William Langland was probably born in Ledbury, Herefordshire in about 1332. Langland moved to London where he made his living by singing songs at rich men's funerals. It is also believed for many years he was a wandering minstrel visiting villages and towns. (1) John F. Harrison suggests that he was "a poor unbeneficed priest". (2)
Ballads sung by minstrels often dealt with the problems of the poor. The most popular character in these ballads was Robin Hood. Honest men who had been forced to become outlaws by cruel government officials or corrupt members of the clergy, were a common theme in these ballads. The peasants in the Middle Ages particularly seemed to like ballads that told of outlaws who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Langland wrote: "I can not perfectly say the Lord's Prayer as the priest sings it. But I know rhymes of Robin Hood". (3)
John Major wrote: "At this time (the reign of Richard the Lionheart) there flourished the most famous robbers Robin Hood and Little John, who lay in wait in the woods, and robbed those that were wealthy... The feats of Robin are told in song all over Britain. He would allow no woman to suffer injustice, nor would he rob the poor, but rather enriched them from the plunder taken from abbots." (4)
Some religious leaders, such as Thomas de Cobham, Bishop of Worcester, called for these wandering minstrels to be arrested: "There are actors who have musical instruments for men's delight. Some haunt public drinking houses and other assemblies, where they sing many songs to move men to mischievous behaviour... But there are others who sing about the lives of princes". (5)
Langland also wrote poetry and is believed to be the author of The Vision Piers the Plowman. Written in West Midland dialect, the poem tells the story of Piers, a simple countryman. Langland was himself very poor and the poem provides a first-hand account of what life was like for ordinary people living in England during the 14th century. The poem also attacked the corruption of the nobility and leading members of the church. (6)
George M. Trevelyan has argued that the poem is a religious allegory and used the blank verse derived from Anglo-Saxon poetry. "The spirit of Piers Plowman lived on in the religious earnestness of our fathers, their continual indignation at the wrongdoing of others and their occasional sorrow for their own." (7)
Trevelyan adds that this English form of poetry was later replaced by the rhyming approach of Geoffrey Chaucer. It has been pointed out that they took a very different view of society. "Both Langland and Chaucer saw things with the same eyes, but their vision was not the same kind. Nor did their ears hear the same things. As the one represents the mind of the wealthy, so does the other express the opinions of the poor." (8)
The first version of The Vision of Piers Plowman appeared in 1362. Langland constantly worked on the poem and further versions were circulated in 1377 and 1395. Over sixty copies of the book have survived, which suggests that Langland's poem must have been extremely popular in the Middle Ages. It was considered a dangerous book and was banned by the authorities. (9)
Langland's biographer, George Kane, has argued: "Langland's subject, a culture restive in the beginnings of radical change, is of huge moment.... The poem is charged with deep spiritual unease, loss of confidence in the order of things, a condition for which no durable and intelligent explanation was possible because the available forms of thinking were inadequate to this. It particularized itself in a sense of discrepancy, a consciousness of oppositions that should not exist, between material and spiritual values, between moral excellence as a philosophically conceived value and the visibly prevalent imperfection of actuality, between knowledge of right conduct and failure in the possessors of that knowledge to realize it... and, in the deepest theological sense, between the God of justice and the God of love. At the centre of this anxiety was the evident failure of the church's ministers in pastoral care." (10)
In his poem Langland shows concern for the poor: "Charged with children and overcharged by landlords, what they may spare they spend on milk or on meal to make porridge to still the sobbing of the children at meal time... The sadness of the women who live in these hovels is too sad to speak of or say in rhyme." He complains that the wealthy members of society showed little concern for the poor: "As weeds run wild on the dunghill, so riches spread upon riches give rise to all vices... The wealth of this world is evil to its keeper unless it be well spent." (11)
Langland was also critical of monks. "Langland's criticism of the monk's life was not, like much modern criticism including Wyclif's, due to want of appreciation of the retired, contemplative life of self-abnegation, but to Langland's perception that the monks had ceased to realize that ideal." (12)
Langland provides important information about everyday life including marriage: "Thus marriage was made - first by the consent of the father and the advice of friends, and then by the mutual agreement of the two partners. So marriage was established, and God himself made it." (13)
William Langland may also have been the author of Richard the Redeless, a poem attacking the rule of Richard I. Langland died in about 1400.
I can not perfectly say the Lord's Prayer as the priest sings it. But I know rhymes of Robin Hood and Randolph, earl of Chester.
Charged with children and overcharged by landlords, what they may spare they spend on milk or on meal to make porridge to still the sobbing of the children at meal time... The sadness of the women who live in these hovels is too sad to speak of or say in rhyme.
As weeds run wild on the dunghill, so riches spread upon riches give rise to all vices... The wealth of this world is evil to its keeper unless it be well spent.
Both Langland and Chaucer saw things with the same eyes, but their vision was not the same kind. As the one represents the mind of the wealthy, so does the other express the opinions of the poor.
Wandering Minstrels in the Middle Ages (Answer Commentary)
The Growth of Female Literacy in the Middle Ages (Answer Commentary)
Women and Medieval Work (Answer Commentary)
The Medieval Village Economy (Answer Commentary)
Women and Medieval Farming (Answer Commentary)
Contemporary Accounts of the Black Death (Answer Commentary)
Disease in the 14th Century (Answer Commentary)
King Harold II and Stamford Bridge (Answer Commentary)
The Battle of Hastings (Answer Commentary)
William the Conqueror (Answer Commentary)
The Feudal System (Answer Commentary)
The Domesday Survey (Answer Commentary)
Thomas Becket and Henry II (Answer Commentary)
Why was Thomas Becket Murdered? (Answer Commentary)
Illuminated Manuscripts in the Middle Ages (Answer Commentary)
Yalding: Medieval Village Project (Differentiation)
(1) George Kane, William Langland : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(2) John F. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 101
(3) William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman (c. 1365)
(4) John Major, The History of Greater Britain (1521)
(5) Thomas de Cobham, Bishop of Worcester (c. 1325)
(6) George Kane, William Langland : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(7) George M. Trevelyan, English Social History (1942) page 16
(8) Hyman Fagan, Nine Days That Shook England (1938) page 118
(9) Chris Harman, A People's History of the World (2008) page 179
(10) George Kane, William Langland : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(11) William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman (c. 1365)
(12) George M. Trevelyan, English Social History (1942) page 64
(13) William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman (c. 1365)
We have all heard the maxim “patience is a virtue” throughout our lives, and when we’re frustrated that something is taking too long, someone always seems to blurt it out. We live in the age of microwave ovens and the Internet where we can have nearly anything we want instantly. So while the world around us is moving ever faster, and we see that patience is in short supply, we should also recognize that possessing the virtue of patience is a necessity for the followers of God. But does the quote patience is a virtue come from the Bible?
