Piers Plowman and its Manuscript Tradition

Sarah Wood

Thank you for contributing to the Medieval Herald! Please can you begin by providing an overview of your book?

Thank you so much for featuring my book! It’s a study of the surviving manuscripts of William Langland’s fourteenth-century poem of social and spiritual enquiry, Piers Plowman. I have approached these books as a reader of the poem interested in other readers: how they responded to the text, how they presented it for future readers, what else they were reading alongside it, how they altered it or even sometimes continued it with their own lines of poetry. 

What’s an example of how Piers Plowman would be traditionally presented in manuscript form?

One of the most striking things I discovered from looking across the whole corpus of surviving books was that there are various ways of presenting the poem in the manuscripts that I call ‘traditional’, because they seem to have developed at an early stage and to have been reproduced by subsequent copyists over a long period of time. One example would be a group of books that all have a related text and a common marginal apparatus that highlights some of the inset speeches and documents in the poem, things like prophecies and sermons and the moment when Piers the Plowman draws up his will. I found that this form of annotation was similar to the presentation of medieval historical and pseudo-historical texts, suggesting that modern readers have perhaps not fully appreciated Piers Plowman’s literary relationship to chronicles and other historical narratives.

What’s the most surprising juxtaposition of Piers Plowman and another work in the same manuscript?

For me the most surprising was the appearance of the poem alongside romances about Alexander the Great, whose exotic adventures seem far removed from the contemporary England of Piers Plowman. We don’t know what might have prompted a medieval reader to want these texts bound together: they were perhaps simply after some popular Middle English works that were readily available. But I wanted to consider how encountering one of these poems might have affected how a reader thought about the other when they read them between the same covers. Interestingly, one of these romances, the alliterative poem The Wars of Alexander, comes with a set of marginal glosses that are quite similar to the traditional apparatus of prophecies and documents that some of the scribes used for Piers. It’s possible that works like these seemed to a medieval audience to be generically closer to one another than they appear to readers today. 

Is there a particular instance of marginalia in a Piers Plowman manuscript that you find significantly interesting?

Actually it was not any individual marginal note that excited me so much as when I realised, looking at one manuscript, that I’d seen the same glosses in another copy already and that Piers scribes must therefore be copying marginal rubrics from one another. Most of the previous scholarship had assumed that each marginal apparatus was a one-off, devised by the producer of that particular manuscript. I found that the scribes were in fact very often reproducing quite faithfully the presentation of earlier copies. In many ways they were much more conservative, and more diligent, than scholars had imagined.

When did you first encounter Piers Plowman yourself, and what captured your interest?

I was lucky enough to encounter Piers Plowman for the first time during my undergraduate degree. What drew me in, perversely, was my utter confusion: as an undergraduate with only one week to study the poem, I often had no idea who was speaking or exactly what they were talking about or why. It made me want to learn anything I could that might help make sense of what was going on. I chose to study Piers again as a postgraduate student, and at that point my fascination with the poem was confirmed as an incurable affliction!

What did you enjoy most about writing this book? What was the hardest part?

The most enjoyable part was studying the original manuscripts in various libraries in the UK, Ireland, and the USA. Even when you’ve read descriptions of a manuscript beforehand, you’re still never completely sure what you’ll discover when it’s placed on the desk in front of you, so every day and each new book was incredibly exciting. Often the manuscripts that initially appeared the least promising turned out to be the most rewarding. The biggest challenge was to give proper attention to the unique details of individual copies while trying to draw wider conclusions about the corpus–and attempting to convey some of the excitement that the original readers of this extraordinary poem must have felt.

Piers Plowman and its Manuscript Tradition

Sarah Wood

£70.00 / $105.00 

9781914049071, Hardcover, August 2022

260pp, 6 b/w illustrations

York Manuscript and Early Print Studies

York Medieval Press



Also Available

in the York Manuscript and Early Print Studies Series

SARAH WOOD is Associate Professor of Medieval English Literature at the University of Warwick.