Cover image for Public Piers Plowman: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture By C. David Benson

Public Piers Plowman

Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture

C. David Benson


$72.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02315-1

$38.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02475-2

304 pages
6" × 9"
19 b&w illustrations

Public Piers Plowman

Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture

C. David Benson

“David Benson tackles the difficult and vital question of Piers Plowman's engagement with its history by getting down to the basics of the text, the circumstances of its production, and the real world from which it emerged. His historical re-envisioning of Piers is exactly what Langland's poem, at this stage in its career, needs. Public Piers Plowman is a major achievement.”


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Winner of a 2004 Choice Award for an Outstanding Academic Title

The fourteenth-century alliterative poem Piers Plowman was widely popular in its own day. The number of its surviving manuscripts ranks just below that of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Although the poem has been the subject of some interesting recent critical scholarship, it continues to be marginalized by medievalists and non-medievalists alike. According to C. David Benson, this is because the tendency of modern criticism has been to read Piers as an autobiography mired in the singular intellectual obsessions of its author or as a recondite exploration of theological and political issues. In Public Piers Plowman, Benson returns the poem to the center of late medieval English culture by treating it as a public rather than a personal or elite work. In the process, Benson makes this great poem more accessible, exciting, and necessary to modern readers.
“David Benson tackles the difficult and vital question of Piers Plowman's engagement with its history by getting down to the basics of the text, the circumstances of its production, and the real world from which it emerged. His historical re-envisioning of Piers is exactly what Langland's poem, at this stage in its career, needs. Public Piers Plowman is a major achievement.”
“As valuable in its learned accuracy as it is provocative in its efforts to critique pursuits of the poem as a spiritual or literary autobiography, Benson’s study selectively but successfully limns a ‘public’ culture where the phenomenon of Piers was at home.”
“Benson provides a thoroughly useful, timely, and provocative engagementment with Piers Plowman and its critical tradition.”
“This is a book one reads with gratitude, not only for its clarity of exposition and explication but for its facility in locating significance along the interfaces between Piers Plowman, the late-medieval culture from which it originated, and the long history of readers who have attempted to understand it.”
“C. David Benson’s Public Piers Plowman opens Langland’s great poem to new readings and broader understanding by placing it both generally and very specifically within many elements of the ‘public culture’ of late fourteenth-century England. Part Two of this book should continue to yield sustenance to lovers of this poem and its many meanings, most of them, no doubt, yet to be discovered.”

C. David Benson is Professor of English at the University of Connecticut. He has published widely on medieval literature.


List of Illustrations



Part I: Piers Plowman and Modern Scholarship

1. The History of the Langland Myth

2. Beyond the Myth of the Poem: Is There a Text in These Manuscripts?

3. Beyond the Myth of the Poet: Looking for Langland in All the Wrong Places

Part II: Piers Plowman and the Public Culture of Late Medieval England

4. Public Writing: Mandeville’s Travels and The Book of Margery Kempe

5. Public Art: Parish Wall Paintings

6. Public Life: London Civic Practices




I have long been convinced that Piers Plowman is the least-read great poem in our language. Many students of literature know little more than its title, and even some Middle English specialists ignore the work. It was not always so. Piers Plowman was widely popular with its original audience in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: it may well have been the first poem in Middle English to achieve a national readership, and the number of its surviving manuscripts ranks just below those of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The modern neglect of this rich and demanding work is a serious loss, for there is nothing quite like Piers Plowman. Although it emerged from the fourteenth-century revival of alliterative poetry in England, it was never confined to that tradition, nor do later imitations begin to match its achievement. One need only compare Piers to Winner and Waster, perhaps its closest alliterative analogue and possibly a direct influence, to be struck by the differences in length, variety, and ambition. Likewise, the poems that follow Piers in the fifteenth century as part of the so-called Piers Plowman tradition—such as Mum and the Sothsegger or "London Lyckpeny"—are narrower in the issues they address, less accomplished in style, and more explicit in their didacticism.

