Lawrence Warner

title.none: Bowers, Chaucer and Langland (Lawrence Warner)

identifier.other: baj9928.0805.020 08.05.20

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lawrence Warner, University of Sydney,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Bowers, John M. Chaucer and Langland: The Antagonistic Tradition. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. Pp. xii, 405. ISBN: $45.00 (pb) 0-268-02202-X (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.05.20

Bowers, John M. Chaucer and Langland: The Antagonistic Tradition. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. Pp. xii, 405. ISBN: $45.00 (pb) 0-268-02202-X (pb).

Reviewed by:

Lawrence Warner
University of Sydney

Chaucer and Langland was the title of George Kane's 1989 collection of essays, the subject of a review essay that John M. Bowers wrote for The Yearbook of Langland Studies. To Kane, Chaucer and Langland were first and foremost skilled practitioners of their art whose brilliance rendered the solipsism and laziness of their scribes--and of their modern critics--all the more shameful and embarrassing. Nearly twenty years later Bowers has now had his own go at analysing this "obligatory conjunction." In his account, by contrast to Kane's, these poets are almost more important as generators, via the production of manuscript and print traditions, of a politics in which the notion of the "author" would begin its contested career. And while he occasionally offers small correctives to the criticism on certain points, or castigates editors like Kane (see 64-79) for adopting an approach different from his, on the whole Bowers goes to great lengths to pay his critical respects. The two things that struck me most about this book were the prominence of manuscripts themselves, rather than the poems they contain, as primary bearers of meaning--about 145 are listed in the manuscript index, surely a record for a monograph not primarily concerned with palaeography--and the inclusion of a whopping 1150-odd items (not including Bowers's own earlier studies) in the bibliography of secondary sources. Kane had infamously scorned medieval scribes and was not much more charitable to his peers, sometimes declining even to identify, not to mention provide references to, many of his targets; Bowers's approach on both fronts offers a stark contrast.

Chaucer and Langland: The Antagonistic Tradition explicitly takes a big-picture approach: "my narrative," writes Bowers, "derives from an archive of factual evidence in an effort to connect the dots and expose the broad outlines of this antagonistic tradition in early English literature" (41-42). The trajectory of this narrative goes like this: during their careers, both Chaucer and Langland participated in an antagonistic tradition, marked by their affinities with Lollardy and their pacifism. Upon the accession of Henry IV, though, Piers Plowman went into hiding, in effect retaining its aura of antagonism against official culture. Yet Thomas Chaucer sought to rescue his father's oeuvre, especially the Canterbury Tales, from such radical associations, moulding it instead into the cultural emblem of the Lancastrians (a program in which Lydgate was a full-blooded participant). Only in the mid-sixteenth century were both poets recuperated into their proper, and complementary, antagonistic roles: Chaucer became known as author of Lollard texts like "Jack Upland" and the Plowman's Tale, while Langland was finally printed (and finally identified as author) in the radical Protestant Robert Crowley's 1550 editions.

Langland's assumption of a proper place as father of the antagonistic tradition, however, was brief, as for the next 260 years his name "would largely vanish from literary history" while Chaucer's would continue its ascent (226). The story ends with a wry account of the translatio of Piers Plowman across the Atlantic aboard the Arabella in 1630 among the books owned by Thomas Dudley, father of Anne Bradstreet: "With this secure line of transmission, Langland deserves credit as the unacknowledged progenitor of an American literary tradition that remains essentially a mosaic of minority literatures marked by spiritual restlessness, an obsession with social reform, and the urgent need for self-definition so long established in the prior English tradition by Piers Plowman" (227).

There is much to be said in favor of this account, and Bowers deserves great credit for his boldness, especially in bringing the complex textual histories of Chaucer's and Langland's great works to bear on his interpretation. It is instructive and entertaining to see how the pieces all fit together (or are made to do so), from the birth in 1360 of Chaucer's Francophobia, to the surveys of Piers Plowman's manuscript partners and of the continuations of the Canterbury Tales, to a portrait of Hoccleve as a failed reader of Piers Plowman (hence his quick disappearance from English literary consciousness), and on up to these works' early modern (and twentieth-century) peregrinations, editions, celebrations, and mystifications.

