Langland as an Early Modern Author
  • Sarah A. Kelen
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


If asked to describe contemporary literary culture, most of us would answer in reference to living writers, perhaps those whose works are best sellers or those who have won recent literary prizes. Nevertheless, many works from earlier centuries (Hamlet, for example) retain an important place in our literary culture. It would be hard to explicate the sociology of reading, particularly as it intersects with the practice of education, without understanding the totemic status that Shakespeare’s plays have within our cultural notions of literary authority, even four centuries after their composition. To that extent, Shakespeare (though not our contemporary) still exerts a measurable force on twenty-first-century literary culture.1 On the other hand, despite the importance of Shakespeare in our understanding of literary history, no one would contend that Venus and Adonis is an integral part of the English canon. Understanding the contemporary importance of Shakespeare also includes knowing which particular Shakespearean works twenty-first-century readers still read, and how. The same holds true for later periods’ conceptions of medieval literature. To read early modern works without simultaneously paying attention to the classical and medieval works that were (or were not) reprinted alongside them produces an incomplete picture of early modern literary culture.


Sixteenth Century Literary History Fifteenth Century Literary Tradition Literary Culture 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    A counterargument of sorts can be found in the staging theories described by Jan Kott in Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday and Co, Inc., 1964).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Lotte Hellinga, Caxton in Focus: The Beginning of Printing in England (London: The British Library, 1982), 101. Caxton himself translated about twenty of the works he printed; he and Colard Manson (his partner in Bruges) were the only fifteenth-century printers to do their own translations; British Library Reference Division, William Caxton: An Exhibition to Commemorate the Quincentenary of the Introduction of Printing into England (London: British Library, 1976), 10–11. William Kuskin argues that in the fifteenth century a link develops between “the material production of goods [i.e., English printed books] and the symbolic production of cultural identity.” William Kuskin, “ ‘Onely imagined’: Vernacular Community and the English Press,” in Caxton’s Trace: Studies in the History of English Printing, ed. Kuskin (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 200.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Tim William Machan, “Early Modern Middle English,” in Caxton’s Trace, ed. Kuskin, 300.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    On Middle English alliterative poetry, see David Lawton, ed., MiddleEnglish Alliterative Poetry and Its Literary Background: Seven Essays (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1982). Lawton’s “Note on Primary Sources,” 155–159, lists editions and manuscripts of the known texts in this literary tradition.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    There is abundant scholarship in each of these areas, more than is useful to list here. Some important examples in each of the three areas (sequentially) are: E. Talbot Donaldson, “MSS R and F in the B-Tradition of Piers Plowman,” Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences 39 (1955): 177–212; Lawrence Warner, “The Ur-B Piers Plowman and the Earliest Production of C and B,” YLS 16 (2002): 3–39; A. G. Rigg and Charlotte Brewer, Piers Plowman: A Facsimile of the Z-Text in Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Bodley 851 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1994); Ralph Hanna III, Pursuing History: Middle English Manuscripts and Their Texts (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 195–202; Anne Middleton, “The Audience and Public of Piers Plowman,” in Middle English Alliterative Poetry and Its Literary Background, 101–123; Kathryn Kerby-Fulton and Steven Justice, “Langlandian Reading Circles and the Civil Service in London and Dublin, 1380–1427,” New Medieval Literature 1 (1997): 59–83.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Three manuscripts of the A text (sigils T, Z, and V), five manuscripts of the B text (sigils W, C, L, R, and F), and ten manuscripts of the C text (sigils X, I, H, P2, P, E, V, M, K, and G) are dated to the late fourteenth century or the turn of the fifteenth century. Ralph Hanna III, William Langland (Brookfield, VT: Variorum, 1993), 38–42.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    I am particularly concerned with the annotation of Piers Plowman manuscripts by their sixteenth-century readers here, but this is not the only codicological evidence of the poem having been read. Some Piers Plowman manuscripts are in sixteenth- or seventeenth-century bindings, implying that their early modern owners valued their contents enough to have them rebound. Three B text manuscripts have sixteenth- or seventeenth-century bindings: Cambridge, Trinity College MS B.15.17 (sigil W), Oxford, MS Bodley 814 (sigil Bo), and Oxford, Corpus Christi MS College MS 201 (sigil F); C. David Benson and Lynne S. Blanchfield, The Manuscripts of “Piers Plowman”: The B-Version (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1997), 57, 78, 99. I have throughout silently incorporated Benson and Blanchfield’s expansions of abbreviations; I also omit indications of line breaks in the marginalia I quote.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Benson and Blanchfield, 206.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    John Stow, A Svrvay of London. Contayning the Originall, Antiquity, Increase, Moderne Estate, and Description of That Citie (London: John Wolfe, 1598), 121. The lines from Piers Plowman are B.13.265–269.Google Scholar
  10. 14.
