The Feral Piers: A Reader’s Experience of the British Library Cotton Caligula A XI Manuscript of Piers Plowman
This book offers a micro study of one particular historic version of PPl: Cotton Caligula A XI. Gasse reads Cot as an aesthetic object, one shaped by an intersection of multiple anonymities, and asks who can be said to ‘own’ PPl when author, scribe, and author are unknown to each other, a situation where PPl becomes a ‘feral text’. At what point indeed might a reader come to regard the manuscript in her hands as being something other than a bona fide copy of that work of literature known today as PPl?
In the first chapter, Gasse examines the manuscript itself, and argues that the wide margins of the Cotton Piers extend an invitation to the reader to participate actively in this dialogic text’s intellectual discourse. The second chapter concerns the professional practice of the scribe, which often seems aberrant by the expected early standard for PPl texts. The Cotton scribe provides no interpretative visual guidance for readers who want visual distraction to enhance their reading experience or who require help navigating the changes between English and Latin or who need key words, names, or passages of particular importance in any language identified for them. Detailed examination of the main scribe’s use of paraph and punctuation marks, capitalization, abbreviation, spelling, choice of letter shape, and modes of textual correction reveal that he worked within a consistent set of principles in the execution of his craft. Gasse argues that these were significant in the good relationship that he maintained with his reader.
Chapters 3, 4, and 5 offer a literary reading of the Cotton PPl, tracing the path of the text in three stages: the prologue to passus 7; the dreamer’s quest for Dowel (passus 8 to passus 14); and passus 15 to the end of the text. Gasse suggests that while the scribe and readers might have brought to the narrative certain macro expectations about its length, thematic content, and inclusion of particular episodes, their knowledge is absent at the micro level. She also argues that the scribe embeds word play in his manuscript copy. The final chapter, about half of which was previously published in Fifteenth Century Studies 35, discusses the early readers of the Cotton PPl. The manuscript records a range of readerly responses which accrued over time, from the four surviving marginal notations attributable to the scribe to full textual messages written out by the pens of four different readers (two from the fifteenth century, one from the sixteenth century, and one who wrote too little text to be classified by the style of handwriting), to a whole range of visual but non-verbal notations in the manuscript’s wide margins, including twenty-three surviving line-face drawings placed opposite a very broad range of topics.
Cotton Caligula A XI offers a unique experience of PPl. Gasse argues that it is not the nameless scribe who appropriates the text as his own, but the feral PPl that appropriates any change of the scribe, quickly absorbing the difference into itself. Change the fundamental material nature of Truth’s pardon to make it two-leaved and all the feral text’s manifold other references to written documents are there to respond. Turn the Tree in passus 16 into the Dry Tree of Charity and the feral text forges new links within itself to accommodate the alteration even as it establishes new external links to the Dry Tree legend. Through such feral acts of textual appropriation scribal interventions are quickly resolved by the gravitational weight of the feral PPl as a whole. Reading the Cotton PPl may not be the same as reading the author’s very own words as reconstructed by any modern editor, but its close study at the micro level opens a window to understanding the early literary response to this text. In its complex feral nexus of anonymity the Cotton manuscript within its historic frame affords a unique vision of a medieval literary masterpiece in its time, regardless of whoever we now think its author may have been.
The Feral Piers: A Reader's Experience of the British Library Cotton Caligula A XI Manuscript of Piers Plowman (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2016).
Gasse, Rosanne P.