09.07.19, Pearsall, ed., Piers Plowman

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Lawrence Warner

The Medieval Review 09.07.19

Langland, William. Pearsall, Derek (ed.). Piers Plowman: A New Annotated Edition of the C-Text. Exeter Medieval Texts and Studies. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 2008. Pp. 432. ISBN: 9780859897846.

Reviewed by:
Lawrence Warner
University of Sydney
lawrence.warner@usyd.edu.au

Derek Pearsall's 1978 edition of the C-text of Piers Plowman has stood up remarkably well, in large part because of its editor's decision, one that (like so much of his scholarship) seems so commonsensical and almost inevitable, to focus on C rather than B. The editor of B is faced with enormous textual problems, not least what to make of the evidence of C: the result is inevitably something that looks much different from any surviving manuscript. The editor of C, by contrast, benefits by having the author's final version as his object and being able to follow the surviving texts with a much clearer conscience, given the unavoidable evidence that Langland himself endorsed (even if by his failure to notice) numerous errors in the text.

Pearsall's new, revised edition is a major event in Middle English studies, an improvement on almost every front upon the fine 1978 edition. The reader immediately notices the beautiful cover and sizable pages, which warmly invite students into the poem. Pearsall identifies four major innovations: a complete revision of the text, making full use of the critical editions of C by A. V. C. Schmidt (1995) and especially George Russell and George Kane (the Athlone edition of 1997; hereafter RK); the introduction of line-end side- glosses of hard words; the complete updating of the annotation; and the transfer of an amount of general material from the footnotes to a new section of "Thematic Notes" (e.g., Lollardy and lollares; Pardoners; The Three Lives) at the end of the Introduction.

The most useful and influential materials here are Pearsall's judicious annotations, which both reflect up-to-date scholarship and his own, often altered, take on the poem. Some of the unfortunately influential claims of his first edition are now gone, such as his gloss of line 2's "shep" as possibly meaning "shepherd," and his gratuitous defamation of the P-tradition of manuscripts (1st ed., 20-21). Nearly all important scholarship over the past three decades receives its due in the notes; the only real oversight I noticed was the failure to attribute to Emily Steiner the newly-noted parallel between Hope's "patente" (XIX.12) and Christ's sending of "leattres iopenet" in the Ancrene Wisse (Steiner's work is, however, mentioned in the introduction [11]).

Some of Pearsall's great achievements in the annotations might bypass the casual reader, but nevertheless either advance our knowledge or force us, by dint of his great learning, to reconsider well-worn beliefs. While he does not bring attention to the fact, for instance, this edition is home to the first identification of two Latin quotations (XI.18a-b, from John of Salisbury; XVII.53, from Peter of Blois); perhaps some of this credit should go to Jim Binns, whom the editor thanks for "help with the identification and translation of the Latin" (viii). Even unchanged annotations can sometimes take on new potency after thirty years, such as his suggestion at VII.200 "that Peres and plouhman were a collocation" before Langland set pen to vellum, whereas the critical orthodoxy in the wake of Elizabeth Kirk's 1988 essay is that Langland invented this figure. The calcified assumption that John Ball's reference to Piers the Plowman in his 1381 letters is to our poem (not to mention to a particular version, with B currently the most popular candidate) might well merit a fresh look given Pearsall's implicit articulation of dissent by refusing to alter his annotation (and drawing new attention to it even where otherwise citing Kirk [33]).

All of that would be beside the point if the edition's text were not responsible, and here again the 2008 revision represents a great advance on the earlier, "best-text" one. He again adopts Huntington MS Hm 143 (X) as base text, but feels much less bound to follow its readings. While he does not adopt those RK emendations that "aim to systematize and regularize alliteration, grammar and spelling" in what he characterizes as "unnecessary or fussy ways" (18; see n. 31), Pearsall is happy to serve as popularizer of many of the Athlone proposals. Sometimes a single letter makes all the difference, as at XV.33, where Patience comes to the feast "Ilyke [1978 ed.: Ilyk] Peres the ploghman": this RK emendation "turns an adjective, 'like, resembling,' into an adverb, 'alike, similarly, likewise,'" so that Piers is a ghostly presence for the whole feast. He lists eleven "particularly striking and successful emendations in RK" that he now adopts (18), and he harmonizes his line-numbers with those of the Athlone (lines that he incorporates but that are rejected by RK are supplied with a "z": VIII.202z; XVII.116z). In at least one place Pearsall offers a new conjectural emendation: at XXII.219, priests now came with Sloth "In paltokes and pikede shoes and with pissares longe knyues" (RK: "[purses and] longe knyues"), though the new term does not appear in the key to the annotation at the bottom of the page, which retains the 1978 "and pissares longe knyues." The sense is certainly improved, but perhaps at the cost of meter, since the resulting half-line, assuming caesural pause before "and," seems to me to have two long dips in the b-verse (cf. 16).