Given the self-proclaimed broadness of this vision and the richness of its landscape, it might seem churlish to begin the process of questioning its particular supporting claims. One doesn't review Kane's editing of Piers Plowman by merely listing individual readings where he might have erred: an engagement with the whole process is called for. But the approach is here justified because Chaucer and Langland, much more so than Kane's editions, is the sum total of his interpretations--or, as is very often the case, his marshalling of others' interpretations--of the "archive of factual evidence," as he puts it. At a certain point one begins to wonder how many errors or dubious interpretations the argument can sustain. Despite the reservations raised below, I think Bowers's vision and methodology still stand, especially if we approach the book in the terms of David Lawton's blurb's claim that Bowers "makes what could truly be called a master narrative by pushing to extremes the tendencies and implications of recent scholarship" (back cover).

The biggest cause for worry is the fact that Bowers has sometimes cooked the books in the interests of holding up his grand narrative. In encouraging "a wider interrogation of Piers manuscripts based on the proposition that medieval meaning becomes more legible in terms of medieval usage" (126), Bowers takes special note of the absence of indications of the ownership of Langland's poem as compared to Chaucer's. Between about 1425 and 1532, he remarks, the surviving manuscripts bear no indications of "high-status ownership" of Piers Plowman (128), a point central to his presentation of it as a poem inherently antagonistic to the interests of the wealthy and powerful. But the issue of course is not whether surviving manuscripts bear signatures indicating high-status ownership, but whether any evidence of whatever sort exists. And on page three Bowers himself had noted that the wills of Thomas Stotevyle (1459) and Sir Thomas Charleton (1465) mentioned Piers Plowman (and Troilus and Criseyde): Stotevyle was a member of Lincoln's Inn, and Charleton was Speaker of the House of Commons. If ownership of Piers Plowman, like that of Lollard books, "routinely served as evidence for prosecution," as Bowers suggests (128), it is difficult to understand how these figures could have been so public about owning Langland's poem. They certainly should figure prominently in any account of the poem's fifteenth-century ownership, and it is only by arbitrarily redefining the question that Bowers can ignore such powerful evidence against his argument.

Another moment in Piers Plowman's transmission history crucial to Bowers's account is the 1550 printing of a witness to the beta group of the B text by Robert Crowley. Here Bowers follows, note for note, John N. King's assertion ("Robert Crowley's Editions of Piers Plowman: A Tudor Apocalypse," Modern Philology 73 [1976]: 342-52) that Crowley edited the text to fit his radical Protestantism:"Doctrinal errors became textual errors. Thus the Protestant editor altered body to bread in Langland's account of the sacrament of the Eucharist (B.12.85-86). He changed scrifte to Christe in order to make the line more doctrinally sound (B.5.76). He substituted the name of Christ for Mary (B.7.202). He deleted a reference to purgatory (B.15.346) since Protestants eliminated this theology in order to abolish the costly practice of remembering the dead. His edition also lacks a passage praising the monastic life (B.10.297-308) since destruction of the monasteries had been under way since 1535" (66). Alas, this is wrong on every count--as Bowers knows (to a degree, at least). Readers unfamiliar with Crowley's editions might take all these "sinces" to indicate that the editor explained his actions thus; but in fact all the motivations identified here are Bower's impositions.

