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Commissioned Review

Commissioning Editor: Rebecca Welzenbach, MPublishing.
Accepting Editor: Rebecca Welzenbach, MPublishing.
Received: August 26, 2011
Revised: November 12, 2011
Accepted: November 14, 2011
Published: February 9, 2012

Keywords: Calabrese, Michael; Adams, Robert; Piers Plowman; Langland; Digital Editions; Critical Editions.

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§ 1    Volumes six and seven of The Piers Plowman Electronic Archive (PPEA) mark a significant achievement for the work of the editors and contributors to the project. The omnibus project aims to provide not only colour digital images of the entire corpus of William Langland’s texts of Piers Plowman, from the medieval period through the sixteenth-century, but also electronic transcriptions of each manuscript (as explained by Duggan 2005). Volume six includes images and transcriptions from San Marino, Huntington Library Hm 128 (Hm, Hm2); volume seven includes images and transcriptions from London, British Library MS Lansdowne 398 and Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson Poetry 38 (R). Piers Plowman has traditionally received much scholarly attention, not only due to its status as a canonical poem surviving from the Middle English period, but also because Langland wrote three distinct versions of the poem (A, B, and C), and thus the poem offers much for the study of Middle English textual history, editorial theory, and reception theory.

Operating summary (vols. 6 & 7)

§ 2    Both volumes (six and seven) are intended to run on a Windows operating system. Volume six requires Windows 98 or later; volume seven requires Windows 95 or later. The disks will not work correctly on any browser other than Internet Explorer 6.1 or higher, and require at least a Pentium II processor with 215 megahertz and 256 megabytes of RAM.

§ 3    Frustratingly for Macintosh users, neither of the file browsers included (called JR and Elwood) is designed to work without the user going to what likely amounts to substantial effort, as the CD requires PC mode software. Given that one of the goals of the PPEA project is to make the Piers Plowman manuscripts and the project’s editing work available to a wide audience (as noted by Duggan 2005), this restriction is both surprising and disappointing. Interestingly, the editors appear to acknowledge the potential for Mac user disappointment in the subtle difference in wording between the minimum system requirement statements for volume six and volume seven, a change that occurs despite the requirements (Intel processors running in PC mode or Windows emulation software) being the same. Compare the two statements from each volume: Neither Elwood nor JR will run on Macintosh systems in native MacOS mode. Users whose Macs are equipped with current Intel processors can easily run either browser in PC mode, either through... (volume six) and Both the default browser JR and the Elwood Viewer will easily run on any Intel Macintosh system in native mode via Bootcamp or via emulation software... (volume seven). In essence, Mac users who purchase either volume six or volume seven eagerly anticipating the attractive self-start function available to PC users will be sorely disappointed.

Installation summary (vols. 6 & 7)

§ 4    Both volume six and seven conveniently load the Junicode fonts (designed by Peter Baker) required for display of Middle English graphs such as thorn, yogh, or manuscript punctuation marks, and the editions open automatically upon CD insertion. The editors have provided instructions for self-installation, should it be necessary, on the back jacket of both volumes. The steps for self-installation are not at all onerous, and worked as described.


Instructions for first-time users (vols. 6 & 7)

§ 5    The "Instructions for first-time users" are embedded in the table of contents. The editors fittingly urge [users] to read all of [this section] before proceeding—a sage suggestion, given the complexity of the editions and browsers. It is odd that a dedicated link to these instructions is not present on the edition’s title page, considering the importance of this section to user success and understanding. Users who attempt to begin using the editions before reading the available prefatory material may be confused as to the important difference between the JR Viewer and the Elwood Viewer (the JR browser is the default browser; the Elwood viewer offers more in the way of search and navigational tools but requires higher screen resolution). While briefly explained in the back-jacket of the CDs, the "Instructions for first-time users" articulate the differences between the navigational browsers more fully, and explains the procedures required to use the Elwood viewer.

§ 6    The beginning of the instructions includes sections detailing the system requirements ("I. System Requirements"). The second section, "General Instructions" is itself further divided into segments: "II.1 For Users running Windows95 and later operating systems," "II.11 Installing Fonts," "II.1.2 Starting the JR Browser," II. 1.3 Navigating the texts," II.14 Searching in JR," "II.1.5 Display Conventions in JR, "II.1.6 Display of Tag Contents," "II. 1.7 Color Conventions in Different Views of the Text," and "II.2 Starting the Elwood Viewer." These sections are described at appropriate levels and include some screen shots that are helpful for understanding particulars, especially navigating to sections of the text, searching, and the choices available for text presentation. The third and final section within the "Instructions for first-time users," "WWW Site for Errata, FAQs, etc." demonstrates the conscientious attitude of the editors, as it provides readers with the project Internet address necessary for submission of suggestions and corrections.

Introduction (vol. 6)

§ 7    The introduction for volume six is admirable in its scope and thoroughness. It contains six sections ("Description of the Manuscript," "The Text," "Editorial Method," "Linguistic Description," "List of Manuscript Sigils," and "Bibliography") that are further divided into appropriate subsections. Incorrectly, "List of Manuscript Sigils" and "Bibliography" are both labelled as section five.

§ 8    The first subsection, "I. Description of the Manuscript," aptly describes Hm’s physical attributes, assumed provenance, date, and contents. Importantly, other subsections also detail scribal hands, decorations, and illustrations. These sections, and the section entitled "I.9 Marginalia," are accompanied with links (indicated by a superscript blue "I") to the manuscript image of the items or sections under discussion.

§ 9    The subsection entitled "The Text" is remarkable in its method of describing what amounts to a complicated textual history, including a consideration of the fragment of the B text of Piers Plowman (Hm2) contained in the same manuscript as Hm, and the fragment’s (Hm2) importance in allowing for a comparison of orthographic tendencies with Hm. Here the editors illustrate what is possible from careful manuscript work, as they present possibilities for different manuscript relationships based on scribal hands, rubrication, spelling, and correction.

§ 10    The third section, "Editorial Method," is thorough, beginning with the "Transcription of the Manuscript." Helpfully, image links help the user understand the descriptions of abbreviations and scribal forms. As with volume seven, it is disappointing that the editors have decided not to distinguish allographic forms. Given that the PPEA uses Peter Baker’s Junicode font display programme, allograph forms could have been displayed quite easily, as each graph would, presumably, be recorded at the initial transcription stage. Current scholarly interest in scribal writing systems would benefit from such detail.

§ 11    The third and fourth subsections of "Editorial Method," "III.3 Presentation of Text: Style Sheet" and "III.4 Presentation of Text: The Annotations," solidify how the edition can be read. "Style Sheets" describes the four different style sheets: Scribal shows not only the manuscript reading but also editorial intrusion, Diplomatic shows only the manuscript text written in the text hand, Critical shows the text as it would after scribal correction, and AllTags displays the entire content of the manuscript page. "The Annotations" describes the system for indicating the levels of information (codicological, palaeographic, lexical/linguistic and textual) that can be found in the textual apparatus.

§ 12    The "Linguistic Description" comprises the fourth section of the introduction. With help from information from work done for the Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English, or LALME (McIntosh 1986), the editors locate Hm’s dialects to Warwickshire. Like volume 7, the linguistic details are extensive, including mostly aspects on phonology and morphology.

§ 13    Parts five and six (incorrectly marked Roman numeral V and V are usefully categorized. The "List of Manuscript Sigils" lists the manuscripts according to A, B, and C text, and the "Bibliography" is divided into a section for editions and a section for literary studies.

Introduction (vol. 7)

§ 14    The introduction for volume seven, of high scholarly standard, contain five sections ("I. Description of the Manuscript," "II. Editorial Method," "III. Linguistic Description," "IV. List of Manuscript Sigils," and "V. Bibliography") that are further divided as necessary.

§ 15    The first section, "I. Description of the Manuscript" is thorough, containing eleven subdivisions: "Date," "Physical Description," "Marginalia," "Collation," "Leaf Size and Arrangement of the Page," "Script," "Punctuation," "Decoration," "Binding," "Provenance," and "Text." All of these sections account, when necessary, for the four leaves separated from the Rawlinson manuscript and rebound with the Lansdowne manuscript. In particular, the editors deserve praise for the extensive description of the marginalia, especially that of the final verso (fol. 101) and the corresponding linked image. Too often traditional manuscript description omits such detail, presumably because it is considered extraneous to the literary text under consideration—having both a description and image of such marginalia is a thoughtful nod towards potential scholarship.

§ 16    The section entitled "Editorial Method" is, overall, scrupulous. In its first subsection, "The Color Facsimile," I was delighted to find a full description of the imaging process including camera type, resolution, and lighting. Here the Bodleian Library’s Imaging Services staff also deserve praise, as such information is not always communicated to editors of electronic texts.

§ 17    The second subsection, "II.2 Presentation of Text: Levels of Inscription," is further delineated into six parts. In these sections, the editors attempt to provide a discussion of the complicated textual history of Piers Plowman, and more specifically, of MS Rawlinson Poetry 38 (R)’s role in the B manuscript tradition. It is here that the editors present their educated hypothesis that manuscript R represents the B text of the poem, separated at least twice from Langland’s own copy.

