Title Background

<i>The Lost History of ‘Piers Plowman’: The Earliest Transmission of Langland’s Work</i>

The Lost History of ‘Piers Plowman’: The Earliest Transmission of Langland’s Work

The main argument of this book is that the received B version of PPl did not achieve wide circulation until after the final, C version had been produced, from which the two scribes who took the B archetype (Bx, from which all extant copies of B descend) as their exemplar received substantial amounts of material, from ‘corrections’ of individual words to entire passages, including the final two passūs. The Preface begins by asking what was the date of Bx. Kane and Donaldson identified C contamination in that copy, leaving only L’s holograph and the C reviser’s B MS as the only MSS verifiably extant before ca. 1390 in their account. That aside, MSS L and R, the best representatives of the W~M and RF families of B, respectively, share a rubric that is best explained as C contamination of the archetypal text of B. The Preface also spells out the book’s policy of ‘translating’ A and B into the language of C.

Chapter 1 examines the claims made in the service of the beliefs that B was widely available by c. 1380 and its converse, that PPl A did not achieve substantial circulation until well after its composition. While some of these claims rely on the relative lateness of copies of A, they do not mention that copies of B are equally late. Much more pertinent evidence is found in the affiliations of the versions’ MSS, which reveal that at least sixteen pre-1400 copies of A are now lost, far more than the number of lost B MSS from that era. Claims about B’s influence on neither John Ball in 1381 nor Chaucer’s House of Fame withstand scrutiny. In sum, the evidence suggests that A was widely available prior to 1400, while its immediate successor, B, might not even have gone beyond the poet’s immediate circle till the 1390s or so.

Chapter 2 opens by querying the assumptions, first, that each of the three major textual traditions of the poem was at its origin integral and unaffected by the others; second, that any indications that suggest otherwise are the result of convergent variation; and third, that conflation always manifests itself in scribal officiousness. The possibilities otherwise provide the context for an examination of the means by which the ‘B’ readings from MS N2 of C are better understood as ‘C’ readings in the W~M group of B. The chapter engages with Jill Mann’s argument that A followed B, which relies heavily on passages from passūs 3 and 9 that are absent from A and the RF group of B but appear in the same form in W~M and N2. That Mann could not have known of this phenomenon attests to the problem at hand. The best solution is the opposite of hers: that ‘B’ (really, the W~M subarchetypal scribe) got these passages from C.

The primary mode of this ‘contamination’ of Bx by N2‘s ancestor (Nx), Chapter 3 shows, was via the movement of passages on sheets of loose revision material that could go easily from L’s C papers to Bx as copied by the W~M subarchetypal scribe. This chapter focuses on the fortunes of a passage whose textual state serves as a litmus test for any belief in such an integral ‘B version’: the forty lines, received B.15.533-69, in which L inveighs against ‘the poison of possession’ and calls for clerical disendowment, already known to be absent from RF and misplaced by W~M. We need now to add to discussions of the problem the fact that N2 of C and W~M of B agree word-for-word and line-for-line. The simplest explanation of these problems is that the passage came on a loose sheet from L’s early C papers to Bx as copied by W~M, who misplaced it (it originally belonged earlier in the passus), and that the sheet was no longer in Bx when RF was produced.

Chapter 4, which is a revised version of an essay from Medium Ævum (see ‘Annotated Bibliography, 2007’, YLS, 22 [2008], item 51, linked below), shows the extreme unlikelihood that accident could explain the extent to which RF and Cx agree in B 19-20, C 21-22. To date, though, no one has been able even to suggest a solution to the problem because our ways of thinking PPl have prevented recognition of the problem in the first place. It argues that these passūs were not in any ‘B-version’ manuscripts that might have circulated prior to the appearance of C.

The Conclusion observes that the bulk of the passages treated in the book solely with regard to their textual affiliations are extraordinarily united thematically, focusing on friars, illicit sexuality, and the question of fyndynge, that is, livelihood or endowment. This fact constitutes final, and as it were external, support for the book’s argument that these passages went from Nx to Bx. On those grounds it suggests that the new passage on wasters from C passus 9, and a 13-line passage on anchorites and hermits from B passus 15, might have been part of this program as well. (LW)

Rev. by:

  • Louise Bishop, The Medieval Review, 11.10.03 [http://hdl.handle.net/2022/13592];
  • A. S. G. Edwards, Times Literary Supplement, no. 5662 (7 October 2011), 27;
  • Thomas J. Farrell, Textual Cultures, 6.1 (2011): 149-52;
  • Andrew Galloway, CHOICE, 49.3 (November 2011): 508;
  • Simon Horobin, YLS, 25 (2011): 204-07;
  • Gail Blick, Script & Print, 36 (2012), 52-55;
  • Noelle Phillips, Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures, 38 (2012), 131-35;
  • Anne M. Scott, Parergon, 29.1 (2012), 254-56;
  • Míċeál F. Vaughan, SHARP News, 21.1 (Winter 2012), 14;
  • Traugott Lawler, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, 34 (2012), 444-48;
  • Rebecca Davis, Speculum, 87 (2012), 1264-66.


Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.


Warner, Lawrence