Reading the Z-text of Piers Plowman

Answering the who, what, where, when, and why of a medieval manuscript can be like trying to solve a who-done-it without that convenient answer key supplied by the author. Imagine then, that the same who-done-it exists in fragments. Such is the case of the 14th century work Piers Plowman, composed by William Langland in several successive stages and extant in not one, not two, not three, but four versions which vary significantly in length and sometimes content: the A-, B-, C-, and Z-texts. Scholars have been debating the relation between the first three versions of the text for well over a century, and with the discovery of the Z-text in the 1980s the conversation became even more complex.  The Z- text is of greatly contested authorship and complicates our understanding of Piers Plowman as a radical, reform-minded text.

British Library, Harley MS 2376, f.1r; England, 1st half of the 15th century. Opening page to William Langland’s C-text of Piers Plowman, the final revision of this work.

The A-, B-, and C- texts (c. 1370, 1378-9, and 1386 respectively) are widely regarded as the work of a single author, William Langland, who appears as the main character Will in the text. Will falls asleep in the Malvern Hills, lulled by the sweet trickle of a nearby stream, and enters the world of Christian allegory. As the work unfolds, we can see Langland’s deep concern for the state of Christianity and the corruption which could destroy its true tenets. Many scholars view Piers Plowman as a work highly appealing to the followers of John Wyclif, an Oxford philosopher and theologian who called for Church reform, arguing against what he regarded as the worldliness of the medieval Church and notably denying the doctrine of transubstantiation as his views progressed; Wyclif also argued for lay access to vernacular scripture, condemned the papacy and the Church hierarchy (particularly monasticism), and denied the validity of the cult of the saints.  He highly esteemed evangelical poverty and criticized the Church’s failure to adhere to this ideal. In Piers Plowman, William Langland displays a great concern for the plight of poor, hard-working Christians who often suffer because of the opulence and corruption of the higher classes of aristocrats and clerics.

Trinity College, Cambridge, MS R.3.14 fol. 1v; 14th century; image of ploughing from William Langland’s Piers Plowman.  Unlike most contemporary images of peasants which portrayed their subjects as grotesque, the faces and disposition of these are pleasant and wholesome.

 Within the Z-text of Piers Plowman, found in MS Bodley 851, we can find an inscription which identifies the manuscript as the property of Brother John Wells, a Monk of Ramsey. We have a likely candidate for the identity of this John Wells, namely, an Oxford scholar and opponent of Wyclif. To add another layer of intrigue, Wells is also the satirized subject of a pro-Wycliffite macaronic verse published on a broadside in 1382 which appears to refer to Piers Plowman (see Kerby-Fulton, “Confronting the Poet-Scribe Binary,” 498-499).  What is an active opponent of Wyclif doing with a manuscript of Piers Plowman included in his personal anthology?

MS Bodleian 851, fol. 124r; England, 15th century. This image is from the sole manuscript of the Z- text.

In fact, recent scholarship has pointed to the author of the Z-text as an enthusiastic imitator of Langland rather than Langland himself. Significantly, the Z-text contains several passages portraying very orthodox views on the sacraments which are less prominent in other versions of Piers Plowman. For example, in a very orthodox move, the Z-text uniquely contains these lines highlighting the importance of the mass and the Eucharist:

[God’s word] maketh the messe ant the masse that men vnderfongeth / For Godus body ant ys blod, buyrnes to saue
(Passus Quintus, ll.37-38).

Lines such as these may point to the creator of the Z-text as one who greatly admired Langland’s work, but who sought to add moments into the text which reinforce the orthodox view of the centrality of sacraments in the medieval church.   Analyzing moments such as these may bring us closer in solving this medieval who-done-it, and I hope to explore this issue in future work.

Maj-Britt Frenze
PhD Candidate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Works for Further Reading:

Fuller, Karrie. “The Craft Of The ‘Z-Maker’: Reading The Z Text’s Unique Lines In Context.”    The Yearbook of Langland Studies 27 (2013): 15–43.

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn. “Confronting the Scribe-Poet Binary: The Z Text, Writing Office     Redaction, and the Oxford Reading Circles.” In New Directions in Medieval Manuscript Studies and Reading Practices: Essays in Honor of Derek Pearsall, edited by Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, John J. Thompson, and Sarah Baechle, 489–515. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014.

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn. “Piers Plowman.” In The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, edited by David Wallace. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Rigg, A.G. and Charlottes Brewer, Ed. Piers Plowman: The Z Version. Toronto: PIMS, 1983.



Reading Sir Gawain in the Digital Age

The advent of e-books has prompted discussion about the experience of reading and its relationship to a material text. Opponents of digital books speak fondly of holding a book in hand, the ability to feel the weight of the object and physically see yourself progress through the text. There is a sense of something lost when this object changes form, when paper becomes plastic, when clicking replaces page-turning, when your sense of place in the text is measured by percentage rather than pages.

Illumination from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x, f. 90v

Of course, changes in the way in which we materially experience reading have been going on far longer than the recent shift to digital media. The book versions of older texts are in many ways even more distant from their original form than digital books are to their print ancestors.

