Diuerse Copies Haue it Diuerselye: An Unorthodox Survey of Piers Plowman Textual Scholarship from Crowley to Skeat.
Much PPl scholarship proceeds from an unwarranted confidence that uncertainties of text and authorship are no longer relevant, given new critical approaches and/or doxologizing of certain editorial simplications. In fact, there exists a history of textual critical activity alternative to the account provided by Kane. Robert Crowley believed textual variation in the poem represented divergent outlooks that derived from two distinct intellects, but after 1500 the presence of an edited text, attributed by Crowley to a named author, had more influence than his comments on textual variation. Thomas Hearne (1678-1735) came to believe that the various texts of PPl resulted from a situation in which one author could alter his own work and a second author could assimilate and intelligently extend the first author’s work. Thomas Tyrwhitt (1730-86) recognized wide variation among the MSS., but accounted for it through scribal corruption of a work by one author. Joseph Ritson (1752-1803) was the first to suspect three separate versions of the poem, though his remarks to this effect were unpublished. Thomas Whitaker (1759-1821), unaware of the A text, edited a C text in the belief it was the author’s original, a bad MS. of which, he believed, had served as the basis of Crowley’s edition. Thomas Wright (1810-77), unaware of Price’s printed notice of the existence of the A text, understood that corruption and transformation of a work in a MS. culture could involve thorough revision and expansion by a second author. Skeat adopted the view that only one author created all three versions of the poem, with shifts in theme and emphasis attributable to the poet’s personal conflict and changed circumstances.