A Medievalist’s Life: Editing Part 1 – Is it English?

According to the “Faculty and Staff” listing of my department here at The Citadel, I specialize in Medieval Literature.

That’s true, of course, but it’s also misleading.  Most medievalists will define Medieval Literature as works produced in at least a dozen languages between the years 500 and 1500 anywhere from Greenland to Constantinople. While I like to think I’m comfortable with a lot of that material, I sure couldn’t say that I specialize in it all.

No, if asked what I really specialize in — what I can do better than most folks on the planet — I’d have to say it is the editing of Middle English texts.

What is “editing,” you ask? Well, I’m going to do my best to explain it by walking you through the process in the next couple of posts here on my website.

Editing starts with a manuscript.  The one we’ll be looking at happens to be from the Bodleian Library at Oxford. It is one of two surviving manuscripts (the other is in the private collection of the Marquis of Bath) that contain a copy of the massive medieval poem that goes by the unwieldy title The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament (MEMPOT). As it happens, I have an edition of MEMPOT coming out soon, so this will be a hands-on exercise based on my own experience:

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Arch. Selden. Supra 52, fols. 1v-2r

At its core, editing is taking a poem like MEMPOT from manuscript contexts like this and putting it into an accessible format for students and scholars.

That might sound easy, but it ain’t.

To start, you need to be able to read the manuscript, which is sometimes easier said than done. Let’s zoom in for a closer look at part of the page shown on the right (the lower half of the right-hand page, to be exact):

A closer look at the manuscript.

I’ve underlined two bits in red, but you can ignore that for now.

For now, let’s just look at how fundamentally different the handwriting here is. The study of ancient scripts (and the surroundings in which we find them) is called paleography, and it’s sadly a dying art. I was quite fortunate to be trained in medieval paleography by the wonderful Timothy Graham, who literally wrote the textbook on the subject, and then to further my knowledge of it for years while working with the Middle English Texts Society. As a result, I look at the way these letters are shaped, the way the words are spelled, the abbreviations that are used, and the physical characteristics of the manuscript in which they are all found … and I can feel fairly confident that a man wrote this in the West Riding of Yorkshire circa 1425. He was also likely right-handed.

Knowing when and where this was written will eventually be helpful when trying to determine what sources the author might have used, but before all that it’s going to be helpful in just trying to read this text in the first place: our next step is to use our paleographical skills to copy out the text.  Here’s what that looks like, a transcription of the text above:

In this begynnyng god uus wysch well for werke with wyll and toyght
In this boke that cald is genesis ther may men see the soth unsoght
how god that beldes in endlese blyse all only with hys word hath wroght
hevyn on heght for hym and hys this erth and all that ever is oght
This erth was wyde and wast and no gud on yt grovyd
On the heght the holi gast abown the waters movyd

You can see, if you’re trying to follow along at home, that this is not quite a literal transcription. Medieval writers often made use of a whole system of abbreviations to save themselves time (these are based on earlier Latin systems), and I have expanded these abbreviations for you, marking them with underlines.

We now have an initial text to work with, but we’re hardly done. While this is already more accessible to most folks than the scribblings in the manuscript, there’s a lot more we can do to make this truly usable. We might, say, want to add punctuation and consistent capitalization (both of which are essentially unknown to our scribe). With a keen eye we might also note that while the lines copied as shown in the manuscript look like couplets, they are not. Each single line of the manuscript is actually two lines of poetry smashed together to save space. Making all those changes, we get this:

In this begynnyng god uus wysch
     well for werke with wyll and toyght
In this boke that cald is Genesis
     ther may men see the soth unsoght
How God, that beldes in endlese blyse,
     all only with Hys word hath wroght
Hevyn on heght for Hym and Hys,
     this erth and all that ever is oght.
This erth was wyde and wast
     and no gud on yt grovyd;
On the heght the Holi Gast
     abown the waters movyd.

Better, right?  Aside from the fact that it’s written in a 500-year-old Yorkshire dialect, this is getting quite readable, I think.

Indeed, we’re about halfway done with our editorial work now. In our next episode of “A Medievalist’s Life” we’ll finish it up with some glossing and some explaining.  Along the way, we’ll be asking that rather important but confounding question: Is it God or not?


  1. “At its core, editing is taking a poem like MEMPOT from manuscript contexts like this and putting it into an accessible format for students and scholars.”

    Sounds a bit like technical writing, only with bad handwriting and ancient languages. 🙂

    Seriously, Mike, this is quite fascinating. Do please continue.

  2. That’s an interesting insight into a medievalist’s life. I’d love to do this kind of editing myself someday. Thanks for the motivation and inspiration!

  3. You’re welcome, my sun-powered friend.

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