§ 18    "The Authorial Text" section is surprisingly brief, articulating the troublesome questions that persist regarding Langland’s identity and life, and that some indeterminate, but promising, links have been made between Langland and the poem’s dream-narrator. That the poem exists in three versions is stated in passing, but the editors fail to even mention that these three versions (A, B, and C) are authorial.

§ 19    In the "The B Archetype (Bx)," subdivision of "Editorial Method," and those subsections following, "The Alpha Family," "R’s Relationship with F," "The Alpha><Beta Revision Question," and "The Relationship of R to L," thorough discussions of the manuscripts under consideration, their relationship to the presumed original of the B manuscript tradition, Bx, and their relationship to each other, are presented. Here the two-manuscript "family" relationship, alpha and beta (the presumed originals of the B manuscript tradition), of B strain manuscripts is articulated. Readers may be initially bewildered at the edition proper’s citation of Bx’s readings though the reconstructed text is not yet available from the PPEA. Here in the "Introduction" the editors fairly reason that a reconstruction of Bx is outside the concerns of volume seven’s edition, yet much of the work necessary, such as transcription of the B manuscript and checks against previous collations, has enabled the editors to posit the Bx reading. This work has urged understanding of B’s manuscript tradition, even though corrections will be necessary at a later date, and so, the editors argue, it is reasonable to include the Bx readings in the textual notes. A similar rationale is provided for inclusion of alpha readings in the textual apparatus, though these are categorised as provisional. In "R’s Relationship with F," "The Alpha><Beta Revision Question," and "The Relationship of R to L," the complications of the textual history of R are addressed. Similarly, past hypotheses are discussed, and debunked, when necessary. For example, the editors are clear in their assertion that R and F were not copied from the other, and that the readings of R substantiate the precedence of L in the textual history of the B-version of Piers Plowman.

§ 20    The last two subsections of "Editorial Method" appropriately deal with the presentation of the text in the edition itself, in two further section delineations: "II.3 Presentation of the Text: Style Sheets" and "II.4 Presentation of Text: Transcriptional Policy." "Style Sheets" helpfully describes the four different style sheets. As in volume six, Scribal shows both the manuscript reading and editorial intrusion, Diplomatic shows only the manuscript text written in the text hand, Critical shows the text as it would appear after scribal correction, and AllTags displays the entire content of the manuscript page.

§ 21    The "Transcriptional Policy" reveals the meticulousness and conscientiousness of the editors. The policy is painstaking in its level of detail, just as the transcription itself proves itself to be. One disappointment, as in volume six, is the decision not to distinguish allographic forms. While the editors offer a satisfactory argument for providing graphemic, rather than graphetic, representation, asserting that a readily determinable rationale for the distribution of allographic forms is clear," the current scholarly interest in scribal writing systems and scribal identification suggests that some scholars might have found such distinction useful. Given that the PPEA uses Peter Baker’s Junicode font display programme, allograph forms could have been displayed quite easily, given that each graph would, presumably, be recorded at the initial transcription stage. Another disappointment regarding the "Transcriptional Policy is the lack of images (or links to images) accompanying the lengthy descriptions of abbreviations and suspensions. Such a practice would help the reader distinguish between forms.

§ 22    The third chapter of the "Introduction, "the "Linguistic Description, is extensive in its analysis. Its sections on phonology and morphology are thorough and would even serve as a fine introduction to Middle English forms and inflections.

§ 23    Chapters IV and V of the introduction, "Lists of Manuscript Sigils," and "Bibliography," are themselves careful, helpfully categorized for reader ease. "List of Manuscript Sigils" is divided into sub-lists for A, B, C, BA Splice, AC Splice, and ABC Splice manuscripts. The bibliography is divided into a section for editions and a section for studies.

The editions

Navigation (vols. 6 & 7)

§ 24    Both volumes are presented via the default browser called JR Viewer. The user may also choose to use the Elwood viewer, which allows for greater navigational and search facilities; however, users must first manually change the resolution of their screen (Elwood requires 1280 x 1024 pixels). Even if the user is willing to take the extra step required, not all machines offer such resolution, and so few will likely enjoy the benefits of Elwood.