“Patience is a Virtue” – Origin : William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman, c 1370
The origin of the quote patience is a virtue comes from a classic work by William Langland written during the middle ages. Yet, if you are looking for the orginal text of this quote from The Vision of Piers Plowman you’re not going to find it unless you are looking for the original Middle English language “suffraunce is a soverayn vertue”.
Translation: Suffraunce is a soverayn vertue : Patience is a sovereign (supreme) virtue
Although you will not find the quote in the Bible, one can easily argue that it was inspired by the Bible. The Vision of Piers Plowman is a poem that is a theological allegory of what it means to be a true Christian. In his poem, Langland refers to the four cardinal virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. Patience is one of the characteristics of fortitude, i.e., the ability to endure pain or hardship.
The Biblical reference to patience (longsuffering, sufferance) as a virtue can be found in the book of Galations where it is listed among the fruits of the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law”. Galations 5:22-23 KJV.
Since the time of its first appearing, other writers have used the quote patience is a virtue in their writings. The most notable was a more popular contemporary of Langland, namely, Geoffrey Chaucer who said that “patience is a great virtue of perfection” in The Canterbury Tales. Here are a few very early places where you can find today’s Bible or Not quote.
Pacience is a greet vertu of perfeccioun. – Chaucer Tale of Melibee, c 1386
Patience is a vertue, but pinching is worse than any vice! – Lyly Mother Bombie, 1594
Patience is a virtue. – The Works of Thomas Chalkley, 1724
Aunt Prue in Yorkshire… will be able to instruct you, that patience is a virtue and that you ought not to be in haste to take a first offer. – Richardson Grandison, 1754
Patience is and always was a virtue. – 1858 Trollope Dr. Thorne, 1858
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. James 1:2-4 NKJV
This post sponsored by the professional photography studio of Bohm-Marrazzo.
Why a New Robin Hood Arises Every Generation
Folklore comes from the folk, which is why “robbing the rich to give to the poor” is a motif that has endured for centuries in the imagination of the people. When it comes to the redistribution of wealth in ballad and legend, heroes never rob from the poor to further enhance the fortunes of the rich.
The most recent illustration of this principle arrives in movie theaters on the day before Thanksgiving. Directed by Otto Bathurst, Robin Hood stars Taron Egerton in the title role, with Jamie Foxx as Little John, Ben Mendelsohn as the Sheriff of Nottingham and Eve Hewson as Marian.
The 2018 film version uses new digital technologies in many of the action sequences, but employs much of the same traditional folklore in casting Robin as the quintessential social bandit righting injustice by robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.
As the new blockbuster film settles into nationwide circulation, I went in search of the deep roots of the hero Robin Hood in archival records and folklore references. Assisted by Michael Sheridan, an intern serving at the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklore and Cultural Heritage, it soon become clear that in times of economic downturns, in times of tyranny and oppression, and in times of political upheaval, the hero Robin Hood makes his timely call.
We do not know if there ever was an actual Robin Hood in medieval England, or if the name simply attached itself to various outlaws in the 13th century. It is not until the late 14th century—in the narrative poem Piers Ploughman by William Langland—that references to rhymes about Robin Hood appear.
I kan noght parfitly my Paternoster as the preest it syngeth,
But I kan rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf Erl of Chestre,
Ac neither of Oure Lord ne of Oure Lady the leest that evere was maked.
According to a timeline assembled by Stephen Winick at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, stories about Robin Hood continued to circulate for the next several centuries, gradually taking on many of the details that are familiar today: Robin as a “good” outlaw, according to Andrew of Wyntoun’s Orygynale Chronicle (ca. 1420) Robin living in Sherwood Forest, according to the ballad “Robin Hood and the Monk” (ca. 1450) Robin robbing the rich and giving to the poor, according to John Major’s History of Greater Britain (1521) and Robin as a noble earl, according to Richard Grafton’s Chronicle at Large (1569).
As these stories developed and spread, Robin became the quintessential “social bandit,” a term popularized in the late 20th century by the British historian Eric Hobsbawm. “Though a practice in social banditry,” he writes, “cannot clearly always be separated from other kinds of banditry, this does not affect the fundamental analysis of the social bandit as a special type of peasant protest and rebellion.” In other words, social bandits are not criminals, Hobsbawm maintains, but rather they are defenders of the honest folk against the evil forces of tyranny and corruption, especially during times of economic uncertainty. Moreover, Hobsbawm identified this as a worldwide phenomenon, including Balkan haiduks, Brazilian congaceiros, Indian dacoits, and Italian banditi.
In Balkan folklore, the hajduk is a Robin Hood-type hero fighing against the oppressors and unjust laws. (Wikimedia Commons, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel)
Perhaps, what is most fascinating about Robin’s social banditry is how the folk tale has spread to certain outlaws in the United States, who (like the Robin Hood of the Middle Ages) are regarded as defenders of the folk. Take for instance, the tale A Gest of Robyn Hode, dating to around 1450, in which Robyn Hode aids a poor knight by loaning him 400 pounds so that the knight can pay an unscrupulous abbot. Robyn shortly thereafter recovers the money by robbing the abbot. Some 400 years later, a similar story is told about the American outlaw Jesse James (1847) from Missouri, who is supposed to have given $800 (or $1,500 in some versions) to a poor widow, so that she can pay an unscrupulous banker trying to foreclose on her farm. Shortly thereafter Jesse robs the banker and recovers his money.
Jesse James rose to near celebrity stature in 1870s, active as a bank, train and stagecoach robber during a time of economic depression in the U.S., especially following the Panic of 1873. Twenty years later, the Panic of 1893 triggered another economic depression, out of which emerged Railroad Bill, an African-American Robin Hood whose specialty was robbing trains in southern Alabama.
Contrasting the social bandit with white-collar criminals, Woody Guthrie concluded, “some [men] will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.” (Wikimedia Commons, David Telford)
The Great Depression of the 1930s saw a similar rise of other social bandits, who were often celebrated as Robin Hood hero figures. John Dillinger (1903) from Indiana was seen as a crusader, fighting the enemies of the folk by robbing banks at a time when banks were known to collapse taking with them with their depositors’ savings and foreclosing mercilessly on home and farm mortgages. According to one oral history in the Folklore Archives at Indiana University, Dillinger became “a hero to the people, you know—kind of a Robin Hood. He would steal from the rich and give to the poor. . . . Everybody was poor then—we were in a depression, you see. Dillinger was poor. The only ones that were rich were the banks, and they were the ones who made everybody else poor.”
When Dillinger was killed by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation outside a movie theater in Chicago, the title of Public Enemy Number One went next to Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd (1904). Known as the “Oklahoma Robin Hood,” Floyd, according to Time magazine, was believed to be “always looking out for the little guy.”
