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Definition: Langland, William from Philip's Encyclopedia

English poet. Langland's poem Piers Plowman, a late flowering of the alliterative tradition in English verse, is one of the most important works of medieval literature. It is remarkable for its sustained, complex, but profoundly Christian allegorical style.

Summary Article: Langland, William (c. 1325–after 1388)
from Encyclopedia of the Black Death

The life of one of England's greatest poets remains lost to those who seek it. The C-version of Piers Plowman provides a short autobiographical sketch of Langland, but little of substance. He claims home schooling and his dialect suggests Worcestershire. He knows London and its ways quite well, and he appears to have been a cleric. He was probably mature when plague first struck in 1348 and grew to hate the societal corruption that followed in its wake. He blended this antipathy in his great Piers Plowman; the first, or A, version of which is dated to between 1360 and 1370, the second to around 1380, and the final C-version to around 1390. The B-version is usually considered the most critical.

In the wake of the Black Death and subsequent plagues, clergy of low-class origins entered service ill prepared and far too anxious to make money as mass-priests who served wealthy clients rather than as rural pastors or in poor urban parishes. Many actually left poor parishes for easy and lucrative positions, abandoning parishioners without leadership and teaching, to fall prey to evil and sinfulness. To Langland, Sloth is a 30-year old priest who does not know the Lord's Prayer. The resulting lazy, greedy, and gluttonous peasants—“shirkers” and “wasters”—abandon their old habits of hard work and become no better than beggars, despite the great need for workers. Postplague (illegal) high wages further corrupt the once virtuous class, who are now being punished by Hunger. Physicians, too, are corrupted by the need for their services and high fees. They are ineffective and yet profiteers, no better than harlots, and shown sending to Liar for help with their examination of urine. Langland characterizes them as irrational but greedy “apes” and sly, deceptive “foxes.” Langland even criticizes women who survive the plague and then refuse their duty to repopulate the earth.

The poem becomes apocalyptic in the C-version, wherein the Anti–Christ has arrived and right and wrong are reversed. Only the plague makes this reversal clear to humanity, and by punishing the wicked helps correct the survivors. Right living—including knowing one's traditional place in the social hierarchy and remaining content in it—and repentance are the only sure correctives to society.

See also: Chaucer, Geoffrey; Economic Effects of Plague in Europe; Feudalism and Manorialism; Labourers, Ordinance and Statute of; Morality Literature, Christian; Peasants; Physicians; Poetry, European; Priests; Sin.

  • Aers, David. “Justice and Wage-labor after the Black Death: Some Perplexities for William Langland,” in The Work of Work: Servitude, Slavery, and Labor in Medieval England, edited by Allen J. Frantzen; Douglas Moffat (Cruithne Press Glasgow 1994), 169-190.
  • Grigsby, Bryon Lee. Pestilence in Medieval and Early Modern English Literature. Routledge New York, 2004.
  • Papka, Claudia R.The Limits of Apocalypse: Eschatology, Epistemology, and Textuality in the Commedia and Piers Plowman,” in Last Things: Death and the Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, edited by Carolyn Walker Bynum; Paul Freedman (University of Pennsylvania Press Philadelphia 2000), 233-256.
  • Robertson, Elizabeth; Stephen H. A. Shepherd, eds. William Langland: Piers Plowman. Norton New York, 2006.
  • Copyright 2012 by Joseph P. Byrne

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