CONTENT Abstract……………………………………………………………………………… 2 Introduction………………………………………………………………………… 3 History of the title………………………………………………………………… 4 Editorial, publication and reception history……………………………… 7 Concluding remarks…………………………………………………………… 2 References………………………………………………………………………. 13 Abstract Piers Plowman or Visio Willelmi de Petro Plowman (William’s Vision of Piers Plowman) is the title of a Middle English allegorical narrative poem by William Langland. It is written in unrhymed alliterative verse divided into sections called “passus”. Piers is considered by many critics to be one of the early great works of English literature along with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight during the Middle Ages.
The poem- part theological allegory, part social satire- concerns the narrator’s intense quest for the true Christian life, from the perspective of mediaval Catholicism. This quest entails a series of dream-visions and an examination into the lives of three allegorical characters, Dowel (“Do-Well”), Dobet (“Do-Better”), and Dobest (“Do-Best”). Key words 1. Middle English poem 2. Allegorical narrative poem 3. Early great work Introduction The poem begins in the Malvern Hills in Malvern, Worcestershire.
A man named Will falls asleep and has a vision of a tower set upon a hill and a fortress in a deep valley; between these symbols of heaven and hell is a “fair field full of folk”, representing the world of mankind. In the early part of the poem Piers, the humble plowman of the title, appears and offers himself as the narrator’s guide to Truth. The latter part of the work, however, is concerned with the narrator’s search for Dowel, Dobet and Dobest. It is now commonly accepted that Piers Plowman was written by William Langland, about whom little is known.
This attribution of the poem to Langland rests principally on the evidence of an early-fifteenth-century manuscript of the C-text of Piers held at Trinity College, Dublin, which ascribes the work to one man called, ‘Willielmus de Langlond’. Other manuscripts also name the author as “Robert or William Langland”, or “Wilhelmus W”, which could be shorthand for “William of Wychwood”. The attribution to William Langland is also based on internal evidence, primarily a seemingly autobiographical section in Passus 5 of the C-text of the poem.
The main narrator of the poem in all the versions is named Will, with allegorical resonances clearly intended, and Langland is thought to be indicated as a surname through apparent puns. This could be a coded reference to the poet’s name, in the style of much late-medi? val literature. Langland’s authorship, however, is not entirely beyond dispute, as recent work by Stella Pates and C. David Benson has demonstrated. History of the title In the sixteenth century, when Piers was first printed, authorship was attributed by various antiquarians, such as John Bale and poets to John Wycliffe and Geoffrey Chaucer, amongst others.
Some sixteenth and seventeenth-century persons regarded the poem as anonymous, and/or associated it with texts in the plowman tradition of social complaint, particularly the Chaucerian pseudepigrapha, The Ploughman’s Tale and Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede. The latter was appended to Owen Rogers’ 1560 edition of Piers Plowman, a degraded version of Robert Crowley’s 1550 editions. The character of Piers himself had come to be considered by many readers to be in some sense the author. The first printed editions by Crowley named the author as “Robert Langland” in a prefatory note.
Langland is described as a probable protege of Wycliffe. With Crowley’s editions, the poem followed an existing and subsequently repeated convention of titling the poem The Vision of Piers Plowman, which is in fact the conventional name of just one section of the poem. Some medievalists and text critics, beginning with John Matthews Manly, have posited multiple authorship theories for Piers, an idea which continues to have a periodic resurgence in the scholarly literature. One scholar now disputes the single-author hypothesis, supposing that the poem may be the work of 2–5 authors, depending upon how authorship is defined.
In keeping with contemporary scholarly trends in textual criticism, critical theory, and the history of the book, Charlotte Brewer, among others, suggests that scribes and their supervisors be regarded as editors with semi-authorial roles in the production of Piers Plowman and other early modern texts, but this has nothing to do with Manly’s argument. Piers Plowman is considered to be one of the most analytically challenging texts in Middle English textual criticism. There are 50–56 surviving manuscripts, some of which are fragmentary.
None of the texts are known to be in the author’s own hand, and none of them derive directly from any of the others. All modern discussion of the text revolves around the classifications of W. W. Skeat. Skeat argued that there are as many as ten forms of the poem, but only three are to be considered authoritative- the A, B, and C- texts- although the definition of “authoritative” in this context is problematic. According to the three-version hypothesis, each version represents different manuscript traditions deriving from three distinct and successive stages of authorial revision.
Although precise dating is debated, the A, B, and C texts are now commonly thought of as the progressive (20–25 years) work of a single author. According to the three versions hypothesis, the A-text was written in around 1367–70 and is the earliest. It breaks off, apparently unfinished, at Book 11 and Book 12 is written by another author or interpolator. The poem runs to about 2,500 lines. The B-text (Warner’s ur-B text) was written around 1377–79. It revises A, adds new material, and is three times the length of A. It runs to about 7,300 lines.
