09.01.06, Kelen, Langland's Early Modern Identities

Main Article Content

John M. Bowers

The Medieval Review baj9928.0901.006


Kelen, Sarah A.. Langland's Early Modern Identities. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave, 2007. Pp. xiii, 225. ISBN: 978-1-40396-517-2.

Reviewed by:
John M. Bowers
University of Nevada Las Vegas

Palgrave's New Middle Ages series, under the editorship of Bonnie Wheeler, continues to publish some of the best new work on medieval literature, history and culture, and Sarah Kelen's book enters this lineup as an admirable contribution to reception-history by tracing the ways that Langland's Piers Plowman has been understood among readers from the Reformation to the early twentieth century. This exercise in historical semantics investigates the cultural materials of manuscripts, glosses and early editions, but not to produce a history of the editorial tradition so much as to expose the "metatextual" identity of the author and his literary work over several post-medieval generations.

The introductory section "Langland as an Early Modern Author" reminds us that when the Renaissance was re-christened by literary historians as the Early Modern, the boundary marker between periods looked up for grabs, and various specialists made their moves. Stephen Greenblatt continued to defend the integrity of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries against encroachments from the previous two centuries, almost again the Dark Ages in his formulation, while Lee Patterson and Paul Strohm found much in the works of fourteenth-century writers, particularly Chaucer, to suggest moving the boundary back to the reign of Richard II. Kelen focuses upon Langland, Chaucer's senior contemporary, and starts her discussion with the irrefutable fact that Piers Plowman was printed in 1550 as evidence that the agents of Tudor literary culture welcomed this work and made its author almost their contemporary, much as "presentism" makes Shakespeare ours. Hand-written copies of Piers continued to be produced during the sixteenth century, even annotated, most famously by the aristocratic reader Sir Adrian Fortescue in 1532. Early Tudor readers looked upon Langland's poem as a living work with theological messages that made the dream-allegory a forerunner of the English Reformation. But lacking a name and biography, the author of Piers also lacked the sort of "aura" that Walter Benjamin described as necessary for a writer attracting imitators, and so Skelton, Spenser and Shakespeare looked instead to Chaucer for their main inspiration. If the author of the Canterbury Tales was appreciated as singularly un-medieval--and still is--then Langland was specifically valued as super-medieval.

"The Birth of Langland" (chapter 1) discusses how Langland, as a name, came to be established only in the sixteenth century. Whereas Chaucer's name was affixed to his earliest manuscripts such as Ellesmere, the fifty-plus copies of Piers remained consistently anonymous except for the chance memorandum added to the Dublin manuscript. Tudor historians and editors had scant evidence for attempting a name for the poet--deciding upon Robert Langland, not William--and making a stab at placing him on the map. The situation was further confused by John Stow's candidate, John Malvern, a monk. All of these efforts themselves are culturally noteworthy. Early Modern hermeneutics no longer accepted a nameless writer and decided that knowing more about the writer meant understanding better his writings. "Anonymous" as a word (anonymal) and a concept entered the English lexicon only in the sixteenth century. While scholars since the formidable W. W. Skeat have made a great deal about the cryptic anagram "I haue liued in lande...my name is long will" (B.15.152), no medieval reader solved the riddle of "Longland" although some scribes did at least make note of Long Will. The Tudor antiquarians John Bale and John Leland pioneered efforts at reclaiming the poet's name and establishing the one truly essential biographical fact--he was a disciple of John Wyclif--that would be carried forward into Robert Crowley's 1550 edition and persists as a talking-point among critics into the twenty-first century. "For John Ball, Piers Plowman authorized the 1381 rebels; for John Bale, 'Robert Langland' authorized the Reformation" (41).

"A Proliferation of Plowmen" (chapter 2) traces the well-worn course of the underground Langlandian tradition from the early Ploughman's Crede and Richard the Redeless into the Tudor period with the printing of recycled Wycliffite writings, as well as some new texts such as Thomas Churchyard's Dauy Dycars Dreame (1552) inspired by a character mentioned in B.6.330. Kelen gives freshness to this account by showing how "Langland's poem is both the originator and the beneficiary in a cycle of literary influence" (47), while Piers the Plowman as a literary figure established an authority- function entirely separate from whatever Foucaudian author-function Langland might have exercised. Both suffered decline during the Elizabethan period, however, as Protestant polemics became unnecessary and the preference for a smooth, courtly style favored Chaucer's ongoing ascendancy.

