An Open Letter to Jill Mann about the Sequence of the Versions of Piers Plowman
Mann’s argument that the A text represents a “simplified version” of B carried out by a redactor for an audience of laity and “the young” fails to take into account the primarily literary evidence that demonstrates L’s sequential manner of revising from A to B to C. Latin quotations in A which do not appear in B argue against a redactor concerned to omit Latin in order to appeal to the non-literate, just as the presence of macaronics would seem to demand a knowledge of Latin to be comprehensible. Mann’s putative redactor is said to accommodate the hypothetical audience by “omission of sexual material,” as well as criticism of the clergy, yet such material is well represented in A. The notion of reducing the figurative language of the poem to make it more accessible is preposterous, since A is by its genre an extended figure of thought. The difference between the A and B versions consists in topics more extensively developed, answering to conceptual growth and movement of events. Thus, the portrait of Wrath, absent from A owing to a weakened distinction between Wrath and Envy in the hamartiologies, is left to be developed in B according to estates satire of clergy and friars, and broadened to include lay instances in C. The fall of the rebellious angels, the lineage of Meed, and the relationship between Reason and Conscience all demonstrate a particularization and development carried out through progressive revision, as does the development of the thematic framework of Charity, central to B and C, out of the simple personification of Dowel in A.8.155. The A text concludes on a note of dissatisfaction with the Augustinian doctrine of predestination. L’s failure to deal adequately with this problem is solved in B, in which the triumphant Christ of passus 18 proclaims the possibility of universal salvation. C further revises on this point by pejoratively associating the doctrine of predestination with Wyclif (11.202-07). The extensive revision over the three versions result from L’s concept of the poem developing as he wrote it, having undertaken an ambitious work with no models to imitate.
YLS 13 (1999): 7-34.