About William Langland (ca. 1325 - ca. 1390)

It is not certain when William Langland was born, but based on contemporary references in the earliest version of Piers Plowman (=A Text), it seems the earliest plausible date for his birth is ca. 1325 and the latest plausible date is ca. 1330. One "William Rokele" received the first tonsure (initiation into lower clerical orders) ca. 1339-40, given by Wolstan de Branford, Bishop of Worcester, probably at Bredon. The earliest age at which this ceremony could be performed then was seven and the latest, customarily, was fifteen. Because "Rokele" was the surname of Langland’s father and grandfather, and because the Rokeles had connections in the SW Midlands, some suspect that William Langland and this ordinand named "William Rokele" were the same person.

The name "William Langland" appears (as "William de Langlond") in a Latin memorandum at the end of a C-text manuscript of Piers Plowman, dating to about 1400 (Vc). This memorandum, concerned more with Langland’s parentage than with his biography, places his father in Oxfordshire. His grandfather, Peter de Rokele, held land in several Southern counties, served as an undersheriff and a royal justice, and was directly involved in the 1327 raid that attempted to free Edward II from his imprisonment at Berkeley Castle. Langland's father, Eustace (Stacy) de Rokayle, more prudent and less adventuresome than his grandfather, was also a man of local prominence in his home county. One sixteenth-century antiquarian, John Bale, identifies Langland's birthplace as Cleobury Mortimer, Salop., (near Bredon) but then mistakenly gives Langland’s first name as "Robert." However, the poet’s famous signature cryptogram confirms his given name as William: "'I have lived in land,' quoth I, 'my name is Long Will'" (B.15.152).

Langland may have been using his mother’s patronym when he wrote Piers Plowman (a "Langlond" family resided at Kinlet, near Cleobury Mortimer, in the fourteenth century). The name could have been adopted because he was not the first son (and therefore would not inherit his father’s lands), or because he recognized the dangerous nature of his poetic material and wished to distance his immediate family in Shipton under Wychwood from potential retaliation. All we "know' of Langland’s biography is conjecture based on biographical references in his poem, particularly several well-known passages in the C Text (e.g., C5.1-103). These passages (and his knowledge of scripture and liturgy) indicate that he had an extensive clerical education and was in (at least) minor orders. Some extant documents (alluded to by George Kane in his 2004 DNB article) suggest that Langland may have served for a number of years in the 1350s and 1360s as a parish priest in Essex and Suffolk. In the B and C Texts of his poem, on the other hand, he says that he was married and was forced to support himself by singing psalms and praying for patrons as he led a more or less itinerant life in London. "Will" specifically mentions a wife and daughter named "Kit" and "Calote." We have no way to ascertain whether this biography is fictional, but medieval authors serving as narrators of their own poetry do not customarily create completely fictional biographies for themselves.

Three surviving copies of the unfinished A text contain an ending imitative of Langland’s alliterative style, signed by a "John But." For many years this John But was identified with a king’s messenger of that name who died in 1387, and since But's coda reports Langland’s death, scholars assumed that Langland must have died before 1387. However, "John But" is the name of more than one of Langland's recorded contemporaries, and apparent references in the C Text to the Third Statute of Laborers (1388) have led some scholars recently to push Langland’s death-date to at least 1390 (e.g., Anne Middleton, who says that Langland's last version reveals complete familiarity with the terms of the 1388 statute. See her "William Langland's 'Kynde Name': Authorial Signature and Social Identity in Late Fourteenth-Century England," Literary Practice and Social Change in Britain, 1380-1530, ed. Lee Patterson (Berkeley: U of California P, 1990), 56.).

That we can be certain of so little about William Langland’s biography (or, for that matter, about the biographies of many of his contemporaries) is undoubtedly a frustration to many students of medieval literature; we might also lament the fact that he left only the three versions of his great poem as evidence for his skill. Yet independent of his biography, we can say that Langland was well educated, well read, and something of a perfectionist. He was an innovative poet who strove to condemn hypocrisy, teach his readers to "do well," and explain the meaning of life — all couched in learned terms and yet using a native verse form that he mastered but that Chaucer never touched.