Academic journal article Arthuriana

Diplomatic Antiquarianism and the Manuscripts of Lazamon's Brut

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Diplomatic Antiquarianism and the Manuscripts of Lazamon's Brut

Article excerpt

The first vernacular version of King Arthur's story, Laæ amon's Brut, survives in two manuscripts: London, BL, Cotton Caligula A.IX and London, BL, Cotton Otho C.XIII.1 There has never been much critical resistance to the widespread presumption that the Caligula-text of the Brut is closer to the hypothetical original than the Otho-text, even after Neil Ker's thirteenthcentury date for the Caligula manuscript proved it to be roughly contemporary to the Otho manuscript.2 The poem itself is typically dated before Henry III's ascension in 1216, albeit on grounds I will call into question below.3 Hence, there is a general consensus that even though a gap of fifty years separates the poem's original composition from its two witnesses, one of those witnesses is more corrupt than the other.

In this article I will demonstrate that the more 'antique' features of the Caligula-text that have created this scholarly impression do not imply that the former text was a more accurate witness of an original than the Otho-text, as is typically supposed, but merely suggests that the tradition witnessed by the Caligula manuscript was more sensitive to the archaic features of Anglo-Saxon language in the text that established its authority as an historical narrative.4 When contrasted with Otho, the Caligula manuscript text maintains, and even increases, the text's authentic-seeming formal qualities as an ancient vernacular text. When contrasted with Caligula, the Otho-text seems relatively focused on maintaining, and even increasing, the readability of the text as a narrative.5 In this sense, the true difference between the texts of the Brut is not located in their contrasting relationships to the abstract authorial original which the two surviving manuscripts differently distort, but their contrasting means of achieving their common goal, which is to convince their readers of their own texts' authority. For this reason, the divergences between the two witnesses speak to the fragmentation in the thirteenth century of those formal strategies whereby historical and literary authority was established. The difference between the two manuscripts is best described as a reflection of the contrasting efforts by two groups of scribes and transmitters to impose later categorical divisions between legal documents and literary texts on an unusual text whose very existence challenges those categorical divisions.

The most influential articulation of the argument that the Caligula-text is the more authoritative copy of the poem appears in Eric Stanley's essay, 'Laæ amon's Antiquarian Sentiments.' Stanley argues that Laæ amon wrote his poem in a self-conscious imitation of Anglo-Saxon literature and employed antiquated forms of speech as what he calls 'ye olde signs' to make the poem seem older.6 Stanley's argument thus hinges on a recourse to aesthetic criteria, by which he determines that the Otho redactor gives himself away by not leaving in some of the best passages. The implication is that if the linguistic and codicological evidence cannot help us decide which manuscript is more authorial, we can rely on the critical consensus that the Caligula-text is the better poem.

Crucial to this argument is the apparently archaic diction of the Caligulaversion relative to the Otho-version: 'The Caligula scribes after some vacillation near the beginning of their work seem to have recognized that the antique flavor was a part of the poem,' while 'the Otho reviser cleansed the poem of poeticisms...because he was out of sympathy with the antiquarian modulation of the poet.'7 These arguments for the Caligula-text's aesthetic superiority have since been called into question on both theoretical and formal grounds: Lucy Perry, for example, observes how the very side-by-side layout of the EETS edition privileges the longer text as 'fuller.'8 In her 2006 dissertation, Charlotte England surveys the relationship between Otho-text and Caligula-text's readings in great detail, and presents serious challenges to any arguments that either text represents an editorial agenda of archaizing or modernizing the language. …

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