This is the second volume in The Piers Plowman Electronic Archive, a collaborative project devoted to publishing in electronic form documentary and colour facsimile texts of all the relevant medieval and renaissance witnesses to William Langland's Piers Plowman. The previous volume presented a remarkably eccentric manuscript, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, MS 201 (F). This volume by contrast presents a manuscript important not for its eccentricity but for its central place in the editorial tradition of the B-Version of Piers Plowman.
Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.15.17 is one of the earliest and one of the most handsome of the manuscripts of the B-Version of Piers Plowman, and it provided the text for the first edition of the B-Version since Robert Crowley's of 1550. Thomas Wright chose it as the basis for the first edition of this version of the poem, published in 1842 (hence the sigil W by which the manuscript is known), a choice based on no very thorough comparison of manuscripts, and perhaps motivated partly by the fact that Wright was himself a Trinity graduate.1 Wright was responding to what he considered to be a poor representation of Langland's poem in Thomas Whitaker's edition of 1813 of a C-Version manuscript (now San Marino, Huntington Library, MS 137).
W. W. Skeat's decision to choose instead Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 581 (L) as his base text for his magnificent edition of the B-Version in 1869 was initially inspired by the view that L was "much on a par with" W and that it would be "a great gain to print the unprinted one." He gradually developed greater respect for L, to such an extent that he considered it might be Langland's autograph copy.2 This view Skeat himself dropped in later years.
In their edition of 1975, George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson adopted W as their base, citing "the exceptional consistency of its spelling, and the conformity of its grammar with 'standard' late fourteenth-century usage as this is instanced in the best known manuscripts of Chaucer and Gower."3 A. V. C. Schmidt has followed Kane and Donaldson in their choice of W as the base manuscript, both in his student editions of 1978 and 1995 and in his parallel-text edition published in 1995.4
Scholars from Skeat onwards have recognised that L presents a slightly better text than W, and Kane and Donaldson calculated that W has rather more errors than L, including "about 150 more group errors."5 This does not, of course, refer to errors that W introduced but to those he inherited from his exemplar. It is quite obvious, indeed, that the W scribe was highly professional and very careful, and that he copied the text he had before him with great accuracy. In this edition we have annotated those variant readings which can possibly be attributed to the W scribe because they are shared with no other manuscript, but even in these cases it is likely that W is often faithfully copying what was in front of him.
This edition for the first time presents readers with a complete facsimile of Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.15.17, including its texts of Rolle and a devotional lyric. For the first time those who have studied the poem in the editions of Kane-Donaldson and Schmidt will be brought face-to-face with a fact which has far-reaching implications. Reading Piers Plowman as a printed text can be hugely misleading. So often students take away with them the notion of Langland as a dissident writer, operating at the margins of society, an idea encouraged by Langland himself, particularly in the C-Version, where he portrays himself as a west-country exile, perching precariously on London society, supported by a coterie of friends. For a writer of this sort, texts will surely have circulated as samizdat, clandestine writings hastily scribbled by enthusiasts, passed from hand to hand at gatherings of the disaffected? Of course nothing could be further from the truth, and no manuscript gives the lie to it more convincingly than Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.15.17.
Like several other manuscripts of Piers Plowman, W was a high-class production copied by a London scribe working during the last years of the fourteenth century and the early years of the fifteenth.6 This scribe was certainly a professional, and was presumably attached to a commercial workshop producing texts in response to the expanding demand for vernacular literature in the metropolis. Both the regularity of his script and the regularity of his language are the result of professional training, and in both these features he resembles in detail the scribe who was responsible for the two finest copies of the Canterbury Tales, the Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts, as well as for a copy of Troilus and Criseyde and participation in the copying of Gower's Confessio Amantis.7 That high-quality copies of Piers Plowman were being produced by commercial scriptoria and that Langland was being read by the same metropolitan circle of readers as Chaucer and Gower will come as a salutary shock to many students. There is nothing new about the information here presented, but it has not been visually available to most readers, so that they have never fully considered its consequences for our understanding of Piers Plowman and the poem's relation to contemporary society.
We attempt to make as close a transcription of the manuscript text as possible. The text that users will access using the "Diplomatic" and "Scribal" styles sheet is intended to represent the manuscript as closely as type permits. The "Critical" style sheet offers a reading text, correcting obvious slips of the pen, adding letters lost through cropping, and dividing words according to modern expectations. A feature of the transcribed text offered in this edition will come as a further surprise to readers who have never seen the manuscript. Previous printed editions have divided the poem into its prologue and twenty passus, but have not attempted to represent the smaller divisions within the passus. For the first time the reader will see the poem set out in the spacious manner of the manuscript itself, with red and blue paraphs and spaces between the paragraphs. It is a feature of several associated manuscripts of Piers Plowman. At the very least this new layout offers a different reading experience; time will tell whether it will have consequences for the appreciation and criticism of the poem.
