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Professional Readers of Langland at Home and Abroad: New Directions in the Political and Bureaucratic Codicology of Piers Plowman

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 September 2014

Derek Pearsall
Affiliation:
Former Professor and Co-Director of the Centre for Medieval Studies, York, and Professor of English at Harvard University
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Summary

The professional readers of Piers Plowman are a much maligned group. But I would like to suggest how further study of their habits and supposed atrocities can help us get closer to (in this case) the political circles in which Langland's poem actually travelled – circles a little different from the ones we have lavished much of our scholarship upon so far. ‘Professional readers’, as I define them here, are those whose job it was to make decisions on behalf of the medieval reader about how the text should go down on the page – conscious decisions, that is, about editing, annotating, correcting, rubricating, or illustrating a text. They are usually and traditionally denigrated by textual scholars for doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing in the production of books: ‘preparing’ (our misleadingly neutral word) the text for their immediate readers, whether specific bookshop patrons, or fellow monastics in a religious house, or the more anonymous ‘implied reader’ of the book prepared ‘on spec’. Such ‘preparation’, we know, might include any number of interventionist or creative activities, such as translating the original dialect, tinkering with the alliteration, suppressing or embellishing controversial content, imposing an unauthorized set of rubrics, or illustrating an episode contrary to what the text actually says – or said.

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New Directions in Later Medieval Manuscript Studies
Essays from the 1998 Harvard Conference
, pp. 103 - 130
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2000

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