Biography of William Langland

Nothing is known with absolute certainty about William Langland. Scholars think that Langland is the author of Piers Plowman because of a note attached to an early manuscript which is housed at Trinity College in Dublin, and an attribution in a printed edition from 1550. Other than these traces, everything known about Langland comes from assuming that the character of the speaker in Piers Plowman is autobiographical. No other writing has been attributed definitively to William Langland, although there is some evidence that he wrote some other earlier poems.

This is what can best be surmised about Langland’s life, which is the subject of scholarly debate: According to Peter Sutton, who translated Piers Plowman into modern English, William Langland was a “tall, awkward son of the minor nobility.” Langland was born some time around 1330 in Cleobury, Shropshire, England. He was educated at the expense of Sir Hugh Despenser of Hanley Castle at an Augustinian priory and Little Malvern Priory. Sir Hugh died during the Plague of 1348-49, after which Langland wandered the countryside for a decade. He moved to London sometime in the 1360s, where he worked as a copyist for lawyers, a chantry priest in minor orders, and a poet. He married and had a daughter. While he lived on a modest income, his skill as a poet allowed him to move in “elevated social circles opposed to the government.” He began to write Piers Plowman around 1360, stopped about five years later, then returned to it in the 1370s. He completed a final version in the 1380s. By that time, the poem was already well-known from earlier versions, and was used by rebels to attack the state and church. William Langland died between 1385 and 1387.

Study Guides on Works by William Langland

William Langland wrote the poem Piers Plowman over the course of about twenty years in the Late Middle Ages, completing the earliest version in the mid-1360s, and longer revised versions in the late 1370s and mid-1380s. Fifty-two early manuscripts...