The Medieval Review 15.05.24

William Caxton. The Booke of Ovyde Named Methamorphose. British Writers of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. Ed. Richard J. Moll. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies and Bodleian Library, 2013. pp. viii, 652. $150.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9781851242535 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Igor Candido
Johns Hopkins University

Thanks to a joint collaboration between the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies and the Bodleian Library, the complete text of William Caxton's translation of the prose Ovide moralisé is now available to a broad readership. Undoubtedly, the primary value of this first complete critical edition lies in the fact that it finally reunites the two parts of Caxton's text, books 1-9 (according to Cambridge, Magdalene College, Old Library, MS F.4.34 = C1) and books 10-15 (according to Cambridge, Magdalene College, Pepys Library, MS 2124 = C2).

As Richard J.Moll suggests, Caxton worked on a lost copy of the prose Ovide moralisé that most likely presented readings in common with the three main extant manuscripts of the textual tradition--L (London, British Library, MS Royal 17.E.iv), S (Saint Petersburg National Library of Russia, MS F.v.XIV.1), and P (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS fr. 137)--whereas his translation and the London manuscript, sharing a wide range of errors, seem to derive from this lost witness that Moll calls α. Now, if the editor offers some preliminary comments on the textual tradition of the medieval French text, it is not among his aims to conduct a systematic inquiry into it. On the one hand, he assumes that "it is likely, of course, that there are additional texts not shown here (such as a printed copy between α and C= Caxton's translation)" (22); on the other, he touches upon the relationship between C and L: "L, however, is not the source for Caxton, as it has undergone a systematic and thorough program of abbreviation which Caxton does not share" and "contains errors and variants not reflected in Caxton " (23-24). But the reason why C and L would both depend on α is basically left unexplained and only loose reference is made to the fact that they both share one (maybe originally two) misfoliated passage(s), "numerous errors, both large...and small," and "numerous scribal variations" (23). Also, if confirmed, the supposed existence of intervening versions between α and C would completely change the relationship between C and L in the stemma and in fact, as Moll admits, "it is also true that L contains errors and variants not reflected in Caxton, and this makes disentangling Caxton's source text problematic." (24) This demonstrates once more that a careful investigation of the textual tradition is indeed necessary, not only to determine the relationships among the three main manuscripts, as the editor rightly points out, but also the position of C in the stemma codicum.

In the second part of his introduction Moll moves from philology to linguistics, focussing on the language used by Caxton. William "employed a 'stencil' style of translation in which his English text is closely modelled, both in syntax and vocabulary, on his exemplar" (27). This does not mean, of course, that his sentences do not have variations from the French that are necessitated by the differences of English vocabulary and syntax. Instead of a lexical variation Caxton may occasionally use the doublet, which substitutes two near synonyms where the French includes only a word. "Often the original French word will be incorporated directly into Caxton's text and then supplemented with a native English word, which has the effect of glossing a potentially problematic passage" (30). As to Caxton's language in general, the translator "tells us that he was born and raised in Kent, but the dialect of his translations is essentially that of late medieval chancery scribes working in Westminster just outside London" (36). This section is probably the most interesting of all, being not only a refined study of Caxton's language, but also a more general introduction to the grammatical features of Middle English.

The text of the translation is offered in a rather conservative fashion, with useful reference to the folio number of C1 and C2 given in the left margin. The explanatory notes often refer to S, P, and L, codices to which Caxton's translation is constantly compared. The editor's heavily relying on these extant witnesses is another implicit confirmation of how important would be to establish the actual relationships among different codices and between them and C in the stemma. The volume concludes with two appendices offering portions of the French text from S, as well as a glossary that "includes obsolete words, words whose modern cognates are not easily recognized and ‘false friends' where Caxton's meaning differs from modern usage" (577).

This first critical edition of Caxton's complete translation of the prose Ovide moralisé is a fine addition to the field of study and will not fail to stimulate new interest in the work as such and its fortune, as well as in the eclectic figure of the translator, who was also a merchant, a diplomat, and a printer. In Moll's words, the volume "seeks to encourage the study of Caxton's Ovyde, both as an example of the late-medieval mise en prose and as a significant part of Caxton's considerable oeuvre. It also serves as an entry point into the complex textual tradition of medieval Ovidian commentaries."

Copyright (c) 2015 Igor Candido

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