- The Lost History of ‘Piers Plowman’: The Earliest Transmission of Langland’s Work
This book joins several illustrious predecessors, most notably the editions of Piers Plowman by Kane, Donaldson and Russell, and A. V. C. Schmidt, in attempting to unravel the history of the manuscript tradition of Piers Plowman. For scholars of the poem, the relationship between the versions extant in manuscripts can only be solved by the same kind of precise and painstaking analysis that has absorbed Lawrence Warner for many years, and has found definitive expression in this slim volume.
Warner does two things well. First, he devotes close attention to manuscripts, and studies the transmission of the poem as it has come down to us in various forms – bound together in folios with other material, on its own, and even in single loose sheets. The text in each manuscript is given careful analysis. Warner has charted the textual similarities and divergences between the various versions of the poem, doing most of the heavy lifting required by those who long to understand the progression from earlier to [End Page 254] later versions, and to find some authority on which to base opinions about the poet and the progression of his thought.
The second excellent feature of this book is the footnoting which is meticulous and seriously necessary. The footnotes are almost a reference work in their own right, for it is here that Warner’s critical engagement with longstanding as well as up-to-date scholarship becomes evident. Following the footnote discussions is almost like being present at a lively, ongoing debate. Without such careful footnoting, the argument in the text would be difficult to follow.
The book makes striking claims that will alter critical perceptions of the poem. The thrust of the argument developed throughout the book is that we need to rethink the evidence for the earliest production and transmission of Piers Plowman. The first chapter, ‘Piers Plowman before 1400’, posits that Langland’s own B version ‘achieved absolutely minimal circulation, if any at all, before c. 1395, and not very much between then and 1550 either’ (p. 6). Warner argues, instead, that Piers Plowman A achieved substantial circulation from its very early stages, that C was widely embraced by readers and scribes, and that B remained dormant until long after the C-text had been established. Among his several arguments to prove this point is a carefully developed case against taking John Ball’s letters as having been influenced by the poem.
The second chapter, ‘Scribal Conflation, Convergent Variation, and the Invention of Piers Plowman B’, argues that a lost manuscript, Bx, an exemplar of future B manuscripts, was, at an early stage, supplemented by lines and paragraphs of new C material. Careful textual comparison is brought into play to support this idea, and even more in the following chapter: ‘The Poison of Possession: B Passus 15’. The fourth chapter, ‘The Ending and End, of Piers Plowman B’, deals with the strong similarities between B and C versions of the two final passus, and claims that the two final passus of B (19–20) were originally the final two passus of C, added to B much later than has previously been thought. The concluding fifth chapter ‘Lollars, Friars, and Fyndynges’ reiterates the theme that has been developed through the course of the book, that Piers Plowman is a work ‘comprising innumerable acts of production and intervention from the 1360s to today’ (p. 66).
The book is closely argued and densely illustrated with comparison of texts drawn from many manuscripts. As such, it will be useful to scholars as a handbook. Though it is impossible to grasp and keep in mind all the intricacies of manuscript traditions with stemmata and lemmas, or to hold in memory Warner’s careful textual comparisons of passages that have, for years, been crucial in Langland criticism – such as his exposition in Chapter 3 [End Page 255...