Adventures In Middle English: Serendipitous Practical Codicology

academia,medieval,Scribal Error,punSo, Lolo is off jet-setting around being a bigwig medievalist, and accordingly our Gawain class was cancelled this week. And next week, I believe. In the absence of serious Middle English content, let me tell you about the serendipitous lesson in practical codicology which befell our class last week.

Our topic was ‘Manuscript and Editorial History’, and is responsible for the previous post on this page. While I was considering the falliability of Papa Tolkien, my classmates were considering the vexed question of the Four Fitts, as opposed to the Nine Decorated Initials. Which did the author intend? The scribe? Why are we reffering to the sections as ‘fitts’ anyway? Is there a hierachy of sections, and is it related to the size of initials?

Classmate D, being a conscientious student, borrowed out the antiquated Early English Text Society facsimile, and went in search of these nine decorated initials. She turned up to class most perplexed- only eight initials were to be found. Someone suggested that maybe she hadn’t looked through the whole text- but no, f. 124b , where she ended, is clearly the end of the poem. By reference to the line numbers in the articles, and the marginal folio numbers in the TGD edition, each initial was hunted down again. Until suddenly, they weren’t there. Kids, this is what we pay tuition for: Lolo, being the smart cookie in the room, noticed that f. 117 was, in our fascimile, promptly followed by 124, which was in turn followed by the shiny blank leaf signifying the end of the book.

Published in 1923, the facsimile in question is one of those lovely old string-bound books, which still have recognisable quiring structures. The absence of what we calculated to be three sheets was cause for some consternation- there was evidence of repair on the blank leaf, but no evidence for torn or missing pages. The general concensus was that either the final quire had fallen apart, and only two leaves been replaced, or our copy of the facsimile was simply defective and had never HAD those three leaves. The book was passed around and examined as an example of the sort of fate which has often befallen medieval manuscripts.

When I got a chance to scrutinise the repair job closely, it didn’t seem that any pages were actually missing. The quire seemed to be tightly bound, each page had a counterpart on the other half of the folio. And here I decided to do what none of us had done yet: turn over the blank leaf, and examine the blank pages at the end of old books which balance out the final quire. And lo and behold, rather than blank pages, there were the missing folios, all messed up and out of order. The last quire had fallen apart, and had been repaired by a non-medievalist librarian who obviously didn’t know quite what was going on with this manuscript business. To make his or her job harder, whoever had gone through the MS in the 16th and numbered the pages did a bodgy job- a couple of leaves had no numbers marked on them and there seemed to be two f. 120s.

Lesson for the day: it’s very easy for someone who doesn’t read the script and doesn’t speak the relevant language to accidentally mess up manuscript repair. It’s easy to think of medieval or early modern fudging around with manuscripts as poor workmanship- people just didn’t know how to treat books back then! But all it shows is that the book hasn’t always been treated by specialists with our priorities in mind. We handle our Rare Books, even facsimiles, with great reverence, but it’s worth remembering occaisionally that modern scholars aren’t infalliable: witness the fate of a facsimile not kept in Rare Book reserve.

A similar principle applies to scribal error. We can gripe and whinge and emend the errors of foolish scribes, but it’s really an easy mistake. Lolo’s method of pointing this out was a sort of paelographical Chinese Whispers- he passed to Classmate D a short note explaining that he was sorry about the death of Heath Ledger in Januay 2008. Student D recopied it and passed it on, and by the time it passed through five students and back to Lolo, the spelling of his name had changed and Heath Ledger died in 2003. The Bocera doesn’t need an illustration so complicated in Anglo-Saxon class (just as well, it wouldn’t really work with just me): in copying out an AElfrician sermon by hand last week, I managed to drop a whole line, and accordingly produced a rather odd translation. It’s all too common, the Bocera stopped to impress upon me, for modern scholars to take scribal error as evidence of stupidity or laziness on the part of the scribe, when all it takes is a simple eye-skip from one similar word to another.1 I wonder if it’s something we find harder to understand or be tolerant of today, because we do so little by hand? You can’t misread Times New Roman, and it’s mighty hard to skip lines when you copy and paste…


1. And I bet you make more and more scribal errors when you’re tired. Or drunk. Stop, Revive, Scribe! Don’t Drink and Scribe, people!


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