and learned edition by W. W. Skeat, and Skeat’s edition, reprinted . . .

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