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.
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.
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.