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.

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