The Myth of "Piers Plowman": Constructing a Medieval Literary Archive

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This book pressures the concept of the literary archive surrounding a major work, Langland's fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman, broadly treating all the major components of the production and reception: questions of authorship, oeuvre, localization, oral transmission, editorial history, forgery (in which ‘fabrication’ is literalized), and translation. 

Its first half focuses on the pre-print era, before modern modes of editing become prominent: the problem of our inability to decide whether Langland wrote the fanciful romance William of Palerne, which features a werewolf and lovers in bear-suits; the extent to which modern assumptions about the localization of Piers Plowman have the tendency to reinforce themselves and obscure relevant evidence; the evidence that many of the Latin lines in the poem, usually taken to be integral and productive of its meaning, might well have originated as readers' glosses. 

The second half concentrates on the era in which the modern "Piers Plowman" came into being, beginning with the sixteenth century. Stand-alone prophetic excerpts have been sidelined by the focus on the poem as a whole, resulting in a very skewed understanding of the poem's role in religious controversies during the Reformation. Critics' lack of interest in the surviving sixteenth-century copies has kept a remarkably rich body of materials that shows eighteenth-century scholarly interest in the poem's complicated textual state. And no one has noticed that a literary forger working ca. 1800 translated Piers Plowman into heroic couplets.

Michel Foucault asserts that we must recognize that the concepts of "oeuvre," "book," and even "literature" itself "require a theory, [which] cannot be constructed unless the field of the facts of discourse on the basis of which those facts are built up appears in its non-synthetic purity." While by no means rejecting his insistence on the imperative to theorize, The Myth of "Piers Plowman"  urges an empirical application of such theorizing, a testing of the case, which will certainly confirm that the categories we have inherited are not quite what they seem at first sight, but are still within view, even if only via the footsteps and traces they have left behind for to us to follow. 

Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages239
ISBN (Electronic)9781107338821, 9781107777187
ISBN (Print)9781107043633, 9781107665514
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2014

Publication series

NameCambridge Studies in Medieval Literature
PublisherCambridge University Press


  • William Langland
  • Piers Plowman
  • attribution
  • William of Palerne
  • authorship
  • Archives
  • Latin
  • Robert Crowley
  • Dr. John Taylor
  • William Burrell
  • John Urry
  • Bodleian Library
  • William Dupre
  • Francis Douce


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