Useful comparisons can (and have) been made between Piers Plowman and other Ricardian poetic masterpieces, but the contrasts are just as striking. Piers lacks the fundamental commitment to narrative and clear, sophisticated literary structures that distinguish the works of Chaucer, Gower, and the Gawain-author. Piers is always interrupting itself and offering readers something completely different: the bursting of the emperor Trajan into the story, for instance, with his cry, "Ye, baw for bokes!" (B 11.140; C 12.76) or the layering of dreams within dreams. With a plowman as its hero and ordinary life as its frequent subject, the poem offers social perspectives rarely found in the works of its more courtly contemporaries. The uniqueness of Piers also extends to its reception: in addition to reaching a broad early readership, it seems to have supplied slogans for the Rising of 1381 (how many other English poems have been put to such dramatic political use?); then, after being ignored by the early printers, it was first published in 1551 by Robert Crowley to support the Protestant cause.

For many modern readers, Piers Plowman has become a difficult, ungainly work, hard to understand and harder to enjoy. Extracting selections that are capable of standing alone for classroom use (so simple for the Canterbury Tales) is almost impossible with Piers. At the same time, the poem is so intricate and dense that reading it straight through as if it were a novel tends to produce confusion and dizziness. Two popular modern critical strategies (often combined) for making sense out of this formidable poem are to read it as a personal or as a privileged work. The personal approach sees Piers as a vehicle through which the poet speaks about his own experiences and spiritual struggles. The poem is taken to be fundamentally autobiographical and to promote, more or less directly, its author’s individual religious and political views. A related, more recent, and more learned approach treats the poem as the erudite work of an unconventional intellectual, who was perhaps writing for a limited coterie: the poem is taken to be an expression of elite thought that draws on material found in canon and civil law, biblical commentary, anticlerical satire, monastic psychology, apocalypticism, and the scholastic moderni. Both approaches—the personal or individual and the privileged or learned—have produced valuable studies of Piers, but they tend to overlook those elements of the poem that do not accord with the author’s supposed life or abstruse learning. This study is intended as a corrective: it goes beyond both the personal and the privileged to explore the poem’s engagement with the common culture of late medieval England. It emphasizes the public in Piers Plowman.

<1> The Langland Myth

Public Piers Plowman is divided into two parts, each containing three chapters. The first part prepares and explains the need for the second by demonstrating the limitations of treating Piers as a record of an individual poet’s life and views. The second part then offers an alternate way of interpreting Piers that is not restricted to the personal and elite by approaching the poem through three different aspects of the public culture of late medieval England: writing, art, and urban life.

I begin this study by charting the lasting influence of one of the major achievements of nineteenth-century Middle English scholarship: the coherence that the great Victorian editor W. W. Skeat brought to the centuries-old confusion about the authorship and text of Piers Plowman by constructing what I call the "Langland myth." Skeat’s formulation has two related components, each of which supports the other: the myth of the poet (a biography Skeat assembled from various scraps in the poem) explains and is explained by the myth of the poem (three versions written in a specific chronological order). Today, well over a century after its creation, Skeat’s Langland myth still dominates Piers scholarship.

