In a more naïve time (I'm thinking of the Victorian era), the editing of medieval texts was motivated by what seemed like two relatively straightforward aims: making them more widely accessible to students and scholars and "fixing" or stabilizing their readings, in order to provide a secure foundation for the presumably more speculative work of literary interpretation. Now, the process of editing itself has become a subject for academic investigation in its own right. Many of the benefits of this development and a few of its drawbacks are reflected in the contributions to Probable Truth: Editing Medieval Texts from Britain in the Twenty-First Century, a volume of essays assembled by Vincent Gillespie and Anne Hudson that originated as papers delivered to a 2010 conference in Oxford, organized by the Early English Text Society (EETS).
The book opens, as is typical of essay collections, with a summary overview by the editors of the contributions, followed immediately by a standalone piece by Helen Leith Spencer, the current editorial secretary of EETS, entitled "The Way We Were." Spencer's essay, which is part of a comprehensive history of EETS that she is preparing, is a fascinating retrospective of the Society's operations during the tumultuous 1930s-1950s. She focuses on the indefatigable efforts of Mabel Day, whose intellectual gifts and strength of character emerge from the EETS archive as a model of commitment to textual editing that the Society itself has championed, from its founding by F. J. Furnivall in 1864 until today. After Spencer's essay, the editors divide the book into six sections, although it really consists of two almost equal halves--the first devoted to editorial approaches (sections on "From Script to Print to HTML: Electronic Editions," "Practices, Habits, and Methodologies," and "Why Edit Critically? In Praise of the Variant") and the second to the special editorial problems posed by different kinds of medieval texts (sections on "British Texts in Latin, Anglo-Norman, Celtic, and Scots," "Scientific Texts," and "Middle English Case Studies").
Certain preoccupations recur within and across sections. One of these has to do with the amount of material concerning a text's history, manuscript witnesses, and readings that should be the subject of an editor's attentions and made in turn available to readers in a critical format. Thorlac Turville-Petre's essay, "Editing Electronic Texts," discusses the impact of the computer revolution on this preoccupation, arguing that "the fluidity of the medium" of an electronic edition is a salutary check on any claims to its "final authority" (56). While acknowledging certain problems with digital editions, he concludes that "the value of well-prepared electronic texts for detailed scholarly work is too great to be set aside" (70). His essay hints at but does not pursue some of the more profound challenges electronic editing raises. Even the best electronic editions, such as the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive, have generated an unrealistic expectation of comprehensiveness in modern editing--the belief that technology, in the form of digital imaging and encoding, can make available to the largest possible audience complete manuscript and print records of certain major medieval texts. Moreover, much electronic editing, for all its energy and allure, outsources the fine points of editorial decision-making (e.g. discrimination between variants) to the user, who is not likely to be as adept at negotiating a plethora of data about a medieval text as those who have had long and patient acquaintance with it.
Bella Millet's essay, "What Ever Happened to Electronic Editing?," raises another serious question about the digital practice, based on the cost of ever-evolving technologies--its "sustainability" (46). Traditional editing has the thrifty virtue of concentrating attention on a particular manuscript witness, adjusted more or less elaborately in light of others. Careful traditional editors make available a compact archive of their own to readers, similar to that of an electronic database but not as expensive to platform and maintain. Opinions will differ on whether electronic recovery, however nimble, is preferable to or even more convenient than ferreting out information about this or that manuscript reading from the conventional band of variants presented at the foot of pages or in tables at the back of print editions.
