Professional Readers of Langland at Home and Abroad: New Directions in the Political and Bureaucratic Codicology of Piers Plowman
Several manuscripts of PPl supply interesting marginalia, modifications, and illustrations that point to a group of “professional readers” whose “job it was to make decisions on behalf of the medieval reader about how the text should go down on the page — conscious decisions, that is, about editing, annotating, correcting, rubricating, or illustrating a text.” Their involvement in and around the text of PPl reflects their station and political concerns. Some of the readers, such as the scribes of F (Corpus Christi College MS 201) and Y (Newnham College MS 4), seem to be civil servants and lawyers who cannot help but comment on portions of the poem pertaining to the Exchequer, Chancery, and to the world of Westminster more generally; whereas the Z redactor (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 851) betrays the interests of an unbeneficed clerk with a “vivid sense of the documentary world.” Thomas Preston is the scribe of U (London, British Library, MS Additional 35157), an early and important copy of the C text that emerges from within the Westminster context but not necessarily from within “the premises of a workshop (suggestive of the scenario in which Doyle and Parkes find their scribes).” His copy of PPl is, therefore, modest. The reading habits of the Appellants, who seem to have taken a liking to Modus tenendi parliamentorum, could well shed some light on the place of PPl in this context; of interest here is Walter de Brugges, who owned a copy of PPl and “worked in a high-security position for the Appellants.” That de Brugges was also a Second Baron of the Dublin Exchequer directs the inquiry abroad and ultimately to the startling likelihood that Bodleian MS Douce 104 and Hubert Hall’s Red Book of the Exchequer were rendered by the same scribe- illustrator — not only revealing an instance in which a scribe worked on a PPl MS while employed at the Exchequer in Dublin in the 1420s, but showing that PPl itself can be amenable to an altogether different climate of politics, critique, and satire. This scribe was “so closely associated with government circles as to be illustrating the poem in the satirical style of the Dublin Court of Exchequer picture” in the Red Book.