“Rumors circulated that he had destroyed mortgage notes when he robbed banks, freeing struggling farmers from foreclosure.” One of Floyd’s fellow Oklahomans, Woody Guthrie, reaffirmed the Robin Hood legend with a ballad about Floyd helping the “starvin’ farmer” and “families on relief.”
Well, you say that I'm an outlaw,
You say that I'm a thief.
Here's a Christmas dinner
For the families on relief.
Folklore comes from the folk, which is why “robbing the rich to give to the poor” is a motif (Robin Hood: His Book by Eva March Tappan and Charlotte Harding, 1905) that has endured for centuries in the imagination of the people. (New York Public Library)
Contrasting the social bandit with white-collar criminals, Guthrie concluded, “some [men] will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.”
How and why Depression-era bandits like Dillinger and Floyd acquired their reputations as Robin Hoods must have been perplexing and frustrating for law enforcement officials. But many folklorists believe it’s partly a matter of circumstance—real-life bank robbers achieve renown during economic depression and partly also that the folk cannot resist creating new social bandits with traditional motifs in their own hard times.
The latter phenomenon may explain why social banditry is celebrated in nearly every film version made about Robin Hood, even when these films are produced by large Hollywood studios that may have more in common with the rich than with the poor.
Not much is known about the earliest such film, the 1908 Robin Hood and His Merry Men, but the first feature-length version, Robin Hood of 1922, following a sharp recession after World War I, was a spectacular success. Robin was played by Douglas Fairbanks, one of the most popular silent film stars, sometimes termed the “king of Hollywood,” who never walked on screen when he could leap and bound. His Robin good-naturedly relishes each new swordfight and opportunity to shoot arrows with great accuracy.
Errol Flynn, with sword and longbow, played Robin during the Great Depression in the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood, a Technicolor extravaganza that codified Robin as leader of a jolly band of bandits in Sherwood Forest, fighting passionately for truth and justice against unscrupulous noblemen. (Fandom)
Errol Flynn, perhaps even more swashbuckling than Fairbanks with sword and longbow, played Robin next during the Great Depression in the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood, a Technicolor extravaganza that codified Robin as leader of a jolly band of bandits in Sherwood Forest, fighting passionately for truth and justice against unscrupulous noblemen who try to seize the English throne while King Richard the Lion-Heart is returning from the religious wars known as the Crusades.
These same elements have remained in nearly every film version since. Most notably for Sean Connery’s recession-era 1976 Robin and Marian, in which Robin returns to Sherwood Forest after the death of King Richard. Next, during the oil price shock economy for Kevin Costner’s 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, in which Robin fights against a conspiracy led by the Sheriff of Nottingham. And again, following the 2008 international banking crisis for Russell Crowe’s 2010 Robin Hood, in which Robin fights against a French conspiracy to invade England.
Theatergoers are no doubt in need of new Robin Hood folk hero in 2018. This year’s band of men and women in Sherwood Forest remain merry even as the evil forces of tyranny and corruption seek to marginalize them in 21st-century fashion.
About James Deutsch
James Deutsch is a curator at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, where he has helped develop exhibitions on the Peace Corps, China and World War II, among others. In addition, he serves as an adjunct professor—teaching courses on American film history and folklore—in the American Studies Department at George Washington University.
William LanglandWilliam Langland resting on the Malvern Hills
William Langland could have been looking for Blinks. This small plant has tiny pale green flowers that seem to be blinking, as they rarely open fully. The flowers form dense pale green moss-like patches beside springs.
They are seen on the Malvern hillsides in May. Or perhaps he had simply found a comfortable place to sit where he could watch his flock of sheep without interruption.
Actually, there is so much uncertainty about William Langland’s life that it would be impossible to say what he may have been doing on the Malvern Hills. Biographical details are very obscure. His famous poem, The Vision of Piers Plowman, provides little evidence for its author. The narrator, who is usually identified as being Langland, does say ‘…my name is longe wille’ which is thought to be a code for William Langland. What is known is that The Vision of Piers Plowman begins life on the Malvern Hills. The style of language used in the poem is similar to the dialect found in the south Midlands.
Some scholars suggest that as a young man, Langland studied at Little Malvern Priory and that later he incorporated the imagery around him in his scathing attacks on the clergy that fill the pages of Piers Plowman.
Take gluttony for example: this carving on one of the monk’s stalls at Little Malvern Priory shows two pigs feeding from a bag of acorns or corn. Were they perhaps behind the description of Langland’s ‘two greedy sows’?
William describes the glutton who was ‘laughing and leering’ and sitting drinking ‘a gallon and a gill’ when,
‘His guts began to grumble like two greedy sows
And before you could say your pater-noster he had pissed a panful,
And blown the round trumpet in rear of his rump.
And all who heard that horn were holding their noses
And wishing it were wiped with a wisp of gorse.’
So if William Langland was not drifting off to sleep looking at flowers blinking at him, perhaps he was really conjuring up memories of his youth that could be used to illustrate his major work?
William Langland as a major poet of the age of Chaucer.
Answer: Although Chaucer was the most dominating literary figure in the Middle English literature and his great works constitute the bulk of its glory, the literary history of his age contains some other significant literary works. Those works, of course, are not comparable with Chaucer’s masterpieces, yet they are found to have shared in the contribution to the enlargement of English literature and the preparation for the Renaissance.
It is therefore, remarkable to take note of different literary men and works in the world of Chaucer, which are not Chaucerian in origin, but bear in greater or lesser degrees his majestic influence and signify the aftermath of Chaucer.
Among the contemporaries of Chaucer the pride of place is given to John Gower, William Langland and John Barbour of Scotland. In the sphere of poetry these poets left behind a rich harvest of literature and their contribution to English poetry is quite substantial.
William Langland (1332-1400) and Piers Plowman:
William Langland or Langly is one of the early writers with whom modern research has dealt adversely. All we know about him appears on the manuscripts of his poem, or is based upon the remarks he makes regarding himself in the course of the poem. He was born probably near Malvern in 1332 where he was educated at the Benedictine School. He was a minor clerk with connection in Oxfordshire and Worcestershire. Langland came to London and lived with his wife for sometimes in a cottage not far from where Chaucer lived in a much better and comfortable accommodation over Aldgate.
The name of William Langland has a celebrity in the English language for his singular work—The Book of Piers the Plowman. In the English literature of the 14th century, Langland’s Piers the Plowman stands out as the most renowned work, save Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Where as the latter is a social chronicle with engaging tales, Piers Plowman is an impressive allegory, more deeply concerned with religious, ethical, social and economic problems of the time.
Piers Plowman is certainly a quite novel and radical work for its age. Although ethical in sentiment and didactic in tone, it comprises a fine synthesis of sociology, satire and allegory. Artistic merits it may not have, but it has the provocative probe into the serious depth of the social and moral life of the age. In fact, it includes all the various elements that touch and toss humanity and remains a fine mirror of the variety and complexity of medieval life.
Like The Canterbury Tales, Piers Plowman has a Prologue that has the typical dream convention of medieval literature. This describes how the author falls sleep on a May morning on the Malvern Hills and has a vision of a fair field, fun of folk from different ranks and occupations. This Prologue, as in Chaucer’s Prologue, records a picture of the English society of the 14th century. Social scenes rather than social types are more conspicuous in Langland’s Prologue. The frame work of the poem is allegorical Piers the Plowman or the Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman is available in several versions. The chief forms of this poem are A-Text, B-Text and C-Text. Of these the first version was written about 1362 and contains the vision about Piers Plowman and the vision of Do-well, Do-better and Do-best. The second version or B-Text was written about 1377 and includes the fable of the rats and the cat. The C-Text has few hundred lines more than the B-Text. Through these versions, Langland conveys a quite pointed account of the moral Faith and the Social Vices of his age. The poet brings forth different visions to indicate the supreme sermons of truth, work and love this ethical point is distinct and indicates that man’s chief duty is to seek truth, that faith without work has no worth and that love leads to heaven.
The poem on the whole, consists of eleven visions and has the incoherence and inconsequence of a dream. It is an alliterative poem. In this poem on a May morning, the narrator, falls asleep beside a brook on the Malvern Hills.
“In a somere seyson. When softe was the sonne
I schop me into shroud as I a shepherd were”.
While he was dreaming, he beheld a lofty tower with a dungeon in a dell beneath it, and between them was a “Fairfield full of folk” representing various section of the community. The tower stands for Heaven and the dungeon is hell and the field is the world where all manner of men, mean and rich live side by side in unholy competition.
After The Prologue, there are the two episodes- The Marriage of Lady Meed and The Confession of the Seven Deadly Sins. The former episode contains lively arguments and debates between different allegorical figures, such as the Holy Church Lady Meed (Reward bribery) Falsehood, Conscience and the king. Lady Meed the sinful lady to whom all the priests and saints pay obedience. She is about to wed Falsehood. Their nation is disturbed by Theology, and they are brought to Westminster before the king. He makes a proposal that she should marry Conscience, but Conscience has no desire to wed Meed. He advices the king to send for Reason, by whose advice he promises to abide. Before Reason can render judgment, Meed is caught red-handed in the act of bribing the kings officials to release a criminal, and in a stinging speech of denunciation by Reason forever debarred from pleading before the king.
A long argument ensues in which Reason, Wit, Wisdom and Wrong take part. The Reason pleads for reward for good deed and severe punishment to wrong deed. The king is very pleased with Reason and decides to keep him as his counselor.
In a second vision Reason makes a long address to the people. The people show repentance and confess of having Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, Luxury, Envy, Wrath, Avarice, Gluttony, and Sloth. Langland’s brilliant poetic talent is frequently seen here in his description of these Seven Deadly Sins, particularly in his portrayal of Gluttony. The repentant crowds decide to go on a pilgrimage in search of Truth. Here Piers, the plowman, a simple farmer, appears assuring the people that he would lead them on the pilgrimage often he had ploughed his half acre of land and requests everyone to join him in his hard work. Piers receives from truth Pope’s pardon covering not only Piers but all those who are to go on the pilgrimage and who had helped the plowman to plough his land. The statement of pardon tells that those who do good deed will get salvation and those who do evil things will be damned. The poem is obviously a plea for all to indulge in good deeds and shun evil.
In the second and third versions, the reader is presented with the triple vision of Dowel (Do-well) Dobet (Do-better) and Dobest (Do-best). In the first version Piers stands for the symbol of honest labour but in the second and third version he is transfigured in the very figure of Christ himself, whose crucifixion and descent into Hell are described in a language marked with a note of sublimity and grace.
The triple vision explains the triple conception of Christian obligation in three successive stages. These states however are not to remain mere abstraction, each one of them are successively related to the facts of human behavior as observed by the poets in the society which surrounds him.
The stage of Do-well is the condition of common man’s life lived in the acceptance of the conditions of life. It is the first step on the road to perfection. It is the stage of Do-bet which combines the qualities of Do-well with greater and perfected qualities.
The contrast between the precept and behavior is poignantly brought out here. Do-bet is obviously the highest destiny open to man precisely because it combines the ‘active and contemplative virtues’, but it also entails upon man greatest responsibilities and also open corruption.
Piers the Plowman is a mighty achievement of Langland and ranks very high as a social and moral study, its significance lies in its threefold manifestation. First, it is a graphic picture of contemporary life and manners. Second, it is a penetrative satire on social and ecclesiastical follies and vices. Third it is a powerful allegory of human life and morality. The poem describes a series of remarkable visions that pass before the dreamer and in their general draft we are reminded of the great allegory of Bunyan. The poem may be considered under the following heads:
(1) Considered as a picture of contemporary life and manners of the 14th century, as a social picture, the poem throws interesting side lights upon medieval life. The customary behavior of traders and shop-keepers and tavern-owners is presented with exactness. Medieval law courts and royal palaces are shown with no less dexterity. Here Langland is not simply serious. The comical personages, such as might have appeared in low-life are found in his representation of seven deadly sins.
(2) Considered as a social satire, the poem is perhaps the first great English satire in which the author has treated a quite comprehensive subject-matter. It is also a satire upon religious abuses and vices of the age. Langland is found to upbraid bitterly the lazy, the drunkard, the exploiter and the social cheat. He is also quite critical of luxury as well as vices in ecclesiastical places. Perhaps, in Langland, is heard the first voice of Puritanism against the extravagance of the Catholic court. His satirical strokes upon the clerical people are quite trenchant.
(3) As an allegory, the poem brings out subtly the strife between good and evil in the human breast for mastery. The hero, Piers, typifies the righteous living—a life of truth, action and love. Different personages in the poem allegorize different abstractions, such as wisdom, wit, sloth, despondency, doubt, bribery, conscience and so on.
(4) As a work of reform, Piers Plowman bears out the radical views of its author as a conscious reformer. His reformative zeal is equally evident in political, social and ecclesiastical matters. The poet advocates a reform in the very political order and recommends a parliamentary system in which the king, supported by the commons, is to act for public welfare. Such a bold and original political view is certainly rare and astonishing for Langland’s age. Moreover, his emphasis is on the proper discharge of their duties by all classes or professions —the king, knights, the clergy, the mechanics and so on. Langland appears, too, a philosophical socialist who propagates from Plato and Seneca that all things should be shared in common.
In the ecclesiastical matter, Langland is no less radical. He is thoroughly opposed to the display of riches and splendor in the church. He advocates a life of penance and simplicity, restraint and sincerity and in this respect, he seems to be the coming voice of Puritanism.
