Visions of “Piers Plowman” in the 18th Century

The best thing about having a Robin Hood theme for this blog is that it allows me to legitimately write about both crime and medievalism (medievalism, as opposed to medieval studies, examines how the medieval period has been represented by authors, artists, and writers in periods after the middle ages). Our modern understanding of Robin Hood is, of course, largely a figure of popular culture: while we know very little of who the historical outlaw may have been, we have plenty of stories about him that have survived since the Middle Ages. The first reference to Robin Hood in popular culture occurs in the B Text of William Langland’s poem entitled The Vision of Piers Plowman, which was composed between c. 1370 and c. 1390):[i]

I can noughte perfitly my pater-noster as the prest it syngeth,

But I can rymes of Robyn Hood and Randalf erle of Chestre.[ii]

Much has been written on the medieval texts of Piers Plowman, and there is even a Piers Plowman Society which aims to further research into this text. This post, however, concerns eighteenth-century views of Langland’s masterpiece.

Let us first learn a little about the context: the eighteenth century, particularly from 1765 onward, with the publication of Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry published in that year, was a period in which intellectuals were gradually “rediscovering” historical English texts. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, neoclassicism was the dominant artistic and literary aesthetic mode. Authors and poets such as John Dryden, Joseph Addison, and Alexander Pope, while they were admiring of early English poets such as Chaucer, more often than not held their works to be rude and unrefined. Thus, in Addison’s Account of the Greatest English Poets (1694), he gives the following opinion of Geoffrey Chaucer:

Long had our dull forefathers slept supine,

Nor felt the raptures of the tuneful Nine

Till Chaucer first, a merry bard, arose,

And many a story told in rhyme and prose.

But age has rusted what the poet writ,

Worn out his language, and obscured his wit;

In vain he jests in his unpolished strain,

And tries to make his readers laugh in vain.[iii]

In other words, the poetry of the medieval period was good, but it was rather unsuitable for the polite and polished age of the Georgian period. This is why, usually, when authors and artists in the eighteenth century wished to represent the medieval period, it was usually with a baroque or neoclassical overlay.[iv]

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Addison did not include Langland in his list of the greatest English poets, although other critics in the period credit the latter with having been

The first English poet, who employ’d his muse for the refinement of manners … by his writings, it plainly appears that poetry, and politeness, grew up together.[v]

Of course, the progress of politeness, poetry, and the cultivation of manners in the medieval period was halted, according to the author, because of the various conflicts that occurred in the Middle Ages, for ‘war and faction immediately restor’d ignorance’.[vi] It was not until the author’s own era of Enlightenment that politeness, refinement, scientific and cultural progress had resumed.

However, when serious historical research into ancient English poetry began, then such poetry began to be enjoyed for its own sake.

Antiquaries throughout the eighteenth century engaged in extensive textual analysis of Langland’s poem. The afore-mentioned Thomas Percy (1729–1811), in an essay on Langland’s poem, published in 1767, argued that Pierce Plowman, as he calls it, was the product of the poetry of the Gothic ‘race’: the influence of Anglo-Saxon poetry can be felt in the structure of Langland’s poem; in turn, as Robert Shiell’s argued slightly earlier, Langland’s poetry influenced that of John Milton. In this way, Percy and Shiell argue for an almost unbroken line of literary heritage from the ‘dark ages’ through to the late medieval period, and, of course, through Milton and Percy’s own Reliques, to the early modern era.[vii]

The noted Robin Hood scholar, Joseph Ritson (1752–1803), took over the reins of Langland scholarship.[viii] Ritson identified two different versions of Langland’s poem, and unlike other scholars before him, Ritson preferred to go back to manuscript sources rather than rely on printed sixteenth-century editions of the poem. Amazingly, Ritson’s opinion of Langland was lukewarm: in his Bibliographia Poetica (1802), he says that the poem is,

but a dull performance and scarcely merits the care of a modern impression [printing].[ix]

Eighteenth-century medievalist scholarship in general was concerned with rediscovering English literary heritage, and trying to show contemporary readers that England had a rich literary heritage just like that which predominated on the continent, even though Helen Young has recently argued in an essay for the Public Medievalist that Percy’s scholarship effectively was a work of white supremacis because it somehow “whitewashed” the Middle Ages.[x] Indeed, there is indication in either the work of Percy or Ritson that either of them assumed that their ‘race’ was superior to that of other cultures. Given the fact that Percy speaks of race in terms of linguistics, it is more likely he conceived of it in terms similar to that expressed in Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary (1755), more in terms of a ‘family’, i.e. the gothic ‘races’ spoke a different family of languages to the Latin-speaking family of people. Percy and Ritson were, in fact, conscious of the alleged inferiority of their native culture when compared to that of other cultures. This makes it difficult to believe that such scholarship ever laid the groundwork for a “white” vision of the middle ages, and by extension, laid the framework for white supremacists’ belief in racial purity.

Langland’s poem will always have a special place in the eyes of Robin Hood scholars, and indeed any medieval scholar. It is a survey of medieval life and manners which, to scholars in the eighteenth century who were just beginning to establish the discipline of medieval studies, it was invaluable.

[i] The full title in Latin is: Visio Willelmi de Petro Ploughman.

[ii] William Langland, ‘The Vision of Piers Plowman – B Text’, in The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman in Three Parallel Texts together with Richard the Redeless, ed. by Walter W. Skeat, rev. ed., 2 Vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924), 1: 166.

[iii] Joseph Addison, ‘An Account of the Greatest English Poets’, in The Works of the English Poets, ed. by Samuel Johnson, rev. ed., 56 Vols (London: A. Strahan, 1790), 30: 34.

[iv] Rosemary Mitchell, Picturing the Past: English History in Text and Image, 1830-1870 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 9.

[v] The Historical and Poetical Medley: or, Muses Library; Being a Choice and Faithful Collection of the Best Antient English Poetry, rev. ed. (London: T. Davies, 1738), p. xi.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Thomas Percy, ‘On the Metre of Pierce Plowman’s Visions’, in Four essays, as Improved and Enlarged in the Second Edition of the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, ed. by Thomas Percy (London: J. Dodsley, 1767), pp. 5-9.

[viii] The following information on Joseph Ritson’s contribution to Langland scholarship is taken from the following book: Lawrence Warner, The Myth of Piers Plowman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 2-21.

[ix] Ibid., p. 11.

[x] Helen Young, ‘Where Do the “White Middle Ages” Come From?’, The Public Medievalist, 21 March 2017, online edn., https://www.publicmedievalist.com/white-middle-ages-come/ [Accessed 11 December 2017].


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