Reading Piers Plowman in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries: The Evidence of British Library Cotton Caligula A XI
The readers of PPl have attracted considerable attention in recent years, as efforts have been made to situate generally this text within late medieval English culture. Yet few studies have attempted to deal directly with the responses of readers to PPl through the annotations they made in the manuscripts, and fewer still have matched the response of readers to the precise manuscript that they were reading. This article is a close examination of some of the annotations found in one particular fifteenth-century manuscript of the poem, B.L. MS Cotton Caligula A.XI, which has had several readers peruse its pages and leave trace evidence of their reaction behind. Difficult, if not impossible, to deal with or interpret with any certainty, the marginalia suggest a reaction to this difficult, complex text unlike what modern scholars may expect or want to find. The great issues of PPl scholarship, past and present, pass unnoticed by these readers in favour of a seemingly more mundane interest in vocabulary and orthography. Theme and structure appear more appealing than theory and polemical dialogue. Nevertheless, their responses to PPl are far from being simplistic or naive and show a genuine appreciation of L’s challenge to choose between the polarities of existence, between doing evil and doing well in one’s own life. (RG)
Fifteenth-Century Studies, 35 (2010), 33-49.