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Scribal Intentions in Medieval Romance: A Case Study of Robert Thornton

From: Studies in Bibliography
Volume 58, 2007-2008
pp. 49-71 | 10.1353/sib.2006.0001

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I. A Rationale of “Scribal Corruption”?

Although codicologists have long been familiar with the tendency among medieval copyists to shape their texts through amateur editing, the recent popularity of critical approaches that treat books as social constructs has renewed and redirected interest in this fact.1 Complexities introduced by independent-minded scribes, once approached solely as impediments to establishing archetypal readings, have now become a subject for analysis under broader interpretations of textual criticism. As Derek Pearsall notes, “scholars are learning the value of bad manuscripts: how in the work of interfering and meddling scribes, for instance, can be seen the activities of our first literary critics. The methods of compilers and manuscript editors of all kinds, whether professional or amateur, need to be studied, if we are to understand the reception and readership assumed for the literary works contained in their collections.”2 Sometimes, as in the case of Pearsall himself, this interest in scribal agendas has been presented as part of a wider critique of eclectic editing and its pursuit of authority. It stands to reason, though, that more precise knowledge about copying habits would be as much a boon to those seeking authorial readings as to their antagonists.3 Whatever a scholar’s attitude toward the issue of intention, it is hard to take exception to calls for increased understanding of those who shaped the evidence with which every textual critic, whether a disciple of George Kane or Jerome McGann, must inevitably contend.4

If a nearly universal desire for more thorough analysis of scribal intention can be taken as a given, the practicality of such study is far more problematic than many recent advocates of this methodology have been willing to admit.5 Identifying the contributions of individuals in any text represents a daunting task under ideal circumstances, but when collaborators are anonymous, indeterminate in number, and of unknown purpose, it requires overwhelming evidence to defend anything more than the most banal assertions. The collation of independent witnesses for at least one work in a manuscript is essential, of course, when isolating unique copying features. Still, even then it would assume much to attribute apparent tendencies to a single scribe, let alone extrapolate a coherent rationale of intervention, without first repeating this comparison across several other texts in the same hand.6 It is difficult to imagine how scholars lacking fortuitous textual circumstances could improve much on the standard description of usus scribendi already familiar to those even passingly acquainted with the works of Kane, Eugene Vinaver, or their predecessors.7 The most prohibitive requirement of studying unique scribal agendas is therefore the reliable identification of individual copyists with sizable oeuvres that encompass multiple texts extant in at least one other independent witness.

Among the select group meeting this minimal demand in full, Robert Thornton stands out as particularly well-suited for a case study in scribal intention owing to both his status as an amateur copyist and the well-deserved critical attention his writings have previously attracted. Thornton, otherwise an unremarkable member of the fifteenth-century English gentry, created two miscellanies intended for his family’s private edification: Lincoln Cathedral MS 91 (olim Lincoln Cathedral A.5.2) and British Library MS Add. 31042.8 These compendiums of devotional literature and courtly poetry, while doubtless shaped in part by the availability of suitable exemplars, also appear indebted to Thornton’s own tastes as an independent scribe.9 One example of these interests is his large collection of alliterative romances, which raises his work from curiosity to marvel with the inclusion of Wynnere and Wastour and the Morte Arthure among other noteworthy witnesses. Clearly, as the sole source for documentary evidence regarding these highly regarded poems, Thornton’s manuscripts possess enough historical import to justify reanalysis of his scribal habits. Yet while this selection of texts adequately explains his work’s literary interest, Thornton’s unusual freedom has direct bearing on our ability as textual critics to evaluate his intent as well: subject to external pressures less demanding than those facing professional scribes, Thornton had greater opportunity to develop idiosyncratic copying habits that suggest personal motives more nuanced than either expediency or accuracy. This providential combination...

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