Louise M Bishop

title.none: Parker, ed., The Praier and Complaynte (Bishop)

identifier.other: baj9928.9812.010 98.12.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Louise M Bishop , University of Oregon,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Parker, Douglas, ed. The Praier and Complaynte of the Plowman unto Christe. Toronto: Uni versity of Toronto Press, 1997. Pp. 222. $60.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-802-04268-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.12.10

Parker, Douglas, ed. The Praier and Complaynte of the Plowman unto Christe. Toronto: Uni versity of Toronto Press, 1997. Pp. 222. $60.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-802-04268-6.

Reviewed by:

Louise M Bishop
University of Oregon

Douglas H. Parker, editor of Rede Me and Be Nott Wrothe (Toronto, 1992) and A proper dyaloge betwene a Gentillman and an Husbandman (Toronto, 1996), provides in his edition of The praier and complaynte of the ploweman vnto Christe another primary text for the study of the English Reformation's Wycliffite legacy. The praier and complaynte demonstrates the sixteenth-century's appropriation of fourteenth-century English polemics to substantiate claims for a "premature Reformation," to use Anne Hudson's phrase. Parker's edition, with its substantial introduction and copious notes, brings to literary life the claims made by early sixteenth-century proponents of the Reformation, such as William Tyndale, who used a particular reading of England's religious history and vernacular texts to legitimate the English Reformation. Like their fourteenth-century predecessors, Tyndale and his followers supported political goals in their texts' arguments about transubstantiation and the efficacy of priestly pardon. Not that these Reformation tracts, or the reformers, were univocal: English tracts argued Luther's position, and even modern critics dispute Luther's effect on religious reform in England (Parker comments on the work of Donald Dean Smeeton: "Its one drawback . . . is that . . . Smeeton is content to show similarities between Lollardy and Tyndale without regularly factoring Luther and continental reformers into the equation" [32]). The rhetoric of The praier and complaynte reflects a profound anxiety regarding contemporary political tumult, especially evident in the way the text supports secular, kingly power while condemning the pope and papal prerogatives. Parker's lengthy introduction to The praier and complaynte provides an erudite and useful guide through this demanding historical terrain.

Parker's edition contains all the necessities: his 100-page introduction includes analogues and sources, a description of his editorial method, and full analyses of his texts. He has also prepared a glossary -- as did the text's original sixteenth-century author/editor, in order to emphasize its alledgedly antique origins. The book has a peculiar punctuation scheme for citations: no periods between author's name and title, nor at the end of bibliographical citations; in fact, no consistent usage of periods for citations at all (pages 58 and 59 provide good examples of this inconsistency). However, the reader becomes accustomed to this style rather quickly. The book is nearly error-free, with only a few typos ("works" for "work," page 14; "shpeherd" for "shepherd," page 30; capital letters missing on "Canterbury" and "Bec," page 184; and an irregular usage of parentheses for the third bibliographical citation on page 208), and the edition is a handsome volume.

As proof of the sixteenth-century reformers' desire to give the air of ancient authority to their movement, The praier and complaynte's preface claims a Wycliffite ancestry of composition "not longe after the yere of our Lorde A thousande and thre hundred" (3). While Parker acknowledges this date as "impossibly early," he accepts The praier and complaynte's claim that its sixteenth-century author/editor is using a Wycliffite tract from the late fourteenth century. Parker has some tricky issues to negotiate here, trying to discern cross-century links, and he delicately steps through the complicated relationship of The praier and complaynte to its ostensible sources, simultaneously building an argument that substantiates the text's primacy among sixteenth-century Reformist tracts.

Parker's thesis culminates in the introduction's most useful sections, sequentially analyzing the text's plowman persona and what Parker titles "The Plowman Tradition of Complaint." A survey of ploughman and Piers literature in the sixteenth century proves that the English reformers were both very aware of the ploughman tradition of complaint which found its English literary origin probably in Langland's work, and also not reluctant to use, distort, or otherwise capitalize on it to suit their own politico-religious agenda. (53) Parker lists ten examples of this tradition, all printed books of the sixteenth century, and claims primacy for The praier and complaynte (1531) in time and "partial inspiration for the spate of reformist ploughman tracts that followed in the 1550s and for The Plowman's Tale of the mid-1530s" (53). Parker also acknowledges the place of Langland's The Vision of Will Concerning Piers Plowman within this tradition.

