Friday, 5 July 2019

Teachers of Lore and 'Piers Plowman'

In his essay on ‘Feudal England’, Morris distinguishes three strands within medieval poetry.  First, the writings of Chaucer; second, the ballads of the people; and third, what he terms ‘Lollard poetry, the great example of which is William Langland’s Piers Plowman.  It is no bad corrective to Chaucer, and in form at least belongs wholly to the popular side; but it seems to me to show symptoms of the spirit of the rising middle class’.  Today Langland’s great poem seems to be making something of a comeback, with a Cambridge Companion to Piers Plowman appearing in 2014, and Routledge has just reissued two earlier works on the poem: Stan Hussey’s 1969 collection Piers Plowman: Critical Approaches and Myra Stokes’s monograph  Justice and Mercy in Piers Plowman from 1984.

As a newly appointed lecturer at Bristol University, Myra Stokes taught me medieval literature in 1977-78.  She won great credence from us undergraduates by announcing in one seminar that she had been awake most of the previous night worrying about narrative problems in Chaucer, and she prudently warned me when I was contemplating postgraduate study not to become a medievalist (despite my love for Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight) because there just weren’t enough jobs in the field.  There are even fewer now, of course.

To Stan Hussey I owe a still larger debt, since he was chair of the appointing panel that gave me my Lancaster post in 1989.  He retired in 1990 (after once complaining that I was breaking the departmental budget with postage for my journal News from Nowhere), though he looked in occasionally, as an increasingly frail figure, in later years.  He died in 2004, still working on his definitive edition of the fourteenth-century mystic Walter Hilton.  Stan reviewed Myra Stokes’s book when it first came out, genially describing it as ‘an old-fashioned explication, and none the worse for that’.  Both of them adhered to a broad, humane concept of medieval studies that opened into history of the language and stylistics, so Stan also wrote on Shakespeare and Myra on Jane Austen.

I'm very glad that significant books by these two fine academics are in circulation again, and still feel, as I have said before in this blog, that the Morris Society has a particular responsibility to the field of medieval literature which it hasn’t yet fulfilled, or perhaps even fully recognised.


Kotick said...

Steven Justice has argued that "William Morris has diagnosed 'Piers Plowman' as an epiphenomenon of its moment ... and for that reason could use it to help conjure the utopian future of [his] 'News from Nowhere'" (p.57). I wonder if that general claim about Morris's utopia could be substantiated in real textual detail.

Anonymous said...

I was taught by Myra Stokes at Bristol from 2000 - she was a wonderful teacher, even if though I never really got to grips with Olde English. Her biggest influence on me was saying I would never get a First - a 2.1 was achievable, at best - which lit a fire in me to prove her wrong (which I did!). On reflection, it was a clever way to get me to work a bit harder and be more considered in my writing. Glad to say it worked.