Cato’s ‘Trace’: Literacy, Readership, and the Process of Revision in Piers Plowman.
Cato’s Distichia had a distinctly Christian life in the Middle Ages, and as such, they constitute the single largest secular source of reference in PPl. This collection of maxims was seen as being “imbued with virtuous principles” entirely consonant with Christianity and was generally used as a “primer” in the initial stages of the study of Latin (124). The presence and frequency of Latin in the text of PPl has been studied by various critics as a means of discerning whether the intended audience might have been largely vernacular, Latinate, or mixed, the Latinate audience being typically considered “literate” (130). The Distichia, which circulated in both the vernacular and in more academic, Christianized Latin versions with commentary, would have been familiar to both the mixed or non-Latinate reading constituencies. When one considers the frequency and type of reference to Cato and the quotations from the Distichia, one might discern some of the motivations behind revision of PPl. Thus, in C, L elevates “Cato from the role of a pedagogue [in B] almost to that of a prophet” (132), and the distichs are seen more as Christian counsel than practical pedagogy. The essay concludes by suggesting that by pairing the Distichia with the Bible as the largest single secular source “Langland suggests that the search for grace does not require Latin literacy at a sophisticated level” (138). Three appendices set out the details of the various quotations from and references and allusions to Cato’s Distichia in the three versions of PPl.