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 Art of Imprecise, Imperfect Interpretation: Using the Manuscript Annotations of Piers Plowman as Evidence for the History of Reading

In grade school, I was never one to resist the advice of a teacher. So, when told that successful study habits included taking notes, underlining, and starring right in the book itself, that is precisely what I did. Those teachers were right, of course, and I find myself often repeating the same advice to my own students despite their frequent resistance to marring the pristine pages of their soon to be resold copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. What I did not know in grade school, however, was that writing in my books meant participating in an ancient tradition of responding to and even interpreting texts, and that one day I would write an entire dissertation about how medieval readers read by studying the evidence left behind by the medieval and early modern readers of a famously unstable text called Piers Plowman by William Langland.

The truth is that people have pretty much always written in their books and, sometimes, books belonging to others as well—rubricating, annotating, bracketing, scribbling, doodling, and more. Whether those readers responded in sparse intervals, limiting their voice on the page to vague marks, or, in contrast, wrote intensely, vociferously inscribing their presence irrevocably onto the page and into the text itself, these voices often remain the best extant evidence available for scholars attempting to understand the reception history of an author whose earliest readers have long since passed.

One example of a vocal, reform-minded reader can be found in an early modern household manuscript copied by Sir Adrian Fortescue, a distant relative of Anne Boleyn executed by Henry VIII for some unknown act of treason.[1] His manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 145, contains a personalized, conflated copy of what we now call the A and C versions of Piers Plowman alongside a political treatise written by Adrian’s uncle, John Fortescue, called The Governance of England. Filled with annotations in the hands of at least three readers, this book documents a series of responses made over time by Adrian, his wife Anne (who signs her name in Latin!), and the unknown Hand B.[2] The conversations among these readers make this record of reader responses particularly special, but it is Hand B, the subject of this post, that becomes the most reactionary to some of Langland’s biting criticisms of the Church.[3]

Hand B’s responses become increasingly inflammatory in the poem’s apocalyptic final few Passūs. In fact, he goes so far as to conflate the pope and the Antichrist in two of his annotations. The first annotation appears next to a passage in which Langland criticizes the schismatic pope for his role in the spilling of Christian blood:

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 145, fol. 121v. By permission of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

þe poppa/                  And god amend the pope that pelith holy chirche

                                                   And claymyth before the kyng • to be kepar ouer crysten

                                         And countith not though cristen be kyllid & robbid

ô very Antechrist             And fyndith folk to fight & cristene blode to spylle.[4]

The annotation, “O Very Antichrist,” transforms Langland’s corrupt pope into the face of the Apocalypse itself, an even more extreme condemnation of immoral papal behavior than Langland’s. This annotation also lays the groundwork for his second conflation in which he identifies Langland’s Antichrist as the pope, writing “puppa [sic]” next to the line, “And a fals fend antecriste ouer al folke reynyd.”[5] Here Hand B reads the Antichrist’s extensive and increasing worldly authority as the same as that belonging to the pope. In both instances, the annotator melds the Antichrist and pope, two separate entities in the poem, into a single figure responsible for an eschatological catastrophe. In some ways, Hand B’s sixteenth-century reactions to this medieval poem make sense amidst a backdrop of increasing religious instability in Henry VIII’s England. Perhaps Hand B saw in the unstable papal seat produced by the Schism a parallel with the splintering of religious power between Rome and Henry leading up to and during the English Reformation.

Beyond these historical inferences, however, what exactly do Hand B’s strong, reform-minded reader responses teach us about the identity of this reader and his interpretation of the poem? In fact, it tells us both a lot and not very much at all. He clearly disagrees with the ecclesiastical corruption that he sees as trickling down from the Church’s highest seat of power, and he reacts strongly, even emotionally, as he inscribes his interpretive voice onto the page. Piers Plowman’s ending evokes a passionate, rather than objective, response from this reader, who adds his own polemical lament to Langland’s verse. This reader provides just one example of the strong personal investment that Langland’s early audiences felt when reading Piers.[6] He also demonstrates how reading and interpreting literature can aid in the formation and circulation of reformist ideas, especially in precarious times.

However, to what end Hand B voices his cry for reform remains unclear. Without knowing his identity, his exact purpose is impossible to discern because he could be either a Catholic hoping for ecclesiastical reform or a Reformation era Protestant. Adrian’s manuscript stayed in his family until Bodley eventually bought it, increasing the likelihood that Hand B was a family member, or at least a close affiliate. Moreover, the Fortescues maintained their Catholic identity throughout the period, but that does not mean that every single member of the family necessarily adopted the exact same religious practices and beliefs. Without word choices that obviously indicate one camp or the other, the greater social implications of Hand B’s readerly perspectives lead to fuzzy conclusions at best. The enigma of whether he desires institutional change or seeks an altogether new institution of faith must by necessity remain unsolved, at least for now. For this reason, scholars must, with care, entertain multiple possibilities, sometimes foregoing exactness and precision when faced with limited evidence for a text’s reception history. Hand B actually teaches us a great deal more about his reading of Piers than many other annotators, but, as is the case with so many historical records of literary readership, his reader responses still require a certain level of imprecise, imperfect, and even incomplete interpretation.[7]

Karrie Fuller, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

[1] For Adrian’s biography, see Richard Rex, “Blessed Adrian Fortescue: A Martyr without a Cause?,” Analecta Bollandiana 115 (1997): 307-53.

[2] On Anne Fortescue, see Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, “The Women Readers in Langland’s Earliest Audience: Some Codicological Evidence,” in Learning and Literacy in Medieval England and Abroad, ed. Sarah Rees-Jones (Turnhout: Brepols, 2002), 121-34. On the identification of Hand B, see Thorlac Turville-Petre, “Sir Adrian Fortescue and His Copy of Piers Plowman,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 14 (2000): 29-48.

[3] For my full analysis of these readers’ annotations, see Karrie Fuller, “Langland in the Early Modern Household: Piers Plowman in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 145, and Its Scribe-Annotator Dialogues,” in New Directions in Medieval Manuscript Studies and Reading Practices: Essays in Honor of Derek Pearsall, eds. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, John J. Thompson, and Sarah Baechle (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014), 324-341.

[4] Transcription mine, fol. 121v. The equivalent lines appear in C.XXI.446-449 in A.V.C. Schmidt, Piers Plowman: A Parallel-Text Edition of the A, B, C, and Z Versions, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Kalamazoo: MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2011).

[5] Transcription mine, fol. 124r; C.22.64 in Schmidt.

[6] For another example, see Kathryn Kerby-Fulton’s transcription and discussion of the annotations in Bodleian Library MS Douce 104 in Iconography and the Professional Reader: The Politics of Book Production in the Douce “Piers Plowman” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

[7] Examples of more terse annotations, which tend to be more characteristic of B-text manuscripts, can be found in David Benson and Lynne Blanchfield, The Manuscripts of Piers Plowman: The B-Version (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 1997).