Dave Wilton of Wordorigins.org writes:
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.
[. . .]
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. […]
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 at the time was not a prestige dialect—it was what linguists call a basilect, with Anglo-Norman French being the acrolect and Latin being the language of scholarship. The idea of English declining wouldn’t have made sense to him. If anything, English was on the rise, with poets like him, Chaucer, and Gower, once again composing serious verse in it.
Original and further details at the link; I love this sort of careful investigation.