Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

Daniel Wakelin: Scribal Correction and Literary Craft: English Manuscripts 1375-1510

Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

Daniel Wakelin: Scribal Correction and Literary Craft: English Manuscripts 1375-1510

Article excerpt


Scribal Correction and Literary Craft: English Manuscripts 1375-1510. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. xviii + 345 pp.

While I am interested in scribal assertions that religious texts have been scrutinized and corrected and intrigued by Chaucer's (ironic?) request for such correction in Troilus and Criseyde, I would not have thought a whole book might be written on the subject. And I fear that if Daniel Wakelin had expressed surprise to me at the vast number of scribal corrections one encounters in manuscripts, my response might have been a milder version of Joel Harris's: "So what?" (xi). This book demonstrates how wrong I would have been.

In a perceptive and stimulating Chapter 1, Wakelin explains the two halves of the book: the first suggests "that scribes strove to do a good job," the second that "the craft of correcting becomes a little like literary criticism" (8). Both are suggestions that the editor and critic of medieval texts may want to challenge (and this is a book that invites engagement and argument), but Wakelin is careful in arguing his case. "Certainly not" may change to "Well, if you put it like that" in the reader's responses to the sometimes counterintuitive statements made here.

The methodology (10-11) depends on a corpus of all the manuscripts with English in the Huntington Library: fifty-two once-separate books with primarily English content, plus fragments of English in twenty-eight volumes largely in Latin and French, all dating from the second half of the fourteenth century to the turn of the sixteenth century. The sample serves for tabular and statistical purposes, but Wakelin has also used manuscripts from libraries in Britain and the United States that are direct or cognate copies of other manuscripts (there is an index of manuscripts at 335-337). He has also read widely in sometimes surprising works on criticism, poetry, and craftsmanship.

There are four parts: Part I, "Contexts," Part II, "Craft," Part III, "Literary Criticism," and Part IV, "Implications." Part I begins with Chapter 2 ("Inviting Correction"), which is discursive and even playful at times. Chapter 3 ("Copying, Varying and Correcting") introduces the first of several tables with which the book is furnished. Table 3.1 cites the percentages of divergence in direct copies of the prose Brut and its continuation and in the Gilte Legende and the Canterbury Tales, while Table 3.2 does the same with cognate copies of the Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman. Tables are not to everyone's taste (and Wakelin does not ultimately make many claims for his), but one can see that the empirical work is necessary (whatever its inherent shortcomings) in the amorphous subject he has chosen to study. What these tables show is the small percentage of divergences (never more than 4 percent) and the variable (but never high) numbers of corrections that remove the divergences. Most of the variation that exists seems to be mechanical error, and, although Wakelin notes (perhaps ruefully) that some English manuscripts show deliberate variation, there is very little evidence of this in his samples (Table 3.3 lists those that do occur in two cognate copies of the Canterbury Tales).

Chapter 3 also considers the case of gaps rather than corrections. Wakelin's Huntington Library sample has examples of this in only ten manuscripts, one of which, a Canterbury Tales finished by Geoffrey Spirleng in 1476, has twenty gaps which can be compared with the exemplar (Table 3.4) to reveal a particularly conscientious and indeed timid scribe. The conclusions are that most scribes do not diverge from the text and that most corrections remove divergences (but only a fraction of a percent of divergence in the direct copies and only 3-4 percent in the cognate copies).

I describe Chapter 3 at some length in order to explain Wakelin's commendably painstaking methodology. Chapter 4 ("People and Institutions") offers a sensible overview of who scribes and correctors might be. …

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