The addition of marginal glosses and harmonization of the line numbers with RK are welcome gestures towards user-friendliness. It is too bad that Pearsall does not also follow the modern distinction between the graphs i/j and u/v: as Henry Ansgar Kelly has pointed out, there is no good reason to keep them, especially in an edition so well suited to the classroom. [1] My own experience in teaching from this edition confirmed that, no matter how many times students are reminded, they will still read lines such as XIII.15 ("Iob the gentele, what ioye hadde he on erthe") as "Yob the gentle, what yoy had he..." It's particularly odd that Pearsall sticks with that actively misleading policy given his approach to MS X's frequent use of "he" as a spelling of "she." In 1978 he asserted that "X is manifestly inferior [to MS U] in...its use of he as well as she for the nom. of the 3sg.fem.pronoun, a form so gratuitously confusing that" he emends it (21). Since then, however, M. L. Samuels has pointed out that alliteration often demands the form heo or he, identifying this as one of the "most important" of the features of Langland's dialect. [2] Pearsall now calls X's "he" form "unnecessarily confusing, though authentic as a form of heo in Langland's south-west Midland dialect," presenting it as "[s]he" (19). Some readers might think the benefits of this approach outweigh the drawbacks to rendering lines such as "So Elde and [s]he hit hadde forbete" (XXII.198) unalliterative; for my part, I wish he had reversed these two policies, printing "joye" where Langland wanted us to say "joye" and "he" where he wanted us to say "he."

As even this unfortunate situation shows, Pearsall's general abandonment of the "best-text" approach in the wake of the RK and Schmidt editions is accompanied by a fuller engagement with the textual situation. The downside to this is the removal of textual apparatus from the bottom of the page, as in the 1978 edition, to the back. The upside, for those who choose to dip into that section, is a much richer sense of the textual tradition embodied in the nineteen-odd surviving witnesses. It is especially helpful that Pearsall points readers to RK's discussions of their emendations and other textual problems.

Yet users will still have to confirm any given textual annotation by consulting RK. For one, Pearsall's use of shorthand can be misleading. A typical instance is the entry for VI.105: "Wrathe] most C-MSS, RK; wrothe X etc." "Most" and "etc." do not represent the situation very well: it would have been more (if still not precisely) accurate to identify "wrathe" as the reading of the P- family, "wrothe" as that of the X-family. And a spot-check of a handful of readings revealed some errors, the most consequential of which appears in Pearsall's claim of (his) VIII.202z: "This line in X only; om. RK as variant of 197." In fact the line is in all C MSS. Similarly, a check of MS X in digital facsimile suggests to me that RK are correct (see RK 148) to read XIII.187 as "Y se non so ofte forfeten, sothly, so mankynde" rather than "sorfeten" as in Pearsall 1978 and 2008 (on this folio, at least, the X-scribe uses initial long-"s" only in the "st" combination); Pearsall has no comment on RK's alterative reading.

Among the fascinating aspects of this edition, as of any engagement with the textual tradition Langland left behind, is the opportunity it affords its users to witness, and inevitably participate in, a genuine struggle to determine the precise ontological status of Piers Plowman C, of MS X's status as witness to that work, and of the edition's responsibility to that concept. The issue of "[s]he" canvassed above touches on such issues, honorably if in my mind confusedly; another instance, which seems at first glance quite small (especially since Pearsall's reading agrees with that of RK, and is carried over from the first edition), in fact has quite profound implications. At VI.37, Pearsall's text has Pride say, quite accurately in context, "Was non such as mysulue ne non so pop-holy." The problem is that MS X reads "hymsulue" for "mysulue." Pearsall's annotation reads, "Langland here allows the third-person pronoun to slip through from the Haukyn passage he is adapting (B XIII 283)...Emendation here does not pretend that the mistake was the scribe's but assumes that Langland would himself have corrected such obvious errors in a perfected revision." "Would have": but did not. Should editors recover an intention that the author himself never realized? Even the Athlone editors never do this (their most aggressive interventions posit that the author's copy read as their emended text does). If Pearsall had followed up on the implications of this claim, which would seem to call for correction to any number of errors that RK and Pearsall elsewhere deem the poet to have "sanctioned" by not correcting them, we would still be waiting on the first edition.

