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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

I. “Piers the Plowman” and its Sequence

§ 28. Wynnere and Wastoure; The Parlement of the Thre Ages

The influence of Piers the Plowman was wide-spread and long-continued. There had been many satires on the abuses of the time (see Wright’s Political Poems and Political Songs and Poems), some of them far bitterer than any part of these poems, but none equal in learning, in literary skill and, above all, none that presented a figure so captivating to the imagination as the figure of the Ploughman. From the evidence accessible to us it would seem that this popularity was due, in large measure, to the B-text, or, at least, dated from the time of its appearance, though, according to my view, the B-text itself and the continuation of A were due to the impressiveness of the first two visions of A-text.

Before discussing the phenomena certainly due to the influence of these poems, we must devote a few lines to two interesting but doubtful cases. In 1897, Gollancz edited for the Roxburghe Club two important alliterative poems, The Parlement of the Thre Ages and Wynnere and Wastoure, both of which begin in a manner suggestive of the beginning of Piers the Plowman, and both of which contain several lines closely resembling lines in the B-text of that poem. The lines in question seem, from their better relation to the context, to belong originally to Piers the Plowman and to have been copied from it by the other poems; if there were no other evidence, these poems would, doubtless, be placed among those suggested by it; but there is other evidence. Wynnere and Wastoure contains two allusions that seem to fix its date at c. 1350, and The Parlement seems to be by the same author. The two allusions are to the twenty-fifth year of Edward III (l. 206), and to William de Shareshull as chief baron of the exchequer (l. 317). The conclusion is, apparently, inevitable that the imitation is on the part of Piers the Plowman. In The Parlement the author goes into the woods to hunt, kills a deer and hides it. Then, falling asleep, he sees in a vision three men, Youth, Middle-Age and Age, clad, respectively, in green, grey and black, who dispute concerning the advantages and disadvantages of the ages they represent. Age relates the histories of the Nine Worthies, and declares that all is vanity. He hears the bugle of Death summoning him, and the author wakes. In Wynnere and Wastoure the author, a wandering minstrel, after a prologue bewailing the degeneracy of the times and the small respect paid to the author of a romance, tells how

  • Als I went in the weste wandrynge myn one,
  • Bi a bonke of a bourne bryghte was the sonne.
  • I layde myn hede one an hill ane hawthorne besyde.
  • And I was swythe in a sweven sweped belyve;
  • Methoghte I was in a werlde, I ne wiste in whate ende.
  • He saw two armies ready to fight; and

  • At the creste of a cliffe a caban was rered,
  • ornamented with the colours and motto of the order of the Garter, in which was the king, whose permission to fight was awaited. The king forbade them to fight and summoned the leaders before him. There is a brilliant description of the embattled hosts. The two leaders are Wynnere and Wastoure, who accuse each other before the king of having caused the distress of the kingdom. The end of the poem is missing. Both poems are of considerable power and interest in themselves, and are even more significant as suggesting, what is often forgotten, that the fourteenth century was a period of great and wide-spread intellectual activity, and that poetical ability was not rare.