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EN3A0 Poetry and Crisis: William Langland’s Piers Plowman in late medieval culture and society

This module is not running in 2019-20.

Module convenor: Dr Sarah Wood


Module description and aims

Few literary texts can have been so deeply involved in the historical events and controversies of their day as William Langland’s Piers Plowman, whose title character Piers was adopted as a rallying cry in the major civil rebellion called the Peasants’ Revolt. Endlessly revised by its author and repeatedly abandoning and deconstructing its own narratives, Piers has been described as a work on the verge of artistic breakdown, and it is a poem produced by intellectual and social crisis as well.

This module will study Piers as a medieval hypertext, connected to a wide range of medieval genres and opening windows onto some of the major intellectual and social issues of its time: labour and poverty, law and government, the sources of knowledge and the value of education, the salvation of non-Christians and the state of the Church. Sections of the poem related to major themes will be studied alongside a variety of contemporary writings that engage with the same issues and ideas; these texts will include legal and historical documents, satirical poetry, polemic, and religious vision. Students will be introduced to some of Langland’s major revisions to his work in its successive ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ versions as well as to some of the poem’s later spin-offs by other authors and to its first printing by a Protestant polemicist in the sixteenth century. They will also gain some understanding of the various forms in which the text appears in its medieval manuscripts and how those manuscripts register readers’ interest in the poem’s ability to speak to major social and intellectual concerns.


Piers Plowman will be studied in the Norton edition of the ‘B’ version (ed. by Robertson and Shepherd), which prints the poem alongside related texts and documents. Each week focuses on a different theme, with assigned sections from Piers (called in this poem ‘passus’) and contemporary texts.

Please see the 'seminar materials' tab or link on the right-hand side of this page for more detailed guidance on weekly reading for students enrolled in the module.

Week 1. Prologue

Piers Plowman B Prologue-Passus 1

+ General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (extracts, Robertson and Shepherd, pp. 453-62).

Week 2. Women in politics and the abuses of wealth

Piers Plowman B Passus 2-4

+ Symonye and Covetise (extract, Robertson and Shepherd, pp. 443-46); Winner and Waster (extract, Robertson and Shepherd, pp. 446-53); extract from the Chronicon Angliae on Alice Perrers and Edward III (Robertson and Shepherd, p. 485).

Week 3. Confession, autobiography, and revision

Piers Plowman B text passus 5

+ Extract from Piers Plowman C text, Passus 5, ‘The "Autobiographical Passage from the C Version"’, printed as an appendix in Robertson and Shepherd, pp. 363-66; Thomas Hoccleve, La Male regle, ed. by Ellis, pp. 64-78 (click here)

Week 4. Labour, poverty, and rebellion

Piers Plowman B passus 6-7

+ Extract from C version, Passus 9, ‘The Pardon Sent from Truth’, lines 1-280, ed. by Pearsall, pp. 171-82 (click here); The Statute of Labourers, 1351 (Robertson and Shepherd, pp. 428-30); John Ball’s Letter (Robertson and Shepherd, p. 484); 'The Rebels in London according to Henry Knighton', ed. by Dobson (click here).

Week 5. Spiritual crisis

Piers Plowman B, passus 8-14

+ Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, ed. by Walsh, Book 1 (click here)

Week 7. Visions of salvation

Piers Plowman B, passus 16-18

+ Julian of Norwich, Showings, ed. by Baker, chap. 51-52 (click here); The Gospel of Nicodemus (extract, Robertson and Shepherd, pp. 375-80)

Week 8. The Church and dissent

Piers Plowman B, passus 15, passus 19-20

+ ‘Preste, Ne Monke, Ne Yit Chanoun’ (ed. Dean: click here); Epistola Sathane ad Cleros (ed. Hudson: click here for text).

Week 9. Fan fictions

Mum and the Sothsegger, ed. by Dean (click here); extract from Piers the Plowman’s Crede (Robertson and Shepherd, pp. 468-76).

Week 10. Manuscript and print: Piers Plowman readers in time

Piers Plowman B-text Prologue in Corpus Christi College, Oxford, MS 201, in The Piers Plowman Electronic Archive (click here); a sixteenth-century Piers Plowman glossary (photocopy to be provided in the seminar); Robert Crowley, ‘The Printer to the Reader’ (Robertson and Shepherd, pp. 503-04); excerpt from Robert Crowley’s 1550 2nd edition of Piers Plowman (photocopy to be provided in advance of the seminar).

Books to buy
  • William Langland, Piers Plowman, ed. by Elizabeth Robertson and Stephen H. A. Shepherd (Norton, 2006).

It is essential that you purchase this edition (available new and second-hand), which contains Langland's poem in the original Middle English, a modern English translation in parallel, and many of the additional texts and extracts on the syllabus. Copies of further texts and extracts for study are provided in the links above, or click here. You can also find them via the reading list for the module in Talis Aspire.

  • Michael Calabrese, An Introduction to Piers Plowman (Florida UP, 2016).

Not essential for purchase, but highly recommended as a guide to navigating this complex text for the first time.

Important note: Piers Plowman is a long and challenging poem. Though each week of the module will focus on a specific section, it is highly recommended that you read the whole text during the vacation before commencing the course!

Learning outcomes
  • To acquire detailed knowledge of one of the major literary works of the European Middle Ages and the historical, social and intellectual contexts that produced it;
  • To become familiar with some of the formal and generic variety of medieval literature, including dream vision, estates satire, prose polemic, mystical writing;
  • To develop an appreciation for the literary and rhetorical strategies of non-literary texts such as chronicles and documents, and of some of the commonalities of literary and historical study;
  • To gain an understanding of the changing reception of a literary work over time, and of some of the differences between print and manuscript culture;
  • To develop critical awareness of some of the variety of approaches that may be brought to bear on pre-modern texts, including historicist and feminist approaches, genre and reception studies, contemporary theorisations of discourse and subjectivity.

1 x 5000 word essay, due in term 3, week 1


Students are expected to have studied EN121 Medieval to Renaissance English Literature, or to have equivalent prior reading knowledge of Middle English.

Bibliography (link to Talis Aspire)

Seminar materials (detailed guidance for reading each week)

Extracts (see syllabus for details of which extracts are assigned for study in each week)

Essay titles

Useful links:

Middle English Dictionary

Piers Plowman Electronic Archive