So far we are still in 1978; what is new this time is that the reader can now see, if he or she keeps a finger in the apparatus, that "mysulue" in fact has ample textual authority: it is the reading of what Pearsall calls "maj. wit.," which is really to say of the P-family of manuscripts plus MSS P[2] and D of the X-family. For RK, the situation is simple: XYJU err from the authorial reading; P+P[2]/D are correct. Yet Pearsall's interpretation of the situation--i.e., XYJU "err" from the intended authorial reading but accurately record what the author actually wrote--seems much more likely. The information made available by RK (who never discuss the problem) and now included in Pearsall's revision shows that a few early scribes beat Pearsall to what had been his conjectural emendation.

The irony is delicious: those readers who support the retention of a copy-text's readings except where in obvious error, if following their principles here, can take comfort in having a copy-text reading that is in all likelihood authorial to boot--but will do so not only in the absence of support from the scholar they have taken as their (manuscript-loving, commonsensical) champion against (hater of scribes, lurcher after genius) Kane, but also against a lovely example of scribal "editing," the phenomenon most often marshaled as exhibit number 1 in the case against the "violence" of critical editing. To my mind it is to Pearsall's great credit that he faces the issues head-on, where RK's approach enables them to pretend there is no problem. In doing so he sets a marvelous example for all readers who desire the best gift Piers Plowman, in all its messiness, has to offer modern readers: the opportunity to weigh up the desires of the author, scribes, readers, editors, and users of editions so as to produce something much greater than anything that a predetermined devotion to any one of those categories can afford.

This small instance is but one of many demonstrations that Pearsall's achievement is enormous by any standard, whatever errors have crept into the apparatus (and RK's apparatus, too, is bedeviled by error). A recent 42-year old interviewer of Bob Dylan for Rolling Stone magazine identified himself as a member of the "Biograph generation," comprising listeners who don't remember the sixties and who embrace all the great singer's genres as represented on the 1985 box-set, from folk to rock to gospel. [4] Call me a member of the "Pearsall generation": the 1978 edition was my introduction to Piers Plowman (in 1992), and the critical debates that so embroiled earlier generations (e.g., the "exegetical controversy," which for some reason Pearsall still devotes energy to debunking [8]), seem somewhat silly now. Our generation's Langland, thanks in no small part to Pearsall, cannot be contained by such restrictive debates: Piers Plowman C is, as it were, a box-set career overview, by a serious, capacious poet who deserves to be on the syllabus next to Chaucer, and whose final work can finally occupy that place thanks to Pearsall's updated edition. And while he is serious, students of Piers Plowman using this edition will also enjoy those annotations that are clearly illuminated by the twinkle in Pearsall's eye, such as the comparison of Will's phrase "a Kitte," that is, a wife called Kitty, to the modern (Aussie slang) term "a Sheila" (VII.304), or the simple and effective exclamation mark next to the recording of MS X's reading "procreatour" for received "procuratour" in the apparatus (XXI.258). The C-text of Piers Plowman in all its wonderful modes--textual, scholarly, political, devotional--finally has received its due.

-------- Notes:

1. See H. Ansgar Kelly, "Uniformity and Sense in Editing and Citing Medieval Texts," Medieval Academy News, Spring 2004, 8-9, online at [http://www.english.ucla.edu/faculty/KELLY/Editing.htm].

2. M. L. Samuels, "Langland's Dialect," Medium Aevum54 (1985): 232-47 (234; item 1, as presented on the corrigendum).

3. R. W. Chambers, "The Manuscripts of Piers Plowman in the Huntington Library, and Their Value for Fixing the Text of the Poem," Huntington Library Bulletin 8 (1935): 21.

4. Jonathan Lethem, "The Modern Times of Bob Dylan: A Legend Comes to Grips With His Iconic Status," Rolling Stone, posted 21 August 2006, online at [http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/11216877/the_modern_times_o f_bob_dylan_a_legend_comes_to_grips_with_his_iconic_status/4].

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Lawrence Warner

University of Sydney