- Codex and Context: Reading Old French Verse Narrative in Manuscript
Keith Busby’s monumental enterprise is divided into two volumes or parts: Part I deals with questions centered on more internal evidence, whereas Part II delves into external matters of the “geography of the codex” and ownership. The two volumes are copiously illustrated—although it is a pity that color plates could not be included in light of the author’s careful attention to illustration, illumination, and rubrication—and fully documented. Medievalists will find each and every part valuable, although textualists, i.e., readers of Textual Cultures, will especially appreciate chapters 2–5 of Part I, so I will focus my comments on those chapters.
Based on his extensive experience examining manuscripts for the past two decades, Busby advances an arugment that is both simple and profound for medieval studies: because the texts upon which medievalists base their readings are most often modern editions, they fail to perceive the importance of their manuscript contexts on reading, reception, and interpretation. Although oft repeated and perhaps at times overstated—after all, Busby offers over 7,500 notes and fifty pages of bibliography, which means others are indeed conscious of the importance of manuscript work—the author’s point is well taken and supported by the work’s many case studies. Busby often portrays the idea of returning to manuscript studies as perhaps unpalatable, which is somewhat bewildering, for he often reaches exciting conclusions. We have, in fact, good reason to rejoice: a return to material philological concerns can only enrich scholarship and stimulate our students who too often take cultural studies, of which, I would argue, material philology is an example, as synonymous with postmodern literature.
The second chapter on scribal behaviour is excellent in scope and sequence, as it is divided into three sections: mirror copying; the willful scribe; and correctors and editors. The entire chapter takes as its anchoring point Bernard Cerquiglini’s conception of variance as a logical consequence of Paul Zumthor’s mouvance. Busby contends that these concepts have caught on favorably in North American universities for all of the fascination shown in the past two decades from the deconstructive, fragmentary, and unstable. Busby believes that the constant referral to the fluid nature of medieval texts in manuscript has resulted in a trivialization of these concepts, leading medievalists to believe that since we can never recover the Ur-dichtung of a given work, we can use any copy from any manuscript. [End Page 159] Busby wishes to counter this negligence—and every well-trained medievalist will surely call it negligence—by demonstrating just how variant scribal behavior can be in manuscripts.
The most interesting section of this chapter is Busby’s commentary on the famous scribe of Chrétien de Troyes’s romans: Guiot. Busby has worked extensively on Chrétien’s manuscripts, and he shows a deftness that few today could demonstrate: when he discusses Guiot’s work, it sometimes feels as though Busby is not discussing a scribe long dead, but rather a companion or colleague. Everyone assumes, or so assumes Busby, that Guiot is the “best” of Chretien’s scribes. Yet, as Busby so succinctly shows, Guiot makes some of the most radical changes to Chretien’s text. It would seem that the scribe had no stomach for the more violent or salacious details that Chretien included in his Arthurian tales. Guiot often replaced certain words or expressions with less offensive ones—for example, “de male hore” for “de pute hore” in v. 3435 of Perceval—or simply excised sections of text. Far fewer manipulations like this are present in Guiot’s copies of the romans antiques contained with Chretien’s texts in Paris, BnF fr. 794. Busby hypothesizes that Guiot believed the Troie or Brut had the weight of history behind it while Chretien was just some upstart that needed to be reigned in. All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable discussion...