Langland's Piers Plowman greatly influenced The Canterbury Tales
Although the themes and preoccupations of The Canterbury Tales1 and Piers Plowman2 are entirely different, both poets seem to have a shared interest in individual human characteristics and variety - Langland's Piers Plowman greatly influenced The Canterbury Tales introduction. The way in which they express these common interests is dissimilar, yet there are certainly comparisons which lead many to believe that Langland influenced Chaucer. As a slightly younger contemporary of Langland, it is entirely possible that Chaucer would have had access to The Vision of Piers Plowman.
The B-text of Piers Plowman is generally dated in the mid-1370’s, with The Canterbury Tales commonly held to have been written between 1388 and 1400. It is likely that Langland also lived in the same area as Chaucer for a while: ‘And so y leve yn London and opelond bothe’ (C-text, V. 44). Even if we can assume that Chaucer had read Langland’s work, it is unclear to what extent it would have influenced him as there are no references to him in any works attributed to Chaucer.
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The greatest similarity between the two poems is the estates material which they employ. The feudal system promoted a marked separation of the classes in society and emphasised the need for each class or ‘estate’ to contentedly fulfil their given role, whether that be as a king, preacher or labourer, to the best of their ability and for the benefit of the state as a whole. There was little emphasis on the notion of individuality, and social manoeuvre was frowned upon.
Maurice Keen provides us with a succinct description of a society; omposed of three orders, functionally defined in their relation to one another: the clergy whose business was with prayer and spiritual well-being; the warriors who defended the land and people with their arms; and the labourers whose toil supported the other two ‘orders’ or ‘estates’. 3 The characters found in Langland’s ‘fair feeld ful of folk’ are ‘alle manere of men, the meene and the riche,/ Werchynge and wandrynge as the world asketh’ (Prol. 17-19). He shows people of various classes engaged in their characteristic activities.
Although Piers Plowman does not fall neatly into the category of medieval estates literature, as it is primarily concerned with the link between good works and heaven, it certainly contains relevant material. The Canterbury Tales presents us with ‘a compaignye/ Of sundry folk’ (I. A. 24-5) which includes much the same spectrum of people as we see in Piers Plowman. Chaucer makes known in the Prologue to the tales that he will be showing us ‘th’estaat’ and ‘th’array’ of his pilgrims, which, along with the portraits of the characters (satiric representations of people of varying classes), immediately establishes the form of estates satire.
It is clear that the two works have common elements, but it is much harder to establish whether there is textual evidence to suggest that one was influenced by the other. There was a wealth of other literature at the time including estates material, which leads us to believe that people were constantly questioning and reaffirming their positions in society. Paul Olson has noted that this was ‘a period of extraordinarily intense debate about what constituted a good society’. 4 Much of the estates literature was written with this debate as the central theme.
It was recognised that the interaction between classes was necessary to maintain a good society, but that individuals often failed to fulfil the strict expectations of their estate. Chaucer and Langland both exemplify certain characters and show them as perfect models of appropriate behaviour, most obviously the knight, the parson, the ploughman and the clerk. Unlike some other authors they show exemplary figures in each estate, rather than just the clergy and nobility. The chivalric knight is a common figure in medieval literature.
Langland uses the knight to emphasise the importance of correct social interaction. When the knight recognises Piers’ spiritual leadership he offers his services in ploughing the field. Piers replies that he will ‘swynke and swete and sowe for us bothe’ (VI. 25). The knight realises that ploughing is not his social calling and promises ‘to fulfille this forward, though I fight sholde; / Als longe as I lyve I shal thee mayntene’ (VI. 35-6). This exchange is an example of Langland’s interest in the relationships between the estates, and the benefits of those interactions to each person in society.
Langland does not address the emerging trend for courtly ideals to be embodied by knights, which is found in Chaucer, Gower and the Gawain poet. Chaucer’s knight is described more fully than the one which appears in Piers Plowman, which suggests that Chaucer places more importance on the individual than society at large. He is a ‘verray, parfit gentil knyght’ (I (A) 72), who was ‘honoured for his worthynesse’ (I (A) 50). These are values which all knights aspired to have and as such he seems to be an exemplar.
He is seen as a religious man as he joins the pilgrimage and fights in religious campaigns. His tale claims to be an observance of chivalric values, however, it can be read as a meditation on those values. The images of the inessentials and excesses of the chivalric lifestyle are contradictory with the representation of the Knight in the General Prologue, who is a man of ‘trouthe and honour, freedom and curteisye’ (I (A) 46), and may be a corrective to his depiction of the glorified knight of his tale.