Langland’s place in the allegorical literature of England is certainly very high. His art to alternate Christian tenderness and bitter satire, social realism and religious piety, allegory and sociology is well borne out here. Moreover his power to create realistic scenes and truth with an equal ease, the comic as well the holy is distinctly confirmed here.
Like Chaucer, Langland is found to have made the use of traditional materials and drawn on the facts of contemporary society, but he has not achieved the literary eminence of his great contemporary. Nevertheless the social and allegorical values of his work are immense and its literary merit is not altogether insignificant. Though he has no immediate successor, his influence on the subsequent authors of satires and allegories cannot be ignored. The immortal Pilgrim’s Progress of Bunyan is certainly a direct descendant of Langland’s Piers Plowman.
Difference between Chaucer and Langland
There are some interesting points of difference between Chaucer and Langland, two close contemporaries. As the literary masters of their age, both of them are realistic social chroniclers and have made use of traditional materials yet, in their attitude and outlook, they differ immensely from each other.
Chaucer is basically an artist, while Langland a moralist. The former’s literature is an entertaining imitation of life to please and make life enjoyable. Langland’s singular work, on the other hand, is a serious representation of life, with a distinct purpose to teach.
Again, as Social Chronicler, Chaucer remains a broad minded spectator, taking interest and representing fun in human society and human behavior. Langland, however is a critical observer, detecting and denouncing moral defaults. Whereas Chaucer is a comedist, Langland remains a social critic.
Again Chaucer is essentially a humorist. His works are the gems of the gifts of wit and humour, with a slight, enjoyable caricature of human deformities. Langland is essentially a satirist who is unsparing on vices in high places.
As a literary master Chaucer stands definitely superior to Langland who lacks his artistic harmony and comic sense. Langland is no doubt, earnest, but not entertaining. His model is the allegory that lacks the Chaucerian variety of expression.
William Langland - History
English Language and History
Selected and prepared for people
Miklós Rózsa (1907-1985)
Note: The recording at Amazon and the recording on YouTube may not be the same.
A SECOND time the Light knocked, and Lucifer answered, “Who is this?”
“What lord are you?” said Lucifer the Light straightaway said,
“The King of Glory, lord of might and main
And all manner of hosts! ‘The Lord of Hosts!’*
Dukes of this dim place, now undo these gates.
That Christ may come in, the King of heaven’s Son!”
And at that breath Hell broke, with Belial’s bars*
Despite ward and warden, the gates opened wide.*
Patriarchs and prophets, ‘the people [that sat] in shadow,’*
Sang St John’s song: ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’*
So blinded was he that Lucifer could not see*
And our Lord took those whom he loved into his light,
Saying to Satan: “See! Here is my soul to make amends
For all sinful souls, to save those that are worthy.
They are mine, of me they came I have the better claim.
Though Reason remember (and my own Justice)
That if they ate the apple all should die,*
I did not promise them to hell here forever!
Will Langland tells us of a dream, in which he seemed to see Christ’s soul, after he was crucified, go down to Hades like a brilliant light. He broke through the gates, and drew the worthy into heaven, declaring that for his sin mankind was doomed to die, but not to remain forever in the devil’s power.
William Langland (c. 1332 – c. 1386) was an English poet. He wrote a long and complicated poem called Piers Plowman. The poem is an allegory about the struggle to lead a virtuous Christian life when the institution of the Church is often corrupt.
We do not know for sure that this poem was written by Langland. The strongest evidence we have is one manuscript which says that the poem was written by 'Willielmi de Langlond', son of 'Stacy de Rokayle, who died in Shipton-under-Wichwood, a tenant of the Lord Spenser in the county of Oxfordshire'. Other manuscripts also name the author as 'Robert or William langland', or 'Wilhelmus W.' (probably an abbreviation for 'William of Wichwood', since Wychwood is the village he probably came from). Another piece of evidence is within the poem itself. At one stage the narrator says: 'I have lyved in londe. my name is longe wille'. Scholars agree that this is a code for the poet's name: Longe-Land, and Wille meaning Will, short for William. This may seem unlikely, but this method of hiding the poet's name within a poem was used in Roman times, and was quite common in late-medieval literature.
O samom Langlandu malo se zna. Čini se da je rođen u zapadnom Midlandsu u Engleskoj oko 1330. godine, prema intetekstualnim dokazima u Piers Plowmanu . Pripovjedač u Piers Plowmanu doživio je svoje prvo viđenje dok spava na Malvern Hillsu (između Herefordshirea i Worcestershirea ), što sugerira određenu povezanost s tim područjem. Dijalekt pjesme također je u skladu s ovim dijelom zemlje. Piers Plowman napisan je oko 1377. godine, zato što mašta lika kaže da ga je slijedila "pet i četrdeset zima".
Bilješka iz petnaestog stoljeća u dublinskom rukopisu Piersa Plowmana kaže da je Langland bio sin Stacy de Rokayle.
Vjeruje se da je Langland rođen u Cleobury Mortimeru, Shropshire, iako je moguće da je rođen i u Ledburyu, Herefordshireu i Great Malvernu, Worcestershire. Teoriju o rođenju u Shropshireu podvrđuje trijem župne crkve Cleobury Mortimer gdje se nalazi spomen-prozor postavljen 1875. godine s prikazom vizije orača Piersa. Smatra se da je Langland bio novicijat samostana Woodhouse koji se nalazi u blizini.
Postoje snažne naznake da je Langland umro 1385. ili 1386. godine. Bilješka koju je napisao "Iohan but" (John But) u rukopisu pjesme iz četrnaestog stoljeća (Rawlinson 137) izravno upućuje na Langlandovu smrt: "whan this werke was wrouyt, ere Wille myte aspie/ Deth delt him a dent and drof him to the erthe/ And is closed vnder clom" (" jednom kad je ovo napravljeno, prije nego što je Will bio svjestan / Smrt ga je udarila i srušila na tlo / A sada je zakopan pod zemljom") . Prema Edith Rickert, čini se da je John But umro 1387. godine, što ukazuje da je Langland umro malo prije ovog datuma.
Većina onoga što se vjeruje o Langlandu rekonstruirano je prema Piers Plowmanu . Tekst pjesme (C verzija) sadrži odlomak u kojem se pripovjedač opisuje kao „loller“ (neobrazovan) ili „idler“ (neradnik) koji živi u londonskom području Cornhill, a odnosi se na svoju suprugu i dijete. Također sugerira da je bio znatno iznad prosječne visine i da je zarađivao čitajući molitve za mrtve. Međutim, razlika između alegorije i stvarnosti u Piers Plowmanu je suptilna, a cjelokupni odlomak, kako primjećuje Wendy Scase, podsjeća na lažnu tradiciju ispovijedanja u srednjovjekovnoj književnosti (također viđenu u Confessio Goliae i u romanu Jean-a Meuna -a Roman de la Rose ).
