The Idle Readers of Piers Plowman in Print
Accounts of PPl‘s early modern reception tend to emphasize antiquarians and Protestant reformers, “readers for action” who used the poem for professional and political ends as an object of study or as evidence for ecclesiological polemic. This article discusses copies of the Crowley and Rogers editions of PPl now in the Bancroft and Beinecke Libraries, annotated by provincial readers in Derbyshire and Suffolk respectively, in order to articulate an alternative model of reception defined by ‘idleness’ rather than action. The traces left by these ‘idle readers,’ who had no clear professional investment in the poem or its contents, reveal a different way of engaging with the poem: distracted, pleasure-seeking, open to humor and surprise. Their responses suggest that not all early modern readers understood the poem as a useful artifact from a distant medieval past, but could treat it as a living document in their own moment. Because idle readers lack the readily identifiable motivations of reformers and antiquarians, however, they present methodological challenges to critics and book historians. Claims made about them must therefore be tentative and open to uncertainty.
New Medieval Literatures, 17 (2017), 201–36.