What’s the Story?

In Chapter 1 of Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts, we go into detailed study surrounding the content and reproduction of Piers Plowman from scribe to scribe. In viewing these various manuscripts, the question is posed as to whether metrical changes are made by William Langland or Scribe D. It’s possible that the manuscripts in question were actually drafts written by Langland, as our texts says possibly drafted “without alliteration… then worked them up” (OUMEM 73).

If this is true, William Langland’s case study would have some curious implications for the creative writing process of the late fourteenth century. For one thing, it would mean that at least Langland was more preoccupied with the story he was telling than the poem’s metrical effects. Were Langland and other authors trapped in the popular genre of their era? Surely the intellectual community of Britain during this time was exposed to non-rhyming prose, whether it was verbal story telling or copies of ancient Greek prose. Of course, we do not have enough information to comment on the intentions behind Langland’s writing process, because he may have always intended for poetry to carry the final product. However, the question is worth asking considering the content of his poem; a clear message is being sent about the church as a corrupt governing body, so it would be interesting to see if poetry was the necessary medium for reaching a wider audience, while the content carries the weight.

1 thought on “What’s the Story?

  1. Nick, you bring up some great points about implications surrounding the late 14th century creative writing process, and I love that you question whether or not writers like Langland felt trapped in a specific popular genre of their era. All questions and thoughts I’ve had as well!

    While studying Piers Plowman, we learned that the text appeared in three different versions, each a little different than the last. We also understand Piers Plowman to be presented as an allegory so readers approach it with certain expectations, but then find that it doesn’t maintain our expected results and instead relies on an affective force (remember Anne Middleton describes the literary mode of PP as “an affective force [that] depends on…the deflection of systematic explanation”). I do think that as a writer, Langland was in some ways bound to a genre that would be familiar, accessible and relatable for his readers, but I think that Piers Plowman is an iconic text because it does contain many stylistic and creative elements. As we learned in earlier sections of Chapter 1 in the OUMEM, scribes were able to choose what dialect they wanted to write in, they could even combine dialects. They had choices in punctuation, as well as other stylistic choices like the compilato and ordination of a text. In many ways, scribes in the late 14th century seemed to have more freedom in text than we do now. They weren’t bound to specific standardizations and were able to more artfully play with language. So although Langland may have been bound to poetry and alliteration to fit the appropriate genre of the time, I don’t think his adhering to said genre would have inhibited his creativity. Within the genre, it seems he still had a number of creative choices to make regarding the manuscript as a whole, as well as stylistic choices within each individual Passus.

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