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The Plowman's Tale: Introduction

The PlT, also known as The Complaint of the Ploughman, is a pseudepigraphic Lollard poem of 1380 lines, which established Chaucer's reputation as a pre-Reformation protestant author. Most of the poem dates from about the year 1400. It exists in one manuscript version and in two important black-letter editions. The manuscript, located in the Humanities Research Center Library of the University of Texas at Austin, was prepared by hand apparently for insertion into the Thomas Godfray edition of Chaucer's Works (black-letter 1532); but the manuscript, which derives from an early original, may have been executed very late, possibly well after the sixteenth century. The poem also appeared in a separate edition (Thomas Godfray c. 1535-36), which contains printed marginal glosses in Latin. The only known copy of this edition is now located in the Huntington Library, lacking a leaf at the beginning. (Hereafter this edition will be referred to as HT for Huntington text.) The PlT was also published in William Thynne's second edition of Chaucer's Works (1542; hereafter Thynne2). The Texas MS, HT, and Thynne2 are very similar, especially HT and Thynne2. Thynne2 provided the base text for W. W. Skeat's edition (=Sk; 1897), for Skeat did not know about the MS or HT. Thomas Wright (Wr) based his 1859 edition for the Rolls Series on the inferior Thomas Speght edition of 1687. Skeat's edition is standard, but it needs updating and revising.

The PlT, as received (with the Prologue), purports to be a Canterbury tale, and some Reformation editors, Godfray, Thynne, and especially John Stow (1561), may have accepted it as authentically Chaucerian. Although the Lollard author - or an interpolator - clearly meant to link the poem with the CT, there are indications that the Middle English author did not compose it as a pseudo-Chaucerian tale. It is likely that the poem as originally written (without the Prologue) had no connection with either Chaucer or Piers Plowman. If the author or editor tried to adapt the PlT to the CT framework, he did not everywhere succeed. The evidence suggests rather that he wanted to write a tale in the debate tradition and that a sixteenth-century editor adapted the debate poem loosely to the CT mold through the Prologue (lines 1-52). The poem begins during the "midsummer moon," closer to the summer solstice than to April; and the Plowman is at home, plowing, rather than on pilgrimage, as with Chaucer's storytellers. Moreover, the ending of the PlT offers its own retraction. So it seems that the author or the interpolator meant the PlT to stand apart from the CT rather than to be included within the latter's fictional boundaries. In Thynne2, the PlT follows The Parson's Tale and precedes The Romaunt of the Rose, but in subsequent editions it precedes The Parson's Tale.

The poem was composed in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, perhaps about the same time as PPC, c. 1394-1401, since the latter work is mentioned in line 1066. Common authorship has sometimes been claimed for the two poems, but their respective prosody (and some would say their literary quality) is quite different. PPC was written in the alliterative long line, whereas the PlT is, for the most part, in the eight-line stanza of Chaucer's Monk's Tale, rhyming ababbcbc. The Prologue (lines 1-52) rhymes abababab; lines 1149-1268 rhyme ababcdcd. These several rhyme schemes suggest interpolation, as Bradley and Skeat have observed. The PlT, unlike Chaucer's CT, features four stresses and eight syllables, and the four-beat lines contain alliteration on the a a / a x pattern. The opening line of Part I reads: "A sterne stryfe is stered newe" (53), while line 55 has: "Of sondry sedes that bene sewe." Most stanzas end with a refrain, which varies slightly from stanza to stanza. Of Chaucer's CT, The Monk's Tale, in its sombre tone and heavy moralizations, may be closest in spirit to the PlT; but none of the CT is so topical or satirical as the PlT.

The story of the PlT is easily summarized. In the Prologue, the Plowman leaves his plowing at midsummer and joins the pilgrimage to Canterbury. The Host, Harry Bailly, calls on the Plowman to tell "some holy thynge," and he obliges with what he calls "a good preachynge" that he heard from a priest. He then relates the "story" of conflict between two types of people: the established, endowed clergy versus the poor and oppressed "lollers." The narrator says he has wandered far and wide trying to learn which type of person is the "falser," until he came upon a Griffin, which advanced the Pope's arguments, and a Pelican, which sided with the poor priests and the Lollers. This is, however, not a debate poem in the tradition of The Owl and the Nightingale or Parlement of the Thre Ages, because the author gives few lines to the Griffin while allowing the Pelican to expatiate on the evils of the clergy. At lines 717-18 the Griffin interrupts the Pelican to ask, "What canst thou preche ayenst chanons / That men clepen seculere?" This question simply licenses the Pelican to attack secular canons (see also 989-90, which launches an attack on monks). The Griffin's best arguments occur at lines 1073-1108, when he points out that the Church should have a leader, the Pope, and a disciplined hierarchy. The Pelican counters the Griffin with: "Christ is our heed, that sytteth on hye; / Heddes ne ought we have no mo" (1111-12). Toward the end of the poem the Pelican interprets the two parts of the Griffin, bird and lion, as pride and robbery; then, the author himself depicts an eschatological battle between the Griffin, with its fellow attack birds, and the Pelican and Phoenix (traditional symbols of Christ), with the latter triumphing. Finally, in a Chaucerian gesture that combines a disclaimer with something like a formal retraction, the author (or perhaps the Plowman narrator) says he merely reports the Pelican's words. Blame the Pelican; it is all a fable.