    Tonya Schaap, “From Professional to Private Readership: A Discussion and Transcription of the Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Marginalia in Piers Plowman C-Text, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Digby 102,” in The Medieval Reader: Reception and Cultural History in the Late Medieval Manuscript, ed. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton and Maide Hilmo (New York: AMS Press, 2001), 95.Google Scholar
  11. 21.
    Grindley, 126. This line is C.22.176. Barbara A. Johnson also discusses the political and social concerns evident in Ayscough’s annotations to the poem. Johnson, Reading “Piers Plowman” and “The Pilgrim’s Progress”: Reception and the Protestant Reader (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992), 155–158.Google Scholar
  12. 25.
    Lawton made this observation in the first volume of New Medieval Literatures, a journal dedicated to expanding the canon of literary study as well as expanding the critical perspectives medievalists bring to bear on the texts they study. David Lawton, “Analytical Survey 1: Literary History and Cultural Study,” New Medieval Literatures 1 (1997): 246.Google Scholar
  13. 28.
    These works are alliterative poems of political and religious satire that borrow the figure of the Plowman or the language of Piers Plowman as intertextual marks of their genre and spirit. Helen Barr surveys and edits these texts in The Piers Plowman Tradition: A Critical Edition of Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede, Richard the Redeless, Mum and the Sothsegger, and The Crowned King. (London: J. M. Dent, 1993), (London: Everyman’s Library, 1993); she is also responsible for naming the “tradition” as such.Google Scholar
  14. 29.
    Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). See also Anne Hudson, “Piers Plowman and the Peasants’ Revolt: A Problem Revisited,” YLS 8 (1994): 85–106.Google Scholar
  15. 30.
    Thomas Walsingham, Historia Anglicana, ed. H. T. Riley, Rolls Series 28, pt. 1, 2 vols. (London: Longman, Green, et al., 1863–1864), 2.34.Google Scholar
  16. 31.
    Richard Firth Green edits this letter along with four rebel letters preserved in the Chronicon; “John Ball’s Letters.” The Chronicon is also available in a Rolls Series edition: Henry Knighton, Chronicon, ed. Joseph Rawson Lumby, Rolls Series 92, 2 vols (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1889– 1895).Google Scholar
  17. 32.
    Ann Astell extends Justice’s analysis, contextualizing the rebels’ responses to Piers Plowman in their awareness of poem’s genre. She argues that “Ball read Langland’s poem as a political allegory,. . .[and] did so with considerable sophistication,” and that “Langland himself provided Ball with cues to encourage such an interpretation.” Astell, Political Allegory in Late Medieval England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), 71.Google Scholar
  18. 34.
    Geoffrey Chaucer, The Workes of Geffray Chaucer Newly Printed.. .[ed. William Thynne.] (London: Thomas Godfray, 1532), Aiiv. This Preface may well have been written by Brian Tuke, rather than William Thynne. James E. Blodgett discusses Tuke’s claim to have written this; Blodgett, “William Thynne (d. 1546),” in Editing Chaucer: The Great Tradition, ed. Paul G. Ruggiers (Norman, OK: Pilgrim Books, 1984), n. 1. Joseph A. Dane argues against the Tuke attribution; Dane, Who Is Buried? 39–43. Because the Preface purports to be by William Thynne, I use Thynne’s name, understanding that it may not actually be his writing.Google Scholar
  19. 37.
    Thomas Dunham Whitaker, Visio Willi[am] de Petro Plouhman, Item Visiones ejusdem de Dowel, Dobet, et Dobest.. .(London: John Murray, 1813), iv.Google Scholar
  20. 39.
    C. David Benson, Public Piers Plowman: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004).Google Scholar
  21. 40.