During the years we have been working on W, we have incurred many debts. We are particularly indebted to the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia. In 1992, IATH, funded by the University, the IBM Corporation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Science Foundation, began its work of exploring and expanding the potential of information technology as a tool for humanities research. To that end, it has every subsequent year provided a series of faculty Fellows with equipment, extensive consultation, technical support, applications programming, and networked publishing facilities. Cultivating partnerships in humanities computing initiatives with libraries, publishers, information technology companies, scholarly organizations, and others interested in the intersection of computers and cultural heritage, IATH has transformed humanistic computing at the University of Virginia. Without its assistance, much of this edition simply could not have been created.
We have been fortunate to have worked in the company of computer specialists who have understood the special needs of English teachers. First and most profound thanks are offered to Professor John Unsworth of the English Department at the University of Virginia and Director of IATH. His support for the Archive has been both generous and unstinting. He has provided equipment, software, space, and monies for research assistants. Even more, he has given us his personal time and shared with us his vast knowledge of hard and software. On too many occasions to detail, he has saved us from the consequences of our ignorance and folly. Other members of his staff have been unfailingly generous with their time and knowledge, especially Daniel Pitti, Project Director of IATH, who has also worked overtime to solve our problems. Thanks are due also to former Associate Director Thornton Staples, to systems man Oludotun Akinola, to UNIX specialists Karen Dietz, Susan Gants, Susan Munson, and Stephen Ramsay, whose Perl scripts simplified many a complicated task we could not have done on our own, as well as to Robert W. Bingler, Shawn Carnell, David Cosca, Chris Jessee, Rosser Wayland, and Peter Yadlowsky, all of whom helped us over many technical and conceptual hurdles, some of our own creation, with unfailing competence, courtesy, and charity. Kirk V. Hastings has, more or less at the last moment, made the conversions to XML and HTML that enable our files for users of Macintosh computers and of the Windows 3.1 operating system, and we are grateful to Beth Nowviskie for designing the opening page. Jason Haynes and Joy Shifflette, Program Support Technicians at IATH, helped us in innumerable ways. When we began this work, we were not aware of the importance to our endeavor of John Price-Wilkin, who long before he joined the editorial team helped to create a Document Type Definition (DTD) for both The Piers Plowman Electronic Archive and SEENET, taught us to appreciate the elegant complexities of the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), and shepherded us through a myriad of other problems. It finally became obvious that though John's primary interests were not in Middle English philology, his general knowledge of computer technology and his special mastery of SGML meant that his intellectual contribution to the edition was at least equal to that of the philologists. Peter Baker, in permitting us to use and extend his Old English Junius fonts and to use his Junicode font has made it possible for us to display non-standard characters such as yoghs, punctus elevatuses, raised points, etc. Bjarne Melin of the Finnish firm Citec Software LTD Oy, makers of Multidoc Pro, has been extraordinarily helpful and patient in helping us work out various problems related to display.
We are delighted that Joseph Wittig has now consented to join our editorial team, but he has from the first contributed thoughtful advice on many occasions. We are grateful to him for his advice as well as for his encouragement.
We thank the President and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge, who gave us access to the manuscript, permission to make digital images of the entire manuscript when that was quite a new and even daring thing to do, and for permission to reproduce the color images on this CD. For photocopies of other manuscripts, we thank the staffs of the manuscript departments of the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA; the Bodleian Library, Oxford; The British Library, London; Cambridge University Library, Cambridge; and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. For manifold kindnesses beyond any professional responsibility, grateful thanks are given to Dr. David J. McKitterick, Librarian, Trinity College, Cambridge; to Mr. D. J. Hall, Senior Under-Librarian, Cambridge University Library; to Dr. Andrew Prescott, Curator, The British Library; and to Dr. Patrick Zutshi, Keeper of Manuscripts and University Archives, Cambridge University Library.
We wish to thank the graduate research assistants who have worked in Charlottesville with us on W and another two dozen manuscripts of Piers Plowman. Those competent and energetic young scholars are named on the title page for their part in preparing this text. Their work has been generously supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, an independent federal agency.
No one who works with Piers Plowman can fail to be indebted to the labours of Professor George Kane and his collaborators in editing the Athlone Piers Plowman. First, the Athlone texts were produced to an almost impossibly high standard of transcriptional and collational accuracy. In nearly every instance, we have found their apparatus both full and reliable. Simple transcriptional accuracy is by far the hardest, most demanding, as well as one of the most important tasks facing any editor. After several years of checking their apparatus in a variety of contexts, we can say that it is practically perfect.8 They have set a high standard. Moreover, they have laid out in their detailed introductions—with an explicitness and transparency unparalleled in editions of Middle English text—their reasons for hundreds of their editorial decisions. We are accustomed to textual notes for such purposes, notes that call attention to difficult cases and that serve as synecdoches for the full process of editorial reasoning. By publishing these arguments in their introductions, the Athlone editors have austerely placed upon their readers the severe burden of recapitulating at least portions of their editorial project. They have laid out explicitly the evidence they take to be relevant to their editorial decisions, and they invite their readers to challenge their text or their argument of the evidence. More than is usually the case, the Athlone editors have played fair with their readers. We are grateful to them for their achievement and their example.
Hoyt N. Duggan
20 August 2000
[Preface | Introduction | Instructions | Abbreviations]
[Piers Plowman Electronic Archive | Frequently Asked Questions | Feedback]
Last updated: Sept. 27, 2000.
© Piers Plowman Electronic Archive