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The Yearbook of Langland Studies, vol. 4.

If each volume in this series is to have some distinctive emphasis or focus, as the previous numbers suggest, the fourth will impress itself as the Douce number. For the first and by far the longest contribution (86 pages) is Kathleen Scott's informative account of the marginal figures that constitute 'The Illustrations of Piers Plowman in Bodleian Library MS. Douce 104'. The editors had apparently been willing to devote even more space to this item, since a note explains that the original plan of reproducing all seventy-two of the miniatures had to be abandoned, as permission fees proved too expensive. Every reader of her article will regret this quite as much as its writer can, for the thirty illustrations provided are quite delightful--economically lively and memorable. Though they are tentatively offered as evidence of early 'interpretation' of the poem, they are very much an illustrator's rather than a reader's interpretation: it is the drawable figures rather than the major emphases (of a poem whose appeal is only intermittently visual) that have been recorded, by an artist accommodating his own abilities and inclinations to the matter of the text and to the needs of a reader, for whom the layout of the MS provides little other visual milestones on a long journey. Only readers who read it in this MS, for instance, would find Reason's sermon fixed upon their imaginations by its passing reference to Tom Stowe. On one point, however, an illustration did indeed provide definitive interpretation. The 'pissares longe knyues' worn by worldly priests (C.22.219) turn out to have an explanation almost comically obvious: they are swords hanging not at the hip, but between the legs. Scott comments that the picture supports Pearsall's detection of a 'suggestion of lecherousness' in the line; but the implication (or, rather, deliberate suggestiveness) is not the poet's, but (presumably) the wearer's.

In the first of the two remaining articles ('The "Hungry Gap", Crop Failure and Famine: The Fourteenth-Century Agricultural Crisis and Piers Plowman'), Robert Frank documents the reality of annual scarcity, as well as periodic dearths and famines, underlying Langland's preoccupation with actual subsistence and with what Frank memorably calls 'masticating man'. The second is a lengthy piece by Helen Barr: 'The Relationship of Richard The Redeless and Mum And The Sothsegger: Some New Evidence'. Statistical tests of 'subliminal stylistic habit', of the kind applied to the Gawain poems by Cooper and Pearsall (RES NS 39 (1988), 365-85), are here applied to Richard and Mum. Such tests necessarily rely on trivial or incidental features of expression and metrical practice which are (therefore) below the level of stylistic choice by the author(s) at issue. I am not sure that I find the procedure convincing in itself, but in the present instance agnostic readers are not required to make up their minds on this point, since the results are declared to be inconclusive. Some apparently significant common ground is discerned amid some apparently significant divergence. The conclusions can thus be (and are) used to support the hypothesis which (according to the abstract included in the Annual Bibliography) the writer has already advanced in her D.Phil. thesis: 'that the two fragments represent two sequential pieces by a single author rather than a single continuous poem'. This seems a perfectly plausible interpretation of the relationship between the 'two' poems; but it also seems rounded on what, with a little pushing, would be an assumption that the 'subliminal stylistic habit' being tested is not a stable quantity, but merely a set of minor traits liable to unpredictable changes under the influence of such things as time, whim, or mood.

The notes comprise: 'A Simoniacal Moment in Piers Plowman', in which Alan Fletcher discusses the deals between parish priests and pardoners referred to at B.Prol.80-2; 'Reason's Horse', in which John Burrow restores at least some logic and coherence to a piece of allegory (at B/C.4.20-3) that is not one of Langland's more inspired moments; 'Piers Plowman A.5.155: "Pyenye"', in which one item in Betty Brewster's list of spices is discovered by Ralph Hanna to be an instance of sin 'absorbing spiritual rhetoric into an already extant discourse'; and 'Revisions in the Athlone Editions of the A and B Versions of Piers Plowman', which consists mainly of a list of changes in commas and the hyphenation of personifications (in Kane's revision of his edition of the A version), helpfully provided by Kathleen Hewett-Smith for anyone who might need it.

The volume is completed by a review article by John Bowers on the essays collected in George Kane's Chaucer and Langland: Historical and Textual Approaches; a review section; and the regular Annual Bibliography (for 1989: eighty-two entries).

MYRA STOKES University of Bristol
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Author:Stokes, Myra
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1994
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