The Medieval Writing Experience: Not Too Unlike Our Own

Now that we’re at the end of Chapter 1, we have learned about the different styles and quirks that ultimately make a scribe as well as the close-knit niche literary circles to which he/she belonged. Each author and scribe is mysterious in his/her own right to modern scholars, but I found it particularly interesting that Kerby-Fulton includes in the text some fairly well-known aspects of some of the major poets’ work that remind us of the modern fiction writing culture we experience in the modern day. We may not need to do any guesswork with books today (because we utilize advanced, digital printing technology and no longer need to copy material by hand), but author/editor purposes remain unchanged. In Piers Plowman, for example, the person who manually churned out his extremely long text (whether it was a “moonlighting” Langland himself or a hired scribe) was in charge of the codicology of the work: the hand in which it was written and the distinctive, telling traits of the manuscript writing itself. However, the author maintains his “overall tone of indignation” despite scribal control (73). Of course, if Langland was his own scribe, he had all the more power to keep his intentions intact. Chaucer is a prime example of scribal power vs. authorial intention; his unfinished Canterbury Tales were “ravaged by scribal intervention” and were likely subject to what Kerby-Fulton refers to as “rolling revision” (74-5), or continual editing. Chaucer’s poetry even directly criticizes his scribe Adam Pinkhurst/Scribe B as a rapist of sorts – one who has too much power to change and permanently mess up the original author’s work. In the end, though, I perceived both Chaucer and Langland as effective authors due to their unique, even radical tones. In the ever-hilarious Miller’s Tale, Chaucer’s “insistent use of ‘hende’ [is] as overt to medieval readers as it is to us” (85). If you’ve ever read this story, you know that it is what we have come to know as quintessentially Chaucerian in working class subject matter and playful tone. Nicholas is young, cunning, and sexually forward with Alisoun, his equally vulgar female partner; hence his description as “hende”/”handy.” It makes one wonder, though, how much of it is Chaucer’s own voice.

The Scribe

On page 78 in our reading for today begins a section entitled “Professional Scribes, Commercial Scribes, and Booklet Production.” Here the authors make the distinction between the “professional”–a scribe who works in some sort of legal or bureaucratic capacity, and the “commercial”–a scribe who is paid to produce works for others. The interesting relationship between the professional and commercial scribe, according to the authors, is that they are often the same person. It is fascinating to consider that the same scribes who would work all day in a courtly or legal setting would then go home (or elsewhere) to moonlight. This concept brings about two associations in my mind: one, that the scribes loved the art of manuscript production so much that they would willingly do continue the process in their free time, and two, that scribes simply used their skills for supplementary income. Both ideas add a very humanizing element to a group of people who often seem distant and unknown. The image of some medieval scribe working on a commissioned piece in his home after work brings about all sorts of questions. Did most scribes have the necessary materials to work outside of their places of employment? Where those places even separate from their home? How well known were individual scribes, and what was the process for requesting a commission? What was the quality of life for an average scribe (did they hold any sort of celebrity status)?

On this website,

Making Books for Profit in Medieval Times

which looks eerily familiar, I found a quote from an unnamed scribe saying, “For so little money I never want to produce a book ever again!” I wonder if this sort of sentiment was commonly felt by other scribes of the period.

Mysteries Behind the Manuscripts

In Chapter one of Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts, the author goes into detail about the different variations that have been made of the Canterbury Tales. Many things stood out to me about this. For instance, the fact that not a lot is known about the original compilation of the tales and why Chaucer did not finish his tales. I thought it was really interesting to see a side by side comparison of the HG and the EL manuscripts and how the scribes decided to order the tales. Many of the tales stay in the same place in both manuscripts, but then some of the tales such as “Man of Law’s Tale” are in completely different places. Did the different scribes find different meaning in this tale? And if so, why did they choose to put it where they did?

Another major mystery that goes along with the Canterbury Tales is the mysterious ending of the tales. The author of OEMUM goes into detail about how each scribe handled the ending of “The Cook’s Tale”. The two manuscripts that the author looked into, HG and EL, both did not try to cover up the ending up the cook’s tale by adding information on Gamelyn, but some of the other manuscripts that were written in this time period did. I thought this was incredible that some scribes actually decided to change the work of Chaucer by adding a complete new ending to the story. Some of the scribes supposedly did this in order to make the story more finished and, supposedly, better. In my opinion, I think leaving Chaucer’s original work is much more satisfying, even if it is not finished.

I was amazed to read about all of the unknown things that surround the Canterbury Tales. As one of the most iconic works in literary history, you would think that they would know much more about it. It was very interesting to me to read about all of the different theories surrounding the manuscripts and all of the scribes. The fact that something with such little information on it is so iconic, even centuries later, just makes the Canterbury Tales even more intriguing to me!

What’s the Story?

In Chapter 1 of Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts, we go into detailed study surrounding the content and reproduction of Piers Plowman from scribe to scribe. In viewing these various manuscripts, the question is posed as to whether metrical changes are made by William Langland or Scribe D. It’s possible that the manuscripts in question were actually drafts written by Langland, as our texts says possibly drafted “without alliteration… then worked them up” (OUMEM 73).

If this is true, William Langland’s case study would have some curious implications for the creative writing process of the late fourteenth century. For one thing, it would mean that at least Langland was more preoccupied with the story he was telling than the poem’s metrical effects. Were Langland and other authors trapped in the popular genre of their era? Surely the intellectual community of Britain during this time was exposed to non-rhyming prose, whether it was verbal story telling or copies of ancient Greek prose. Of course, we do not have enough information to comment on the intentions behind Langland’s writing process, because he may have always intended for poetry to carry the final product. However, the question is worth asking considering the content of his poem; a clear message is being sent about the church as a corrupt governing body, so it would be interesting to see if poetry was the necessary medium for reaching a wider audience, while the content carries the weight.

Images as Distracting or Beneficial

A few classes ago we talked about the debate over images in manuscripts. I think it’s interesting how in today’s society we almost get annoyed or uninterested if there aren’t images to go along with the text. Advertisements, magazines, and newspapers without images fail to capture our attention. When it comes to images in the realm of advertising, people are hired and paid huge sums of money to specifically read audiences in order to understand what audiences find most interesting and attention catching. It is crazy to think that in the times of the medieval manuscripts we are studying that images were almost taboo. In the end, obviously images were permitted but only on the grounds that they helped the illiterate understand the text and they helped drive further the meaning of the text. However, I found an “article” that highlights some odd and interesting images in medieval manuscripts that seem to stand in opposition to necessary images. Although I’m not sure how accurate they are, I do find them highly entertaining.

Punctuation, Intertextuality and the Standardization of English

The section that intrigued me the most about chapter one of the OUMEM begins immediately after the chapter’s introduction- particularly the discussions of punctuation and figurative language in early medieval manuscripts.  In the poem modernly referred to as The Blacksmiths, the speaker narrates the happenings of two blacksmiths at work.  He/she uses onomatopoeias to create the noises of the blacksmiths panting from their work as well as pounding iron- “tik . tak . hic . hac .” and so on (Kerby-Fulton 42).  The scribe uses the periods as an indication of where the reader should stop or pause.  With a pause between each noise, the reader can more realistically imagine the blacksmiths swinging their arms into their air (the pause) before crashing their hammers down into the softened metal (the onomatopoeia).  Simple punctuation was nothing new at this time period; upon a small bit of research I learned that periods (or similar punctuation symbols) could be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman writing- the “periods” signaled when/how long the orator should pause before continuing.  Although punctuation was far from becoming standardized, we see here some of the earliest predecessors to modern English grammar.  The purpose of the periods in this excerpt from The Blacksmiths is to render the poem more intelligible to the reader.  Punctuation essentially serves that exact same function today.

Another interesting point this chapter raises is the presence of idioms in early English manuscripts.  Kerby-Fulton points out two uses of the regional word “goke/goky” to refer to a cuckoo- one of the northern dialect in Chorister; one from the Southwest Midlands dialect by Langland.  She mentions that it is uncertain whether this example of jargon was common throughout different regions or whether it was a “signal of influence” (44).  As many of you guys have already noted on this blog, the concept of intertextuality in a world before printing presses, widespread literacy and the standardization of written English is incredible.  Yet the content of the stories in these manuscripts were likely spread orally as well as through print media.  It’s amazing to think of the pains the people went through to create and spread information and literature.  In the modern world of print and digital media, it’s something we definitely take for granted today.

Making Connections: Scribal dialect, spoken dialect, written word.

