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Piers Plowman, Manuscript Douce 104, and the Dissemination of Literature in the Middle Ages Research Paper

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Updated: Mar 31st, 2019


The middle ages witnessed the commencements of a renaissance in literature. Books during this period were solely hand-copied and bore illustrations from monks. Paper was a rare commodity (Lambdin and Lambdin 12). The medium used for writing mainly consisted of vellum and parchment.

The former was gotten from calf’s skin while the latter was derived from a lamb’s skin. Students who were eager to learn how to write used wooden tablets.

These tablets were covered in green or black wax. Many of the books produced during the medieval period were bound with plain wooden boards. Alternatively, tooled leather was used to bind volumes that were more expensive. This paper examines one of the manuscripts of the medieval era as well as how such literature was disseminated.

Medieval literature is a comprehensive topic that entails all written works from Europe and other regions, which were written during the middle ages. The literature of this era consisted of religious writing and secular works. Similar to modern literature works, medieval literature is a broad field of study, which covers the extremes of sacredness and profanity, as well as the topics in-between.

Medieval literature was mainly in Latin because it was the language of the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church had dominion over most parts of Europe including Western and Central Europe (Thomas 23).

The church was mainly the source of education; hence, Latin became the language of most medieval literature writings. Nevertheless, Eastern Europe was under the influence of the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

As a result, the main written languages in this region were Greek or the Old Church Slavonic. Although Greek and Latin were the language of the elite, the common people went on using their vernaculars (Thomas 24).

Changes in the Medieval era

In the medieval period, in the Western world, literature and science were aligned in many questions and struggles. For instance, writers wondered on how to disseminate their work or keep it secret, whether to write in Latin or the vernacular, whether to follow the style and content of the ‘ancients’ or ‘the moderns’.

Other issues troubled writers such as reconciliation of the natural world with Church doctrine, and how to present their works so that it pleased a patron and garners support (Cels 31).

The medieval era is the period in which the arts and sciences began to become the disciplines, as they are known today, developing subfields, new literary genres, and countless new technologies.

This is also the period when Islamic learning migrated to Europe and contributed significantly to scientific and literary thought. This era also saw schools move out of the Church and into universities, as well as court workshops. Nevertheless, the influence of the church in controlling the production and dissemination of knowledge continued to be strong (Lambdin 31).

The Middle Ages is also the era when transmission of information took a revolutionary step with the invention of the printing press. It is the era when the ‘new world’ was discovered and ignited literary and scientific imaginations and study; and when new technologies led to increased global trade and enlarged markets, the development of banking, a growing merchant class, an augmented pool of educated people, and men of learning to be celebrated for their genius and virtuosity. The sciences and arts were building their identities. They did so in step and in dialogue with one another (Galloway 29).

The trajectory of science from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance to today’s is, more frequently than not, seen as a continuity and precursor to later scientific developments.

A similar trajectory can be traced in the history of literature. The energy devoted to the recovery, assimilation, commentary, translation, and promulgation of earlier authorities in both literature and sciences was accompanied by empirical and experimental work in the sciences, and active re-examination and reinterpretation of established sources in both science and literature (Curtius 36).

Challenges in the dissemination of literature in the medieval era

Literature comprised not only epic, romance, love lyric, comic verse, short prose works, drama, and the like, but also much religious, political, and philosophical writing.

Generally, a work of ‘high’ literature would have been penned for the educated elite, and often in Latin; ‘low’ literature would have been designated for the masses, often in the vernacular, and often recited or performed, especially in the middle ages. However, the general acceptance of the vernacular in works of high literature as well as science happened slowly (Galloway 42).

The reasons for this are many, such as low literacy rates; feudal culture’s lack of a merchant middle class educated and rich enough to afford hand-copied books; the elite’s desire to keep learning for the educated few; as well as an innumerable number of regional dialects that made dissemination of literature in a universal language almost impossible.

