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  • Compiling the Canterbury Tales in Fifteenth-Century Manuscripts
  • Simon Horobin

In recent studies of the manuscript tradition of the Canterbury Tales, scholars have considered the possibility that differences in the content and arrangement of the earliest manuscripts might be indicative of discrete stages of authorial revision. Such a view is not new; Walter W. Skeat was one of the earliest editors to raise such a possibility.1 Skeat viewed the order of the Hengwrt manuscript as representing Chaucer’s first attempt at arranging his work.2 This early stage was followed by four subsequent revisions, three of which Skeat viewed as authorial, the final as work of a later editor. The first of these rearrangements is represented by Petworth House MS 7, the next by Oxford, Corpus Christi College MS 198 and its textual twin London, British Library MS Lansdowne 851. Skeat attributed the final Chaucerian stage of revision to London, British Library MS Harley 7334, while the ordering of the Ellesmere manuscript, the basis of most modern editions of the poem, he considered to be a later scribal reworking.3 More recently, N. F. Blake has raised the possibility that some of the earliest manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales may have been written under Chaucer’s supervision, and that differences in content and tale order would therefore represent separate stages of authorial revision.4 Such evidence, Blake suggests, could be witness to different versions of the work: “a Canterbury Tales A text, a Canterbury Tales B text, and so on.” [End Page 372] If accepted, the proposals of Skeat and Blake would transform our view of the text, its contents and arrangement, and how it is edited and studied.

A related, yet distinct, view was proposed by Charles A. Owen Jr., who suggested a more radical understanding of Chaucer’s ordering of the Canterbury Tales, and of its reflection in the arrangements preserved in the extant manuscripts. Owen discounted any concept of a single authorized order, claiming that evidence of completeness in the early manuscripts is purely the result of scribal intervention. Having accepted this situation, Owen argued, it becomes possible to trace earlier stages in Chaucer’s plan for the work and the process by which it evolved. Rather than seeing the Canterbury Tales as a coherent and organized work, Owen viewed the text as a “collection of fragments reflecting different stages of [Chaucer’s] plan for the work as a whole.”5 The first stage that Owen identified within these fragments is a considerably simpler scheme, comprising just the Man of Law’s Prologue followed by the Tale of Melibee, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue followed by the Shipman’s Tale, and the Parson’s Prologue followed by the final tale. This scheme was subsequently expanded after two discrete periods of literary activity. The first period was characterized by “religious concern,” during which Chaucer wrote the Parson’s Tale and Retraction, and translated De contemptu mundi, an important source for the Man of Law’s Tale. The second period was more diverse but included the writing of the tales of the so-called Marriage Group, and with that the expansion of the role of the Wife of Bath. In proposing these distinct stages of authorial revision, Owen focused on references within the links and tales themselves, rather than on the evidence provided by the manuscripts. He argued that the Man of Law’s reference to a prose tale in his prologue indicated an earlier scheme in which he was to tell the prose Tale of Melibee, subsequently allocated to the pilgrim Chaucer. Similarly, the female pronouns used by the speaker of the Shipman’s Prologue indicate that it was originally intended to be followed by the Wife of Bath’s Tale. John Fisher has made similar claims for the identification of earlier stages in the composition process.6 Fisher argues that the Man of Law’s Epilogue was intended to function as a link between the Man of Law’s Tale of Melibee and the Shipman’s Prologue and Tale, told by the Wife of Bath. According to this theory, Chaucer’s original intention was that the Wife of Bath should interrupt the Host and the...


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pp. 372-389
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