Hundred Years Later, "The Piers Plowman Electronic Archive"
Will Help Scholars Find Truest Versions Of An Influential Medieval
28, 2000 -- 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.
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 Langlands "Piers Plowman," vary from
each other and contain errors or changes made by scribal copyists.
cutting-edge computer technology, an international project based
at the University of Virginia 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, said U.Va. English professor
Hoyt N. Duggan, who heads the project.
University of Michigan Press released this 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.
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, Duggan
said. 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,"
Duggan 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 dated certainly even as being in the poet's lifetime.
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 editorial board of the project includes scholars from Oxford
University and the University of Nottingham in England as well as
from the University of North Carolina, the University of Michigan,
Sam Houston State University, and Gustavus Adolphus College. Also
contributing are scholars from the University of London, the University
of Washington, the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, California
State University in Los Angeles, Maryville College, Princeton University,
and Berkeley. In its five-year history of scholarship to date, the
archive has enjoyed the financial support of the IBM Corporation
and the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as support
from many of the universities involved.
Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities played a key
role in supporting initial research on the project.
background information on the project is available in a research
report from the Institute for Advanced Tech in the Humanities at
interviews or additional information Hoyt Duggan may be reached
at (804) 924-6630 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bob Brickhouse, (804) 924-6856