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  • Seeing Red: Reading Rubrication in Oxford, Corpus Christi College MS 201’s Piers Plowman
  • Noelle Phillips

Modern editions of medieval texts, with their cleanness and clarity, offer ease in reading yet often eliminate the interpretive signposts that would have guided the medieval reader: capitals, parafs, large rubrics, and smaller secondary rubrication. Because traditional editions do not (and, practically speaking, cannot) reproduce such features, these visual reading cues tend to remain invisible to us even when we are given the opportunity to see the page in its entirety. Rubrication is one of these visual cues. Most manuscripts that contain rubrication include two types: large red lettering used for Latin and textual divisions, and smaller red-ink touches on the regular ink. In this article I use “rubric” for the former and “rubrication” or “secondary rubrication” for the latter. Secondary rubrication includes dots, dashes, and underlining, all of which could be done quickly and without much pre-planning or expertise. Rubrication is one of the ways in which scribes structured the page; it may seem minor, but it can tell us a great deal about the scribe’s own interpretive framework. In addition to rubrication’s aesthetic pleasure—the visual alleviation it provides on a page of close-set script—it also offers pleasure of a different sort, since it helps a reader negotiate the manuscript and therefore enhances the reading experience as a whole. Even the absence of rubrication can affect the reader’s interpretation of a text. In a manuscript relying heavily upon rubrication, the words that the scribe chooses not to emphasize can be just as revealing as those he does.

One of the key Piers Plowman manuscripts in the B-text tradition— Oxford, Corpus Christi College MS 201 (F), an early fifteenth-century [End Page 439] text—is striking in its rather energetic use of rubrication. Its scribe was clearly aware of the physical presentation of the poem and its effect on the reading experience.1 I argue here that the scribe’s rubrication brings one of Langland’s central questions to the fore—how exactly should we learn and live the moral life? The scribe does so by accenting (among other features) the voices in the text: public voices, unstable and shifting voices, the corrupt voices of flatterers, the importance of mutual dialogue. C. David Benson argues that Piers “constructs public discourses and spaces that permit a variety of competing voices rather than a single authorial voice speaking on behalf of others.”2 David Coley emphasizes the interplay between poetic representations of speech and key cultural and political issues in the Ricardian and Lancastrian reigns.3 It is therefore unsurprising that this scribe would focus on speech as he rubricated, parafed, and emended his manuscript; the many voices of Piers and the ideas about speech that subtended the text in its historical setting invite additional voices, including those of the scribe, rubricator, or illustrator, to participate in the poem.

I will suggest, further, that the F manuscript’s emphasis on speech encourages the reader’s active participation in the reading experience. David Morgan argues that the rubrication of Christ’s words in modern Bibles invites an increased intimacy between reader and text, and between the written and spoken word. The visual signal of rubrication, he says, “urges devout readers to hear the sound of their voice reading Christ’s words as the sound of his voice . . . the graphic signifier promotes the iconicity of the written word qua spoken word.”4 This kind of marking invites the reader to identify the written with the spoken. It is fitting that the F scribe’s primary tool of ordinatio—rubrication— should emphasize his interest in the voices of Piers and how they guide the reader’s interpretive journey. [End Page 440]

F and the Textual Tradition of Piers Plowman

F was formerly “scorned” by scholars including W. W. Skeat, R. W. Chambers, and Elsie Blackman,5 but was later drawn into the critical spotlight by George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson’s landmark Athlone edition of the Piers B-text, which identifies F and R (Oxford, Bodleian Library Rawlinson Poetry MS 38) as the RF recension, one of the two...


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