The Middle English Anthology Unbound

The Open Medieval Editions by Students anthology is a (forthcoming!) collection of open access medieval English literature. The texts in the anthology were transcribed, edited, and translated by students in my Middle English courses; students also wrote introductions to these texts as part of their course work. This material is being rigorously checked and then (if students wish) it will be included in the anthology. The project was funded by a 50,000 euro grant from the Dutch Research Council.

Anthologies can be influential. Since they bring together a range of works, they are often taken as representative of broader fields. And their promise of representation—however illusory—means that they are often used in introductory contexts and therefore play a powerful role in shaping first impressions of a given field. The choices behind an anthology, then—about which texts should be included and how these texts should be explained and introduced—can have significant and lasting implications for how a field is perceived and studied.

Tales of the Canterbury pilgrims, Retold from Chaucer & Others, with an introduction by Frederick Furnivall (London: W. Gardner, Darton & Co., 1908).

In the context of English literature, the implications of the anthology have been well acknowledged, and they raise concerns over which texts get anthologised. As Seth Lerer and others have shown, the body of texts that a culture deems relevant is fundamentally shaped by the culture's ideals at the moment of canon formation. And in the case of Middle English literature, the ideals that have given shape to the canon have, in many cases, been marked by well-documented ethical and structural problems. As noted by Norman Cantor (1991) and contributors to Helen Damico's Medieval Scholarship (1998), Victorian notions of literary greatness that have influenced the modern literary canon were, in many cases, shaped by troubling attitudes toward nationalism, race, and gender relations. While the field has changed a lot since the nineteenth century, the texts that are considered foundational have in many cases remained the same.

This gives rise to two questions for anyone embarking on an anthology project such as this one. First, if the canonicity of many of the foundational texts of the field is grounded, at least in part, in dated and, in some cases, highly troubling values, what role should these texts play in the modern anthology? Answering this question, I think, calls us to weigh a need to select texts that reflect current developments, ideals, and values against the need to select texts that reflect the history of the field and that, in many cases, may hold our interest for new reasons. So, while the important place Chaucer occupies in the modern anthology is fundamentally tied to the nationalist interests of nineteenth-century editors such as Frederick Furnivall—whose goals in promoting the study of Chaucer have been explored recently by Ruth Evans, among others—Chaucer's works continue to fascinate and hold relevance for the field; the breadth of Chaucer's continued relevance is clear from essays in the recent Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales that explore how Chaucer's work intersects with affect theory, ecocriticism, and literary theory approaches related to gender identity, race, and disability. If Chaucer's works gained their status in the modern anthology in part due to nationalistic ideals, these works nevertheless continue to hold relevance today and arguably deserve a place in the modern anthology.

The second question is related to the first: if, as has been suggested, an anthology reflects the ideals of its editors, and if the anthology is often foundational to a discipline, traditional editors can exercise a remarkable degree of influence over how a field is shaped. Given that an editor may not want this influence, and given that the centralization of such influence is a potential problem in a field as diverse and multifaceted as Middle English literature studies, is it possible to shift some of this influence from the editor and into the hands of others? These two questions, along with other considerations, inspired this anthology project, which is aimed at both reflecting new developments within the field and decentering the editorial role.

In order the achieve the first aim, the TOMES anthology combines wholly traditional texts with less frequently anthologized texts that, over the past few years, have become increasingly relevant to scholarly discussions in the field. The widely anthologized Sir Orfeo will, for example, appear alongside texts that reflect our growing awareness of medieval England's rich multilingualism, such as a trilingual Psalter text that includes Hebrew, Anglo-Norman and Latin. The selection policy is aimed, in part, at representing medieval English literature in all its diverse and multicultural contexts.

Of course, any selection policy might seem to run counter to the project's goal of decentralizing editorial decisions; yet within this policy, many of the more specific decisions have been made in a decentralized way. Instead of choosing selections unilaterally and then assigning these to students myself, I created a list of potential texts for the project and let students choose which works they wanted to edit. Students also chose their own selections for some of the longer works. Aside from aiming to decentralize the editorial role, this process aimed at ensuring that the selections in the anthology would be compelling—especially for students. So although I provided the contours of the anthology, the students provided the details, and it's been a delight watching these take shape over the past few months (even if some of my favourite texts were, to my great surprise, sidelined by the second year editors' fascination with Mandeville's Travels!).

Students also decided which words in their particular selections needed glosses and they created the introductions and translations to their texts. My hope is that, since these materials have been produced by students, they will be particularly useful to the students who are the target audience of this project. Although some, upon hearing about this project, have questioned whether students are capable of producing the kinds of scholarly material that is needed for an anthology, in my experience the material students have submitted has been good, and all the work for this project is, essentially, quality controlled; work is first reviewed by students' peers, then by the project assistants, and finally by me (a system I have been rather ineloquently describing as "an academic pyramid scheme—but in a good way"). The goal, then, is an up-to-date and scholarly anthology that will reflect the needs and interests of students while embracing a wide range of editorial perspectives.

Dr. Krista A. Murchison

Assistant Professor (UD) of Medieval English Literature

Leiden University