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Among these the “Ormulum,” the “ Ancren Riwle,” “Handlyng Sinne,” and “ The Vision of Piers Plowman” deserve mention.
In the “ Ormulum ” we have an effort to turn into English verse all the gospels for the year as arranged in the mass-book. The work as planned comprised the treatment of 243 passages of scripture with an exposition of each. Though of these only 30 are extant, the poem is as long as “ Paradise Lost,” prodigiously uninteresting in matter, and monotonous to the last degree in movement, the metre being a perfectly regular iambic septenarius without rhyme or alliteration. For example:
This book is nenned Ormulum,
Although devoid of originality in his ideas, Orm has one distinction. He is the first of our spelling reformers, being the inventor of that plan of doubling consonants after short vowels which we still find exemplified in such words as “ diner” and “ dinner."
Orm was an Augustine monk and probably wrote during the first decade of the thirteenth century.
The "Ancren Riwle," or "Rules for Anchoresses," written probably in the first quarter of the thirteenth century, was designed for the guidance of three women who desired to live a secluded and religious life. It is distinguished by learning, tenderness of feeling, and much vivacity of style. Its best qualities are seen in the following extract:
“ Eve held in Paradise long talk with the adder, and told him all the lesson that God had taught her and Adam concerning the apple, and so the fiend, through her loquacity, found the way to her destruction. Our Lady, Saint Mary, did far otherwise. She told not the angel any tale, but asked him of that which she did not know. Do you, my dear sisters, follow our lady and not the cackling Eve. Let not an anchoress have a hen's nature. The hen, when she has laid, cannot but cackle. And what buys she thereof? Comes at once the chough and bereaves her of her eggs. Right so the wicked chough, the devil, beareth away from cackling anchoresses. The poor peddler makes more noise to cry his soap than a rich merchant to sell his precious wares.”
Robert Manning of Brunne, in addition to being a moralist, was the most skilled story-teller of his time. ‘About 1303 he translated into good English a poem written in bad French by William of Wadington and called the “Manuel des Pechiez,” or “Manual of Sins," which Manning translates by the quaint phrase, “ Handlyng Sinne.” He discusses in order the Ten Commandments, the seven deadly sins, sacrilege, and the sacraments, compressing Wadington here and adding to him there, but always writing in a readable style and not infrequently laying down rules that are not yet obsolete. Throughout he illustrates his points by well-told stories; of these the total number is 65. Among the things that he condemns are tournaments, mystery plays, usury, gluttony, the use of church-yards for pastures and trysting places, the lax morals of the clergy, women's costly and absurd costumes, carols, wrestlings, and summer games. He loves to paint grim pictures of hell and is skilful in the use of metaphor; thus he says “ Tavern is the devil's knyfe” and “ Kerchief is the devil's sail."
More remarkable than any of the religious works just discussed is the group of poems known under the general title of “The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman.” They were very popular during the latter half of the fourteenth century, retained their hold on the people until 1600, were regarded by the leaders of the Reformation as an inspiration and a prophecy, and have been quoted by every modern historian of the fourteenth century as a vivid and trustworthy picture of that time. As we have it, the work exists in three forms, which are known as the Vernon, Crowley, and Whitaker versions, or the A-text, the B-text, and the C-text. The metre in all essentials is like that of Beowulf; the language is the same as Chaucer's.
The A-text consists of three visions which came to the author as he slept amont the Malvern hills. In the first of these, which occupies the Prologue and Passus (Chapters) I-IV, he sees a field full of folk, which is symbolical of the world; in the second, which comprises Passus V-VIII, Piers the Plowman leads a host of penitents in search of Saint Truth; in the third, which is related in Passus IX-XII, the dreamer goes in search of Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best, but, being attacked by hunger and fever, dies ere he finds them. The B-text and the C-text are enlarged and modified variations of the A-text.
In the A-text the Prologue and Passus I-VIII are distinguished by unity of structure, directness of movement, and a style remarkable on account of its force and picturesqueness. The plan of Passus IXXII, on the other hand, is confused; its diction is lacking in precision; and the power to paint word-pictures which forms so noteworthy a feature of the earlier visions is noticeable on account of its absence. Instead of a lively story, as in I-VIII, we have in IX-XII a rather confusing theological discussion. The hero is no longer the honest rustic, Piers the Plowman, but a dutiful priest.
