Curious facts about a classic medieval poem
1. The poem contains the first known reference to Robin Hood. Although the earliest known full ballads and stories involving Robin Hood date from the fifteenth century, the brave redistributor of Nottinghamshire’s wealth (though Robin Hood originally lived in Yorkshire) makes his debut – at least his known debut – in William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman, a long dream-vision poem dating from c. 1370-1390. In the poem, a man named Will falls asleep in the Malvern Hills in England, and experiences a series of religious visions which are presented allegorically.
2. Nobody’s quite sure who the author, William Langland, was. Indeed, the only evidence pointing to Langland as the author is one manuscript of the text from the early fifteenth century, which names the author as ‘Willielmus de Langlond’. One of the first printed copies of the poem named the author as ‘Robert Langland’, and the poem was also attributed to Chaucer and to John Wycliffe, the founder of the Lollards.
3. The poem was written during an extraordinarily creative period in English literary history. The last few decades of the fourteenth century saw a sudden growth in the production of Middle English poetry: not only Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde, but the poems of the ‘Gawain poet’ (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the elegy Pearl, among others), and John Gower’s Confessio Amantis.
4. Samuel Pepys owned a copy of the poem. The first person known to have owned a copy of the celebrated poem Piers Plowman was a clergyman named Walter de Brugge, who died in 1396 – which is a pleasing fact because, over half a century before the invention of the modern printed book, it’s rare to find reference to individual ‘owners’ of literary texts.
5. John Ball, religious leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, referred to Piers Plowman in his writing. However, the ‘Piers Plowman’ that Ball referred to appears to have been a very different character from the one Langland created. In fact, it may be that both Ball and Langland are referring to a pre-existing folk character from oral tradition – we’re back to the world of Robin Hood again.
Image: Facsimile of the manuscript of Piers Plowman in the Bodleian Library, via Wikimedia Commons.