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Daniel Wakelin: Scribal Correction and Literary Craft: English Manuscripts 1375-1510.


Scribal Correction and Literary Craft: English Manuscripts 1375-1510. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. xviii + 345 pp.

While I am interested in scribal assertions that religious texts have been scrutinized and corrected and intrigued by Chaucer's (ironic?) request for such correction in Troilus and Criseyde, I would not have thought a whole book might be written on the subject. And I fear that if Daniel Wakelin had expressed surprise to me at the vast number of scribal corrections one encounters in manuscripts, my response might have been a milder version of Joel Harris's: "So what?" (xi). This book demonstrates how wrong I would have been.

In a perceptive and stimulating Chapter 1, Wakelin explains the two halves of the book: the first suggests "that scribes strove to do a good job," the second that "the craft of correcting becomes a little like literary criticism" (8). Both are suggestions that the editor and critic of medieval texts may want to challenge (and this is a book that invites engagement and argument), but Wakelin is careful in arguing his case. "Certainly not" may change to "Well, if you put it like that" in the reader's responses to the sometimes counterintuitive statements made here.

The methodology (10-11) depends on a corpus of all the manuscripts with English in the Huntington Library: fifty-two once-separate books with primarily English content, plus fragments of English in twenty-eight volumes largely in Latin and French, all dating from the second half of the fourteenth century to the turn of the sixteenth century. The sample serves for tabular and statistical purposes, but Wakelin has also used manuscripts from libraries in Britain and the United States that are direct or cognate copies of other manuscripts (there is an index of manuscripts at 335-337). He has also read widely in sometimes surprising works on criticism, poetry, and craftsmanship.

There are four parts: Part I, "Contexts," Part II, "Craft," Part III, "Literary Criticism," and Part IV, "Implications." Part I begins with Chapter 2 ("Inviting Correction"), which is discursive and even playful at times. Chapter 3 ("Copying, Varying and Correcting") introduces the first of several tables with which the book is furnished. Table 3.1 cites the percentages of divergence in direct copies of the prose Brut and its continuation and in the Gilte Legende and the Canterbury Tales, while Table 3.2 does the same with cognate copies of the Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman. Tables are not to everyone's taste (and Wakelin does not ultimately make many claims for his), but one can see that the empirical work is necessary (whatever its inherent shortcomings) in the amorphous subject he has chosen to study. What these tables show is the small percentage of divergences (never more than 4 percent) and the variable (but never high) numbers of corrections that remove the divergences. Most of the variation that exists seems to be mechanical error, and, although Wakelin notes (perhaps ruefully) that some English manuscripts show deliberate variation, there is very little evidence of this in his samples (Table 3.3 lists those that do occur in two cognate copies of the Canterbury Tales).

Chapter 3 also considers the case of gaps rather than corrections. Wakelin's Huntington Library sample has examples of this in only ten manuscripts, one of which, a Canterbury Tales finished by Geoffrey Spirleng in 1476, has twenty gaps which can be compared with the exemplar (Table 3.4) to reveal a particularly conscientious and indeed timid scribe. The conclusions are that most scribes do not diverge from the text and that most corrections remove divergences (but only a fraction of a percent of divergence in the direct copies and only 3-4 percent in the cognate copies).

I describe Chapter 3 at some length in order to explain Wakelin's commendably painstaking methodology. Chapter 4 ("People and Institutions") offers a sensible overview of who scribes and correctors might be. Wakelin is disarmingly honest; in assessing who might correct scribes' work, he admits that a scribe correcting himself may not look very different (or at all different) from another scribe correcting him. However, he attempts to assess the respective work of "scribe" and "collaborator" in his Huntington sample (Table 4.1), with what may be a decisive result: 62 percent overall were corrected by the scribe of the manuscript and only 16 percent by another (the "collaborator"), who seems to be involved very seldom in any scribal stint. According to Wakelin, "This engagement in correcting is what allows the scribes to become skilful readers of what they copy" (76). The chapter ends with "prompts," marginal indications that correction is needed (but rarely supplied, it seems).

