Derivation, Deviation, and Distortion. The dynamism of medieval texts.

My role at with the Digital Index of Middle English Verse is amplifying my awareness of the implications of copying by hand upon the form and contents of medieval texts. The fact that texts were written by hand meant that every time that a new version was created, there was potential for changes to be introduced – some minor (such as spelling variations or dialect features), and some major (such as missed lines, alterations in vocabulary, or changes in the syntax).  This was capable of triggering a kind of literary Chinese Whispers: as manuscripts moved around the country and further copies were made, these changes were replicated, corrected, accentuated, changed further.  When I have taught undergraduate students, I have always emphasised the fact that the printed edition that we read today is just one version of a text that may have existed in many different forms. Since my undergraduate days, I’ve always liked, Peter L. Shillingworth’s book ‘Scholarly Editing in the Computer Age‘ for its discussion of the challenges of transferring manuscript texts into a single edition. Written in 1996, it has probably been superceded by an even more pertinant book in light of the digital age, and I’d welcome any recommendations.

“So oft a day I mot thy werke renewe
It to correct, and eke to rubbe and scrape…”

I have been acquainted with this variability within the medieval text ever since I began to study medieval literature. For example, as a master’s student I developed an awareness that the text that we know as Piers Plowman today actually exists in three main distinct forms known as the ‘A Text’, the ‘B Text’ and the ‘C Text’ (and possibly a fourth version, the ‘Z Text’, but this is disputed). Each of the surviving Piers Plowman manuscripts fall into one of these catagories according to their textual characteristics. Even within these groups of manuscripts, there appear to be overlaps and subgroups – Lawrence Warner, for example shows that there are certain passages from the ‘C text’ within the ‘B text’. All of this confirms the dynamism of the medieval text, and these variant manuscripts are evidence of this literary Chinese Whispers in action.

A typical day in my job at the DIMEV might involve transcribing items of verse that appear in many medieval manuscripts. By comparing the form of a piece of verse in one manuscript with how it appears in another, I am becoming increasingly excited about, and proud of, the conribution that this index is making to literary scholarship. By creating the DIMEV, which explains exactly which manuscripts each text appears in, and in which form, we are creating a tool for scholars who wish to trace the composition, transmission, and reshaping of medieval texts.

To give just one example, last week I was confronted with a manuscript of the Gesta Romanorum, which the existing database listed as containing a couplet of verse beginning:

‘See and hear and hold still’

And indeed, several witnesses of this text in other manuscripts do contain the verse in this form. However, searching through the text in the manuscript infront of me, I found that it actually read:

‘Here and see and hold the stille’

Another manuscript of the same text, in the Cambridge University Library reads

‘Herke & see & hold þe stille’

All very subtle differences – but differences nevertheless. Any literary scholar anaylysing the intricacies of medieval vocabulary, rhyme schemes, metrics, dialect features etc, simply has to be aware of the flexibility of the medieval text. By compiling this database, the DIMEV team are enpowering medievalists to identify shared linguistic features amongst manuscripts quickly, thereby tracking the dissemination of texts, the activities of medieval literary communities, and the work of scribes. This all contributes to our enhanced understanding of the literary history of the texts within medieval manuscripts from the moment of their composition to the present day.


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