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The Lost History of "Piers Plowman"

The Lost History of "Piers Plowman": The Earliest Transmission of Langland's Work

Lawrence Warner
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 136
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt3fhp40
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  • Book Info
    The Lost History of "Piers Plowman"
    Book Description:

    Despite the recent outpouring of scholarship onPiers Plowman, Lawrence Warner contends, we know much less about the poem's production, transmission, and readership than one might think. When did William Langland write each of the three versions of the poem, and when did they enter wide circulation? What role did scribes and other agents play in these processes?The Lost History of "Piers Plowman"engages with these questions to bring about a fundamental shift in our understanding of the genesis and development of the Middle English poem.

    According to received history, the poem exists in three distinct, chronological versions, the A, B, and C texts, with most scholars agreeing that Langland completed the B text-the version most familiar to modern readers-around 1377-78. Challenging much of the prevalent wisdom about the poem, Warner argues that the received B text is not an integral poem aligned with a single author but, rather, two groups of manuscripts, each of which, because of scribal activities, takes on varying amounts of what we now call C version matter. Through close textual analysis, he reveals that the B text is a conflation of an ur-B text with a collection of passages that belong to the C version of circa 1390, demonstrating that the circulation of the C text actually predates that of the B.

    The Lost History of "Piers Plowman"is a groundbreaking and provocative work that establishes an entirely new paradigm for the study of one of the central works of Middle English literature. It will be of interest to scholars and students of textual studies, editorial theory, and medieval history.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0580-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xviii)
  4. Chapter 1 Piers Plowman Before 1400: Evidence for the Earliest Circulation of A, B, and C
    (pp. 1-14)

    William Langland was finished withPiers PlowmanA by around 1370, but its earliest extant manuscripts are no earlier than about 1390.¹ Such gaps are not unusual for Middle English poetry,² but the existence ofPiers Plowmanin so many versions, and the indications that major figures like John Ball and Geoffrey Chaucer knew one of those versions as early as 1380, render our response to this gap in particular especially urgent. The predominant narrative of the poem’s early existence—that the B version was the only one available by that date—is in effect a gloss on that gap,...

  5. Chapter 2 Scribal Conflation, Convergent Variation, and the Invention of Piers Plowman B
    (pp. 15-31)

    The archetype of all surviving B copies, as we saw in the Preface, concludes with a rubric expecting a further, twenty-first passus: an odd error resulting from contamination by a C manuscript, in which the rubric worked perfectly well as an explicit. These few pen-strokes in manuscripts L and R thus have enormous consequences in that they identify the moment of Bx’s production as the era of conflation and conjoinment. The critical propensity for focusing only on authorial texts has led to an almost exclusive focus on the three versions, dated to the 1360s, 1370s, and 1380s respectively, but the...

  6. Chapter 3 The Poison of Possession: B Passus 15
    (pp. 32-48)

    In a famous forty-line invective printed as B 15.533–69, Anima inveighs against the ill effects of the Donation of Constantine, the apocryphal act that was believed to have ceded the Lateran in Rome to the papacy.¹ This passage has long figured prominently in textual and editorial work on the poem, and its culminating lines (564–67), an explosive call for disendowment, have served as an important touchstone for studies ofPiers Plowmanand topics as diverse as Wycliffism, anticlericalism, Franciscanism, vernacularism, English historiography, and the politics of the C revision.² Here is the passage as it appears in National...

  7. Chapter 4 The Ending, and End, of Piers Plowman B
    (pp. 49-61)

    Are passus 19 and 20 ofPiers PlowmanB the 1000-odd lines of Middle English poetry with the greatest impact upon our understandings of English culture c. 1380? Few competitors present themselves. These passus’ sheer power has attracted much of the attention: Robert Frank heard “splendid Beethovian thunder” in passus 20, which features Will’s waking encounter with Need and the apocalyptic final dream in which Elde and Antichrist ravage Holy Church.¹ The final few lines, in which Conscience announces that he “wol bicome a pilgrime, / And wenden as wyde as the world renneth / To seke Peres the Plouhman”...

  8. Conclusion. Lollars, Friars, and Fyndynges: C Passus 9 and the Creation of Piers Plowman
    (pp. 62-68)

    Piers PlowmanB was a much different poem, so I have argued, from the entity Skeat and his successors constructed and that has been studied ever since. This stage of the poem, which took shape in the late 1370s, lacked a series of passages totalling about eighty lines from passus 3, 8, 9, 12, 15, and 16; lacked the final two passus altogether; and had not yet taken on those hundred or so RF/Cx readings that conflict with W~M/N². But we can cast this in positive terms as well: over the course of the 1380s Langland put together a program...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 69-100)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 101-108)
  11. Index
    (pp. 109-114)
  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 115-117)