The Book of Sir John Mandeville and William Langland’s Piers Plowman: An Unlikely Pair?

When first “published” in the fourteenth-century, William Langland’s Piers Plowman and the Mandeville-author’s The Book of Sir John Mandeville, each in their own right, went viral. As the number of extant manuscripts for both works suggests,[1] they took the English nation by storm in the early decades of their reception history, not as instantaneous explosions that quickly fizzle out like a modern day cat video, but as longstanding bestsellers that deeply influenced the course of England’s intellectual and social history. The organizers of the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt, for example, cite Piers in the famous Letters of John Ball.[2] A copy of Mandeville, scholars enjoy noting, was consulted by Christopher Columbus before his voyages, and the text served as a source of inspiration for many explorers in the so-called Age of Exploration. Indeed, great minds read, used, and cited these texts to various ends for centuries, but rarely, it seems, together. Except, that is, among their earliest readers, at least some of whom saw a natural affinity between them.

Given their coterminous popularity in late medieval England, it seems statistically probable that some, and quite possibly many, avid readers of Middle English would encounter, or at least know about both of these texts. While that surmise might sound less than startling, the idea of these two works occupying space in the same book often elicits surprise in conversations about my work. In fact, Piers and Mandeville circulated together in five known manuscript copies. The original discovery of that information by one of my own undergraduate professors, Anne Middleton, effects just such a response as she remarks that Piers’ “most frequent companion must be rather surprising” (105).[3] This discovery forms the basis of my book project, “Reading Beyond the Borders: Literary Geography and the shared reception of Piers Plowman and The Book of Sir John Mandeville,” in which I examine all five manuscripts in order to uncover this textual pairing’s early reception history. For, to the modern reader tied to culturally specific notions of genre and modern methodologies of reading, Piers and Mandeville can indeed appear to make little sense together. However, when read from the perspective of a medieval reader (to the extent that that is possible in 2017), these two works become much more obvious travel companions.

Sir John Mandeville leaving for his journey. This image comes from the only Piers-Mandeville manuscript with a cycle of illustrations. Piers, however, is not illustrated in this book. London, British Library MS Harley 3954, f.1r.

On the surface level, this pairing shares some key narrative features: their narrators, both English, go on pilgrimage with a didactic mission. David Benson also identifies their common purpose as vernacular forms of “public writing” meant to deliver Latinate, clerical learning to a wide lay and religious audience.[4] Dig deeper, and even more thematic connections emerge: both works explore what it means to be English within the large expanse of global Christendom. The very concept of nationhood itself comes under scrutiny as both narrators delve into the ethics of kingship and enter into dialogue with non-Christians.[5] Both works, moreover, present their own progressive and inclusive versions of universal history, apocalypticism, and salvation (with the egregious exception of Mandeville’s severe anti-Semitism). Likewise, because Piers, a dream vision, and Mandeville, a travel narrative, fold innumerable source texts into their own writing, neither one is confined by the constraints of their primary genres. These connections comprise a mere sampling of the many important issues raised when reading Piers and Mandeville in dialogue with each other, rather than as stand alone texts.

Interestingly, medieval scribes and readers themselves brought many of these concerns to my attention. For, in each of the five manuscripts, they repurpose their copies of the Piers-Mandeville pairing according to their own, often polemical, ends. By anthologizing, revising, annotating, editing, illustrating, rubricating, and otherwise designing every detail of their books, they published and/or read their copies of the Piers-Mandeville pairing in unique, individualized manuscript contexts. Additionally, the varied regional, vocational, and personal backgrounds of these readerships color their reader responses, especially in relation to the specific types of political and ecclesiastical corruption they each prioritize. Ultimately, what is perhaps more surprising than the pairing’s codicological companionship is the relevance of its audience’s responses to recent literary studies in the current age of globalization. These readers, in fact, follow the navigation of two English narrators across national and cultural boundaries, interrogating corrupt and stable governments, the value of public institutions, and the need for interfaith dialogue and cultural exchange.

Thus, rather than comprising two unrelated, isolated events in literary history, these two longstanding bestsellers, influencers of major historical events and movements, jointly stimulated the minds of their shared audiences. This book, therefore, demonstrates that these texts’ lasting impacts on social and intellectual history were not exclusive of each other, and neither was their relevance to the medieval readers who read them as ideal companion pieces.

Karrie Fuller
University of Notre Dame/St. Mary’s College

[1] There are nearly sixty manuscripts of Piers Plowman, and, internationally, around three hundred for The Book of Sir John Mandeville. The most popular Middle English version, known as the Defective text, numbers forty-four. A variation of this version is in each of the manuscripts examined for this project.

[2] For just one of many important studies on this topic, see Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

[3] Anne Middleton, “The Audience and Public of Piers Plowman,” Middle English Alliterative Poetry and its Literary Background, ed. David Lawton (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1982), 101-123, 147-154.

[4] David Benson, Public Piers Plowman: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004).

