Piers Plowman

Missing image
Page from a 14th century Psalter, showing drolleries on the right margin and a plowman at the bottom.

Piers Plowman (w. ca. 13601399) or Visio Willelmi de Petro Ploughman (William's Vision of Piers Plowman) is the title of an apocalyptic Middle English allegorical narrative written by William Langland. It is written in unrhymed alliterative verse divided into sections called "passus" (Latin for "step"). Piers is considered one of the early great works of English literature. It is one of a very few Middle English poems that can stand beside Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The poem concerns the narrator's intense quest for the true Christian life, in the terms of the medieval Catholic mind. That quest entails a series of dream-visions and an examination into the lives of three allegorical characters, Do-Wel ("Do-Well"), Do-Bet ("Do-Better"), and Do-Best, who are sought by Piers, the humble plowman of the title. The poem begins on the hillside of Malvern Hill in Malvern, Worcestershire.


Title and Authorship

The most likely and now commonly accepted candidate for Piers' authorship has only been settled in relatively recent times by scholars in an attribution to a William Langland about whom little is known. The attribution to Langland is 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 (or Longland) is thought to be indicated as a surname through apparent puns; e.g., the narrator calls himself "long Will" who has lived "long in the land."

In the sixteenth century, when Piers was first printed, authorship was attributed by various antiquarians (such as John Bale) and poets to a number of people, such as John Wycliffe and Geoffrey Chaucer, among others. Some sixteenth and seventeenth-century persons regarded the poem as anonymous, and/or associated it with texts in the plowman tradition (http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/plowint.htm) of social complaint, particularly the Chaucerian pseudepigrapha, The Plowman's Tale and Pierce the Plowmans Crede. (The latter was appended to Owen Rogers' 1560 edition of Piers Plowman, a degraded version of Robert Crowley's 1550 editions.) It seems that 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 where 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 [or Pierce] Plowman, which is in fact the conventional name of only 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. Many scholars now dispute 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.

The Text

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 an editor considers 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.

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, which each represent different manuscript traditions deriving from three different stages of authorial revision. Although precise dating is debated, the A, B, and C texts are now commonly thought to represent the progressive (20-25 yrs.) work of a single author. The A and B-texts are almost certainly the work of the same man. There is also a Z-Text, edited and published by A. G. Rigg and Charlotte Brewer, which contains elements of A and C. Brewer regards Z as a predecessor to A; it is the shortest version, and its authenticity is disputed.

According to the three versions hypothesis, the A-text was written ca. 1367-70 and is the earliest. It is considered unfinished and runs to about 2500 lines. The B-text was written ca. 1377-79; it revises A, adds new material, and is three times the length of A. It runs to about 7300 lines and must have been well known by 1381 if, as other evidence suggests (http://www.wwnorton.com/nrl/english/nael71/Period1MiddleAges/CourseSessions1/PoetryVoices.html), it helped inspire the leaders of the Peasants' Revolt or Rising of 1381, such as John Ball. The C-text was written ca. 1385-6 as a major revision of B, except the final sections. There is some debate over whether it can be regarded as finished or not. It entails additions, omissions, and transpositions; it is not significantly different in size from B. Many scholars see it as a conservative revision of B, not necessarily by the original author, which reacts to the Peasants' Revolt.

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. This base text is now widely considered to have been a poor choice, as was his base for his A-text edition, which Skeat himself privately acknowledged.

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 Talbot-Donaldson editions of the 3 versions, published by the Athlone Press, have been controversial; the more recent editions by A. V. C. Schmidt may end up being considered the standard scholarly or critical edition.

Editorial and Reception History

16th–17th Centuries

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. In this regard the poem's publication probably was influenced by and influential on contemporary social criticism and religious controversy, particularly the many texts that evoke Piers and/or Plowmen for these purposes, such as one of the Marprelate tracts which claims Piers Plowman for its grandfather.

19th–20th Centuries

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 which 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 with 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 Furnival 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.

The tendency to read Piers Plowman as a primarily political document has thus been a persistent one. 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 in the works of Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and the Fabians.

Introduced to the emerging university programs for English language and literature, Piers Plowman helped establish that subject by filling a crucial spot in the English literary canon. The canon's constituent members, like Piers Plowman, required and thus justified the custodianship of professional scholars and the existence of English as a scholarly discipline. Yet Piers Plowman and much other Middle English and Anglo-Saxon literature has invariably failed to be broadly, lastingly popular, a problem of considerable concern to medievalists today.

Related Texts

  • Poem on the Evil Times of Edward II.
  • Pierce the Plowman's Crede (http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/credeint.htm|) (written c. 1395)
  • The Complaint of the Ploughman (http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/plwtlint.htm|) AKA The Plowman's Tale (written c. 1393-95; printed c. 1553 as a Protestant appropriation and augmentation of an existing Lollard text.]
  • Writings (http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/plowint.htm|Plowman) - Song of the Husbandman, God Spede the Plough, I-blessyd Be Cristes Sonde, and Chaucer's Plowman.
  • The Ploughman's Tale (http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/plgtlint.htm|)

See also

External links

  • Piers Plowman Electronic Archive (http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/seenet/piers/) A multi-level, hyper-textually linked electronic archive of the textual tradition of all three versions of the fourteenth-century allegorical dream vision Piers Plowman.
  • University of Virginia e-text of Piers Plowman. (http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/LanPier.html)
  • William Langland page at Harvard. (http://www.courses.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/special/authors/langland/) With link to modern English text of Piers.
  • William Langland page at Luminatium. (http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/langland.htm) With links to texts of A and B.
  • Daniel F. Pigg, "Figuring subjectivity in 'Piers Plowman C' and 'The Parson's Tale' and 'Retraction': authorial insertion and identity poetics (http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2342/is_n3_v31/ai_21240790)," Style, Fall 1997. Abstract: In Chaucer's Parson's Tale, Retraction, and Langland's C.5, the authors engage in a homologue to confession by which they inscribe their identities in their texts and become themselves the subjects of poetic reflection. The "autobiographical" passage which opens passus 5 combines autobiographical and confessional modes to reintegrate the penitent subject -- both "Will" and WL -- into the body of the Church. The Retraction is similarly to be understood as Chaucer's sincere questioning of his own "entente," the key action required of the penitent in the confessional. His deployment of both clerical and literary discourses in the Retraction demonstrates that the subject cannot be separated from institutions.
  • Piers Plowman and the Rising of 1381. (http://www.chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/sukonpp.html)
  • Piers Plowman and Its Sequence (http://www.bartleby.com/212/index.html#1) by John Matthews Manly, vol. 2, The End of the Middle Ages," in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, 18 vols., Edited by A. W. Ward & A. R. Waller, (1907-21).

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