During this past summer season I had the joy of taking an aimless stroll through St Albans, in Hertfordshire, England. History was everywhere on display. From the remaining Roman walls of Verulamium to the riches of a tightly woven Christian past, it is a town that provides a fair field full of folklore, a storehouse of what has gone before.
One particular feature caught my eye, however—a plaque mounted on the gateway of a monastery wall marking the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The surprise of this find chiefly lay in my past life as a medievalist, and the intensive postgraduate work I had undertaken on the theme of how the revolt played out in the literature of its day. Quite unawares, I found myself standing where Wat Tyler and his fellow insurgents had stood centuries before, demanding their rights in a feudal system.
That simple chance encounter launched a pilgrimage for me back into the catalogue of texts that dominated my earlier life, and that continue to shape the ways in which I think and see the world. Dominant among the poems and fragments that I have re-explored is Piers Plowman, a remarkable vision poem written by William Langland in the midst of the tumult and disruption of the later medieval period.
Piers Plowman was written in a pocket of air in English history between the Plague and the Peasants’ Revolt, between the devastation visited by a deadly pandemic, and the political unrest bubbling beneath the surface of society. Langland, with alliterative flair, poetic prowess, and a light touch interrogation of the Medieval estates, produced a towering piece of literature—deeply imaginative, socially disruptive, inherently honest. Not only is the poem a pleasure to read (in original Middle English or in modern translation), but it continues to carry resonances for our period in Western history, as well as possibilities about how to understand and articulate the cultural and moral impasse that Christianity currently faces. Piers Plowman is a poem of protest, of occasional despair, but also a thoroughgoing affirmation of the primacy of love as a true law for living.
Speaking poetry to the power-hungry
A key to understanding William Langland’s work is to be constantly conscious of just how subversive his poetic endeavours were in the later Medieval period. Even the medium of English carried connotations of popular appeal and popular piety, a language charged with the emergence of a confident vernacular which gave voice to such social revolutionaries as Wycliffe and the Lollards. Langland adopts and adapts the language as a means of critiquing the overarching structures assumed in medieval society, insisting on saying hard things in creative ways for maximum impact.
Langland’s position is not on the side of the powerful or the politically ascendent, but with the poor, the marginalised, and the disenfranchised. Scandalously the richest preaching in the poem comes not from prelates but a plowman, a man of the soil, unsullied by the simony and avarice so typical of those who wanted to hold sway in society. Langland lays bare the hypocrisy and duplicity of a religious elite who have so wedded themselves to wealth and political position that the fundamental love principle of the gospel has been lost.
Scandalously the richest preaching in the poem comes not from prelates but a plowman, a man of the soil. Andrew Roycroft
Piers Plowman documents the devastation that follows Christianity making itself a parasite of the political estate and insists that charity be the chief expression of the faith in wider society—caring for the poor, ministering at the margins, and challenging a clerical system that could assume its position without embodying its own values.
The fact that poetry is the channel through which this challenge comes is fascinating. Langland was clearly an educated man, possibly a priest himself, but the hazy, disorientating, and at times almost postmodern poetic he adopts delivers his challenge in a disarming way. He tells the truth but tells it slant (to borrow from Emily Dickinson via Eugene Peterson), eloquently and imaginatively undermining the Christian status quo while tenderly pleading for love to be the governing principle of religious belief and practice.
The possibilities that this opens up for poetry in our contexts are multiple and will be governed by our specific cultural circumstances. Whatever our current challenges, Piers Plowman stands as a model of a message mediated with genuine imagination and breathtaking moral courage.
Speaking complexity to a superficial culture
Piers Plowman is largely allegorical in format, probing medieval virtues, vices, and values in a way that will be familiar to those who have been brought up on a diet of John Bunyan. What Bunyan lacks, Langland abounds in: namely comedy and complexity. Piers Plowman is laugh-out-loud funny in places, with characterisation not confined to the allegorical labels individuals bear (Greed, Conscience, etc.). Dialogue is charged with misunderstanding, farce, and drama, drawing the reader into a world rich in humour and dimension. Gluttony decides to repent, but gets waylaid in the pub on the way to the church; later slumbering and giving way to a flatulence whose aroma disgusts the array of other characters.
Behind the laughs, Langland articulates the big questions a medieval Christian wanted to ask. He critiques the structure of the church, he queries whether people can be saved outside of the sacraments. He wrestles with theological conundrums about why God would create a world that would experience the Fall, how unreached people can be condemned, and how he himself can know spiritual peace of mind and heart.
What is striking here is the poet's willingness to visit these borderlands of belief (and doubt), and return without the souvenirs of easy answers. Andrew Roycroft
What is striking here is the poet’s willingness to visit these borderlands of belief (and doubt), and return without the souvenirs of easy answers. Over and over again the questions raised by characters are left in the air, another episode opening without the previous one being resolved. This is part of Langland’s great skill, an ability to reflect without immediately pronouncing, a willingness to say the unsayable but to leave the unanswerable unanswered. Such strengths are arguably always the stuff of poetry.
A walk in St Albans and a revisitation of my medieval past have reawakened in me the old joy of what vintage texts can say and do. Time and again while reading Piers Plowman I felt deep conviction about how easy it is to let true charity be a low priority, about the importance of poetry in times of public peril, about the danger of privileging over-simplification, and how the enduring message of Christian love outlasts plague, revolt, and the ravages of time. Langland has encouraged me to read again with joy and repentance and has challenged me to pursue the task of writing in that vein also.
Some suggestions for reading Piers Plowman
As a former medievalist I will always urge people to at least dabble with original Middle English, but realistically reading the poem in translation will be a more accessible experience. A.V.C. Schmidt has produced a wonderful new prose translation of the B-text, unforced but still carrying resonances of how alliterative poetry worked.
Readers may also find this episode of the perennially wonderful BBC podcast In Our Time to be a good introductory guide to the riches of Piers Plowman.