The Medieval Review 10.04.07

Schmidt, A. V. C. William Langland Piers Plowman: A Parallel-Text Edition of the A, B, C and Z Versions. Volume II: Introduction, Textual Notes, Commentary, Bibliography and Indexical Glossary. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2008. Pp. xiii, 948. $100.00 978-1-58044-141-4. .

Reviewed by:

Lawrence Warner
University of Sydney

The second volume of A. V. C. Schmidt's parallel-text edition of Piers Plowman is an extraordinary achievement. Appearing thirteen years after the first volume, the text itself (Longman, 1995), this 948-page tome, much of which is in tiny type on sizable pages, took ten years to compile and another three to be published after final copy was submitted to the publisher. At only $100, it is easily the best bargain to be had in medieval studies (by comparison, the latest title from Palgrave's New Middle Ages series is $90 for 224 much smaller pages). The entire community of Middle English scholars should thank not only the author for devoting so much of his distinguished career to this book and its companion, but also Medieval Institute Publishing for taking on the project, doing it so well, and making it so affordable.

This volume really comprises four book-length studies. First, the "Introduction," at over 300 pages, briefly describes the manuscripts, continuing with substantial sections on the editorial tradition of Piers Plowman, an account of the four versions, the explanation of Schmidt's editorial methods, and an invaluable overview of "The Poem in Time": authorship, audience, date, sequence of the versions, later reception, composition and revision, and sources. Next, the textual notes, at 166 pages of tiny type, two columns a page, constitute the first modern full- scale line-by-line treatment of the poem's textual problems. Third is a 275-plus page historical and literary-critical commentary and bibliography, and the fourth is a 176-page Indexical Glossary. Appendices on the language and meter of the poem, its rubrics, Langland's "repertory" of lines and half-lines, and corrections to errors in volume 1 fill out the volume.

Schmidt's Langland is above all else a poetic craftsman, a "clerkly maker" as his earlier book says. Critical approaches to Piers Plowman that focus on Langland's response to society or that assume his lack of interest in the transmission of his poetry come in for severe and often witty censure. Schmidt accepts the authenticity not only of Z, but also of passus A.12.1-98, and he believes, against Middleton, Hanna, and Scase, that John But, who wrote the remaining few lines of that passus, was the messenger who died c. 1387. He considers quite viable (and clearly did so well before my 2006 essay exploring that idea) the possibility that Langland wrote William of Palerne; rejects Bowers's argument that Thomas Usk did not know the C version; believes, against Horobin (whose 2005 Medium Aevum essay most likely appeared too late for him to accommodate) that C manuscripts "show no particular London connections" (166); and discounts Middleton's interpretation of C.5.1-104 as a dramatization of the 1388 Statute of Laborers.

But the volume's main argument, of course, is a sustained one against the "direct method" in which Kane, Donaldson, and Russell engaged in their Athlone edition. Those editors treat each reading in isolation, with almost no regard to questions of any given witness's character, date, or place on the putative stemma. In their account, manuscripts F of B and N2 of C uniquely attest authorial readings, suggesting the availability of pre-archetypal manuscripts against which their scribes corrected their texts. Schmidt mounts a vigorous campaign against such speculation, arguing that F's "good" readings instead witness contamination from an A-version manuscript, and N2's, contamination from a B-version manuscript of the beta group.

The heart of the "direct method" thus argued to be faulty, Schmidt presents his alternative: "the principle that agreed lines in two or more versions are to be understood as constituting 'what Langland wrote'" (239). This "core-text" generates "the axiom that 'a line's textual authority is proportional to its versional attestation.' This is the 'principle of unanimity'; and from it arises a 'principle of acceptability' that certifies unique archetypal readings as authentic, without further argument, if they conform to the core-text criteria. These principles furnish the canons of guidance or 'methodological rules' for editing" (232). And while he waits till his chapter on "Editing the Text" to expound this theory, Schmidt's earlier analysis of the Athlone editions refers frequently to the principles attending the core- text, which Kane and his colleagues violate in every conceivable manner.

The identification of the core-text criteria is an important achievement, and every Langland scholar will have to think hard about its implications. It is not clear to me, though, that the core-text demolishes the foundations of the Athlone approach, as Schmidt seems to believe. The main problem is his conviction that "the core-lines are textual 'facts'" (239). Facts they may be, but that does not make them Langland's. There is no escape from the fact that these lines' definition as constituent parts of a "core- text" is no less the product of subjective decisions than is the Kane-Donaldson-Russell construct.

Among such judgments is the act of defining the four archetypal texts that, Schmidt says, supply his body of data. I would feel more confident if he stuck to those lines attested by both alpha and beta of B, for instance. More pressing is the question of what it means that a line appears in two or more versions. From the Athlone perspective, this just indicates that the line did not attract Langland's attention when revising. Yet Schmidt, to my knowledge alone amongst textual critics of Piers Plowman, has it that Langland "planned his structural and verbal alterations [from B to C] in rough working papers and then re-drafted the new text one or more times as he progressed towards a fair copy" (62). If so, then every single line in C, at least, received Langland's active endorsement, which would justify the granting of core-text lines the power they have in this volume. But if we are instead to accept the view of scholars including the Athlone editors, Robert Adams, Ralph Hanna, and Wendy Scase that Langland worked from scribal copies to which he added loose sheets of revision matter, it seems to me that the core-text is not nearly as powerful a concept as Schmidt would have it.