As for the supposed "archive of factual evidence" here marshalled, R. Carter Hailey has recently pointed out ("Robert Crowley and the Editing of Piers Plowman," Yearbook of Langland Studies 21 [2007]: 143-70 at 148-50) that the King-Bowers presentation is tendentiously selective. (And while Hailey post- dates and responds to Bowers, all his evidence has been there in the archive, available for consultation, for 457 years, and was presented by Hailey in his 2001 PhD dissertation.) First, Crowley's edition does not alter body to bread, but reverses the terms in the line, and we cannot know who did so. It seems inconceivable that any reader would have understood the doctrinal point supposedly achieved by the change. Second, Crowley's second and third editions, equally valid for Bowers's purposes, correct Christe to shrift. By ignoring those two editions' testimony here Bowers falls into the trap he lays for editors: treating textual witnesses as valuable only for their potential to embody Langland's intentions (the only approach that would justifiably privilege the first edition over the other two).

Third, Crowley retains three other mentions of Mary (4.188, 5.394- 97, 5.71-72), the last of which re-inserting into the second and third editions a line omitted from the first: "a remarkable instance of the triumph of text over ideology" says Hailey. Fourth, if Crowley wanted to delete references to Purgatory, why only this one instance and not the explicit ones found in 6.41-44, 7.9-12, or 18.391-93? Finally, and most depressingly, it is precisely as valid to interpret the "lack" of B.10.297-308 as evidence of Crowley's support of Henry VIII's policies on the monasteries as it would be to interpret the lack of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 2414-28 here as evidence of Crowley's rejection of antifeminism. For neither passage was in Crowley's exemplar: this is an unfortunate consequence of the scholarly fixation on "the authorial B text of Piers Plowman," which never existed (and the creation of which Bowers somewhat antagonistically surveys [64-79]) rather than upon the shapes it actually took before Skeat: in this case, what we now call the beta family of B, which did not have the alpha group's B.10.297f. In an earlier version of this chapter Bowers had mentioned Crowley's "dropping" of the passage; the new term "lacks" indicates his awareness that this is a nonsensical claim (see 260-61, n. 71). Why repeat it then?

A degree of overstatement in large-scale argumentation is perhaps to be expected and can play a valid role--while I disagree with his bashing of Kane's editorial achievements, for instance (73-79), I recognize its value as a subjective mode of spurring things along-- and this material on ownership of Piers Plowman manuscripts and on Crowley's editions appear in only a few paragraphs in a pretty long book. Still, it would be a disservice to this book's readers, not to mention its author, not to engage seriously with such claims, which are its bread and butter. Both of these cases pertain to major arguments of the book, and his stilted treatment of the evidence ill serves his readers.

But for each such misstep in Chaucer and Langland, there are a dozen fresh insights that bring earlier scholarship to life. I should balance my criticism of this paragraph on Crowley by praising Bowers's overall treatment of the sixteenth-century reception of Piers Plowman (216-27), which unlike nearly all others gives due attention to the evidence for a sizeable non- reformist readership who cared little for "Piers Protestant." And the move into the seventeenth century and to America in the final pages is brilliant: I look forward to his promised essay "William Langland, Father of American Literature" (a title and topic that would have been perfect for Premodern Places by David Wallace, for whose lack of interest in Langland Bowers must be thanking his stars).

For the time being, though, I am quite satisfied to be beneficiary of Chaucer and Langland, among the first master-narratives of English literary history not to confine the latter of these great poets to a few decades of the fourteenth century, but instead to set him up as the central figure of the ensuing centuries. (A much different and wide-ranging approach in which Langland and his textual afterlife are similarly prominent appears in James Simpson's Reform and Cultural Revolution [Oxford UP, 2002].) For the last quarter century medievalists have been prodding early modernists to abandon their neglect of the preceding millennium: perhaps Bowers's greatest achievement lies not only in his advancement of this cause by tracing these poets' histories through 1560 and beyond, but also in his demonstration that the "Middle Ages" and "Renaissance," both, are the creations as much (if not more) of Langland than of Chaucer. It will not do simply to tell Shakespeareans that they need to look at the Pardoner to find the articulation of a sophisticated interior subjectivity: all of us, whether medievalists, modernists, or even Americanists, need to take seriously the achievements of a poet who had long toiled in an obscurity that itself testifies to the power of the antagonistic tradition.