Piers Plowman

Editorial, publication and reception history

14th–15th centuries

John Ball, a priest involved as a leader in the Great Rising of 1381 (also known as the Peasants' Revolt), included Piers and other characters in his writings. If Piers Plowman already had perceived associations with Lollardy, Ball's appropriations from it (assuming he was not referring to a folk character also appropriated by Langland) enhanced his and its association with the Lollards as well. The real beliefs and sympathies at work in Langland's poem and the revolt remain, for this reason, mysterious and debatable.

No doubt because of Ball's writings, the Dieulacres Abbey Chronicle account of the revolt refers to Piers, seemingly as a real person who was a leader with Ball in the revolt. Similarly, early in the history of the poem's dissemination in manuscript form, Piers is often treated as the author of the poem. Since it is hard to see how this is credible to those who read the poem, perhaps the idea was that Piers was a mask for the author. Or, as the ideal character of the poem, Piers might be seen as a kind of alter-ego for the poet that was more important to his early readers than the obviously authorial narrator and his apparent self-disclosures as Will. Ironically, Will's name and identity were substantially lost.

In some contemporary chronicles of the Rising, Ball and the Lollards were blamed for the revolt, and Piers began to be associated with heresy and rebellion. The earliest literary works comprising the Piers Plowman tradition follow in the wake of these events, although they and their sixteenth-century successors are not anti-monarchical or supportive of rebellion. Like William Langland, who may have written the C-Text version of Piers Plowman to disassociate himself from the Rising, they look for the reform of the English church and society by the removal of abuses in what the authors deem a restorative rather than an innovative project.

The first recorded owner of a copy of Piers Plowman was the judge Walter de Brugge (died 1396).

16th–18th centuries

The most conspicuous omissions from William Caxton's press were the Bible and Piers Plowman. Robert Crowley's 1550 editions of Piers Plowman present the poem as a proto-Protestant goad to the reformation of religion and society. In the passus summaries in the second and third editions, Crowley emphasizes material in the poem warning of political instability and widespread corruption when the king is a child (as was then the case). Crowley may have made small attempts to remove or soften single references to transubstantiation, the Mass, purgatory, and the Virgin Mary as a mediator and object of devotion (although almost a dozen references to purgatory remain, as well as three significant references to Mary). He actually added a line to his second and third editions that clearly refers to Marian intercession (F1r). After 1550, it was not printed again until 1813 except for Owen Rogers' 1561 edition -- a cheap knock-off of Crowley's text. The few people who mention Piers Plowman before 1700 usually attribute it to someone other than Langland, and often it is unclear if they are referring to Langland's poem or one of the many other texts circulating in print as part of the Piers Plowman tradition, particularly The Ploughman's Tale. Since Piers was conflated with the author and dreamer-narrator of the poem at an early date, "Piers Plowman" or a Latin equivalent is often given as the name of the author, which indicates unfamiliarity with, or disbelief of, Crowley's preface.

When Langland's poem is mentioned, it is often disparaged for its barbarous language. Similar charges were made against Chaucer, but he had more defenders and was already well established as a historical figure and "authority." Despite the work of Bale and Crowley, Langland's name appears to have remained unknown or unaccepted since other authors were suggested after Crowley's editions. Sometimes "Piers Plowman" was referred to as the author of the poem, and when writers refer to a list of medieval authors, they will often mention Piers Plowman as an author's name or a substitute for one. One gets the overall impression that Langland and Piers Plowman had less existence as author and text than did the fictional figure of Piers, whose relationship to a definite authorial and textual origin had been obscured much earlier.

Samuel Pepys owned a copy of Piers Plowman. Milton cites "Chaucer's Ploughman" in "Of Reformation" (1641) when he is discussing poems that have described Constantine as a major contributor to the corruption of the church. The end of Piers Plowman, Passus 15, makes this point at length—but it is also made briefly in one stanza in The Ploughman's Tale (ll. 693-700). In "An Apology for a Pamphlet ..." Milton refers to The Vision and Crede of Pierce Ploughman, which might mean one or both of these texts. Perhaps it refers to Rogers' 1561 edition which put them together. Henry Selden (1622) appears to have read the poem closely enough to admire it for its criticism of the church as well as its judgment and invention. He gives the author as Robert Langland. John Weever (1631) also names Robert Langland, as does David Buchanan (1652). Buchanan, however, makes Langland a Scot and attributes other works to him aside from Piers Plowman. Thomas Fuller (1662) bases his remarks about Langland on Selden and Bale, emphasizing Langland's putative proto-Protestant status. Fuller also notes that The Praier and Complaynte of the Ploweman unto Christe was "first set forth by Tindal, since, exemplified by Mr. Fox." Since the language of this text is similar to that of Piers Plowman, Fuller attributes it to Langland as well. Thomas Dudley, father of Anne Dudley Bradstreet (1612–72), brought a copy of Crowley's Piers Plowman to America. Alexander Pope (1688–1744) owned a copy of Rogers' reprint of Crowley's edition of Piers Plowman with the Crede appended, and Isaac D'Israeli (1766–1848) wrote in his Amenities of Literature that Pope had "very carefully analyzed the whole" of the latter text. D'Israeli also mentions Lord Byron's (1788–1824) praise for Piers Plowman.

19th–20th centuries

With its old language and alien worldview, Piers Plowman fell into obscurity until the nineteenth century. Barring Rogers, after Crowley, the poem was not published in its entirety until Thomas Whitaker's 1813 edition. It emerged at a time when amateur philologists began the groundwork of what would later become a recognized scholarly discipline. Whitaker's edition was based on a C-text, whereas Crowley used a B-text for his base.

With Whitaker a modern editorial tradition began, with each new editor striving to present the "authentic" Piers Plowman and challenging the accuracy and authenticity of preceding editors and editions. Then, as before in the English Reformation, this project was driven by a need for a national identity and history that addressed present concerns, hence analysis and commentary typically reflected the critic's political views. In the hands of Frederick Furnivall and W. W. Skeat, Piers Plowman could be, respectively, a consciousness-raising text in the Working Man's College or a patriotic text for grammar school pupils.

Piers Plowman has often been read primarily as a political document. In an 1894 study, J. J. Jusserand was primarily concerned with what he saw as the poem's psychological and sociopolitical content—as distinct from the aesthetic or literary—in a dichotomy common to all modern humanistic studies. Four years later Vida Dutton Scudder compared the poem with socialist ideas from the works of Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and the Fabians. (see Cole [1995] p. 1)

Introduced to the emerging university programs for English language and literature, Piers Plowman helped round out the English literary canon.

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