The C-text was written in the 1380s as a major revision of B except for the final sections. There is some debate over whether the poem can be regarded as finished or not. It entails additions, omissions, and transpositions; it is not significantly different in size from B. Some scholars see it as a conservative revision of B that aims at disassociating the poem from Lollardy and the religious and political radicalism of John Ball during the Great Rising of 1381. Ball appropriated Piers and other characters in the poem for his own verses, speeches, and letters during the Rising.
There is little actual evidence for this proposal, and much against it. Skeat believed that the A-text was incomplete and based his editions on a B-text manuscript that he wrongly thought was probably a holograph. Modern editors following Skeat, such as George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson, have maintained the basic tenets of Skeat’s work: there were three final authorial texts, now lost, that can be reconstructed, albeit imperfectly and without certainty, by rooting out the “corruption” and “damage” done by scribes.
The Kane, Kane-Donaldson, and Russell-Kane editions of the three versions, published by the Athlone Press, have been controversial, but are considered among the most important accomplishments in modern editorial work and theory in Middle English. A. V. C. Schmidt has also published a parallel edition of A, B, C and Z, the promised second volume containing a full textual apparatus indicating his editorial decisions was finally published in 2008, long after the first volume fell out of print. A. G. Rigg and Charlotte Brewer hypothesized the existence of a Z-text predecessor to A which contains elements of both A and C.
The Z-text is based on Oxford MS. Bodley 851, which Rigg and Brewer edited and published. It is the shortest version, and its authenticity is disputed. Ralph Hanna III has disputed the Rigg/Brewer approach based on codicological evidence and internal literary evidence; consequently the Z-text is now more commonly viewed as a scribal corruption of A with C elements. More recently, Lawrence Warner has shown that what was thought of as B in fact incorporates matter produced as part of the C-revision: if B circulated before C, it looked nothing like what had been assumed .
There are some scholars who dispute the ABC chronology of the texts altogether, Jill Mann foremost amongst them. There is also a (minority) school of thought that two authors contributed to the three versions of the poem. Neither of these reappraisals of the textual tradition of the poem are generally seen as very robust. Editorial, publication and reception history John Ball, a priest involved as a leader in the Great Rising of 1381 (also known as the Peasants’ Revolt), included Piers and other characters in his writings.
If Piers Plowman already had perceived associations with Lollardy, Ball’s appropriations from it enhanced his and its association with the Lollards as well. The real beliefs and sympathies at work in Langland’s poem and the revolt remain, for this reason, mysterious and debatable. No doubt because of Ball’s writings, the Dieulacres Abbey Chronicle account of the revolt refers to Piers, seemingly as a real person who was a leader with Ball in the revolt. Similarly, early in the history of the poem’s dissemination in manuscript form, Piers is often treated as the author of the poem.
Since it is hard to see how this is credible to those who read the poem, perhaps the idea was that Piers was a mask for the author. Or, as the ideal character of the poem, Piers might be seen as a kind of alter-ego for the poet that was more important to his early readers than the obviously authorial narrator and his apparent self-disclosures as Will. Ironically, Will’s name and identity were substantially lost. In some contemporary chronicles of the Rising, Ball and the Lollards were blamed for the revolt, and Piers began to be associated with heresy and rebellion.
The earliest literary works comprising the Piers Plowman tradition follow in the wake of these events, although they and their sixteenth-century successors are not anti-monarchical or supportive of rebellion. Like William Langland, who may have written the C-Text version of Piers Plowman to disassociate himself from the Rising, they look for the reform of the English church and society by the removal of abuses in what the authors’ deem a restorative rather than an innovative project. The most conspicuous omissions from William Caxton’s press were the Bible and Piers Plowman.
Both may have been avoided for political reasons. It is possible that Piers may have been banned from print under prohibitions against histories, but this is uncertain; the language and metre might also have been obstacles. However, as in the case of Adrian Fortescue, as late as 1532, hand-copying of Piers manuscripts was still going on, and a staunch Roman Catholic like Fortescue could appreciate it as a critical, reformist but not a revolutionary, Protestant text. Robert Crowley’s 1550 editions of Piers Plowman present the poem as a social-gospelling Protestant’s goad to the reformation of religion and society.
The poem’s publication probably did have resonance. Many texts evoke Piers or Ploughmen for reforming purposes: one of the Marprelate tracts claims Piers Plowman for its grandfather. Many scholars assert that Piers Plowman was a banned book, that it was published as “propaganda” for reformist interests backed by Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset or other high-placed aristocrats, and that Crowley added interpretive glosses and substantially altered the text of the poem for propaganda purposes. These inferences exceed the evidence, even if Piers Plowman was politically sensitive, as many books were in the Tudor period.