Since Parker hasn't produced his book specifically for Langlandians, it is perhaps unfair to note his having fallen short in his treatment of Piers Plowman and its scholarly tradition. Nevertheless, Parker's use of Skeat's edition of the B-text, while quaint, isn't appropriate in light of the Athlone and Schmidt editions. And his quotations from Skeat's edition include errors (misnumbered line citations, "XVII, 217-24" for "XVII, 216-23"; "bwe chasted" for "be chasted" in XVII, 328). More serious, however, is his omission of important Langland scholarship which speaks to Parker's assessment of the sixteenth-century appropriation of the plowman tradition.

In particular, Parker's discussion of the relationship between the fourteenth- and sixteenth-century plowman texts would have benefitted from a reading of John Bowers' "Piers Plowman and the Police: Notes Toward a History of the Wycliffite Langland" (Yearbook of Langland Studies 6 [1992], 1-50, especially 36-42), where Bowers assesses the complex tactics that make up this ostensible Wycliffite legacy, describing a literary text's status as a discourse produced and appropriated within the history of larger, more far-reaching productions and appropriations. . . . Every acknowledgement of the text's historical presence becomes an interpretive act, and all such attempts to render the poem meaningful historically . . . become instances of literary police-action. (Bowers 5-7) Parker's assessment of the "plowman tradition" would be enhanced by his recognition of the kind of cultural criticism practiced by Bowers, giving him another, less positivistic way to look at his text's pedigree. Parker's familiarity with the plowman texts and his immersion in the genre of sixteenth-century Protestant debate encourages our trust in his conclusions, such as his assertion that Tyndale himself compiled The praier and complaynte (41), yet his analysis of The praier and complaynte's literary pedigree takes too little account of the complications attendant on textual appropriation.

Despite these errors and omissions, Parker is to be commended for working on the interrelations between fourteenth and sixteenth century reformist tracts. He uses to full advantage Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's Reformist Apolcalypticism and Piers Plowman, and demonstrates familiarity with Eamon Duffy's Stripping the Altars, used without the caveats offered by Philip Soergel in his review of Duffy's book (Traditio>/i> 69:3 [July 1994]), that "some may find Duffy's own judgments . . . overdrawn, sentimentalized, or idealized" (767) or by David Aers in "Altars of Power: Reflections on Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars, Literature and History 3, 90-105. Parker's reading of The praier and complaynte from both fourteenth- and sixteenth-century perspectives is not deaf to the two eras' reciprocal claims on their readers' imaginations, and his immersion in the sixteenth-century texts is obvious in the fluidity with which he treats the history of early printed books: their provenance (often Dutch), their complex attitudes towards Lutheranism, their alternately delicate and ham-fisted critiques of Catholic dogma and the pope. The text of The praier and complaynte provides a provocative trip down the slippery slope of Reformist polemics. It is interesting to note that The praier and complaynte, in forging a powerful diatribe against papal power, supports secular power's claims. Delineating the position of a strong king seems to lead inevitably to an Arundel-like condemnation of dreams and stories. In an address to God, the plowman-persona of The praier and complaynte complains of those that techen thy puple her owne techinge/ and leuen thy techinge that ys medefull/ and hyden it by quaynte gloses from thy lewed puple/ and feden thy puple with sweuenes that they meten/ and tales that doth littell profite but moch harme to the puple. (ll. 1182-86, p. 140) Glosses, dreams, and tales harm "the people." Throughout the text, in fact, we hear the stirrings -- and condemnation -- of Shakespeare's crowds, the people who respond passionately to Marc Antony's rhetoric, the plebians who reject their savior Coriolanus. The praier and complaynte extends our critical sight lines from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, complicating the medieval/early modern divide, while it also forces us to pay attention to the political uses to which history is put. Parker's edition will help us in our continuing attempts to reformulate this classic, productive, and troublesome divide.