Methods and Materials for Reconstructing the B Archetype (Bx)

The edition aims to establish the archetypal readings of the witnesses to the B-version of Piers Plowman. We argue that the readings of the B archetype (henceforth Bx) can be established with certainty in the majority of lines. In the great edition by Kane-Donaldson, the editors maintained that all manuscripts of the B-version were pervasively corrupt and therefore required extensive emendation, and that the archetype was itself a highly corrupt text of Langland’s B-version. The medium of print did not give them sufficient space or means to distinguish conjectural emendation from emendation based on attested readings, or to discuss adequately the arguments against the received text and in favor of their preferred reading. It is therefore often very difficult to see what the Bx reading actually is, and so it is easy to agree with the editors that Bx was irrecoverable by the traditional process of recension. Electronic publication gives us the opportunity of unpacking Kane-Donaldson's work and of attempting to determine, we hope relatively uncontroversially, the readings of Bx, as a preparation for the final step of seeking to establish an inevitably controversial critical text of Piers Plowman.

The edition is based on the stemma established by Robert Adams. Manuscripts R and F are the only two witnesses to the alpha subarchetype; all other manuscripts are beta witnesses. As Adams demonstrates, the two key witnesses are L, representing beta, with additional support from M, and R, representing alpha. In principle the single witness of either L or M can represent beta against all the other manuscripts. Disagreement between L and M brings the remaining beta manuscripts into play. CrWHm form a close group derived from a reasonably good text, beta2, with Crowley’s print Cr as its most reliable witness, although account has to be taken of its modernisations and Crowley's access to C-text manuscripts. The much less faithful beta4 is represented by GYOC as well as C2, probably a direct copy of O. Apart from C2, which has no independent authority, G is the least useful of this group, a sixteenth-century manuscript showing conflation with AC and introducing quite a number of independent revisions and modernisations. We have not found that the beta5 derivatives BmBoCot offer useful evidence in constructing Bx, and while we have considered their readings at every point, we have not displayed them. Although we have examined the variant readings of all the Bx witnesses, we display and in general cite the readings of the following ten manuscripts:

L - Oxford, Bodleian Library: MS Laud Misc. 581
M - London, British Library: MS Additional 35287
Cr - Robert Crowley’s first print of 1550
W - Cambridge, Trinity College: MS B.15.17
Hm, Hm2 - San Marino, Huntington Library: MS 128
O - Oxford, Oriel College, MS 79
C - Cambridge, Cambridge University Library: MS Dd.1.17
G - Cambridge, Cambridge University Library: MS Gg.4.31
R - London, British Library: MS Lansdowne 398; Oxford, Bodleian Library: MS Rawlinson Poetry 38
F - Oxford, Corpus Christi College: MS 201

Our copy-text is L, much the most reliable of the B witnesses, and without the text losses of R. Kane-Donaldson, followed by Schmidt, based themselves on W, while admitting that it had more errors than L. They chose W because of its consistent spelling and systematic grammar, but recent studies show the sophistication of W's hand is matched by the sophisticated accidentals of his text, which has been processed for a London audience by imposing standard London spellings and Chaucerian grammar. Though the spelling system of L is not an entirely consistent representative of a single dialect, it is probable that Bx was also inconsistent, and likely enough that Langland himself, as a London immigrant, wrote forms reflecting his new environs as well as his native dialect.

The presentation of the text followed the format established for diplomatic editions in the PPEA: though without recording features of the individual ms. There is a full set of textual annotations, discussing the choice between B variants at every point, as well as relevant AC readings.