And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

tirsdag 31. juli 2012

Piers Plowman

(...) til I gan awake
- The Vision of Piers Plowman, William Langland

Last week I finished reading The Vision of Piers Plowman, a 14th-century unrhymed alliterative poem in Middle English, written by a cleric of minor orders, William Langland (c.1330-c.1386), of whom little is known beyond his Worcestershire provenance and his career as a London psalter-clerk. The poem exists in four versions, Z, A, B and C, written within the timeframe c.1365-c.1386, although the authenticity of Z is still a matter of contention. It was Walter Skeat who gave the poem its title in the late 1800s while working on what came to be its standard edition for about a century, a task that took about 20 years to complete. The revision of the B text was conducted by A. V. C. Schmidt.

I no longer remember how I came to learn about Piers Plowman, but I suspect it was during a course on the Late Middle Ages in the spring of 2009 and the work caught my interest fairly quickly. Shortly afterwards I ordered the Oxford World Classics edition, but became repulsed when I discovered this was a Modern English prose rendition. Fortunately I came upon the Everyman edition by chance during my first visit to York the autumn of that year. It did, however, take me quite a while to find time for the read itself, and after years of waiting, aborted beginnings and other preoccupations I finished the prologue one day I was waiting for my supervisor to get back to me on a thesis draft. By that time I had taken a course in Middle English romance at the University of York and thus become better acquainted with the language, and I believe this gave me the courage I so far had lacked to undertake the enterprise.

The Vision of Piers Plowman. or Piers Plowman for short, is a magnificent and challenging read. The narrator of the poem speaks of himself accordingly: "'I have lyved in londe,' quod I, 'my name is Longe Wille.'" and through a succession of dreams he conducts a search for the elusive Piers Plowman and the figures Dowel, Dobet and Dobest who will lead the Christians away from their irreligion and to the true Christian Church. This dreamwalk (and here be spoilers) brings Longe Wille to a wide range of allegories depicting his contemporary England, Biblical episodes, virtues and vices in a manner that spoke to the common man and highborn alike through a range of similes and a vocabulary echoing the life a 14th-century Englishman was familiar with. Christ is spoken of in chivalric terms who is jousting in Jerusalem to die on the rood, the titular character, Piers Plowman, is Simon Peter, the head of the true Church, Unitee, while Dowel, Dobet and Dobest are personifications signifying the three stages of Christ's life on earth, Dobest being his ultimate sacrifice on the cross. These things are not properly revealed until passus XIX and from the Prologue onwards the reader is kept in the dark as to the true nature of these particular allegories. I found this quest surprisingly suspenseful, despite the fact that the intervals between each time they are mentioned are both tangential and prolix, but William Langland - the author, as distinguished from Longe Wille the narrator - masterfully makes their names pop up with sufficient frequency to keep the reader alert to the true goal of his protagonist.

The poem is first of all an exploration of and an elegy over how Christians have failed to follow the teachings of Christ, and how mankind is punished for their sundry sins. William Langland is adamant that the plagues and dearths of the 14th century owed their occurrences to the wickedness of mankind, and he is equally adamant that the chief cause of these failings are the haughty clergy - more preoccupied with philosophy than pastoral work - and the shortcomings of the king and his advisors. It is stated that the most true Christians are the plowmen, the shepherds and the common labourers who conduct their business faithfully and do not sink into vice. However, although the author (and narrator, no distinction between them are needed on this level) are eager to have the Church and society undergo a reform, they do not want to abolish the institutions. The king is a necessity, it is stated, whose absence would be catastrophic. Similarly the forces of true Christianity - Conscience, Contricion and Cardynale Vertues to name just a few - are not bent on destroying the Church but to replace it with the true Holy Church, that of Unitee, a place where all Christians should unite. This is made especially clear in the concluding episode - passus XX - where the various Christian personifications are fighting against the forces of Antichrist led by Coveitise besieging the Church of Unitee. At this juncture Coveitise and his ally Symonye have already chased Good Feith flee from the halls of Westminster, illustrating the state of the secular rulership very poignantly. The state of the clergy proves equally detrimental for at the height of battle Conscience calls:

'Help, Clergie, or ellis I falle
Thorugh inparfite preestes and prelates of holy Chirche!'
Freres herden hym crye, and comen hym to helpe -
Ac for thei kouthe noght wel hir craft, Conscience forsook hem.
- Passus XX, lines 228-31

In other words not even the monks who followed Conscience into the newly established Unitee are sufficiently schooled in the craft of Christian love, the craft Conscience asks for in this passage. Inevitably Unitee falls, a fall brought about by Frere Flaterere (Flattery) who in the guise of a surgeon is allowed into the church to help Contricion who is badly wounded. This illustrates perfectly how the medieval mind perceived the role of the clergy: as spiritual doctors. Frere Flaterere, however, proves to be a bad doctor and fails - deliberately - in his task. After the fall of Unitee Conscience goes wide in the world in search of Piers Plowman and then Longe Wille wakes up.
From the 14th-century Luttrell psalter.

William Langland has in this poem created a very powerful social and religious critique whose allegories are deeply human and whose narrator is painfully aware of the human condition. Towards the end of the poem, after Longe Wille wakes up from one of his dreams, he describes how he is troubled with gout and impotence, and how aging afflicts him after the personification of old age - Elde - has ridden over his skull and left its imprint in the waning of his hair:

And Elde anoon after hym, and over myn heed yede,
And made me balled bifore and bare on the croune:
So harde he yede over myn heed it wole be sene evere.
- Passus XX, lines 183-85

Although aware of human frailty William is also concerned with mankind as a being wrought by a divine Creator:

For be a man fair or foul, it falleth noght for to lakke
The shap ne the shaft that God shoop hymselve
-Passus XI, lines 394-95

For man was maad of swich a matere he may noght wel asterte [escape]
-Passus XI, line 400

Mankind's divine provenance makes it holy, but this also calls for humility. "Although men made bokes, God was the maister" (Passus XII, line 101) William states and it is in part lack of such humility that has caused the current detrimental state, that and the workings of poorly schooled priests:

Right so out of Holy Chirche alle yveles spredeth
There inparfit preesthode is, prechours and techeris.
- Passus XV, lines 92-95


Grammer, the ground of al, bigileth now childre:
For is noon of thise newe clerkes - whoso nymeth hede -
That kan versifie faire ne formaliche enditen,
Ne naught oon among an hundred that an auctor can construwe,
Ne rede a lettre in any language but in Latyn or in Englissh.
- Passus XV, lines 371-75

Piers Plowman is, in sum, a powerful call for reform of a failing and dilapidated society. This struck a chord in William Langland's contemporaneity as can be witnessed by a letter from John Ball, a leading figure in the 1381 rebellion, to the peasants of Essex, in which he alluded to the figure of Piers Plowman. The poem was very popular and has survived in more than sixty manuscripts. It is tempting to say that this popularity can be ascribed to Langland's message being very apt for his time and succeeding times, but this is conjecture on my part. For any medievalist and any Christian this text is a fascinating window into ages past and a thought-provoking search to the original state of Christianity, presented with a timeless vitriol and occasional humour. It may not cause an awakening - and should perhaps not either - but it is well worth the time spent reading.

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