The Essential (Ephemeral) William Langland: Textual Revision as Ethical Process in Piers Plowman
L exhibited a regard for revision that would have been recognized by his contemporaries as ethical. The compositional ethics of sermon writing especially may illuminate this poet’s revisions, such as the expansion of passus 5 from Z – C, each version displaying a greater emphasis on a common sermonological, ethical theme of penance and contrition. C.5, for instance, registers “the symbiosis of conversio morum and conversio textus,” where a scene of penitential self-assessment converges with, if not occasions, a salient revision to B. This all suggests that L may have viewed the life-long process of revision as tantamount to the life-long practice of “repenting and doing well in the real world.” His sense of text and of self is provisional. Or, to put this another way, the provisional status of sermons, wherein each redaction was sufficient unto itself for a specific occasion, and wherein there are as many versions as there are days, points to features we all too easily recognize in PPl: there are, for all intents and purposes, ‘A-‘, ‘B-‘ , ‘C-‘ , and ‘Z-‘ type sermons.” The sermons of Oxford preacher, John Felton, are an example, as is a sermon in London, BL MS. Additional 413121. No other genre sustains these kinds of links between revision and ethical or penitential imperative.
What’s more, there are a plurality of images in the poem that are paralleled in sermons, such as the opposition between tower and dungeon, the personification of Conscience as a speaker in parliament, and “the pilgrimage through the land of the Decalogue in B.5.” There are linguistic parallels as well: L’s method of weaving Latin in and out of his alliterative verse bears similarities to macaronic prose sermons, “in which Latin and English unpredictably alternate, even within a single sentence.” The evident interrelations between PPl and sermons suggests, finally, a need to invoke a “more inclusive concept of a ‘ Piers Plowman Legacy,’ as opposed to the ‘ Piers Plowman Tradition’ as comprising five, politically committed poems.” This broader “Legacy” would include prose, such as the sermons of BL MS. Additional 413121 and two other related MSS.: these “sometimes modulate into alliterative verse of the aa/ax type, thereby sharing moments of remarkable formal similarity with L.”