Title Background

<i>Langland’s Early Modern Identities.</i>

Langland’s Early Modern Identities.

Histories of early-modern literary medievalism usually focus on Chaucer, as the emblematic representative of fourteenth-century English literature and the medieval author whose works were most widely available in the early-modern period. However, using Chaucer to understand early-modern medievalism ignores the extent to which Chaucer was conceptualized as unlike his literary contemporaries, and thus the extent to which his works were not seen as truly representative of their era. In Langland’s Early Modern Identities, Sarah A. Kelen furthers the scholarship on early-modern medievalism by focusing on how early modern readers, editors, and writers responded to PPl, which was, like Chaucer’s works, widely cited in the early-modern period, but frequently to different ends.

Kelen’s first two chapters focus on the sixteenth-century reception of PPl, including attempts to affix an authorial biography to the work, and the migration of the poem’s title character into later works of social satire. Modern readers expect to know an author’s identity, but well into the sixteenth century literary works often circulated anonymously, and there was no tradition of appending authorial biography to a literary text. It is thus noteworthy that Robert Crowley, editor of three 1550 editions of PPl, did discuss the life of ‘Robert’ Langland in his editions. Crowley’s choice did not reflect any manuscript source; when an authorial name was appended to PPl by scribes or readers, that name was typically ‘Long Wille’, the name of the poem’s main character. Crowley’s biography of ‘Robert’ Langland demonstrates his ideology; Crowley juxtaposes L with John Wyclif, both of whom had the ‘boldenes of herte, to open their mouthes and crye oute agaynste the workes of darckenes’. By casting L as a Wycliffite, Crowley marshals the poem for the Protestant cause, granting the authority of antiquity to Reformation theology. A similar strategy of claiming the poem as a historical precedent underlies the redeployment of Piers the Plowman in a number of early modern polemical works. Unlike the medieval poems in the Piers Plowman Tradition (Pierce the Plowman’s Crede, for example), sixteenth-century works that contain a Piers character do not manifest any detailed knowledge of the contents and style of PPl. Their authors may or may not have read L’s work, and they do not assume that their readers will recognize allusions to the fourteenth-century poem. They do, however, assume that their readers will understand the plowman character as a literary type: a character defined by his plain-spoken critique of powerful but corrupt interests (whether ecclesiastical or political).

Sixteenth-century responses to PPl, whether in biographies of its author or borrowings of its title character, cast Langland as a political and religious writer. By the eighteenth century, however, L’s identity had changed; he was now understood in the context of literary and linguistic history. The primary mechanism for this transformation, as Kelen points out, was the excerpting of PPl in literary anthologies, which replaced full-text editions as the means by which the poem circulated. Contextualized among his literary peers and successors, L was sometimes praised, sometimes criticized, but, in either case, he was valued for his place in the history of English poetry, rather than as a religious or political polemicist. L’s identity as a literary figure was, however, reduced by the nineteenth-century shift from publishing literary history in anthologies of excerpts to publishing multivolume historical sets of complete works. Because of the linguistic difficulty of L’s work, such a format did not favour the inclusion of PPl, although Thomas Dunham Whitaker published the poem in its entirety in 1813, the first complete edition since 1561. Whitaker’s edition, to which Kelen devotes her fourth chapter, further distances L from an ongoing English literary tradition by Whitaker’s choice to ‘medievalize’ his text, printing in rubricated black letter, in imitation of a manuscript tradition. Although Whitaker casts Langland as an important poet in his own right, his edition continues L’s exclusion from the ongoing English literary tradition.

Kelen’s final chapter returns to the question of Chaucer’s relationship with L by analysing a series of texts that explicitly juxtapose the two not only as writers but as Londoners who may well have known one another. These texts often fictionalize a personal or professional relationship between L and Chaucer, and thus demonstrate their own authors’ biases about medieval literary history. In the late eighteenth century, contrasts between Chaucer’s and L’s poetry often called into question the status of French borrowings in Chaucer’s language, a topic of political as well as linguistic importance in the shadow of the French Revolution. Thus, in the responses of some late-eighteenth-century commentators, L is again returned to his identity as a political agent, this time in opposition to France, not to Rome. Throughout Kelen’s volume, L’s early-modern identities reflect changes in the commentators’ ideological contexts as much as changes in the practice of textual scholarship or of historiography. Kelen’s attention to L’s early-modern identities, rather than to early-modern editorial practice or literary scholarship, provides new insights not only into how early-modern readers saw the enigmatic medieval poet but also into how they and their peers understood medieval literary history. (SAK)

Rev. by:
  • John M. Bowers, The Medieval Review, 09.01.06 [http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.baj9928.0901.006]; 
  • Philip Major, Modern Language Review, 104 (2009), 1108-09; 
  • Nandra Perry, Renaissance Quarterly, 62 (2009), 606–08; 
  • Paul Patterson, YLS, 23 (2009), 289-92;
  • Lawrence Warner, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, 32 (2010): 435-38;
  • Hannah Johnson, Sixteenth Century Journal, 41 (2010), 602-03.


New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.


Kelen, Sarah A.