Title Background

Punctuation in the B-Version of <i>Piers Plowman</i>

Punctuation in the B-Version of Piers Plowman

In order to reconstruct the B text archetype of PPl (Bx) for the PPl Electronic Archive, Burrow and Thorlac Turville-Petre compared ten versions of PPl B (L, M, Cr, W, Hm, G, O and C from the beta branch, and R and F from the alpha branch). They based the punctuation in their reconstruction on the punctuation in nine of these versions (excluding Cr, Crowley’s printed edition). In this article, Burrow considers the three main types of punctuation in these manuscripts: paraphs marking distinct sections, punctuation to indicate caesurae, and punctuation to mark line endings. Benson and Blanchfield have shown that many B text manuscripts agree on the placement of paraph markers. Burrow shows that these paraphs serve all the various functions that Benson and Blanchfield identify: marking the stages in unfolding arguments and sequential descriptions, noting changes of speaker, and drawing attention to particularly striking or significant moments in the text. All nine manuscripts transcribed for the Electronic Archive Bx mark medial caesurae with a raised point or a punctus elevatus or a virgule. The placement of these caesurae is ultimately determined by metre rather than by syntax, but metre and syntax often coincide in L’s lines, and this helps to explain the high degree of unanimity in the manuscript punctuation. R and F use punctuation to mark line endings. Although this punctuation is not primarily designed to indicate units of grammatical sense, it can serve as a guide to syntax: ‘the end-line pause may be understood as itself a form of neutral or provisional punctuation that will serve for whatever the syntax may turn out to be’ (p. 13). While the punctuation of Bx may be reconstructed with confidence from these manuscripts, its relation to L’s own punctuation is more difficult to establish. Burrow suspects that L’s master copy did mark off ‘paragraphs’ with guide marks, and that L rarely or never punctuated line endings. He argues that the punctuation for medial caesurae is probably authorial, since this is comparatively unusual in manuscripts of other alliterative poems.


Truthe is the Beste': a Festschrift in Honour of A. V. C. Schmidt, ed. by Nicholas Jacobs and Gerald Morgan (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2014), pp. 5-16.


Burrow, J. A.