Strangely enough, like Sienna noted, it didn’t really occur to me that Langland, and all Middle English manuscripts creators existed in a world of multi-media – written and spoken word. In their time, even more than modern time, spoken narratives and verse were incredibly popular. This post links the concept of multi-media to what Thomas posted about spoken dialect. There is a good amount of influence between the way that different dialects influence the technique of creative writing, specifically Langland’s alliterative verse. A way to answer this question that the reading provides is to study the manuscript much like an archeologist studies a fossil. When you examine the details of scribal hand technique you get another form of media, the “dialect” of the hand of the scribe. Even with this form of what the OUMEM calls “paleographical dating” there are questions and discrepancies, however. “one can be fooled by…an older scribe who has not kept up to date with changes in script, or a young scribe trained by an older one in some remote area, or a scribe who is simply albiet awkwardly imitating an older hand”. This does allow another media to synthesize information through and to study as it converses with itself and evolves over time.
In regards to dialect and words, the evolution of alliterative verse as a technique that marries written and spoken word shows “evidence …of a still comfortably, playfully trilingual world.” The use of certain phrases and idioms for the sake of alliterative verse shows the vocabulary pool that the copyist or scribe of the time had to choose from. Often, scribes would rewrite some poems to fit the alliterative style of the entire anthology or put two poems side by side which marry somehow through stylistic technique, content or context. The first chapter of OUMEM addresses this phenomenon when they are discussing the Harley scribe and compiler on page 46.
The choices of stylistic technique and ordering of anthologies that scribes and compilers made can provide evidence about the constantly evolving influence that dialect, language, and scribal technique had on the world of readers and vice-versa; these choices can also provide evidence of the attitude of the scribe themselves.

Developing the English Voice

After reading the last passage in the book, one thing that stuck out to me were how diverse the dialects across the English region were. The book lists Worcestershire, East Anglia, Yorkshire, Anglo-Ireland, as well as London as epicenters of various regional forms developing out of Anglo-Saxon English. I find it really interesting that in a space we would consider to be somewhat concentrated in our Modern world, that such a diversity in language can be found.

The book also mentioned how these various regions developed their prose and alliterative verse differently. The purpose of the structure of writing was to prompt the reader to take breaths and pauses where necessary when reading the text aloud. I thought this was really interesting when considering the various regions and their different uses of the English language. Today, when people from different parts of England (or even our country, for that matter) speak, there is a notable difference despite speaking the same language. The region as a collective has its own distinct sound and tone when using the language, speaking at pace particular to the region. For example, when considering the U.S. for instance, one typically describes the South as having a “slow drawl” while the North is seen as more fast- paced and abrupt speech. I wonder if these different regional tones and manners of speech may have developed due to the way that each region wrote them structurally. How has punctuation and structure affected regional tonality and accent?

Here’s a video where a guy uses 67 different accents in the English language that are all particular to a place/ region:

Patterns and Points

One of the questions posed in our reading for today dealt with the possibility f intertextuality. In some cases the Piers manuscript uses idioms which seem to echo another Manuscript the Chorister’s. In certain passages of the Chorister the author uses idioms which occur in Piers some year later. The reading suggests that there are two possibilities hear: either Langland is referencing the work in Chorister or he is referencing and idiom that this other author also referenced because they were both clerks running in circles in which the idioms were common. Personally I find it hard to decide which of these possibilities were more likely. Langland is proven to favor intertextuality, the reading suggests that Piers is a distillation of works Langland read as a child and an adult (as all writer do he used what he knew). But would it have been ore likely that he heard these idiom’s by word of mouth. What is interesting to me is that for the first time I am realizing that Langland (and writers like him) exist in a world of multimedia: oral and written. Langland derived his speech from his people and his books: that way it is impossible to tell which propagated certain features of his text. Today we live like this, being bombarded with idioms and phrases which are outside our dialect, which we use just as readily as we might some words more natural to our dialect. I think it is fascinating that or book traces the way Langland might or might not have been influenced by his surroundings.

A Strange Hand

In the third section of chapter 1 (of the OUMEM) “Gawain and the Medieval Reader: The Importance of Manuscript Ordinatio in a Poem We Think We know,” the authors begin with a discussion about the anachronistic use of Gothic textualis rotuna media in Cotton Nero. That is, a style characteristic of the 13th century present, here, in a manuscript that dates to the second half of the 14th century. Scholars refer to this as a “strange hand.” They conjecture that this anachronism is due to the scribe’s, supervisor’s, or patron’s feeling “that this was the kind of script appropriate to English verse.”

This idea is one of many that I’ve come across that brings the scribes and audiences of these medieval times to the present and humanizes them. They exhibit cultural tendencies and develop habits the same way we do. It is a misleading result of our orientation to history that we wouldn’t expect, say, a scribe from one century to become preoccupied with a convention from a prior century. It is this misconception that persons from one historical period wouldn’t be conscious of a prior one–that we, in the present, are the grand observers of all these compartmentalized historical periods that weren’t, themselves, curious or aware of their own history, which came before (redundancy?).

This phenomenon is analogous to our own aesthetic preferences and usages of past styles (music, fashion, literature, film, etc.) We even have medieval and gothic and just about an period’s style fonts available on word processing applications, to make a more direct analogy. Its natural that there would be manuscripts with a “strange hand.”