Geoffrey Chaucer's moral ballade, which begins "Fle fro be pres & dwelle wib sobefastnesse," (1) has been known since the late nineteenth century, from Frederick Furnivall's Chaucer Society reprints onwards, (2) by the title Truth. (3) As the later printing period of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries began to produce more uniform, quasi-critical editions of medieval works, a trend for retitling those works was also established. Many of the titles of Chaucer's lyrics, such as Gentilesse and Lak of Stedfastnesse, are, like Truth, from Chaucer Society reprintings or, as with Womanly Noblesse and Merciles Beaute, from Walter Skeat's volumes. (4) The effort to invent or reformulate titles for these works intimates that there was something potentially deficient or problematic about them. A closer look at the manuscript witnesses of Truth appears to shed some light on the possible motivations behind the retitlings of later periods.
Over a third of Truth's manuscript authorities have no titles. Of these seven, the copies of Truth in British Library MS Cotton Cleopatra D.VII and MS Additional 22139 are particularly exemplary. In both chirographs, Truth is transcribed alongside three other Chaucerian lyrics, all of which are untitled. The Huntington Library Ellesmere text of Truth, found on the final flyleaves of this famous Canterbury Tales manuscript, is similarly transcribed without any form of accompanying title. (5) This is especially significant considering the attention to presentation, particularly in terms of illumination and decoration, evident throughout the rest of the Ellesmere manuscript. (6) One need not look too far for other examples, as a lack of manuscript titles characterizes many of Chaucer's other lyrics. An ABC appears untitled in nine of its sixteen manuscripts, and of the fifteen manuscript witnesses to Lak of Stedfastnesse, six are titleless. An argument concerning the minor status and/or brevity of the lyric as a genre could be made to explain such prevalence, but the phenomenon is not solely confined to lyric poems. Titular omission is also manifest in a longer poem such as The Legend of Good Women, which appears untitled in at least one of its manuscripts. (7) Certainly, as Priscilla Bawcutt points out in her edition of William Dunbar's poems, the untitled work was common beyond Chaucer's oeuvre: "During the Middle Ages many poems, particularly short ones, circulated without a title." (8)
Titles, then, did not always constitute part of a Middle English manuscript's ordinatio. Perhaps the titles of a specific piece were unknown to the scribe(s) or rubricator(s); maybe they were accidentally omitted. It is also possible that for some works or certain types of manuscript, they were deemed unnecessary; equally, however, titles may have been less significant, more tangential, in medieval literary processes than they are nowadays. When viewed against these frequent absences, the importance of the title for Middle English texts appears uncertain.
The remaining two thirds of Truth's manuscripts raise further questions about the significance of the title in the Middle Ages. While the lyric is titled in some form or another--whether opening, closing, marginal, or otherwise--in seventeen of its manuscript manifestations, not one of these titles is exactly the same. Some of the differences are the result of subtleties of word configuration, situation, and/or spelling. A number of the titles, though, are so dissimilar that it is hard to reconcile them. Consequently, Truth has chirographic titles as idiosyncratic as "A balade of Geffrey Chaucier vppon his dethe bedde lyinge in grete Anguysse," from British Library MS Cotton Otho A.XVIII and as seemingly misleading as "Prouerbium Scogan," a title unique to Oxford, Corpus Christi College MS 203. (9) Even so, these two examples represent the extremes. The bulk of the manuscript witnesses tend to contain variations on the "good counsel" titles, which were a popular choice among the early printers. …