- The Vision of Piers Plowman, Said to be Wrote by Chaucer:Leland's Petri Aratoris Fabula and Its Descendants Revisited
While critics today have become accustomed to taking Chaucer and Langland to form an "obligatory conjunction,"1 previous generations were much likelier to deem the attempt to compare these two poets "simply absurd."2 After all, as Robert Aris Willmott would observe, "the author of Pierce Plowman is a shadowy personage, whom it is impossible to bring clearly before our eyes; but Chaucer stands prominently forward in one of the most interesting epochs of our history." Chaucer, in sum, is upper class:
Langland, with a vigorous mind and abundant powers of satire, spoke in the harshest language and with the most unmusical voice; Chaucer, with a fancy infinitely richer, and a vein of humour, more keen and brilliant, combined all the learning and accomplishments of the time. Instead of wandering among the Malvern Hills, he mingled in the pageantry of Edward's court, and cultivated his taste by foreign travel, and by intercourse, not only with the most distinguished persons of his age and country, but with the poets and scholars of the South.3 [End Page 113]
Such judgments, of course, are inescapably circular. Bodies of poetry are ascribed to each poet on the basis of assumptions about what those ascriptions should be. As Kathleen Forni has remarked with regard to the Chaucerian apocrypha, "texts, and authors, do not enjoy aesthetic autonomy and their value is ultimately extraliterary and historically contingent."4 There is no "Chaucer" with a keen and brilliant humor apart from the texts assumed to be his on the grounds of their keen and brilliant humor. If, say, Piers Plowman had been ascribed to Chaucer, Willmott's characterization of the urbane poet would not have held up—which is why Willmott would probably have rejected any such ascription: Piers Plowman does not display the infinitely rich fancy we all know to have been Chaucer's.
My hypothetical proposal is itself not so fanciful as it might at first appear, for this brief essay lays bare the existence of a longstanding tradition according to which Chaucer did in fact write Piers Plowman. A few of the items I will survey are not new to Chaucer scholarship, but mistakes of dating and other accidents of history have prevented a proper understanding of them. The others are wholly new. Recognition of this tradition is important on a number of fronts, aside from its inherent interest to students of Chaucer's and Langland's reception histories. For instance, the first item, by far the best known of the group, has substantial implications for the histories of the Plowman's Tale and William Thynne's edition of 1542. A set of eighteenth-century items—published in a massively influential book that has flown below the radar of Chaucerians—is derived wholly from that first item, but in turn sets the stage, somewhat perversely, for the first modern attribution of Piers Plowman to "William Langland." And the other items are no less interesting as they shed light on the interpretive milieus of figures as disparate as Stephan Batman (a manuscript collector at the center of power in Elizabethan England) and one Elizabeth Johnson (an otherwise unknown reader in whose copy of Piers Plowman was a Chaucerian item that might have influenced her thinking). In sum, this essay contributes something new to the growing body of work on Chaucer reception and to the smaller, companion history of Langland reception. Together, these fields have revealed the power of concepts of authorship and the richness of the early modern archive.5 [End Page 114] Perhaps Chaucer did not write Piers Plowman, but the notion that he did had a three-hundred-year run, and it made for some fascinating episodes that underscore the contingency of our own ascriptions of Middle English poetry.
John Leland and the "Tale of Piers Plowman"
John Leland's sixteenth-century De uiris illustribus does not mention Langland or any independent poet of Piers Plowman, but it does include chapters on Gower and a substantial one on Chaucer, whose catalogue of works begins thus:
Fabulae Cantianae uiginti quattor, quarum...