Jesse Swan

title.none: Huner, Editing Texts (Jesse Swan)

identifier.other: baj9928.0802.001 08.02.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jesse Swan, University of Northern Iowa,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Hunter, Michael. Editing Early Modern Texts: An Introduction of Principles and Practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. xii, 171. $69.95 0-230-00807-0. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.02.01

Hunter, Michael. Editing Early Modern Texts: An Introduction of Principles and Practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. xii, 171. $69.95 0-230-00807-0. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Jesse Swan
University of Northern Iowa

Although presented as a practical initiation into the scholarly editing of historical works, Editing Early Modern Texts is actually a brusque conglomeration: sometimes introduction to the nature of editions, sometimes introduction to the nature of editing, sometimes apologia for editing, sometimes apologia for the Robert Boyle editions produced by the author, sometimes speculative reflection, sometimes prescriptive declaration. The first emphatic expression of purpose in the volume provides a representative illustration:"The aim of this book, therefore, is to stimulate reflection on such matters. My objective is to induce thought about how meaning is best conveyed and how an edition can be made as intelligible and helpful to its readers as possible, while retaining fidelity to the original on which it is based. It is hoped that even those already committed to the editorial task will benefit from this, but I am more optimistic about influencing those who may produce editions in the future, if only to the marginal extent mentioned in the opening paragraph. Most of all, the book is aimed at users of editions, indicating to them the problems that editors face, and the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches to these, with a view to encouraging a greater sensitivity to such matters which, it is hoped, will ultimately feed back into editorial practice itself" (2-3). Rhetorical incoherence to one side, and grammatical solecism to another, the passage evinces some of the major problems with the volume, such as imprecise and even cavalier use of essential terminology, an unfortunate hostility to others who have considered the matters, and a tendency to universalize the author's own individual, and sometimes quite idiosyncratic, perceptions and feelings.

Drawing on an intellectually limited and remarkably irascible mob of "non-specialists" (4) to justify the dismissal of all the pertinent literature on the subject that already exists--D. C. Greetham, for instance, "is useful if a little longwinded" (134, n. 10) [1] and so will not be tolerated by "non-specialists"--the author, Michael Hunter, also misrepresents much of the literature on bibliography, paleography and codicology, textual studies, and editing that comprises the field. For instance, Hunter claims that his book is a necessary corrective to the "arcane and theoretical" work of the discipline, because the work "has tended to encourage a search for universal principles, applicable to all texts in all times" (4). It should be needless to say that none of the literature encourages this, [2] but even if some did, certainly Hunter's book should not, since he complains of such totalizing tendencies. Nonetheless, Hunter fills his book with broad statements of policy, such as the following. Explaining that Boyle seems to be of limited interest to people whose literacy encompasses more than "reasonably accessible" modern English and that Boyle is of a great deal of interest to those with only the rudiments of modern Anglophone literacy, Hunter declares that: "[i]t is partly for this reason that I would advocate texts which, while not being modernised, in that spelling, punctuation, capitalisation and italicisation are retained exactly as in the original, are nevertheless presented in as intelligible a manner as possible, freed from pedantic attempts to replicate manuscript usage, and with variants and authorial alterations denoted in the form which is least likely to distract the reader" (91). Such a statement is supposed to justify the policy of the Boyle editions and guide any other "putative editor" (61), but it reveals the deep logical and constitutive problems with the thinking informing the statement and the book as a whole.

In the statement quoted as in the book as whole, the term "texts" is used haphazardly. It takes very little thought to appreciate the difference between an abstraction and its material representation. Such thought, however, is foundational for any scholar working with documents that represent abstractions, as G. Thomas Tanselle has explained cogently and, as much as is possible, simply and repeatedly. [3] Hunter refuses to take cognizance of the distinction, which is an intellectual commitment that mirrors others, such as insisting on conceptualizing readers as uninterested and even incapable of interpreting unfamiliar graphic marks, graphic marks employed in specialized ways, or the value of apparatus providing varying documentary differences in the representation of a text: "most readers positively prefer to defer to the editor" (71).

Such terminological negligence and constitution of the rhetorical situation for editions governs the book. For instance, while chapters two and three discuss some of the features of "Manuscripts," chapter two, and print, chapter three, from the medieval period through the early modern period, chapter four, "Types of Edition," presents "edition" as related not to a mode and state of transmission but to a kind of work: "a. Works b. Correspondence and Papers c. Archives." Of course, these terms--works, correspondence, papers, archives--do not usually refer to the volume an editor creates, but, rather, to the abstractions--"works"--or documents--the other three terms--presented by an editor. Equally conflated and confused are chapters five and six, "Presenting Texts (1) Printed" and "Presenting Texts (2) Manuscripts," respectively, because Hunter insists upon proceeding with a nave belief in the simple, singular and stable quality of "texts." Concerning the presentation of a text that has been transmitted to us only in printed form, Hunter writes that "[o]bviously, the copy text should be followed exactly unless it seems clear that it is erroneous in ways that cannot have been intended" (65). Concerning the presentation of a text that has been transmitted to us in manuscript, Hunter declares that "[i]n most other respects, manuscript texts should be treated in a manner similar to printed ones," since "undue fidelity to the actual appearance of the original manuscript may actually obscure an author's meaning rather than helping to clarify it" (84, 85). The abstraction represented by the various documents is what is important to Hunter--as it is for many if not in fact most readers, even those with a keen interest in the material issues of transmission--but he refuses to understand that the abstraction and not the document is the text. Such conflation and confusion keeps him from appreciating the instability of texts, since when confronted with a textual instability, he kicks a document.