Taking note of the fact that Piers was not newly edited for 250 years after Crowley's Protestant-linked publication, "Langland Anthologized" (chapter 3) focuses upon the eighteenth-century fashion for assembling literary "specimens" in collections looking forward to the Norton Anthology of English Literature, even including selections from the Confession Scene still favored by current school editors. Elizabeth Cooper's The Muses Library (1737) led the way in moving Langland's work from the realm of religious polemics into a linear narrative of English letters. Langland becomes "the first English poet" who in turn influenced Chaucer, specifically in the Pardoner's Prologue. Carrying forward Cooper's emphasis on satire, Thomas Warton's three-volume History of English Poetry (1774-81) also continues the narrative of national progress in literature, with each new writer improving upon his predecessors, but without any Victorian nostalgia for a medieval pastness. Warton's ten Piers selections bear an uncanny resemblance to the passages still selected for classroom anthologies. The later vogue in multi- volume literary series, like the one for which Dr. Johnson wrote his Lives of the Poets, worked against Langland because these were marketed for non-specialists who wanted easy elegance, not learned footnotes and glosses of hard words.

In "Langland Recontextualized" (chapter 4), Thomas Percy's "Essay on the Metre of Pierce Plowman's Vision" in his popular ballad collection Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) provides a starting- point for the new value granted to Langland's "rude language" for tracing the development of Early English. Piers became an archive for linguistic information as well as a witness to an early phase in the history of English poetry, indeed an alternative phase to the one championed by Chaucer. Written in non-London dialect and composed in non-Chaucerian alliteration, Piers seemed to descend in a more direct Anglo-Saxon lineage and therefore became an antiquarian curiosity neglected as a literary work, much as Beowulf was neglected until Tolkien's famous lecture "The Monsters and the Critics." So when Thomas Durham Whitaker undertook the new edition published in 1813, he further de-modernized the poem by printing the text in black-letter type. Romantic medievalism distanced the poem as part of a culture, most powerfully imagined by Sir Walter Scott, as educationally and geographically excluded. Viewing Langland as a Wordsworth-like poet mingling among all ranks of society and then retiring to recollect in tranquility, Whitaker rendered the poet a fellow Romantic much as Crowley has drafted him as a fellow Protestant. At least the first nineteenth-century editor proclaimed a "regular and consistent plan" that bestowed a sense of artistic unity never before granted to Piers.

Every editorial theory contains a view of the author's life, however fanciful. In "Fictions of Authorship, Fictions of English Literature" (chapter 5), Kelen shows how the steady efforts by editors such as Whitaker to confect a biography for the Piers poet encouraged the creation of Langland as a character in some narrative fiction. William Godwin's two-volume Life of Chaucer (1803) pitted an imaginary Langland against the equally made-up Chaucer in order explain their different poetic subjects, even their different literary temperaments: affable Chaucer, cantankerous Langland. Though criticized in a review by Sir Walter Scott, the fantasy friendship between the two great poets of Ricardian England persisted on some level of scholarly understanding, sometimes even given voice, as in J. A. W. Bennett's 1969 essay "Chaucer's Contemporary."

This fictionalizing impulse was fully realized in Florence Converse's novel Long Will (1903) drawing upon the scholarly information, itself already highly speculative and over-reaching, gathered as an author's life by Skeat in his landmark 1886 edition of Piers. Converse conjures up an early scene in which the elder "russet-clad" Langland has an encounter with the "gay lad" Chaucer, who is already enthusiastic about the newest trends in French poetry. The novelist even imagines a third poet in the story, Langland's mentor Brother Owyn, the author of Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Converse actually prefers Langland over Chaucer, not as the superior writer, but as a "proto-socialist" closely linked to the 1381 political upheavals as a push toward greater economic and political justice.

Though relatively slender at 150 pages of text, Kelen's book is packed with interesting information, rich in critical insights, and steadily informed by a generous review of current criticism as well as primary sources. Langland's poem has been read continuously over the past six centuries, but those readers have not been encountering the same poem because cultural expectations shifted over the generations. "The reception history of Piers Plowman thus provides a lens through which one can view the cultural concerns of later readers as they imaginatively project their own worlds backwards in history" (149). Published in the same year, my book Chaucer and Langland: The Antagonistic Tradition covered much the same historical terrain and assimilated material from my 1995 article "Piers Plowman's Langland: Editing the Text, Writing the Author's Life"--graciously cited by Kelen throughout--and yet I found myself full of respectful admiration page after page, regularly thinking "I wish I had known this" and "I wish I had said that."

Article Details

Author Biography

John M. Bowers

University of Nevada Las Vegas