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Reflections on the Editing of Middle English Texts

Reflections on the Editing of Middle English Texts

The philologically oriented attitude toward editing evident in the EETS project has persisted in the editing of ME texts, isolating medievalists from much of the current debate regarding editorial technique. Given the modes of literary production during the ME period, the concept of a definitive version of a text based on the author’s original or even final intentions may be an anachronism. The modern reader of an edited ME work will have many expectations of what an edition will be like, with as many difficulties as possible ironed out, whereas the medieval reader would have had to accept the text in the format employed by the available copy. The modern editorial impulse tends to operate bidirectionally, attempting to preserve minute details relevant to a philological investigation of the text at the same time as emending to make sense of the text as a piece of literary art, illustrative of the culture of the age. In the case of PPl, the B text has always been considered best from a literary point of view, though this preference runs counter to the accepted wisdom of editing, which privileges either the author’s original or the final version of the text. We ignore L’s apparent desire to clarify the meaning of his poem in C when we prioritize B, assuming our own critical assumptions are more valid than the author’s final intentions. Choosing a base manuscript for editing each version of PPl has reflected different premises: Trinity was chosen for A (K) because of its completeness; Laud (Skeat, Bennett) or Trinity B.15.17 (K-D, Schmidt) because the former best represented the assumed archetype, the latter because is the earliest extant witness and contains a reasonably consistent orthography and grammar (though not necessarily L’s); HM 143 for Pearsall’s C because it is a good representation of the textual tradition to which it belongs. Difference in criteria demonstrates the lack of agreement on how to choose a base manuscript. Only Kane’s edition of A provides detailed discussion of his editorial procedure. Until editors consider more carefully what purpose is to be served and what audience reached by any one edition, we will continue to produce a variety of editions based on uncertain principles.


McCarren and Moffat, A Guide to Editing Middle English. 61-77.

Cross Reference



Blake, N. F.