Editing Middle English

Wm. Paul Meahan

Copyright 2005


Scholarly editing and textual criticism has undergone significant changes since A.E. Housman declared it “a science” and “an art.”  He suggests that editing “is the science of discovering error in texts and the art of removing it” (68).  For Housman – an editor of Classical texts himself – the best scholarly editors will be notable by their absence and he suggests that artful editing only occurs when recension and emendation is achieved unobtrusively, maintaining all the while a balance between authorial intent and textual precision.  In the past thirty years, textual critics have become sceptical about the ability both to discern authorial intent and to access an idealised precise text.  Critics such as Jerome McGann and D.F. McKenzie – admittedly focussed on print culture – have suggested that neither of these goals is even worth pursuing.  It is interesting then to turn to the editors of Middle English to find out what ripples this reinvention of scholarly editing has had.  It seems as if it has not had a great effect yet; A.S.G. Edwards opines that “the history of Middle English editing is a curiously unreflective one” (184).


A Brief Overview – Middle English through the editorial ages

Things did not start off too well with the advent of print.  As early as Wynkyn de Worde in the late-15th century, editorial emendations did not follow any system that would allow the reader to check for accuracy.  In his edition of Quatrefoyle of Love, de Worde replaced any “northern” words that seemed hard or archaic with current equivalents, postulating a form of scribal idiosyncrasy to the use of the “northern” words in the first place.  The 18th century brought no relief.  John Urry’s edition of Chaucer (1721) examined the extant manuscripts – a rare thing to do for eighteenth-century editors of Middle English where print sources already existed – but he imposed metrical regularity on Chaucer’s verse without signalling any of his emendations.  Thomas Percy, in his edition of Ancient English Poetry (1765), was so intent on order in the poems that he felt obliged to liberally rewrite the verses – adding lengthy passages at times – an eighteenth-century editorial practice made (in)famous in Richard Bentley’s Paradise Lost (1732) where the editor felt that what the poem really needed was a happy ending.  The 19th century featured the editor W.W. Skeat, whose primary goal was to produce texts for the Early English Text Society, founded in 1864.  The Society, however, was working hand-in-hand with the Oxford English Dictionary, so Skeat’s primary goal became transcription rather than editorial emendation and preparing critically edited texts.  Still, in comparison to Percy, a little less emendation is a healthy development.


The 20th Century – Competing Texts and Competing Methodologies

Editions of Middle English texts in the 20th century fall into three main categories; each type of edition has its own strengths and weaknesses.  Building on the editorial practices of Skeat, many 20th-century editors have chosen to produce transcriptional editions of Middle English works.  This type of edition is notable in that it transcribes a copy of a single manuscript witness of a text.  Generally, this type of editing is done when there is very little surviving material.  If only a single witness of a text remains, the editor may choose to present a print edition with very little editorial interpretation or conjectural emendation.  By presenting a faithful transcription, the editor opens up interpretative possibilities about orthography or metrical consistency in one manuscript; also, the tendency for early books to be bound together in miscellaneous compilations, or for many scribes to work on one text in pecia, may lead readers of a transcriptional edition to interesting historical conclusions.  Choosing only one manuscript – and in some cases the choice is made for the editor – may not always be the best approach, however.  Adhering to the orthographical forms of the witness – or even the substantives in questionable readings – may force the editor into preserving atypical irregularities.  With only one witness available, it is impossible to make definitive statements about the importance of a certain work’s diction, spelling, or metre.

            A second popular edition – especially in the early 20th century – was “best text” editing.  The editor would select the best possible witness by comparing both the substantives and the accidentals and use that as the base text for his or her edition.  These editions generally do not include a comprehensive apparatus of variant readings, as the editor would have already made the determination that most variants are simply “corruptions.”  The added benefit of having less textual apparatus, though, is commercial.  Editions that do not have enormous lists in the back or in the footnotes are cheaper to produce and are thus more accessible to the general reader; compare the variorum Hamlet to a mass-market paperback.  The problems with “best text” editing, however, involve the editor’s tendency to adhere to readings in the “best text”; furthermore, the appropriate manuscript needs to be clearly identified as the “best” by sound and transparent editorial principles – a seemingly obvious idea, but one that many editions silently ignore.  As a result of the doctrine of “final authorial intention”  – so prevalent in traditional Anglo-American editing – there is also a tendency to choose the earliest extant manuscript as the “best.”  George Kane suggests that the earliest manuscripts of Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women and Parliament of Fowls is not the best manuscript because of some very idiosyncratic spelling and many odd, unique variants.

