Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 32.djvu/111

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Langland
Langland
105

William: 'Explicit visio Willelmi W. de Petro le Plowman.' W. may stand for Wychwood, or more probably denotes Wigornensis, i.e. of Worcester, for with Worcestershire the poet was beyond doubt closely connected. As it is fairly certain that Langland belonged to the midlands, and as his surname seems to be of local origin, the proper form would naturally be Langley rather than Langland; for no place called Langland appears to be in the midland district, whereas the name Langley is found both in Oxfordshire and in Shropshire. The manuscript note quoted above informs us that the poet's father was Stacy de Rokayle. Professor Pearson has pointed out (see North British Review, April 1870) that there is a hamlet called Ruckley in Shropshire, near Acton Burnell. There is another in the same county not far from Boscobel. From one of these places 'Stacey' probably took his surname. But near Shipton-under-Wychwood there is a hamlet called Langley, and near the Ruckley which adjoins Acton Burnell there is a hamlet called Langley, and it has been plausibly suggested that from one or other of these two places Stacey's son took his surname. These suggestions, however, ignore Bale's statement that the poet was born at Cleobury Mortimer, and it seems not to have been pointed out that, close by Cleobury Mortimer, there is a hamlet called Langley. As Bale probably had some grounds for his statement, it may reasonably be believed that the poet was born in south Shropshire, and that the commemoration of him—lately inserted in a window in Cleobury Church—may be fairly defended. Thus by birth both Stacey and his distinguished son probably belong to Shropshire, though at one time Stacy lived at Shipton-under-Wychwood in Oxfordshire. Professor Pearson has pointed out a certain connection between Acton Burnell and Shipton, viz. an intermarriage between the Burnells of Acton Burnell and the De Despensers of Shipton. Also he points out a certain connection between one Henry de Rokesley who may possibly have been an ancestor of 'Stacy de Rokayle' and the De Mortimers; viz. that Henry de Rokesley claimed to be descended from Robert Paytevin, and 'one of the few Paytevins who can be traced was a follower of Roger de Mortimer.' Some light is perhaps thus cast upon Stacy's migrations to Cleobury Mortimer and to Shipton. Thus Langley, rather than Langland, seems to be the more accurate form of the name. On the other hand, the earliest authorities give Langland, and possibly in the line quoted above the 'lande' refers to this surname.

Beyond question the poet is to be associated with the western midlands. He particularly connects his vision with the Malvern Hills:—

As on a May mornings on Maluerne hulles
Me byfel a ferly, of fairy me thougte.
O text, i. 6–7 (see also i. 163); vi. 109–10; x. 295–6).

And several allusions indicate the same quarter of England, as, for instance, 'Bi the Rode of Chestre' (B, v. 467); 'Then was ther a Walishman … He highte Zyuan Zeldazeyn,' &c. (C, vii. 309); 'Griffyn the Walish' (C, vii. 373). Nor is the mention of 'rymes of Robyn Hood,' along with rimes of 'Randolf erle of Chestre,' inconsistent with this localisation; for a bishop of Hereford plays a part in the Robin Hood cycle of ballads, and there are Robin Hood legends connected with Ludlow. Langland also writes in a west midland dialect. 'There are many traces of west of England speech also,' writes Dr. Skeat,' and even some of northern, but the latter may possibly be rightly considered as common to both north and west.' Such a description leads us to Worcestershire and Shropshire. A careful examination both of Langland's words and his word-forms certainly confirms it. Thus, e.g., the scarce word 'fisketh' = wanders (C, x. 153) is recorded in Miss Jackson's 'Shropshire Wordbook;' and it will be found that the poems of John Audlay of Haughmond Monastery, Shropshire, which do not seem to have been studied in relation with 'Piers Plowman,' afford not only many illustrations of Langland's ideas, but many also of his dialect.

In the second edition of his chief poem, Imaginative, addressing the poet, says he has followed him 'this five and forty winters.' Now the B text was written about 1377. We may thus infer that the poet was born about 1332. From a passage in the sixth passus of the C text, we learn that he was free-born and born in wedlock (C, vi. 64). He was duly sent to school. In the sixth passus of the third chief edition of 'Piers the Plowman' he says: 'When I was young many years ago, my father and my friends found me [i.e. supported me] at school, till I knew truly what Holy Writ meant, and what is best for the body, as that Book tells us, and safest for the soul, if only I live accordingly. And yet assuredly found I never, since my friends died, a life that pleased me, except in these long clothes,' i.e. except as an ecclesiastic. Probably he received his earlier education at some monastery, possibly at Great Malvern. He seems to be remembering wasted opportunities when, in the midst of a reproachful speech to him by Holy Church—'Thou foolish