The English language was becoming by slow stages a fit vehicle for literature. The Norman invasion of 1066 had stopped the evolution of Anglo-Saxon into English, and for a time French was the official language of the realm. Gradually a new vocabulary and idiom formed, basically Germanic, but mingled and adorned with Gallic words and turns. The long war with France may have spurred the nation to rebel against this linguistic domination by an enemy. In 1362 English was declared to be the language of law and the courts; and in 1363 the chancellor set a precedent by opening Parliament with an English address. Scholars, chroniclers, and philosophers (even till Francis Bacon) continued to write in Latin to reach an international audience, but poets and dramatists henceforth spoke the speech of England.
The oldest drama extant in English was a “mystery”—a dramatic representation of a religious story—performed in the Midlands, about 1350, under the title of The Harrowing of Hell, which staged a duel in words, at the mouth of hell, between Satan and Christ, In the fourteenth century it became customary for the guilds of a town to present a cycle of mysteries: a guild would prepare a scene, usually from the Bible, carry the setting and the actors on a float, and act the scenes on temporary stages built at populous centers in the city; and on successive days other guilds would present later scenes from the same Biblical narrative. The earliest such cycle now known is that of the Chester mysteries of 1328; by 1400 similar cycles were presented in York, Beverly, Cambridge, Coventry, Wakefield, Towneley, and London. As early as 1182 the Latin mysteries had developed a variety called the “miracle,” centering around the miracle or sufferings of some saint. About 1378 another variety appeared—the “morality”—which pointed a moral by acting a tale; this form would reach its peak in Everyman (c. 1480). Early in the fifteenth century we hear of still another dramatic form, doubtless then already old: the interlude, not a play between plays but a ludus—a play or show—carried on between two or more actors. Its subject was not restricted to religion or morality, but might be secular, humorous, profane, even obscene. Minstrel troupes played interludes in baronial or guild halls, in town or village squares, or in the courtyard of a frequented inn. In 1348 Exeter raised the first-known English theater, the first European building, since classic Roman structures, specifically and regularly devoted to dramatic representations.66 From the interludes would evolve the comedies, and from the mysteries and moralities would develop the tragedies, of the lusty Elizabethan stage.
The first major poem—one of the strangest and strongest poems—in the English language called itself The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman. Nothing is known of the author except through his poem; assuming that this is autobiographical, we may name him William Langland and place his birth near 1332. He took minor orders, but never became a priest; he wandered to London and earned something short of starvation by singing Psalms at Masses for the dead. He lived dissolutely, sinned with “covetousness of eyes and concupiscence of the flesh,” had a daughter, perhaps married her mother, and dwelled with them in a hovel in Cornhill. He describes himself as a tall, gaunt figure, dressed in a somber robe befitting the gray disillusionment of his hopes. He was fond of his poem, issued it thrice (1362, 1377, 1394), and each time spun it out to greater length. Like the Anglo-Saxon poets, he used no rhyme, but alliterative verse of irregular meter.
He begins by picturing himself as falling asleep on a Malvern hill, and seeing in a dream a “field full of folk”—multitudes of rich, poor, good, bad, young, old—and amid them a fair and noble lady whom he identifies with Holy Church. He kneels before her and begs for “no treasure, but tell me how I may save my soul.” She replies:
When all treasures are tried, Truth is best....
Whoso is true of his tongue, and telleth naught but that,
And doeth the works therewith, and willeth no man ill,
He is a god by the gospel...and like to Our Lord.67
In a second dream he visions the Seven Deadly Sins, and under each head he indicts the wickedness of man in a powerful satire. For a time he abandons himself to cynical pessimism, awaiting an early end of the world. Then Piers (Peter) the Plowman enters the poem. He is a model farmer, honest, friendly, generous, trusted by all, working hard, living faithfully with his wife and children, and always a pious son of the Church. In later visions William sees the same Piers as the human Christ, as Peter the Apostle, as a pope, then as vanishing in the Papal Schism and the advent of Antichrist. The clergy, says the poet, are no longer a saving remnant; many of them have become corrupt; they deceive the simple, absolve the rich for a consideration, traffic in sacred things, sell heaven itself for a coin. What is a Christian to do in such a universal debacle? He must, says William, go forth again, over all intervening institutions and corruptions, and seek the living Christ Himself.68
Piers the Plowman contains its quota of nonsense, and its obscure allegories weary any reader who lays upon authors the moral obligation to be clear. But it is a sincere poem, flays rascals impartially, pictures the human scene vividly, rises through touches of feeling and beauty to a place second only to the Canterbury Tales in the English literature of the fourteenth century. Its influence was remarkable; Piers became for the rebels of England a symbol of the righteous, fearless peasant; John Ball recommended him to the Essex insurgents of 1381; as late as the Reformation his name was invoked in criticizing the old religious order and demanding a new.69 In ending his visions, the poet returned from Piers the pope to Piers again the peasant; if all of us, he concluded, were, like Piers, simple, practicing Christians, that would be the greatest, the final revolution; no other would ever be needed.
John Gower is a less romantic poet and figure than the mysterious Langland. He was a rich landowner of Kent who imbibed too much scholastic erudition, and achieved dullness in three languages. He, too, attacked the faults of the clergy; but he trembled at the heresies of the Lollards, and marveled at the insolence of peasants who, once content with beer and corn, now demanded meat and milk and cheese. Three things, said Gower, are merciless when they get out of hand: water, fire, and the mob. Disgusted with this world, worried about the next, “moral Gower” retired in old age to a priory, and spent his closing year in blindness and prayer. His contemporaries admired his morals, regretted his temper and his style, and turned with relief to Chaucer.