Although Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland together dominate fourteenth-century English literature, their respective masterpieces, The Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman , could t be more different. While Chaucer's writings suggest that he considered himself an heir, t a begetter, the tion 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, t 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 can in fourteenth-century England.The earliest complete version of Piers Plowman predates Chaucer's text; 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 it was Chaucer, t 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 eugh to have a series of literary heirs, tably 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 .Langland, on the other hand, despite his contemporary popularity, was a dissenter and social critic. 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. 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 canical and how others become marginalized.
JOHN M. BOWERS is professor of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.