Piers Plowman

Description

Piers Plowman is a late 14th-century dream-vision. The poem is a sequence of 22 dream-visions, called ‘passus’, which means ‘step’ in Latin. In these visions, the narrator, Will, meets a series of allegorical characters. The poem is an exploration of Christian faith, as the narrator strives to uncover how to live a good Christian life.

Versions of Piers Plowman

The work was evidently popular: it survives in over 50 manuscripts. Intriguingly, the poet seems to have been dissatisfied with his work and revised it several times in the course of his life. The poem exists in several versions: the A-version, the B-version and the C-version. Some scholars have also suggested that there was another one, known as the Z-version. (This Z-version is a unique copy of the A-version, which may have been the author’s earliest version, pre-dating A.)

This manuscript you can see here contains the C-version, which is the last revision made by the poet. The different versions represent revisions made by the author to his text. The A-version appears to date from the 1360s, the B-version from the 1370s and the C-version from after two key events in 1381 and 1382: the Peasants’ Revolt and the Blackfriars Council, which condemned the teaching of John Wycliffe, the religious reformer. The poet seems to have been concerned about the way his text had become associated with the rebels and heretics – his final revision of the text is less political than the earlier versions.

What does this manuscript reveal about readers of the poem?

This manuscript bears the marks of generations of readers who treasured it. It has been annotated by at least eight different people from the 14th century to the 18th century. In the early part of the poem, there are several holes in the manuscript’s pages. In the 16th century, Thomas Thyrnbeke added missing sections of the text from an edition of the poem printed in 1550. In 1728 one of the manuscript’s later owners, Francis Aiscoughe of Cottam, Nottinghamshire, had it re-bound. He wrote a new frontispiece for the text, which read:

This Book was written and dated the 10th of the Ides of March the 2nd yeare of King John of famous memory by Peers Plowman Pensionaire or rather Servant to the said K[in]g as John Gowere recordeth. 9th Fraun' Aiscoughe (f. 3r)

Which the Ink failing transcribed when I caused this valuable MS to be newbound 4 June 1728.

After this we find the armorial bookplate of Maurice Johnson (1688–1755), who was a barrister and the President of the Society of Antiquaries. It is dated to 1735 (f. 2v). This is followed by a portrait bust of a young man in profile, painted in colours in an oval gold frame, which may have been painted by Maurice Johnson or one of his heirs (f. 6r).

These marks of ownership show how the poem, and the manuscript which contains it, continued to fascinate readers long after it was written.

View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.

Full title:
William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman (C version)
Created:
late 14th century
Format:
Manuscript
Language:
Middle English
Creator:
William Langland
Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Held by
British Library
Shelfmark:
Add MS 35157

Full catalogue details

Related articles

Middle English

Article by:
David Crystal
Theme:
Language and voice

David Crystal explains how Middle English developed from Old English, changing its grammar, pronunciation and spelling and borrowing words from French and Latin.

Piers Plowman: an introduction

Article by:
Lawrence Warner
Theme:
Faith and religion

Lawrence Warner introduces the questions of penance and obligation that are at the heart of Piers Plowman, and shows how the work's fierce satire and commitment to justice have influenced English literature, from multimedia reimaginings to the work of Jonathan Swift and Zadie Smith.

Dream visions

Article by:
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Themes:
Form and genre, Faith and religion, Myths, monsters and the imagination

Used by diverse writers throughout the Middle Ages, the dream vision as a form was as popular in the late medieval period as the novel is today. From courtly comedy to social critique, via feminist polemic, Mary Wellesley explores some of the most captivating works of the medieval period.

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