While some these changes are  obvious to the readers—the illuminations, the particular handwriting, the spacing of the text on the page—editors of print editions also make choices that are less apparent. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight provides an interesting example of how much print can transform a medieval manuscript, as seen in the editors alterations of the bob and wheel form. In this form, the stanza ends with two short lines (the bob) followed by four rhyming lines (the wheel):


The editors follow this form exactly, but as Kathryn Kerby-Fulton notes in Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts, the placement of the bob is not as regular in Gawain as modern editions would lead us to believe. Instead, the bob is written in the margin, often not directly before the wheel. Compare the following:

Modern Edition (eds. Andrew and Waldron)

Bot he defended hym so fayr þat no faut semed,
Ne non euel on nawþer þay wysten
Bot blysse.
Þay laʒed and layked longe;
At þe last scho con hym kysse,
Hir leue fayre con scho fonge,
And went hir waye, iwysse. (1551-1557)


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, lines 1521-1558. Note the placement of the bob “bot blysse” two lines above the bob. British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x, f. 111v

As Kerby-Fulton argues, this fluid placement of the bob changes our understanding of certain passages, since it can often be attached to several lines and still be grammatically correct. Andrew and Waldron translate the modern version of lines 1552-3 as “nor were they aware of anything but pleasure.” In the original text, however, the placement of the bob would render the line “But he defended him so fair that no fault seemed but pleasure.”

The placement of the bob obviously has some impact upon our understanding of the poem. But what about that illusive “reading experience”? The modern editions fundamentally change this as well. Imagine, for a minute, that you are a medieval reader. When you read the bob, do you hear it exactly where it is placed? Do you hear it where the modern editor would move it to? Or do you hear it after multiple lines? Perhaps your eye floats out to it on several occasions, placing it in multiple positions and playing with its flexible meanings. Gawain, after all, is a poem of playful language and deceit, and the poet is noted for his use of puns in Pearl.

No modern edition has been printed that maintains the manuscript’s irregular placement of the bob. The solution, then, is to turn back to the manuscript: to printed facsimiles, but also, perhaps counterintuitively, to digital scans of the original pages.

Jane Wageman
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Andrew, Malcolm, and Ronald Waldron. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. University of California Press, 1982.

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn, Maidie Hilmo, and Linda Olson. Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary and Visual Approaches. Cornell University Press, 2007.

Gawain’s Lying Laughter

The plot of Gawain and the Green Knight centers around agreements. Gawain’s search for the green chapel begins in an attempt to fulfil his vow to exchange blows with the Green Knight.

The Green Knight leaves, holding his decapitated head; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, England, c. 1400; British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x, f. 90v.

The journey leads into a second set of agreements—in the three days that he stays with Bertilak (the green knight in disguise), he and Bertilak agree to exchange whatever winnings they gain by day when they meet again at night. Although Gawain successfully exchanges winnings two out of the three nights, kissing Bertilak for each kiss Bertilak’s wife gave him, he keeps a girdle that Lady Bertilak claims protects the wearer from blows: Þer is no haþel vnder heuen tohewe hym þat myȝt (1853).

Gawain’s girdle isn’t the only powerful girdle in medieval literature. Here St. Cuthbert’s girdle cures Aelfflaed. Bede, Prose Life of Cuthbert, Durham, last quarter of the 12th century; British Library, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 48v.

Thomas D. Hill argues that Gawain’s failure to exchange the girdle is only a venial sin. He bases this argument on Augustine and Aquinas. St. Augustine says that jokes are not lies because the speaker’s disposition and tone are joking. Hill then proposes that tone and disposition must also apply to Thomas Aquinas’s much later concept of jocose lies, or lies that are told for pleasure, which Aquinas categorizes as venial sins.

Hill’s article points out that each exchange of gifts and vow to exchange them on the next day drips with the language of games, joking and laughter (283). Since the agreement to exchange winnings was made for entertainment under mirthful conditions, he suggests that Gawain’s decision to keep the girdle is a venial sin—St. Augustine argues that jokes are not lies. However, Augustine’s jokes use extralinguistic cues like tone of voice and demeanour to communicate the truth non-verbally.

Bertilak preparing to return Gawain’s blow; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, England, c. 1400; British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x f. 125v.

This doesn’t happen with Gawain and the girdle. At the exchange where he keeps the girdle, he is mirthful. The text calls him “Sir Gawayn þe gode, þat glad watz with alle” (1925), speaks of his joye, ‘joy’, and emphasizes that he and Bertilak “maden as mery as any men moȝten” (1953). Despite this display of gladness, joy and mirth, Gawain’s disposition does nothing to communicate that he has the girdle. In fact, it conceals his oath-breaking—Gawain blends into the mirthful atmosphere that Bertilak has established at each of the previous exchanges of winnings.

Lines 1935-1971 of Gawain, in which Gawain and Bertilak exchange winnings for the last time; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, England, c. 1400; British Library, Cotton MS Nero Axx f. 117r.

This is the opposite of St. Augustine’s jokes—Gawain’s non-verbal communication assists his deception of Bertilak.

Bertilak’s laughter, mirth, and games also conceal lies of omission. He withholds information that he can survive a beheading, that he is also the Green Knight, and that he’s asked his wife to tempt Gawain. Yet, he controls the atmosphere of each exchange. He challenges Gawain to a Crystmas gomen, a Christmas game, and appears in the midst of a feast (283). This decision also places the exchange of winnings in the Christmas season—he tells Gawain to come a year afterwards. While Bertilak portrays both oaths as entertainment, their apparent levity both masks and contrasts Bertilak’s darker intentions. Unlike Augustine’s jokes, the non-verbal communication and mirth of Gawain aids in deception rather than revealing the truth.

Rachel Hanks
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Andrew, Malcolm, and Ronald Waldron. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Univ of California Press, 1982.

Hill, Thomas D. “Gawain’s Jesting Lie: Towards an Interpretation of the Confessional Scene in Gawain and the Green Knight.” Studia Neophilologica 52, no. 2 (January 1, 1980): 279–86. doi:10.1080/00393278008587778.

A medieval depiction of a feast; Speculum humanae salvationis, London, 1485-1509; British Library, Harley MS 2838, f.45r.