The Medieval Review 17.02.24

, ed. Editing Medieval Texts: An Introduction, using exemplary materials derived from Richard Rolle, 'Super Canticum' 4. Exeter Medieval Texts and Studies . Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015. pp. viii, 183. ₤75.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-78138-272-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Scott G. Bruce
University of Colorado at Boulder

It almost goes without saying that the editing of medieval texts underpins the entire humanist enterprise by making available the raw material for historical and literary inquiry into the premodern past. While scholars of all disciplines make frequent use of published editions of all manner of medieval genres for their research, only a very small percentage of these same scholars actively engage in the process of creating them. There are several reasons for this. First, most scholars are unwilling to invest the time and energy necessary to produce a textual edition, especially since most disciplines and almost all university administrations unvalue the work that goes into creating one. It is easier to write another book or a handful of articles and easier for our peers to evaluate their worth. Second, there are very few graduate programs that actually train their students in how to produce a good edition. And since there are competing methodologies for the best way to present a diplomatic or critical text, it is very difficult for enthusiastic beginners to find their way forward when their research draws them to an unedited medieval source.

In this slim and smart handbook, Ralph Hanna shares his insights about the process of creating an edition of a medieval Latin text, based on his extensive experience editing English vernacular poetry of the later Middle Ages. This is a book for beginners. It provides a clear and thoughtful introduction to the steps necessary to progress from an unedited text in a premodern manuscript to the formal presentation of a textual edition. One of the virtues of this book is its practical approach; Hanna walks the reader through his preparation of an edition of a small portion of a straightforward Latin prose text: Richard Rolle's commentary on the biblical Song of Songs, composed in the 1330s. Reading over Hanna's shoulder, scholars can follow the reasoning behind his editorial decisions and pick up a great deal of practical knowledge about scribal practice in the process.

The book opens with an introduction about different methods of editorial practice. As Hanna rightly states, "[E]ditors are engaged in some form of communication with others, and how they conceive those others determines what they choose to present and how they choose to present it" (2-3). Those who chose to highlight a particular manuscript version of a text opt for a single-manuscript editorial representation. This can be the oldest known copy of the text, the most widely used version of the text, or simply the "best copy," a methodology made popular by the French textual critic, Joseph Bédier. Most editors choose, however, to create "critical editions," the goal of which is to present through an analysis of all surviving evidence of the text in question "a textual version that, on the basis of the evidence provided, might be perceived as more proximate to the single source underlying all of the copies than that provided by any single manuscript" (11). For the historian, there is something troubling about a critical edition because it does not necessarily represent any one surviving manuscript exactly and is thus, in Hanna's felicitous phrase, "alienated from the recall of any precise medieval situation" (12).

Hanna then lays out a sequence of tasks for preparing a critical edition and devotes a chapter of his book to each of the following steps: (a) collecting the witnesses; (b) finding a copy-text and transcribing it; (c) comparing the witnesses (the process is known as "collation"); (d) examining the variants; (e) annotation; and (f) preparing the edition for submission to a press. Each of these chapters presents important insights and reasonable suggestions for novices and experts alike based on Hanna's firsthand experience. In chapter 1, where Hanna discusses collecting manuscript witnesses of the text you wish to edit, he concedes that this process can be overwhelming if there are hundreds of surviving exemplars and recommends the following: "For some texts, an edition must make only selective use of the archive, on some arguable and clearly stated principles, and offer a provisional text of carefully delineated scope" (19). Hanna concedes that tracking down exemplars is always "fraught with difficulties," especially for Latin works. In this regard, his case study of Richard Rolle, with its specialized instruments of reference, is of limited use to other scholars. Chapter 2 recommends choosing a single, complete manuscript witness as a copy-text and creating a copy that imposes modern word division and punctuation on the text. "Thus," Hanna remarks, "at this very first step, one immediately will produce a reading version substantially detached from the manuscript that one is simultaneously purporting to reproduce" (33). Chapter 3 covers the next step in the process: collation or the comparison of witnesses to the copy-text. Here I found Hanna's suggestion to organize variant readings on full sheets of A4 paper somewhat outdated, given the availability of computer programs like Classical Text Editor (available at, which allow you to display variants in a standardized format from the outset.

Chapter 4, by far the longest chapter in the book, investigates the manuscript variants with an eye to making the difficult editorial decision: which variant, if any, actually represents the common source? Hanna is not a strict disciple of any particular school of text editing, but instead recommends "experienced judgment" (53) when dealing with the problem of textual variations. Many errors in his sample text simply reflect "some momentary inattentiveness or distraction" (59) on the part of the scribe. A large proportion of these represent scribal confusion about the correct way to expand abbreviated word forms. Chapter 5 covers the last step in the process: annotation. This involves the explanation of editorial choices made due to textual difficulties as well as the identification and citation of the author's sources and allusions. This chapter also includes a helpful checklist of the material that editors should cover in the introductions to their editions (including sources used, ascription and dating, and the protocols underlying the edition) in preparation for submitting it to a press. There follows Hanna's edition and translation of Richard Rolle's Super Canticum 4 (107-139).

Hanna's book makes no claim to provide a universal blueprint for creating an edition of a medieval Latin text. It is simply a useful handbook full of insight based on his firsthand experience as a text editor. It complements R. B. C. Huygens' Ars Edendi: A Practical Introduction to Editing Medieval Latin Texts (Turnhout, 2000), but differs markedly in its approach and tone. While Huygen's book is anecdotal and cautionary, Hanna's book is practical in its advice and inviting to novices. They are worth reading side-by-side as voices of experienced judgement in a specialized field that desperately requires more practitioners. Hanna's parting words are worthy of rumination and action: "[E]diting texts is demanding, yet also foundational and potentially exciting work. Go out and try it" (106).

Copyright (c) 2017 Scott G. Bruce

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