Creating the Archive

Mission Statement

The late medieval manuscripts at the heart of this project come from an era that the Dutch medievalist Johan Huizinga called "herfsttij der Middeleeuwen," or "the autumn of the Middle Ages" - a time when the coming of print was just around the corner. Living in the age of digital media, we feel a deep kinship with this period of transition. For textual critics, the increasingly popular move from print to digital recalls the shift from manuscript to print in the Renaissance, from scribes writing by hand on the skins of animals to movable type presses printing on paper. Like the first printers, we are excited by the advantages of new media.

Yet for all its revolutionary effects on the written form, the Internet shares many striking resemblances with medieval manuscript culture. Hyper-texted, image-rich web pages resemble the dense data and layout of glossed and illuminated manuscript folios. The users of both manuscripts and websites, unlike the users of printed books, are collaborative and (often) anonymous publishers, editors, and annotators. Medieval readers, very much like contemporary surfers of the web, used and produced compilations, copying, arranging, editing, and commenting on the texts they inherited from many sources.

The Piers Plowman Electronic Archive takes advantage of the flexibility and expandability of digital media while also continuing the time-honored work of traditional editing. The Archive provides users with unprecedented access to each manuscript we edit and gives instructors and students, experts and novices, unique pedagogical, literary, and editorial opportunities. We represent the richness and complexity of the textual tradition of William Langland’s Piers Plowman by providing a transcription of the text of each manuscript, complete with deletions, additions, annotations, and errors. At the same time, we employ the stores of data at our disposal and use innovative programming in the service of traditional textual criticism to generate critical editions that come closer than ever to the earliest texts of the poem, otherwise lost to the modern world.

Uses for the Archive

Any student of late medieval literary culture, both novice and experienced professional, will benefit from accessing the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive. The Archive contains particular resources for high school teachers, university instructors, and editors engaged in similar digital projects. It should also benefit historians, historical linguists, dialectologists, literary historians, paleographers, and anyone interested in the material production of books and the study of literacy.

Since Piers Plowman was read, copied, and imitated from the late fourteenth century until well after the Protestant Reformation, its manuscripts reflect its varied reception to an unusual degree. In the Archive, these manuscripts will be represented both by digital color facsimiles and by transcriptions marked with XML. These representations will provide immediate, concrete ways to observe and compare the manuscripts, opening possibilities for study that are not feasible in print editions.

Uses for High Schools

TEACHERS will find the Archive a useful tool for introducing their students to the fascinating world of manuscript production, transmission, and reception. The color facsimiles will give students immediate access to what medieval books looked like, and the "For High Schools" information tab suggests exercises, discussion topics, and assignments to help students understand the process a text goes through from being copied by hand to becoming the edited work they read in their textbooks.

Uses for Undergraduates

Undergraduate INSTRUCTORS can introduce students to William Langland, Piers Plowman, and the literary world of the late fourteenth century through the introductory materials in the "About" and "Timeline" tabs. NEW MEDIEVALISTS can gain useful skills in paleography by practicing transcription with the color facsimiles and accompanying edited transcripts, and they can find a new appreciation for the work of a textual editor by comparing scribal editions to our critically edited texts. We encourage instructors to make use of the resources and suggested activities and assignments in the "For Universities" tab.

Uses for Advanced Students and Scholars

The color facsimiles will enable PALEOGRAPHERS and other textual scholars to enlarge and enhance discrete items on the page or to subject portions of the text to color or gray-scale analysis. Teachers of paleography and their students can use the color facsimiles to study scribal patterns of abbreviation and suspensions or to compare different styles and modes of layout and page composition or ornament. HISTORICAL LINGUISTS and DIALECTOLOGISTS will be able to search and manipulate a hyperlinked matrix of several million word forms derived from several dozen dialect areas for studies of syntax, morphology, phonology, orthography, and lexicography. Lexical collocations, every one of them, can be searched and subjected to analysis. METRISTS and LINGUISTS who study stress patterning will be able to copy texts and mark them specially for their own searches and tabulations.

