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Piers the Ploughman by William Langland

5 August 2008

For some time now, this book has been on my list of things that I ‘ought’ to read — not out of any particular obligation, but because I felt that if several of my favourite authors (for instance, C.S. Lewis) have read and enjoyed this book, I might as well see what the fuss was all about. So I picked it up in the library a few weeks ago, and finished the review for it a few days ago.

Piers the Ploughman by William Langland (Penguin Classics 1966 edition, translated by J.F. Goodridge)

Most anyone who works with literature written before the age of the printing press is well aware of the difficulties that come with studying fragile and often fragmentary primary texts. The epic poem Beowulf, for instance, survives only on a single manuscript dating from around AD 1000, and other handcopied works have fared even less well against the tests of time. Yet even for works where a number of copies or pieces of the same work exist, minute (and occasionally major) differences between each fragment further add to the challenge of studying a text. In English literature, one particularly complicated text dates from the later part of the 1300s, around the same time as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. A long allegorical poem written by little-known cleric William Langland, Piers Ploughman is a complex, multilayed commentary on the social, political, and moral state of England in the 14th century. About 50 or so manuscripts of this poem are known to exist, with three semi-definitive versions known the A, B, and C texts. Yet scholars are still sifting through what little is known about this poem, studying both the text and the different ways in which later generations regarded Langland’s pointed criticisms of the state of affairs in England in his day.

As a allegory, Piers Ploughman is told as a series of dream-visions experienced by the narrator, who is shown wandering through the Malvern Hills in what is now modern-day Worcestershire and Herefordshire. Periodically, he falls asleep and dreams vividly of a world where virtues and vices walk alongside men and women, encouraging them to be good and pious or tempting them to be false and wicked. Conscience and Reason, among others, are often beside the dreamer to teach him about good moral behaviour and help him avoid the traps of Fraud, Flattery, Worldly Wisdom, and their kind. The central figure in the dreamer’s visions, however, is a ploughman named Piers, a Christ-figure who provides a model for the narrator and others to follow. (The ploughman figure, an idealised image of the honest labourer, is a key component of a particular tradition of other politically charged ‘plowman writings‘ that date from around the same time as Langland’s work.) As the narrator wanders between the dreaming and waking world in search of the elusive Piers, he reflects on the evils he encounters, focusing particularly on the greed and corruption that have weakened the Church and her clergy, and ponders what is likely to happen to men’s souls in these dark and uncertain times.

This particular edition (Penguin Classics, 1966) contains a translation of the B-text of the poem (the best-known text) into modern English prose, as well as a introduction written by the translator, J.F. Goodridge. Goodridge explains in the introduction that he decided against trying to force a modern-English rhyme scheme out of the Middle English alliterative verse, instead attempting to keep as much of the sense of the original as possible. In addition, Goodridge’s comprehensive footnotes draw on the research and writings of other scholars to highlight particular themes and allegorical styles that Langland used in his work, and provide citation information for the numerous quotes from the Bible that are sprinkled liberally throughout the text. This translation is by no means a ‘dumbing down’ of the work; for those who are not at all familiar with the style and structure of Middle English, Goodridge’s edition presents Langland’s classic Middle English poem in a solid, basic format that does its best to be accessible and easy to read. And even though there may be newer translations of the poem with more recent scholarship, this version seems to be worth examining nonetheless as an example of the kind of effort that is required to work with such a dense and often obscure piece of literature.

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