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The Manuscripts of the 'Canterbury Tales.'

Charles A. Owen, Jr, Chaucer Studies, 17 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 199I). xii + 13 3 pp. ISBN 0-85991-334-1. 35.00.[pounds]

After so much recent attention to the Hengwrt and Ellesmere MSS, it is a pleasure to welcome a book devoted to all the manuscripts of The Canterbug Tales. After a brief introduction (pp. 1-6) in which he comments on some interpretations of the manuscript evidence, Professor Owen devotes seven chapters to a chronological account of all manuscripts with a full text (pp. 7-104) and one chapter (pp. 105-19) to manuscripts with single tales or small groups, whatever their date. A brief conclusion (pp. 120-5) is followed by two indexes. During the main body of his book Owen deals with each manuscript in turn, giving some details of its order of tales, its unusual codicological and palaeographical features, its possible date and scribes, and its affiliations with other manuscripts. In view of the large number of manuscripts and the relative brevity of this book, each manuscript gets two to three pages, though a few get a slightly extended treatment. Inevitably much of the information has to be compressed and this makes the book difficult to read; it is certainly not a book for those coming to the manuscripts of the poem for the first time. It also means that he has to repeat much of the information which is already available in a more extended form in the Manly-Rickert 1940 volumes. But whereas with Manly-Rickert one can easily get lost in the immense amount of detail, in this book the sense of development in the manuscript tradition does come through, though the author could have helped his readers by excluding some of the detail which is not part of that overall development.

Among the points which Owen makes are that the tales came into being in independent copies or booklets which were copied and circulated in Chaucer's lifetime and that many survived a long time in the fifteenth century when other booklets were added to those already existing. This conclusion does not spring from a study of the manuscripts as such, but from the editorial work found in Manly-Rickert and accepted as accurate without more ado here. Owen accepts that Hengwrt was the first manuscript to try to arrange the fragments in some order. He believes that Chaucer made various attempts to start and finish the poem and that these attempts can be seen in the extant manuscripts. No extant manuscript has any authority as to Chaucer's order and final intentions. Some of these opinions are perfectly acceptable theories, though it must be said that the brevity of the book prevents their being argued and proved in detail. Indeed, one might question whether the arrangement of the book is the best one to highlight and discuss these points. A father more discursive book spending greater time on some of the more interesting manuscripts and what they have to tell us of the manuscript tradition might have made for a more convincing case. This is more a book to be dipped into than to be read. There are some omissions in the bibliography (e.g., Boffey and Thompson), some errors of fact (e.g., Caxton's first and second editions are now dated I476 and 148z) and some misprints.
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Author:Blake, N.F.
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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