    John Bowers, “Piers Plowman’s William Langland: Editing the Text, Writing the Author’s Life,” YLS 9 (1995): 65–90. In saying that “someone” wrote Piers Plowman, I am endorsing the now-standard “single author hypothesis,” but it is worth remembering that a generation ago this too was controversial in criticism of the poem. A few critics still support the multiple authorship theory; see for example, Eric Dahl, “ ‘Diuerse Copies Haue It Diuerselye’: An Unorthodox Survey of Piers Plowman Textual Scholarship from Crowley to Skeat,” in Suche Werkis to Werche: Essays on “Piers Plowman” in Honor of David C. Fowler, ed. Míceál F. Vaughan (East Lansing, MI: Colleagues Press, 1993), 53–80. For a strong defense of William Langland’s name and identity as the sole poet, see Anne Middleton, “William Langland’s ‘Kynde Name’: Authorial Signature and Social Identity in Late Fourteenth-Century England,” in Literary Practice and Social Change in Britain, 1380–1530, ed. Lee Patterson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 15–82.Google Scholar
  22. 41.
    Richard Proudfoot, Ann Thompson, and David Scott Kastan, eds., The Arden Shakespeare: Complete Works (Walton-on-Thames, UK: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1998), 1.Google Scholar
  23. 42.
    On the political uses of Chaucer’s works in this period, see John Watkins, “ ‘Wrastling for This World’: Wyatt and the Tudor Canonization of Chaucer,” in Refiguring, ed. Krier, 21–39. On the political uses of Anglo-Saxon law in Reformation England, Frantzen, Desire for Origins, especially Chapter 2: “Origins, Orientalism, and Anglo-Saxonism in the Sixteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” For a more general overview of the relationship between Reformation historiography and literary history, see Brian Cummings, “Reformed Literature and Literature Reformed,” in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 821–851.Google Scholar
  24. 43.
    Tim William Machan, Textual Criticism and Middle English Texts (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1994), 80.Google Scholar
  25. 44.
    Much has been written on this subject. On the text of Robert Crowley’s 1550 editions of the poem, see J. R. Thorne and Marie-Claire Uhart. “Robert Crowley’s Piers Plowman.” Medium Ævum 55 (1986): 248–254. On the George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson’s Athlone editions of the poem, see Lee Patterson, “The Logic of Textual Criticism and the Way of Genius: The Kane-Donaldson Piers Plowman in Historical Perspective,” in Textual Criticism and Literary Interpretation, ed. Jerome J. McGann (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 55–91. See also Andrew Galloway, “Uncharacterizable Entities: The Poetics of Middle English Scribal Culture and the Definitive Piers Plowman,” Studies in Bibliography 52 (1999): 59–87. On the history of the text across a number of editions, see particularly Charlotte Brewer, Editing “Piers Plowman”: The Evolution of the Text (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); see also Dahl, “ ‘Diverse Copies Have It Diverselye.’ ”Google Scholar
  26. 45.
    Recent scholarship on the relationship between Caxton’s output and the canon of medieval literature includes Russell Rutter, “William Caxton and Literary Patronage,” Studies in Philology 84 (1987): 440–470; and William Kuskin, “Caxton’s Worthies Series: The Production of Literary Culture,” ELH 66 (1999): 511–551.Google Scholar
  27. 46.
    The sixteenth-century editions of Confessio Amantis are STC 12142–12144. The manuscripts of the poem are discussed in: John Gower, Confessio Amanatis, ed. Russell A. Peck, with Latin translations by Andrew Galloway, vol. 1 (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 44. 47. The three kinds of meaning are in some way analogous to what J. L. Austin has termed locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts. J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures Delivered at Harvard University in 1955 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965).Google Scholar
  28. 49.
    One way the poem’s early modern reception continues to be important for modern readers is the fact that Robert Crowley’s three 1550 editions of the poem preserve readings of a B text manuscript now lost. I discuss Crowley’s editions of the text in chapter 1. Early modern reception of Piers Plowman is important in terms of analysis, not simply editing. The terms in which Langland is discussed today reproduce some of the early modern discussions of his identity, if in different terminology. Whereas sixteenth-century readers spoke of Langland as a proto-Protestant, commentators today situate Langland against the context of contemporary Lollardy. Nevertheless, defining Langland’s theology remains central to discussions of the poem. A recent reading of Piers Plowman in the context of Lollardy is Anne Hudson, “Langland and Lollardy,” YLS 17 (2003): 93–106.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Sarah A. Kelen 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sarah A. Kelen

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations