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.



Translating the Wanderer

A map of the world, showing the various cold, temperate, and hot zones; Macrobius, Commentary on the Somnium Scipionis; Germany, 10th cent.; Oxford, Bodleian Library, D’Orville MS 77, f. 100r

The latest in the Chequered Board‘s ongoing series of poetic translations is one of the most famous, and most haunting, poems in Old English literature.

The Wanderer, contained in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501), is one of a group of nine Old English poems known as the elegies, poems characterized by “a contrasting pattern of loss and consolation, ostensibly based on a specific personal experience or observation, and expressing an attitude towards that experience.”1 In The Wanderer, a litany of loss which extends throughout nearly the entirety of the poem comes to an abrupt halt in its final lines. These concluding moments assure the reader that it shall go well for those who seek consolation with the “father in heaven,” returning to the opening lines of the poem in which we are confronted with a lone traveler seeking to find some kind of favor or honor with his maker. The poem seems to give us resolution, though not one to be enjoyed in the present.

Early in college, long before I had remotely considered the idea of becoming an Anglo-Saxonist, I gave my heart to a very different poem, T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I loved the poem’s frustration with futility, its questions left unanswered, and its dips into existential crisis. The poem impressed me with its lament for the mundaneness of life and concern with ever-passing time: “I shall grow old… I grow old… / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” (ll. 120-121). The speaker of The Love Song is keenly aware of his status and absurdity – “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker” (l. 84), “Almost, at times, the Fool” (l. 118) – and also of the difficulty of conveying meaning in the modern world – “That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant, at all” (ll. 109-110). The poem leaves us in the dreamscape of mermaids singing on the sea, “and we drown” (l. 131). It is not a happy poem.

Strangely, The Wanderer, written perhaps a thousand years before Eliot penned his Love Song, strikes some of these same chords. The poem begins with the image of a lone traveler with calloused hands, wandering over the seas and on land with a burdened mind. While Prufrock fears the future, the speaker of The Wanderer grieves for a past in which he enjoyed the company of kinsmen and the secure status of servitude to a lord. Images of a golden past, along with the faces of friends, “float” away from the speaker, and he reflects upon the death of all things of this world, offering a rather ordered catalogue of unfortunate events produced by a failing world. To say the least, it is not a happy poem. But it is extremely powerful poetry responding to the same concerns with which modern poets wrestle. Its world of mead-halls and thanes and warrior-glory is inexplicably also our world of suffering and futility and stagnation.

My main goal in offering this translation is to do some measure of justice to the beauty and depth of the original. I have stayed as close to the original language as possible, hopefully creating a work which sounds poetic to the modern ear while retaining some of its strangeness. C.S. Lewis famously wrote of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring: “here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart.”2 Whether or not one believes these words are true of The Lord of the Rings, I hope you will agree that they are true of The Wanderer. The world of The Wanderer may be grey and rimmed with frost, but it is also a world of exquisite beauty, a world where the grief of the human soul is laid bare – the soul fully exposed in all of its wretchedness, yet not wholly defeated.

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

1 S.B. Greenfield, “Old English Elegies,” in Continuations and Beginning: Studies in Old English Literature, ed. Eric Gerald Stanely (London: Nelson, 1996), 143.
2 C.S. Lewis, in Time and Tide, August 14, 1954, and October 22, 1955. Reprinted in Lesley Walmsley, ed., C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces (London: HarperCollins, 2000).