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EN9C9 Piers Plowman and the poetry of crisis

Module convenor: Dr Sarah Wood

Description and aims:

Few literary works have been so deeply involved in the historical events and controversies of their day as William Langland’s restlessly speculative poem Piers Plowman (c. 1365-90), whose title figure Piers was adopted as a rallying cry in the popular rebellion of 1381 called the Peasants’ Revolt. Endlessly revised by its author and repeatedly deconstructing its own narratives, Piers Plowman is a poem produced by social, political and spiritual crisis and one that appears frequently on the verge of formal collapse.  

This module will allow students to investigate one of the most ambitious works of English literature in the context of some of the major issues and modes of writing and of its time. Sections of Piers Plowman broaching a range of themes (including labour and poverty, law and government, the sources of knowledge and value of education, the salvation of non-Christians and the present state of the Church) will be studied alongside related literary and non-literary texts including satirical poems, saints’ lives, biblical narrative, works of religious instruction, chronicles, and legal documents. We will explore some of the poets major revisions to his work in its successive ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ versions as well as later spin-offs by other authors and Piers Plowmans first printing by the Protestant polemicist Robert Crowley in the sixteenth century. Students will also gain some understanding of the various forms in which Piers Plowman appears in its medieval manuscripts and how those medieval books register readers’ interest in the poems ability to speak to major social and intellectual concerns. 


1 x 6000 word essay

Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

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