The Production of Oxford, Christ Church MS 152 and the Ploughman's Tale of Marian Devotion

By Higl, Andrew | The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

The Production of Oxford, Christ Church MS 152 and the Ploughman's Tale of Marian Devotion


Higl, Andrew, The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History


The religiously orthodox tale of Marian devotion attached to Chaucer's Plowman/Ploughman appears in only one manuscript of the Canterbury Tales: Oxford, Christ Church MS 152. The tale has received hardly any critical attention and was never printed as part of the Chaucer canon, which is very much unlike the apocryphal and antipapal Plowman's Tale found in many early printed editions of the Tales after 1533. (1) Since its appearance in Christ Church 152, this Ploughman's Tale has been "subsequently rewarded with oblivion," as Andrew Wawn suggests. (2) Before it fell into oblivion, the poem in fact had a textual history outside the canon of the Canterbury Tales.

Thomas Hoccleve composed the poem that appears as Chaucer's Ploughman's Tale in Christ Church 152, yet Hoccleve makes no effort to present the poem as part of the Tales or as the work of Chaucer in Huntington Library HM MS 744 (fol. 33-36), which is an autograph manuscript. The text of HM 744 makes no mention of Chaucer, the Canterbury Tales, or the Plowman. Conventionally, scholars refer to the poem as "Item de beata virgine" from the header in HM 744. Scribal copies survive in Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.3.21 and the version altered by the scribe for the Canterbury Tales in Christ Church 152, both of which are datable, based on paleographic evidence, to sometime after the autograph manuscript HM 744.

The poem is certainly not the work of Chaucer, and there has been little dispute over its place outside the canon. Nevertheless, the redactor of the Christ Church text does not in anyway suggest that it is not Chaucer's Ploughman's Tale and thus implicitly makes this Ploughman's voice Chaucer's own voice as well. The version of the poem in Christ Church 152 makes no mention of Hoccleve as the author. Further distancing the poem from a Hocclevian context, the scribe responsible for the Ploughman's Tale made an effort to incorporate the tale into the frame by composing a two-stanza spurious link matching the rhyme royal verse of the rest of the tale and recycling the Host's function as the catalyst for transition between tales: (3)

   As the pylgrymys forth ded ryde,
   Owr Host began to loke aboute
   And seyd, "Felawys, we most provyde
   Hoo that best of alle thys route
   Kan telle hys tale, as lot comyth aboute.
   Ploughman Tylyer, drawe the nere
   And telle thy tale, and we wyl here." (1-7) (4)

To locate him as a religiously orthodox plowman, he is named, as the John Bowers' edition of the text would suggest, Tylyer, even though Chaucer's General Prologue leaves the Plowman unnamed. Though it is not unusual for a pilgrim to go nameless, the absence of a name in the canonical text perhaps sparked associations with the inflammatory figure of Piers Plowman. However, the capitalization of the "T" in Tylyer in the apocryphal prologue is Bowers' own editorial emendation. Tylyer could simply reiterate his profession as a plowman or, more specifically here, a "tiller." However, the scribe could very well have intended it to be the Ploughman's proper name, since the Host uses it in direct address before imploring him to draw near and tell his tale. Further, it would seem unnecessary to name the profession twice. The evidence, however, is inconclusive.

After the Host's formulaic call to participate in the storytelling game, the Ploughman replies:

   'Syr,' he seyde, 'I shalle telle, as I can,
   A tale of Crystys modyr dere,
   Mary that bare bothe God and man,
   How to a monk she ded apere,
   That every day seyde here sautere,
   And hevene blysse had to his mede.
   Hoo servyth owr Lady, the better shalle spede.' (8-14)

This link functions as a paratextual connection composed by the scribe between the Chaucerian Ploughman and the non-Chaucerian tale that follows. Thus, in order to make the religiosity of the tale the Ploughman's own and highlight those features most valued by the producer of the link, this stanza emphatically calls attention to the religious orthodoxy of the tale. …

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