Piers Plowman

Reference: NLW MS 733B

Piers Plowman by William Langland (?c. 1330-c. 1386) is one of the most famous poems in Middle English. Some fifty manuscripts of the text survive, but there are considerable differences between the three main versions, the shortest of which contains between about 2,500 lines of alliterative verse and the longest over 7000 lines. The poem is divided into seven sections called passus ('step' in Latin). At the beginning the narrator, Will, falls asleep while wandering on the Malvern Hills and the poem then describes the series of visions which appear to him. These are allegorical, and raise questions of morality, theology and the Christian life. Piers the Plowman first appears in the second vision, as a pilgrim leading others on the road to salvation, but later becomes a Christ-like figure himself. Langland, who must have spent the last twenty years of his life revising his work, is thought to have lived in the Malvern area and later in London. He was probably a cleric.

NLW MS 733B, which was copied on poor-quality parchment in the early fifteenth-century, and is now incomplete, contains an unusual version of the poem which combines variants from the main versions. In the past scholars have paid little attention to this manuscript, but more recent research has suggested that it may provide valuable evidence of the evolution of the poem. The manuscript contains few clues as to its provenance, though one of its early owners, in the fifteenth century, has left his signature on pp. 14, 75, 107 and 137. Damage to the first and last leaves of the manuscript indicate that it lacked covers for part of its history. It was rebound in blind-tooled calf in the first half of the eighteenth century, but retains as flyleaves two cropped leaves from a fourteenth-century manuscript containing a Latin text on canon law, which may well be part of the original binding structure.

NLW 733B was acquired by the National Library in 1913 from Plas Power, Denbighshire, home of the Lloyd family. It may perhaps have come into the family's possession through Thomas Lloyd (c. 1673-1734), the Welsh scholar and lexicographer who spent his last years there and, like NLW MS 735C (see Medieval Astronomy), this could be one of the 'three or four old manuscripts' mentioned in the 1778 catalogue of the library at Plas Power.

Further reading

  • R. W. Chambers, 'A Piers Plowman manuscript', National Library of Wales Journal, 2 (1941-2), 42-3.
  • Lawrence Warner, 'The Ur-B Piers Plowman and the earliest production of C and B', The Yearbook of Langland Studies, 16 (2002), 3-39.

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