Literary Representations of History in Fourteenth Century England:Shared Technique and Divergent Practice in Chaucer and Langland
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 17 (2000)
The idea of the relationships between Chaucer and Langland–or more generally, late fourteenth century English authors–has been a problem at least since J. A. Burrow’s Ricardian Poetry appeared in 1971. He locates this lack of a sense of a norm for the period both in “the nature, the polycentricity, of the period itself” and also in the “posthumous fortunes so various” of the poets of this period. The differences are particularly visible between poems from the two different verse forms of the period: those verse forms, usually borrowed or adapted from continental poetry, thought of as London, courtly verse forms; and the alliterative line, usually associated with Northern or Northwestern poets, and treating religious or political matters rather than love. The circumstances of their reception, coupled with real differences in content, form, and poetic and historical concerns, can make it difficult indeed to see similarities between these poets, particularly between Langland and Chaucer. There are obvious differences in concern and form. Langland wrote in the alliterative line while Chaucer adopted continental verse forms, both French and Italian. Piers Plowman is clearly engaged with contemporary problems of political and religious thought, while Chaucer seems to be predominantly a love poet. Then too, the most obvious facts about these poets’ readership show them to have moved in completely different circles. While Chaucer wrote poems at court, seemingly for patrons from the royal family, Langland was writing and revising the work that, whether he wished it or not, was the source for much of the language found in the letters John Ball wrote as a part of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. At the same time, the poems themselves share a number of techniques and concerns. Both poets write in the first person, both choose the English vernacular, both utilize the dream frame, both make extensive and complicated use of allusion and citation, and both show an abiding interest in the work of poetry itself, and how it might best be accomplished.