Part II ("Craft") consists of three chapters developing Wakelin's belief that scribes were craftsmen, since their "Techniques" (the title of Chapter 5) "foster their agency and intelligence" (101). This first chapter of Part II deals with erasure and overwriting, crossing out, subpuncting, interlineation, and marginal insertions. It also, interestingly, deals with the fact that some corrections are clearly meant to be seen, that is, obvious signs (some as obvious as rubrication) are used to indicate false word order, transposition of words or phrases, omissions, and the like (the term signes de renvoie is used). This is an informative discussion, again accompanied by a table and (like Figure 1) far too pale a figure (one longs for the old days of clear glossy plates, especially when reading about the care with which books were once produced).

Chapter 6 ("Accuracy") deals with what Wakelin contends is the first impulse of the scribe: to correct the text before him, even to the extent of collating exemplars (although not mentioned here, this brings to mind James Grenehalgh and Carthusian scribal habits). Of course, "not all the errors are corrected, nor indeed are the corrections all correct" (129). Table 6.1 is presented with many caveats but does at least demonstrate that correction was frequent; of the fifty-two Huntington manuscripts, only two had few (one in ten pages) and only three had many (three in a page). Generally, paper copies and presentation copies are corrected less often, paper being ephemeral and presentation copies having to look good. "Works of religious reflection or instruction" (135) are corrected more than secular works (whether one of the texts, Piers Plowman, is really such a work is arguable). In this chapter, it may seem brave of Wakelin to deal with "the quality of correcting" (141), and his methodology (comparing texts with modern editions) may seem precarious, if not foolhardy, but it achieves an interesting result, demonstrating that 84 percent of the corrections accord with the text presented in modern editions.

Chapter 7 ("Writing Well") moves the reader toward the topic of Part III ("Literary Criticism") by perhaps an odd route: the attention scribes pay to what seem to us as readers and scholars minutiae and trivialities (the spelling or the shape of a word) and the concomitant neglect of what we think is important. Wakelin invites us to realize that we look at a page to know what is in it, whereas scribes are trained to look at what is on it. (Editors of medieval texts have to combine the two, of course, as some scribes did). Some of these changes are of interest, such as corrections to archaic verb forms, pronouns, phrases, and the like, but toward the end of the chapter, Wakelin himself appears to have lost patience: the words "needless," "fuss(y)"/"fussiness," and "persnickety" start to appear, and one scribe is even called "this meddler" (180). What I think Wakelin does not consider is the psychology of copying material in which one has no active involvement. By an imperfect analogy, the reading of student essays is alleviated only by having a red pen in one's hand to intervene: I would suggest that for the intelligent scribe, the tedium of copying might only be relieved by personal interventions, however small and ultimately meaningless.

At any rate, the subject matter of Chapter 7, where we reach the depths of scribal correction, is immediately relieved by Chapter 8 ("Diction, Tone and Style"), which, with Part III, introduces the second part of the book's title. Chapter 8 looks at corrections that involve synonyms, doublets, and alternative adjectives and adverbs, in the (forlorn, it seems) hope that they may show more literary engagement with the text than editors have given them credit for. Commendably thorough and impartial as Wakelin is, and aware that the editor and the paleographer approach a text with different mind-sets, nevertheless, in this chapter and later, his statistical approach seemed to me to limit his responses. I regretted the fact that the personality of the individual scribe is not taken into account--Wakelin would probably say "cannot be taken into account" in a study of this sort. Scribes have different personalities, training, attention spans, dexterity, intelligence, contexts, material, and probably much more. Editors come to know these things and to know the scribes of the manuscripts they edit.

Wakelin does indeed offer case studies to balance the tabular method. In one of these, a copy of The Fall of Princes with prompts offering alternative words, sixty-eight unerased words and prompts are extant. Only ten of these prompts are given (Table 8.2), some of which correct semantic or eyeskip errors, which Wakelin discusses from a literary-critical perspective but rarely justifies from this perspective. The words of the poem are "tedious" (191), and its "dull wording" (194) might be preferable to the corrections, but what the corrections show, Wakelin suggests, is "the notion that the words they correct are worth such close attention" (195). It seems to me that some of these prompts (iv, vi, viii) offer synonyms with an extra syllable where a line has been mismetered.

