- Public Piers Plowman: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture
The first half of this book asserts that Piers Plowman studies have been hampered by 'the Langland myth', C. David Benson's phrase for the interrelated beliefs that the poem is the personal expression of its author and that it was revised sequentially from A to B to C. The second half shows that the poem shares characteristics with other vernacular literature, parish wall paintings, and civic practices.
In Benson's world, so weak is George Kane's work on the textual state of Piers Plowman that Anne Hudson's queries about it 'struck at the heart of the myth of the poem' (p. 46), even though they were unsupported by any specific [End Page 195] evidence or argumentation, and were presented as an afterthought. In support of his remark that 'Kane's author is so sublime that he escapes from the earthly world to dwell in a world of pure art' (p. 33), Benson does not analyse any of Kane's work. Rather, he misrepresents Lee Patterson, quotes Derek Pearsall, and repeats John Bowers's bizarre belief that Kane and Donaldson's choice of a manuscript in a London dialect as their copy-text indicates that they had 'little interest in the historical creation of the poem' (p. 33n).
Benson asserts that the Athlone editors 'bas[ed] the editing of Athlone on the ability to distinguish between scribal and authorial writing, even in quite minor cases' (p. 27), a point that seems crucial to his stance, for he keeps returning to it. Unfortunately for Benson, Kane describes situations in which 'the editor… may well be uneasy about the authority of the text adopted'; 'the apparently secure text is actually seriously questioned'; '[his] confidence in the originality [of a reading] is seriously disturbed' and the text is 'seriously in doubt'; alternative approaches 'lessen confidence' in the adopted reading; and 'it is impossible to be altogether confident of the originality' of the chosen reading (Piers Plowman: The A Version, ed. George Kane (London: Athlone, 1960), pp. 154-6). I feel that as a matter of courtesy, at least, Benson should have balanced his hyperbolic and derivative caricature of Kane's methodology with a mention of the editor's careful identification of typical scribal substitutions.
Benson also takes to task those who find evidence in Piers Plowman for the life of its author. It is quite true that, in the absence of other evidence, we cannot judge the validity of this approach with any certainty; but the same goes for Benson's own approach as well. Benson wants believers in 'the Langland myth' to 'consider a tolerant agnosticism or perhaps polytheism' (p. xv), but his later rhetoric does not show much interest in tolerance: e.g., 'Kathryn Kerby-Fulton demonstrates the refusal of many modern scholars to abandon the Langland myth despite the battering it has taken while sailing on increasingly rough seas' (p. 40).
The second half of the book turns away from this ill-judged attack on fellow scholars and towards the cultural context of Piers Plowman. Chapter four suggests that Piers Plowman shares with The Book of Margery Kempe and Mandeville's Travels an interest in public places, travel, the condition of Christianity, and so forth. Benson's point is that the poem 'is less extreme and idiosyncratic than often thought'; he says 'there is no need to look for analogues [for the poem's treatment of Christianity] in such heretical and persecuted quarters' as Lollardy (p. 139). I imagine Benson would be mightily and rightfully irritated if scholars interested in Langland and Lollardy were to say 'there is no need to look for analogues in [End Page 196] Kempe's Book and Mandeville's Travels'. What accounts for Benson's apparent belief that Langland scholarship is a zero-sum game?
Parish wall murals, claims chapter five, 'would have trained parishioners to make sense of stylistic and narrative variety within a single structure', and 'would have...