§ 25    JR Viewer functions only in Internet Explorer 6.1 or higher, and only on a Windows computer. The viewer is functional, but does little to accentuate the admirable scholarly work offered by both volumes in the text files, whose use are restricted by the JR browser itself. JR executes the style sheet choices for each volume, and supplies the navigational menus in an Internet Explorer window. The navigational menus consist of seven buttons. "Back" takes the user to the previous screen, "Forward" returns the user to the original screen, and "Prev Pass" and "Next Pass" navigate to the primus passus, secondus passus, and so on. The "Style Sheets" button presents the four choices (Scribal, Diplomatic, Critical and All Tags), in a drop-down menu, along with a choice for "Show/Hide XML Tags." The "Navigator" button provides a drop-down menu with all passus of the poem. The "Contents" button is a bit confusing, as in volume six a drop-down menu of three appears, but only one choice, "Appendices" is labelled, while in volume seven a drop-down of four appears, but only two choices, "Text and notes with color facsimile in passus files," and "Appendices" are labelled. The unlabelled areas, still, successfully link to choices related to editorial matter.

§ 26    Sadly, and this is especially true given the quality of the images, the only method for obtaining a manuscript image is to click on a link (indicated by a superscript blue "I") in the transcription window. There is no procedure for navigating from one image to another—this is an absence users will surely miss. Each folio image appears in a separate Internet Explorer window, which makes a comparison with the transcription tedious, as the user has to relocate and resize the windows for possible comparison, and this method also means that it is likely that the notes on the right of the transcription window will be concealed. This method must, then, unhelpfully be repeated for each new folio or passus under consideration.

Texts (vols. 6 & 7)

§ 27    Each volume offers four different transcription versions: "Scribal," "Diplomatic," "Critical," and "All Tags," among which the differences are described in the "Introduction." Thorough investigation of each transcription version, and its underlying XML document, shows that each is scrupulously detailed and all appear highly correct (I have spot-proofed them). Each transcription contains icons which provide the hyperlink for notes to the edition, which themselves are thoroughly detailed, following a system where a red superscript "T" indicates a textual note, a red superscript "C," a codicological note, a red superscript "P," a palaeographic note, and a red "L," provides for a linguistic note.

§ 28    The texts also use colours that indicate either ink colour used in the manuscript itself, as is the case with red or blue, or colours that indicate editorial moments — aqua, grey, lime, olive, pink, purple, and violet signify different editorial interventions. Though a key is provided in the "Instructions for first-time users," I found it sometimes difficult to remember which colour signified what editorial function. Unfortunately, it is not possible to view the key while viewing the text, and so reading and understanding the text itself was unnecessarily prolonged and required some practice.

Images (vols. 6 & 7)

§ 29    In each volume, the images of the manuscripts are outstanding, making the absence of a method for scrolling through the image files via the JR Viewer even more frustrating. The user can, of course, view the images in a photo viewer and perhaps find scroll functions there. This method also proved useful in finding the image properties, especially for volume six, whose image details of Hm are disappointingly not detailed in the "Introduction."

§ 30    The images for San Marino, Huntington Library Hm 128 (Hm, Hm2 in volume six) are JPG files mostly in the range of 1 to 3 MB at a resolution of 300 dpi. Oddly, it seems that only the flyleaf images include a cm scale and a grey-scale and colour strip. This tool would be useful if it had been included in all images.

§ 31    The images for London, British Library 398 and Oxford Library, MS Rawlinson Poetry 38 (R, in volume seven) are JPG files in the 2 to 3 MB range, at a resolution of 600 dpi. A cm scale and grey-scale and colour strip accompany every image.


§ 32    The work represented by both volumes six and seven of the PPEA is of exceeding value to the scholarly community. The editions themselves are invaluable contributions to Middle English textual scholarship, and represent a worthy achievement in the field of digital editing. The introductory materials present textual and linguistic analyses that are significant achievements in work on the textual history of Piers Plowman, and should be read by scholars and students of Middle English literature, manuscripts, and textual history, as they illustrate the sort of insight that can be garnered by such diligent work. The limitations of the volumes are due to those of default browser (JR) and the system requirements. I sincerely hope the PPEA will explore implementing functionality for Mac users in addition to already serving Windows users, and implementing a choice of web-browser, or at least using one that is better appreciated by users. Additionally, the scholarly community would be well served if the PPEA were to examine the longevity issues related to publication via CD and explore possible solutions. Middle English literary and textual scholarship would become deficient should the contents on these discs become unusable. It is paramount that such advanced and worthy scholarship remains available for Middle English students and scholars.

Works cited

Duggan, Hoyt N., with a contribution by Eugene W. Lyman. 2005. A Progress report on the Piers Plowman electronic archive. Digital Medievalist 1.1. http://www.digitalmedievalist.org/journal/1.1/duggan/

McIntosh, Angus, M.L. Samuels, and M. Benskin. 1986. Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press.