The Art and Craft of Editing: An Introduction

This page is designed, first of all, to teach the practical steps involved in learning to edit Middle English, its techne, since editing is an essential skill for medievalists, one of a number associated with the fact that all but the latest Middle English texts were first published and circulated in manuscripts written by scribes. It offers training in deciphering scribal hands, by learning to recognize letter forms and distinguish those that cause confusion (such as the letters u, v, i, w, m, n, which consist largely of minims), and shows some of the ways in which a transcription becomes the basis for an edition.

But the platform also has the more general purpose of helping its users to become “edition literate”: able to read discussions of editorial policy, parse a textual apparatus, and to become more aware of how editions were put together, how they differ from one another in their presentation of texts, and what these differences mean, in theoretical as well as technical terms. These notes offer starting-points for reflection on such general topics.

Serious Middle English editing began, in the mid-nineteenth century, as a search for roots, especially the roots of the English language. It still bears the marks of this history, both because editing is, in the strict sense, a conservative practice, which tends to uphold its own traditions, and because many nineteenth-century editions are still in use: texts are many, scholars are few, editing is slow.

But other histories have informed the modern editing of Middle English: Chaucer editions belong to a very different tradition, while editors sometimes import methodologies from different literary fields. The variety of the materials themselves and of our own, ever-changing relation to them have also continued to inspire methodological innovation, some of it important to the larger editorial world. Middle English editing is now widely diverse in its methodologies and aims, and certain to become ever more so. To learn to read a Middle English edition theoretically and historically, as a critic, as well as practically, as a reader, is to enter a long scholarly conversation, an important part of the conversation that is literary studies as a whole.

Scholarly editing, however, begins as a techne: a practical skill whose components can be taught and learned and whose aim is the creation of an object that is itself intended to be of practical use: an edition. Crudely speaking, an edition is a communication device which makes available, through the distinctively reproducible modern media of print or computer, a text, “literary” or otherwise, that derives from the near or distant past.

Yet an edition does more than make a text available. In the case of a medieval text written within a manuscript culture, we have to add that an edition “represents” that text in a new and distinctively modern form. After all, the techne of medieval editing involves several transformations: the transformation from script to print via transcription; the transformation from medieval punctuation systems, (which use the virgula, the punctus elevatus and other markers as aids to oral delivery), to modern ones intended as guides to syntax; the many concrete transformations involved in fashioning a medieval written text, with its colored rubrics, decoration, and marginalia, into something we can recognize as a work, with a single title, careful layout, and scholarly apparatus.

We also have to add that an edition of a medieval text “fixes” that text, since in the case of a text that survives in more than one manuscript, editing makes a singular object out of a plural one. The conscientious editor, at least, of a critical edition, must consider all the manuscript versions of a text, dividing them when necessary into recensions; collate them in order to generate a list of variants; use this process, to the extent possible, to work out the relationships between the manuscript versions, perhaps creating a stemma of those relationships which divides the versions into groups or textual families; then decide on an editorial policy congruent with the text in question and the available information about it.

Unless this policy involves reproducing all versions of the text side by side in order to privilege the mouvance of its manuscript versions, perhaps in hypertext format, the resulting edition “fixes” the text as much by exclusion as inclusion. Often in Middle English editing, only one manuscript is selected as a base manuscript or copy text, the variant readings from other manuscripts being confined to the textual apparatus at the foot of the page. Often this manuscript is itself judged to contain scribal errors or other problems such as lacunae: perhaps the text in this manuscript is acephalous or atelous; perhaps parts of the text have become illegible through rubbing or other kinds of damage, such as defacement.