Posts Tagged ‘William Langland’

Langland: Piers Plowman

May 13, 2016

Piers Plowman
William Langland
Rendered into modern English by E. Talbot Donaldson
(WW Norton, 1990) [c.1380]
288 p.

Over the years I’ve dabbled in medieval literature, enjoying Chaucer and Dante, Chretien de Troyes and Beowulf. Naturally, some works have been more challenging than others, and for a variety of reasons: themes, structure, language. Piers Plowman is as difficult as anything I’ve come across, and then some. I’m tempted to say that there is nothing simple about it.

The work is an allegorical drama in which the main character, Will, wanders through the world populated with a variety of characters — Conscience, Truth, Scripture, all seven of the Deadly Sins, Reason, and so forth — on a journey to discover Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best. The characters offer Will advice, upbraid him, and encourage him on his moral quest, rather like a medieval Pilgrim’s Progress. The story is complicated by a series of dream-visions, and even dreams-within-dreams, that add layers of interpretive difficulty to a book already beset with vexatious challenges.

The poem is written in alliterative verse, similar to that written by the Gawain poet. The author (identified, apparently rather tenuously but tenaciously, with William Langland) writes in a dialect of Middle English that is rather different from Chaucer’s more familiar dialect. Here is a passage from the Prologue to illustrate how it reads:

Pilgrymes and palmers · pliȝten hem togidere
To seke seynt Iames · and seyntes in rome
Thei went forth in here wey · with many wise tales
And hadden leue to lye · al here lyf after
I seigh somme that seiden · þei had ysouȝt seyntes
To eche a tale þat þei tolde · here tonge was tempred to lye
More þan to sey soth · it semed bi here speche
Heremites on an heep · with hoked staues
Wenten to walsyngham · and here wenches after
Grete lobyes and longe · that loth were to swynke
Clotheden hem in copis · to ben knowen fram othere
And shopen hem heremites · here ese to haue

It’s not impenetrable, but there are enough unfamiliar words — “pliȝten”, “ysouȝt”, “lobyes”, “swynke” — that progress is slow. I was grateful, therefore, for E. Talbot Donaldson’s translation, which tries to preserve the alliterative verse but updates the language for modern readers. Donaldson is a respected medievalist who has also produced an edition of Beowulf and published a book on Chaucer. His rendering of the passage above reads this way:

Pilgrims and palmers · made pacts with each other
To seek out Saint James · and saints in Rome.
They went on their way · with many wise stories,
And had leave to lie · all their lives after.
I saw some that said · they’d sought after saints:
In every tale they told · their tongues were tuned to lie
More than to tell the truth — such talk was theirs.
A heap of hermits · with hooked staffs
Went off to Walsingham · with their wenches behind them.
Great long lubbers · that don’t like to work
Dressed up in cleric’s dress · to look different from other men
And behaved as they were hermits · to have an easy life.

It’s wordier (as modern English usually is in comparison to Old or Middle), but certainly much easier to follow.

Langland’s style in Piers Plowman is quite unusual. Though this might seem a wild comparison, as I read I kept thinking of Dostoyevsky, not for his interests or his genre (naturally) but just for that unhinged quality, as though the characters are a little wild-eyed, prone to do or say anything. Langland jumps from one thing to the next. He salts his poem liberally with Latin phrases, fragments of Scripture, and quotations from antiquity. He is going somewhere, but unsteadily, with numerous rapid detours. The language is thorny and angular.

I haven’t said anything yet about Piers Plowman, the title character. Will meets him at several points in the poem, always, I believe, in a dream. At various points Will meets him riding into Jerusalem, or in the guise of the Good Samaritan, or offering a pardon for sins. Will speculates that he is Christ in disguise, and, given his characteristics, this seems reasonable to me.

Commentators on Piers Plowman stress its moral seriousness and its satiric edge. Of the former there is ample evidence, for the poem contains many scathing criticisms of Church and society in his day, but of the latter I confess I was able to detect but little. Satire is a tonal matter much of the time, and that’s hard to convey in a translation and hard to detect in an unfamiliar dialect.

In the end, I am pleased to have read the poem, though I confess I did not greatly enjoy it. It is one of those hurdles that anyone wanting an education in medieval literature will have to clear, and it feels good to have cleared it (more or less!), but, unlike Chaucer or Dante or the Gawain poet, I doubt I’ll return to it for pleasure.

