Title Background

On the Versions of <i>Piers Plowman</i>

On the Versions of Piers Plowman

A discussion of two cases where authorial activity intermediate among the accepted “versions” of PPl may have survived: the interpolated prologue of “the Ilchester manuscript” (sigil I of the C version) and MSS. R and F of the B version. A reconstruction of the common archetype of manuscript I and Ht (Huntington HM 114, B version) bears out Scase’s claim for Ht’s priority to I, but disproves her conclusion that the archetype derived from authorial revision of C. Manuscript I consistently rewrites passages to restore a standard alliterative pattern where, as witnessed by Ht, the archetype deviates from the standard. This same scribal process is at work in the I prologue’s unique rendition of the Hophni and Phineas passage, where mislineation in the archetype behind HtI results in an instance of homoioteleuton in I, dropping three lines (Prol.111-13). The HtI archetype was evidently a version produced in the London book trade in order to supplement the A version Prologue, probably forming a small booklet of C version lines with tag-line instructions for their insertion into the A version. The distribution of unique passages in RF, concentrating in passus 11-15, argue against the Kane-Donaldson hypothesis that these passages were omitted from the remainder of B manuscripts (L+) due to scribal inattentiveness. The content of the passages and their thematic appropriateness suggest that RF reflect a revised stage of B, temporally subsequent to L+. Kane and Donaldson’s insistence on a common archetype for RF and L+ was necessitated by their project to reconstruct WL’s holograph: if the RF archetype was produced with any revision whatsoever, no RF reading can be used to correct L+ or to arrive at the B archetype. To edit the B version, one must construct two archetypes (RF, L+) and subject their readings to a differential analysis. The A version of PPl, never intended for publication, derives from an in-progress draft held by a member of WL’s coterie, which included persons involved in parliamentary and royal legal service. WL almost immediately superseded A by first extending the A version to twenty passus, then returning to the head of A to revise the earlier version to accord with his new conception of the work. The evidence of the RF additions in B passus 11-15 suggests a belated recognition that the immediate join between the older and newer materials required additional adjustments. In C, WL accelerates materials from the B Vita into the C Visio and adds at least six major additions, all regarding the relationships between labor, idleness, poverty, and mendicancy. The “autobiographical passage” of C 5 is written in response to the appropriation of his work by the rebels of 1381.


Hanna, Pursuing History. 203-43.

Cross Reference



Hanna, Ralph, III