It is likely that the original source for the tale is Boccaccio’s Teseida, an epic narrative, but Chaucer’s conflicting presentations of the Knight suggest a fai??ade of chivalry rather than noble qualities. It is clear that Langland was not the main influence for Chaucer’s Knight, although the inclusion of him in the group of pilgrims may have been based on Langland’s depiction of the knight within the realm (‘feeld’) of the third estate, willing to work with the others at menial tasks for the good of the whole community.
We may find evidence of Langland’s influence, however, in the portrayal of a ploughman. It is interesting that both writers should specifically choose a ploughman rather than a peasant or a labourer. The plough was an important religious symbol5 and ploughing obviously figured highly in feudal society, but there is little indication that other authors placed any special importance on the ploughman (although Gower classed him separately to the other peasants in his Vox Clamantis). During the labour shortage following the plague some labourers demanded higher wages for their work.
This invited criticism such as Gower’s rebuke of the laziness of ‘servants of the plow’6. In both Langland and Chaucer he is a level-headed and hard working character. Chaucer’s portrait of him reveals that ‘a trewe swynkere and a good was he, / Lyvynge in pees and parfit charitee’ (I (A) 531-2). Langland notes the enthusiasm for work when Piers says, ‘I dyke and I delve, I do that he hoteth’ (V. 545). Piers Plowman is, however, an atypical peasant who confirms himself as a spiritual leader, which is in total contrast to Chaucer’s Plowman who does not even tell his own tale.
Where Chaucer’s Plowman fulfils his peasant role by remaining silent as appropriate for the third estate (unlike the Miller or Wife of Bath, for example), Langland creates the authoritative Piers who becomes a spiritual leader for the oppressed poor. Here, the two poets seem to be employing different techniques to criticise lazy peasants. They set up the ploughman as an example of how labourers should behave. The temporal and heavenly rewards for good work are set out by Langland. Rather than criticising the labourers, they both seem to be setting an example for the oppressed masses.
It is not just the exemplary characters which link the estates satire of Chaucer and Langland. Anti-friar comment was very fashionable in the later middle ages. Religion was a very powerful establishment and was involved in every aspect of people’s lives. The church claimed to be the only route to salvation, and as this was an incredibly important factor in fourteenth century thought. People were becoming increasingly suspicious of the clergy’s ability to absolve sins for a small fee. This is evident in Piers Plowman from the comment, ‘Go, confesse thee to som frere and shewe hym thi synnes.
For whiles Fortune is thi frend freres wol thee lovye’ (XI. 54-5). The friars were the most despised of the clergy and the image of greedy friars was becoming more popular. In the Prologue, Langland complains that friars, ‘Prechynge the peple for profit of the wombe: / Glosed the gospel as hem good liked’ (Prol. 59-60) which shows the general dissatisfaction of the exclusive nature of the bible, and the layman’s inability to read it for himself. 7 This ‘glose’ was used by the clergy to explain biblical ideas to the laymen, but it seems the information was often selective and could be used as a means of social control.
This idea is again expressed by Chaucer through the friar in The Summoner’s Tale, who uses the bible to put himself in a position of authority. He is clearly being condescending when he says, ‘For it is hard to you as I suppose, / And therefore wol I teche you al the glose’ (III (D) 1791-2). It is obvious that the clergy were responsible for people’s understanding of the bible and it seems that it was possible for them to use this to their financial advantage. The portrayal of women is a contentious issue in these two works.
The women are seen in roles which are representative of their estates (which were defined in terms of the class of their husband). Piers, when setting out tasks for everyone, sets the women to sewing and spinning wool (VI. 9-16). We are again presented with the idea of right behaviour within one’s estate. Chaucer provides us with a wider selection, and fuller description, of women than Langland, but they seem to be unreal stereotypes placed amongst the pilgrims as representatives of the estate of women.
The women are employed in the same way as the men in the tales; we are faced with the ideal figures, such as the overtly virtuous wife Griselde, and those who fulfil all the negative stereotypes of their estate, like the bawdy and outspoken Wife of Bath. These represent the religious woman and the secular woman. It has been noted that it would be unlikely to find any women involved in a pilgrimage, which emphasises the case for both poems being preoccupied with estates rather than just the portrayal of random figures to tell their stories.
The anti-friar and anti-feminist material, however, does not really link these two pieces of writing as they were very popular themes in most contemporary writing and the poets themselves were likely to have encountered these types of characters. Neither Chaucer nor Langland offers any solution to the problems of dishonest friars or promiscuous women. Other than the characters which are common to both Chaucer and Langland (which generally appear to have been stock social or literary figures of the time), their concern for outward appearance is clear through their physical descriptions of characters.
