Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 32.djvu/112

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Langland
Langland
106

dolt,' quoth she, 'dull are thy wits; I believe thou learnedest too little Latin in thy youth'—he inserts the line:

Hei michi, quod sterilem duxi vitam juvenilem!

It is certain that sooner or later Langland's literary acquirements were considerable. His poems refer to Wycliffe, the Vulgate, Rutebœuf, Peter Comestor, Grossetéte, Dionysius Cato, Huon de Meri, 'Legends Sanctorum,' Isidore, Cicero, Vincent of Beauvais, 'Guy of Warwick,' Boethius, Seneca, and many others. Stow, who oddly calls him John of Malvern, says he was a fellow of Oriel College. But the evidence on this point is insufficient.

When asked by Reason what work he can do, whether he could lend a hand in farming operations, or knew any other kind of craft that the community needs, he replies that the only life that attracted him was the priestly. He seems to have taken 'minor orders;' to have been licensed to act as an acolyte, exorcist, reader, and porter, or ostiarius. It does not appear why be never took the 'greater' or the 'sacred orders.' His uncompromising character may have rendered him unwilling to bind himself, or he may have married early. He speaks of 'Kytte my Wyf, and Kalotte [Nicolette] my daughter.' He made what living he could as a 'singer.' 'Singers (hypoboleis, psalmists, monitors),' says Walcott (Sacred Archæology, s. v. 'Singer') '… formed a distinct order. … They were at length called canonical or registered singers;' though, s.v. 'Orders,' he states 'that the singer was regarded as a clerk only in a large sense.' Langland, as we know from his own testimony, had drifted up to London, and in London he resided probably for most of his adult life. He 'woned' in Cornhill, he tells us, 'Kytte' and he in a cottage, dressed shabbily ('clothed as a lollere,' i.e. as a vagrant, as we should say), and was little thought of even among the vulgar society that surrounded him, even 'among lollares of London & lewede heremytes;' for I 'made of the men as reson me tauhte,' i.e. I did not treat them with over much respect. I rated them at their proper worth; or perhaps, I composed verses on those men such as reason suggested. 'And I live in London and on London as well. The tools I labour with and earn my living are Patermoster and my primer Placebo and Dirige, and my Psalter sometimes and my Seven Psalms. Thus I sing for the souls of such as help me; and those that find me my food guarantee, I trow, that I shall be welcome when I come occasionally in a mouth, now at some gentleman's house, and now at some lady's; and in this wise I beg without bag or bottle, but my stomach only. And also, it seems to me men should not force clerks to common men's work; for by the Levitical law, which Our Lord confirmed, clerks that are crowned [i.e. tonsured], by a natural understanding [i.e. as nature would dictate], should neither swink nor sweat, nor swear at inquests, nor fight in the vanward, nor harass their foe; for they are heirs of heaven, are all that are tonsured, and in quire and churches are Christ's own ministers' (C text, vi. init.) Elsewhere he speaks of himself as walking in the manner of a 'mendinaunt' (mendicant) (ib. xvi. 3); of his 'roming about robed in russet;' of the poverty that perpetually assailed him. He evidently knew London well; he specially mentions Cheapside, Cock Lane, Shoreditch, Garlickhithe, Southwark, Tyburn, Stratford, Westminster, and its law courts, besides the Cornhill where he lived, or starved. He tells us how at one time 'my wit waxed and waned till I was a fool; and some blamed my life, but few approved it; and they look me for a lorel, and one loathe to reverence lords or ladies, or any soul else, such as persons [perhaps our 'parsons'] in velvet with pendants of silver. To serjeants [great lawyers] and to such did I not once say "Heaven keep you, gentlemen," nor did I bow to them civilly, so that folks held me a fool, and in that folly I raved,' &c.

All this time Langland was seeing wonderful visions, which, when written down, were to give him a high place among the poets of the time, and perhaps the highest among its prophets. Besides the 'Vision of Piers Plowman,' there is good reason for believing that Langland wrote at least one other extant poem, viz. one on the misrule of Richard II; but the 'Vision' was the great work of his life. He was engaged on it, more or leas, from 1362 to 1392, revising, rewriting, omitting, adding. He produced it in at least three notably distinct forms, or editions, to say nothing of intermediate versions, all showing with what keen and what unwearied interest he was watching the course of events, and proving by their number how great were the popularity and the influence of this poem addressed to the people by one of themselves. He was recognised as the people's spokesman. No less than forty-five manuscripts of his work are known to be now extant; in the sixteenth century there were certainly two more; additional ones may yet be discovered. Signs of its circulation and acceptance are abundant. Not the least interesting occurs in connection with the great rising of the peasantry in 1381, in a letter addressed by John