On September 19th a large audience in the theatre of the King’s School, Worcester, were treated to an excellent study day on the fourteenth-century poet William Langland. Little is known about Langland the man other than that he was from the West Midlands, but the long poem he wrote called Piers the Ploughman is widely studied and considered by many to be the equal of his contemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer. So we are talking about a major work by a major poet.
How do we know that Langland came from the West Midlands? Famously the poem opens with the poet claiming he fell asleep while on the Malvern Hills, and had an amazing vision. But perhaps the chief reason for the local claim is that Langland wrote the poem in the medieval West Midlands dialect, which was one of five or six separate dialects in what is called the Middle English period of the language. A common example is in writing and pronouncing the sound of ‘o’ in words like ‘man’ or ‘hand’, so the West Midlands version is ‘mon’ or ‘hond’. (And Black Country dialect linguists point out that this is still the way these words are spoken!)
Here are a few lines from the beginning of the poem, in the original Middle English:
Ac on a May morwenynge on Malverne hilles
Me bifel a ferly, of Fairye me thoghte.
I was wery forwandred and wente me to reste
Under a brood bank by a bourne syde;
And as I lay and lenede and loked on the watres,
I slombred into a slepyng, it sweyed so murye.
But on a May morning on Malvern Hills
A wonder befell me, an enchantment I thought.
I was weary with wandering and went for a rest
Under a broad bank beside a stream
And as I lay and leaned down and looked on the waters
I fell into a sleep as it flowed so sweetly.
My simple translation is not able to preserve the traditional alliterative style, where each line has a three-times repeated sound: ‘m’ in the first line, ‘f’ in the second, and so on. It says Malvern Hills, meaning a range of them, not just one, and that there is a stream. A bit further on there is another mention, this time in a rude comment about some lawyers that appear in the marvellous dream:
Thow myghtest bettre meete myst on Malverne Hilles
Than get a “mom” of hire mouth til moneie be shewed!
You can better measure mist on Malvern Hills
Than get even ‘Good Morning’ from their mouths until money is showed!
Yes the Malverns certainly can be misty. The final mention is much later in the poem, when the sleeper awakes from yet another dream:
And after these words I awoke, and looked around
And then saw the sun shining in the south.
Meatless and moneyless on Malvern Hills
Musing on these dreams I walked for a mile.
Many times these dreams have made me wonder
If what I saw while sleeping might ever be true;
And I thought very much about Piers the Ploughman . . .
The whole poem – it is a long one, the longest version over 7,300 lines – is cast in the form of dreams, giving the poet freedom to comment on reality through a wide variety of characters and scenes. The characters are often allegorical representations of theological or abstract ideas with names like Conscience, Reason, Patience and many others. We also see Satan and Lucifer in Hell, while Waster and Lady Mede (or Money) are among the other undesirables.
Langland is noted for his vivid portrayal of all these representative types, and especially for an unrivalled picture of the lives of ordinary people, including peasants and the poor. Piers the Ploughman himself is a hard-working man trying to lead a good life, and encourage others to do the same. In some ways he also represents the figure of Jesus Christ. In one memorable scene Piers organises the common people to help him with his necessary tasks, in response to their grumbles about the difficult journey toward Truth which they have been advised to undertake:
Said Piers the ploughman “By Saint Peter of Rome
I have a half acre to plough by the highway.
When I have ploughed this half acre, and afterwards sowed it
I will go with you and show you the way.”
He says everyone should be willing to work, including high- and low-born women:
“Some should sew sacks for holding the wheat.
You worthy women with your long fingers
Sew silk and sendal (fine fabric) at the proper time
Make chasubles for chaplains to honour their churches.
Wives and widows spin wool and flax.
Conscience counsels you to make cloth
For the profit of the poor, and your own pleasure.”
But not everyone is willing to work. Piers soon meets Waster:
Then Waster grew angry and wanted to fight
And he offered a challenge to Piers the Ploughman,
Bidding him go piss on his plough, the peevish shrew!
A Breton came bragging and threatening Piers.
Said he, “We will have our way, like it or not!
We will have bread and meat whenever we like
Enjoying a feast, never mind who complains!”
Piers calls on Hunger to sort out such people, which is done in very short order:
Hunger in haste grabbed Waster by the mouth
And stretched out his stomach till his eyes watered.
Hunger battered the Breton about the cheeks
So he looked like a lantern for the rest of his life.
He beat them both so and near burst their guts.
These are good examples of Langland’s ability to describe events in vivid and memorable writing. As well as the idle poor Langland had no time for the prosperous friars, a group of clerics who were supposed to live in poverty like Christ himself and also like St Francis, who founded one of their four orders. Although they did in theory beg for their living, they were notorious for selling forgiveness to rich sinners through confession, and guaranteeing them a quick release after death from the fires of Purgatory. Langland may himself have been a cleric, perhaps in minor orders and without a living. This is his first mention of the friars:
I found there friars, all the four orders,
Preaching to the people for the profit of their bellies.
They glossed the gospel as they thought good
And construed it as they wished for procuring new clothes.
Many of these masters may dress as they please
For their money and their merchandise march well together.
Langland’s sympathetic understanding of the lives of poor people may have brought him close to serious political and religious trouble. On 15 July 1381 King Richard II watched the bloody execution of John Ball, a Lollard priest implicated in the Peasants’ Revolt. In his writings Ball had named the author of Piers the Plowman as a fellow follower of John Wycliffe, and the later versions of the poem seem to have tried to tone down some of its radical religious implications.
Thanks are due to the Cathedral, to the Malvern Festival, and to the International Piers Plowman Society, joint organisers of the study day. There were excellent presentations by scholar and translator Dr A. V. C Schmidt, Dr Lawrence Warner Director of the Society, Frances Eustace specialist in medieval musical instruments, Right Rev Dom Bellenger Prior of Downside Abbey and Peter Sutton writer and recent verse translator of Piers the Plowman. A long day was kept interesting to a wide audience by the well-chosen variety of speakers and topics, and it has certainly inspired this blog author to undertake much more study of this important English poet.