Title Background

Another Fine Manuscript Mess: Authors Editors and Readers of <i>Piers Plowman</i>, Editors and Readers of <i>Piers Plowman</i>

Another Fine Manuscript Mess: Authors Editors and Readers of Piers Plowman, Editors and Readers of Piers Plowman

Critics, needless to say, recognize that there are three (perhaps four) distinct versions of PPl, yet when one regards the manuscript evidence in sum, technically, as many as nine (composite) versions of the poem come to view. This is the manuscript mess that editors and scholars have either tidied up, like Skeat, or got lost in, like Chambers. It is the mess they have tried to sweep away, as in Kane-Donaldson’s attempt to reconstruct a best B text (and Donaldson’s reticent hesitation in doing so) and in Hanna’s explanation that C is the only distinct version, with B construed as an extension of A. While any argument about textual priority ultimately “depends more on its imaginative power than on real textual evidence,” this manuscript mess tells us something about PPl itself, inviting critics to rethink its histories of production and reception and the priority of the versions themselves. First, whereas the C text is typically taken as L’s final version, it just as well could be the poet’s effort to reach a “non-metropolitan audience” who had a “taste for learning,” thereby explaining such additions as the grammatical passage on “mede” and “mercede” (C.3.332-406) and accounting for the general tempering of poetic fervor for a message more explicit than its predecessors. Second, does the poem betray evidence of oral performance and did parish priests, perhaps one of the poem’s primary audiences, draw out from PPl some of those short and catchy alliterative phrases, such as “chastite withouten charite worth cheyned in helle” (B.1.188)? The MSS may contain clues in that respect. Third, some scribes/redactors were so skillfully attentive to, and fascinated with, Langland’s poetic that it is impossible for contemporary readers to distinguish between L’s lines and those of an interpolator, say, as in the John But conclusion to three A versions. Was there something like a “school of Langland?” Fourth, that many versions of PPl are compilations of different versions, such as Oxford Corpus Christi College MS 201 and San Marino, Huntington Library, MS HM 114, means that we should read this reception history under the category of compilatio itself, in which the roles of “poet, editor, reader” overlap. Lastly, the annotations to PPl MSS, even those terse and superficial annotations often neglected by critics, are invaluable in thinking about reception history, for they show how “readers are engaged in the practical job of making the text more manageable, somewhat like the way we mark up a text we are about to teach with underlining, symbols and brief notes.”


Pearsall, 15-28

Cross Reference



Benson, C. David