The Lost History of ''Piers Plowman'': The Earliest Transmission of Langland's Work (review)
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Reviewed by
Lawrence Warner. The Lost History of “Piers Plowman”: The Earliest Transmission of Langland’s Work. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. Pp. 144. ISBN: 9780812242751. US$49.95 (cloth).

At a mere sixty-seven pages, plus thirty-one pages of notes, Lawrence Warner’s book The Lost History of “Piers Plowman” may at first appear to be a light and easy read. Any attentive reader will, however, immediately realize that this is not the case. This slim volume is densely packed and contains an energetic, focused, and ambitious argument that inverts the long-established narrative of Piers Plowman’s A to B to C transmission. Warner’s position is that the original B-text (ur-B) of Piers Plowman would be unrecognizable to us now because the B archetype (Bx) that we have been able to reconstruct from the surviving manuscripts was, in fact, conflated with C-text materials. In other words, Bx—the now-lost manuscript that served as the exemplar for the B family tree—was copied while the C text was beginning to circulate, and C material therefore made its way into B before either version was complete. This occurred in three stages of transmission: A very early draft of C was created that largely corresponded to Bx; individual pages of newly drafted C material were acquired by the scribe of W~M (the beta recension of B) and incorporated into his version of Bx; and finally, the newest C material was acquired by the scribe of RF (the alpha recension of B), who incorporated it into his version of Bx. Bx was therefore not a unified text.

The strongest support for this hypothesis are the heretofore unnoticed patterns of agreement among the two recensions of the B tradition (RF and W~M) and an AC manuscript (N, referred to as N2 in the book in acknowledgment of the exclusive focus on its C materials) that serves as the sole witness to ur-C, or the early C-text. The many agreements between N2 and W~M at the same places at which RF either agrees with the C archetype (Cx) or is missing or spurious are key to Warner’s unraveling of the textual knot that constitutes the transmission of the B-text. The received Piers Plowman B is, Warner says, “a modern amalgam of three traditions [A, B, and C] brought together in the 1390s rather than a unified and complete poem available for quoting by c. 1379” (66–67). This argument, if correct, [End Page 131] will force scholars of Piers Plowman to reconsider a host of assumptions that have driven our understanding of the poem and its historical and cultural position.

The central argument of this book is an expansion of work published in two of Warner’s previous articles (“The Ending, and End, of Piers Plowman B: The C-Version Origins of the Final Two Passus,” in Medium Aevum [2007], and “The Ur-B Piers Plowman and the Earliest Production of C and B,” in the Yearbook of Langland Studies [2002]). These articles are useful groundwork for the book’s full presentation of Warner’s case, and a case it certainly is. Warner lays out the evidence for his position in scrupulous detail, very much like a lawyer, anticipating and responding to negative reactions or contrary evidence. In so doing, he is questioning many of the foundational tenets that inform Piers Plowman scholarship and often contradicting the positions of some of the poem’s most respected and talented editors and critics. Such a task seems impossible to accomplish diplomatically, but it is to Warner’s credit that he presents what will likely be controversial material with respect for the long history of editorial scholarship that precedes him. Despite the tone of defensiveness that occasionally arises—unsurprisingly, since he must constantly respond to the established and often unquestioned mountain of previous editorial work—Warner’s argument is elegantly expressed and eminently persuasive. It is, however, complex; readers unfamiliar with the basics of Piers Plowman’s transmission may find this a difficult read. Having the Athlone editions of the three versions at hand is helpful.

The book sets...