William Langland – our first major English author

What was he doing?

William Langland resting on the Malvern Hills

William Langland could have been looking for Blinks. This small plant has tiny pale green flowers that seem to be blinking, as they rarely open fully.  The flowers form dense pale green moss-like patches beside springs.

The Blinks plant flowers in May on the Malvern Hills
The Blinks plant flowers in May on the Malvern Hills

They are seen on the Malvern hillsides in May. Or perhaps he had simply found a comfortable place to sit where he could watch his flock of sheep without interruption.

Actually, there is so much uncertainty about William Langland’s life that it would be impossible to say what he may have been doing on the Malvern Hills. Biographical details are very obscure. His famous poem, The Vision of Piers Plowman, provides little evidence for its author. The narrator, who is usually identified as being Langland, does say ‘…my name is longe wille’ which is thought to be a code for William Langland.  What is known is that The Vision of Piers Plowman begins life on the Malvern Hills. The style of language used in the poem is similar to the dialect found in the south Midlands.

Malvern Connections

Some scholars suggest that as a young man, Langland studied at Little Malvern Priory and that later he incorporated the imagery around him in his scathing attacks on the clergy that fill the pages of Piers Plowman.

Take gluttony for example: this carving on one of the monk’s stalls at Little Malvern Priory shows two pigs feeding from a bag of acorns or corn. Were they perhaps behind the description of Langland’s ‘two greedy sows’?

Two greedy sows on a Little Malvern misercord
Greedy sows

William describes the glutton who was ‘laughing and leering’ and sitting drinking ‘a gallon and a gill’ when,

‘His guts began to grumble like two greedy sows

And before you could say your pater-noster he had pissed a panful,

 And blown the round trumpet in rear of his rump.

 And all who heard that horn were holding their noses

 And wishing it were wiped with a wisp of gorse.’

So if William Langland was not drifting off to sleep looking at flowers blinking at him, perhaps he was really conjuring up memories of his youth that could be used to illustrate his major work?

No one will ever know…