The PlT gained special prominence in the sixteenth century, when Chaucer's writings were thought to anticipate English Reformation attitudes concerning the church of Rome and its bureaucracies. Editors of Chaucer regularly included the poem until 1775, when Thomas Tyrwhitt omitted it from his new edition. The PlT is not only antifraternal, like PPC; it is more broadly anticlerical, attacking the Pope, bishops, and cardinals but sparing poor priests - a strategy which corresponds with later fourteenth- and fifteenth-century attitudes. The author reserves his most withering scorn for prelates who would live like fine lords.

The PlT bears witness not only to an interest in Chaucer's CT and in Chaucer as a pre-Reformation protestant thinker; it also belongs in a tradition of "plowman" writings. Indeed, it is sometimes confused with other works with similar (modern) titles. We may infer that interest in the Plowman was keen because of the success of Langland's Piers Plowman and because one of Chaucer's ideal pilgrims, the Plowman, never tells a story. A later author, probably an editor or scribe interested in creating a more complete text of the CT, wrote a "Prologe of the Ploughman" for Thomas Hoccleve's poem on the sleeves of the Virgin, thereby creating a Ploughman's Tale for the Northumberland manuscript of the CT (Northumberland MS 455). Other writings, all sixteenth-century, include A Lytell Geste howe the Plowman lerned his Pater Noster (STC 20034); God spede the Plough, a refrain poem with twelve Monk's Tale stanzas; I playne Piers which cannot flatter (STC 19903a), a prose work with rhyming tags; A godly dyalogue and dysputacyon betwene Pyers plowman and a popysh preest (STC 19903); The prayer and complaynt of the Ploweman unto Christ (STC 20036), a polemical piece; and Pyers plowmans exhortation unto the lordes, knightes and burgoysses of the parlyamenthouse (STC 19905). In this group should be mentioned The Song of the Husbandman, an alliterative complaint poem from MS Harley 2253 (about 1340, hence before Piers Plowman), which depicts the harsh life of the farmer. These writings, and others which appropriate the name of Piers the Plowman, testify to the continuing influence of Langland and the "Piers Plowman tradition."

Because no fourteenth- or fifteenth-century versions of the PlT exist, it is difficult - if not impossible - to reconstruct the (hypothetical) Middle English original, as Skeat tried to do in his edition of 1897. The manuscript version and the earliest editions, HT and Thynne2, may include Reformation interpolations (especially the Prologue linking the tale of Griffin and Pelican to the CT); and the spellings in all three early versions often owe more to sixteenth- than to fifteenth-century conventions. But those who claim that the poem is essentially a Reformation poem overstate the case. The vocabulary and issues raised in the poem mark it as late Ricardian or early Henrician, as Wawn has shown.

The text of this edition is based on a facsimile of William Thynne's edition of Chaucer's Works (ed. D. S. Brewer; London: Scolar, 1969; reprinted 1976), first published in 1532 and reprinted, with the PlT, in 1542 [= Thynne2]. There were two identical versions of Thynne2, one with the imprint of W. Bonham (Short Title Catalogue 5069), the other with the imprint of John Reynes (STC 5070), which is the version printed in the 1969 facsimile. I have checked the facsimile against a microfilm version of the Texas MS; against an excellent photocopied version of the Thomas Godfray edition (HT) supplied by the Huntington Library; and against the editions of Wright and Skeat. I select the Thynne2 over the Texas MS because of the latter's unusual orthography, particularly the scribe's use of tt for t ("att," "butt"). But I adopt 23 substantive readings of the Texas MS, even when HT and Thynne2 agree against the MS (at lines 57, 58, 73, 176, 183, 221, 289, 332, 533, 547, 621, 652, 695, 740, 876, 921, 927, 929, 967, 972, 1084, 1200, 1322); nine readings of the Texas MS and HT against Thynne2 (at lines 105, 148, 251, 260, 437, 450, 765, 911, and 924); one reading of HT against the Texas MS and Thynne2 (at line 895); and eight of Skeat's emendations (at lines 37, 130, 189, 361, 432, 451, 618, and 1135). In the Notes I include some of HT's marginal Latin glosses, which are mostly scriptural parallels to the English text.

Skeat in his edition, perhaps following Wright's practices, normalized the orthography to bring the PlT text into conformity with early fifteenth-century scribal conventions. Skeat substituted i for y when the vowel sound is short, and he retained y for long vowels. He regularly doubled both open and close long o and e and deleted final -e. Most notably, Skeat regularly normalized the anachronistic ea grapheme to fifteenth-century conventions for representing long open e. Finally, Skeat emended his edition frequently for prosodic or lexical reasons. He clearly held theories about the poem's original language and its regular prosody; and he did not hesitate to improve his copy text based on those theories.

Unlike Skeat I rely on the facsimile edition of Thynne2, the Texas MS, and HT and their spellings in most cases. The chief exception to this rule occurs in the rhymes. I change the spelling of subsequent rhyme-words to conform to the initial spelling or on some occasions the initial spelling to conform to subsequent rhyme-words. Hence, I alter the edition's chynne in line 4 and skynne in line 6 to chyn and skyn to correspond with the rhyme-word in of line 2. Similarly, in the second stanza, I alter the edition's platte of line 12 and forswatte of line 14 to correspond with the rhyme-word hat of line 10. Often I alter the spellings of Thynne's edition in favor of the Huntington text spellings (robbery, tyranny, and prophesy at lines 190, 192, and 193 rather than Thynne's robberye, tyrannye, and prophecye). In addition, I change, without note, the edition's consonantal u to v (auowe becomes avowe or avow), i to j (ioynt becomes joynt), and ampersand (&) to and.

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Select Bibliography


Library of the University of Texas at Austin MS 8. In Chaucer's Works, 1532.

Previous Editions

The Workes of Geffray Chaucer. London: Thomas Godfray, 1532.

The Plowman's Tale. London: Godfray, c. 1536. [Unique copy in the Huntington Library.]

Geoffrey Chaucer. The Works, 1532. With Supplementary Material from the Editions of 1542, 1561, 1598 and 1602. Menton: Scolar Press, 1969.

Wright, Thomas, ed. The Complaint of the Ploughman. In Political Poems and Songs Relating to English History, Composed during the Period from the Accession of Edw. III. to that of Ric. III. Rolls Series 14, Vol. 1. London: Longman, Green, 1859. Pp. 304-46.

Skeat, Walter W., ed. The Plowman's Tale. In Chaucerian and Other Pieces, vol. 7 of The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Oxford: Clarendon, 1897. Pp. 147-90.

Wawn, Andrew, ed. The Ploughman's Tale. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Birmingham, 1969.

General Studies

Coleman, Janet. Medieval Readers and Writers 1350-1400. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

Kendall, Ritchie D. The Drama of Dissent: The Radical Poetry of Non Conformity, 1380-1590. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Peck, Russell A. "Social Conscience and the Poets." Social Unrest in the Late Middle Ages. Ed. Francis X. Newman. Binghamton, New York: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1986. Pp. 113-48.

Szittya, Penn. The Antifraternal Tradition in Medieval Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Yunck, John. The Lineage of Lady Meed: The Development of Medieval Venality Satires. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963.


Bradley, Henry. "The Plowman's Tale." Athenaeum, 12 July 1902, 62.
Heffernan, Thomas J. "Aspects of the Chaucerian Apocrypha: Animadversions in William Thynne's Edition of the Plowman's Tale." In Chaucer Traditions: Studies in Honour of Derek Brewer, ed. Ruth Morse and Barry Windeatt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Pp. 155-67.

Hudson, Anne. "Epilogue: The Legacy of Piers Plowman." In A Companion to Piers Plowman. Ed. John A. Alford. Berkeley: University of Calfornia Press, 1988. Pp. 251-66.

Irvine, Annie S. "A Manuscript Copy of The Plowman's Tale." University of Texas Studies in English, 12 (1932), 27-56.

Lawton, David. "Lollardy and the Piers Plowman Tradition." Modern Language Review, 76 (1981), 780-93.

Wawn, Andrew W. "The Genesis of The Plowman's Tale." Yearbook of English Studies, 2 (1972), 21-40.

_____. "Chaucer, The Plowman's Tale and Reformation Propaganda: The Testimony of Thomas Godfray and I Playne Piers." Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Manchester, 56 (1973-74), 174-92.


Peck, Russell A. Chaucer's Romaunt of the Rose and Boece, Treatise on the Astrolabe, Equatorie of the Planetis, Lost Works and Chaucerian Apocrypha. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1988.

Robbins, Rossell Hope. "XIII. Poems Dealing with Contemporary Conditions" in A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, vol. 5. New Haven: Connecticut Aca-demy of Arts and Sciences, 1975. Pp. 1447-48; 1677.