By Andrew Taylor
The Idea of the Vernacular: An Anthology of Middle English Literary Theory, 1280–1520, edited by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999)
Introduction: Readers of Middle English often have to use editions that, in the nature of the case, cannot effectively represent the plethora of versions and physical formats in which medieval texts circulated. The standard edition of Chaucer’s works, The Riverside Chaucer, for instance, presents all Chaucer’s texts in a uniform layout. It confines manuscript information to brief notes on textual variants and places these notes in a section of their own at the back of the volume, allowing no doubts about the authority of the texts themselves to penetrate to the pages on which they are printed. During the last twenty years, however, there has been increased attention to the physical contexts in which Middle English texts were read. Manuscripts are increasingly being seen as a means to integrate “our knowledge of medieval literature with the understanding of its contemporaneous conditions.”
After all, medieval books were unique objects, many of them made of a material (parchment) whose variations in size, texture, and quality in itself demanded that a book’s scribes and decorators (none of whose styles were quite alike either) deal with every project in a slightly different way. Books were extremely expensive, highly prized, and very often personalized, valued as gifts, individually commissioned, and specially bequeathed to others after an owner’s death; books, as well as the texts they contained, played a vital role in society. This essay gives an account of the social role of manuscripts and early printed books and the processes by which they were made, processes that changed greatly during the period. If Middle English texts and their theoretical prologues need to be read with a full sense of their ‘situatedness,’ the medieval books in which they survive – each of them different and each of them differently interesting – must be given proper examination.