Piers Plowman: In Search of an Author

Piers Plowman: In Search of an Author

Fowler, David C.

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 5 (1988)


John Trevisa was born in Cornwall, studied at Oxford University, and, having come to the attention of the Berkeley family, he was instituted vicar of Berkeley, a position he held until his death in 1402. Even these few facts are not easy to come by, and I must confess to a complete ignorance of this man until some ten years after completing my graduate work in English. At the time I was writing a book on Piers the Plowman, a fourteenth-century alliterative poem existing in three versions, the earliest of which (the “A”-text) I had edited as a dissertation and later published (1952), in posthumous collaboration with Thomas A. Knott. Since the circumstances of my discovery of Trevisa are importantly related to some of my theories about him, it seems only proper to relate briefly how he came to my attention. The book I was working on was Piers the Plowman: Literary Relations of the A and B Texts (1961), and one of the problems I faced in writing it was identifying, in a chapter entitled “Principles of Order in the B-Continuation,” the literary sources or influences that determined the shape of the latter half of the”B” text or second version of Piers the Plowman (B passus XI-XX). One of those influences, I concluded, was the fourteenth-century Latin chronicle by Ranulph Higden known as the Polychronicon, and almost immediately this brought Trevisa to my attention, since his English translation was included in the Rolls Series edition of the Latin Polychronicon published in nine Volumes in 1865-86.

One of the distinctive features of Trevisa’s translation of the Polychronicon is his inclusion of notes, usually prefixed by his name, commenting on the text he is translating. These notes are often quite opinionated, and I noticed right away that the views of page 2 Trevisa seemed in close harmony with those of the author of the “B” text of Piers the Plowman (who is separate in my mind from the author of the “A” text). In one instance Higden (monkish author of the Latin original) relates that when Roger, Earl of Shrewsbury, was seriously ill, he made himself a monk in hope that this would aid his recovery. To this Trevisa (a secular priest) appends the following note (Poly. vii, 355): A wise man would ween that Earl Roger had as much meed of that he was a monk, as Malkyn of her maidenhood, that no man would have, and not a deal more. Could Trevisa have known Piers the Plowman?

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