Piers Plowman

Langland, William

William Langland, c.1332–c.1400, putative author of Piers Plowman. He was born probably at Ledbury near the Welsh marshes and may have gone to school at Great Malvern Priory. Although he took minor orders he never became a priest. Later in London he apparently eked out his living by singing masses and copying documents. His great work, Piers Plowman, or, more precisely, The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman, is an allegorical poem in unrhymed alliterative verse, regarded as the greatest Middle English poem prior to Chaucer. It is both a social satire and a vision of the simple Christian life. The poem consists of three dream visions: (1) in which Holy Church and Lady Meed (representing the temptation of riches) woo the dreamer; (2) in which Piers leads a crowd of penitents in search of St. Truth; and (3) the vision of Do-well (the practice of the virtues), Do-bet (in which Piers becomes the Good Samaritan practicing charity), and Do-best (in which the simple plowman is identified with Jesus himself). The 47 extant manuscripts of the poem fall into three groups: the A-text (2,567 lines, c.1362); the B-text, which greatly expands the third vision (7,242 lines, c.1376–77); the C-text, a revision of B (7,357 lines, between 1393 and 1398). Most scholars now believe that at least the A- and B-texts are the work of William Langland, whose biography has been deduced from passages in the poem. However, some still hold that the poem is the work of two or even five authors. The popularity of the poem is attested to by the large number of surviving manuscripts and by its many imitators. The 19th-century edition of W. W. Skeat (new ed. 1954) is still standard; the best modern versions are those of Donald Attwater (1930) and H. W. Wells (1935).

See studies by E. T. Donaldson (1955; and 1949, repr. 1966), M. W. Bloomfield (1962), S. S. Hussey, ed. (1969), E. D. Kirk (1972), J. M. Bowers (1986), A. V. Schmidt (1987), and M. F. Vaughan (2011).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Piers Plowman: Selected full-text books and articles

The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman By Andrew Galloway University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006
The Vision of Piers Plowman By William Langland; Henry W. Wells Sheed & Ward, 1935
Piers the Plowman: A Critical Edition of the A-Version By Thomas A. Knott; David C. Fowler Johns Hopkins Press, 1952
William Langland's Piers Plowman: The C Version By William Langland; George Economou University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996
Piers the Plowman: Literary Relations of the A and B Texts By David C. Fowler University of Washington Press, 1961
Social Life in the Days of Piers Plowman By D. Chadwick Cambridge University Press, 1922
New Directions in Later Medieval Manuscript Studies By Derek Pearsall York Medieval Press, 2000
Librarian’s tip: "Another Fine Manuscript Mess: Authors, Editors, and Readers of Piers Plowman" begins on p. 15 and "Professional Readers of Langland at Home and Abroad: New Directions in the Political and Bureaucratic Codicology of Piers Plowman" begins on p. 103
Images, Idolatry, and Iconoclasm in Late Medieval England: Textuality and the Visual Image By Jeremy Dimmick; James Simpson; Nicolette Zeeman Oxford University Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "The Sacrament of the Altar in Piers Plowman and the Late Medieval Church in England"
The Pilgrim and the Book: A Study of Dante, Langland, and Chaucer By Julia Bolton Holloway Peter Lang, 1992 (Revised edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. VIII "Piers for Pure Tene. Pulled It Atweyne"
The Rusted Hauberk: Feudal Ideals of Order and Their Decline By Liam O. Purdon; Cindy L. Vitto University Press of Florida, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Imagining Feudalism in Piers Plowman: Attempts to Restore an Order"
The Bible in Middle English Literature By David C. Fowler University of Washington Press, 1984
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Five "Piers the Plowman as History"
Political Allegory in Late Medieval England By Ann W. Astell Cornell University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "'Full of Enigmas': John Ball's Letters and Piers Plowman"
Agriculture in the Middle Ages: Technology, Practice, and Representation By Del Sweeney University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 11 "The 'Hungry Gap,' Crop Failure, and Famine: The Fourteenth-Century Agricultural Crisis and Piers Plowman"
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