Academic journal article Medium Aevum

A Scribal Translation of Piers Plowman

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

A Scribal Translation of Piers Plowman

Article excerpt

The linguistic interest of a scribal copy of a Middle English literary text often stands in- inverse proportion to its literary and textual interest. From the point of view of the literary scholar, the medieval scribe who makes substantial changes to his text tends to be simply a nuisance, even if more recent scholarship has called attention to his role in providing information about literary expectations and taste.' For the dialectologist, however, such a scribe is a major source of evidence, and the further his usage stands from that of the original, the more valuable evidence it is likely to provide for his own dialect.2 A very clear example of this is provided by one of the seldom studied, textually 'inferior' manuscripts of Pier.r Plowman, found in British Library, MS Harley 2376. This text, a complete version of the C-text of the poem, shows a very thorough scribal translation which, interestingly, does not in the first place seem to reflect geographical distance, but rather, as will be suggested below, differences of style and register. It is of considerable interest as dialectal source material, and, at the same time, raises some important questions about the kinds of non-regional variation present in written Middle English.

The manuscript is relatively large and ornate, with 124 folios, and is written by a single scribe in a clear anglicana formata;3 a fairly large number of corrections are made in the text by both the main scribe and another contemporary hand." In his collation of the C-text manuscripts, Skeat had planned to denote the text with the siglum N, which has been adopted in most subsequent works, including the recently published Athlone Press edition by Russell and Kane; in the end, however, he did not use the text, which he describes as 'a most disappointing MS, as it looks so promising, and is yet so unsatisfactory'.6 While all manuscripts of the C-text contain some misreadings or 'corruptions', the present text not only contains obvious misreadings but also shows numerous substantial changes not found in any other manuscript, including substitutions of lexical items and changes to syntactic structure. That it reflects a deliberate reworking was recognized by Skeat:7

It is, in fact, clear that the scribe has, as it were, glossed his words, by substituting easy ones in the place of hard ones, regardless of alliteration. Nor has he always done this correctly; for in 1. I I6 for example, the word lacke means to blame, not to spare ... The reader who takes the trouble to look up [examples given] ... will easily satisfy himself that the MS is utterly worthless as regards its readings ...

Although perhaps 'worthless' from a textual point of view, the text is clearly of great potential value for linguistic study; while the translator seems to have been quite insensitive to the literary qualities of the poem, his modifications are likely to give a much truer picture of an actual dialect than the 'better' texts of the poem, which follow the original more closely.

The lingmitic usage of N and Langland's dialect

The `common core' usage of the manuscripts of Piers Plowman, which may be assumed to reflect Langland's own dialect, was defined by Samuels in 1985 and localized on linguistic grounds in south-west Worcestershire, a placing which agrees remarkably well with the internal evidence of the poem.8 While the changes made by the translator on all levels of language distance the linguistic usage of N from this common core, setting it apart from most other C-text manuscripts, the differences are unlikely to reflect, in the first instance, regional variation. In The Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English (henceforth LALME,' the scribal usage of N was localized (as Linguistic Profile 7 3 2o) in the extreme south-east of Herefordshire, near the Gloucestershire border; a new, more detailed analysis of the material confirms this localization, which may be centred fairly precisely on the town of Ross-onWye and its environs. …

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