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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

§ 24. Parallel Passages

Moreover, the number of instances should be noted in which B has misunderstood A or spoiled his picture, or in which C has done the same for B. Only a few examples can be given here. In the first place, B has such errors as these: in II, 21 ff. Lewte is introduced as the leman f the lady Holy Church and spoken of as feminine; in II 25, False, instead of Worng, is father of Meed, but is made to marry her later; in II, 74 ff. B does not understand that the feoffment covers precisely the provinces of the seven deadly sins, and, by elaborating the passage, spoils the unity of the intention; in II, 176, B has forgotten that the bishops are to accompany Meed to Westminster, and represents them as borne “abrode in visytynge,” etc. Worst of all, perhaps, B did not notice that, by the loss or displacement of a leaf between A, v, 235, 236, the confessions of Sloth and Robert the Robber had been absurdly run together; or that in A, VII, 71–74 the names of the wife and children of Piers, originally written in the margin opposite 11. 89–90 by some scribe, had been absurdly introduced into the text, to the interruption and confusion of the remarks of Piers in regard to his preparations for his journey. Of C’s failures to understand B two instances will suffice. In the prologue, 11–16, B has taken over from A a vivid picture of the valley of the first vision:

  • Thanne gan I to meten a merveilouse swevene,
  • That I was in a wildernesse, wist I never where;
  • As I behelde in-to the est an hiegh to the sonne,
  • I seigh a toure on a toft, trielich ymaked;
  • A depe dale benethe, a dongeon there-inne,
  • With depe dyches and derke and derke and dredful of sight.
  • C spoils the picture thus:
  • And merveylously me mette, as ich may [char]ow telle;
  • Al the welthe of this worlde and the woo bothe,
  • Wynkyng, as it were, wyterly ich saw hyt,
  • Of tryuthe and of tricherye, of tresoun and of gyle,
  • Al ich saw slepynge, as ich shal [char]ow telle.
  • Esteward ich byhulde, after the sonne,
  • And sawe a toure, as ich trowede, truthe was ther-ynne;
  • Westwarde ich waitede, in a whyle after,
  • And sawe a deep dale; deth, as ich lyuede,
  • Wonede in tho wones, and wyckede spiritus.
  • The man who wrote the former might, conceivably, in the decay of his faculties write a passage like the latter; but he could not, conceivably, have spoiled the former, if he had ever been able to write it. Again, in the famous rat-parliament, the rat “renable of tonge” says:

  • I have ysein segges in the cite of London
  • Beren bri[char]te abouten here nekkes,
  • And some colers of crafty werk; uncoupled thei wenden
  • Bothe in wareine and in waste, where as I here telle.
  • Were there a belle on here bei[char], bi Ihesu, as me thynketh,
  • Men my[char]te wite where thei went, and awei renne!
  • Prol. 160–6.
  • Clearly the “segges” he has seen wearing collars about their necks in warren and in waste are dogs. C, curiously enough, supposed them to be men:

  • Ich have ysie grete syres in cytees and in tounes Bere by[char]es of bry[char]t gold al aboute hure neckes,
  • And colers of crafty werke, bothe kny[char]tes and squiers.
  • Were ther a belle on hure by[char]e, by Iesus, as me thynketh,
  • Men my[char]te wite wher thei wenten, and hure wey roume!
  • Other misunderstandings of equal significance exist in considerable number; these must suffice for the present. I may add that a careful study of the MSS. will show that between A, B and C there exist dialectical differences incompatible with the supposition of a single author. This can be easily tested in the case of the pronouns and the verb are.

    With the recognition that the poems are the work of several authors, the questions concerning the character and name of the author assume a new aspect. It is readily seen that the supposed autobiographical details, given mainly by B and C, are, as Jack conclusively proved several years ago, not genuine, but mere parts of the fiction. Were any confirmation of his results needed, it might be found in the fact that the author gives the names of his wife and daughter as Kitte and Kalote. Kitte, if alone, might not arouse suspicion, but, when it is joined with Kalote (usually spelled “cellet”), there can be no doubt that both are used as typical names of lewd women, and are, therefore, not to be taken literally as the names of the author’s wife and the daughter. The picture of the dreamer, begun by A in prologue, 2, continued by the continuator in IX, I and elaborated by B and C, is only a poetical device, interesting in itself but not significant of the character or social position of any of these authors. Long Will, the dreamer, is, obviously, as much a creation of the muse as is Piers the Plowman.