The Vision of Piers Plowman represents William Langland's whole known
existence and his life's work. Langland puns on his name, so we know a little
bit about him. Lang = "long" and the narrator speaks of Long Will, that is,
he was a tall man. Otherwise the narrator "I" is a mystery although, using
autobiographical elements of the poem, critics have drawn a plausible picture
of the poet.
Langland wrote the text in three drafts:
A-text. Written in the 1360's
B-text Written mostly in the 1370's with allusions to events of 1376-79.
1. Pope Urban VI was elected in Rome in 1378. The French Cardinals became angry because the weather had prevented many churchmen from attending the conclave for the election, so they met and elected an antipope later the same year. This was the beginning of the "Great Schism." Langland does not question the right of cardinals to elect the pope nor of the pope to rule the Church. For him, the power of the pope is the power of St. Peter.
2. Richard II's infancy as heir-apparent gave special import to examining the nature of kingship. The rule of the regent always causes anxiety about succession.
3. Wycliff and his followers (Lollards) caused problems for the church. Langland makes fun of these rebels.
C-text Extensive but incomplete rewriting of B.
Characterize envy and gluttony. How would you personify them?
The Poem is in two parts broken into subsections called Passus. The first part, The Vision of Piers Plowman, takes up Passus 1-9. The second part, The Life of Dowell, Dobet, Dobest, makes up Passus 10-22.
Part 1. The visio or Vision is an allegorical portrayal of the corruption of the social estate and an attempt to remedy this through the agency of Piers Plowman who represents a life of humble and honest obedience to God's Law.
Part 2. The Life (vita) is a vision of the dreamer's search for the good Christian Life, conducted in allegorical terms through a series of interviews with personified faculties and ways of life (thought, wit, study). The Vita is more introspective than the Visio as it seeks a rational basis for individual faith through intellectual inquiry after the failure to reform the community in the Visio. The A-text ending is inconclusive.
B-text. In this extensive rewrite of the A text, there is much new incidental material, 9 new Passus triple the length. The quest for Dowell in the Vita continues and it merges into the life of Dobet=Christ and Dobest, the life of the Church, both allegorically represented in Piers Plowman who is brilliantly resurrected from the Visio.
Piers Plowman is a poem of crisis. It records the conflict that racked the
late medieval society as the feudal order and the Church of the west moved
into the last stages of institutional decay. Strains and pressures existed
between the shifting strata of society--government and people, lords and commons,
clergy and laity, possessioners and mendicants--built up in a long period
of apparent stability. The late 14th Century was the first release of tension,
the first open fracture. Langland's poem is a prelude and a commentary on
the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and the condemnation of Wycliff's teaching in
the same year.
Langland's response is that of a devout medieval Christian who sees all change as a form of decay. He struggles to comprehend the nature of the change within categories of a hierarchic and traditional mode of thought.
His response is also that of a highly individualistic poet in whom apprehension of conflict and change and an urgent personal sense of impending disaster are transformed under the activity of a powerful imagination.
Above all the poem is the response of a prophet and a visionary who attempts in his poem to initiate an immense revolution in the moral and spiritual life of the individual, including his own and that of society. His work is not so much a poem as a mortal combat.