Recent interest in the history of literacy and the material production of medieval books has focused renewed attention upon scribal behavior. The manuscripts of Piers Plowman provide plentiful evidence that their scribes took an unusual degree of interest in this text, which served a variety of functions for a variety of factions. Though it would be easy to over-emphasize the role of the scribes as critics and interpreters, the early reception of the poem is nevertheless extant primarily in their interventions and annotations. The structured database of the Archive offers students of scribal behavior unprecedented access to efficient comparisons and accurate statistical compilations. Once the archetypal text has been reconstructed, CULTURAL HISTORIANS and TEXTUAL SCHOLARS can efficiently gather evidence on rates and forms of scribal error, contamination, substitution patterns, coincidental variation, and so forth.

The Archive also offers new possibilities for LITERARY SCHOLARS. Professor Larry Benson at Harvard, among others, has begun to demonstrate some potential uses of the computerized text for literary criticism. In the Glossarial DataBase of Middle English, he has prepared a fully lemmatized electronic concordance for his Riverside Chaucer with a sophisticated set of search and analysis software tools. Professor Benson, in a sophisticated comparative analysis of word frequency counts in Chaucer's "Man of Law's Tale" and in Gower's version of the same story in the Confessio Amantis, provides a splendid model for literary study informed by computer research. WordHoard, out of Northwestern University, offers similar search capabilities for "deeply marked" texts of Greek epic, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Spenser. Structured data bases offer increased precision to the observation of Langland's poetic style. The possible uses of the Archive for literary critical analyses are limited only by the imagination of the critic.

Piers Plowman in Modern Editions

Editing Piers Plowman has never been easy. More than fifty manuscripts of the poem survive, none of them autographs. Of these fifty-odd manuscripts, no two are exactly alike not only in accidentals like spelling and punctuation, but also in terms of major substantive factors like content and length: some versions of the poem are three times longer than others.

In the nineteenth century, the philologist William Skeat tidied up this chaos. He organized the fifty-plus versions of the poem into three alphabetical categories: the A, B, and C texts. Skeat proposed that one author named William Langland had composed this poem, revising it three times over the course of the last four decades of the fourteenth century. Skeat found this name in an early C-text manuscript (Vc) that attributes the poem to "Willielmi de Langlond." According to Skeat, Langland wrote the A text, the shortest version of the poem, first; years later, he greatly expanded the poem, creating the much-longer B text; finally, towards the end of his life, he revised the poem once more, producing the C text.

Skeat’s theories still stand as the foundation of Piers Plowman criticism. But even he acknowledged that the texts he produced had flaws, and so the editorial project has been taken up in the past century by many ambitious scholars. Over several decades beginning in 1946, George Kane, and two collaborators, George Russell and E. Talbot Donaldson, transcribed and collated all the known manuscripts in a renewed effort to produce texts closer to Langland's original versions than Skeat had attempted. In 1960, Kane published an edition of the A Text, the earliest and shortest version of the poem. Fifteen years later, the Kane-Donaldson edition of B was published, followed by the Russell-Kane edition of the C Text in 1997. Although other important editions have appeared (such as Derek Pearsall’s C text and A. V. C. Schmidt’s alternative edition of B as well as his 1995 parallel-text edition), those by Kane and his collaborators remain influential.

Thanks to the capacities of the digital world, the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive provides public access to the medieval textual situation of Piers Plowman, allowing readers to decide for themselves how to interpret the complexity of the raw data, while also giving users the option of approaching the poem with a more traditional editorial apparatus.


  • C. David Benson, Public Piers Plowman: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture (Penn State Press, 2004).
  • Charlotte Brewer, Editing Piers Plowman: The Evolution of the Text (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  • George Kane, ed., Piers Plowman: The A Version (London: Athlone, 1960).
  • George Kane and E. T. Donaldson, eds., Piers Plowman: The B Version (London: Athlone, 1975).
  • Derek Pearsall, ed., Piers Plowman, by William Langland: An Edition of the C-text (London: Edward Arnold, 1978).
  • George Russell and George Kane, eds., Piers Plowman: The C Version (London: Athlone, 1997).
  • A. V. C. Schmidt, Piers Plowman: a Parallel-text Edition of the A, B, C and Z Versions (London: Longman, 1995).
  • A. V. C. Schmidt, The Vision of Piers Plowman (London: Dent, 1991).
  • W. W. Skeat, ed., The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman in Three Parallel Texts, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1886).