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Title: A history of contact between 'Piers Plowman' and 'The Prick of Conscience'
Author: Kittel, Thomas
ISNI:       0000 0004 9356 4672
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2020
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This thesis examines the historical relationship between Piers Plowman and The Prick of Conscience, two of the most successful verse texts produced in late-medieval England. It offers for the first time a full account of how these important fourteenth-century texts were related, from the composition of Piers between the 1360s and 1380s, through their shared reception history to the middle of the fifteenth century. By combining approaches drawn from literary criticism, textual criticism, and manuscript studies, it revises our view of the relative status of these two texts in the literary culture of the period. It adds to our understanding of the status of Latin, the nature of Middle-English book production, and the reading practices of vernacular audiences, and reflects on the methods we employ in studying medieval texts. The remarkable popularity of both poems and the previously-unexamined evidence for a significant overlap in their production form the impetus for this study. Both are among the most well-attested verse texts surviving from medieval England: The Prick is recorded in more copies than any other poem in Middle English, while Piers is third after The Canterbury Tales, and six scribes are known to have copied both. Yet Piers has been a major research area for over a century, while The Prick has been mostly neglected. This stark difference in modern interest has left a gap in our view of the early reception of Piers, which shared a readership with The Prick. The overlap between them suggests a range of new audiences and forms of reading we have yet to identify, and raises significant questions: what kinds of book producers had access to both, and for whom did they make copies? Piers is a narrative text, an allegorical dream vision, while The Prick is didactic, instructing its readers in the pursuit of salvation, so how were they read together given these differences? Shared reception history leads, in reverse chronological order, to a prior question: was their composition connected? The Prick was written before Piers, so did the earlier poem influence the later? In response, the thesis presents a combined study of the compositional relationship between the two poems and the history of their readership as a pair. The first chapter shows for the first time that Piers drew on the language and structure of The Prick alongside other widely-circulated instructional texts. It argues that the earliest form of the poem, the A text, borrows from these works in a critique of the psychological models they promote, and explores how this influence developed in later revisions. The second chapter turns to the joint reception of the two poems in the hands of scribes and readers. It studies the transmission networks which enabled the copying of Piers and The Prick together, asking which individuals and institutions were responsible for their shared production. In tracing the provenance of forty-five manuscripts of both poems, it gives a new account of their production stressing the role of ecclesiastical institutions in transmitting them, and identifies for the first time a manuscript of The Prick containing insertions of new material influenced by Piers. The third chapter moves from questions of audience to questions of use. It looks at the three surviving manuscripts which contain both poems, offering a new account of their production. It challenges previous views of the use of the two poems in pastoral, practical contexts, suggesting instead that the two were probably produced together for private reading. The fourth chapter considers in closer detail what this private reading may have looked like. It offers the first study of the manuscript presentation of Piers and The Prick in relation to one another, surveying features across almost all surviving copies of both. It argues that their scribes were highly concerned to authorise both poems through presentation models which were traditional and normative. The final chapter focuses on two revised texts of The Prick, both of which had a relationship with Piers. It offers the first account of the textual history of the Eight-Part Version, a major revision of the poem, and discusses in more detail the insertions in the revised text identified in the second chapter. In comparing these two, this chapter identifies up to four possible readers of Piers and The Prick together, and argues that all engaged with the two poems as repositories of Latin quotations, mostly ignoring their English verse. The conclusion reflects on the evidence that readers of both poems read them selectively and focused on their Latin quotations, and how their composition in English might have been justified in a culture where Latin was valued far more highly. It explores how both poems reflect restrictions on the access to written texts in late-medieval England, and the approaches we should take in studying a period marked by a widespread interest in maintaining unequal structures of power.
Supervisor: Horobin, Simon Sponsor: St. Edmund Hall ; University of Oxford ; Clarendon Fund
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: English literature