[5] There is a large body of literature on what the concept of “nation” [natio in Latin, “nacioun” in Middle English] meant in the Middle Ages. For an introduction to the subject, see Kathy Lavezzo’s edited volume, Imagining a Medieval English Nation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

The Colors of the Pearl-Gawain Manuscript: The Questions that Launched a Scientific Analysis

For this school year’s exciting inaugural post, Maidie Hilmo shares her request for a scientific analysis of the Pearl-Gawain manuscript (British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x), containing the unique copy of the Middle English poems: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It shows the kind of questions that help gain access to the viewing of original manuscripts and can result in a technological investigation of specific details. Bringing together science and art history, Hilmo has uncovered evidence that “the scribe was also the draftsperson of the underdrawings. It appears that the painted layers of the miniatures were added by one or more colorists, while the large flourished initials beginning the text of the poems were executed by someone with a different pigment not used in the miniatures.” The results of this request to the British Library—comprising the detailed report on the pigments by Dr. Paul Garside and a set of enhanced images by Dr. Christina Duffy, the Imaging Scientist — will become available on the Cotton Nero A.x Project website and, selectively, in publications by Hilmo, including: “Did the Scribe Draw the Miniatures in British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x (The Pearl-Gawain Manuscript)?,” forthcoming in the Journal of the Early Book Society; and “Re-conceptualizing the Poems of the Pearl-Gawain Manuscript,” forthcoming in Manuscript Studies. To learn more, check out her special project here on our site.

Walking at Night: Scribal Variants, Poverty, and Prostitution in a Piers Plowman Manuscript

In one of the most moving additions to the C-text of Piers Plowman, Langland highlights the plight of impoverished mothers, who are some of the most vulnerable and underrepresented figures of his society:

And hemsulue also soffre muche hunger
And wo in wynter-tymes and wakynge on nyhtes
To rise to the reule to rokke the cradel,
Bothe to carde and to kembe, to cloute and to wasche. [1] (77-80)

Mary of Egypt
Saint Mary of Egypt, a reformed prostitute saint, is depicted outside the church of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois in Paris. Photo credit © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

Though these lines form only a part of Langland’s snapshot of working-class women, they poignantly convey the life of a working mother as she sacrifices her own well-being to feed her children, obeys the regulation of an infant’s nocturnal feeding schedule, and takes in domestic labour to make ends meet.

The passage excerpted above has been passed down through the Pearsall edition of the C-Text, but a little digging into the scribal variants across different manuscripts opens up a realm of possibilities for additional layers of meaning that could be added to the text. The scribe of the Cambridge University Library Dd. 3. 13 manuscript invokes a particularly intriguing possibility when he writes that these women were not “wakynge on nyhtes,” but “walkynge on nyhtes.”

‘Walking at night’ was associated with all sorts of immorality in medieval England, summed up in Chester Mystery Cycle when Jesus declares that “whosoever walketh abowte in night, hee tresspasseth all agaynst the right.”[2] Night-walking is specifically associated with sexual immorality by the Wife of Bath when she excuses her own desire to walk at night by saying that she is doing so to see the “wenches”[3] that her husband sleeps with (III l.397-398). Religious and secular legal discourses indicate that there was little distinction made in medieval England between women of “loose morals” and those who were involved in prostitution.[4]

In the Cambridge manuscript, then, there is a possibility that at least one scribe allowed for a moving portrayal of women forced by economic necessity into prostitution, even if he retain associations of immorality. Canon law made no allowances for such a thing, as the church viewed extreme poverty as a condition that led a woman into a life of prostitution, but not a mitigating factor.[5] On the level of the particular scribe, however, the addition of a single letter pushes us to consider the possibility that at least some readers could understand shades of complexity in a practice that is otherwise condemned, even by Langland himself.

When it comes to a poem with such a complex and enigmatic textual tradition as Piers Plowman, each manuscript bears an important witness to the text. Each scribal variant might get us a little closer to an authorial reading, but it also might give us insight into the ways the text could be misread or misunderstood by scribes and readers. Even if the reading in the manuscript bears little or no resemblance to Langland’s poetry, it may be the product of a scribe “elucidating the sense and significance in a text according to the priorities of their own period and culture.”[6] Even when a misreading is simply an error on the scribe’s part, it provides an example of how some medieval readers might have encountered and interpreted the text in ways that complement or contradict the authorial sense of a passage.

Leanne MacDonald
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame


[1] William Langland, Piers Plowman: A New Annotated Edition of the C-Text, ed. Derek Pearsall (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2008)

[2] “The Glovers Playe” from The Chester Mystery Cycle, ed. R.M. Lumiansky and David Mills (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 244.

[3] From The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Benson (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1987). Ruth Mazo Karras argues that though Alysoun is not a prostitute per se, she uses language of commerce to talk about her sexuality and the practicalities of marriage. See Karras, “Sex, Money, and Prostitution in Medieval English Culture” in Desire and Discipline: Sex and Sexuality in the Premodern West, ed. Konrad Eisenbichler and Jacqueline Murray (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 202.

[4] Karras, “Sex, Money, and Prostitution,” 211.

[5] James Brundage, “Prostitution in the Medieval Canon Law,” Signs 1, no. 4 (1976): 836.

[6] M. B. Parkes, Their Hands Before Our Eyes: A Closer Look at Scribes (Farnham: Ashgate, 2008), 68.