            The last editorial methodology prevalent in twentieth-century editing is “critical editing.”  A critical edition – or scholarly edition – is based on a single witness judged to be “the best” or “authorial”; this “copy-text” is then emended by comparing variant readings and all editorial emendations are recorded in a textual apparatus.  Many critical editions of Middle English texts require recension – basically a family tree of all extant manuscripts designed to indicate familial relationships between the texts. As Karl Lachmann suggests, the idea is to create a “stemma” which allows the editor to trace the texts back to an (usually lost) archetype; the process is called stemmatics.  That archetype is the ideal text, and many critical editions purport to restore the lost, “authorial” work.  This method, too, has many problems.  Unlike the “best text” editions, these works customarily have very large editorial apparatuses, driving the price of the edition up and its accessibility down.  There is also a philosophical problem in holding that any alteration to the archetype is a “contamination” or “corruption.”  As McGann and McKenzie might say, the production cycle of a text is easily as important as the authorial cycle.  Stemmatics must also assume a direct line of descent between texts and must work towards a single archetype, but there may be different lost sources for different extant manuscripts.  The family tree is not always the most accurate metaphor for inter-related documents.


Words about Words: Editing and Language

There is a significant disjunction between contemporary editors and medieval scribes – both deal with the words of a particular text, but in ways that are completely foreign to each other.  Whether the editor seeks to produce a “best-text” edition or a critical edition, the words on the page are the most important consideration.  For the scribe, the sense of the words trumps the text’s “original features or linguistic usage” (Blake 78).  Where the editor must choose how to render particularly vexed passages, the scribe would most likely “rewrite the passage in the way that seemed best to him” (Blake 78).  Because scribes viewed texts unconventionally, by our standards, the notion of searching for the original archetype of a text becomes increasingly flawed.  Furthermore, the textual problems that editors must negotiate, and their subsequent editorial decisions, influence the way readers will experience the medieval “text.”

            Texts were pieced together very differently before the age of print.  Norman Blake, citing P.M. Wetherill, suggests that the idea of independent, separately titled texts in any codex manuscript is not a product of Old or Middle English literature, but rather a post-Romantic idea imported by the reader (61).  One codex frequently contained many different texts, and the relationship between these disparate texts is never very clear.  Furthermore, there are likely “several linguistic layers ... present in any one poem” because of the scribal tradition of composition (Blake 57).  When an editor is forced to indicate textual inconsistencies, he or she may unduly influence critical analyses of a text’s linguistic features – a serious problem for students of the history of the English language.  French words and phrases lead to a serious editorial quandary: to what extent should the editor emphasise the “foreignness” of the French words.  In print culture, compositors use italics to indicate a lack of assimilation of any foreign word into English.  Choosing to do so in an edition of Chaucer is a conscious emendation, however, as no medieval manuscript contained italics or underlining to indicate lack of assimilation.  Emphasising that a word comes from another language may be counter-productive – and might seem especially strange to a medieval reader of a modern edition.  Punctuation marks also bring to mind an editorial problem.  Present-day English is highly punctuated, and has a well-developed system to indicate how various syntactic phrases interact with each other.  Medieval texts are very different – choosing to punctuate them to give modern-day readers greater accessibility is a conscious decision to produce a wholly new text, and could lead to some puzzling readings.  Finally, orthography can be very problematic for an editor of Middle English literature.  Spelling is more often standardised for Chaucer – and for Southern dialects – than it is for Northern writers.  The editor must make a conscious decision to use a instead of a th or to clarify the medieval uses of i/j and u/v.  Making Chaucer’s texts appear more standardised – and more “modern” – than Gawain or Piers Plowman can elide Chaucer’s linguistic innovation as well as his medievalism.  Blake concludes, “The language of their [the readers’] editions does nothing to discourage them” (62).


New Ideas in Editing

D.F. McKenzie and Jerome McGann have introduced textual scholars to the importance of social factors in textual production.  For editors of a group of texts produced in scriptoria around the country, understanding these social factors can play a significant role in abandoning the idea of generating ideal, archetypal editions.  Editors must recognise their texts as rhetorical pieces designed to represent a specific moment in Medieval culture.  Engaging with the political, commercial and economic climates in which these manuscripts were produced can only enrich the editorial process.  Editions may still have the stated goal of recreating “authorial intention,” but they must also provide a window into the culture that produced the Middle English manuscripts, our only source for the literature of that era.

Suggestions for Further Reading

General editorial theory:

Housman, A.E.  “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism.”  Proceedings of the Classical Association 18 (1921): 67-84.

McGann, Jerome.  A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

McKenzie, D.F.  Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts.  2nd ed.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.


Editing Middle English:

Blake, Norman.  The English Language in Medieval Literature.  London: Dent, 1977.

Edwards, A.S.G.  “Middle English Literature.”  Scholarly Editing: An Guide to Research. Ed. D.C. Greetham.  New York: MLA, 1995.

Machan, T.W., ed.  Medieval Literature: Texts and Interpretation.  Binghamton: State U of New York, Binghamton, 1991.

Minnis, A.J., and Charlotte Brewer, eds.  Crux and Controversy in Middle English Textual Criticism.  Cambridge: Brewer, 1992.

Moorman, Charles.  Editing the Middle English Manuscript.  Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1975.

Rigg, A.G., ed. Editing Medieval Texts.  New York: Garland, 1977.

Tanselle, G. Thomas.  “Classical, Biblical, and Medieval Textual Criticism and Modern Editing.”  Studies in Bibliography 36 (1983): 21-68.