by William Langland
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Piers Plowman by William Langland is one of those treasures that made TheGreatBooks.com necessary. While every great books list includes obvious works like The Republic by Plato or Dante’s Divine Comedy, far too few people know about this wonderful poem. Christians, especially, should not forget it.
One of the things that fascinates me about history is the appearance of “firsts.” As I’ve read Reformation literature, for example, I’ve been bedeviled by questions about the first man to seriously propose freedom of religion. Many non-Christians assume that a Christian couldn’t have conceived of such a freedom, so they often attribute the idea to John Locke (a weak answer; he appears on the scene long after other proponents).
Who really was the first? I don’t know. Recently a friend in Belarus told me that one of their earliest reformers (a contemporary of Martin Luther) was the first serious champion of freedom of religion. I have yet to confirm this in my reading.
Piers Plowman, written long before Luther by a contemporary of John Wycliffe, does not argue for freedom of religion. But it is remarkable how many other “firsts” Langland seems to produce.
For example, Piers Plowman includes the first known reference in English literature to Robin Hood (it’s a fleeting reference—this isn’t that sort of story). It’s also, to the best of my knowledge, the first time an artist recognized that he could “dialog” with himself, using his art to arrive at a better understanding of his own beliefs and identity. It’s the first poem to focus on the plight of a common laborer, granting dignity to men and women in humble positions. Before Don Quijote, virtually all authors (save Langland, and possibly Geoffrey Chaucer) wrote about mythical heroes, kings, and noblemen. It was inconceivable that regular people would want to read about the trials and triumphs of a regular person.
There’s more! Langland is the first author to criticize his fellow Catholics for focusing on pardons from the pope rather than on Christ as the Mediator. He’s the first to write a story that includes a growing, changing character, and to make that growth the action of the poem.
In short, Langland paved the way, in some respects, both for modern literature and the Reformation. Though he still believes in purgatory and claims to revere the pope, his Catholicism runs a distant second to his Christianity. And his Christianity informs a poem that is more human than anything written before Shakespeare and Cervantes.
by Jeff Baldwin