The B Version Archetype

My essay-length review of John Burrow and Thorlac Turville-Petre, eds., The “Piers Plowman” Electronic Archive, Vol. 9: The B-Version Archetype will appear in the Yearbook of Langland Studies 32. Here is the abstract:

The B-Version Archetype, published on-line by the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive (PPEA), deserves close study by all scholars of Langland’s poem. John Burrow, Thorlac Turville-Petre, and their PPEA collaborators have produced an ‘intermittently critical edition’, in approximately the sense called for by Robert Adams in 1992, at the beginning of the PPEA project. Following Adams’s demonstrations, Burrow and Turville-Petre take Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud misc. 581 (L) and Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson Poetry 38 (R) to establish the readings of the archetype (Bx) where these two copies agree. Where L and R disagree or R is absent, the rest of the B tradition comes into play. George Kane’s criticisms of recension retain their cautionary value, but Burrow and Turville-Petre show what is possible within a stemmatic-recensionist method. This edition is also distinguished by the editors’ attention to paragraphing and metrical pointing: the editors demonstrate conclusively that these ‘accidentals’ constitute a relevant component of the textual record.

The B Version Archetype is unapologetically a text for scholars, yet it is considerably more approachable than the Athlone edition. The PPEA team have always aspired to transparency, and the edition of Bx succeeds admirably in this respect, in part through intelligent use of digital technology. The editors’ introduction is a magisterial distillation of complexity. Where they are obliged to look beyond the most faithful manuscripts, they record their assessment of the evidence in readily accessible annotations. A collation window (designed by Paul A. Broyles) displays the readings of the most important witnesses. On the difficult problem of ‘rolling revision’, Burrow and Turville-Petre adopt an unsatisfactory compromise; they probably also over-estimate the quality of the archetype as a record of Langland’s writing. Yet this edition is the best record now available of the received text of Piers Plowman B. Where it differs from previous critical editions, Burrow and Turville-Petre’s text serves as a valuable check on editorial judgement. To illustrate the quality of the edition, I collate passus 7 against the editions of Kane and Donaldson and of A.V.C. Schmidt. Kane and Donaldson’s edition departs from the edited archetype in 136 substantive readings in this passus, or about once per 1.5 lines; Schmidt departs from the archetype in 49 substantive readings, or about once per 4.5 lines. The new edition of Bx will challenge the romantic Schwärmerei of both Kane–Donaldson and Schmidt, but one result may be increased esteem for Schmidt’s comparative editorial restraint. An appendix to this review essay employs The B Version Archetype in a demonstration study of Langland’s metrical grammar. This study reveals previously unnoticed regularities in Langland’s verse technique and further idiosyncrasies in the heavily reworked text of Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 201 (F).

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