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

§ 19. B-text

Let us turn now to the B-text. There is no reason to doubt the current view that it was written, in part at least, between June 1376 and June 1377. Tyrwhitt showed that the famous rat-parliament inserted in the prologue referred to the time between the death of the Black Prince and that of Edward III, and must have been written while men were anxious about the situation which then existed. The increased emphasis given to the pestilences in B, also points, as Skeat suggests, to a time not long after the pestilence of 1376. To these may be added the allusion to the drought and famine of April 1370 (XIII, 269–271) as “not long passed.” No one, perhaps, believes that the whole of the B-text was written within the year indicated; but it has been generally assumed that the additions in the prologue antedate the rest of the B-text. For this assumption there is no reason except that the prologue is at the beginning of the poem. Two considerations suggest, though they by no means prove, that B, in his additions and insertions, did not always follow the order of the original poem. In the first place, in X, 115 is a promise of a discussion which occurs in XII. Any one who studies carefully B’s methods of composition will find it easier to believe that B had already written XII when he thus referred to it, than that he purposely postponed a discussion. In the second place, it is hard to believe that such a writer as B, after becoming so thoroughly excited over political affairs as he shows himself to be in his insertion in the prologue, would have written the 4036 lines of his continuation of Do-well, Do-better and Do-best without again discussing them.

The author of the B-text, as we have seen, had before him, when he began his work, the three visions of the A-text. Whether he regarded them as the work of a single author is not our present concern. In his reworking of the poems he practically disregarded passus XII and changed the preceding eleven passus by insertions and expansions. Minor verbal alterations he also made, but far fewer than is usually supposed. Many of those credited to him are to be found among the variant readings of the A-text, and were merely taken over unchanged from the MS. of A used as the basis.

Of the nine principal insertions made in the first two visions, six may be regarded as mere elaborations of the A-text, namely, the changed version of the feoffment, the confessions of Wrath, Avarice, Glutton and Sloth and the plea of Repentance. The other three, including the rat-parliament and the jubilee passages, are among the most important expressions of the political views of B, and will be discussed below. The insertions in the third vision, though elaborations of the A-text, are more difficult to characterise as to theme, on account of a tendency to rambling and vagueness sometimes almost degenerating into incoherency. The worst of them is the third (IX, 59–121), which ranges over indiscretion, gluttony, the duty of holy church to fools and orphans; the duty of charity, enforced by the example of the Jews; definitions of Do-well, Do-better and Do-best; waste of time and of speech; God’s love of workers and of those faithful in wedlock. A few lines translated from this passage may serve to illustrate the author’s mental processes, particularly his incapacity for organised or consecutive thinking, and his helpless subjection to the suggestions of the words he happens to use. They will also explain why students of these poems have found it impossible to give a really representative synopsis of his work. Let us begin with 1. 88, immediately after the citation of the brotherly love of the Jews:

  • The commons for their unkindness, I fear me, shall pay. Bishops shall be blamed because of beggars. He is worse than Judas that gives a jester silver, and bids the beggar go, because of his broken clothes. Proditor est prelatus cum Iuda, qui patrimonium Christi mimis distribuit. He does not well that does thus, and dreads not God Almighty, nor loves the saws of Solomon, who taught wisdom; Initium sapientiae, timor Domini: who dreads God does well; who dreads him for love and not for dread of vengeance does, therefore, the better; he does best that restrains himself by day and by night from wasting any speech or any space of time; Qui offendit in uno in omnibus est reus. Loss of time—Truth knows the sooth!—is most hated on earth of those that are in heaven; and, next, to waste speech, which is a sprig of grace and God’s gleeman and a game of heaven; would never the faithful Father that His fiddle were untempered or His gleeman a rascal, a goer to taverns. To all true tidy men that desire to work Our Lord loves them and grants, loud or still, grace to go with them and procure their sustenance. Inquirentes autem Dominum non minuentur omni bono. True-wedded-living folk in this world is Do-well, etc.