Piers Plowman: A Hard Row To Hoe, Even With Computers
UVa Alumni News Article, Vol. 82, No. 2, Jan/Feb 1994; Page 20
English professor Hoyt Duggan is using the power of computers to create a "hypertext" of Piers Plowman, a lengthy 14th-century poem by William Langland, a contemporary of Chaucer. Why this particular work?
It's the Mount Everest of textual criticism in English," said the medievalist, rolling his chair back from one of the large computer screens in the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. "It presents the problems in stark, glaring and interesting forms."
He goes on to explain that there are not one but three versions of the poem, which is written in a Midland dialect of Middle English. Known by the prosaic labels A-Text, B-Text and C-Text, the three versions vary considerably in length and content, ranging from about 2,600 lines to more than 7,000 lines, a result of the poet expanding and revising his work. Moreover, there are 54 surviving manuscripts of the poem, no two of them alike.
The problem is to construct a theory and use the available evidence to attempt to reconstruct each of the three poems as Langland would have written them. That's the challenge," said Mr. Duggan.
Computer technology lends itself nicely to this kind of scholarship. Mr. Duggan can conduct searches of key words and phrases and can make side-by-side comparisons of texts and manuscripts to interpret, as best he can, the author's true intentions. Once completed, the hypertext will contain all three versions of the poem as well as digital images of the manuscripts, summaries of scholarship on the work and notes on problematic passages.
"We want to accompany each text with color facsimiles, hypertextually linked, so if a reader wants to see what the manuscript had to say at Passus 3, line 165, he could click on one key and get a facsimile of that page in the manuscript, click on another and get a glossary of the words in the line, click on another and get the annotations about the critical interpretation of that passage and the history of that interpretation, click on another and get all the variant readings of the manuscripts," Mr. Duggan said. "The user will have at his fingertips everything textually significant that we can put into the archive.
"The poem is considered the greatest work of the Alliterative Revival, which harked back to the poetic devices of Old English verse. Even modern English translations capture this flavor, with lines such as "Bidders and beggars fast about went/With their belly and their bag brimful crammed." Recounting a series of visions, the poem is populated with allegorical characters, among them Piers Plowman, a simple, virtuous man and obviously a Christ figure, who leads the search for truth and salvation.
Admired today for its imaginative power, Piers Plowman was immensely popular in its time, making Langland, like Chaucer, one of the first English poets with a national following, Mr. Duggan observed. He also pointed out that the poem bears historical as well literary importance. Its allegorical treatment of contemporary issues in church and state unintentionally added fuel to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, when Tyler led his ill-fated insurrection against the repressions of feudalism. Centuries later, leaders of the Reformation in England latched onto the poem as a work of proto-Protestantism.
Curiously, Mr. Duggan has found it difficult to obtain grant support for his project, mainly because few literary scholars now have the tools to work with "hypertexts." That is bound to change.
"Virginia, relatively speaking, is better equipped than places," Mr. Duggan said. "Technology will have to catch up with us."