Piers Plowman Background

Piers Plowman Background

The general consensus for some time has been the author of The Vision of Piers Plowman was a man named William Langland who probably hailed somewhere from the west of England. Langland went to school for the purpose of learning what was required to enter the church, but he was denied access to the more elite realms of the hierarchical structure since he was a married man. This background seems to align quite effectively with the narrator of the work and thus it has only made sense that Langland was the author.

Another possible explanation for Langland being targeted as the author is that the work lacks many of the structural foundations that would likely be the result of not having been written by a trained and experienced poet. The development of the overall narrative does not flow freely or naturally from one isolated incident to the next, endowing with an episodic nature rather than lending it the kind of coherence manifested and displayed in The Canterbury Tales, for instance. Despite this lacking, Piers Plowman ranks behind only Chaucer’s masterpiece as the single most important literary creation written in Middle English.

The poem actually begin its trek toward such lofty status by being just one more addition to the Alliterative Revival marking the era of its publication. What was published assumes the form of a feverish vision seen in a dream…which was also the style of the time. The general format of these works allowed the writer to present the narrative as if it was the result of an actual dream, although in almost no cases was this actually true. The dreamlike quality also removes it from reality just enough to imprint allegorical elements upon it without the symbolism becoming so heavy as to undermine the ability for it to reach its intended readership.

While Piers Plowman may lack the finesse of structural coherence of Chaucer’s tales, it does share in common with the greatest work in Middle English a dependence upon a series of set pieces that stand out for their individual accomplishments. The character of Gluttony provides a coarse sort of humor that sets a precedent for Shakespeare’s Falstaff and there is truly amazing poetic splendor in the vision of the ravages resulting from the showdown between Hunter and Wastor.

What really sells the story, however, is the clearly committed and profound sincerity of purpose with which it was written. Whether that sincerity lay in the heart of William Langland or not is at this point utterly beside the point as the poem has taken on a legendary status that transcends any debate over authorship.

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