Title Background

The Versions and Revisions of <i>Piers Plowman</i>

The Versions and Revisions of Piers Plowman

This chapter offers an introduction to the different manuscript versions of PPl, and to what they reveal about L’s approach to composition and revision. While most manuscripts of Chaucer’s poetry were produced after 1400 under the auspices of a reasonably organised London book trade, something like 15-20 manuscripts of PPl were in circulation before this date, and emerged from ‘a distinctively un- (or maybe dis-) organized book world’ (p. 34). L’s text is, as a consequence, more diverse and less stable than Chaucer’s texts. Comparing passages from the prologue in A, B, and C, Hanna describes the characteristic features of L’s revision process: each version elaborates on the last, through a process L may have known as ‘interposition’, and which Chaucer may have called ‘in-eching’; each also shows L fine-tuning particular lines to make them more precise, more evocative, or both. Hanna discusses the differences between three B text manuscripts, Bm, Bo and Cot to show that substantial variation exists even between closely related copies. These manuscripts also show how scribes combined different versions of the poem: their exemplar originally lacked the first part of the poem, and its scribe supplied much of the missing section from a copy of C, and a small part from a copy of A. Many copies of A were completed with material from C, and those scribes who could recognise the different versions would sometimes seek to provide ‘omnibus’ editions of the poem, incorporating readings from all three (the Z text is the best known example of this). Noting that readings of PPl‘s revisions often relegate the A text to ‘a form of silence’, Hanna reads A as in part a response to Wynnere and Wastoure: in its first vision, PPl takes up Wynnere‘s account of contemporary decline and its overriding concern with the proper disposition of worldly wealth, and Wynnere has a long ‘afterlife’ in PPl, since each subsequent vision constitutes a ‘re-visioning’ of the issues left unresolved in the previous one (p. 44). This process of ‘re-visioning’ continued to inform L’s poetics as he went on to produce the B and C texts. L’s ‘re-visions’ are not corrections; instead, each constitutes ‘a constructive intervention that creates poetic meaning anew’ (p. 48). Each version of the poem has its own ‘projective horizontality, a movement towards an end’, yet each also occupies a particular place in ‘the longitudinal and incrementally additive sequence by which Langland seems always to have composed’ (p. 49).


The Cambridge Companion to Piers Plowman, ed. by Andrew Cole and Andrew Galloway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 33-49.


Hanna, Ralph