The Ploughman's Tale: Introduction

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The Ploughman's Tale: Introduction

Of the thirty pilgrims introduced in the General Prologue, the Plowman, the Knight's Yeoman, and the Five Guildsmen drop from sight and never reappear to tell their tales. This exclusion does not necessarily mean that Chaucer lacked world enough and time, since late in the compositional process, toward the end of the trip to Canterbury, he chose to include the tale of the Canon's Yeoman, a new arrival not earlier present at the Tabard Inn. Of the seven original pilgrims left out, it is noteworthy that only the Plowman was later provided with two apocryphal tales (Cooper 415-18).

The plowman-figure had become the focus of considerable controversy beginning in the fourteenth century, accused by some preachers of opportunism during the labor shortage in the wake of the Black Death, praised by Wycliffite writers as the image of the ideal Christian. The title-character of Langland's Piers Plowman had become the most famous of these literary representations by the early 1380s, and the resemblance between Piers and Chaucer's Plowman has long been recognized (Coghill 89-94). During the English Rising of 1381, the rebel priest John Ball invoked the name of "Peres Ploughman" in his seditious letters, and since Ball was later accused of being an agent of John Wyclif, the literary plowman was to some extent tarred with the same brush of revolution and heresy (Dobson 372-83). One chronicle actually listed "Per Plowman" alongside John Ball and Jack Straw as leaders of the revolt (Hudson 399-400). Since the Host jokingly accuses the Plowman's brother, the Parson, of being a "Lollere" in the Man of Law's Endlink (CT II, 1163-90) - a section prudently canceled by Chaucer when in the 1390s jokes about Lollards were no longer funny, or even safe - the same sense of prudence in all likelihood persuaded the poet to render his Plowman silent.

By the mid-fifteenth century, the agents responsible for organizing the Christ Church manuscript of The Canterbury Tales apparently felt that even a mute Plowman was not altogether desirable. This collection, which also includes the Siege of Thebes, gave the Plowman a tale and positioned it fourth from the end, between the Squire and the Second Nun. Provided with a makeshift prologue fitting the work into the pilgrimage narrative, this rhyme-royal Miracle of the Virgin originally written by Thomas Hoccleve (d. c. 1426) was placed in the mouth of the Plowman as a story of unimpeachable orthodoxy. In fact, the exemplum of a young monk rewarded by the Virgin for praying his Latin Pater Noster was implicitly anti-Lollard, since Wycliffites had insisted that it was better to say the prayer "Our Father" in English without Mary's mediation (Hudson 310-13).

The subversive potential of the Plowman as a spokesman for radical change was fully realized during the Protestant Reformation of the next century. An anti-fraternal work, most of which was composed about 1400 and kept alive in the Lollard literary underground throughout the fifteenth century, surfaced to be printed with official sanction about 1536. The piece was then inserted as The Plowman's Tale immediately after The Parson's Tale, the two brothers side by side as they had been in the General Prologue, in William Thynne's 1542 edition of The Canterbury Tales dedicated to Henry VIII (Wawn; Heffernan). Since this Wycliffite Plowman's Tale, a vituperative debate between a Pelican and a Griffin, has already been published in the Middle English Text Series (James Dean, ed., Six Ecclesiastical Satires [Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1991], pp. 51-114), I have chosen not to include a separate edition in this volume. No fifteenth-century manuscript of the poem survives.

The Text

The complete text of The Ploughman's Tale exists only in Christ Church Oxford MS 152 (fols. 228b-231a), dated c. 1460-70, on pages originally left blank at the end of the quire after the unfinished Squire's Tale. Apparently the primary scribe had hoped that the missing Part III of Chaucer's Oriental romance would turn up, but when time passed and no conclusion was found, this Marian tale assigned to the Plowman was inserted by a second scribe, who also corrected the Canterbury text throughout. Following an augmented prologue, the body of the tale itself is a version of Hoccleve's eighteen-stanza poem entitled "Item de Beata Virgine" in the autograph manuscript Huntington Library HM 744. Another scribal version is preserved in Trinity College, Cambridge, MS R.3.21, bringing to three the total number of surviving copies (Boyd 119-22).

Because the variant readings shared by Christ Church and Trinity suggest that these two manuscripts represent a slightly different version of the text probably stemming from the poet himself - as is demonstrably the case with Hoccleve's two autograph fair-copies of Lerne to Dye in HM 744 and Durham Cosin V.III.9 (Bowers 1989) - I have not used the Huntington text as a basis for emending Christ Church, except in eight cases where it serves as a control for correcting mechanical errors; significant variants are nonetheless recorded in the Notes. Out of respect for the originality of the first two stanzas of the prologue, which provides a context of "recomposition" for the source material, I have also retained the scribe's accidentals rather than regularizing to Hoccleve's well-documented orthographic practice (see Greetham). Because the scribe corrected his text by inserting words carelessly omitted from this new two-stanza section of the prologue, he was apparently copying from some exemplar in which the narrative had already been adapted as a supplementary Canterbury tale.

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