Nevertheless, Turville-Petre and Millet make clear that many of the difficulties confronted by electronic editors are the same as those wrestled with by their non-electronic precursors: how to describe and classify the multiple witnesses to a text, for example, and how to portray faithfully their often bewildering range of physical and textual variation. Derek Pearsall, in a sensible contribution entitled "Variants vs. Variance," offers a nuanced view--that critical editing means something different with respect to "works that are not thought to be of great literary merit or where the author cannot be trusted to be superior to his scribes in his care for expression" (204) than it does in the case of, say, Chaucer's or Langland's writings. Because each medieval text presents a unique set of problems to the editor, it is wise to forgo generalizing about approaches and their applications. In their introduction, Gillespie and Hudson point out that this has in fact been EETS's policy over its 150-year history, reflected in the Society's "never itself prescribing a 'house-style' of editing" (4). Ralph Hanna amplifies Pearsall's view in "Editing Texts with Extensive Manuscript Traditions," arguing for a reduction of the vast range of variants to be accounted for in certain editions to those surviving in a group of "representative" manuscripts (120). While admitting the difficulty of determining representativeness, Hanna also demonstrates its good sense by way of the example of his own work on an especially intractable text, Speculum Vitae, a poem of more than sixteen thousand lines that survives in over forty-five manuscripts. In the face of such threatening textual circumstances, the better part of an editor's valor is discretion.
Most of the essays in the first half of Probable Truth concentrate on theoretical problems concerning the editing of medieval texts that have only become more complex since EETS was founded. The practical examples of editorial engagement that make up the second half of the volume illustrate the range of solutions, some more daring than others, that editors have experimented with in reconstructing by way of manuscript and early print evidence an elusive textual past. Emily Wingfield's "Towards an Edition of the Scottish Troy Book" is a masterful introduction to the dilemmas and potential of editing an important but fragmentary text, which in the manuscript tradition is first conflated with and then overshadowed by Lydgate's well-known Troy Book. The text of her essay and its footnotes are larded with the kind of almost archaeological detail that any editor of a medieval text will appreciate as the necessary prolegomena to her restorative work. Peter J. Grund's contribution brings a similarly well-trained eye to the special difficulties posed by "Editing Alchemical Texts in Middle English," a venture frustrated for years by the lack of very basic bibliographic information and the linguistic riddles of the translated texts themselves, derived from "Obscure content and opaque language" in their Latin originals (535). Marie Stansfield usefully returns the reader's attentions to the innovative applications of electronic editing in her discussion of "Parallel Texts and a Peculiar Brut," a recension of the Middle English Prose Brut that survives in two related but very different manuscript copies. Arguing that a traditional edition in which one manuscript is taken as base and emended from the other "would have the effect of obscuring the distinctiveness of the two witnesses" (465), she makes a judicious case--illustrated by three appendices--for a two-column presentation that digital formatting might better facilitate than print.
There is much more on offer in Probable Truth than a brief account of a sampling of its contributions can suggest. Three essays, for example, advance an approach toward scribes and their involvement in textual variation that balances, based on the evidence, derogation of them as human Xerox machines and a romanticized vision of their capacities as literary critics: Richard Beadle's "Some Measures of Scribal Accuracy in Late Medieval English Manuscripts," Daniel Wakelin's "Editing and Correcting," and Stephen Morrison's "What is Scribal Error, and What Should Editors Do (or Not Do) about It?" Two essays, intriguingly, seek to establish, at least for certain especially complicated texts, new controlling metaphors for the editor's work--Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe's bracing contribution to the first half of the book, "The Architecture of Old English Editions," which takes up among other examples the Old English Boethius, and Michael Sargent's offering at the volume's close, "Editing Walter Hilton's Scale of Perfection." Sargent's essay in particular is a tour de force proposal for an organic--he uses the fancier term "rhizomorphic"--edition of the Scale that forgoes hypothetical reconstruction of an original text altogether, in favor of presenting the surviving manuscript versions of Hilton's work as a "textual network" exhibiting both vertical and horizontal as well as "older" and "derivative" lines of association (509).
All of the essays assembled by Gillespie and Hudson in this volume testify to the mysterious and, for some scholars, compelling mixture of science and art that according to Housman is the discipline of the textual editor. Collectively and individually, the twenty-nine essays in Probable Truth demonstrate the need for editors of medieval texts to be adventurous, cautious, deft, imaginative, intuitive, logical, rational, and of course self-aware. That is, this book makes a case for the discipline of editing as a sophisticated variety of academic research, one that, given the amount of medieval material that requires editing and reediting, ought to stimulate the interest of more scholars and ought to command the respect of more university doctoral and promotions committees.