Many Middle English works survive in multiple versions, each with its own unique features, and any editor must decide how to represent this diversity. Various approaches are possible, and these can be roughly classified into three types. The first is the best text edition: the editor selects one version of a work and bases the edition on this version. This version is then supplemented with variants from other versions of the work. These variants are generally supplied in a textual apparatus and may b used to replace passages in the base text. This approach can be found in many Early English Text Society editions.
A second option is the parallel text edition. This type of edition presents some or all versions of a work alongside each other (for an example, see the The Lay Folks' Catechism, edited by Thomas Frederick Simmons and Henry Edward Nolloth). Aspects of these first two approaches can also be combined. This is becoming increasingly common thanks to advancements in web encoding. A digital edition can, for example, give all variant readings of a work in a way that privileges no copy over any other copy.
The third approach to textual editing considered here is, in many ways, at the opposite end of the spectrum: the single text edition. An editor adopting this approach will focus on one single version of a work and may or may not take variant readings into account. The version may be chosen for any number of reasons, including date, textual authority (however defined), and ease of access.
Editions can of course fall between these three main classifications. So, an edition of a work that survives in hundreds of copies might, like a best text edition, be based on a variety of available versions but, like a single text edition, not give all possible variant readings. This approach is adopted by Russel A. Peck in his excellent edition of the Confessio Amantis (2006). A single text edition might aim to replicate one manuscript version of a work without drawing on others, but may nevertheless take variant readings into account (especially in places where the text is unquestionably corrupt or missing).
Each of these various approaches to editing has its merits and advantages (some of which are explored in further detail here here). The best text edition--by far the most common type of edition--has the advantage of offering a snapshot of the complete textual tradition behind a work. Moreover, by embracing variant readings, the edition grants the editor great liberty; modifications may be made to improve a text's readability, to get closer to perceived textual authority, to regularize meter, or to improve a text's aesthetic qualities. For these and other reasons, the best text approach is often used in introductory anthologies.
The parallel text edition, like the best text edition, has the benefit of offering a representative overview of a work's textual tradition. Since it does not seek to conflate versions of a given work, it offers relatively unmediated insight into how a work actually circulated in the medieval period. Yet this type of edition can be unwieldy for both editor and reader, especially for works that survive in many witnesses. It is therefore not commonly used in introductory anthologies, although notable exceptions exist (the 2002 Pelican Shakespeare anthology, for example, contains both 1608 quarto and 1623 folio texts).
Although it cannot represent a full textual tradition, the single text edition also has its advantages. In particular, it represents--sometimes better than the other types of editions—the way that texts actually circulated in the medieval period. A single text--including its textual corruption and scribal errors—can represent the work as a medieval reader would have read it and its relative lack of editorial intervention means that it can offer insight into aspects of language, dialect, and meter that are more likely to be regularized in a best text edition. The single text edition also offers more pragmatic advantages. First, the editorial approach reduces the need for collation; this can be an advantage, especially for texts that survive in hundreds of copies or that cannot be collated due to other barriers. Single text editions can also be easier for a reader to navigate than other types of editions, since they typically have a lighter editorial apparatus. This can be an advantage for introductory anthologies such as this one.
For these and other reasons, this project has embraced the single text approach to textual editing; students based their editions on single manuscript copies, preserving the particularities of their copies’ language, style, grammar, and other features. In some cases, this approach has had the additional benefit of resulting in whole new editions, since some of the works included in the project were previously available only in best text editions. And the single text approach, by reducing the need for collation, has allowed me to base the project almost entirely on digitised manuscripts that are in the public domain or that are under creative commons licenses. This has meant that the resulting anthology can be shared under a creative commons license, which is in keeping with the project's commitment to open scholarship.
Despite all these advantages, single text editions have their critics, and I have encountered some criticisms of the approach adopted here. Most of these criticisms have stemmed from a belief that single text editions are “not true editions” but rather “mere transcriptions.” But this belief is not, in my experience, widely held, and it certainly runs counter to the work of influential scholars of Middle English editing such as Charles Moorman (1975), who readily includes single-text editing among approaches to Middle English editing. After all, textual editing encompasses much more than transcription and collation; it also includes the process of preparing a textual apparatus, including the introduction, glossary, and notes—all of which are included in the editions presented here. Moreover, while the editions presented here are based on single manuscripts, they take into account each work's broader textual traditions by, for example, including overviews of these traditions in the introduction or drawing on other manuscript copies for textual notes.
By adopting the single-text approach in this project, I do not mean to suggest that it is superior to other approaches. But, insofar as it helps represent medieval literature in all its beautiful, unfiltered complexity, the single-text approach supports the overall goals of this anthology.
Dr. Krista A. Murchison
Assistant Professor (UD) of Medieval English Literature