Internet Quotes: Langland on the Decline of English

I’ve come across the following quotation in a number of places, such as this article from The Economist:

There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter.

The quotation is attributed to William Langland, author of Piers Plowman, who died in 1386. The problem is that I could only find the quotation in modern translation and it sounds distinctly un-Middle Englishy, so I doubted that it was authentic. Because I could only find it in translation, tracking it down was difficult—it’s hard to search for a Middle English quotation if you don’t have the Middle English diction. It turns out that the quote is genuine, but it is a rather free translation.

The key to finding the original, or rather originals given that Langland produced multiple versions of Piers Plowman (he continually tinkered with the poem throughout his life), was the word verse. I hazarded a guess that “compose verses” was originally the verb to versify, and the OED had the citation under “verse, v.1

The lines appear in the middle of a rather long diatribe about the general decline of knowledge and tradecraft, as well as other ills. Wicked priests, counterfeit coinage, failed astronomers, incompetent farmers, and lost ship’s navigators all come under fire. The passage in the B-text is in Passus 15, lines 371–75:

Grammer, the ground of al, bigileth now children:
For is noon of thise newe clerkes—whoso nymeth hede—
That kan versifie faire ne formaliche enditen,
Ne naught oon among an hundred that an auctour kan construwe,
Ne rede a lettre in any language but in Latyn or in Englissh.

(Grammar, the basis of all, now beguiles children:
For there are none of these new university students—of those who take heed—
That can versify fairly or write formally,
There is not one among a hundred that can construe an authority,
Nor read a letter in any language other than Latin or English.)

The C-text has the passage in Passus 17, lines 108–11 and it reads a bit differently:

Gramer, the grounde of al, bigileth nouthe childrene,
For is noon of thise newe clerkes, ho-so nymeth hede,
That can versifye vayre or formallych endite
Ne construe kyndelyche that poetes made.

(Grammar the basis of all, now beguiles children,
For there are none of these new university students—of those who take heed—
That can versify fairly or write formally
Nor construe properly what poets have made.)

Langland says nothing about “writ[ing] a decent letter.” In the B-text he does bemoan the fact that English scholars can’t read a letter in languages other than Latin or English, but says nothing about writing them. The translation of clerk as “schoolboy” is also questionable. The word schoolboy connotes a relatively young age, but clerk, which is the ancestor of the modern cleric, referred to clergy, often used in the context of someone who could read and write. It could also refer to a university student—as in Chaucer’s clerk—but the word wouldn’t be applied to what we now dub a schoolboy. Also the word grammar has shifted in meaning considerably. In Langland’s time, the word was only used in reference to Latin. And auctour poses a bit of a problem. It is the source of the our modern author, but in Middle English an auctour was an authority, a source of knowledge; the word would not normally be applied to a poet except insofar as a poet wrote about history. Langland confuses this when he changes it in the C-text to poet. Did he mean auctour as poet, or did he change his mind as to what the passage meant as he revised it?

[Addition: Ben Zimmer just wrote me, pointing out that Langland’s letter is almost certainly a reference to the alphabet, and not a reference to reading an epistle. Langland is saying that they can’t read any other languages at all.]

So a more accurate modern translation would read something like:

Latin, the basis of all, now beguiles children. None of these new university students can compose good poetry or write formally. Not one in a hundred can properly interpret what an author has written, or even read anything at all that is not written in Latin or English.

Langland was indeed bemoaning the state of learning, but not in the way people bemoan the supposed decline of English today. He was concerned with the fact that scholars didn’t know languages other than Latin and English, and the schoolchildren were not even learning good Latin. He was not going on about the decline of English, which was in the process of re-establishing itself as the prestige language in place of Anglo-Norman French, with poets like him, Chaucer, and Gower, once again composing serious verse in it.

[Edit: I’ve rephrased the final paragraph, removing the terms acrolect and basilect, which aren’t quite applicable in this context.]

[This is the second in an irregular series of posts on various quotations posted to the internet—so irregular that the first was nearly two years ago. The internet is a wonderful source of information, but when it comes to quotations it is abysmal. I’ll lay good money down, giving odds, that any given quotation taken from the internet is defective in some way.]


Sources:

Langland, William, Piers Plowman: A New Annotated Edition of the C-Text (1978), Derek Pearsall, ed., University of Liverpool Press, 2014.

Langland, William, The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Critical Edition of the B-Text Based on Trinity College Cambridge MS B.15.17, A. V. C. Schmidt, ed., Everyman, 1995.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. verse, v.1

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