My use of the word myth to describe what Skeat formulated, and so many Langlandians have believed, is intended to be provocative and not merely dismissive. I might have spoken of the "Langland hypothesis" or "Langland theory," but such quasi-scientific language would have implied that its claims could be convincingly proved or were able to be falsified, which they cannot be (or, at least, have not been). I believe that myth is the better term for what I mean, though it is a difficult concept that has been used in various ways by modern thinkers (see R. Williams, Keywords, 210–12). I do not use the word in either its familiar negative meaning of something that is false or deliberately deceptive (a mere fable), nor in its grand psychological and structural meaning of universally valid principles of thought. Rather, myth in this study refers to a narrative that explains what is unknown and perhaps unknowable. Myths are "useful explanations of inexplicable mystery," as Patrice Higonnet, in discussing myths about the city of Paris, paraphrases Hans Blumenberg (Paris, 2). Like literature, myth constructs "persons, scenes, even worlds which arouse responses uncircumscribable by rational knowledge or empirical description" (Brogan, New Princeton Handbook, 200). Myths often deal with origins (of a city, a people, or the gods) that are lost in time: thus the story of Romulus and Remus is one myth of the founding of Rome, and Aeneas’s escape from Troy another. Myth may have some basis in historical fact (as the myth of Arthur is often thought to have) even though solid proof is lacking. Myths must ultimately be taken on trust. Indeed, they are often associated with religion (a common anthropological description of them is "sacred tales"), and although the Langland myth is a purely secular narrative, we shall see that its adherents often accept and refer to it as a matter of faith. The core assertions of the Langland myth (such as the order of composition of Piers or its status as autobiography) conform to Roland Barthes’s influential view that the authority of modern myths comes from making highly charged claims as if they were simple facts that needed no explanation. They are regarded, he notes, as that which is obvious and goes without saying (Mythologies, 109–59, esp. 143): "[M]ythical beliefs transform complex cultural processes into apparently natural, unchangeable and self-evident ones" (Edgar and Sedgwick, Key Concepts, 250). I revere Skeat and his work, as I hope the following chapters make clear, and admire the originality of his Langland myth, whose explanatory power is proved by the value it has had in Piers scholarship for more than a century. But it is precisely because Skeat’s influential myth, as we shall see, was presented by him as natural and obvious (and accepted as such by so many) that its history deserves to be examined and its limitations explored.

In my first chapter I trace the evolution of the Langland myth by looking at four crucial stages in its development: (a) the initial creation of the myth by Skeat in the late nineteenth century and its immediate acceptance; (b) the attack on the myth of the poet at the beginning of the twentieth century by John Manly, who argued for multiple authorship of the poem, and the defense of the myth, especially by J. J. Jusserand and R. W. Chambers; (c) the adoption of the myth in the innovative Athlone edition of Piers Plowman, even though its own editors, especially E. T. Donaldson, had recognized some of the myth’s weaknesses; (d) the persistence of the traditional myth today, even in writing by some of the best and most original scholars of Piers, including Anne Middleton and Ralph Hanna III.

In my second and third chapters I examine the limitations of the myth of the poem and the myth of the poet, respectively, and suggest ways of going beyond each to new understandings of both the texts of Piers and its authorship. In Chapter 2, "Beyond the Myth of the Poem," I argue that Piers ought to be understood as a social text. The different forms of Piers need not be only the product of the author’s compulsive personal spiritual or aesthetic struggles but may also have been shaped (either by the poet himself or by others) to address specific audiences. I demonstrate the diverse reception of individual manuscripts of Piers and its life in the late Middle Ages as a public, interactive text. In Chapter 3, "Beyond the Myth of the Poet," I explore the difficulties of locating the poet and his opinions in the poem. If we do not automatically assume that the poem is autobiographical, we can respond to its many discourses without trying to interpret them as the direct, personal expression of the author. Deeply engaged as it undoubtedly is with social and religious questions, Piers Plowman nevertheless offers no coherent message, or, more accurately, it offers too many messages. The figure of the poet is fragmented into different characters and voices throughout the work, the meaning and value of which challenge its readers.

<1> Piers Plowman and the Public Culture of Late Medieval England

Like other myths, the Langland myth depends on the faith of its supporters. I do not insist that we have to be atheists about the myth of the poet or the myth of the poem, but I do suggest that critics consider a tolerant agnosticism or perhaps polytheism. The most serious objection to the Langland myth is not that it is necessarily untrue, but that it is reductive. It offers a narrative of poet and poem that obstructs other interpretive approaches to this most provocative of Middle English works. In Part 2 of Public Piers Plowman, I offer an alternative to personal and elite interpretations by reading the poem in the context of the general culture of late medieval England.

Before I settled on public as my title, I considered other related adjectives. The most obvious alternative was popular, but I rejected it, not only because the word can mean so many different things (as can public), but, primarily, because it suggests too strict a separation between high and low culture. The same binary restrictiveness caused me to reject lay and vernacular. Although I certainly deal with popular, lay, and vernacular elements in Piers, I do not thereby exclude the recondite, clerical, and Latinate. Public culture comprehends both. Thus public is used here as a broad and nontechnical term, similar in significance to common and general. Piers Plowman is a public work, for all its individual artistry, especially in its interests and its audience. It directly addresses diverse contemporary readers (lords one minute, clerics the next, then ordinary married folk), while drawing on a range of widely accessible discourses: commercial, political, literary, and religious. The second part of this study thus explores ways that the poem drew on, transformed, but always remained connected to the public culture of its time.

