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Manuscript Studies
Medieval and Early Modern

V.iv. Textual Analysis and Editing: Examples of Over Emendation on Insufficient Grounds

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A quotation from John Lydgate, Complaint of a Lover's Life, in John Norton-Smith's edition of Lydgate's Poems:
   . . . Til [my] spirit be destanye fa[ta]l
   When that her list[e] fro my body w[e]nde.
How does this "when" clause fit with the "til" clause? The "til" demands a verb or something like it, not a second relative clause. But if we look at these lines in Fairfax MS 16, which Norton-Smith claims to have been using as his copy-text, we read:
   . . . til be my spirit / be destanye fal
   when that her list / fro my body wynde
which we can understand as "till it be that my spirit by destiny should fall, when that it pleases her to wend (go) from my body." That "wynde" is a spelling for "wend" rather than for "wind" becomes clear by reading the next, the rhyming, line: "thus I make an ynde"; Norton-Smith "fixes" the spelling of "w[e]nde" but leaves "ynde" in the next line, which introduces, with no justification, a fault in the rhyme. To me, this seems perfectly clear before the emendation, and Norton-Smith, especially by changing the verb of the "til" clause to an adjective, has introduced confusion where all before was light. To be fair, he may have been thinking that the lines were faulty for metrical reasons, but such arguments are dangerous unless one is perfectly certain that one knows the author's metrical principles, and Lydgate's verse is not so regular that such lines as these could not be authorial. I personally see no reason to assume corruption.

Again, a few lines later, in Norton-Smith's edition we read:

   And h[e]ld his pese and spak [no] worde more.
In the Fairfax MS, this line reads:
   and holde his pese / and spak a worde no more
Changing "holde" to "h[e]ld" might be justifiable as a correction of the tense of the verb, but the second half of the Fairfax line is good, idiomatic Middle English, and it scans just as well as Norton-Smith's emendation does, so why change it? He has brought it closer to a modern English idiom, but that cannot possibly (and he knows it) be used to justify emending a Middle English poem: the editor's sense of what is idiomatic and/or poetic in Modern English must be allowed to have less authority--to be less likely to be authorial--than words in the manuscript.

Moral: Editing is not an innocent activity, but a process of interpretation. A layer of misreading is introduced even before the reader reads and has the opportunity to misread. You cannot trust editors or the editions that they produce; do not assume that the words on the page are those that the author wrote.

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[ Course Notes: Introduction ] | [ I. Towards a definition of "manuscript studies" ] | [ I.ii. The four branches of bibliographical study ] | [ I.iii. Topics in the social history of texts ] | I.iii.a The "Rescue" of Medieval Manuscripts from Grocers and Fishmongers | [ II. Diplomatics ] | [ III. Codicology ] | [ III.ii. Decoration and Illumination ] | [ IV. Paleography ] | [ IV.ii. Historical Notes ] | [ IV.iii. Writing Implements ] | [ IV.iv. Letter Formation ] | [ IV.v. Special Characters in English Manuscripts ] | [ IV.vi. Scribal Abbreviations ] | [ IV.vii. Punctuation ] | [ IV.viii. Paleographical sample: William Herebert, OFM (early fourteenth-century England) ] | [ Herebert sample, with transcription ] | [ Herebert sample: enlargement of full page reproduced at high resolution ] | [ V. Textual analysis (James E. Thorpe) ] | [ V.ii. Scribal error ] | [ V.iii. Kinds of edition ] | [ V.iv. Examples of over emendation on insufficient grounds ] | [ VI. Linguistic competence (an example): An Outline History of the English Language ] | [ VII. Libraries and archives: ] | [ VII.ii. British Library Manuscript Collections ] | [ VII.iii. Bodleian Library Manuscript Collections ]

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© 1998, 2015 Stephen R. Reimer
English; University of Alberta; Edmonton, Canada
All rights reserved.
Created: 2 Dec. 1998; Last revised: 30 May 2015

email: Stephen.Reimer@UAlberta.Ca
URL: http://www.ualberta.ca/~sreimer/ms-course.htm