John M. Bowers
Although Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland together dominate fourteenth-century English literature, their respective masterpieces, The Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman, could not be more different. While Chaucer’s writings suggest that he considered himself an heir, not a begetter, the notion of him as a father-figure standing at the head of a patrilineal literary tradition was formulated within a generation of his death. John Bowers asks how Chaucer, not Langland, was granted this position. His study becomes an examination of the political, social, and religious factors that contributed to the formation of a literary canon in fourteenth-century England.
The earliest complete version of Piers Plowman predates Chaucer’s text; Langland also anticipated one of Chaucer’s major achievements, namely, challenging the dominance of Latin and French by writing a long, serious poem in English. Langland’s poem was immediately influential and widely disseminated; it was read, quoted, copied, and imitated throughout the last decades of the fourteenth century. In contrast, there is very little evidence that Chaucer’s works reached any sort of wide readership in his lifetime.
Yet is was Chaucer, not Langland, who was elevated as a cultural and literary progenitor early in the century after his death. He was a court poet, and he was fortunate enough to have a series of literary heirs, notably Thomas Hoccleve and John Lydgate, who vigorously promoted him as England’s foundational writer. Chaucer was also a kinsman of the new Lancastrian kings, who championed his Canterbury Tales, and his son Thomas Chaucer became a key supporter of the new royal dynasty. These political alliances provided the grounds for promoting Chaucer as the founder of a literary dynasty.
Langland, on the other hand, despite his contemporary popularity, was a dissenter and social critic. Bowers points to Langland’s engagement in domestic controversies that forced him and most of his readers to remain anonymous. Linked with the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, Langland’s poem espoused a brand of religious reform associated with the heretical Lollard movements.
Through extensive manuscript evidence, Bowers tracks the reputations of the two writers into the fifteenth century, when studies of fourteenth-century literature became more clearly configured in terms of a double, antagonistic dynamic. Langland remained the largely invisible presence against which the official Chaucerian tradition was constructed. Never really separate, the two literary traditions constantly interacted, with the reputation of Chaucer the court poet eclipsing that of Langland the dissenter and critic. By examining the historical and social contexts within which these traditions arose, Bowers helps us to understand how some texts and writers become canonical and how others become marginalized.
“In Chaucer and Langland: The Antagonistic Tradition, John M. Bowers advances a provocative argument in the field of Middle English literary studies while also providing a comprehensive and extremely useful overview of the most significant Langlandian and Chaucerian criticism of the last half century. This consolidation of decades of scholarship on medieval England’s two central poets will provide a constant point of reference both for students and advanced scholars working in Middle English.” —Bruce Holsinger, University of Virginia
“The twentieth turned out not to have been the century of Deleuze, after all, but the fourteenth still could become the century of Langland. In a series of seemingly counterintuitive, yet deeply resourceful, readings, Bowers compellingly reorganizes medieval and early modern English literary history around the dual figures of Chaucer and Langland. He shows not only how an account of Langland and his readers is indispensable to a full understanding of the emergence of English literature, but that the complex literary afterlife of the fourteenth century is already inscribed in the heterogeneous beginnings of Piers Plowman. This is an important corrective to the comparative neglect of Langland in recent years.” —D. Vance Smith, Princeton University
“John Bowers has produced what is in many ways an admirable and ambitious volume of new literary history. He makes what could truly be called a master narrative by pushing to extremes the tendencies and implications of recent scholarship. This ingenious work will provoke thought, citation, and occasional outrage.” —David Lawton, Washington University
“Rewriting a long-standing master narrative in Middle English literary studies, Bowers argues that the title ‘father of English literature’ belongs to William Langland, not Geoffrey Chaucer. . . . Whether or not they are convinced by this radical and occasionally shocking revisionism, readers will find this a fascinating account of the genesis and propagation of the idea that English literature begins with Chaucer as well as a useful reminder of Langland’s critical role in shaping the tradition.” — Choice
“This brave and ambitious study seeks to bring together two writers who were kept apart not only by the very stark differences in their styles and the subjects they chose to write about, but by centuries of reception which tended to preserve, and even accentuate, this difference. . . . In putting so many of those hypotheses before us, and exploring them with such detail and imaginative energy, however, Bowers has certainly given all students of Chaucer and Langland a lot to think about.” — The Review of English Studies
“Bowers, a Ricardian specialist, cheerfully joins the ranks of those striving to make the ‘dull’ fifteenth century a thing of interest (if not beauty) and of (sober) joy for the ‘longe nightes blake’ (if not ‘for ever’). . . . A lively and engaging book.” — Medium Aevum
“In this innovative and readable new book, John Bowers begins with the simple question of why Chaucerand not Langland achieved the position of English poetical patriarch. . . . Bowers’s new study will excite interest in the early history of the reception of Chaucer and Langland, and should inspire some—perhaps many—to seek out the riches of these two magnificent poets.” — The Weekly Standard
“John M. Bowers begins his newest book with a simple question: why has Geoffrey Chaucer, not William Langland, become the poet whom many, beginning with Dryden, have dubbed “the Father of English Poetry”? . . . Bowers arranges his ambitious study as a weaving together of the two poets’ lives, works, and legacies. In spite of the sheer scope of his arguments, as well as the breadth of scholarly criticism he invokes in making them, he ably integrates his study of the two poets into a sweeping narrative of tradition formation and perpetuation." — Comitatus
“John Bower’s new book is destined to stir controversy and response. In an extensive and discursive argument richly supported by references to works and authors from the late fourteenth century to the mid-sixteenth century, he explores the literary and cultural dynamics that elevated Chaucer and relegated Langland in literary history. . . . The end result is that this is a book one reads actively, fully engaged with the argument from the first page, agreeing, objecting, thinking.” — Arthuriana
“. . . A radical reorientation of how those two authors are read both with and against one another in a strikingly original (and polemical) assessment . . . This is a perfect book for graduate students (or anyone else) who want an up-to-date, one-stop resource for many of the major trends in Chaucer and Langland scholarship of the last fifty years. . . .Chaucer and Langland should provide a touchstone for critical conversation about Chaucer and Langland for years to come.” — Speculum
“Bower’s book reads wonderfully as a collection of enjoyable, rich essays, each spotlighting a certain aspect of late-fourteenth-century English literary history.” — Rocky Mountain Review