Lollards and Their Influence in Late Medieval England

By Fiona Somerset; Jill C. Havens et al. | Go to book overview

William Langland and the Invention of Lollardy

Andrew Cole

Since the 1980s, there has been a resurgence of interest in Wycliffism owing to the new editions and specialized research by Anne Hudson, Pamela Gradon, Margaret Aston, and others. Yet the relevance that this renaissance has on the study of Langland remains to be seen. For contemporary scholars usually describe the differences, not similarities, between the poet and his Wycliffite contemporaries, so as not to repeat the errors of Reformation readers who were "so enthusiastic about trying to show that Langland had Wycliffite sympathies.” 1 Gradon, in fact, was the first scholar to stifle the centuries' old enthusiasm for a Wycliffite Langland by persuasively demonstrating that the apparent likenesses of thought between any version of Piers Plowman and Wycliffism are, rather, mutual expressions of common ideas held by many in the late Middle Ages. 2 She had, in other words, effectively disabused criticism of the notion that close proximity alone between Langland and these reformers should be reason enough to gloss Piers Plowman with Wycliffite texts, as Derek Pearsall had done in his 1978 edition of C, and as Skeat had done before him. 3 Indeed, with few exceptions, Langlandians, who work in one of the more lively and polemical quarters of late medieval English studies, are surprisingly at a consensus with Gradon. 4 Some even continue to widen the gulf between

My gratitude goes to the Bodleian Library of Oxford University and the British Library, London, for permission to cite from their manuscripts and for making my visit a pleasant one. This essay draws from my nearly completed book, Heresy et al. I thank David Aers, Katie Little, and Fiona Somerset for commenting on this piece.

____________________
1
Christina von Nolcken (1243, 74).
2
Pamela Gradon (608).
3
Piers Plowman by William Langland: An Edition of the C-text (170). For comment, see Anne Hudson (712, 254).
4
Here are the exceptions. David Aers has argued that Langland's wavering from orthodox ideology pushed him, by default, into a heterodox position characterized by Wycliffite dissent (Chaucer, Langland, and the Creative Imagination [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980], 59). In his more recent work, Aers has effectively shown that Piers Plowman and Wycliffite texts share a critical position toward dominant representations of Christ's suffering humanity while advocating alternative and resistant models to devotion and apostleship; see "The Humanity of Christ: Representations in Wycliffite Texts and Piers Plowman, ” in Aers and Lynn Staley (263, 43―76). James Simpson has, briefly, compared Langland's ecclesiology to Wyclif's (Piers Plowman: An Introduction to the B-text [London: Longman, 1990], 180, 227). Investigating the vernacular sources to the Tree of Charity, I have traced the similarities between Wycliffite (and reformist) uses of three estates theory and Langland's in "Trifunctionality and the Tree of Charity: Literary and Social Practice in Piers Plowman” (399, 4―5).

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