Thursday 20 November 2014

Piers Plowman and the Black Death by Ann Swinfen

I’ve recently been given the beautiful Folio Society edition of William Langland’s Piers Plowman, which has set me thinking again about the poem and its context. 
I’ve been intrigued by Piers Plowman – rather oddly – since an early age. When I was nine, I attended a P.N.E.U. school, where the history books we used were the Piers Plowman series, which featured the same image on the front cover as does the Folio edition.

At that age I was just developing my passion for history, reading historical novels, visiting Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon, and for the first time experiencing that shiver along the spine that comes when we feel suddenly directly in touch with the past.

It was a very good school history series, although there was not a great deal about Piers Plowman in those particular volumes, apart from a few quotations, as the period we were studying covered the Neolithic through to the Romans, but my fiction reading at the time took me into the mediaeval period. Proper study of Piers Plowman only came later, in student days and, ultimately, in lecturing on the poem to university students.

An aspect of the work which I sometimes feel is not emphasised enough is the context of the contemporary English society in which it was written – the horrific aftermath of the Black Death, or the Great Pestilence, as it was known at the time. Piers Plowman is a fascinating work, as much for the vivid picture it presents of fourteenth-century English life as for its passionate – and often angry – moral message.

Written by William Langland soon after half the population of England had been wiped out by the Black Death in around seven months, the narrative poem takes a long hard look at what is wrong with society. It is in the form of an allegorical dream vision, set initially in the Malvern Hills. The dream vision was a literary genre quite common at the time (Chaucer, amongst others, also used it), and although this structure is no longer familiar, the social satire and the quest for a decent life are literary genres familiar to everyone since the Greek and Roman period down to the present day. One of the joys of Piers Plowman is its robust and detailed portrayal of contemporary life, and some of its unexpected twists. One of my favourites is the wicked Rose the Regrater. Rose is a retailer, that is, she buys wholesale, then resells at a profit. In the fourteenth century this was considered a crime and a sin. Heavens! What would happen to the world economy now if we still held the same view?

Shipton-under-Wychwood Church

William Langland is believed to have come from Shipton-under-Wychwood in Oxfordshire, a village I knew well in my student days. Don’t you love that village name? I believe ‘ton’ derives from ‘toun’, a large working farmstead, so Shipton was probably a large sheep-rearing farm or cluster of farms at the edge of Wychwood. And I think we can guess the derivation of the latter!

At the time William was writing, those who had survived the Black Death of 1348-9,  were having to come to terms with a violently changed world. He was probably a child or very young man at the time of the pandemic and would have had vivid memories of it. The population was now thin on the ground. Whole villages were inhabited by nothing but ghosts. Towns were full of empty, decaying houses. Plague pits, where the dead had been tumbled hastily into mass graves, still scarred the outskirts of every town and village. Suddenly there was no longer the peasant labour force to cultivate the fields, so that much of the agricultural land must have reverted to a wasteland of scrub, thistles and bracken. Flocks of sheep must have become feral. Landowners could no longer depend on their bonded labourers to work their lands and tend their flocks and herds, nor on their tenants (now mostly dead) to pay their rents. Moreover, the plague returned three more times before the end of the century, killing even more of the population. In 1361-2 alone, another ten percent of the population died.

Those labourers who survived discovered that they could demand higher wages. They could leave their masters and seek better conditions elsewhere, or move to a town and take up life as a free craftsman. It led to a huge social upheaval and an unprecedented movement of population.

Above all, those who had experienced the plague must have thought the end of the world had come. The afflicted often died alone and unshriven. Social order broke down. With family, friends and neighbours dying all around them, it would have seemed to a devout fourteenth-century population that God was determined to destroy mankind. There was no cure for the plague. It struck at random – wicked and worthy alike. Imagine how terrifying it must have been.

So it’s not surprising that a work like Piers Plowman should have been written a couple of decades after the first visitation of the plague, examining what was wrong with society. (Why, after all, had God chosen to inflict this terrible punishment?) And searching for a path to a good Christian life. (So the punishment would not return to destroy the survivors.)

The pope and the Church he headed had also begun to fall into disrepute from the time of the removal of the papal court to Avignon in 1309. Now some began to question whether God’s displeasure lay with corruption in the Church. The papal schism of 1378 damaged the reputation of the Church even further.

Although the narrative standpoint in Piers Plowman is nominally mediaeval Catholicism, there are the seeds here of the new, questioning movements which would lead eventually to Protestantism. John Ball, one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt, appropriated the name ‘Piers Plowman’ in his writings. Piers, of course, represents the ‘common man’, Everyman, one of those peasants whose status in society was profoundly changed by the devastation of the Black Death. 
John Ball encouraging the peasants
The first plague years in England were 1348-9, the following outbreaks occurring in 1361-2, 1369, and 1374-5. Piers Plowman was written somewhere around 1370 or a little later. The year 1378 saw the papal schism. The Peasants’ Revolt took place in 1381. 
Richard II meeting the peasants

The Lollard movement for the reform of the Church originated in the middle of the same century, in the same circumstances of plague, and its most famous leader, the theologian John Wycliffe, was driven out of Oxford for his ‘heretical’ views in 1381. His translation of the Bible into the vernacular (1382) circulated amongst reformers until the Reformation, despite being banned, and it influenced the Authorised Version produced in the reign of James I, as well as the later translation by Tyndale. The whole second half of the fourteenth century was a crucible of radically new ideas that would have been unthinkable just fifty years before.

John Wycliffe

So, although there is certainly no evidence that William Langland was a Lollard, his writings reflect the major upheavals in social and religious thinking of the late fourteenth century. Although we tend to associate the beginning of the modern world with the coming of the Tudors, its earliest roots lie in the extraordinary events and new ideas which arose during the late fourteenth century, more than a hundred years earlier. They are articulated above all in Piers Plowman, a new kind of literary voice for a new era.


Karen Maitland said...

Really interesting post. It is hard to understand just how radical some of these ideas were when we look back from the modern perspective. It really was a watershed century.

Ann Swinfen said...

Absolutely right, Karen. So much courage they showed, too. It's almost unbelievable that people weren't totally crushed after the experience of the Black Death. It's a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit.

Sue Purkiss said...

Sally Nicholl's novel, All Fall Down, is very good on the plague and its aftermath.

Celia Rees said...

Interesting to consider the Black Death in light of Ebola in Africa now.

Ann Swinfen said...

Just hope the toll from Ebola isn't as high.

M Louise Kelly said...

Fascinating. Have been thinking about this a lot recently for my own writing. The shake up of the social order is almost impossible to comprehend but as Celia mentions, the current Ebola crisis is an awful reminder of some of the realities of events like this. It's horrific to watch the current crisis and see the psychological impact that the fear has on people let alone the impact of the infection itself but it does help make sense of the reactions of those long gone people.

I'm brewing ideas for something set just post-plague years too, so this is fantastic food for thought! Thanks for a great post.

Leslie Wilson said...

Very interesting. I also have been thinking about the Black Death in the context of Ebola, but also it was excellent just to reprise it, and learn about the connections to those movements and the genesis of Protestantism.