British Library Visit and the Canterbury Tales Manuscript Tradition

As part of Dr Lawrence Warner’s ‘Medieval Textual Cultures’ MA class, masters students visited the British Library with the intention of viewing a number of manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales (Harley 7334, Lansdowne 851, Additional 25718, and Additional 35286). We were lucky enough to be guided by Professor A. S. G. Edwards, who is Professor of Medieval Manuscripts at the University of Kent and Honorary Visiting Professor at University College London. Professor Edwards brought a wealth of experience, expertise and an enthralling personality.

One of the key points raised by Professor Edwards was that critical editions of the Canterbury Tales, especially the Riverside Chaucer, ignore significant features of the manuscript tradition. For example, why is the Prologue to the Tales called the ‘General Prologue’? The term is never used in any of the manuscripts, and is entirely the invention of those who produced scholarly editions. The problem is not so much that scholars invented the term, but that the critical editions do not note this.

Perhaps a larger problem that both Dr Warner and Professor Edwards feel particularly strongly about, is the Tale of Gamelyn. This tale features in approximately 25 manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales, yet it is left out of editions such as the Riverside without even a footnote explaining why, or recognising its existence. This is largely due to the fact that the tale is widely considered to be bad. It is not written in iambic pentameter, and does not feature any of the Boethian influences that are characteristic of Chaucer’s other writings. The tale is also seen to be lacking a certain je ne sais quoi that no scholars can seem to clearly define. Despite the fact that the tale is not as strong as the others, the manuscript tradition would suggest that it is a legitimate part of the Canterbury Tales. Even if one feels that the tale is ill-fitting, Dr Warner and Professor Edwards feel that it should at the very least be acknowledged in editions of the Tales.

I would agree with Warner and Edwards, but I think the issue as to whether Chaucer wrote the ‘Tale of Gamelyn’ should take secondary importance to the manuscript tradition. A critical edition should aim to give the reader an accurate sense of what is included in the original text. There is nothing wrong with excluding certain parts for editorial purposes, especially when considering the needs of readers. However, a certain respect needs to be paid to the scribes, and ignoring such major features of the manuscripts is unacceptable.

Patrick, MA Medieval English 2015-16

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