The vision of Pierce Plowman

Chrzanowski 1550lIn the “The Printer to the Reader,” Robert Crowley explains that, “I have learned that the Author was named Robert [sic] langelande, a Shropshire man, borne in Cleybitie, about viii miles from Maluerne hilles,” and he dates the work to between 1350 and 1400. Modern scholarship has dated this version of Vision of Piers Plowman (referred to as the B text) to about 1386. Yet little is still known about William Langland, and questions linger whether others had a hand in preparing the B text.

Langland was born about 1331, educated in the school of the Benedictine monastery at Malvern, and probably took minor orders. He never rose in the Church and moved to London, where he made a meager living by singing masses, copying legal documents, and taking on other small chores. In 1362, Langland began writing Piers Plowman. It is an allegorical moral and social satire, written as a visionary dream. The poet falls asleep in the Malvern Hills. In his dream he comes upon a “fair full field of folk,” and he satirically describes the different classes. A simple plowman, Piers (allegorically, Christ), appears and offers to guide the folk to seek the Truth and eschew the Seven Deadly Sins in exchange for helping him plow his half-acre. Some help, others don’t. In the second, arguably less successful half of the poem, the dreamer goes on a quest to find three men, Dowel (Do-Well), Dobet (Do-Better), and Dobest (Do-Best). This part of the poem went through considerable revision from A text to B text (and to C text). Additions lengthened the poem, and one particular issue frequently touched upon was corruption in the Church among friars and clergy.

John Ball, a priest and a leader in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, included the character of Piers in his writings as if he were a co-leader of the uprising. This strengthened the view that the poem had Lollard roots (or sympathies). Lollardism and John Wycliffe were dangerous topics in 15th and early 16th centuries, so it is not surprising that the early English printers neglected Piers Plowman. Even when Crowley published the book as a Protestant reformist text, there still was the uneasy association of the poem with the revolutionary, John Ball. Crowley printed the book three times in 1550, and the present copy (with the bookplate of William Foyle) is the second issue. The A text was printed in 1561, and the poem did not reappear again in its entirety until 1813.

Chrzanowski 1550l *

STC 19907a

Title List

1479–1550 | 1551–1580 | 1583–1608 | 1609–1675