Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Langland, William

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520411Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 32 — Langland, William1892John Wesley Hales

LANGLAND, WILLIAM (1330?–1400?), poet, is not mentioned in any known contemporary documents. The first recorded notice is in notes found in, two manuscripts of 'Piers Plowman.' The Ashburnham MS. says that 'Robert or William Langland made pers ploughman.' The manuscript now at Dublin (D. 4. l) has a note in Latin, said to be in a handwriting of the fifteenth century, to the effect that the poet Langland's father was of gentle birth, was called 'Stacy de Rokayle,' dwelt in Shipton-under-Wychwood, and was a tenant of Lord 'le Spenser in comitatu Oxon.' About the middle of the sixteenth century Bale, in his 'Scriptores Illustres Majoris Britanniæ,' wrote that 'Robertus [?] Langelande, a priest, as it seems [?], was born in the county of Shropshire, at a place commonly known as Mortymers Clibery [i.e. Cleobury Mortimer], in a poor district eight miles from the Malvern hills. I cannot say with certainty whether he was educated until his maturity in that remote and rural locality, or whether he studied at Oxford or Cambridge, though it was a time when learning notably flourished among the masters in those places. This is at all events certain, that he was one of the first followers [?] of John Wiclif; and further, that in his spiritual fervour in opposition to the open blasphemies of the papists against God and his Christ he put forth a pious work worthy the reading of good men, written in the English tongue, and adorned by pleading fashions and figures, which he called "The Vision of Peter the Ploughman." There is no other work by him. In this learned book he introduced, besides varied and attractive imagery, many predictions which in our time we have seen fulfilled. He finished his work A.D. 1389, when John of Chichester was mayor of London.' There is no other external authority of importance, but some details may be supplied from passages in 'Piers Plowman.'

Several manuscripts mention that his christian name was William, as appears also from his poem. Thus, in the B text, xv. 148:

'I have lyued in lande, quod I; 'my name is Long Wills.'

In three manuscripts—the Ilchester, the Douce, and the Digby—a W. follows the William: 'Explicit visio Willelmi W. de Petro le Plowman.' W. may stand for Wychwood, or more probably denotes Wigornensis, i.e. of Worcester, for with Worcestershire the poet was beyond doubt closely connected. As it is fairly certain that Langland belonged to the midlands, and as his surname seems to be of local origin, the proper form would naturally be Langley rather than Langland; for no place called Langland appears to be in the midland district, whereas the name Langley is found both in Oxfordshire and in Shropshire. The manuscript note quoted above informs us that the poet's father was Stacy de Rokayle. Professor Pearson has pointed out (see North British Review, April 1870) that there is a hamlet called Ruckley in Shropshire, near Acton Burnell. There is another in the same county not far from Boscobel. From one of these places 'Stacey' probably took his surname. But near Shipton-under-Wychwood there is a hamlet called Langley, and near the Ruckley which adjoins Acton Burnell there is a hamlet called Langley, and it has been plausibly suggested that from one or other of these two places Stacey's son took his surname. These suggestions, however, ignore Bale's statement that the poet was born at Cleobury Mortimer, and it seems not to have been pointed out that, close by Cleobury Mortimer, there is a hamlet called Langley. As Bale probably had some grounds for his statement, it may reasonably be believed that the poet was born in south Shropshire, and that the commemoration of him—lately inserted in a window in Cleobury Church—may be fairly defended. Thus by birth both Stacey and his distinguished son probably belong to Shropshire, though at one time Stacy lived at Shipton-under-Wychwood in Oxfordshire. Professor Pearson has pointed out a certain connection between Acton Burnell and Shipton, viz. an intermarriage between the Burnells of Acton Burnell and the De Despensers of Shipton. Also he points out a certain connection between one Henry de Rokesley who may possibly have been an ancestor of 'Stacy de Rokayle' and the De Mortimers; viz. that Henry de Rokesley claimed to be descended from Robert Paytevin, and 'one of the few Paytevins who can be traced was a follower of Roger de Mortimer.' Some light is perhaps thus cast upon Stacy's migrations to Cleobury Mortimer and to Shipton. Thus Langley, rather than Langland, seems to be the more accurate form of the name. On the other hand, the earliest authorities give Langland, and possibly in the line quoted above the 'lande' refers to this surname.

