Digital text may reveal
the real "Piers Plowman"
detail from the cover of the CD-ROM version of "The Piers
Plowman Electronic Archive," Vol. 1: Corpus Christi College,
Oxford MS 201 (F)
was an instant hit when it first appeared in the 14th century,
well before Gutenberg invented the printing press. It stayed popular
long after Middle English had stopped being spoken and influenced
such important authors as Edmund Spenser, John Milton and John
its very popularity now causes major problems for modern scholars
and editors trying to pin down its history: all 56 of the surviving
medieval copies of the great religious poem of the English Middle
Ages, William Langland's "Piers Plowman," vary from
each other and contain errors or changes made by scribal copyists.
English professor Hoyt N. Duggan and colleagues are using cutting-edge
computer technology to try to rectify the situation.
international project, led by Duggan and based at the University's
English department, has now begun publishing a groundbreaking
electronic archive of textual scholarship that will eventually
include CD-ROM editions of all the manuscripts and early printed
texts of the influential medieval poem.
electronic editions allow sophisticated searches and comparisons
of manuscripts, scholars will be able to demonstrate in ways not
previously possible the recovery of an authentic original text
from the ravages of time and hand copying, Duggan said.
University of Michigan Press released last week the first of approximately
four dozen planned volumes of "The
Piers Plowman Electronic Archive." Each electronic volume
will present two scholarly texts and a color facsimile of an entire
manuscript version of the lengthy poem. The first text is a literal
transcription of the manuscript as the scribe wrote it; the second
is a critical edition which corrects the scribal corruptions.
Both texts are hypertextually linked to a full scholarly apparatus
and to color images of the manuscript.
The completed archive will constitute a valuable research tool
for all who study late medieval English culture -- literary historians,
linguists, paleographers, and historians of religious thought.
The project also is intended to serve as a model of highest standards
for electronic textual scholarship, he said.
'Piers Plowman' poses editorial problems only slightly less complex
than the problems of editing the Greek New Testament,² he said.
Langland himself composed three versions of his poem during a
period from the late 1360s until his death, in about 1390. Of
the 56 surviving manuscripts, none is signed by Langland, and
none can be firmly dated even as originating in the poet's lifetime.
Like most medieval poets, Langland lacked control over the reproduction
of his work, Duggan said. "Enthusiastic early readers produced
inexpert copies for their own use, which became in turn the bases
for yet other copies, with each copying accumulating fresh errors,
conjectures, 'corrections,' and contamination within and between
versions." Authentic lines were garbled or omitted. Inauthentic
lines were introduced when scribes acted as amateur, self-taught
editors, sometimes mixing lines from the three authorial versions,
or adding words or lines of their own.
project's editorial board includes scholars from Oxford University
and the University of Nottingham in England and from the University
of North Carolina, the University of Michigan, Sam Houston State
University, and Gustavus Adolphus College.
its five-year history of scholarship to date, the archive has
had financial support from IBM and NEH, as well as support from
many of the universities involved. U.Va.'s Institute for Advanced
Technology in the Humanities played a key role in supporting initial
research on the project.