It's an interesting time to be a medievalist. For several years now, and in academic venues ranging from print to conference to classroom, textual critics of late medieval literature have demonstrated a multiform alienation from the work of their scholarly predecessors. This condition, which as far back as the later 1970s was expressed in passing as a frustration at the lack of consensus concerning the representation of manuscript textuality, has developed in recent years into a wide-ranging paradigm shift regarding the nature of medieval textuality and the numerous obstacles to its engagement by readers in the postmodern age. (1) While there are several unique causes for this shift in editorial assumptions and goals, its energetic propulsion into new modes of discourse resembles, in many interesting ways, the transition from antiquarian publishing to modern textual criticism in the mid-nineteenth century. This noted shift from amateur to professional editing (and from private to public circulation of edited medieval work) may be now a century and a half in the past, but as we embark today on what can accurately be called the "third age" of editing such texts, we have a tremendous opportunity to take stock of our relationship to our academic forebears.
As the study of Middle English continues to develop in our new millennium, its leading voices are becoming ever more interested in the "messy details," the exceptions and contradictions, of clerical and secular manuscript production. But the work of today's investigators is equally suffused by a fascination with the activities of modern editors, the invaluable teachers and researchers who transform medieval manuscript texts into classroom and scholarly editions. We are now able to see that the methods of textual recovery and editorial presentation in most twentieth-century publications had clear and uninterrupted precedents in the work of nineteenth-century pioneers like F. J. Furnivall and W. W. Skeat; our debt to the armies of contributors to the Early English Text Society and other collective philology projects is clear in their continued availability and use as authoritative texts. Our contemporary poststructural philology embraces, in short, at least as much desire to scrutinize our relationship to our modern predecessors as it does to scrutinize our ostensible medieval subjects--and while several gifted writers have shared truly innovative and thoughtful work with us in response to this disciplinary development, a mature and comprehensive interrogation of our textual role models remains some distance away. (2)
Whoever eventually undertakes the desirable project of narrating the full story of Middle English editing will find the heaviest task upon reaching the singularly fascinating topic of the organic text and its romantically conceived scribal environment. On the one hand, it will be an opportunity for a lot of undiluted, anecdotal fun--the approach-avoidance behaviors displayed by many editors toward the minutiae of scribal variation often seem like a visit to the Cirque du Soleil. But bringing an historical perspective to this phenomenon will also be fraught with danger, and for one clear reason: it will be a retrospective evaluation of a recognizably conflicted paradigm, and whoever accepts the role of evaluator will run the risk of becoming (or merely of becoming perceived as) a desecrator of the lifetime monuments of scholars who, directly or at a mere one or two removes, educated today's generation of specialists. One might be comforted by the fact that at some point in their scholarly careers most Middle English editors have equivocated about the distance between manuscript witnesses and their printed or e-texted counterparts--but putting this equivocation to a constructive and contextualized use is still such a new impulse that its motive may be easily interpreted as dilettantish or even just plain mean.
For example, what we are accustomed to finding in editions before, say, 1975 (when the publication of the Kane-Donaldson B-text of Piers Plowman initiated the now-legendary cascade reaction of public editorial angst) is that in place of a description of the editor's own method and assumptions there is consistent discussion of extrinsic variation (that is, a display of variants only in their relationship to the perceived organic textual tradition of a specific work) without a complementary discussion of intrinsic variation (that is, the nature of the variants in their intimate scribal environment). …