Sličan odlomak u konačnom pasusu verzija B i C pruža daljnje dvosmislene detalje o pjesnikovoj ženi i njegovim mukama uzrokovanih Elde (Starošću), uključujući ćelavost, giht i impotenciju. To može ukazivati na to da je pjesnik dosegnuo srednju dob do 1370-ih, ali točnost odlomka dovodi u pitanje konvencionalna priroda opisa i činjenicu da se događa pred kraj pjesme, kad Willov osobni razvoj dolazi do svog logičnog svršetka.
Detaljno i visoko sofisticirano vjersko znanje prikazano u pjesmi ukazuje na to da je Langland imao neke veze sa svećenstvom, ali priroda ovog odnosa nije sigurna. Pjesma ne pokazuje očitu pristranost prema nekoj određenoj skupini ili redu crkvenjaka, ali je ujednačena u svom antiklerikalizmu . To otežava usklađivanje Langlanda s bilo kojim određenim crkvenim redom. "Vjerojatno ga se najbolje smatra", piše John Bowers, "kao člana one značajne skupine dobrotvornih službenika koji su činili radikalni rub suvremenog društva . loše obučeni Will prikazan je kako putuje selom, pomahnitali disident koji ne pokazuje poštovanje prema nadređenima ". Malcolm Godden je predložio da je Langland živio kao putujući pustinjak, privremeno se vežući za zaštitnika i razmjenjujući usluge pisanja za sklonište i hranu.
Izdanje Piers Plowmana iz 1550. godine Roberta Crowleyja promoviralo je ideju da je Langland sljedbenik Johna Wycliffea . Međutim, ovaj zaključak je neuskladiv s ranim prikazom Oračevog lika. Istina je da su Langland i Wycliffe dijelili mišljenje o mnogim aspektima srednjovjekovnog života: obojica su dovodili u pitanje vrijednost indulgencija i hodočašća, promovirali upotrebu narodnog jezika u propovijedanju, napadali klerikalnu korupciju, pa čak i zagovarali oduzimanje prava. Ali o tim se temama široko raspravljalo tijekom kasnog 14. stoljeća i nisu se posebno povezivale s Wycliffeom za vrijeme Langlandova života. Također, kako primjećuje Pamela Gradon, ni u jednom trenutku Langland ne ponavlja Wycliffeova karakteristična učenja o sakramentima .
Pripisivanje Piersa Plowmana Langlandu počiva uglavnom na dokazima rukopisa koji se nalazi na Trinity Collegeu u Dublinu (MS 212). Ovaj rukopis pripisuje Piersa Plowmana Willielmiju de Langlandu, sinu Stacy de Rokayle, "koji je umro u Shipton-under-Wychwoodu, stanaru lorda Spensera u grofoviji Oxfordshire". U drugim se rukopisima autor imenuje Robert ili William Langland, ili Wilhelms W. (najvjerojatnije skraćenica za Williama od Wychwooda).
Čini se da i sama pjesma upućuje na Langlandovo autorstvo. U jednom trenutku pripovjedač primjećuje: "Živio sam u Londonu [. ] moje ime je longe wille (slično značenje kao Langland)" (B XV.152). To se može uzeti kao šifrirano pozivanje na pjesnikovo ime, u stilu kasnosrednjovjekovne literature (vidi, na primjer, Villonove akrostihe u Le Testamentu ). Međutim, također se sugerira da su srednjovjekovni prepisivači i čitatelji ovu liniju mogli shvatiti kao da se odnosi na "Williama Longwillea", pseudonim koji je koristio pobunjenik iz Norfolka
Iako postoji malo drugih dokaza, Langlandovo je autorstvo široko prihvaćeno od 1920-ih. Međutim, nije posve sporno, kao što je pokazao nedavni rad Stelle Pates i C. Davida Bensona.
Who Wrote Piers Plowman?
The popularity of the Middle English poem has endured for 650 years but the question of who wrote it remains unanswered. Lawrence Warner addresses the mystery.
Since it started taking shape some 650 years ago, the alliterative dream poem Piers Plowman has been a touchstone of the English literary tradition. Its textual, literary and religious difficulties have attracted the attention of audiences from the days of Geoffrey Chaucer and John Ball to our own. So, who wrote it? For a poem so immersed in its historical context, the relative anonymity of its author is remarkable and their identity has long been as interesting to readers as the poem itself.
Or, I should say, poems – for the question is inextricably bound up in questions of revision, addition and the like as the poem survives in three substantially different forms. 'Piers Plowman: The Work of One or of Five', reads the title of an essay in a learned journal of 1909 (written by J.J. Jusserand, who discussed the poem's merits with the US president). Debates were raging over how many hands were responsible for the complex structure of this poem. The orthodox modern view, established by the Victorian editor Walter W. Skeat, was that a single man wrote all three versions, now called A, B and C. Yet could the substantial changes between the versions, even within the A version alone, be the work of one man? (John Trevisa, the translator and schoolmate of John Wyclif, has been nominated as candidate as author of the B version of the poem.) Thus raged a debate for much of the 20th century, one that has still not totally disappeared from view.
Earlier centuries had their own variations on the debate. The existence of later poems like Pierce the Ploughman's Crede (written between 1393 and 1401) and The Plowman's Tale (c.1400) caused no end of confusion. 'I thinke hit not to be on and the same that made both' this latter poem and Piers Plowman, wrote one commentator in the 16th century, 'for that the reader shall fynde divers maner of Englishinge on sentence.' Logic is hardly in full view here. Chaucer inevitably shows up in such discussions and was even taken to be author of Piers Plowman itself by a long line of observers between John Leland in the 1530s to one Elizabeth Johnson c.1700, who was proud to own 'The Vision of Pierss Plowman said to be wrote by Chaucer some say by a Wickliffian about Rc 2d time'.
Yet that attribution always flew below the radar. 'I have learned that the Autour was named Roberte langelande, a Shropshere man borne in Cleybirie, about viii myles from Malverne hilles': so wrote the editor of the editio princeps of 1550, Robert Crowley. This forename seems to be the result of a misreading of one line as recorded now in a single manuscript: '& y Robert in russet gan rome abowhte.' 'I, Robert', that is, where other manuscripts have yrobed, that is, 'robed'. The Malvern connection gave rise to a competitor, first proposed by John Stow in 1580, that the poem was written c.1342 by John Malvern, Fellow of Oriel College. Not everyone was convinced by these proposals: 'This writer is still anonymous', wrote Joseph Ritson in 1792 'there is no reason to believe that it was either Robert Langland, or John Malverne, but on the contrary a substantial one that it was not'. What that reason was he never said.
