Uncharacterizable Entities: The Poetics of Middle English Scribal Culture and the Definitive Piers Plowman
The appearance in recent years of several major editions of PPl and major textual studies on or relevant to PPl–including R-K; George Kane’s and Janet Cowen’s edition of Chaucer’s LGW; Ralph Hanna III’s Pursuing History; and Schmidt’s Parallel-Text Edition–allows a critical overview of some of their principles and results, especially those defining Middle English scribal characteristics and those addressing the changing nature of L’s style of composition and revision. Each of the scholars in this conspectus of recent textual work on PPl is seen to operate via a species of “profiling” that should be questioned, and the stable and separate entities that this method yields rejected or conceived more fluidly. The Athlone editors employ such “profile” textual criticism the most aggressively and eccentrically, moving from a profile of B’s author as meticulous to, in C, the work of both a zealous but obtuse “literary executor” as well as a zealous but often negligent author, entities that should instead be collapsed together; yet the Athlone editions well serve readers of the poem because these editions force readers to consider the inextricable involvement of the author and scribal culture, imposing on readers the great difficulties of distinguishing these, hence, paradoxically, the impossibility of sustaining the scribal and authorial profiles that the Athlone editions propose as their goals: “The efforts [the Athlone editions] exact from the reader, prompting that reader to contest and construct chracterizations at any given moment and on the basis of a comprehensive array of scribal and authorial evidence, stands finally as the measure of the greatness of their editorial achievement.” Tracing a brief history of editorial thinking behind R-K and linking these projects and editions by means of a consideration of their profiles of the author and his scribes, the essay engages various specific points current in debate: e.g., Hanna’s rejection of a pre-C authorial version witnessed by HM MS 114 and Univ. of London S.L. MS V.88, as argued by Wendy Scase, does not fully explain the evidence, which instead points toward L’s style, displayed at every point in his writing, of doubling phrases when inserting new materials. The discussion closes with a comparison between R-K (and the Athlone project as a whole) and Schmidt’s parallel text edition, focusing on a small crux at A.1.38-39 / B.1.40-41/ C.1.38-39. Here the readings used in the Athlone editions imply a shifting profile of the author that is implausible yet usefully provocative, while Schmidt’s clear and simple solution offers PPl a chance to achieve the stability and “susceptibility for memorization” enjoyed by Chaucer, yet, by emending a reading found in all A manuscripts, contradicts Hanna’s and Kane’s evidence that A’s seven archetypes cannot be linked by any one shared error, and generally provides less compulsion to the reader to consider L’s involvement in scribal culture.