Title Background

Editing the B Archetype of <i>Piers Plowman</i> and the Relationship between Alpha and Beta

Editing the B Archetype of Piers Plowman and the Relationship between Alpha and Beta

In this essay the authors reflect on their experience of editing the archetype of PPl B and explain the principles that they followed. Firstly, they consider the value of establishing the stemma, challenging Kane-Donaldson’s argument that convergent variation makes it impossible to rely on the stemma and analysing the character of those manuscripts affected by lateral transmission. They note, however, that choice between the alpha and beta branches must adopt Kane’s ‘direct method’, relying on the evidence of alliteration, sense, and ‘difficilior lectio’. Where there are three branches, as with the beta witnesses, choice can follow the logic of recension. To establish the readings of Bx, they find that agreement between the beta manuscripts L and M with the alpha R is generally sufficient evidence. They conclude that genetic and ‘direct’ analyses are not mutually exclusive methods of editing. Secondly, the authors consider the eighty-one passages lost by either alpha or beta, questioning Kane-Donaldson’s explanations of eyeskip (homoarchy, etc.) as the major factor in such loss. They point out that many of the larger omissions coincide with paragraphs yet consider that skipping from one paraph sign to another is not sufficient explanation for the apparently massive carelessness of otherwise competent scribes. Looking in detail at individual passages, the authors raise the possibilities of other factors involved in their loss, including authorial revision and disruption in the exemplar. Both of these explanations are complicated by accepting the widespread view that Bx itself is a massively corrupt version of Langland’s poem. The authors suggest that is instead simpler to suppose that Bx was the fair copy that Langland used as his working text.


YLS, 26 (2012), 133-62.


Burrow, John, and Thorlac Turville-Petre