Building a medieval library

March 4, 2011

Despite my long-standing interest in medieval art and culture, medieval literature has been mostly a closed book – if you’ll pardon the expression – to me. A few months ago, however, I made an overly ambitious resolution to acquaint myself with the greatest of medieval literary masterpieces. My recent perusal of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde was the first fruit of that resolution, but there remain a great number of works that I am eager to read.

For the most part these books were not originally written in English, and, considering that my Spanish, Old French, Anglo-Norman, and Old Norse are all a little rusty, I am obliged to read in translation. I have been hunting through the catalogue to find the available translations, and to try to choose which ones I will read. The notes below are essentially my notes to myself as I was hunting.

If you have read any of these books and would like to comment on the translation you used, I would welcome your remarks. I would also be interested in recommendations of other works, not listed here, that are worthy of attention. (No need to recommend top tier works like the Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowulf, and so on; we already have those. But, if in doubt, recommend; it never hurts to be reminded how good something is.)

The Song of Roland. This chanson de geste celebrates the bravery of Charlemagne’s knight Roland as he contends against the Saracens of Spain. There seem to be three verse translations available. The one by Dorothy Sayers (Penguin) attempts to rhyme, which is great, but I worry that doing so will force the language into some awkward contortions. Un-rhymed verse translations from Glyn Burgess (Penguin, also) and Robert Harrison (Signet) read easily, but the poetry sounds a little flat-footed, at least on first perusal.

The Lais of Marie de France. This twelfth-century collection of narrative poems on themes of knighthood and courtly love has interested me for a long time, but I’ve yet to lay hands on it. Only two translations are available, I believe. The first, in prose, is by Glyn Burgess (Penguin), and the second, in verse, is a joint venture between Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante (Baker Academic), both from Columbia University. In this literature verse is going to trump prose nearly every time, and I am tending toward the latter.

El Cid. This is another military poem rooted in the conflict between Christians and Muslims in Spain. Several translations are available, but I can find only one, by Burton Raffel (Penguin) that is in verse. Raffel is a distinguished translator, so this is probably the edition to choose.

Icelandic Sagas. Not all of them, of course, but a few. Some years ago I picked up a hefty volume from Penguin Classics, The Sagas of Icelanders, which contains nine sagas and an assortment of tales, fleshed out with maps, family trees, illustrations, and the like. I’m pretty sure it’s a terrific book, but, not having read any of it yet, I can’t be certain. I do know that it does not include two of the most famous works in the tradition: Njal’s Saga and the Prose Edda. Both are available from Penguin in separate volumes, and I will probably go with those.

Le Roman de la Rose. It is with some trepidation that I put this poem on this list. It is undoubtedly a masterpiece of the courtly love tradition, but it has a reputation for extravagant interminability – all gracious ritual and extensive floral allegory – that strikes fear into the heart of a modern reader. At over 20 000 lines it is no small undertaking. I actually have Chaucer’s translation of the poem (The Romaunt of the Rose), but I am reluctant to add the challenges of Middle English to the native challenges of the poem itself. There is a 1962 translation by Harry W. Robbins, now apparently out of print, which leaves Frances Horgan’s translation from Oxford World’s Classics as the sole viable contender.

Piers Plowman. I have heard William Langland’s great work described as a sort of proto-Marxist tract on account of its fierce assault on political and economic oppression. Such a description is not calculated to endear the poem to me, but I would like to read it on its own terms. It is written in English, albeit a difficult dialect, so I am looking for an edition with helpful annotations rather than a modernization. On that count the Penguin Classics edition is out (it is also in prose, which is an automatic disqualification). I can find three annotated editions: one from Norton Critical Editions (with modern English on the facing pages), one from Everyman (with line-end annotations), and the last from Exeter University Press (also with line-end annotations). The first two editions have the so-called B-text, and the last has the C-text. I don’t know which text I should prefer.

Arthurian Romances — specifically, those of Chrétien de Troyes. There are five romances to consider: Erec and Enide, Lancelot, Yvain, Cliges, and Percevel. We do have some of these tales in our library already, but in prose translations, and I would like verse. Surprisingly, I can find only one complete verse translation in print, by the estimable Burton Raffel. His versions are published by Yale University Press in five separate volumes, so that would get a bit pricey. However, I see no alternative.


Again, any comments or recommendations would be most welcome.