How, then, did the name 'William Langland' come to be the one most commonly cited today? In part, because the protagonist of the poem, the dreamer, comes to be called 'Will', and readers easily take him as a stand-in for the poet. But there is other evidence, too: one 'Stacy de Rokayle' was described as 'pater willielmi de Langlond' (father of William Langland) according to a note inscribed at the end of a manuscript copied in 1427: 'willielmus fecit librum qui vocatur Perys ploughman', it continues (William made the book called Piers Plowman). And a single line in one of the versions reads nicely as a reverse acrostic: ''I have lyved in londe', quod I, 'my name is long wille'' (which, backwards, reads 'wille long londe'). Later readers often glossed this line Nomen auctoris.
William Langland it is, then, for most modern readers, if only because they need something other than 'the Piers Plowman-poet' as its author. A biography has built up upon this personage, based on the waking episodes of the poem (a cleric in minor orders, had a wife and child, moved from Malvern to London) and on the circumstances of the poem's production (it is written in a South-West Midlands dialect, the poet knew French, etc.).
And yet, is this 'Will' an accurate representation of the author? Considering the convention whereby authors of this period inscribed versions of themselves into their poems (Chaucer being the most well-known instance), is it not possible that the poet was trying it on, as it were? So argues one recent critic who pushes the logic of that inscription regarding William Langland as son of Stacy de Rokayle to its limit. In 1356, one 'William de la Rokele, parson of Esthorp' yielded to his kinsman John his claim to over 300 acres of land, including some seven houses. 'Obviously, this transaction does not attest the sort of heart-wrenching poverty that some readers have wanted to associate with the life of "Long Will"', writes Robert Adams in his book pursuing this case. Indeed. How far from the world conjured by the poem are readers willing to place that world's poet?
Another historian, Michael Bennett, has recently discovered a record that casts that question in another light: one 'Willelmus vocatus Longwyll' was among the dozen men who in 1385 stood accused of aiding and abetting the murder, by the half-brother of Richard II, of Sir Ralph Stafford, son and heir of the Earl of Stafford. Is this our man, too? Could he have been part of the king's expedition to Scotland, ready to go into battle for his king?
Stranger things have happened in the history of authorship. The strangest of all, perhaps, is that such questions so easily vanish once the reader is immersed in the mysterious 650-year old world of Piers Plowman.
Lawrence Warner is Senior Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at King's College London and director of the International Piers Plowman Society.
Jesus the Brave Knight: William Langland and William Dunbar
William Dunbar wrote this crackling, exciting poem, “A Hymn of the Resurrection,” in the early 1500s. We meet Christ, like St. George, coming off the field of battle, having slain the “cruel serpent,” the dragon Satan. Christ the champion knight reigns, his cross like a triumphant banner left standing.
We are in the middle of a Lent Series, “The Many Faces of Jesus.” Each week I consider a medieval “version” of Jesus—a representation in literature, art, or theology popular before the Reformation. These versions of Jesus may be strange, silly, scary, or inspiring to us today above all they challenge us to consider our own versions of Jesus we encounter in our culture. Many of them capture important aspects of Jesus and the church that we overlook. None of these episodes comprehensively present these images think of them like little introductions that you can dive further into on your own. I hope that as we draw closer to Easter, their aesthetic beauty gives joy too.
So far, we’ve learned about two representations of Jesus in the medieval era: Jesus the Judge and Jesus Our Lover. Jesus the Brave Knight is a little different. Jesus as the Divine Judge at the End of Days comes straight out of the Book of Revelation. Jesus as Lover emerges from the allegorical Song of Songs. Both are rooted originally in scriptural sources, though they take on a life of their own. Jesus the Knight takes more creative license though it can be distantly connected to Ephesians 6:13-16 and donning the armor of God, it is more obviously based in the art and culture of the times. While lovers have always existed everywhere, and judges have been around for a very long time across many different cultures, knights belong to a very specific time and place: medieval Europe.
Knights reigned in imagination and literature in the very, very popular tales of King Arthur’s court, as models of the best courtly manners, and as chivalric lovers who wore tokens from their lady and fought on their behalf. Jesus the Knight appeared in both contexts, as a lover-knight and as a knight doing battle against Satan. Last week, we discussed Jesus the Lover, and he appears as a chivalric, knightly lover in the lyric poem I shared then. So today, we will focus more on the social and combative aspects of Jesus as Knight.
Medieval thinkers often conceived of their society as divided into three “estates”: the nobles and gentry, the clergy, and the peasants. Each one of these “estates” was considered to have its own essential role in a functioning society. The clergy were “those who prayed,” the folks who provided spiritual instruction, interceded for their communities, and administered the sacraments. The peasants were “those who labored,” the essential group who grew, cultivated, and harvested food for everyone. And the nobles were “those who fought,” the lords of society who were supposed to protect the realm from invaders, administer justice locally, and use their largesse to support the poor and the church in their community. The knights belonged to this last estate. In reality, of course, such divisions were far too neat. Peasants often bore the worst, most devastating effects of war yet this was the theoretical division of feudal society that persisted for a very long time.
In order to dig into this figure more thoroughly, we will examine the most incredible Middle English poem that almost no one has read outside of the academy. It fills my soul with delight to share William Langland’s Piers Plowman with you today. Piers Plowman is a long, confusing, magnificent allegorical poem written, rewritten, and rewritten yet again in the tumultuous fourteenth century. In the last installment of this series, we had briefly discussed the power of allegory in the medieval imagination. I had quoted Gregory the Great on the Song of Songs:
For allegory supplies the soul separated far from God with a kind of mechanism by which it is raised to God. By means of dark sayings in whose words a person can understand something of his own, he can understand what is not his to understand, and by earthly words he can be raised above the earth. Therefore, through means which are not alien to our way of understanding, that which is beyond our understanding can be known. By that which we do know—out of such are allegories made—divine meanings are clothed and through our understanding of external speech we are brought to an inner understanding.Gregory the Great, quoted in Eros and Allegory, Denys Turner
Allegory was deeply important for medieval folks because of its particular power to communicate abstract truth in homely and familiar words. Poets in particular used allegory to great effect. To overly simplify a complex poem, in Piers Plowman, Wille, whom we would now call the protagonist or main character, experiences a series of dreams that are allegories for historical events, scriptural events, and theology in fourteenth-century society. Wille himself is a figure of allegory: his name gestures towards his simultaneous existence as a person dreaming in the poem, and as the faculty of the will undergoing spiritual transformation.
Towards the end of the poem, Wille falls asleep again, and he witnesses something spectacularly beautiful: the events of Holy Week, set into allegory. It is Langland’s version of the Christ-Knight. I am using the excellent translation of Piers Plowman by George Economou, if you are interested in reading more.