Beyond question the poet is to be associated with the western midlands. He particularly connects his vision with the Malvern Hills:—

As on a May mornings on Maluerne hulles
Me byfel a ferly, of fairy me thougte.
O text, i. 6–7 (see also i. 163); vi. 109–10; x. 295–6).

And several allusions indicate the same quarter of England, as, for instance, 'Bi the Rode of Chestre' (B, v. 467); 'Then was ther a Walishman … He highte Zyuan Zeldazeyn,' &c. (C, vii. 309); 'Griffyn the Walish' (C, vii. 373). Nor is the mention of 'rymes of Robyn Hood,' along with rimes of 'Randolf erle of Chestre,' inconsistent with this localisation; for a bishop of Hereford plays a part in the Robin Hood cycle of ballads, and there are Robin Hood legends connected with Ludlow. Langland also writes in a west midland dialect. 'There are many traces of west of England speech also,' writes Dr. Skeat,' and even some of northern, but the latter may possibly be rightly considered as common to both north and west.' Such a description leads us to Worcestershire and Shropshire. A careful examination both of Langland's words and his word-forms certainly confirms it. Thus, e.g., the scarce word 'fisketh' = wanders (C, x. 153) is recorded in Miss Jackson's 'Shropshire Wordbook;' and it will be found that the poems of John Audlay of Haughmond Monastery, Shropshire, which do not seem to have been studied in relation with 'Piers Plowman,' afford not only many illustrations of Langland's ideas, but many also of his dialect.

In the second edition of his chief poem, Imaginative, addressing the poet, says he has followed him 'this five and forty winters.' Now the B text was written about 1377. We may thus infer that the poet was born about 1332. From a passage in the sixth passus of the C text, we learn that he was free-born and born in wedlock (C, vi. 64). He was duly sent to school. In the sixth passus of the third chief edition of 'Piers the Plowman' he says: 'When I was young many years ago, my father and my friends found me [i.e. supported me] at school, till I knew truly what Holy Writ meant, and what is best for the body, as that Book tells us, and safest for the soul, if only I live accordingly. And yet assuredly found I never, since my friends died, a life that pleased me, except in these long clothes,' i.e. except as an ecclesiastic. Probably he received his earlier education at some monastery, possibly at Great Malvern. He seems to be remembering wasted opportunities when, in the midst of a reproachful speech to him by Holy Church—'Thou foolish dolt,' quoth she, 'dull are thy wits; I believe thou learnedest too little Latin in thy youth'—he inserts the line:

Hei michi, quod sterilem duxi vitam juvenilem!

It is certain that sooner or later Langland's literary acquirements were considerable. His poems refer to Wycliffe, the Vulgate, Rutebœuf, Peter Comestor, Grossetéte, Dionysius Cato, Huon de Meri, 'Legends Sanctorum,' Isidore, Cicero, Vincent of Beauvais, 'Guy of Warwick,' Boethius, Seneca, and many others. Stow, who oddly calls him John of Malvern, says he was a fellow of Oriel College. But the evidence on this point is insufficient.

