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The Text of <i>Piers Plowman</i>: Past Present, Present, and Future

The Text of Piers Plowman: Past Present, Present, and Future

The text of PPl was for seventy years one of the great uncharted bogs of English literature. Signboards were put up and in the process of time disappeared from sight completely. Scholars floundered and came to a halt and were swallowed up with only a despairing cry of “I believe in one poet” to mark their passing. It was a dinosaur’s graveyard’ (p. 75). Thus opens this witty survey of PPl‘s textual scholarship. First, the past: Skeat’s unfortunate choice of MS P for his copy-text of C is again here one of Pearsall’s favourite topics, which appears together with observations on the reasons for the authorship controversy (Manly did not like the theological debates of B and C). Kane’s 1960 edition of A and 1965 Evidence for Authorship ‘brought about the change that was necessary. Everybody decided to agree with him and get on with things. Enough was enough. L studies began to blossom’ (p. 78). The present: Kane and Donaldson’s B edition was a radical improvement, but still problematic, especially in their insistence that L always observed aa/ax alliteration and their need to stamp out rumours of the existence of any stage of authorial text other than A, B, or C. The treatment of Russell and Kane’s C edition here is very similar to that in item 58 above. The future: while the PPl Electronic Archive reminds us that ‘all manuscripts have their value and interest as material witnesses’ (p. 86), ‘dangers lurk. The study of the material manuscript […] might turn into a free-for-all’, with the non-manuscript scholar, ‘like a venture capitalist, grabbing the manuscript assets and making off with them and sometimes pumping experts for information that can be turned to use in saleable contextless interpretation’ (p. 88). Pearsall is not in favour of this. ‘Yet a degree of adventurousness is needed’; ‘The information needs to be “wired up” into perceivable or plausible patterns of order by the postulation of bold hypotheses’ such as the recent proposal that the final two passus of B were added from C. ‘The study of medieval manuscripts has long been understood as a form of archaeology; like the best archaeology, it must be meticulously careful and accurate and historically responsible, but also bold’ (p. 88).


Poetica 71 (2009), 75-91.

Cross Reference



Pearsall, Derek