As such, methods and means of textual production and dissemination offered a significant challenge to writers. Many writers opted to keep their works secret. The challenge of production and dissemination serves to explain why many works produced during the medieval period were anonymous (Lambdin 42).

The well-known image of the minstrel-poet, moving from one inn to another, or signing for his supper under the supervision of a rich patron has a firm foundation. Voice, presentation, and skills related with the deployment of these means of textual production were crucial in the Middle Ages.

In Piers Plowman, Langland contrasts two cultures. The first one is that of oral storytelling while the second culture is that of Christianity. One of the characters in the work, Sloth, is resentful because the medieval Christians were supposed to speak their beliefs and sings portions of the liturgy through memorization. Their ministerial priests also participated in the verbal production of texts.

Those who were trained in the university would have been comfortable with the classical arts of memory. All of them were supposed to remember the teachings in the Bible. The Scriptures were the foundation for the guidance that formed their day-to-day work (Curtius 52).

The medieval ‘authors’ of verbal texts do not qualify for the modern day meaning of the term ‘author’ – writers of original literary works. Many Medieval texts are retellings of old stories, and it is especially difficult to differentiate those texts that were ‘original’ verbal compositions from those passed down by speakers long before they were recorded in the written forms in which they survive to present day.

The relationship between memory, creativity, speaking and writing in the Middle Ages was always a fluid one. Flux and change were also central to an account of the technologies and skills with writing itself. In the Medieval era, the ability to read and write was two distinct skills (Thomas 46).

The Piers Plowman manuscripts

The challenge of disseminating literature works in the Medieval period can be illustrated by the manuscripts of Piers Plowman. The poem survives in more than fifty manuscripts representing about a dozen distinct textual forms.

For instance, there are six A-manuscripts (plus the Z-text) with CV-endings, two clear textual traditions of the B-version, and one manuscript blending passages from all three traditional versions. An even greater variety of presentational and commentary exists. Several Piers manuscripts have more than the usual passus initials while others divide the different passus in original ways, and one C-manuscript, Ms Douce 194 (Cels 56).

Scribes and readers also annotate most Piers manuscripts, but each program is unique. The assumption that Piers Plowman exists in three and only three versions had become so axiomatic in Langland studies that any claim for an earlier fourth version, the Z-text, caused much excitement, with scholars from both supporting and rejecting such as an argument (Benson 53).

Despite the durability of the three-text hypothesis, those most familiar with the manuscripts have always been aware of the precariousness of its claims. Just as important to Piers scholarship as the number of versions has been the belief that they were composed in a set chronological sequence- ABC. However, despite its long acceptance by critics and editors, Skeat’s assertions that Piers Plowman was composed in the ABC order has never been supported by solid evidence or detailed argument (Cels 64).

As seen from the above discussion, dissemination of Medieval literature was hampered by the varied manuscripts that existed for a single work. Another characteristic challenge of dissemination literature in the Medieval period was the controversy surrounding the real authorship of the work.

Although the actual audiences for whom particular versions of Piers may have been intended remain under a matter of speculation, the manuscripts do contain traces of the responses of some of the earliest readers of the poem: the scribes who wrote, edited, and annotated them (Galloway 58).

The scribes of Piers have received both contempt and compliments from modern scholars. They have been granted the status of literary critics and even co-authors. Such extremes of praise and blame reflect modern conceptions of writing and distort the complex contribution the medieval scribes made to the creation and reception of Piers Plowman (Lambdin 69).

‘Author’ is too exalted a title for the Piers scribes, whose respect for text they received apparently prevented the kind of radical re compositions found in some popular English romances. To compare these scribes with modern literature critics is even more anachronistic.

They have little interest in deep or sustained analysis but respond more practically as hands-on presenters rather than detached literary connoisseurs or theorists (Benson 75). This is not to say that scribal involvement with the poem could not be intense and serious. However, if the scribe’s participation in the living text of Piers does not amount or literary criticism, it can be significant.

