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The England of Piers Plowman.

Du Boulay is by no means the first historian to tackle Piers Plowman. in i894 J. J. Husserand's pioneering study used historical sources, notably the Rolls of Parliament, to demonstrate to literary scholars the accuracy of Langland's commentary on his times. In i922 D. Chadwick, writing for historians, ransacked the poem for telling details of everyday social life. The two historical chapters of Du Boulay's engaging but rather lightweight study do both. They communicate a detailed and often interesting picture of Langland's world, concentrating on peasants, marriage and church corruption. This is studded with quotations from the poem, usually in translation, which authenticate the information given rather than being themselves discussed. Like Chadwick, Du Boulay seems unaware of the problems involved in using fiction to comment on fact, and unlike Jusserand he does not present much original historical research to vivify his story. |The arguments of this chapter', he admits on p. 99, |like the complaints of Langland, are quite general.' Most of the material is, however, relevant, and it would make useful reading for the English undergraduate who realizes the value of background lectures. Such a reader must not, however, be led by Du Boulay's plausible and relaxed style to forget that his whole approach, both to the history and to the literature, is very personal. The author has given us what he feels rather than what he can prove to be true.

In a way this is the value of the book, and Langland himself would undoubtedly have appreciated its sincerity. The book opens with an account of Will's life, gleaned from the poem, which gives one a comfortable sense of being at home with its author. Then follows the historical section, and the book ends with a three-chapter commentary on the poem, which concentrates not on social commentary but on practical Christianity, and on Piers as the epitome of charity. This has, of course, been done before, but the reader may again be reassured by the sense that this critic finds it all both intelligible and relevant to his own life. He does not pursue the inconsistencies in Langland's allegory. or try to disentangle the detail and relate it to the whole. He is not troubled by world-play or by, literary traditions. He is interested in giving his own account of what the poem means, which is, of course, what we all start v doing. I would argue that one needs more help from other scholars (among whom he has read only very sporadically, ignoring the |historical' critics), and a more painstaking study of the text, really to find out Langland's meaning. But such an approach often puts students off reading Langland altogether. Du Boulay at least makes this wonderful poem seem accessible to everyone.
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Author:Baldwin, Anna
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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