'Langland's Piers Plowman greatly influenced The Canterbury Tales'. Discuss, with particular reference to estates satire and narratology.

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‘Langland’s Piers Plowman greatly influenced The Canterbury Tales’.  Discuss, with particular reference to estates satire and narratology.

Although the themes and preoccupations of The Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman are entirely different, both poets seem to have a shared interest in individual human characteristics and variety.  The way in which they express these common interests is dissimilar, yet there are certainly comparisons which lead many to believe that Langland influenced Chaucer.  As a slightly younger contemporary of Langland, it is entirely possible that Chaucer would have had access to The Vision of Piers Plowman.  The B-text of Piers Plowman is generally dated in the mid-1370’s, with The Canterbury Tales commonly held to have been written between 1388 and 1400.  It is likely that Langland also lived in the same area as Chaucer for a while: ‘And so y leve yn London and opelond bothe’ (C-text, V. 44).  Even if we can assume that Chaucer had read Langland’s work, it is unclear to what extent it would have influenced him as there are no references to him in any works attributed to Chaucer.  

The greatest similarity between the two poems is the estates material which they employ.  The feudal system promoted a marked separation of the classes in society and emphasised the need for each class or ‘estate’ to contentedly fulfil their given role, whether that be as a king, preacher or labourer, to the best of their ability and for the benefit of the state as a whole.  There was little emphasis on the notion of individuality, and social manoeuvre was frowned upon.  Maurice Keen provides us with a succinct description of a society;

composed of three orders, functionally defined in their relation to one another: the clergy whose business was with prayer and spiritual well-being; the warriors who defended the land and people with their arms; and the labourers whose toil supported the other two ‘orders’ or ‘estates’. 

The characters found in Langland’s ‘fair feeld ful of folk’ are ‘alle manere of men, the meene and the riche,/ Werchynge and wandrynge as the world asketh’ (Prol. 17-19).  He shows people of various classes engaged in their characteristic activities.  Although Piers Plowman does not fall neatly into the category of medieval estates literature, as it is primarily concerned with the link between good works and heaven, it certainly contains relevant material.  The Canterbury Tales presents us with ‘a compaignye/ Of sundry folk’ (I.A. 24-5) which includes much the same spectrum of people as we see in Piers Plowman.  Chaucer makes known in the Prologue to the tales that he will be showing us ‘th’estaat’ and ‘th’array’ of his pilgrims, which, along with the portraits of the characters (satiric representations of people of varying classes), immediately establishes the form of estates satire.    It is clear that the two works have common elements, but it is much harder to establish whether there is textual evidence to suggest that one was influenced by the other.

There was a wealth of other literature at the time including estates material, which leads us to believe that people were constantly questioning and reaffirming their positions in society.  Paul Olson has noted that this was ‘a period of extraordinarily intense debate about what constituted a good society’.  Much of the estates literature was written with this debate as the central theme.  It was recognised that the interaction between classes was necessary to maintain a good society, but that individuals often failed to fulfil the strict expectations of their estate.  Chaucer and Langland both exemplify certain characters and show them as perfect models of appropriate behaviour, most obviously the knight, the parson, the ploughman and the clerk.  Unlike some other authors they show exemplary figures in each estate, rather than just the clergy and nobility.  

The chivalric knight is a common figure in medieval literature.  Langland uses the knight to emphasise the importance of correct social interaction.  When the knight recognises Piers’ spiritual leadership he offers his services in ploughing the field. Piers replies that he will ‘swynke and swete and sowe for us bothe’ (VI. 25).  The knight realises that ploughing is not his social calling and promises ‘to fulfille this forward, though I fight sholde; / Als longe as I lyve I shal thee mayntene’ (VI. 35-6).  This exchange is an example of Langland’s interest in the relationships between the estates, and the benefits of those interactions to each person in society.  Langland does not address the emerging trend for courtly ideals to be embodied by knights, which is found in Chaucer, Gower and the Gawain poet.  Chaucer’s knight is described more fully than the one which appears in Piers Plowman, which suggests that Chaucer places more importance on the individual than society at large.  He is a ‘verray, parfit gentil knyght’ (I (A) 72), who was ‘honoured for his worthynesse’ (I (A) 50).  These are values which all knights aspired to have and as such he seems to be an exemplar.  He is seen as a religious man as he joins the pilgrimage and fights in religious campaigns.  His tale claims to be an observance of chivalric values, however, it can be read as a meditation on those values.  The images of the inessentials and excesses of the chivalric lifestyle are contradictory with the representation of the Knight in the General Prologue, who is a man of ‘trouthe and honour, freedom and curteisye’ (I (A) 46), and may be a corrective to his depiction of the glorified knight of his tale.  It is likely that the original source for the tale is Boccaccio’s Teseida, an epic narrative, but Chaucer’s conflicting presentations of the Knight suggest a façade of chivalry rather than noble qualities.

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      It is clear that Langland was not the main influence for Chaucer’s Knight, although the inclusion of him in the group of pilgrims may have been based on Langland’s depiction of the knight within the realm (‘feeld’) of the third estate, willing to work with the others at menial tasks for the good of the whole community.  We may find evidence of Langland’s influence, however, in the portrayal of a ploughman.  It is interesting that both writers should specifically choose a ploughman rather than a peasant or a labourer.  The plough was an important religious symbol and ploughing ...

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