Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

Notes for Posterity: An Owner's Annotation in an Early Piers Plowman Printing

Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

Notes for Posterity: An Owner's Annotation in an Early Piers Plowman Printing

Article excerpt

The early days of combing book annotation solely for hints about provenance have thoroughly given way to a more capacious critical interest in what those marks left by owners and readers teach us about the literate culture which produced them. In relation to The Vision of Piers Plowman, a fourteenth-century alliterative allegory by William Langland, a long and distinguished line of inquiry has studied how Protestant readers marked up their manuscripts of the poem in order to make the hero Piers a proto-Protestant inhabiting a constructed past that validated and confirmed their present. (1) This essay centers on Bodleian Library Douce L-250, a copy of Robert Crowley's second 1550 printing of Piers Plowman. The printing itself is a famous example of early modern, Protestant appropriation of a medieval Roman Catholic poem. (2) But this particular copy is additionally complex because it was owned and annotated by a seventeenth-century Catholic named Andrew Bostock. In response to Crowley's printed marginal comments that attempt to make Langland into a proto-Protestant, Bostock wrote his own annotations defending the poet's orthodoxy. Bostock's learned diatribes have several times been mentioned by commentators on the early modern reception of Piers Plowman, (3) but none have yet fully explored the implications of his notes in the context of the codex. This essay argues that Bostock's marginalia are notes not for himself or even for Robert Crowley, but for his descendants whom he expected to read and be corrected by his marginal defense of a marginalized faith. I contextualize those comments as being conditioned by a family legacy of annotation in a book that had been passed down through several generations of Bostocks.

The three 1550 printings of the B text of the poem by Robert Crowley offer great insight into the Protestant reception of William Langland. Although Crowley largely refrained from censoring the text of the poem itself, he uses--especially beginning with the second printing--a remarkable number of marginal comments to lay claim to (some would say "kidnap" (4)) the poem as a proto-Protestant, indeed Wycliffite, text. (5) Yet Andrew Bostock s responses prove that the Catholicity of the poem was not entirely obliterated in the early modern period. When Will, as narrator, declares that DoWell (that is, doing well in the world) "passeth all the pardon, of saint Peters church" (7.178), (6) Crowley prints the following comment in the margin of his edition: "Note howe he scorneth the auctority of Popes" (fol. 39r). This annotation pointedly ignores Will's further rumination in the next several lines, in which he asks rhetorically whether popes do indeed have the power of pardon, ultimately answering with a very clear adherence to orthodoxy: "Leue [i.e., believe] lellye Lordes, forbode els | That pardon and penaunce, & prayers done saue | Soules that haue sinned, seuen sythes deadly." (7) Crowley s willingness to overlook this sentence is even more striking when we realize that the 1550 printings, uniquely of the surviving witnesses, omit an "I" at the head of the phrase, turning it from the narrator's "credo" into a command to the "Lordes" of his audience. Yet Crowley seems to have preferred to annotate than to emend. Offended by Crowley's strong-armed interpretation, Bostock takes Langland's part and responds in the margins of his own copy with the following words:

   No Catholick Doctor can be shewd to have writ or ever
   taught that the Pope hath power to pardo [n] without any
   penanc[e] or obligation to live well. The Popes Bul[ls]
   or pardons are for remitting of Canonical penance, or
   tempora[l] punishments, which remains to be sufferd after
   the sin as far as it incurrd eternal[l] damnation is forgiven by
   the Sacramen[t] of penance. And thes[e] pardons or Indulgences
   ever suppose a fit disposition in the persons to whom
   they are applied. An[d] that must be a sincere resolution of
   forsaking evill and doing good. … 
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