Harley 3954 and the Audience of Piers Plowman
The scribe of Harley 3954, which contains a B-A splice of PPl, was aware of the differences between the A and B texts, introducing a number of A-character readings into his B text. This evidence suggests that he had access to both exemplars before he began copying the poem, and exploited the differences between the versions to produce a text in which anti-fraternal passages were removed or toned down. Further evidence of such cross-versional contamination appears in the EAMH3 group’s attestation of readings found in B but not other A manuscripts. This manuscript’s links with M (Society of Antiquaries 687) and Z (Bodley 851) provide further evidence of an A-text exemplar, most likely shared within a network of East Anglian religious houses, that was edited with reference to a copy of the B version. ‘Harley 3954, and its closely related manuscripts, reveal ways in which the poem was tailored for a specific provincial, clerical community and some of the areas which such readers considered most provocative and thus needing revision, editing or even suppression’ (p. 81). These readers were especially interested in confession and penance, and the role of priests in the administration of pastoral care, which seems to contradict Jill Mann’s claim that A was intended for a lay audience. And their less rigid attitude towards the versions, while problematical for editors such as Kane and Donaldson, offers important insight into the medieval attitude towards PPl, whose A version was understood to be an in-progress draft released before its completion and subsequently superseded by the completion of B and its release for circulation among L’s London audience.
Medieval Texts in Context, ed. by Denis Renevey and Graham D. Caie (New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 68–84.