- The Lytle Bibell of Knyghthod, Christine de Pizan's Epistre Othea, and the Problem with Authorial Manuscripts
Les tours de Fortune sont comme engins.—Christine de Pizan, Epistre Othea, British Library MS Harley 4431 (f.129r)
The wheel of Fortune is lyke an ingyne made to take fysche.—The Lytle Bibell of Knyghthod, British Library MS Harley 838 (f. 87r)
In cases like the above, it is not difficult to see that The Lytle Bibell of Knyghthod, a mid-fifteenth-century translation of Christine de Pizan's Epistre Othea surviving in Harley 838 (ca. 1450), does not quite match the contents of the Epistre in the Queen's Manuscript, Harley 4431 (ca. 1409–10). The notion in the Bibell that Fortune's turns resemble a trap specifically for catching fish seems unusual, enough for James D. Gordon to include it among his many examples of "intentional departures" and "decidedly weak translation," which he took as evidence "that the author had something less than an intimate knowledge of French."1 Similar skepticism abounds [End Page 100] in Curt F. Bühler's work on the Bibell, which he completed while preparing an edition of Stephen Scrope's translation: Bühler's notes frequently align the Bibell with sixteenth-century early printed editions, leading him to suggest elsewhere that the translation could have relied on Early Modern sources and thus not be medieval at all.2 In part due to these early editors' work in the 1940s and 1960s, the Bibell has been almost completely neglected by scholars, with in fact the only substantial study appearing since being my own earlier work published elsewhere.3 The Bibell is clearly an adaptation rendered with some freedom, rather than a strict translation, but, crucially, the translation is not nearly as flawed as earlier scholars concluded, and, as I argue, it is more important as a reflection of developing manuscript traditions, and it is more influential, than they suspected.
Scholarly missteps occurred because Gordon and Bühler assumed that any good rendering of the Othea would resemble Harley 4431. Early scholars accepted Harley 4431 as the "best" manuscript of the Othea, a decision heavily supported by more recent research. The scholarly consensus identifies the Queen's Manuscript as containing Christine's final revisions to the Othea, plausibly in her own hand, and it has been the base text for all modern editions and translations.4 However, to compare other medieval [End Page 101] or Early Modern copies and translations to Harley 4431 is problematic. Modern editorial practices that seek to access the latest authorial version or recreate authorial "intent" elide moments when errors or Christine's preferences or revisions in the moment of copying (if we accept Harley 4431 as an autograph) result in variants not attested in any other copy. The Queen's Manuscript contains numerous unique readings, some of which can be identified in Gabriella Parussa's meticulously prepared 1999 edition, which contains a list of variants and uses footnotes to identify editorial emendations.5 In addition, the Queen's Manuscript has no descendants among extant copies of the Othea, as the stemma from Gianni Mombello's monumental study of all manuscripts shows.6 Of course, this makes sense: the luxury manuscript was made with a specific reader in mind, and it would hardly be handed around the scriptorium as an exemplar for other copies or loaned out by its owner.7 Essentially, Harley 4431 may attest to [End Page 102] Christine's latest revision, but it is frozen in time, uncirculated, with no influence on other copies or on other literary texts. Our modern reliance on Harley 4431 therefore conveys an excellent sense of the author's process of revision, her human scribal error, and her momentary preferences, but it obscures the complexity of the multiple distinctive versions of the Othea that circulated among Christine's contemporaries.8
My point is that Harley 4431 is a misleading yardstick by which to measure the quality of the Lytle Bibell of Knyghthod, Stephen Scrope's translation, Pigouchet's and Le Noir's sixteenth-century editions, or even other manuscript copies of the Othea. Furthermore, evaluating the Bibell's relationship to the Othea...