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.

Page from the 14th-century Luttrell Psalter, showing drolleries on the right margin and a ploughman at the bottom

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.