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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

I. “Piers the Plowman” and its Sequence

§ 18. John But

And here, it seems to me, this author ceased. The remaining lines I believe to have been written by one John But. They relate that, ere the author reached the court Quod-bonum-est-tenete, he met with many wonders. First, as he passes through Youth, he meets Hunger, who says that he dwells with Death, and seeks Life in order to kill him. The author wishes to accompany him, but, being too faint to walk, receives broken meats from Hunger, and eats too much. He next meets Fever, who dwells with Death and is going to attack Life. He proposes to accompany Fever; but Fever rejects his offer and advises him to do well and pray constantly.

  • Will knew that this speech was speedy; so he hastened and wrote what is written here and other works also of Piers the Plowman and many people besides. And, when this work was done, ere Will could espy, Death dealt him a dint and drove him to the earth; and he is now closed under clay, Christ have his soul! And so bade John But busily very often, when he saw these sayings alleged about James and Jerome and Job and others; and because he meddles with verse-making, he made this end. Now God save all Christians and especially King Richard and all lords that love him! and thou, Mary, Mother and Maiden, beseech thy Son to bring us to bliss!
  • Skeat originally ascribed to John But only the last twelve lines, beginning, “And so bade John But.” It seems unlikely, however, that the “end” which John But says he made refers to these lines only; certainly, it is not customary for scribes to use such a term for the supplications they add to a poem,. And it is hard to conceive the motive of the author for finishing in this hasty fashion a poem which interested him, and which obviously had such immediate success. For these or similar reasons Skeat, later, admitted the possibility that the work of John But began seven lines earlier, with “Will knew that this speech was speedy.” But the same reasoning applies to all the lines after 1.56, and an attentive reading of them will disclose several particulars at variance with the style or conceptions of the rest of the poem.

    In closing our survey of the poems included in the A-text, we may note that, in their own day, they were not regarded as directed against the friars, for MS. Rawl. Poet. 137 contains this inscription, “in an old hand”: Hoc volumen conceditur ad usum fratrum minorum de observantia cantuariae.