Title Background

<i>Piers Plowman</i>.

Piers Plowman.

Describes the poem as existing in three versions, all of which were copied and circulated early after their creation as more or less complete versions of what was considered a single work, as is suggested by the explicits of all three versions and the testimony of John But, if the “other werkes” he refers to are the B and C continuations. The B text preserves the boundaries of the A Visio but adds new material to the two dreams; the Vitae in B (and C) generally show less distinct boundaries than the Visio, and do not always coincide with passus division. The C text is a thorough revision of B, less than 100 lines longer, but with shifts of large blocks of B-text material, omissions and additions, and closely re-worked passages (up until the last two passus). Since the genetic history of the mss. is largely irrecoverable, finds it impossible to infer from stemmatic evidence the poet’s native dialect or the place of composition of the poem, as opposed to the place of copying of individual mss. Approximately 70 per cent of the poem is written in aa/ax lines, but Langland’s variations from the norm and his use of secondary patterning is found not to have been precisely described in critical commentary. Also calls for a thorough revaluation of the poem’s verbal and prosodic techniques, following the lead of Kane’s investigations of alliterative patterning and metrical accent. Recognizes the possible influence of cadenced prose, and calls for more work in ME on the “terrain in which prose and verse technique meet.” Regarding the authorship question, sees Manly’s work reflective of late nineteenth-century attitudes towards long, amorphous aggregates of originally separate compositions. Finds Manly’s arguments were not based on close textual study or on evidence from analogous works circulating in multiple versions during their authors’ lifetimes. Sees in the poem no certain borrowings from French allegories, French court lyrics or narrative, or other English alliterative poems, and finds the poem’s closest resemblances in alliterative biblical paraphrase and didactic verse. No single explanation of the author’s education is sufficient to account for the range of his literate references, traceable to the Psalms, Gospels, Epistles, sententiae, compendia, patristic writings, etc. The poet’s social and political views are orthodox, yet his fresh and impassioned presentation caused PPl to appeal to the heterodox, in a period when orthodox and Lollard moral teaching and private devotion were sometimes hard to distinguish. Criticizes the simplification that describes Chaucer and Langland in terms of “courtly” and “popular,” and finds in literary modernism’s interest in non-naturalistic modes the impetus toward elucidation of the poem’s key terms and concepts. Bibliography, pp. 2419-48, arranged under the following headings: Background books; (1) Manuscripts, (2) Editions, (3) Information about MSS, (4) Classification of MSS and Problems of Editing, (5) Selections, (6) Translations and Modernizations, (7) Textual Notes, (8) Language, (9) Versification, (10) Date, (11) Authorship, (12) Authorship Controversy, (13) Sources, (14) Comparisons and Later Relationships, (15) General Interpretation, (16) Discussion of Particular Problems, (17) Contemporary Relationships, Mainly Non-Literary, (18) General References, (19) Bibliography, (20) Miscellaneous.


A Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050-1500. Albert E. Hartung, ed., Vol. 7. New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1986. 2211-34, 2419-48.


Middleton, Anne.