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Midlands Millennium: Literary inspiration in them thar hills; Chris Upton looks back at the birth of Langland's Piers Ploughman and, right, Ross Reyburn considers its legacy.

The Malvern Hills have provided many a poet with inspiration over the centuries.

John Masefield and Elizabeth Barrett Browning grew up in the shadow of them, and for a teenager called Byron they were the first indication that England was not as flat as he thought.

But the Malverns did not have to wait for the Romantics to find an appreciative observer. Long before that - 500 years before, in fact, - a young man took a nap there, a dreaming sleep that would last the rest of his life.

In a summer season when soft was the sun,

I wrapped up in wool as if I were a shepherd,

In the habit of a hermit who took his life easy,

And went out in the wide world in search of wonders.

And on a May morning in the Malvern Hills

A strange thing befel me, a thing quite enchanting.

Wearied with walking, I went down to rest

Under a broad bank by the side of a stream.

As I lay and leant over and looked in the water,

it sounded so sweet that I fell into sleep.

And so began the dream-vision of Piers the Ploughman. With the possible exception of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Langland's dream was to become the most famous and most read poem of the Middle Ages.

Over 50 manuscripts of it survive from the 14th and 15th century; it became the manifesto of the Peasants' Revolt and the early religious reformers, and it was consequently banned by the government until 1550.

The irony of all this is that it is easier to say who read the poem than who wrote it. Even the man's name is more of a literary convention than a reliable attribution. None of the manuscripts bear an author's name, only the occasional hint by the ghostly writer as to who he was.

At one point he wrote: "I have lived on land," said I, "and my name is Long Will."

Still, a tradition has grown up that Langland was the son of one Stacy de Rokayle, a minor landowner from Shipton-under-Wychwood in Oxfordshire, and that he was born at Cleobury Mortimer.

Another tradition, not necessarily incompatible with this, links him to a hamlet called Longland in the parish of Colwall, the village where Elizabeth Barrett spent her early years.

In concealing his identity Langland was following a well-trodden track. Medieval poets tended to be self-effacing, and by far the majority of their poems are anonymous, just as a good number of them begin on a morning in May.

But there may have been other reasons why the poet kept his name to himself. From his perch on the Malverns Long Will launched a devastating attack on the England that he saw, a world of hypocrisy, social division and avarice.

And far from excepting the Catholic Church from his attack, he sees it as part of the problem:

I found there friars and all the four orders,

Preaching to the people for their own profit,

And glossing the Gospel as it suited them,

Distorting the text in their greed for fine clothes...

Friars, bishops, pardoners and parish priests equally came under his hammer. For those in authority it was not a comfortable read.

As such it was part of a growing challenge to the religious community, and the first inkling that the twin towers of Church and State were about to be rocked by rebellion and theological division.

The old certainties of a feudal England devastated by the Black Death would not remain certain for much longer.

The poem of Piers Ploughman was also the culmination of an independent literary tradition of the West Midlands, a tradition that turned its back on the sophisticated courtly verse of Chaucer and his contemporaries. It used the old alliterative verse form of the Anglo-Saxons, rejected rhyme and had its feet planted on the alehouse floor:

And when he reached the door then his eyes grew dim;

He stumbled on the step and fell flat on his face.

Clement the cobbler caught him round the middle,

To lift him up and put him on his knees.

But Glutton was big and an effort to shift,

And he coughed up a quart into Clement's lap.

No hound in Hertfordshire is hungry enough

To lap up what was left: it smelt so disgusting.

Langland began his poem in the early 1360s, but continued to revise it, altering and adding passages, for the next 40 years. Piers the Ploughman is "Everyman", the Christian pilgrim in search of truth, on the long journey from Worcestershire to Heaven.

It was the Pilgrim's Progress of its day, just as popular as John Bunyan's story would be three centuries later. And the "fair field of folk" that Langland saw from his Malvern dream was England then and now.

Few memories of a poet

Sadly there is little in Malvern today to remind the world of the poet William Langland.

"You could probably do a survey in Church Street and find an awful lot of people have said 'Where does he live?," said Coun Roger Hall-Jones, former chairman of Malvern Hills District Council.

"I read some years ago a little book called New Light on Piers Ploughman by Alan Bright published in the 1920s. It was rather interesting as he came up with the theory there was a certain spot on the Malvern Hills where Langland probably wrote the poem.

"The evidence connecting Langland with Malvern is simply in the poem. The Malvern Hills are mentioned three times.

"There is no evidence he was a monk at Malvern Priory. In Victorian times, it was said he wrote the poem in the priory gateway but the chances of having done so are exceptionally remote."

The Malvern Town Guide (Malvern Hills District Council, pounds 1) supports the theory Langland gained his inspiration for The Vision near the British Camp Iron Age fort.

"The image is of William Langland sitting on a broad bank by the stream of water flowing from Primeswell (Pewtress) Spring down the slope," says the book.

"Above stood the remains of the Norman Castle on the Herefordshire Beacon and below the moated Oldcastle Farm with the far field full of the folk of Colwall beyond."

Colwall village remains in view. But the castle has gone and Pewtress Spring has disappeared from public view and been renamed the Primeswell Spring by the Schweppes drinks company, whose building covers the spring outlet.

The Malvern Tourist Information Centre does get the odd Langland query but is mainly asked Elgar questions.

Malvern Public Library has a contact number for the rather obscure William Langland Society run by local resident Gwen Appleby. It has some 30 Langland reference books including three 13th century versions of the poem.

"The original version is quite difficult to read," said assistant librarian Miss Catherine Lees. "People come in from time to time to look at the books."

Langland is the name of both a district and town council ward in one of Malvern's less affluent areas where the Langland Arms is also found. Sadly the poet's name may disappear from view as planners overrided local opposition agreeing houses could be built on the pub site.

"The pub might be closing," said Coun Hall-Jones. "A rather sad thing, that. I was quite opposed to it."
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Author:Upton, Chris
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 27, 1999
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