Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Passus Secundus De Dobest: On the Genesis of a Rubric in the Archetype of Piers Plowman B

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Passus Secundus De Dobest: On the Genesis of a Rubric in the Archetype of Piers Plowman B

Article excerpt

Medieval readers could often rely on paratextual headings, or rubrics, as an aid to orienting themselves within text.' Modern readers would like to use these headings as well, as aids to historical interpretation. The conclusions one draws from such study will depend to some degree on questions of attribution: is a given programme of rubrication the work of the text's author or a later scribe? The rubrics of the Middle English alliterative poem Piers Plowman have posed this question in an especially acute form. This is not surprising. Piers Plowman is idiosyncratic and obscurely organized, engages agonistically with Latin book culture, and developed a complex transmission history due in part to the editorial activities of interventionist scribes. Both the poet and the scribes had reason to supply paratextual indications of this poem's structure.

In a 2008 article in this journal, John Burrow argued that a programme of rubrics recorded in many manuscripts of Piers Plowman is organic to the poem in its B version and attributable to its author, William Langland.2 The principal target of Burrow's demonstrations was the view, argued by Robert Adams in a pair of important studies, that rubrics involving the 'three lives' - Do Well, Do Better, and Do Best - originated as irregular scribal efforts to impose structure on Langland's sprawling text.3 Against Adams, Burrow demonstrated that manuscript witnesses in one of the two B Version families point decisively towards a coherent programme of rubrication in the common ancestor of that family and permit a confident reconstruction of it. The original rubrication programme combined two overlaid numerations: the poem as a whole was divided into a prologue followed by twenty sections called passüs and numbered sequentially, I-XX; passüs VIII-XX were further apportioned into three sections bearing the titles Do Well, Do Better, and Do Best, as follows:4

Passus viijus de visione & hic explicit & incipit inquisicio prima de dowel

Passus ixus de visione & primus de dowel

Passus xus de visione & sccundus de dowel

Passus xjus de visione & tercius de dowel

Passus xijus de visione & quartus de dowel

Passus xiijus de visione & quintus de dowel

Passus xiiijus de visione & sextus de dowel

Passus xvus de visione explicit dowel & incipit dobet

Passus xvjus de visione & primus de dobet

Passus xvijus de visione & secundus de dobet

Passus xviijus de visione & tercius de dobet

Passus xixus de visione explicit dobet & incipit dobest

Passus xxus de visione & primus de dobest

In a second move, Burrow argued that this rubrication programme offers subtle insight into the poem's ordinario, insight likely to have originated with the poet himself. Endorsing a proposal made initially by Nevill Coghill, Burrow interprets the transitional formulas at the head of B XV and XIX to place the divisions between Dowel/Dobet and Dobet/Dobest somewhere within their respective passüs.5 This is a very difficult reading; it runs counter to standard medieval conventions of text articulation, for which a rubric 'explicit dowel et incipit dobet' ought to mean that the next line of text is the first of a new section titled Dobet. In keeping with that convention, Ralph Hanna interprets Dobet and Dobest to begin with the new dreams at the head of passüs XV and XIX, respectively.6 A. V. C. Schmidt similarly understands B VIII, XV, and XIX to serve as prologues to Dowel, Dobet, and Dobest.7 Yet the transitional formulas in Piers Plowman are unusual in that they are adjoined to section titles rather than serving in place of them. Perhaps 'Passus xvus de visione explicit dowel & incipit dobet' could have been taken to mean that the transition from Dowel to Dobet is the content of the poem's fifteenth passus. The problem requires further attention; I return to it at several points in the course of this article. …

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