The writings of two scholars, Anne Middleton and Jürgen Habermas, have been especially helpful to me in thinking about the public in relation to Piers Plowman, though in each case I have modified their ideas for my own purposes. Any discussion of public poetry in late medieval England must start with Middleton’s influential 1978 Speculum article, "The Idea of Public Poetry in the Reign of Richard II." Middleton argues that writers such as Langland and Gower produced a new kind of writing that speaks with "’a common voice’ to serve the ‘common good’" (95). Neither satiric nor directly addressing contemporary abuses, and certainly not courtly, this general voice is pious, but "assigns a new importance to secular life, the civic virtues, and communal service" (95). I adapt Middleton’s pioneering work to support a concept of the public that is even more inclusive and dialogic: Piers constructs public discourses and spaces that permit a variety of competing voices rather than a single authorial voice speaking on behalf of others. Middleton defines her idea of public poetry by a series of oppositions: "‘lay’ (as opposed to clerical), ‘popular’ (as opposed to learned), ‘vernacular’ (as opposed to Latin)" (100). But I insist on the blurring and overlapping of such categories: the public spaces discussed in this part of my study are lay as well as clerical, popular as well as learned, vernacular as well as Latin—and, also, poor as well as rich, female as well as male.

Jürgen Habermas, whose book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere also lies behind my title, has been useful to my thinking about the public in Piers Plowman, but, as with Middleton, I have used his ideas for my own purposes. Habermas’s major interest is the emergence of a "bourgeois public sphere" in the early modern period and its transformation in the contemporary world. Supported by forces such as markets and reading, forums emerged in the modern Western world, according to Habermas, "in which the private people, come together to form a public, readied themselves to compel public authority to legitimate itself before public opinion" (25–26). In its most idealistic form, according to one commentator on Habermas, the public sphere fosters "a rational-critical debate about public issues conducted by private persons willing to let arguments and not statuses determine decisions" (Calhoun, Habermas and the Public Sphere, 1). Habermas believes that there were no genuine public spheres in his sense during the Middle Ages; instead, he says, medieval publicness (or publicity as it is also translated) was confined solely to rulers who presented themselves before the people as the embodiment of a higher power. They made that which was invisible visible through the display of their persons by means of personal attributes such as badges, dress, demeanor, and rhetoric (Structural Transformation, 8), as Theseus does so effectively in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale.

Habermas’s focus differs from mine. His concern is with political life rather than literature or general culture, and his notion of a bourgeois public sphere, in which adversarial ideas could be debated on their merits without regard to status, does not fit the inescapably hierarchical Middle Ages. Nevertheless, Habermas’s concepts, while not directly applicable to my study, have helped me to recognize that late medieval England did have spaces, both real and metaphorical, that deserve to be called public, even if they do not completely fulfill the requirements of Habermas’s "public sphere." Status, gender, and power were never wholly forgotten in the Middle Ages (nor, despite Habermas, at any other time in human history), but there were places in late medieval England where groups of differing individuals could gather and interact. The public spaces I discuss are not only physical locations, such as the local church or city streets, but also discourses, including writing and art, that were available to the many and not just to the few.

The idea of public culture in late medieval England counteracts the tendency of some scholars to explain the period in terms of rigid dichotomies. The most prominent example of this in Middle English literary criticism during the preceding generation was undoubtedly the work of D. W. Robertson, Jr., and his followers, whose totalizing Christian irony insisted that there was little historical change or ideological struggle from Augustine to Chaucer and who read even the richest medieval literature as dramatizing the clear opposition of good and evil, charity and cupidity (see especially Robertson’s Preface to Chaucer). A different binary model for late medieval England, from the left rather than from the right, has recently been offered by David Aers in the opening chapters of the book he co-wrote with Lynn Staley, The Powers of the Holy. In Aers’s account the "dominant" model of Christ’s humanity in late medieval England, which stressed "the tortured, bleeding body on the Cross" (37), has had the effect of occluding, in medieval orthodoxy and modern scholarship alike, both dissenters then, like the Lollards (and Langland), as well as now, like Liberation Theologists (and Aers), who imagine a more humane, social, and reforming Jesus. Instead of Robertson’s view of the Middle Ages as always valuing charity over cupidity, Aers’s more political analysis imagines a small band of reformers standing against the hegemony of medieval ecclesiastical power. Both scholars present stark contrasts—love versus sin or resistance versus power (and thus right versus wrong).