In the Prologue to Piers Plowman we are told that, Somme putten hem to pride, apparailed hem therafter, In contenaunce of clothynge comen disguised. In preieres and penaunce putten hem manye, Al for love of Oure Lord lyveden ful streyte In hope to have hevenriche blisse. (Prol. 23-7). Langland is here describing how the outward appearance of people is not necessarily a true indication of their personal attributes. The use of the word ‘disguised’ shows his recognition that in such a strictly ordered society it would be possible to hide one’s true identity behind the clothing appropriate to another estate or occupation.
Chaucer approaches the topic with a satirical use of physiognomy. His portraits of figures such as the Miller arouse our suspicions about the character of the man we encounter. Upon the cop right of his nose he hade A werte, and theron stood a toft of herys, Reed as the brustles of a sowis erys; His nosethirles blake were and wyde. (I (A) 554-7). Red hair and large nostrils are a sign of anger, folly and lechery. His mouth is described as being as ‘greet was as a greet forneys’ (I (A) 559), which suggests gluttony and heralds the telling of his sordid tale.
The Miller provides an interesting comparison between the two poems. He is described by Langland as a lowly entertainer, like a minstrel (X. 43-4), and by Chaucer as a ‘janglere and a goliardeys’ (I (A) 560). The portrayal of the Miller as a gossip and a buffoon may be linked to the association between mills and loose tongues, but it does not seem to be a popular depiction in literature. Through his inability to be quiet the Miller exemplifies the pilgrims’ failings in terms of their social decorum.
Chaucer backs up the estate representatives by composing their tales in accordance, or as a direct contrast to their class in society. The Knight is given a chivalric romance with which to explore the vices and virtues of his estate, the Parson’s Tale is slow and measured and written in prose, re-evaluating the qualities of the clergy, and the Clerk portrays simplicity of speech appropriate to his level of learning. This use of estates material is not explored by Langland, with his constant use of the language of clerical reform.
The order or hierarchy of the estates is not as we might expect in works from this period. The strict social hierarchy is broken down, with each poet choosing to place the pilgrims in accordance to the story. Chaucer states in the General Prologue that his intention is, To telle yow al the condicioun Of ech of hem, so as it semed me, And whiche they weren, and of what degree, And eek in what array that they were inne. (I (A) 38-41). At the end he apologises for not having put the pilgrims in the correct order. A ‘good’ man and a ‘good’ representative of an estate are two different things.
This internal conflict is explored in Piers Plowman and The Canterbury Tales. It is impossible for the poets to order the group in both social and moral terms as not everyone is an exemplary citizen. Even though the characters are presumably fictitious, this problem would have been real for many people in this society. Piers turns the traditional estates model on its head when he starts preaching to the pilgrims and is recognised as their spiritual leader. In the Prologue (112-20), people are introduced in class order but gradually that order is transformed.
It is possible to conclude that Langland may have influenced Chaucer’s decision to portray society in a less hierarchical way than many other estates commentators. This is backed up by the structure of pilgrimage used by Chaucer and Langland. The pilgrimage of The Canterbury Tales allows us to judge each character in turn, through the portraits and through their choice of tales. Langland’s canny description of pilgrims in his Prologue puts the moral virtues of pilgrimage into question: Pilgrymes and palmeres plighten hem togidere To seken Seint Jame and seintes in Rome: Wenten forth in hire wey with many wise tales,
And hadden leve to lyen al hire lif after. (46-9). Chaucer, however, bases The Canterbury Tales on the model of pilgrimage and is prepared for the consequences of letting an assorted band of pilgrims tell the tale. Jill Mann, in her book on medieval estates satire, suggests that Chaucer ‘shows us a world in which our view of hierarchy depends on our own position in the world, not an absolute standpoint. ‘9 This seems to be true, as Chaucer does not offer us a direct moral judgement of any of his characters, unlike Langland, who criticises them for unsuitable and uncharitable behaviour.
Piers and Chaucer’s Parson both offer spiritual pilgrimage; Piers even likens himself to a priest when he claims to know the way to St. Truthe, ‘as kyndely as clerc doth hise bokes’ (V. 538). Mann has suggested that no other contemporary works contain an example of the actual journey of a pilgrimage being as fulfilling as the arrival. This does not seem to true as there is a prime example of this employment of a group of travellers telling their tales in The Decameron. These tales, like The Canterbury Tales are the focus of the writing.