When asked by Reason what work he can do, whether he could lend a hand in farming operations, or knew any other kind of craft that the community needs, he replies that the only life that attracted him was the priestly. He seems to have taken 'minor orders;' to have been licensed to act as an acolyte, exorcist, reader, and porter, or ostiarius. It does not appear why be never took the 'greater' or the 'sacred orders.' His uncompromising character may have rendered him unwilling to bind himself, or he may have married early. He speaks of 'Kytte my Wyf, and Kalotte [Nicolette] my daughter.' He made what living he could as a 'singer.' 'Singers (hypoboleis, psalmists, monitors),' says Walcott (Sacred Archæology, s. v. 'Singer') '… formed a distinct order. … They were at length called canonical or registered singers;' though, s.v. 'Orders,' he states 'that the singer was regarded as a clerk only in a large sense.' Langland, as we know from his own testimony, had drifted up to London, and in London he resided probably for most of his adult life. He 'woned' in Cornhill, he tells us, 'Kytte' and he in a cottage, dressed shabbily ('clothed as a lollere,' i.e. as a vagrant, as we should say), and was little thought of even among the vulgar society that surrounded him, even 'among lollares of London & lewede heremytes;' for I 'made of the men as reson me tauhte,' i.e. I did not treat them with over much respect. I rated them at their proper worth; or perhaps, I composed verses on those men such as reason suggested. 'And I live in London and on London as well. The tools I labour with and earn my living are Patermoster and my primer Placebo and Dirige, and my Psalter sometimes and my Seven Psalms. Thus I sing for the souls of such as help me; and those that find me my food guarantee, I trow, that I shall be welcome when I come occasionally in a mouth, now at some gentleman's house, and now at some lady's; and in this wise I beg without bag or bottle, but my stomach only. And also, it seems to me men should not force clerks to common men's work; for by the Levitical law, which Our Lord confirmed, clerks that are crowned [i.e. tonsured], by a natural understanding [i.e. as nature would dictate], should neither swink nor sweat, nor swear at inquests, nor fight in the vanward, nor harass their foe; for they are heirs of heaven, are all that are tonsured, and in quire and churches are Christ's own ministers' (C text, vi. init.) Elsewhere he speaks of himself as walking in the manner of a 'mendinaunt' (mendicant) (ib. xvi. 3); of his 'roming about robed in russet;' of the poverty that perpetually assailed him. He evidently knew London well; he specially mentions Cheapside, Cock Lane, Shoreditch, Garlickhithe, Southwark, Tyburn, Stratford, Westminster, and its law courts, besides the Cornhill where he lived, or starved. He tells us how at one time 'my wit waxed and waned till I was a fool; and some blamed my life, but few approved it; and they look me for a lorel, and one loathe to reverence lords or ladies, or any soul else, such as persons [perhaps our 'parsons'] in velvet with pendants of silver. To serjeants [great lawyers] and to such did I not once say "Heaven keep you, gentlemen," nor did I bow to them civilly, so that folks held me a fool, and in that folly I raved,' &c.

All this time Langland was seeing wonderful visions, which, when written down, were to give him a high place among the poets of the time, and perhaps the highest among its prophets. Besides the 'Vision of Piers Plowman,' there is good reason for believing that Langland wrote at least one other extant poem, viz. one on the misrule of Richard II; but the 'Vision' was the great work of his life. He was engaged on it, more or leas, from 1362 to 1392, revising, rewriting, omitting, adding. He produced it in at least three notably distinct forms, or editions, to say nothing of intermediate versions, all showing with what keen and what unwearied interest he was watching the course of events, and proving by their number how great were the popularity and the influence of this poem addressed to the people by one of themselves. He was recognised as the people's spokesman. No less than forty-five manuscripts of his work are known to be now extant; in the sixteenth century there were certainly two more; additional ones may yet be discovered. Signs of its circulation and acceptance are abundant. Not the least interesting occurs in connection with the great rising of the peasantry in 1381, in a letter addressed by John Ball (d. 1381) [q. v.] to the commons of Essex.