The insistence on conceptualizing abstractions as simple, singular and stable and mostly corrupted by means of transmission that irritate modern, monolingual Anglophone viewers of "texts" becomes corybantic from chapter 6, "Presenting Texts (2) Manuscripts," through the penultimate chapter, chapter 8, "The Apparatus." Although covering three chapters and many major concepts and issues, fewer than 30 pages are offered. Such economy is achieved by an increased reliance on quick declarations, often borne of personal, impressionistic feelings. For instance, in decrying the reproduction of the early modern use of the graphic thorn and insisting upon the expansion of early modern abbreviations (while continuing to employ many abbreviations himself, such as MS, e.g., SGML, CEAA, Mrs, because, it seems, only abbreviations he does not commonly use are to be expanded, even if many readers such as those he claims to champion will have little idea of what many of his abbreviations denote), Hunter wants to eliminate the thorn and provide expansion, but never to preserve the thorn and provide the expansion: A "particularly bizarre example that I have come across is to retain the thorn and denote the expansion by italics, so that, rather than 'that', 'yt' comes out as 'yat'" (77). [4] There is nothing, objectively speaking, "bizarre" about such an editorial policy, except for someone who arrogates the vantage point of objectivity while refusing to understand the value of providing representations of documents that have actually existed and been read. And from an empirical point of view, the more material documentation a reader has in his or her library, the more likely it is he or she will be able to perceive patterns and purposes currently lost, including purposes and patterns that explain why a person inscribing a document in the seventeenth century would, on the same page and with the same word, sometimes use a thorn and other times use the diagraph, "th." [5] Hunter's declarations and positions remove him and those who follow him from contributing to the empirical accumulation of documentary and quantitatively substantiated textual knowledge.

There are other unfortunate features of the volume, such as the inability to contemplate any issue without falling into false dilemmas, as suggested by the pervasive employment of the locution, "on the other hand," and such as the extremely inept employment of metaphors, as when claiming that "a sensitive policy of compromise" regarding the issue of modernization "is open to the charge that it is a slightly unsatisfactory halfway house" (90). Further, the five appendices do not serve Hunter's purposes. For instance, appendix 2, "A Confusion of Brackets," is a review of how six editors have employed various brackets in their editions. The appendix demonstrates the diversity of the sensible employment of brackets, responding to each set of documents and texts being edited, not the "confusion" of the employment of brackets.

The book closes, abruptly, with another of its many sycophantic yet empty predictions regarding electronic technology: "As so often in this book, it is safe to predict that advances in electronic technology will provide all sorts of fresh opportunities which should lead to a fruitful interchange of traditional and new skills" (108).

As an introduction to the field of editing historical work, Editing Early Modern Texts cannot be recommended, especially for anyone genuinely new to the field, but as further insight into the production of the Boyle editions supervised by Michael Hunter, Editing Early Modern Texts is very important.


[1] To be accurate, the author attributes longwindedness not to Greetham, but to one of Greetham's books.

[2] For a lucid and knowledgeable treatment of this unsubstantiated bias about textual scholars and editors, see Richard Bucci, "Tanselle's 'Editing without a Copy-Text,'" Studies in Bibliography 56 (2003-2004): 1-44. Not cited by Hunter.

[3] See, for instance, Tanselle's "Textual Criticism and Literary Sociology," Studies in Bibliography 44 (1991): 81-143. Available free online at In a brief introduction to scholarly editing, Tanselle writes that the "many critics who speak of works as 'texts' are displaying their lack of understanding of the distinction that makes textual criticism and editing necessary" ("The Varieties of Scholarly Editing," in Scholarly Editing: A Guide to Research, ed. D. C. Greeham [New York: MLA, 1995]: 28). Tanselle also explains the basic issues surrounding the terms "text" and "texts" in publications cited by Hunter.

[4] Hunter refers to Cameron Louis's Records of Early English Drama: Sussex (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), a work I admire, because it is, as is the entire series, a reliable work presenting documents, which enables knowledgeable readers to comprehend dimensions of early modern texts previously unavailable to them.

[5] There are, of course, numerous examples. Here I will reference only a single interesting example, which would be destroyed were an editor to follow Hunter's idiosyncratic preferences: page 212 of Folger MS. V. a. 322, which is the prologue to Abraham Cowley's play, The Guardian, and is admirably presented in Jean F. Preston and Laetitia Yeandle, English Handwriting 1400-1650: An Introductory Manual (Binghamton, NY: Medieval 8 Renaissance Texts 8 Studies, 1992), pp. 98-99.