Gateway to the Classics: English Literature for Boys and Girls by H. E. Marshall
English Literature for Boys and Girls by  H. E. Marshall

"Piers the Ploughman"

D URING the long years after the Norman Conquest when English was a despised language, it became broken up into many dialects. But as time went on and English became once more the language of the educated as well as of the uneducated, there arose a cultured English, which became the language which we speak to-day.

In the time of Edward III England was England again, and the rulers were English both in heart and in name. But England was no longer a country apart, she was no longer a lonely sea-girt island, but had taken her place among the great countries of Europe. For the reign of Edward III was a brilliant one. The knightly, chivalrous King set his country high among the countries of Europe. Men made songs and sang of his victories, of Creçy and of Calais, and France bowed the knee to England. But the wars and triumphs of the King pressed hardly on the people of England, and ere his reign was over misery, pestilence, and famine filled the land.

So many men had been killed in Edward's French and Scottish wars that there were too few left to till the land. Then came a terrible disease called the Black Death, slaying young and old, rich and poor, until nearly half the people in the land were dead.

Then fewer still were left to do the work of the farms. Cattle and sheep strayed where they would, for there were none to tend them. Corn ripened and rotted in the fields, for there were none to gather it. Food grew dear as workers grew scarce. Then the field laborers who were left began to demand larger wages. Many of these laborers were little more than slaves, and their masters refused to pay them better. Then some left their homes and went away to seek new masters who would be willing to pay more, while others took to a life of wandering beggary.

The owners of the land had thought that they should be ruined did they pay the great wages demanded of them. Now they saw that they should be ruined quite as much if they could find no one at all to do the work. So laws were made forcing men to work for the same wages they had received before the plague, and forbidding them to leave the towns and villages in which they had been used to live. If they disobeyed they were imprisoned and punished.

Yet these new laws were broken again and again, because bread had now become so dear that it was impossible for men to live on as little as they had done before. Still many masters tried to enforce the law, and the land was soon filled not only with hunger and misery, but with a fierce class hatred between master and man. It was the beginning of a long and bitter struggle, and as the cry of the poor grew louder and louder, the hatred and spirit of revolt grew fiercer.

But the great of the land seemed little touched by the sorrows of the people. While they starved and died, the King, surrounded by a glittering court, gave splendid feasts and tournaments. He built fair palaces and chapels, founded a new round table, and thought to make the glorious days of Arthur live again.

And the great among the clergy cared as little for the poor as did the great among the nobles. Many of them had become selfish and worldly, some of them wicked, though of course there were many good men left among them too.

The Church was wealthy but the powerful priests kept that wealth in their own hands, and many of the country clergy were almost as miserably poor as the people whom they taught. And it was through one of these poor priests, named William Langland, that the sorrows of the people found a voice.

We know very little about Langland. So little do we know that we are not sure if his name was really William or not. But in his poem called The Vision of Piers the Ploughman he says, "I have lived in the land, quoth I, my name is long Will." It is chiefly from his poem that we learn to know the man. When we have read it, we seem to see him, tall and thin, with lean earnest face, out of which shine great eyes, the eyes that see visions. His head is shaven like a monk's; he wears a shabby long gown which flaps in the breeze as he strides along.

Langland was born in the country, perhaps in Oxfordshire, perhaps in Shropshire, and he went to school at Great Malvern. He loved school, for he says:—

"For if heaven be on earth, and ease to any soul,

It is in cloister or in school. Be many reasons I find

For in the cloister cometh no man, to chide nor to fight,

But all is obedience here and books, to read and to learn."

Perhaps Langland's friends saw that he was clever, and hoped that he might become one of the great ones in the Church. In those days (the Middle Ages they were called) there was no sharp line dividing the priests from the people. The one shaded off into the other, as it were. There were many who wore long gowns and shaved their heads, who yet were not priests. They were called clerks, and for a sum of money, often very small, they helped to sing masses for the souls of the dead, and performed other offices in connection with the services of the Church. They were bound by no vows and were allowed to marry, but of course could never hope to be powerful. Such was Langland; he married and always remained a poor "clerk."

But if Langland did not rise high in the Church, he made himself famous in another way, for he wrote Piers the Ploughman.  This is a great book. There is no other written during the fourteenth century, in which we see so clearly the life of the people of the time.

There are several versions of Piers,  and it is thought by some that Langland himself wrote and re-wrote his poem, trying always to make it better. But others think that some one else wrote the later versions.

The poem is divided into parts. The first part is The Vision of Piers the Ploughman,  the second is The Vision Concerning Do Well, Do Bet, Do Best.

In the beginning of Piers the Ploughman  Langland tells us how

"In a summer season when soft was the sun,

I wrapped myself in a cloak as if I were a shepherd

In the habit of a hermit unholy of works,

Abroad I wandered in this world wonders to hear.

But on a May morning on Malvern Hills

Me befell a wonder, a strange thing. Methought,

I was weary of wandering, and went me to rest

Under a broad bank by a burn side.

And as I lay, and leaned, and looked on the waters

I slumbered in a sleeping it sounded so merry."

If you will look back you will see that this poetry is very much more like Layamon's than like the poetry of Havelok the Dane. Although people had, for many years, been writing rhyming verse, Langland has, you see, gone back to the old alliterative poetry. Perhaps it was that, living far away in the country, Langland had written his poem before he had heard of the new kind of rhyming verses, for news traveled slowly in those days.

Two hundred years later, when The Vision of Piers the Ploughman  was first printed, the printer in his preface explained alliterative verse very well. "Langland wrote altogether in metre," he says, "but not after the manner of our rimers that write nowadays (for his verses end not alike), but the nature of his metres is to have three words, at the least, in every verse which begin with some one letter. As for example the first two verses of the book run upon 's,' as thus:

'In a somer season whan sette was the sunne

I shope me into shrobbes as I a shepe were.'

The next runneth upon 'H,' as thus:

'In habite as an Hermite unholy of workes.'

This thing being noted, the metre shall be very pleasant to read. The English is according to the time it was written in, and the sense somewhat dark, but not so hard but that it may be understood of such as will not stick to break the shell of the nut for the kernel's sake."

This printer also says in his preface that the book was first written in the time of King Edward III, "In whose time it pleased God to open the eyes of many to see his truth, giving them boldness of heart to open their mouths and cry out against the works of darkness. . . . There is no manner of vice that reigneth in any estate of man which this writer hath not godly, learnedly, and wittily rebuked."

I hope that you will be among those who will not "stick to break the shell of the nut for the kernel's sake," and that although the "sense be somewhat dark" you will some day read the book for yourselves. Meantime in the next chapter I will tell you a little more about it.

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