The first edition consisted of only twelve passus or cantons, the second contained twenty, the third twenty-three. All the versions can be dated with considerable precision. In one set of manuscripts are found no allusions beyond the year 1362, though there are several—e.g. that to the peace of Brétigny—that belong to 1360 and thereabouts. A mention of 'this south-western wynt on a Saturday at ruen' (A text, v. 13) obviously alludes, as Tyrwhitt first noted, to a violent storm on Saturday, 15 Jan. 1362, of which an account is given by Thorn, by Walsingham, and by the continuator of Adam Murimuth. A second group of manuscripts connects itself with 1377 and thereabouts. The decisive allusion is to the time between the death of the Black Prince and the accession of Richard II, and the perils of the crown and the kingdom at that time, especially from John of Gaunt (see B text, prol. 87–209). A third group of manuscripts carries us on another fifteen years to 1392 and thereabouts. In 1392, as Professor Skeat points out, the city of London refused the King a loan of 1,000l., and a Lombard who lent it him was beaten by the Londoners nearly to death. Now, in a line, not occurring in the 'A' and the 'B' groups, Conscience, addressing the king, declares that unseemly tolerance [vusittynge suffrance] (of bad men) has almost brought it about, 'hote Maria the help' [unless the Virgin succours him] that no land loves him, and least of all his own (C text, iv. 210); and in another passage, also additional, Reason assures him that if he will rule wisely, and not let 'unseemly tolerance' 'seal his privy letters,' Love will lend him silver

To wage thyne, & help wynne that thow wilnest, aftar,
More than al thy merchauns other thy mytrede bishops
Other Lumbardes of Lukes that lynan by lone as Jewes.

A more complete indication of the various dates of 'Piers Plowman,' and for a minute account of the differences between the three chief texts, is given in Dr. Skeat's (2 vols. 8vo) edition published by the Clarendon press in 1886.

Langland put into his poem all that from time to time he had to say on the questions of the day and on the great questions of life. He thought eagerly on these things, and all the thoughts of his heart 'sodalibus olim credebat libris;' and these books his contemporaries read with scarcely lees eagerness. He was not only a keen observer and thinker, but also an effective writer. His intense feeling for his fellow-men, his profound pity for their sad plight, unshepherded and guideless as he beheld them, were made effective by his imaginative power and his masterly gift of language and expression. He sees vividly the objects and the sights he describes, and makes his readers see them vividly. He is as exact and realistic as Dante, however inferior in the greatness of his conceptions or in nobleness of poetic form. In this last respect Langland is connected with the past rather than with what was the metrical fashion of his own day; he is the representative of the Teutonic revival in England which completed itself in the fourteenth century. He adopts the old English metre, the unrimed alliterative line of most usually four accents. Even Layamon [q. v.] had a century and a half before largely admitted rime into his verses, though they, too, are chiefly of the Anglo-Saxon style. Langland in this matter was probably somewhat retrogressive, though we must remember that he knew his audience better than his modern critics can know it. In the more cultivated circles certainly the taste for the old metrical form was wellnigh extinct. But Langland went pretty much his own way.

Near the close of the fourteenth century Langland seems to have returned to the west. In 1399, if the poem written in the September of that year to remonstrate with Richard II—the poem well entitled by Dr. Skeat 'Richard the Redeless'—is his composition, he was residing at Bristol; and, though there is no manuscript authority for ascribing it to him, the language, the style, the thought, all seem thoroughly to justify the judgment of Mr. T. Wright and Dr. Skeat. Years before, the poet had been offended by Richard's misgovernment. He makes one last appeal to this unworthy king, or was making it, when it would seem the news of his unthroning reached him. The poem ends in the middle of a paragraph.

[Skeat's editions of the A, the B, and the C texts, published by the Early English Text Soc.; his edition of all three texts together, with a volume of introductions and notes, published by the Clarendon press; his edition of the first seven passus, with prologue, B text, in a volume of the Clarendon press series; The Vision of Piers Ploughman, with the Creed of Piers Ploughman, by a different but unknown author, who probably wrote about 1394, ed. by T. Wright, 2 vols. 12mo, 2nd ed. 1856; Ten Brink's Early English Literature, tr. H. M. Kennedy, 1883; Milman's Latin Christianity, vol. vi. ed. 1855; Marsh's Origin and Hist. of the English Language; Wright's Political Songs of England from the Reign of John to that of Edward II, published by the Camden Society; Observations sur la Vision de Piers Plowman, &c., par J. J. Jusserand, 1879: Rosenthal on Langland's metre in Anglia, i, 414 et seq; National Review, October 1861.]

J. W. H.