The work of medieval writers can be divided into four parts: scribe, compiler, commentator, and author. The closer one looks at Piers Plowman and its manuscripts, the more these categories tend to blur and overlap for both the author and his copyists (Benson 68).

Recognition that scribes could act as authors, however, intermittently, should make us more cautious about literary interpretation of Piers that depend on a single line or phrase. Much of the best Langland criticism is based on the close reading of the poem, but medieval authors and readers knew how easily a piece of writing could disappear or be altered in even a good manuscript (Thomas 73).

If the scribes of Piers Plowman on occasion function as authors, they are more commonly found in the role of compiler. Two B-compilations demonstrate how often the activities of authors and scribes overlap. The first is the early and quite elegant Corpus Christi College, Oxford, manuscript, one of a pair that forms an alternate textual tradition to the majority of B-manuscripts.

The Corpus manuscript contains many examples of local scribal rewriting, including numerous unique readings that so impressed the Athlone editors that they adopted them as authorial (Lambdin and Lambdin 92).

As well as being authors, copyists, and com pliers, the medieval scribes of the Piers Plowman manuscripts were also and perhaps most significantly, commentators. They supplied their texts with editorial annotations, further complicating any absolute distinction between them and the poet.

More common are the rubrics that introduce, conclude, and number or even describe individual passus of the poem. In addition to these rubrics and extra initials, three other kinds of annotations are found in the manuscripts of Piers Plowman (Benson 72). These include marginal notes, words emphasized in the text, and paragraphing.

None of these annotations appears to be the work of the author, nor do they develop into a standard school for Piers: the program for each manuscript is unique. None, not even the marginal notes, display much learning or intellectual analysis, and they are frequently hard to interpret.

Nevertheless, the Piers annotations are almost never merely random or automatic, but once again reveal early readers responding alertly to the poem as a living text (Lambdin and Lambdin 69).

The main role of the medievalist is to identify missing stories. Lost manuscripts, anterior sources, and earlier textual versions shape our conception of the medieval era. Medieval literature always bear witness to another text most often figured materially as the textual ancestor from which it has been copied. The technology of printing did not alter the literary universe immediately or completely. Manuscript conventions often governed textual presentation in the early years of print (Cels 83).

Manuscript culture proves much more variable and far less stable than that of print. To mark a distinction between manuscript and print cultures, it is not necessary to deny the complexities witnessed with the advent of the printing press.

The fact of multiple reprinting, corrections within a print run, and the dispersal of compositors’ duties, for instance, makes for wild instabilities within the print culture of various historical periods. However, the signal difference remains that print culture is capable of an, and indeed idealizes, the dissemination of multiple and nearly identical copies of particular works (Scala 62).


In conclusion, it has been established that Medieval Literature was very challenging to disseminate. This phenomenon was largely attributed to the illiteracy of the people and unwillingness of the elite to share knowledge outside the educated few.

Concerning Piers Plowman, this paper finds that there are three versions of the work in the ABC sequence with the latter containing the MS Douce 194. This multiplicity of a single work made dissemination of literature works difficult, but the invention of the printing press eased the dissemination of multiple and nearly identical copies of particular works.

Works Cited

Benson, David. Public Piers Plowman: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture. Pennyslavania: Penn State Press, 2004. Print.

Cels, Marc. Arts and Literature in the Middle Ages. New York: Crabtree Publsihing Company, 2004. Print.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991. Print.

Galloway, Andrew. Medieval Literature and Culture. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006. Print.

Lambdin, Laura. A Companion to Old and Middle Englsih Literature. London: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002. Print.

Lambdin, Robert and Laura Lambdin. Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000. Print.

Scala, Elizabeth. Absent Narratives, Manuscript Textuality, and Literary Structure in Late Medieval England. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Print.

Thomas, William. Medieval Literature: A History and a Guide. New York: Collier Books, 1996. Print.

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