Category Archives: Middle English

Textual Editing – how messy can manuscripts get?

Titus and Vespasian Stemmatics

This is a draft stemmatic analysis of a fourteenth century metrical, rhymed poem about the siege and sack of Jerusalem that I’ve done some work on in the past (click the image to see a larger version). The rectangular boxes along the bottom row represent the three printed editions of the work (as of a couple of years ago, though I’m fairly sure there are no new editions). “Fischer” was published in a journal in 1903 and 1904; “Herbert” in a Roxburgh Club edition in 1905 and “Wilson” is an unpublished 1967 dissertation available through Proquest. Wilson drew on both printed editions for historical information but the bulk of his disseration was editing a particular manuscript that neither of the other two had looked at.  Herbert does not mention Fischer.

The impetus for this diagram was that I was trying to figure out, for a given printed edition of the text or article about it, which manuscript traditions it was drawing on.  One of the big textual questions for this poem is that there are two clearly differerent traditions that are indicated by “short” and “long” on the diagram, different by about 1200 lines.

The scarcity of scholarship on this poem also means that authors who have written about don’t always use the same designations for a given manuscript, so comparing commentary from one to another can be tricky. For example, one manuscript,  designated “R6” on this chart, is referred to as M by Kurvinen,  R by Millar, and as either Pepys 37 or Magdalene College 2014 in bibliographies.

Nineteenth and early twentieth century scholarship took the “long” version as the original and catalogued and referred to “short” versions as “defective.” The “long” versions of the poem include sections on the passion of Christ (800 lines) and a biography of Judas (400 lines) which are omitted in the short versions.  Phyllis Moe in 1963 called the originality of the long version into question in part because the extra material is not integral to the “plot” of the rest of the poem.

While Fischer and Wilson were producing diplomatic editions of particular manuscripts, Herbert’s intention was to produce an authoratative text. He selected one particular manuscript, R1 (indicated with the single line), as the best text and made corrections based on four other manuscripts (dotted lines). Two of those manuscripts actually seem to be older than Herbert’s base text.

This chart shows just how messy tracing the “descent” of manuscripts can be. R12, a relatively late manuscript, appears to draw from both R4 and R5 which are from two different branches of the manuscript tree (see Greetham’s reference to Maas comparing contamination to including female descent in a human family tree (Textual Scholarship 324)). Someone in the late 15th century was also combining two manuscripts when creating an edition of the text.

Another oddity is labelled “Harlech Ms Prose” which is a fifteenth century prose summary  of the poem. It seems to draw primarily from a parent manuscript to R2, R6 and R10 (they have specific features not found in the prose version but also have specific features not found elsewhere that are found in the prose version).  It shows some influence from R1.

Although it’s fun when there are many extant manuscripts of a poem to work from, it also adds potential complexity not found in unique manuscripts when we can more easily say that we just don’t know.

Link to Bibliography



Filed under History and Future of the Book, Middle English

Seynt Valentynes day

And in a launde, upon an hille of floures,
Was set this noble goddesse Nature;
Of braunches were hir halles and hir boures,
Y-wrought after hir craft and hir mesure;
Ne ther nas foul that cometh of engendrure,
That they ne were prest in hir presence,
To take hir doom and yeve hir audience.

For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thenke may;
And that so huge a noyse gan they make,
That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake
So ful was, that unnethe was ther space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.

And right as Aleyn, in the Pleynt of Kinde,
Devyseth Nature of aray and face,
In swich aray men mighten hir ther finde.
This noble emperesse, ful of grace,
Bad every foul to take his owne place,
As they were wont alwey fro yeer to yere,
Seynt Valentynes day, to stonden there.

Geoffrey Chaucer, Parliament of Fowles, lines 302-322.
From around 1380, this is one of the first associations
of St Valentine's Day with a lovers' holiday.

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Filed under Middle English