Textual Scholarship – background

Well, I now know why the Folger Shakespeare printing facsimile program is called “Impos(i)tor.” That program, if you haven’t seen it, lets you print out a sheet as if it had come from the printer, before being bound.  It uses facsimiles from the Folger and a “standard imposition scheme” but it’s an interesting aid to visualizing book creation. You have to be careful to start at the right page in order to get the sheet right, but it’s interesting to play around with.

I’m intrigued enough by technology to find the details of the development of printing processes interesting. Like frozen pieces of language, some of the features imposed either by limitations of earlier technology (the need for standard widths of type) or by happenstance (the prevalence of 12 point font) still linger in our work today.

I wrestle with my own desire to get at the “original” version of a text. I like to do close readings, but then I doubt myself when I look at alternate versions that suggest that my reading is based on a word that is an editorial, rather than authorial choice.  Then I doubt myself further, asking what it really matters.  Greetham helps provide us with vocabulary to talk about what an “original” text might mean and also illuminates some of the tools that scholars have used to examine specific works.

On page 106, Greetham mentions Caxton’s edition of the Morte Darthur (one of the most famous fifteenth century English literary works) and references the Winchester manuscript. This is one of those battles amongst scholars, like the date of the composition of Beowulf, that can seem almost incomprehensible to those outside of the argument.  For a long time, as Greetham mentions, Caxton’s printing of this work was the earliers version known. All the multiple printings and reworkings of this particular Arthurian tale depended on Caxton’s printed version, so although authorship is attributed by Caxton to Sir John Malory, we knew it as “Caxton’s Malory” .  Then a manuscript was discovered that had some significant differences from Caxton’s version.  Eugene Vinaver (we’ll see more of him later in Greetham) created the dominant scholarly version of the text for the mid to late twentieth century, based on the manuscript rather than the printed edition, suggesting that the printed version was derived at best at second hand from the earlier ms.

A scholar named Lotte Hellinga upended some of the arguments about authorial identity when she proved that the Winchester manuscript (that particular physical copy) had been in Caxton’s workshop a couple of years before he printed the Morte Darthur.

She was able to do this because when she examined the manuscript, she noticed printer’s ink on it (which is greasier than pen ink, as Greetham mentions).  Once she looked more closely, she realized that some pages had faint offsets where a printed page that was not yet completely dry had come in contact with the manuscript. With the help of Scotland Yard’s imaging machinery (the research was done in the 1970s), she was able to identify two specific fonts in the offsets, known as Caxton Type 2 (see Greetham p 239 for an example) and Caxton Type 4. Caxton  used Type 2  heavily until 1482  (not at all after 1483) and he was the only printer who used it.  Since the Morte was printed in 1484, that meant the manuscript had been in Caxton’s workshop before he set up and printed the Morte. Caxton Type 4 only started to be used in 1480, so that gave a fairly specific range, 1480-1483, during which the manuscript was there.

This didn’t end the arguments about authorship and composition but it did refocus them onto Caxton’s choices as printer.  It could no longer be argued that Caxton did not know about the Winchester manuscript and was merely setting up more-or-less exactly what was in his source text.  Hellinga suggested that the Winchester ms. might have been used as  a source text for a revision, copied and amended in the workshop to another manuscript that was then used for setting up the printing formes.

See Lotte Hellinga, “The Malory Manuscript and Caxton,” in Aspects of Malory  (Toshiyuki Takamiya and Derek Brewer, eds. 1981) for more details.

D.C. Greetham, Textual Scholarship. Garland, 1994.

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Filed under Digitized works, History and Future of the Book

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