The English poet William Langland (ca. 1330-ca. 1400) is known as the probable author of "Piers Plowman," an allegorical poem which attacks abuses in the government and the Church and deplores the misery of a people without true leadership.
Except for information that may be gleaned from his poem Piers Plowman, nothing is known about William Langland's life. The poem opens as the poet wanders on Malvern Hills. On the basis of this reference it has been suggested that the poet was probably born at Cleobury Mortimer in Shropshire. But it has also been argued that a more likely location is in Herefordshire between Colwall and Ledbury. Recent research has revealed that some imagery in the carvings on the choir stalls at the priory church of St. Giles in Little Malvern near the second of the sites suggested may be echoed in the poem. The Hereford-shire location seems more convincing as the probable site described in the poem and hence also more convincing as the area in which Langland spent his early life.
The poem reveals a substantial knowledge of the liturgy, the Scriptures, and traditional exegesis, as well as a good grasp of basic theological principles. It is thus likely that the poet held an ecclesiastical office of some kind, and it is further probable that he spent some time in London. The character Will in the poem, who has an allegorical significance as the human will, may reflect a certain amount of autobiographical material. Will settles down with his wife and daughter in Cornhill, a main thoroughfare near the center of 14th-century London. The poem also contains references to Cock Lane ("Clarisse of Cokkes lone"), the area where London's prostitutes were required to live; to the Flemish prostitutes of London ("Pernel of Flandres"); to Cheap, the principal market center of the city; to the Court of the Arches, which was in the London church of St. Mary le Bow; and to Westminster. It is probable, therefore, that Langland lived in London for a time. Ecclesiastics of all kinds flocked to the city. It contained the famous ecclesiastical Court of the Arches, mentioned above, and the Cathedral of St. Paul, which was one of the most important ecclesiastical centers in the kingdom, as well as 110 churches and numerous chantries requiring priests. In addition, many bishops and abbots had residences in the city, so that altogether opportunities for clerical employment were plentiful. If Langland was the author of Richard the Redeless, a poem that has been ascribed to him, he may have spent his last years in Bristol.
Piers Plowman contains allusions, or probable allusions, to a number of historical events: the murder of Edward II, the pestilences of 1348, 1361, and 1376, King Edward's wars, the Treaty of Bretigny, the dearth of April 1370, and the accession of Richard II. These allusions are of some help in dating the three versions, or texts, in which the poem appears. The first of these, called the A Text, contains 2,572 lines. It is devoted to an account of the corruption of various groups in the lay and ecclesiastical hierarchies and the remedy for this corruption in penance and the leadership of Piers Plowman. The poem is divided into 12 passus, or steps, the first 8 of which contain a prologue and an allegorical vision. The remaining passus are concerned with the lives of figures called Dowel, Dobet, and Dobest. Scholars do not agree about the meaning of the figure Piers Plowman or about the significance of Dowel, Dobet, and Dobest.
The B Text is much more elaborate, containing 20 passus and 7,241 lines. Its closing passus severely criticizes the friars (Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, and Carmelites). An exemplary friar, who stands for friars generally, promises to revive Contrition, who has been wounded. All he does, however, is to ask for a secret payment in return for which he will offer prayers and admit the penitent to his confraternity. As a result, Contrition forgets to be contrite, or, in other words, the people in general are impenitent. Conscience complains that the friar has enchanted the people and made their penances so easy that "thei drede no synne." Finally, Conscience goes forth seeking Piers Plowman. It seems probable that Piers Plowman is a figure for the true priesthood of God (the priesthood of Melchisedech and the true apostolic succession). The poet is, in effect, complaining that true spiritual leadership is unavailable in the Church militant. The C Text expands and elaborates the B Text. It contains 23 passus.
Scholars were much concerned for several years to determine whether the entire work in its three versions was written by the same author or whether more than one author may not have been involved in the composition of the poem. Today it is usually held that William Langland was responsible for the entire poem in all of its versions.
The poem is, in form, an elaborate dream vision. Dream visions were popular during the later Middle Ages, especially after the success of the Roman de la rose. It is written in alliterative long lines, each of which is divided into two half lines. The opening lines of the B Text may serve as an illustration: "In a somer seson—whan soft was the sonne,/ I shope me in shroudes—as I a shepe were,/ In habite as an heremite—unholy of workes,/ Went wyde in this world—wondres to here."
This medium is extremely flexible, permitting both solemnity and an easy conversational manner. There are frequent echoes of the Scriptures or the liturgy in Latin. Many of the "characters" are personified abstractions like Conscience, Scripture, Reason, Repentance, and so on. Nevertheless, Langland manages to show vivid glimpses of contemporary life and to incorporate into his work much striking detail. The poem is, like all dream visions, an allegory. Unfortunately, however, the nature of medieval allegorical technique is at present a highly controversial subject, and the theological issues Langland raised are no longer widely understood.
All three texts of Piers Plowman and Richard the Redeless were edited and extensively annotated by Walter Skeat (1886; repr. with bibliography, 1961). The A Text was edited by George Kane (1960). A convenient series of selections from the C Text is provided by Elizabeth Salter and Derek Pearsall, eds., in Piers Plowman (1967). There is a good translation of the B Text by Jonathan F. Goodridge (1959; rev. ed. 1966). Numerous interpretations of the poem have been undertaken. Representative selections from some of these are provided in Edward Vasta, Interpretations of Piers Plowman (1968). A good introduction to the poem appears in Raymond W. Chambers, Man's Unconquerable Mind: Studies of English Writers from Bede to A. E. Housman and W. P. Ker (1939).