Researching medieval books in early summer

I’m a little behind with this for the month of April, but I’m going to blame prepping for exam season.

Because I am in the process or re-starting a project due in conference paper form by early July, I am going to review the general research process, and consider where to proceed from here. The project involves early printed editions of Chaucer’s collected works, tracing the inclusion of or references to a poem now viewed as not by Chaucer.

One of the things that comes with the end of the semester, especially in the spring, is the approach of about 2 weeks without teaching or other university duties; in other words, time for scholarship and preparing for summer conferences. But in my case there are 2 related complications: 1) my institution is shutting down their more efficient ILL system for a software change-over, 2) right when I need to be regathering my materials. There’s this rule that for material borrowed from another institution can only be renewed twice, and I’d reached that limit right at a point when I knew I was going to be too busy with essay grading and exams to do much of my own work (and so did not immediately re-request my key secondary sources). I take no issue with the library rules or the software update, but the timing is terrible. I understand it’s for the convenience of students, who will not be in classes during that interval, but it’s terrible for the instructors because that gap between terms is prime research and writing time.

Nevertheless, I persist. I have learned from past experiences to keep records of the titles and authors I know I will need to get back. But, I have also found that by looking up these titles again in the catalogues, I can also get a sense of what other similar titles might be out there. The digital equivalent of shelf-browsing is useful because I think it might be useful to work it into teaching research, but also because I have limited direct physical access to the kinds of texts I might find useful in my own research. This is in addition of course to the usual scouting of works cited and footnote citations of texts I already need or have on hand.

All of the above is useful for general research in any area, but given my particular specialty of medieval literature and manuscript studies, I also need to consider how to get to primary original sources. Thankfully, increasing digitization of medieval books in print and manuscript helps, but especially with more obscure texts or manuscripts, this is not always an option. Secondary sources have been highly useful in providing editors and edition titles, but tracking the locations of everything necessary does require some work. Thankfully, nearly everything I want to check is available at the research university libraries in Atlanta, which is only about an hour and a half drive away.

The only catch is I haven’t used Emory or Georgia Tech’s special collections before, so I also need to look up the rules and regulation for viewing. This is standard practice for visiting any library special collections, but each institution is a little different. The British Library (big public research library) is different than the Newberry (small public research library in Chicago) is different than a university library in terms of gaining general access and access to specific items in the collection. Rules might cover making an appointment, as well as what is or is not allowed in the reading rooms. Particularly with manuscripts, some places have rules concerning photography, and all have rules concerning the use of ink or handling or personal possessions while using the materials.

Once I get to the original early print editions I need to find the following: do they include the text I’m looking for, is it attributed, and/or is it mentioned. This information will help me construct a stemma for the text, which is already done for the manuscript tradition (all of 3 codices). Looking into the provenance of the particular editions will likely become necessary as well, particularly if a specific book has any marginalia or other details specific to that copy of the book.

Once all this is done, it will be back to the secondary literature to locate the rationale behind the editorial decisions, including why the new edition was felt necessary, and what reviewers had to say about the new version.

Putting everything together will, I hope, result in fairly comprehensive textual history for a now rather neglected poem. From there, who knows…….

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An Inspiring Thing Happened on the Way to the Panel

Conferences are always a good time for a lot of reasons, but one of my favorites is getting inspiration, both academic and personal. Two weekends ago, I attended the Medieval Academy of America’s annual conference held this year at the University of Notre Dame. This is a story of how some inspiration led to more work (in a good way).

On the personal side, I got to see and hear in person a scholar with whose work, my dissertation would never have happened, Professor James J. Murphy. He was presenting a team talk with another scholar (Alex Novikoff) who was born in the year the article Professor Murphy was referencing was published. Professor Murphy’s point was that his 1978 article on The Owl and the Nightingale as modeled on medieval disputation practices was met with silence from contemporary scholars. Professor Novikoff recently published a book (2013) on the subject of how medieval disputation affected social and cultural elements outside of the academy. My second dissertation chapter deals with many of the same ideas these two scholars covered, so it was nice to see that I was not the only one who thought the connection was worth looking into. There was some internal fan-girl geeking out at that panel.

On the academic side, I admit I was guilty of a little thing that lots of scholars seem to do: getting ready to present a paper to which I did not yet have a thesis. The abstract I submitted was taken out of my dissertation work concerning marginalia in the manuscripts preserving Middle English debate poems. Taking it out of that context meant that I had to reframe the research into a self-contained argument. I managed to do it the night before my presentation was scheduled when I had a realization that I could actually connect this older research with my current Gower project.

What I had to explain was why, when most Middle English debate poems have little to no marginalia in their manuscripts (a feature shared with most lyric poetry), did John Lydgate’sDebate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep”  (HGS) has consistent speaker notations in the margins? Two obvious potential reasons, that the poem had a famous author and that the poem is more narrative both in length and content, don’t work out. Chaucer also wrote some debate poetry (“Fortune”, “The Parliament of Fowls”) and was the attributed author for centuries of another debate poem (“The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”). None of the Chaucerian poems have anything near the consistent manuscript marginal notation of Lydgate’s work. In terms of length, Lydgate’s other debate poem, “The Churl and the Bird”, is similar in terms of narrative content, although it is 20 stanzas shorter than HGS. This second debate has nothing of the consistent marginal speaker guides like HGS.

My brilliant (if I do say so myself) hypothesis is the possibility that Lydgate was following in the path of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (which I also think has debate poem connections, but that’s another story). Gower oversaw some of the early manuscript production himself, and himself was the author of a lot of the marginalia that is consistently present. Gower manuscripts certainly were added to in terms of commentary and marginal notations, but Gower’s own use of the convention of marginal commentary seems to have ensured some degree of preservation throughout the following centuries. Lydgate knew of both Chaucer and Gower’s works, so the possibility that he had seen an early copy of the Confessio is not a stretch.

Proving this of course means doing a study of equal depth of Confessio Amantis manuscripts. Thanks to the digitization of manuscripts, this will be an easier task than it would have been even a decade ago. This is one great advantage to digital scholarship. Manuscript catalogues are not consistent in terms of describing marginalia, which is why the manuscripts themselves are going to be critical evidence. Even scholarship on Gower manuscripts (of which there is plenty) is not consistent in terms of contemplation of Gower’s influence over the marginalia as a manuscript feature, preferring often to focus on the interpretive suggestions of the notes.

This issue brings up one problem with the digital humanities. Although there is a lot more access than there used to be to manuscripts, scholars no longer have to practice taking notes of manuscript descriptions as they can easily go back to the images. The problem here is that without practice in describing the particular paleographical or codicological features of a text, the actual descriptions of the unique features of interest becomes a struggle when it comes to presenting an argument based on physical evidence.

So, now what? I am planning to finish working on and drafting the original Gower paper, then switching over to the pastoral project while starting the manuscript work on the Lydgate-Gower connection with aid from facsimiles both digital and print. I am hoping by the time I get to the manuscripts that I will have to see ‘in person’ I’ll have some time and resources to actually make the trip to the UK where many of them are kept.

Cambridge University and a few Colleges

Cambridge University Libraries, Special Collections

Links to searching the collection, brief subject guides, and ‘image of the month’.

Special Collections blog (CUL)

Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge

This page contains information on the library in general. Of particular interest is the Early Manuscripts link which contains access to the James catalogue, and names of other resources for using the collections.