Sunday, December 19, 2010

Reading and Listening

I recently received an email from someone who, as an aside to the main conversation, said he was an Oxford graduate in literature and Classics, but he had read all this literature in modern printed editions. They never discussed the manuscript tradition in those courses.
Now this is a great bugbear of mine. Any modern edition of an ancient work from the manuscript tradition is selected, corrected, disinfected, analysed, annotated and authorised. In many modern definitive editions there is no discussion of where surviving manuscript copies reside, or how many were consulted to produce the edition. Surviving manuscript copies of a work can range from one, as with Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or several which are each significantly different, as with Piers Plowman, or hundreds with multiple variations, as with the Travels of Marco Polo. Numbers and variants that survive may be serendipitous, but may at least hint at the popularity of a work, and at how much writers and scribes were willing to alter the work in transcription. It is all part of the story of the story, if that makes sense.
There are studies of the variants of certain well known medieval works, some of which are on the web, as this modern medium is more adaptable to production of multiple variants of texts than the old linear string of little black symbols on a page. I seem to have sung this song before. When it comes to written communication, we are going medieval again.
Modern definitive editions have their place,of course. If your Latin or Middle English or Old Slovenian is a bit wonky, it at least gives you access to something you might not otherwise read. But surely literature studies should be looking at how the work has appeared in its various historic guises, at least as part of the consideration of the text. Ah well, I guess I am never destined to be a Professor of Literature!
In the recent collection by Ralph Elliot, which I mentioned a couple of posts ago, he has an article entitled "Chaucer's Voices", in which he discusses various styles of writing in Chaucer as actually representing the patterns of speech of certain types of people. This, he says, is relevant because in Chaucer's day most people knew the stories from having them read aloud to them. In the middle ages, it was reading, whether you did it with your eyes or your ears. Even legal documents often referred to "those who have read or heard" the document in question. This gives another layer of interpretation, through expression or on-the-fly editing. It was those rotten little black printed symbols that gave texts their unvarying character in the first place; handy for the church, but changing the whole nature of literature.
This Christmas, read aloud to somebody, or tell a story. Merry Christmas!

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