Editing Medieval Texts: Some Developments and Some Problems.
In recent decades, literary critics have come to regard textual criticism as a matter for specialists. As a result of this assumption, a degree of isolation has grown up that is healthy for neither side. Hence the nearly universal use and citation of F. N. Robinson’s edition (1957) of CT and the concomitant neglect of Manly and Rickert’s monumental critical edition (1940). Although Robinson’s choice of base text (Ellesmere) was mistaken and his order for the tales is not Chaucer’s, readers treat them as authoritative because of the urgency of the demand for an unambiguous text on which to practice criticism. Thus many issues relating to Chaucer’s text go unaddressed. The unfinished nature of CT requires the editor to acquiesce in pragmatic resolutions to many problems involving the author’s evolving sense of his poem and its order, but the text should be displayed as it is: a partially assembled kit with no directions. Another result of this isolation can be observed in the case of PPl, where the Athlone critical editions have reinforced the traditional belief in three discrete versions and tended to gloss over the likelihood that the extant mss. merely reflect certain stages, more or less arbitrary, in a prolonged and continuous act of composition. If the idea of a definitive textual moment – an act of publication – is deceptive for CT or PPl, it is almost certainly misconceived where more pedestrian works are concerned (e.g. Beves of Hamtoun or King Horn). More attention should be paid to textually “bad” manuscripts as evidence of contemporary taste and audience expectation and more effort made to expose students to actual medieval miscellanies than to compilations reflecting our own generic judgments.
Textual Criticism and Literary Interpretation. Ed. Jerome J. McGann. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. 92-106.