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William Langland (c.1332?-c.1400?)

Piers Plowman

 

With hym ther was a PLOWMAN, was his brother,
That hadde ylad of dong ful many a fother;
A trewe swynkere and a good was he,
Lyvynge in pees and parfit charitee.
(General Prologue, I.529-32)

 

William Langland, generally thought to be the author of Piers Plowman, was apparently born and raised in the West of England, but he lived in London, which is a principal subject of the early parts of his poem. There is, as a matter of fact, little proof for Langland's existence, and all that is known of him is inferred from supposedly autobiographical statements in the poem (such as the reference to his wife and child at the end of passus XVIII, for which see below). Scholars refer to the author as "Langland" for the sake more of convenience than of accuracy.

There is no proof that Chaucer knew Langland or his works, but London was not a large town (about 40 to 50,000 inhabitants) and Langland's work, as shown by the number of surviving manuscripts (over fifty), was very well known in his time. Some scholars have argued that Chaucer based his Plowman on the figure of Piers Plowman;

J.A.W. Bennett, "Chaucer's Contemporary," in Piers Plowman: Critical Approaches, ed. S.S. Hussey, 1969, 310-24 [Widener 12433.9.5].
However that may be, Langland's lively image of London life in his Prologue and account of the marriage of Lady Meed and of the confessions of the Seven Deadly Sins is well worth comparing to Chaucer's image of English life in the fourteenth century.

The poem exists in three versions: the A Version (Prologe and the Vision of Piers Plowman, Passus I to VII), the B Version (revision of A and addition of the Do Well, Do Better, Do Best section , Passus VIII to XX), and the C Version, a revision of the whole. Some scholars also recogize a "Z Version."

For translations of parts of the B-text version (the version most readers prefer) see:

Prologue:

Prologue (The Fair Field of Folk)
The Vision of Piers Plowman:
Passus I (The Dreamer is Instructed by Holy Church)
Passus II (Lady Meed Appears)
Passus III (The Debate of Meed and Conscience)
Passus IV (Reason Counsels the King)
Passus V (Confession of the Seven Deadly Sins)
Passus VI (Piers Sets All to Work)
Passus VII (The Pardon Granted to Piers)
One passus from Do-well, Do-Better, Do-Best:
Passus XVIII (The Harrowing of Hell)
There have been many translations of the whole work:
Piers Plowman: the A-text: an alliterative verse translation, tr. Francis Dolores Covella. intro. and notes David C. Fowler. Binghamton, 1992. [PR 2013.C67 1992].

Piers Plowman: A new translation of the B-text, tr. A.V.C. Schmidt, Oxford, OUP, 1992 [PR2013.S3].

The Book Concerning Piers the Plowman,
tr. Donald and Rachel Attwater (NY, Dutton, 1957) [PR2013.A8x 1957]. (Texts on this site are from this edition.)

William Langland's Piers Plowman: the C version: a verse translation. tr. George Economou, Philadelphia, The Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1996 [PR 2013.E38]

Will's vision of Piers Plowman / William Langland,
an alliterative verse translation by E. Talbot Donaldson; edited, introduced, and annotated by Elizabeth D. Kirk and Judith H. Anderson, New York, W.W. Norton, 1990.
For editions of the original (those of Schmidt and Pearsall are most accessible for students) see:

All the versions:

A.V.C. Schmidt, ed. Piers Plowman: a parallel text of the A, B, C, and Z versions (London, 1995) [PR 2010.S3 1995 ].

W.W. Skeat, ed., Piers Plowman, 2 vols., Oxford, 1869; often reprinted.) This remains a very useful edition, especially for its notes. [PR2010.S5]

George Kane, gen. ed. Piers Plowman: the three versions (Vol. 1, ed George Kane, London, Athlone, 1986; Vol. 2, ed. George Kane and E.T. Donaldson, London, Athlone, rev.ed., 1988; Vol.3, ed. George Russel and George Kane), London, Athlone, 1988-1997 [PR 2010 .K3].
The B-text:
A.V.C. Schmidt, ed., William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman, London, Dent, 1987, which is fully annotated.
The C-Text:
Derek Pearsall, ed., Piers Plowman, the C-Text, corrected ed., Exeter, Exeter Univ. Press, 1994 [PR 2010 .P4]

Bibliography:

  • Derek Pearsall, An Annotated Critical Biography of Langland (New York and London, 1990) [PR2015.Z99 P43 1990x].
  • See also the annual bibliographies in:
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Last modified: May, 2, 2006
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Gold Texts on this page prepared and maintained by L. D. Benson (ldb@wjh.harvard.edu)