Reading Piers Plowman and The Pilgrim’s Progress: Reception and the Protestant Reader.
Pp. 1-27; 63-159; 201-10: Although both PPl and The Pilgrim’s Progress have been considered marginal, eccentric works outside the literary mainstream, they emerge as more central in their societal impact as we shift our frame of reference from the literary to the religious and posit an audience of “Protestant readers” for whom texts are *instruments rather than objects, to be viewed in salvational rather than recreational terms. The Piers of WL’s poem represented the ideal Christian who knew the way to truth. The letters of John Ball appropriate this symbol as a code word for class struggle; the early apocrypha combine the image with strong anticlericalism and align it with Lollard issues. The sixteenth-century reformers saw the plowman as an antique figure lending authority to their claims; finally, in I playne Piers, the plowman speaks prophetically for the poor. The image comes increasingly to emphasize the importance of inward, individual experience; Catholic priests are shepherds, Protestant preachers plowmen. To the Renaissance, PPl was seen as part of the development that linked fourteenth-century Lollardism to the English Protestant church under Henry VIII. Crowley inherited the tradition that saw the poem as a quest for individual reformation unmediated by external assurance made available by the church. In his first edition, Crowley sets Wyclif’s translations of Scripture side-by-side with WL’s writing of PPl, and his confusion of the dreamer-narrator and Piers shows the impact of the apocryphal plowman texts. Somewhat surprisingly, Crowley downplays the millenarian in favor of the ethical, as directed toward the personal reformation of the individual reader. Had Bunyan read Crowley’s PPl, he would have found an allegorical dream vision perceived in a historical and religious tradition; a feigned dream justified by the intention to instruct and rebuke; an unlettered, working-class figure who knows the way to truth; and a poem hostile to the clerical order. In the first stage of the poem’s reception, PPl was understood by its readers as a difficult and dangerous work, to be received as a prophecy fulfilled in their own time. The second, less volatile stage of the poem’s reputation (late sixteenth to early seventeenth century) viewed it as a literary product and a historical document: literary theorists such as Puttenham attempted to define it generically as satire, while remaining dubious of its artistic merits, whereas historians assumed the work to be a true description of the past. During the final stage (mid- seventeenth to early eighteenth century), PPl emerged as part of Reformation history, as in the works of Thomas Fuller and William Prynne.
Rev. D. M. Rosenberg, YLS 8 (1994): 196-99.