It is fairly certain that Chaucer knew Boccaccio’s work, from his influence on The Knight’s Tale and the story of Griselde. Although Piers Plowman and The Canterbury Tales explore a topic through the allegorical journey of pilgrimage, it does not seem likely that Chaucer got the idea from Langland as there are other examples more like The Canterbury Tales. The use of pilgrimage shows us the shared compassion for the third estate. Langland brought the peasants to life through his exploration of religious values and their bearing on the work and everyday lives of the third estate.
Links have been made between Piers Plowman and the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. The possibility of social change was introduced, which gave a renewed sense of importance and hope to the lower classes. Langland shows the Christ-like sufferings of the poor at the hands of the clergy throughout the poem. Chaucer does not make this explicit, but he gives a sense of equality amongst the pilgrims, by allowing them all equal time for telling their tales. ‘Pilgrymes are we all’ (XI. 234), is the statement in Piers Plowman of the various collected people.
This levelling effect is contradictory to the ideal of estate described by Keen previously. Georges Duby, in his work on the feudal estates system, states that ideally the third estate were ‘all those who did not carry the sword… and yet did not pray, whose only right was to keep silent and whose only duty was to obey’10. This comment is contradicted not only by Chaucer and Langland’s visions of society, but also by the political idea that each estate needs the others to survive and to make society complete.
Many literary figures did not adhere to these oppressive rules, and it is evident that many were prepared to speak out. Later in his work he acknowledges the importance of the third estate in society; The function of those whose value consisted in their weariness was to win the bread of other men in the sweat of their brow. This toil they offered in exchange for the salvation of their soul and the security of their body. 11 Rather than just acknowledge that the poor are a necessary part of society, Chaucer and Langland place emphasis on their hard lives and their preoccupations.
Although both poets deal with the subject of religion (which was unavoidable in this society), they avoid extended clerical allegory, which suggests that human conflict was of higher importance to them, especially the plight of the over-worked peasants. They are dealing with human relationships in the accessible vernacular. This shows the target audiences were not clerks or scholars, but literate laymen. It is interesting that the leaders of the pilgrimage are non-ecclesiastical. This, again could have been to empower the peasant audience and make them able to relate to the stories.
Harry Bailey is a secular figure who happens to be leading the pilgrimage. Through him Chaucer acts as a poet and as a story-telling pilgrim. This idea of a narrator both external to the poem and yet acting as a character in the work is quite unusual. The dreamer in Piers Plowman is used to much the same effect. George Kane claims that ‘dream-vision poems are by their nature personal poems. They take the form of reports by a first person narrator who professes to have himself experienced the dream he recounts. ’12 Although the dreamer shares his identity with the author, they have different modes of existence.
The things which happen to the narrator could not happen to the author, and this creates ambiguity for the audience. It would be easier to express a point of view through the use of a fictional character than to outrightly express the view as one’s own. These verbal games show the progression of the use of the first person ‘I’ from the impersonal and dramatic ‘I’ of Anglo-Saxon, to the semi-personal ‘I’ of the Renaissance. The Dreamer and Harry Bailey both offer us insights into the poets’ minds, although Chaucer’s function is for irony (when he forgets details or tells a bad story) and Langland uses it for serious meditation.
This is merely indicative of Chaucer’s fairly secular commentary, laughing with the pilgrims at their unfortunate lots, and Langland’s deeply religious piece, which is a quest for reform or at least contentment. As there are no references to Langland in any of Chaucer’s works, it is hard to establish a connection between the two. Although they share similar material and point out the same failings in certain estates, it seems likely that these characters and the comments about them were common in literature and in real life.
They are described according to their age, physiological make-up and traits of their estate. Rosemary Woolf points out that ‘the same details of their tastes and behaviour can be found in any medieval moral denunciation of these people. ’13 The Canterbury Tales seem to encompass a wealth of medieval literary forms, such as the Knight’s epic tale, the Miller’s bawdy fabliaux and the Squires attempt at romance. He leaves any moral judgement to the audience, whereas Langland is more decisive in telling his own opinions.
The fact that the two men were likely to have a similar education means that they would have both been exposed to common grammar books and fashionable literature to study. There were also very few innovations in literature at this time, with great emphasis being placed on translation and reworkings of classic texts. Chaucer does not seem to have relied on any one particular source, favouring instead an exploration of many literary styles, drawn from writers such as Caxton, Gower and Boccaccio. It is possible to read elements of Piers Plowman into The Canterbury Tales but without any firm literary evidence it could be dangerous to do so.