Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Public Piers Plowman: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Public Piers Plowman: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture

Article excerpt

C. David Benson, Public Piers Plowman: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture (University Park: Pennsylvania State Press, 2003). xix +283 pp. ISBN 0-271-02315-5. £35.00.

David Benson has two plausible projects: to query critical reliance on the 'Langland myth', a broad consensus about the historical life and personality of the poet; and to situate Piers Plowman (which Benson rightly describes as a 'dialogic' and 'polyphonic' poem, pp. 105-7, 137) 'n relation to more accessible forms of culture. There is little evidence for a historical 'Langland', and recent readers may have underplayed the poem's use of more widely disseminated cultural forms. However, the various aspects of these two projects are not necessarily related: acceptance that it is impossible to access a historical author need not entail specific views about the nature of the medieval literary 'subject' or about his characteristic textual sources and reference points, for instance.

Chapter 1 engagingly traces the 'Langland myth' from Skeat and Chambers to Middleton. Chapter 2 argues for the impact of the myth on the poem's editorial history (even claiming that one reason for the failure of Manley's multiple authorship theory was his inevitable failure to produce a coherent account of the poet, p. 18). Benson proposes that scribal activity, as well as the possibility of a 'Langland workshop' and a rhetorically oriented revision in the C-text (similar to Mann's argument for the Á-text), support his argument against the poem as the product of an identifiable and individualized poet. Chapter 3 surveys theories of the subject, but despite cursory attention to critiques of 'liberal humanism' (including that of 'Zizak', p. 89), Benson's nonindividualistic, polymorphous T of Piers Plowman still sounds rather like Spitzer's old 'poetic I' understood as 'mankind' (pp. 90-7).

My main reservations about Benson's attack on the 'Langland myth' derive from the fact that he makes it responsible for all systematic readings of Piers Plowman; he does not distinguish between claims about a historical 'Langland' and the possibility that the poem (in its various versions) contains characteristic patterns, voices, or preoccupations. …

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