Originality and Authenticity in Medieval Manuscripts

In doing some basic online research on Piers Plowman, I was surprised to learn that there are more than 50 copies of the poem, yet none of them are considered to be the original work, produced by the hand of William Langland himself. Additionally, I learned that the majority of Piers Plowman manuscripts are in fragmented and incomplete. Because of the wide array of discrepancies in the different copies, scholars have found it difficult to determine which copies of the poem can be considered authoritative. In fact, according to what I’ve read, the scholarly community only accepts three copies of the text to be direct products of the original (and absent) production. Even these “authoritative” productions do not exist in complete form, and their authenticity is still a matter of academic debate.

For me, the most fascinating thing I’ve had to consider in reading and learning about Medieval Manuscripts is something Professor Seaman has alluded to a number of times in class: because of the sheer lack of information and physical productions, Medieval scholars must make a series of educated guesses and inferences based on the information they do have. Because the interpretation and analysis of Medieval texts is often theory-based, there is a high potential for debate and divergence among Medieval scholars. In this sense, Medieval studies is vastly different from other spheres of literary scholarship. In the average English class, the texts are presented in a complete and consistent form. Authorship and intent are rarely debatable on the same level as works such as Piers Plowman or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The study of Medieval literature takes on a distinctly scientific property. Scientific means must be used to analyze the physical manuscripts themselves, but the observation-hypothesis method of study that is necessary because of the absence of concrete knowledge in the field gives ENGL361 a feel that is closer to my Environmental Geology course than my Senior Seminar in Gothic Lit!

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