The political nature of the poem- its mention of and association with popular rebellion- would obviously be unacceptable to the king, Somerset, and others, reform-minded though they were. In the passus summaries in the second and third editions, Crowley emphasizes material in the poem warning of political instability and widespread corruption when the king is a child. Other contemporary Edwardian and later Elizabethan publications by Crowley show that he was at this time concerned that the elite were using the Reformation to gain power and wealth, while the common people suffered economic and spiritual malnourishment.
Piers Plowman likely functioned for Crowley as a reformist text with polemic and prophetic qualities, but the text and apparatus do not overtly convey that impression. Some of Crowley’s marginal glosses and his passus summaries are clearly polemical, but there are very few glosses in the first edition. The assertion of propagandistic editorial intervention by Crowley exaggerates both his glosses, and the evidence that he deliberately deleted “Catholic” elements of Langland’s poem- a few references to purgatory, transubstantiation, and some praise for monasticism. In the econd and third editions, where the glosses were substantially increased, almost half are biblical citations. Aside from Raphael Holinshed who merely quotes John Bale, the only sixteenth-century references to “Robert Langland” as the author of Piers Plowman come from Bale and Crowley in his preface to the various impressions. In 1580 John Stow attributed Piers Plowman to “John Malvern,” a name that surfaces again with John Pitts in 1619 and Anthony a Wood in 1674. Wood also supplied “Robertus de Langland” as a possible alternative, and Henry Peacham attributed the poem to John Lydgate in 1622.
Except for Crowley and Francis Meres William Webbe is the only person to comment on the alliterative Piers Plowman favorably, since he disliked verse with “the curiosity of Ryme. ” However, Webbe still disparaged the poem’s harsh and obscure language. Several other writers regard the poem’s matter approvingly, seeing it as anti-Catholic satire and polemic. The Ploughman’s Tale was printed more and over a longer period of time than Piers Plowman, it was also printed as a Chaucerian text and included in many editions of Chaucer and mentioned as a familiar text in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Such associations gave it far more exposure- and positive exposure- than Piers Plowman. Yet in many cases it seems that readers read or heard of The Ploughman’s Tale or another ploughman text and thought it was Piers Plowman. Given the diffusion of different Piers/Ploughman texts, it is usually not possible to be certain about what someone means to refer to when they mention “Piers Plowman” unless they provide specific identifying details- and most writers do not. When Langland’s poem is mentioned, it is often disparaged for its barbarous language.
Similar charges were made against Chaucer, but he had more defenders and was already well established as a historical figure and “authority. ” Despite the work of Bale and Crowley, Langland’s name appears to have remained unknown or unaccepted since other authors were suggested after Crowley’s editions. Sometimes “Piers Plowman” was referred to as the author of the poem, and when writers refer to a list of medieval authors, they will often mention Piers Plowman as an author’s name or a substitute for one.
One gets the overall impression that Langland and Piers Plowman had less existence as author and text than did the fictional figure of Piers, whose relationship to a definite authorial and textual origin had been obscured much earlier. With its old language and alien worldview, Piers Plowman fell into obscurity until the nineteenth century, particularly the latter end. Barring Rogers, after Crowley, the poem was not published in its entirety until Thomas Whitaker’s 1813 edition. It emerged at a time when amateur philologists began the groundwork of what would later become a recognized scholarly discipline.
Whitaker’s edition was based on a C-text, whereas Crowley used a B-text for his base. With Whitaker an editorial tradition truly began in the modern sense, with each new editor striving to present the “authentic” Piers Plowman and challenging the accuracy and authenticity of preceding editors and editions. Then, as before in the English Reformation, this project was driven by a need for a national identity and history that addressed present concerns, hence analysis and commentary typically reflected the critic’s political views. In the hands of Frederick Furnivall and W. W.
Skeat, Piers Plowman could be, respectively, a consciousness-raising text in the Working Man’s College or a patriotic text for grammar school pupils. Piers Plowman has often been read primarily as a political document. In an 1894 study, J. J. Jusserand was primarily concerned with what he saw as the poem’s psychological and sociopolitical content—as distinct from the aesthetic or literary—in a dichotomy common to all modern humanistic studies. Four years later Vida Dutton Scudder compared the poem with socialist ideas from the works of Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and the Fabians.
Concluding remarks Piers Plowman is considered to be the biggest challenge in Middle English textual criticism, on par with the Greek New Testament. There are 50-56 surviving manuscripts, depending on the number deemed to be fragments. None of these texts are in the author’s own hand, and none of them derive directly from any of the others. All differ from each other. Moreover, the language of Piers Plowman is remarkably plain. Langland went to extensive lengths to ensure that his poem was not bogged down by a dense vocabulary