William Langland (cir. 1332--1400) is a great figure in
obscurity. We are not certain even of his name, and we must search his work
to discover that he was, probably, a poor lay-priest whose life was
governed by two motives: a passion for the poor, which led him to plead
their cause in poetry, and a longing for all knowledge:
All the sciences under sonnė, and all the sotyle craftės,
I wolde I knew and couthė, kyndely in mynė hertė.
His chief poem, Piers Plowman (cir. 1362), is a series of
visions in which are portrayed the shams and impostures of the age and the
misery of the common people. The poem is, therefore, as the heavy shadow
which throws into relief the bright picture of the Canterbury Tales.
For example, while Chaucer portrays the Tabard Inn with its good cheer and
merry company, Langland goes to another inn on the next street; there he
looks with pure eyes upon sad or evil-faced men and women, drinking,
gaming, quarreling, and pictures a scene of physical and moral degradation.
One must look on both pictures to know what an English inn was like in the
Because of its crude form and dialect Piers Plowman is hard to
follow; but to the few who have read it and entered into Langland's
vision--shared his passion for the poor, his hatred of shams, his belief in
the gospel of honest work, his humor and satire and philosophy--it is one
of the most powerful and original poems in English literature. [Footnote:
The working classes were beginning to assert themselves in this age, and to
proclaim "the rights of man." Witness the followers of John Ball, and his
influence over the crowd when he chanted the lines:
When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?
Langland's poem, written in the midst of the labor agitation, was the first
glorification of labor to appear in English literature. Those who read it
may make an interesting comparison between "Piers Plowman" and a modern
labor poem, such as Hood's "Song of the Shirt" or Markham's "The Man with