The Reading of Books and the Reading of Literature

Forming the English Canon > Pierce Plowman

Robert Crowley’s 1550 edition of Pierce Plowman, although a small quarto, was quite important in the mid-Tudor period. Indeed, it was a foundational text for sixteenth-century writers with a mind toward ecclesiastical reform. Crowley’s edition, framed as an anti-clerical, proto-reform tract, made Pierce Plowman accessible to Edwardian readers and even inspired some writers to appropriate the Pierce persona for political ends.

According to Crowley, Pierce Plowman is an old poem with contemporary resonance; it is a literary text of historical importance. He avers in his letter to the reader that the old poem by “Roberte langelande” is relevant to the sixteenth century because it repudiates the social, moral, and ecclesiastical transgressions pervasive during Edward VI’s reign: “There is no maner of vice, that reygneth in anye estate of men, whyche thys wryter hath not godly, learnedlye, and wittilye, rebuked,” he declares.

Because the text is difficult to read, Crowley provides a summary of the entire poem’s “principall poyntes.”

One of this book’s readers went through it with a dictionary in hand. He has glossed hard words in an easy-to-read hand.

The printed marginal notes facilitate the reader’s understanding and interpretation of the poem. They provide biblical references and glosses on the action and allegory. On this page, the marginal notes indicate that the poetry refers to “The Suppression of Abbayes.” Above that, an important passage is marked with a bossy note. “Reade thys,” it says.

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