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19.06.05 Horobin and Nafde, Pursuing Middle English Manuscripts and their Texts

19.06.05 Horobin and Nafde, Pursuing Middle English Manuscripts and their Texts

If asked which scholar is most synonymous with the study of Middle English manuscripts, Ralph Hanna's name would surely be amongst the very first to spring to mind. His fellow academic heavyweight, Vincent Gillespie, sets out precisely why this is so in his foreword to the edited volume under consideration here, which aims to pay tribute to Hanna's long and distinguished contribution to (and beyond) his scholarly field on the occasion of his retirement. Gillespie, citing as his evidence Hanna's sheer prolificity in published criticism, as well as the excellence of that criticism, refers to Hanna as "a force of nature" (xii). This is a view also echoed by the volume's editors in their introduction, who rightly also take the opportunity to laud his "influence, and his unstinting generosity in sharing his incomparable knowledge with both colleagues and students alike" (1). The essays that constitute the main core of this volume are equally generous in their praise, and the combined excellence of intellectual enquiry that they offer on their respective topics serves in itself as a fitting compliment to the scholar to whom this book is dedicated.

The eleven substantive chapters in the book (which are supported by a comprehensive list of Hanna's publications [241-250] and a robust and helpful index [251-262]) cover a variety of topics that generally reflect very well the breadth of Hanna's work on Middle English, including contributions from a range of well-respected scholars on topics such as scribal habits, literary manuscripts, dialect and miscellanies.

Derek Pearsall opens the volume with a typically vivid depiction of what he calls "The Tribulations of Scribes," in which he sets out the conditions that contributed to some of the flaws of scribal practice that we regularly encounter in manuscripts. It is an essay that might just as easily have been titled "In defence of scribes," and it is both entertaining and erudite. Linne Mooney's subsequent offering homes in more specifically on a single scribe, that which inscribed a fifteenth-century copy of Lydgate's Troy Book. Mooney presents a convincing case for this scribe's composition of a further three manuscripts, and shows how this identification gives her cause to site the scribe's activity in London, thus offering an additional and important new window onto the London book production trade. Thorlac Turville-Petre then moves the discussion away from scribes to language, leading the reader through some of the peculiarities of vocabulary in the Alliterative Morte Arthure. This is an interesting analysis, and engagingly written, but it is at times hesitant, especially when it comes to the crux of the essay: using such vocabulary as a concrete way to localise the text. "Word-geography," as Turville-Petre himself confesses, "will always be problematical because the fact that a word is recorded in a text that can be securely localized tells us no more than that an author from that region cannot be adduced as evidence of anything at all" (60). Simon Horobin's essay then continues the theme of language, with a (re-)consideration of Langland's dialect, a subject which allows Horobin to draw very tangibly on Hanna's own scholarship in the area. Of particular merit in this contribution is Horobin's identification of the application of its findings for editors of Piers Plowman, which would require them to prioritise the text's MS B in order to best approximate Langland's mixed usage of dialect. Anne Hudson also offers a chapter on language, though in this case the focus is on orthography in Wycliffite manuscripts, and most particularly the Wycliffite Bible, the English Wycliffite sermon cycle and the first two revisions of Rolle's English Psalter. This is a technical chapter, but it communicates fluidly the complicated nature of localising texts through orthography, thus chiming neatly with Turville-Petre's preceding contribution, though--outside of a persuasive case that Samuels' "Type 1" dialect categorisation is not standard after all--raising perhaps more questions than it truly answers, as Hudson herself acknowledges (98).

Richard Beadle's contribution also devotes time to matters of localisation, but this time through the extensive coded language, written in the hand of the main scribe, of a Cambridge manuscript referred to by Beadle as "a Southwell Miscellany." This is a lively and thought-provoking chapter, and no doubt that would be much to Hanna's taste for its depiction of intricate and entertaining nuances, but it is not a topic that Hanna has himself been dedicated to studying, so it feels perhaps less obviously indebted to the volume's dedicatee than do other chapters. A further miscellany is explored by the late Ian Doyle, and it is a great pleasure to see that Doyle evidently remained active--and fiercely curious--until the very end. Indeed, Doyle's unravelling of the composition of the fifteenth-century book that forms his subject matter is a typical example of his fine attention to detail and natural ability to solve mysteries. Ever modest, though, Doyle closes his essay by setting out his clear expectation that Hanna "may be tempted to trump it as is his wont," showing he never lost his wry sense of humour (123).

Richard Firth Green's chapter on The Battle of Otterburn marks a turning point in the book's subject matter, which moves now towards close textual analysis. His tight and persuasive analysis traces the text's development from its medieval origins through to James Hogg's famous nineteenth-century version, indicating that oral traditions supported that development almost continuously throughout the process. Alastair Minnis's focus, too, is on close reading, but his subject is The Prick of Conscience and the ways in which aspects of imagination theory can help us to understand the text's depiction of paradise. This is a well written chapter, but it feels much more removed from the manuscript focus that has been so present throughout the rest of the book and, as such, I wonder if more effort could have been made to situate the study better within the volume. Indeed, Andrew Galloway's subsequent chapter on what he calls "the invention of London literature" (177) brings us robustly back to a book-historical approach, focusing on Peter of Cornwall. Peter is a figure of increasing interest in scholarship, and it is good to see a case study of his practice included here, though the chapter itself seems less designed to develop an argument per se than it does to serve as an introduction to Peter. The penultimate chapter, by Anne Middleton, returns us to Piers Plowman, but this time we are treated to an in-depth and thoroughly interesting study of the text's paratextual framing, particularly in respect of recension A, so as to illustrate how the redactor used associated paratextual tools to resolve local issues associated with matters such as genre and speaker. The final contribution tackles three tricky lines in Chaucer's General Prologue. Traugott Lawler's analysis here is succinct and convincing, but once again we see a derivation from the manuscript focus applied elsewhere. No doubt, though, such matter will still be of keen interest to Hanna.

In sum, this collection is a fine tribute to the book's dedicatee. The editors have brought together a set of essays that are all intellectually rigorous, well written and edited, and appropriately illustrated. Whilst I do quibble a little about the fact that two of the eleven essays seem less compelled to follow the manuscript drive of the other contributions, this does not detract seriously from the excellence of what is contained within. One might, however, have wished for a slightly tighter thematic focus to tie the contributions together more neatly. The editors have obviously worked hard to create a coherent sequence, but it cannot really be avoided that this a group of essays on a broad variety of topics, connected only by their focus on a single vernacular language. Meanwhile, some authors acknowledge particular debts to Hanna's scholarship, while others do not, and it would have been good to have seen this applied as a more consistent practice throughout. Nonetheless, I should imagine any scholar would be delighted to see chapters of this quality written in honour of their life in the academy, even someone as influential as Hanna. Indeed, if one were in any doubt as to the importance of his work in the field, the briefest of glances at the Tabula Gratulatoria (263), which contains a veritable who's who of medieval manuscript studies, would reveal just how far and wide Ralph Hanna's scholarship has travelled.