The blog went on hiatus during the Christmas break – I was travelling and really didn’t feel like lugging the fat volume around. We’re back to where we left off, in the somewhat obscure world of William Langland. Today’s portion is from the C-text, or a version of the poem that was probably written last – it’s more or less as long as the preceding B-text, but it was revised and updated, as can be seen in a number of historical references, referring to the then-current events.
In the passage selected here, Langland gives us some oblique information about himself. These are the only things we know about him, together with some scribbles made in the margins of the manuscripts by unknown readers a century later, and some guesswork by a 16th -c. antiquarian John Bale. So not so much to rely on and even the information that we do have is not very reliable. Langland here indicates that he lives in London, together with his wife Kit (elsewhere he mentions also his daughter Collette), in a rather seedy district of Cornhill. He is in lower clerical orders (it was OK for deacons to marry, but it closed the door to any kind of real career in Church), he makes his living by praying for the dead and receiving food donations for the service, but not enough to take home – he just has a chance to get his belly full (so what did his family live on?) However, my favourite conspiracy theory is that the real author of Piers Plowman was a provincial priest named William Rokele, and all these facts are just fog and mirrors to mislead the readers, especially those who were powerful and not particularly keen on some of the messages included in the poem. Even though, as I’ve mentioned earlier, Langland’s worldview is essentially conservative, there was enough material in the poem to make Piers Plowman a symbolic figure for the protesters who took part in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
The whole passage has a form of the conversation between Langland (or, to paraphrase Chesterton’s quip about Homer, another writer of the same name) and the allegorical figures of Reason and Conscience. Reason asks him whether he can do any sort of useful physical labour, but Langland answers that he is too weak and to tall to do any sort of work that requires stooping. Well then, is he so rich he doesn’t have to work? Nope. Reason then accuses him of being a fraud, like many of the hermits Langland himself satirizes, unless he has some real illness, in which case he can be excused. “I was educated to be a priest and I cannot imagine myself doing any other job”, says Langland. He also quotes Leviticus to argue that he cannot engage lawfully in any other occupation. The job of priests is to pray and study the Bible, and let the other lesser beings do the menial work. Unfortunately, the world has gone to dogs, what with the sons of serfs and other lowllife scum making brilliant career in Church, while the sons of lords who mortgaged their lands have to serve them. So basically his argument is that he cannot become a priest because all the good jobs have been taken by people who don’t deserve them because of their low birth. Conscience then answers that all these arguments are not very relevant and all the self-justification cannot hide the fact that Langland is essentially a beggar. Langland still hopes that despite the fact that by his own admission he wasted a lot of time, he can still achieve salvation at the end, like the woman who has found the pearl in the Gospel parable.
There is a very interesting dynamic in this passage, I think. Langland gives himself most of the lines, and he comes off as a bit whiny and self-entitled (“I am too good for any job, I should be paid only for being a priest, I am a gentleman’s son and can’t make a career in Church because all the good positions are occupied by serfs’ sons and bastards, oh poor me”). But Reason and Conscience make a lot of valid points – isn’t Langland a little bit like all these false hermits and friars he criticised? And the very fact that he puts these words in the mouth of allegorical figures of virtues shows that there is some kind of doubt gnawing at him. His predicament is a little bit like this of contemporary graduate students – he’s got some of most expensive and sophisticated education medieval England could provide, but then he realizes the contemporary world doesn’t really need him. Of course he can always fall on the belief that he contributes to the world’s salvation in the grander scheme of things. The modern newly-minted Ph.D with a degree in sociology doesn’t have that solace.