I love this initial image of Jesus the Knight. Langland creatively blends together Palm Sunday with a knight coming to joust in a tournament. We recognize Palm Sunday because of the onlookers who excitedly shout Hosanna and blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Earthly knights come to battle in their best armor, arms emblazoned so that all will know their identity and their great deeds of prowess. Langland’s barefoot knight comes without weapons, on the back of a donkey instead of a great, expensive charger, yet he comes to fight a holier battle, one that ultimately eschews the typical knightly trappings of wealth and violence. Yet he is still a knight, one come to fight battles on behalf of those who cannot.
The reader meets a picture of the Incarnation: Jesus clad in human nature, jousting in the “armor” of a simple plowman. The image is incongruous—a knight, fighting in the gear of a field-worker? Contemporary knights would have curled their lip in disgust at the thought of clothing themselves in a plowman’s garb. The image demonstrates God’s humble, action-oriented, division-destroying love in his relinquishment of power in his embodiment as Jesus.
Piers the Plowman is an extremely difficult allegorical figure in this poem who I won’t go into in great detail, but here we can recognize him as a figure of humanity and the backbreaking labor of living well after the Fall. In typical Langlandian fashion, the allegories expand further. The “fruit” of Piers the Plowman is both his labor and the actual people of God. The Fiend claims his rights to sinful humanity and their work Jesus the Knight takes them back, and redeems humanity, their labor, and the fruits of that labor. The Free Will of God, “Liberium-dei-Arbitrium,” undertakes this task for love.
Let’s pause for a moment and focus on Langland’s inclusion of human labor in the redemption sequence. One of the beauties of allegory is that it can contain so many meanings at once. When Langland’s readers in the fourteenth century encountered this image, they may have thought of a few different ideas.
The first is Langland’s interest in the plight of laborers. Laborers were suffering under wage restrictions in the wake of the plague that decimated the population. Significant and unjust legislation kept them, in many places, as little better than slaves in the serf system still prevalent in medieval society. They simply were not appreciated by the society that depended upon them to eat. We should not feel superior this is one of the many things we share with medieval folks. We too mostly harbor ignorance and disdain of the population, often migrants, that typically harvests our own food here in America.
Additionally, the most popular method of making war in France and England during that time was something called the chevauchee. The chevauchee was akin to what we now call a scorched earth strategy—in order to win, you would deplete enemy resources by destroying not their knights and soldiers, but through burning and pillaging the villages that fed them. Most medieval cities and towns had walls to protect themselves from invaders, but little rural villages did not. They were the ones who paid many of the ultimate costs of war. Their homes were destroyed, their bodies were ravaged or slaughtered, and the fruits of their backbreaking work, food for their society, up in greedy flames or stolen by their own killers. The Christ-Knight has come to save these poor workers, in contrast to the Fiend and his knights of death who would gladly destroy both their bodies and their labor. He works the salvific redemption of all estates, knight and farmworker together preserved and transformed. He jousts with Death itself.
The image also reminds both medieval and modern readers of the importance of our spiritual labor. Sometimes we deceive ourselves into thinking that unless things are easy, we are doing something wrong or life isn’t as it should be. But living well is hard. The virtues are hard. Laboring in the field of life is often really, really difficult. Sometimes we sidestep this difficulty entirely in order to make things easier on ourselves by saying that it doesn’t really matter what we do, as long as our heart is in the right place. Not fully true! One of the greatest evils in the world is when intentions and words become divorced from exterior action and response—this is actually one of Langland’s most pressing concerns throughout his entire poem. We can see the bitter fruits of this divorce in our current political situation. The so-called party of morality couldn’t be less concerned with morality in America right now as they follow at all costs a serial liar and cheater, a beacon of gluttony, callousness, and greed. But let yourself be encouraged, not shamed by your inability to follow through (an inability we all frequently share). You matter, and what you do and work in the world also matters. It matters so much that your labors themselves will be redeemed. Keep laboring in the difficult fields of your life.
Such a labor requires the practice of courage. Your work may entail the courage of endurance rather than the courage of daring. Both of my current labors, parenting and writing, require both kinds of courage at times but mostly just endurance. Thankfully, Jesus the Knight gives us a model for both as well. Because, of course, the image isn’t just Jesus riding in to shouts of acclaim on Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday leads to the Crucifixion, and to something called the Harrowing of Hell.
You may not have heard of the Harrowing of Hell. It is an ancient belief, that after Jesus died but before he rose from the grave, he drank the dregs of human death and actually went to Hell. In the Creed, we recite that he descended into Hell, but many view this descent as allegorical. For medieval folks, it was decidedly not allegorical. It was yet another indicator of the courage and willingness of Jesus to go to the greatest depths to save his people. For in Hell, Jesus does not just show up and putz around, taunting his archenemy Satan. Langland describes the Harrowing as if a distant light begins to appear from far away in the dim murk of Hell. The demons speculate on what it could be—nothing good for them, they feel. The light draws closer and closer. The demons wait with trepidation. At last the Light, brilliantly blinding, arrives at Hell’s gates. The demons cannot see who is at the heart of the dazzling, starry light. And at last Lucifer dares to call out:
Behold the Lamb of God! All the people of the old law are freed as the gates are broken. The Harrowing of Hell teaches that Jesus also redeemed those who came before him in his descent. The people in darkness have seen a great light, as Isaiah wrote. The patriarchs and prophets sing with ecstasy.
Then Wille wakes up from his vision of the history of salvation. It is Easter morning in his own world. Filled with joy, he calls his wife and daughter to join the community of saints on earth at his own parish church and participate in the liturgy of celebrating Christ’s resurrection. He can hardly contain himself.
There are different species of joy. One kind is a quiet, contemplative joy, the kind generated by sitting by cozy fireplaces with great books, holding hands with a beloved, listening to the ocean. The other is sparkling and wild. It is the joy that little kids have when they eat ice cream and then run around afterwards, losing their minds in the delight of the sugar rush. It is the joy that you experience when you receive unfathomably good news, when your sports team wins the championship, when you find something you thought was lost forever, when you meet with old friends and the words do not stop tumbling from everyone involved. This joy generates action, dancing, shrieking, singing, doing things. Such joy has been rare for everyone during the pandemic.
Langland and Dunbar’s images of Jesus the Knight are meant to evoke this latter, wild joy. Feel it and relish it with Langland and Dunbar. Death itself no longer has the last word. The dragon is dead! Our champion Christ has destroyed our ancient enemy! The gates of Hell crumble into dust as the Light of the World falls upon them.
What requires courage in your life during this Lent? How can you emulate Jesus the Knight? This week, as your Lenten practice, try something rather un-Lenten, especially since lately your entire life may have felt like Lent as you have given up going to your favorite places and seeing your favorite people during the pandemic. In the spirit of Jesus the Knight, go out of your way this week to provoke joy, in anticipation of the coming resurrection. Play a song you loved in high school. Go on a walk with a good friend. Surprise a family member with something that they will be excited about. Paint your nails a bold color. Create or plan something beautiful.
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro!