Title Background

The Athlone Edition of <i>Piers Plowman</i> B: Stemmatics and the Direct Method

The Athlone Edition of Piers Plowman B: Stemmatics and the Direct Method

In the Athlone editions of PPl A and B, Kane and Donaldson cast doubt on the use of the stemmatic method. In this article, however, Burrow argues that stemmatic analysis still has a useful role to play. Kane and Donaldson point to the circular logic of stemmatic analysis, noting that unoriginal readings must be eliminated by other methods before a stemma can be constructed. They prefer to establish the text through a ‘direct method’, based on their understanding of typical scribal substitutions, of L’s usus scribendi, and on considerations of sense. Yet, Burrow notes that many editors still use a conjectural stemma to help establish difficult readings, revising and amending it as they work. Kane and Donaldson also note that frequent examples of coincident error and lateral transmission in all versions of PPl create practical difficulties for the stemmatic method. Burrow replies that coincident error presents no real challenge to constructing a stemma, since it appears as ‘white noise’ which can easily be distinguished from evidence for recension (p. 342). Lateral transmission presents a larger problem, and it is certain that scribes did consult or recall other copies of PPl aside from their primary copy texts. Yet, Burrow notes that cases of lateral transmission can in principle be plotted on a stemma, since these are still readings derived from other manuscripts and so part of the history of the text. PPl B presents a further challenge to the stemmatic method because its manuscripts split into only two traditions (alpha and beta), making it hard to see which version derives from which. Burrow notes that Kane and Donaldson’s ‘direct method’ does not resolve these difficulties, and discusses the process by which they adopt readings from F (as representative of the alpha tradition) that find no support in other B manuscripts, or from the A or C versions. In his parallel text edition, Schmidt acknowledges the benefits and limitations of both stemmatics and the ‘direct method’, and uses a combination of the two to discriminate between variants. As a result, Burrow argues, his edition represents an advance on the Athlone editions


Notes and Queries, 61:3 (2014), 339-44


Burrow, J. A.