Piers Plowman: An Essay in Criticism

Piers Plowman: An Essay in Criticism

Piers Plowman: An Essay in Criticism

Piers Plowman: An Essay in Criticism

Excerpt

Piers Plowman exists in three versions, generally referred to as the A, B, C Texts, each consisting of two parts, a Vision (Visio) followed by a Life (Vita). In A, which has thirteen Passus in all (including the Prologue), the Vita consists of four books of the Life of Do Well. B, used in this book, is twenty-one Passus in all, and here (as in C, which has twenty-three Passus) the Vita is the Life of Do Well, Do Better and Do Best.

It is generally held that these three versions are all the work of one man; and they have been given approximate dates of composition as follows: A about 1370; B between 1377 and 1379; C after 1390.

The name 'Will' is applied to the Dreamer on several occasions in the poem, and a number of colophons refer to the author by this name. At B XV 148 the Dreamer says, 'I haue luyed in londe . . . my name is Longe Wille'. 'William Langland' is given as the author's name in one MS (Dublin D. 4.1). A Latin memorandum there asserts that 'the father of William Langland, Eustace de Rokayle, was a gentleman living at Shipton-under-Wychwood and holding land of Lord Despenser in Oxfordshire, and the aforesaid William wrote the book called Perys ploughman'. It has been established that there was an adherent of the Despensers called Eustace de Rokayle living at Shipton-under-Wychwood, and it has been noted that the Despensers were patrons of the monasteries of Great Malvern and Tewkesbury. The fact that the son did not take his father's surname cannot be regarded as a proof that he was illegitimate. Another MS (Huntington Lib. Hm 128, formerly Ashburnham 130) records that 'Robert or william langland made pers ploughman'; but 'Robert' may be thought to have arisen from a misunderstanding of 'Thus, yrobid in russet, I rombide aboute' (A IX 1, where one MS, for yrobid, actually reads Roberd). From certain passages in the poem it has been inferred that the author was born about 1332 near the Malvern hills, perhaps educated at the monastery of Great Malvern, took minor clerical orders (which did not require celibacy), and came to London where he lived with his wife Kit and his daughter Nicolette . . .

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