This matter of rhyme (together with page layout) is dealt with in Chapter 9 ("Form"). Here Wakelin seems to me visually rather than aurally focused (as he argues his scribes are). The percentage of corrections in verse as opposed to prose is significant: ninety-one to sixty eight (although Wakelin calls the difference "only moderately" corrected, 218, and "only a little more frequently corrected," 226). In his interesting case studies he seems surprised that scribes should worry about rhyme as much as they clearly do. Although at the end of the chapter he comments of one scribe that "he pursues visual regularity remorselessly yet is completely deaf to the sound-patterning" (243), nevertheless he overstresses the "needlessness" (222) of "pointless" (226) corrections to bad rhymes. Those of us who were brought up reciting poetiy throughout our school lives cannot help but balk at a lost syllable or a false rhyme. As Wakelin says of one scribe: "The rhyme seems to wake him up at the line's end"; indeed it does, and it implies that reading poetry aloud and learning it by heart were to some extent pleasurable activities for schoolchildren in a now-lost age of much-condemned rote learning. As Wakelin notes, scribes writing verse work faster than those writing prose--it must be more enjoyable to be rushed along by verse than to labor through prose.

Finally, in Part III, Chapter 10 investigates "Completeness," "the negative recognition, born from their practical experience as craftsmen, of the problems of the material texts they make and use" (246). In order to complete texts, scribes either add (marginal annotations and marginal/interlinear addition) or delete (as with an Austin canon scribe from Leicester who, instead of noting gaps or filling them in, deletes what is there). Although rhyme is not particularly foregrounded here, Wakelin's case studies are rhymed texts (other than a brief mention of the "Tale of Melibee"), a fact that tends to confirm my response to the previous chapter: that rhyme is important to scribes not only because it "encourages an 'oculocentric' perception of the text" (252) but because of auditory and oral enactments of the text (however muted or mumbled).

The final part of the book, Part IV, deals with "Implications" in two chapters. Chapter 11 ("Authorship") looks at corrections made by the author rather than the scribe, although there are serious difficulties in some assertions on holographs, as Wakelin's first example shows, where he notes Kari-Anne Rand's forthcoming identification of the hand of The Equatorie of the Planetis (not Chaucer's). In looking at Chaucer (?), Capgrave, Hoccleve, and the Franciscan friar James Ryman, Wakelin considers the successive stages of authorship through drafts, final copies, and corrected final copies, raising the question of authorial or scribal revision, when it occurs and why, and pondering what it might amount to. (There is a section on metrical corrections in relation to Hoccleve which I was pleased to see.) The conclusion is somewhat downbeat: "In their corrections, authorial composition and scribal revision look alike, for they share the qualities of responsible attention and critical judgement which this practice nurtures" (301). That is probably a wise conclusion, given that paleography is a very inexact science (or is perhaps an art).

Art is what Wakelin suggests it might be in the final chapter ("Conclusion: Varying, Correcting and Critical Thinking"). As he says, "Distinguishing correction from variance is not easy" (302), but might we be able to think of scribes as authors? Is what they do "wilful creativity" (305)? Well, no, he concludes (although what they do might be the ancestor of what was to become "literary criticism"), but why should we want it to? Perhaps the time for praising variance is past, and now that we have quite enough digital and other forms of variance, "it might be worth praising invariance" (306) and giving credit to scribes as men with "an interest in their own craftsmanship" who paid "close attention to the texts they copied" and had a "consciousness of value" (308-309).

Wakelin's book has been very well planned, with painstakingly collected data, and it demonstrates reading of a wide range of manuscripts and secondary criticism of many different types. This is a learned, provocative, sometimes wrong (I think), but overall stimulating book that I found a pleasure to read and which will affect my reading of the next manuscript I see (and perhaps all the rest, too).

Susan Powell, University of Salford
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Author:Powell, Susan
Publication:The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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