In the B-text, there are numerous interpolations in Passus I-XI; Passus XII is omitted; and seven visions are added, two and a fraction devoted to Do-Well, a like number to Do-Better, and two to Do-Best. The form of this text, if form it can be said to have that form has none, is so confused that it defies analysis; but in sincerity and emotional power the new matter found in this vision is very great. It was written about 1376.
The C-text was probably made 1398. It differs from A and B in many
details. The changes are full of piety, patriotism, and pedantry, but not poetry.
Concerning the production of this poem, or series of poems, there are two theories. The first is that they were written by William Langland, who was born about 1331 at Cleobury Mortimer, was educated at Malvern for the church, failing to rise therein moved to London about 1362, and soon thereafter won a great success by publishing the Prologue and Passus I-VIII of the A-text. Encouraged by the favor with which his work was received, he soon added Passus IX-XII. In 1377, impelled by his poem's continued popularity and what he conceived to be the growing wickedness of th world, he expanded the work from 2567 to 7242 lines, thus producing the B-text. The C-text, which contains 7357 lines, was the result of a third revision, made, probably, about 1398. The second theory is that no less than five authors were concerned in the production of the work as we have it, their shares being as follows:
1. Prologue and Passus I-VIII in the A-text.
2. Passus IX-XII in the A-text.
The chief argument in favor of one author is the improbability that, in one and the same generation, there should live several unknown writers of sufficient ability to produce poems at once so good and so alike. Those who take the opposite view hold that the mental qualities shown by the different versions indicate authors of varying mental powers, that their methods were not the same, that their diction and versification display marked divergences, and that they sometimes have misunderstood one another. Such controversies are likely to arise concerning the authorship of works written prior to the invention of printing. In those days, indeed, every author was more or less at the mercy of copyists, and those who, like the author of Piers Plowman, dealt with theological subjects, were particularly in danger of alteration at the hands of pious scribes. Even Chaucer suffered at their hands, as he good-humoredly tells us in the following stanza:
“ Adam Scrivener, if ever it thee befall
Boece or Troilus to write new,
But after my making thou write more trew,
Whatever be the facts in regard to the authorship of “ Piers the Plowman," the poem is full of good matter. Intensely in earnest, the author speaks with that white-hot sincerity which never fails to win attention. Perhaps his most conspicuous quality is hard common sense. His solution of the labor problem, for example, is to give able-bodied beggars nothing to eat but horse-bread, dog-bread, and bones, but to comfort with alms the naked and needy. He is not a reformer, unless the desire to see each man do the duty that belongs to his own rank in life is to be a reformer. When all treasure is tried, Truth is the best,” says he. Among his significant sayings are: “Even the righteous sin seven times a day ”; “Study is Wit's wife"; "Thing that is secret, publish it never; neither laud it for love nor blame it for envy.” Some critics say that he has no humor; if this is so, he at least displays a kind of savage substitute for ii when he says that Liar found no refuge until Pardoners had pity on him and made him one of themselves; when he represents Glutton as being so drunk that he walks like a gleeman's dog, sometimes aside and sometimes backward; and when he says that Sloth is not sudden, even in his confession, because he is too lazy to do anything suddenly. The highest point in his moral teaching is reached in the dictum, “Disce, Doce, Dilige (Learn, Teach, Love),” which may perhaps be regarded as the author's or authors' final conclusion regarding Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best.
John Wickliffe (1320–1384) has often been spoken of as the Morning Star of the Reformation ” and the “Father of English Prose.” The former title is due to the fact that he began by fighting boldly against the corruption of the Catholic clergy and ended by proclaiming a rebellion against the chief doctrines of the church. The latter rests on a supposition long current but now exploded that he himself wrote the first complete translation into English of the Bible. His Protestantism stirred all classes in his day, from old John of Gaunt, time-honored Lancaster, down to the poor priests, or Lollards, whom he organized to preach his doctrines. If he did not himself write the translation of the Bible which was completed in his day, it is altogether likely that it was made under his guidance and inspiration. At all events, his influence was so powerful that, in spite of the hatred he inspired, he was left undisturbed until his death; but that hatred was so great that, after his death, his body was burned and the ashes thrown into the River Avon, a fact which has enriched English verse with at least one immortal stanza:
The Avon to the Severn flows,
The Severn to the sea ;
Shall Wickliffe's ashes be."
As a means of setting in a clear historical light the literature of the period just reviewed, the following table may be of value: