State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 84 December 2009


Lawrence Warner
The Gentleman's Piers Plowman:
John Mitford and his annotated copy of the 1550 edition of William Langland's great poem

To the lovers of English poetry, a more acceptable present could scarcely be made than a careful and critical edition of the Vision of Piers Ploughman,’ observed a contributor to the April 1843 issue of The Gentleman's Magazine.
The poem is among the earliest and the most curious in the language; it is, in fact, the earliest original poem in English, – it appeared nearly thirty years before the Canterbury Tales of Chaucer – it became excessively popular, as the numerous manuscripts attest; subsequently several editions of it appeared, – it was referred to by the early writers in our language, it was subsequently submitted to critical examination by Warton, Percy, and other critics, but it still was cased in its rough and almost impenetrable doublet of black letter…
Until, that is, the editor whose volume is here under review, Thomas Wright, exercised his ‘courage and good taste’ to change black letter ‘for a more appropriate and commodious form’.1 This review, published anonymously, nicely articulates some of the reasons why William Langland's great fourteenth-century poem merited, as it still does, serious attention by both scholars and ‘the lovers of English poetry’.
The claim that ‘subsequently several editions of it appeared’, though, is a bit misleading: whereas the State Library of Victoria's holdings enable a mapping of ‘the long history of editing and printing Chaucer,’ beginning with leaves from two of Caxton's fifteenth-century printings and steadily through to the present day, as Stephanie Trigg has noted in this journal,2 before 1813 Piers Plowman had been seriously edited only in 1550, when Robert Crowley released three editions in succession (though as the Gentleman's Magazine review points out, ‘of the three editions in 1550, by Crowley, two of these are mentioned in the title page as both of the second impression, though they contain evident variations in every page’).3 In 1561 one Owen Rogers reprinted the third of these editions, falsely claiming to rely on ancient manuscript copies of the poem.4 The 1813 edition, by a vicar named Thomas Whitaker, was of a quality to prompt its reviewer for the Gentleman's Magazine – again, not identified in the text, but now known to be Thomas Wright himself – to take on the ‘invidious’ and ‘unpleasant’ task of concluding that ‘the text which Dr. Whitaker has published, is not one with which we can be satisfied.’5 (Wright seems to believe that Piers Plowman was published by other early editors in addition to Crowley and Rogers, which probably accounts for the later reviewer's reference to ‘several editions’.) No

Fig. 1. Recto of the second flyleaf, showing [John] Mitford's signature at the top and the clipping from the sale catalogue in which Pope's copy was sold.

wonder the appearance of a proper new edition of this important poem was seen to constitute such a welcome present to the lover of English literature in 1843.
Amongst the State Library of Victoria's treasures is one of 33 known copies of Crowley's second edition of Piers Plowman6 and the only of the 150 or so (including these 33) sixteenth-century extant copies of the poem held in the southern hemisphere. The relative rarity of the item and its importance in the history of the editing and reception of the poem on their own guarantee the value of the volume. Added to that are the inscriptions by its owner in the early nineteenth century, the Rev. John Mitford (1781–1859), who, as it happens, penned the review of Thomas Wright's edition quoted in the opening paragraph above. Neither the annotations themselves nor even his Gentleman's Magazine item have been included in the bibliographies of Piers Plowman's reception or in the many studies of the poem's editorial history.
Mitford's response to the poem, as we shall see, in many ways epitomizes that of the great antiquaries of previous generations, who together made up something of a ‘school’ of response that has never been apparent because, to those few who have noticed them, its constitutive elements have been assumed to mark unique and individual responses to the poem. A study of Mitford's annotated copy brings this major chapter in the literary history of c. 1750–1850 to light. But it does so in ways that also reveal him to be a unique witness to a stage of development that has remained obscure in the absence of our knowledge of his copy of Crowley. When he first inscribed this copy, such Crowley editions were the only way in which the poem was known to the wider public; by the time of his review, some thirty-seven years later, Piers Plowman occupied an entirely different world, which forced readers to ask new questions about the nature of medieval textual production and modern editing, but which had not yet been so thoroughly marked as ‘modern’ (from our perspective) in the form of Walter W. Skeat's series of editions over the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Skeat's Piers Plowman (three authorial versions, A, B, and C respectively) is still the one read today and the one in which we can see the development of a single artist's aesthetic and political convictions. Mitford's approach heads in other directions, some of which had been well mapped by his predecessors and other authorities, while others pointed towards scholarly developments whose importance he could scarcely have foreseen. These latter, concerning the question of the authorship of the various versions of the poem, are of some consequence. Yet have remained unknown to scholars partly because of ignorance of Mitford's own decades-long engagement with the poem as recorded in ∗S 821.15 V at the State Library of Victoria.
The second flyleaf of this copy features the inscriptions ‘Mitford. 1806.’ and, a bit higher on the page and in lighter ink, ‘Dec: 1825.’ (Fig. 1); the identification of this as being by the Rev. John Mitford is confirmed by a clipping from a sale catalogue entry of the item pasted in the front flyleaf. The Dictionary of National Biography's entry for

Fig. 2. Verso of page cvii [107] with annotation by Mitford.

Mitford paints a picture of a man whose marriage was unhappy, and whose membership of the priesthood ill suited him. Instead, he ‘gratified his love of shrubs and books by planting a great variety of ornamental and foreign trees, and by forming an extensive library, mainly of English poetry’: in sum, as Charles Lamb put it, Mitford was ‘a pleasant layman spoiled’.7 He produced the first serious edition of Thomas Gray, and between 1830 and 1839 edited numerous poets (including Milton, Dryden, Swift, and Spenser) for the Aldine edition. All of this made him very well placed to take on the editorship of The Gentleman's Magazine in January 1834, the year that magazine published Wright's review of Whitaker.
Mitford used the flyleaves of his Crowley as a compendium of Piers Plowman scholarship, ranging from that of the sixteenth-century literary historian William Webbe (which he read in a reprint of 1815), who believed ‘Piers Ploughman’ to be the poet (and ‘a very fitting’ one, if harsh and obscure), to the cantankerous scholar Joseph Ritson, who bull-headedly believed the poem to be ‘still anonymous. There is no reason to believe that he was either Robert Langland, or John Malverne, but on the Contrary, a substantial one that it was not’. The topics are not thematic ones generated from a reading of the poem, such as, say, Langland's allegory, treatment of the poor, or relationship to the Wycliffite heresy, but, rather, external ones regarding its metre, dating, provenance, and the status of Crowley's editio princeps. There is also some room to make this copy a celebrity scrapbook in the light of a pastedown of the catalogue entry for the copy of Owen Rogers's 1561 edition owned by Alexander Pope (and, after him, Thomas Warton). The final front flyleaf adds a few more items from scholarly authorities, but also livens things up with excerpts concerning Piers the Plowman from two of George Gascoigne's poems.
The appearance of Thomas Wright's edition in 1842 finally enabled Mitford to put these materials to good use in the public arena. Indeed his ‘review’ is more an overview of the poem with supporting scholarly apparatus, most of which appears in the flyleaves of his Crowley, than an engagement with Wright's editorial procedures. Its appearance in The Gentleman's Magazine guaranteed its influence, despite the lack of much original thought. Yet, although elsewhere the review has been correctly attributed to Mitford, historians of Langland's editing and reception have proceeded in ignorance of Mitford's contribution.8 I came across it only in the process of researching the milieu of these annotations. Yet the Crowley edition contains other marks of Mitford's engagement with the poem that are not replicated in the review. For one, he sporadically cross-referenced this volume, which prints what we today call ‘the B version’ of Piers Plowman, with the page numbers of Whitaker's 1813 edition of what we now call ‘the C version’. Most often he signals where the equivalent passage appears in Whitaker, but sometimes he makes note of variant readings, as on the verso of page cvii, ‘v. Whit. ed. p. 378. “leche, and to coke”’ (Fig. 2). Finally, the back flyleaf contains a list of items that
caught Mitford's attention, keyed to page, from ‘Walsingham’ (ii) to ‘Brybors, Pylors, and Pikehennes’ (cxvi).
It is always instructive, even poignant, to come upon a once-lost record of an earlier generation's response to literature from a still earlier era, especially when it comes from someone as well informed and connected as was John Mitford. Often that is because of the uniqueness of the response and, while in its particulars, one very important instance of which will occupy us in a moment, Mitford's engagement with Piers Plowman is sometimes unique, in its overall structure the Melbourne Crowley constitutes a splendid example of the typical antiquary's response to the poem over the preceding century or so. The record of Mitford's collection of scholarship and allusion, comparison of the text of his copy with that of another recent edition, and list of interesting items might appear unprecedented to readers today, but that is because of the lack of a systematic survey of the Crowley and Rogers copies owned by the gentleman scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The single other study of a volume of this era, for instance, takes the fact that Bishop Thomas Percy collated his own Crowley against some manuscripts as evidence that ‘he was perhaps one of the likeliest potential editors of Langland's poem in a comparatively fallow period for Piers Plowman textual scholarship’.9 Perhaps so, but the evidence does not inhere in the simple act of comparison, which was a common phenomenon. Like Mitford, the great Chaucer editor Thomas Tyrwhitt cross-checked his Crowley against a C-version copy (in this case, B. L. MS Cotton Vespasian B.xvi);10 the curmudgeonly Joseph Ritson inscribed the final flyleaves of his copy with the opening and concluding lines of some nine A- and C-version manuscripts;11 and, most remarkably, in the early 1750s one William Burrell, a student of Dr John Taylor at St John's College Cambridge, collated every word and passage of a Crowley against two widely divergent early manuscripts, filling interleaves and margins to the brim.12
Ritson's copy likewise gathers up what previous authorities such as Percy, Tyrwhitt, and Warton had said about the topics that would most interest Mitford a few decades later: the poem's authorship, dating, metre, and quality of Crowley's text. This was the usual mode of reception among gentleman scholars of this era. In the flyleaves of the Haverford College copy of Rogers's 1561 edition (Magill Library 96), for instance, Dr. Richard Farmer, Cambridge's University Librarian in the late eighteenth century, cites his friend Ritson's questioning of the attribution of Piers Plowman to any of the known candidates and comments upon the number of editions Crowley published. And while a single eighteenth century concordance similar to that made by Mitford, though appearing apart from Crowley or Rogers, has been publicized in Notes & Queries,13 such concordances, wordlists, and indices to interesting items are ubiquitous in the sixteenth-century editions. The best example appears over four front flyleaves of Cambridge University Library Syn. 7.55.12, a copy of Crowley's first edition. Arranged
alphabetically, it inlcudes fifteen items beginning with ‘A’ alone, from ‘Absolucyoun’ to ‘Averice’. Ritson, too, has a four-page alphabetical index (twelve items under ‘A’), followed by a brief list of ‘Memorable Particulars’; others, such as the copy of Crowley's third edition that is now Duke University D.9 L282V, are more in line with Mitford's, being a bit shorter and proceeding sequentially through the text rather than alphabetically.
This, in short, is a world whose landscape has intrigued those very few modern critics who have happened upon isolated signs of its existence, but whose borders extend far beyond that of any such individual copy. If the variety of annotations found in the Crowley and Rogers editions were widely known, they would figure centrally in studies of Piers Plowman's reception and editing history;14 as it stands, though, the discovery of, say, Bishop Percy's annotated copy or a wordlist based on a Crowley text has been assumed to be anomalous. This is why a proper appreciation of the State Library of Victoria's copy of Crowley calls for contextualization together with other, similarly unheralded, copies now held by libraries around the world. Only such a comparison will reveal those characteristics of Mitford's item that set it apart from the others. For one, to my knowledge no other annotated sixteenth century print charts the movement from the Crowley era up to the eve of the Skeat era of modern scholarship. In 1806, the date Mitford first inscribed his name, the practice of adding flyleaves on which to record one's reading of the scholarship was still in full flight. Richard Farmer and Joseph Ritson, for instance, had done so only a few years earlier. By 1825, the second date recorded, Whitaker had published the first modern edition; by 1842 Wright's had followed; and eight years after Mitford's death Skeat's edition of what he called ‘the A-text’, which had never before been printed, would appear, ushering in the modern critical and editorial era. No more Crowley, and no more need for summaries of past scholarship or indexes: the three modern editions rendered that moot. John Mitford's Piers Plowman was the last of its kind.
Yet as such, Mitford was engaging with Piers Plowman just as recognition of the wild textual variation in its manuscripts was becoming widely known and before the parameters of discussion had settled down. Prior to Whitaker's edition of 1813, the informed general reader could know from Tyrwhitt that some manuscripts seemed to differ from the Crowley text, which was so corrupted, he wrote, ‘that the Author, whoever he was, would find it difficult to recognize his own work’,15 or from Ritson that the variant forms of a few passages indicate ‘that the author had revised his original work, and given, as it were, a new edition’.16 Whitaker's text confirmed that sense for most readers, and Richard Price, in his 1824 edition of Warton, announced the existence of a ‘third version’ of the poem.17 John Mitford's own take on the textual variation found in the manuscripts of Piers Plowman (if it is indeed his – the bulk of his review is sourced from elsewhere, but I have not found the following in those sources) differs quite significantly:
From a comparison of the readings of the different manuscripts of this poem, it is our opinion that they are far too various and remote from each other to have proceeded by way of revision from the original author; but we consider that the poem was so popular, and so much in demand, as to lead persons of talent and leisure to make important variations in their transcripts. (p. 344n.)
Although it is buried in a note, far from focus of Mitford's energies, and never mentioned by subsequent scholars of the poem's reception, this is an important item in the history of Piers Plowman scholarship. In his edition, Thomas Wright had also speculated that a single poet was not responsible for both his and Whitaker's texts (Wright seems not to have known of Price's ‘third version’): ‘it is my impression that the first [i.e., text printed by Crowley] was the one published by the author, and that the variations were made by some other person, who was perhaps induced by his own political sentiments to modify passages, and was gradually led on to publish a revision of the whole’ (i. xli). Although this comment probably influenced Mitford, he goes much further, seeming to posit, quite accurately, the existence of more than two textual states, and certainly suggesting, in the phrase ‘persons of talent and leisure’, that more than the two authors identified by Wright were responsible for this massive variation.
Such a belief would become quite prominent in the first half of the next century, when debate raged over whether Piers Plowman was ‘the work of one or of five’.18 But no advocate of multiple authorship ever cited the Gentleman's Magazine review of Wright's edition. This is not because the scholars involved were ignorant of earlier beliefs: on the contrary, both sides drew upon them with relish. It seems to be because then, as now, no one knew or remembered it. Yet there is one possible exception from an earlier generation, to which indeed John M. Manly, who in 1906 had raised the authorship controversy, drew attention a decade later. This is found in the remarks, published in 1862, of George P. Marsh, the American philologist, environmentalist, and diplomat who by this point had been appointed United States Minister to Italy by President Abraham Lincoln:
The number of early manuscripts of this work which still survive proves its general diffusion; and the wide variations which exist between the copies show that they had excited interest enough to be thought worthy of careful revision by the original author, or, as is more probable, of important modification by the numerous editors and transcribers under whose recension they subsequently passed.19
‘It will be noted’, wrote Manly, ‘that Marsh's views are much more precise and definite than those of Thomas Wright, and contain in effect, though not in detail, the conclusions for which I have contended. I am glad to have the support of an independent utterance from a scholar so distinguished for soundness of taste and sanity of judgment as was Mr. Marsh.’20
Subsequent critics have seen Marsh's comments as signs of his indebtedness to Wright,21 but it seems to me that Manly is quite correct to point out that some
differences separate the two, differences that might well suggest that Marsh had the Gentleman's Magazine review of Wright at hand as well. Wright's remark that ‘As might be expected in a popular work like this, the manuscripts in general are full of variations’ certainly lies behind the similar remarks of both later scholars (i. xli). But where Wright proceeds to isolate ‘two classes of manuscripts which give two texts that are widely different from each other’ (i. xli), Mitford and Marsh instead identify ‘important variations in their transcripts’ and ‘important modification by the numerous editors and transcribers’, respectively. This is a new idea, one that Manly attributed to Marsh alone, but which at least belongs first to Mitford as chronologically prior, and most likely as source of his successor's idea. It seems very unlikely that someone as well informed and intelligent as Marsh would not have consulted the review of Wright's edition in the Gentleman's Magazine, and there are no other known sources for the idea until Manly resurrected it the following century.
The relatively modest goal to which Mitford aspired was to be the consummate gentleman reader of Langland's great poem, the ‘person of talent and leisure’ who made good use of the extensive library of English literature he had amassed so as to turn his own ancient copy into something of a variorum edition, who put together his own index to the poem, and who dabbled a bit in the act of collation and comparison. He achieved this magnificently, and was the last to do so. Yet the testimony of later thinkers such as George Marsh and John M. Manly show that Mitford's greater legacy appeared instead in an offhand comment found in a footnote. Modern criticism has on the whole rejected this approach, but the fact that it existed to be rejected in the first place is owing to the insights of the Rev. John Mitford, whose thinking about the poem occurred over a period of some four decades within, and upon, his copy of the Crowley 1550 edition now in the State Library of Victoria.


The Gentleman's Magazine, n. s., vol. 19 (1843), pp. 339–58, at 339: review of Thomas Wright, ed, The Vision and Creed of Piers Ploughman, 2 vols, London: William Pickering, 1842.


Stephanie Trigg, ‘The Injuries of Time: Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Speght and Wade's boat’, La Trobe Journal, no. 81 (Autumn 2008), pp. 106–17, at 106.


Review, p. 345n., here plagiarizing Thomas Percy's words from his essay on the metre of Piers Plowman in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 2 vols, Dublin, 1766, ii, pp. 206–07. Our reviewer often lifts phrases from earlier authors without attributing them as carefully as he might have.


Review, p. 345n. These four editions are Short Title Catalogue [STC] items 19906, 19907a, 19907, and 19908 respectively. On the production of Crowley's three editions, including the common misapprehension that STC 19907 preceded 19907a, see R. Carter Hailey, ‘Robert Crowley and the Editing of Piers Plowman (1550)’, Yearbook of Langland Studies, vol. 21 (2007), pp. 143–70.


‘The Visions of Piers Plowman’, The Gentleman's Magazine, n. s., vol. 1 (1834), pp. 385–91, at 386. On Whitaker's edition, see Charlotte Brewer, Editing ‘Piers Plowman’: the evolution of the text, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 36–45, and Sarah Kelen, Langland's Early Modern Identities, New York: Palgrave, 2007, pp. 107–26.


Housed in the Rare Book Collection at ∗S 821.15 V.


W. P. Courtney, ‘Mitford, John (1781–1859)’, rev. James Edgar Barcus, Jr., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 (accessed 10 December, 2008), the source for further biographical information cited below.


The attribution is in James M. Kuist, The Nichols File of “The Gentleman's Magazine”: attributions of authorship and other documentation in editorial papers at the Folger Library, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982, p. 110. Its absence from Vincent DiMarco, Piers Plowman: a reference guide, Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982, is most likely responsible for its absence as well from Brewer's and Kelen's books. Arthur Sherbo cites another item from the magazine missing from DiMarco's book, ‘probably because it is not listed in the index volumes of GM’, which would account for this item's absence as well: ‘Samuel Pegge, Thomas Holt White, and Piers Plowman’, Yearbook of Langland Studies, vol. 1 (1987), pp. 122–28, at 123.


John J. Thompson, ‘Bishop Thomas Percy's Contributions to Langland Scholarship: two annotated Piers Plowman prints in Belfast’, in The Medieval Book and a Modern Collector: essays in honour of Toshiyuki Takamiya, ed. Takami Matsuda, Richard A. Linenthal, and John Scahill, Woodbridge, Virginia: D. S. Brewer, 2004, pp. 451–59, at 452.


Now British Library C.71.c.29. George Kane had earlier speculated that Tyrwhitt ‘was evidently comparing [the texts of Crowley and Rogers] with a copy of C, probably Q (C.U.L. Addl. MS 4325)’, a manuscript that bears the initials ‘T.T.’ (‘The Text’, in A Companion to Piers Plowman, ed, John A. Alford, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988, pp. 175–200, at 176).


No, Lehigh University Library 821.1 L265p 1550, available in full-colour digital facsimile, accessed 20 August, 2009.


Thus turning it into two thick volumes, now Oxford, Bodleian, Rawlinson 272/73. I plan to discuss this and Ritson's Lehigh copy in more detail in a future study of the eighteenth-century textual scholarship on Piers Plowman.


Carl Grindley, ‘An Eighteenth-Century Concordance of Piers Plowman’, Notes & Queries, n. s., vol. 42 (1995), pp. 162–64.


Students of the early modern reception of Chaucer have begun to analyse the annotations of the printed editions: see, e.g., Alison Wiggins, ‘What Did Renaissance Readers Write in their Printed Copies of Chaucer?’ The Library, vol. 9 (2008), pp. 3–36; Antonina Harbus, ‘A Renaissance Reader's English Annotations to Thynne's 1532 Edition of Chaucer's Works ’, Review of English Studies, vol. 59 (2008), pp. 342–55.


Thomas Tyrwhitt, ed, The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer, London: T. Payne, 5 vols. 1775–8, iv, p. 74. This and the items below are widely discussed (e.g., E. Talbot Donaldson, Piers Plowman: The C-text and its poet, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949, pp. 3–7; Kane, pp. 176–77; Brewer, pp. 20–36).


Joseph Ritson, Bibliographia Poetica, London: C. Roworth, 1802, p. 30 n. See Brewer, p. 21 n.6 (note that Hearne inscribed only this Bodleian copy; the supposed British Library copy she mentions there is a ghost).


Thomas Warton, The History of English Poetry …: a new edition carefully revised [by Richard Price], 4 vols., London: Thomas Tegg, 1824, ii, p. 482. Critics commonly cite Price as the ‘discoverer’ of the A version, but this is very misleading, as the copy in which he identified this third version has what we now call a ‘C continuation’ and thus is some 4500 lines longer than the ‘A version’ we now know, whose most distinctive characteristic is precisely its relative shortness. Brewer points this out as well, also noting a few other problems with his textual analysis, with the caveat that ‘it is distinctly ungenerous to cavil at these shortcomings given Price's notable gains on the work of his predecessors’ (p. 47).


For a summary of the situation see Brewer, pp. 181–208; the phrase first appeared prominently in J. J. Jusserand, ‘Piers Plowman: The Work of One or of Five’, Modern Philology, vol. 6 (1909), pp. 271–329, arguing for single authorship.


George P. Marsh, The Origin and History of the English Language, and of the Early Literature it Embodies, London: Sampson, Low, 1862, p. 297. For a biography see David Lowenthal, George Perkins Marsh: versatile Vermonter, New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.


John M. Manly, ‘The Authorship of Piers the Plowman’, Modern Philology, vol. 14 (1916), pp. 315–16, at 316.


Morton W. Bloomfield said that Marsh ‘maintained a theory of dual authorship. His views are probably based upon Wright's’ (‘The Present State of Piers Plowman Studies’, Speculum, vol. 14 (1939), pp. 215–32, at 215). Brewer, p. 184 and n. 3, says that Wright's idea of dual authorship ‘had been repeated by George Marsh in 1860’, but that earlier comment, too, quite clearly identifies more than two authors: ‘it is by no means improbable that both [Whitaker's and Wright's texts] are very unlike the author's original’.