Centering her discussion on two historical "ways of reading"—which she calls the Protestant and the lettered—Barbara A. Johnson traces the development of a Protestant readership as it is reflected in the reception of Langland’s Piers Plowman and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
Informed by reader-response and reception theory and literacy and cultural studies, Johnson’s ambitious examination of these two ostensibly literary texts charts the cultural roles they played in the centuries following their composition, roles far more important than their modern critical reputations can explain.
Johnson argues that much more evidence exists about how earlier readers read than has hitherto been acknowledged. The reception of Piers Plowman, for example, can be inferred from references to the work, the apparatus its Renaissance printer inserted in his editions, the marginal comments readers inscribed both in printed editions and in manuscripts, and the apocryphal "plowman" texts that constitute interpretations of Langland’s poem. She demonstrates by example that what is culturally transmitted has not been just the work itself; it includes vestiges of past readers’ encounters with the text that are traceable both in the way a text is presented as well as in the way that presentation is received.
Conditioned more by religious, historical, and economic forces than by literary concerns, Langland’s poem became a part of the reformist tradition that culminated in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. By understanding this tradition, Bunyan’s place in it, and the way the reception of The Pilgrim’s Progress illustrates the beginning of a new, more realistic fictional tradition, Johnson concludes, we can begin to delineate a more accurate history of the ways literature and society intersect, a history of readers reading.