Background ofLangland's Era
Introduction to WilliamLangland
Background of Langland's Era
In the medieval time of Europe, the Church played a significant role in the whole society. In fact, we can say that medieval European culture could not exist without the Church, the Christianity. Everyone's life then was totally involved with it. However, in the later period, the 14th century, the Church had become corrupt. We have seen this fact in Chaucer's?Canterbury Tales. And in this long narrative poem, Langland even criticized the Church more directly and sharply. But meanwhile, he still believed that practicing the doctrines of Christianity was the only way to get salvation.
Introduction to William Langland
William Langland was born around 1332, and died in 1400. And his birthplace is Ledbury that is around Malvern in which the opening of the poem is set. Langland was an illegitimate child, so even though his father was a landlord, he couldn't follow his father's last name, and couldn't inherit his father's property, either. So Langland grew poorly and also lived poorly in his lifetime. He had attended to school. But meanwhile, he had to do some farm work. while learning, then got to know that farming was a really hard job. So later he didn't choose to be a farmer but a priest, though he praised hard-working farmers/laborers were the best. It's quite contradictory. Besides the poverty, Langland had experienced the Hundred Years War and the rage of Black Death. Therefore, his rousing criticism seems to be acceptable. But one interesting thing is that Chaucer also lived in that time. In fact, they both died in the same year. However, we can easily find out that their lives and works are very different because of their different family and social background. And Langland satirized Chaucer sometimes in the poem. It will be talked more later.
The structure of Piers Plowman seems to be quite unclear, but actually the author had arranged it uniquely. There are 10 dreams in the poem. Dream 1 and 2 belong to part I, The Vision, dream 3-5 belong to part II, The Life of Do-Well, dream 6-8 belong to part III, The Life of Do-Better, and the last 2 dreams belong to part IV, The Life of Do-Best. Moreover, each dream includes different numbers of passuses, and the numbers are progressively decreasing. In this way, the length of the dreams becomes shorter and shorter, that speeds up the poem, and strengthens the dramatic effects. And now let me talk about the dramatic line of this poem. Part I sets the scene and theme of the whole poem. Part II and III are the rising action, and the passus 18 of part III is the climax of the poem. After this climax, the dramatic line is falling until the end.
Dream literature/ dream allegory Literally speaking, the writing style of Piers Plowman is called dream literature or dream allegory. This writing style was very popular in medieval age. Because people in that time believed that dream was one way by which God sent messages to human beings. (In Canterbury Tales, " The nun's priest's tale" is also this kind of writing style.) The word "allegory" was from Greek, "allegoria," which means "to speak otherwise" and "to speak figuratively."
St. Thomas Aquinas set this famous method to analyze religious allegories. The first level is the literal/historic meaning, that means the meaning of a story itself or the denotation of it. The second level is the allegorical meaning, which means those abstract concepts expressed by some concrete objects. Then it is the tropological meaning, which talks about the decision between right and wrong made by a human being as a free and responsible Christian. The last and deepest level of this method is about the anagogical meaning. That means the status and value of a human being in the cosmos.
Now let's use this method to analyze Piers Plowman. The literal/historic meaning of this poem is that a man named Longwill made 10 dreams. And there were all kinds of phenomenon in these dreams. The allegorical meaning of it is that those scenes stood for all kinds of mental values, both positively and negatively. As to the tropological meaning, Longwill "choose" to follow Piers Plowman to search for the truth of life. And the quest was divided to the life of do-well, the life of do-better and the life of do-best. Finally, the anagogical meaning of it is that Piers Plowman is just the model for all Christians. Because at first he worked very hard, and later he even became Christ-like. That's what Christians should try to achieve.