The question of how MS N2 of C came to share so many readings with the beta group of B becomes crucial here. Schmidt is quite right to reject as far-fetched and unnecessarily complicated Russell-Kane's belief that N2 was corrected from a pre-archetypal copy. But his alternative, unfortunately, is even less plausible. He bases his idea that N2 was contaminated by a beta-type manuscript on the presence of ten readings shared between those two (185-86). But among the many intriguing aspects of this relationship not mentioned in this volume is that N2 shares entire passages with beta, amounting to eighty lines, half of which are B.15.532- 68, Anima's explosive call for disendowment of the church. Now, this is quite striking, since Schmidt follows Kane-Donaldson in believing that the exemplar used by the archetypal B scribe had displaced B.15.532-68 (these forty lines appear after B.15.502a in beta), and that in an entirely separate episode the alpha scribe of B happened to omit them at a later stage of transmission. Now appears a third anomalous treatment of the identical forty lines. What explains this phenomenon?

Though he does not say so explicitly, Schmidt must assume that by still another coincidence--the third in sequence--N2 happens to have been contaminated by beta for these identical forty lines, and not one before or after. The contamination even led this scribe to omit four lines that were in his C exemplar (though he did retain the new eighteen-line passage that C inserts just before the end of beta's forty lines). Even if we were to allow the slim possibility that it is a mere coincidence that each of three distinct textual families messes up with exactly the same passage in B.15/C.17, however, we would have a much harder time doing so once it became apparent that this is part of a much larger pattern of agreements between beta and N2 for whole lines and passages where alpha is either absent or spurious throughout the poem.

Schmidt treats each of these instances separately, only offering a possible explanation of alpha's "omission" at each site. In other words, he invokes some eighteen or so explanations for this body of data, three alone for B.15.532-68, which reasonable readers might well take to violate "the principle of economy," which "insists on employing the fewest assumptions that will adequately explain the available data" (242). Much simpler explanations present themselves, which Schmidt neither argues against nor even acknowledges. If the principle of economy is indeed in force with regard to this program, then many of the guiding assumptions of this edition and of Langland studies at large (which relies so heavily on the Kane-Donaldson-Schmidt treatment of B.15.532-68), such as his belief that loose sheets played no part in the production of the poem or, more basically, that "the B version" was extant in the form we know by c. 1380, might well vanish.

Despite MS N2's status as probably among the few absolutely indispensable witnesses for our understanding of the poem's production (MS R is probably alone in approaching its importance), it remains almost entirely unknown beyond a small circle of textual scholars. MS Z, by contrast, is probably the most famous single witness, though its implications, even if it does attest Langland's initial draft or version, seem to me much more limited. Readers in whose ears the heated arguments of the 1980s are still echoing will be interested to see how Schmidt treats the case. His selective treatment of N2 gives way here to a full and robust approach to Z, one that acknowledges the force of potential objections while still advocating his beliefs clearly and reasonably. To a degree his approach here (as with all editing) is circular: yes, Z accords with metrical norms, but they are norms that he has defined; yes, comparison with A.12.1-98 is telling, but only of course if Schmidt's minority belief in that text's authenticity is itself valid; and so forth. I still wonder why, if Z is Langland's, it differs so greatly from the other three versions. As far as the nature of its text goes, Z is John where A, B, and C are Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Still, Schmidt presents as strong an argument as could be mounted, and I am now less skeptical than before about the idea that it is Langland's.

Schmidt's advocacy of the core-text and his defense of Z's authenticity are the most innovative aspects of his edition, and together they constitute a mighty vision of how to edit this most difficult body of materials. All serious readers of Piers Plowman will need to engage with these arguments at the highest level, just as they have been doing with the work of Kane, Donaldson, and Russell. The fact that anyone followed up on Kane and Donaldson's challenge to undertake the task of re-editing the B version is alone cause for celebration; that Schmidt has done so four times, and has finally presented this enormous, learned, and important volume, is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

This review, despite its length, has treated a much smaller percentage of what is on offer in the volume than readers usually expect from reviews. A much fairer representation of my response would have been about four times longer and nearly all appreciative of Schmidt's accomplishments. Readers who decide to see for themselves what riches I here pass over will find the effort enormously rewarding. I would especially commend Schmidt's intriguing account of the textual status of B.16, a passus in which he finds "only two certain archetypal errors in the entire course of its 275 lines" (125), and his discussion of how Langland, unlike Chaucer, "shows little susceptibility to [the French language's] siren-song, which he perhaps associated with the ostentatiousness of decadent knighthood and the luxury of papal Avignon" (290). This Langland would have cared nothing for Troilus and Criseyde or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and cuts quite a different figure from what we find in recent work by Andrew Galloway and Nicolette Zeeman, each of whom sees the poet of Piers Plowman as one who engages deeply with the French romance tradition.

In sum, scholars and students of Middle English are enormously in Schmidt's debt for enriching and expanding our understanding of the greatest poem of medieval England, and for doing so with such great acumen and deep learning. This book is a must-have for all serious scholars of medieval literature.