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Digital text may reveal the real "Piers Plowman"

By Robert Brickhouse

Piers Plowman CD cover
A detail from the cover of the CD-ROM version of "The Piers Plowman Electronic Archive," Vol. 1: Corpus Christi College, Oxford MS 201 (F)

It 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 Bunyan.

But 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.

An 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.

Because 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.

The 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.

"Editing 'Piers Plowman' poses editorial problems only slightly less complex than the problems of editing the Greek New Testament, 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.

The 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.

In 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.

See http://jefferson. village.virginia.edu/piers/archive.goals.html


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