Title Background

Editing <i>Piers Plowman</i>: The Evolution of the Text

Editing Piers Plowman: The Evolution of the Text

Each editor of PPl after Crowley has approached the poem with the intention of dislodging the work of his or her predecessor. The decisions regarding editorial procedure and the assumptions regarding single or multiple authorship adopted by successive editors have had an important impact on the way we see the poem. Early efforts toward editing the poem disclosed points of contention still debated today: Whitaker’s suggestion that C might be the earliest version; Price’s recognition of three different versions; Wright’s rejection of Tyrwhitt’s method of eclectic collation of manuscripts in favor of “best-text” editing, as well as his suggestion of multiple authorship. The EETS project, fueled by reverence for “the native literature,” was productive in its energy in printing medieval English works, but seriously impaired by its editors’ unfamiliarity with the revolution in the theory of editing resulting from the philological work of such continental scholars as Grimm, Rask, and Lachmann. Skeat’s approach to the poem, while more sophisticated than simply “mechanical,” reflects something of this limitation, since he did not establish the text through analysis of the genealogical relationships among all extant manuscripts, but compared relatively few alternative readings with sound instinct as his guide. His attribution of variant readings to “ignorant scribes” raises the question as to how much of the differences between texts should be attributed to the author and how much to scribes. The question becomes crucial to editorial principle, when considering the validity of importing readings into a particular version where the text seems to be in error and the other two versions agree on an acceptable reading. Ultimately, Skeat’s greatest achievement was subjecting the PPl manuscripts to the process of digestion, and making the results available in intelligible form to the scholarly public. But his project also established three hypotheses that deserve more careful debate: that there were only three original versions of the poem, that his own edition of A, B, and C presented a faithful picture of what Langland wrote, and that one author was responsible for the three versions. Manly’s opening of the “Piers Plowman Controversy,” centering on the question of multiple authorship, had the salutary effect of motivating action toward critical editions of all three versions, due to his influential, albeit mistaken observation that the authorship question could only be determined after the texts had been properly edited. However, assumptions about the identity of the author and his usus scribendi are inextricably bound up with the process of analyzing the variants across different versions of the poem, as evidenced in the Athlone editions of A and B. In editing A, George Kane’s insistence on a scientific mode of editorial procedure, inherited from Chambers and indebted to Lachmannian recension as well as to older eclectic methods, proceeds on the premise that authors wrote uniformly well, that the best reading among variants is the original, and that the criteria for distinguishing “good writing” and the “best” reading are unambiguous. He abandons his earlier conviction that the editing of the three versions must take place simultaneously, and edits A without consulting BC. In choosing between variants, he assumes that only one may be original, discounting the possibility of authorial revision within A. His model for the tendencies of scribal interference is possibly based on a retrospective reconstruction of his procedure in evaluating variants, which tends to favor majority readings. The Kane-Donaldson edition of B continues to attribute textual variation between manuscripts to scribal transmission alone, and to deny the possibility of authorial revision between or within versions, while taking the readings of the other versions into account. Their assumption of single authorship and three discrete versions allows them to regard agreement between A (as edited by Kane) and C as evidence that the B archetype is corrupt, and to emend B to read as AC. But often these readings are favored against alternative readings attested by some A manuscripts, often all B manuscripts, and some C manuscripts. The only possible explanation for the originality of Kane’s A-text reading in such cases is that the rejected A variant is present in BC due to corrupt archetypes of BC and coincident scribal error between the rejected A reading and those archetypes. This explanation makes many assumptions but is the only one that “saves” Kane’s and Kane-Donaldson’s texts.

Rev. Tom Shippey, TLS August 12, 1997: 12-13; Sean Taylor, YLS 11 (1997): 209-15; C. David Benson, Archiv für das Studium der neuren Sprachen und Literaturen 235 (1998): 422-26; Ralph Hanna, Speculum 73 (1998): 477-80; C. von Nolcken, N&Q 45 (1998): 245-46; Wendy Scase, MLR 94 (1999): 491-92.


Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.


Brewer, Charlotte