Title Background

<i>The Myth of Piers Plowman: Constructing a Medieval Literary Archive</i>

The Myth of Piers Plowman: Constructing a Medieval Literary Archive

This book, available both in print and as an Open Access download [http://www.oapen.org/search?identifier=472471], argues that our field is engaged in the continual production of the archive that it instead sees as its neutral object of study. The introduction, after setting out a theoretical framework adopted from Derrida’s ‘archive fever’ and Foucault’s remarks on the archeology of knowledge, surveys Joseph Ritson’s 1802 analysis of the ‘editions’ of PPl, which subsequent critics have wrongly taken to refer to the three authorial versions; John Mitford’s early nineteenth-century speculation that multiple authors were responsible for the versions; and the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive‘s contrasting definitions of the term ‘archive’ as witness either to the authorial text or to the poem’s textual tradition.
Chapter 1, which speculates on the possibility that L wrote William of Palerne‘, is a revised version of an essay which first appeared in Viator, 37 (see ‘Annual Bibliography, 2006’, YLS, 21 [2007], item 36). Chapter 2 argues for London as site of the production of C, on the basis of a series of allusions to the factional politics and the riot of 1384. It draws out the parallels between the Westminster Monk’s account of the riot of 1384 and C.3.87-114’s focus on London, ‘regratery’, mayoral responsibility, and divine justice in the streets and adduces new support for the early proposal that the phrase ‘as an anchorite’ at C.3.141-3, when the king imprisons Meed, is scribal. That passage’s emphasis is instead on the site of her incarceration, Corfe castle, where Northampton was sent after the 1384 riot.
‘Latinitas et communitas Visionis Willielmi de Langlond‘, chapter 3, argues that medieval and early modern readers were most likely to engage with PPl via Latin. It draws attention to a collection of fifteen Latin lines from the poem (and a few from elsewhere) added below the explicit of the A text in Ashmole 1468, offers a set of new or corrected identifications of A.3.108a, C.3.190a, C.14.32a, and, most important, the tag Patientes vincunt (John of Bromyard). The chapter concludes with another excellent collection of the poem’s Latin from the seventeenth century.
Chapter 4, ‘”Quod piers plowman”: non-reformist prophecy, c.1520–1555’, is a revised version of an essay published in YLS, 21 (see ‘Annual Bibliography, 2007’, YLS, 22 [2008], item 52); it adds a new instance of the phenomenon there discussed. The focus of Chapter 5 is the eighteenth-century movements of Huntington Library MS Hm 114, Ht for its PPl text. John Urry collated the opening of his Rogers 1561 edition against Hm 114, which he borrowed Thomas Thynne, first Viscount Weymouth. Mid century, the Cambridge don Dr. John Taylor set his pupil William Burrell to collating a Crowley volume against the Spelman MS and the A text Harley 875. The rest of the chapter traces such episodes as the Bodleian’s miscataloguing of the Taylor/Burrell volume as belonging to the Rawlinson collection and the sale of now-lost manuscripts. The eighteenth century was not at all ‘a comparatively fallow period for PPl textual scholarship’, as has been claimed.
Chapter 6 tells the story of ‘William Dupré, Fabricateur‘, in the context of a number of figures involved in ‘the Age of Forgery, c.1794–1802’: future poet laureate Robert Southey (who was passionate about PPl), Thomas Rowley / ‘Chatterton’, and the Shakespeare forger William-Henry Ireland (whose father, so Jack Lynch has informed me since this book’s publication, was keen to get a copy of PPl in 1796). This is the context for the exploits of one William Dupré, who both engaged in his own forgeries in 1802, supposed letters by Brunetto Latini sent to Guido Cavalcanti relating the customs of the English, and translated certain excerpts of the Piers Plowman A in a manuscript he owned, now Douce 323. The chapter puts Dupré’s accomplishments in the context of the Chaucer translations that Betsy Bowden has collected and outlines his relationship with the collector Francis Douce.
Much of the conclusion is based on an essay published in The Chaucer Review, 48.1 (see ‘Annual Bibliography, 2013’, YLS, 28 [2014], item 74), which traces the tradition, beginning with Leland and popularized via Humfrey Wanley’s catalogue of Harleian MSS, that Chaucer wrote PPl: a test-case for our assumptions about what constitutes ‘the Langland archive’.
This book’s first main argument is that, ‘a rigorous analysis of what does survive in our material archives, from Melbourne to Bethlehem to the Bodleian, will reap benefits far and away beyond the effort it takes to track them down. The other main point is not less important, if not as exciting either: that we cannot help but fabricate the archive that we then interpret, and thus, armed with that knowledge, should tread carefully and lightly, doing what we can to limit the ill effects of our own archive fever on the archives or ourselves’ (p. 140).