This month my thoughts here are sparked off by one famous book, now some 650 years old and conclude with another just published . . . I’m not quite sure where October has gone. As usual, it started with my birthday, and as usual we had a lunch at the But ‘n’ Ben in Auchmithie to celebrate, though not on my actual birthday, which fell on a Sunday. Instead our younger son came round with wife and four small children. Lunch out wasn’t until the following Wednesday. My main birthday present from my husband was the glorious new edition of Piers Plowman from Folio, which has the original text on the left-hand pages and a rendering in modern English on the right-hand pages and is illustrated by beautiful woodcuts.
I used to lecture on Piers Plowman in the English Department of the University of Dundee and I own a very tattered paperback Penguin edition, so it is wonderful to have this magnificent volume which does it full justice.
Piers Plowman is a fascinating work, as much for the vivid picture it presents of fourteenth-century English life as for its passionate – and often angry – moral message. Written by William Langland soon after half the population of England had been wiped out by the Black Death in around seven months, the narrative poem takes a long hard look at what is wrong with society. It has the form of an allegorical dream vision, set initially in the Malvern Hills (not far from where we have a house in Herefordshire). The dream vision was a literary form quite common at the time (Chaucer, amongst others, also used it), and although this structure is no longer familiar, the social satire and the quest for a decent life are literary genres familiar to everyone since the Greek and Roman period. One of the joys of Piers Plowman is its robust and detailed picture of contemporary life, and some of its unexpected twists. One of my favourites: the wicked Rose the Regrater. Rose is a retailer, that it, she buys wholesale, then resells at a profit. In the fourteenth century this was considered a crime and a sin. Heavens! What would happen to the world economy now if we still held the same view?
William Langland is believed to have come from Shipton-under-Wychwood in Oxfordshire, a village I knew well in my student days. (I once walked there from Burford, but that’s another story.) Don’t you love that village name? I believe ‘ton’ derives from ‘toun’, a large working farmstead, so Shipton was probably a large sheep-rearing farm or cluster of farms at the edge of Wychwood. And I think we can guess the derivation of the latter! It cries out for a story to be written. One of these days, perhaps . . .
At the time William was writing, those who had survived the Black Death of 1348-9 were having to come to terms with a changed world. He was probably a child or very young man at the time of the pandemic and would have had vivid memories of it. The population was now thin on the ground. Whole villages were inhabited by nothing but ghosts. Towns were full of empty, decaying houses. Plague pits, where the dead had been tumbled hastily into mass graves, still scarred the outskirts of every town and village. Suddenly there was no longer the peasant labour force to cultivate the fields, so much of the agricultural land must have reverted to a wasteland of scrub, thistles and bracken. Flocks of sheep must have become feral. Landowners could no longer depend on their tied labourers to work their lands, nor their tenants (now mostly dead) to pay their rents. Those labourers who survived discovered that they could demand higher wages. They could leave their masters and seek better conditions elsewhere, or move to a town and take up life as a free craftsman.
Above all, those who had experienced the plague must have thought the end of the world had come. With family, friends and neighbours dying all around them, it would have seemed to a devout fourteenth-century population that God was determined to destroy mankind. There was no cure for the plague. It struck at random – wicked and worthy alike. Imagine how terrifying it must have been.
So it’s not surprising that a work like Piers Plowman should have been written a couple of decades afterwards, examining what was wrong with society. (Why, after all, had God chosen to inflict this terrible punishment?) And searching for a path to a good Christian life. (So the punishment would not return to destroy the survivors.)
Although the narrative standpoint is nominally mediaeval Catholicism, there are the seeds here of the new, questioning movements which would lead eventually to Protestantism. John Ball, one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt, appropriated the name ‘Piers Plowman’ in his writings. Piers is, of course, the ‘common man’, Everyman, one of those peasants whose status in society was profoundly changed by the devastation of the Black Death.
The plague years in England were 1348-9. Piers Plowman was written somewhere around 1370 or a little later. The Peasants’ Revolt took place in 1381. The Lollardy movement for the reform of the Church originated in the middle of the same century, and its most famous leader, the theologian John Wycliffe, was driven out of Oxford for his ‘heretical’ views in 1381. His translation of the Bible into the vernacular (1382) circulated amongst reformers until the Reformation, despite being banned, and it influenced the Authorised Version produced in the reign of James I, as did the translation by Tyndale.
So, although there is no evidence that William Langland was a Lollard, his writings reflect the major upheavals in social and religious thinking of the late fourteenth century. Although we tend to associate the beginning of the modern world with the coming of the Tudors, its earliest roots lie in the extraordinary events and new ideas which arose during the second half of the fourteenth century, more than a hundred years earlier.
I do find it a most compelling period to explore, and one day I’m going to set a novel then, but not yet! What I’m working on at present is the next Christoval Alvarez novel (the fourth). I’ve done pretty well all the research, and I’ve done as much planning as I ever do. I’m not a believer in over-planning, for I find that kills the creative excitement of the actual writing. November is NaNoWriMo month (National Novel Writing Month) when hundreds of thousands of people around the world try to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. A fairly small percentage complete 50,000 words, of course!
It’s a great incentive to get a first draft down fast. I did it in 2012, completing the first draft of a novel which still needs more work. Last November I wrote around 95,000 words of The Enterprise of England – thus exceeding the 50,000 word goal, but not actually finishing the first draft. When edited and tidied up this spring, it represented about two-thirds of the finished book, and I wrote the remainder this year. So with that experience behind me, I’ll see how much of Christoval 4 I can write in November. My books are generally about 100,000 to 120,000 words in length, so 50,000 only scratches the surface. It does mean I won’t have time for much else during the month.
And the other book I want to mention? In my leisure moments I’m enjoying a book I’ve had on pre-order from the moment it was announced, so that it was delivered on launch day – C J Sansom’s Lamentation. I remember reading about his first book, Dissolution, before it came out and saying to the assistant manager of our local Waterstone’s bookshop that it sounded like a winner. He was very sceptical, shaking his head and giving me a rather pitying look. Guess who was proved right? Great author. Great writing.
Till next time,