Yet late medieval England also had public spaces, in art and in life, where different groups and ideas met and interacted. These places may lack the reassuring clarity of binary opposition: rather than a middle ground they may seem something of a muddle. But the messy middle is where much cultural work gets done, then as now. Understanding medieval public spaces as imprecise and shifting, as ambiguous rather than definite, may prevent any nostalgic idealization of them from whatever ideological position. The public areas I shall discuss are certainly not lost worlds of peace and harmony, not a preindustrial dream of organic community, but neither are they primarily sources of militant opposition and resistance. The real and metaphorical spaces I shall explore (vernacular writing, parish art, and civic practices) are sites of contestation, negotiation, and cooperation—in short, ordinary public life.

I begin the second part of my study by reading Piers Plowman along with two vernacular prose works, Mandeville’s Travels and the Book of Margery Kempe. Although not previously discussed much with Piers, both works, like the poem, use the materials of high medieval culture (often originally in Latin) to address a wider readership. The Travels and Kempe’s Book provide a variety of insights about Piers that range from its textual multiplicity to its unstable narrative "I." The attempt of these two different kinds of works (a travel book and spiritual testament) to refigure Christianity as a more open faith (respecting even non-Catholics and finding the sacred in ordinary life) further demonstrates that the daring reformist religious ideas of Piers were not extreme, eccentric, or merely academic, but were shared by familiar examples of contemporary public writing.

Chapter 5, "Public Art: Parish Wall Painting," moves from writing to an even more public discourse, the art that once covered the walls of parish churches. Murals, though often overlooked by literary and cultural historians, were the most common and accessible visual images in the period when our poem was first written and read, available to all regardless of class, sex, or education. Parish wall painting offers many analogues, in both matter and style, to Piers Plowman. The murals of the church nave, for example, express a "lay theology" similar to that found in the poem, just as both emphasize the centrality of doing well in the world. Readers accustomed to the jumble of mural subjects on parish walls would not have been disoriented by the narrative and structural discordances in Piers that so often bewilder modern interpreters.

In the final chapter, I turn from written and visual art to public life: the civic practices of late medieval London. I concentrate on a single area of the city, the ward of Cornhill (mentioned once by the narrative "I" in one version of the poem as his dwelling place), not for autobiographical information about the poet, but for what Cornhill can show us about a range of urban activities that are central to the poem (especially those associated with guilds, markets, and the pillory). For instance, even though market frauds are strongly denounced in the poem, the everyday life of London (even the explicitly commercial) is also used to point to the divine. A dramatic example can be seen in the judicial spectacle of the pillory, whose exposure and punishment of crime at first suggests the thirst for social justice in the poem. Yet Piers is much more than a poem of strict equity and punishment: behind its pillory stands the Cross with its hope of a public and saving fellowship, more inclusive than any London parish guild, that unities all humans with Christ.

Although I question the effects of Skeat’s Langland myth, in this study I follow the great editor in believing that Piers Plowman is anything but a marginal or eccentric work. In treating Piers as public, I not only stress the role of others besides the poet (now as then) in its production and reception, but also show the relationship of the poem to various discourses and practices of its time and place. This is not to say that Piers merely reflects its cultural environment; it transforms what it finds in the public world of late medieval England into one of the most demanding poems of the fourteenth or any other century. It is finally as a work of literature that Piers Plowman demands our attention and rewards being read with all the care and subtlety we can bring to it. My hope is that Public Piers Plowman will contribute to making this great poem more accessible, exciting, and necessary to modern readers.

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