Title Background

Debt and Its Double in <i>Piers Plowman</i>

Debt and Its Double in Piers Plowman

The poem exists in whole or in part in fifty-two manuscripts, none of which derives from any other extant manuscript. Lists manuscripts by version, and notes that ten manuscripts show composite texts. Argues against authorial status of these composites, with the possible exception of MS. Harley 3954. Establishes manuscript traditions that substantiate the notion of the three authorial texts, while noting the strong possibility that the origin of the C tradition was due to a literary executor when WL’s second revision, interrupted by the author’s death or incapacity, was released for copying. The existence of manuscript traditions, each of which goes back to a (lost) archetype, suggests that WL did not constantly or even frequently make a text available; hence the probability exists that any manuscript text is a record of generations of substitutions, unconscious or conscious. Establishes a terminus a quo and termimus ante quem for the three versions as 1368-74, 1377-79/81, 1379/81-c.1385. Finds that the dissemination of the three versions was rapid, with all being copied by the early 1380s. There is no evidence of a final text having driven out earlier ones; the fact that some manuscripts have C supplements may merely reflect availability of exemplars. Correction is especially frequent in C manuscripts. In general, corrections appear along with slavishly copied nonsense readings, which were allowed to stand as well as unnoticed omissions from the text. A-text manuscripts resist classification: only one family and a couple of genetic pairs have been identified. The A tradition may well have developed in awareness of a fuller version. Nonetheless, the archetypal A manuscript is reconstructible; in comparison with the B and C archetypes it has a scribal look, due either to WL’s improvement through later revision or merely through scribal corruption. The B tradition is well defined in the shape of the version and in classification of extant manuscripts into two distinct families. The B archetype, which can be confidently restored, is at least two removes from the authorially sanctioned B exemplar. The C tradition is distinguished by virtue of the fact that WL used a scribal copy of B for his revision; that the copy was earlier and better than the archetype of extant B manuscripts; that revision was unsystematic, local, and incomplete; and that the authorized formal copy of C was likely to have been made under the direction of someone other than the poet. Scribal variants can be classified according to various types and have value only as evidence for reconstructing the authorial readings they supplant. Argues that ME writers were very much concerned about the grammar and minutiae of their works. Concludes with a brief essay on the character of textual criticism.


Alford, Companion to PPl, 175-200.


Sheneman, Paul D.