A Medievalist’s Life: Editing, Part 2 – Is it God or not?

In my last entry about the life of a medievalist, I tried to show what it means to “edit” a medieval text. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you go do that now so that you’ll understand how we got from this:

A closer look at our sample manuscript.

to 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.

As I mentioned last time, we’re about halfway through our editorial work at this point. What remains is some glossing and explaining.

To gloss a text, in the editorial sense I’m talking about here, is to provide your reader with some extra translation help. It’s important to note, in doing so, that as an editor we are making decisions that establish meaning for the text … but that in so doing we are cutting meaning out of the text. Indeed, we’ve been doing this all along.

Let me explain.

The “raw” manuscript page only starts to mean something when a person reads it. That person interprets the data on the page. An editor is really just a person who does a lot of the interpretive work for you, saving you the trouble of, for instance, traveling to Oxford and then going blind trying to read 500-year-old handwriting.

As such, though, an editor is at least partially in the business of destroying meaning. In theoretical terms, the raw page has an infinite number of interpretive possibilities; the edited page has far fewer. This makes a great deal of sense when you think about it. Looking at the text above, you can see that I established poetic line breaks, capitalization, and punctuation … on top of just deciding whether a scribble was a u or an n or to is or a v or whatever. Each time I did this — literally, every time I looked at a letter — I cut potential meanings out of the text.

Ideally, of course, the editor has perfectly good reason to cut out these alternative meanings, and nothing has really been lost. For instance, I’ve read the first word in the above as “In.” Truth be told, though, this same scribe could use pretty much the same scribble to write “Iv,” “Inn,” “Ivn,” “Iner,” or “Iver.” Since these alternative meanings result in gibberish, I’ve decided that it reads “In,” and I’m not really going to lose any sleep over it.

But it isn’t always that simple.

Indeed, sometimes it can be frightfully difficult to decide what to do as an editor, especially when you are aware (as you should be) that each act is establishing meaning, and that because most readers will never access the manuscript you are fundamentally making their choices for them. There’s thus a surprising amount of pressure to do the right thing.

To return to our example here, I’ve decided to help my readers even further by glossing the text. This means I’m going to translate what I think are the hard words, putting this information over in the margin. I can’t quite replicate the margin placement here, so you’ll have to use your imagination:

In this begynnyng God uus wysch          guide us
     well for werke with wyll and toyght.          thought
In this boke that cald is Genesis          book that is called
     ther may men see the soth unsoght          see the truth readily
How God, that beldes in endlese blyse,          who dwells
     all only with Hys word hath wroght          created
Hevyn on heght for Hym and Hys,          high
     this erth and all that ever is oght.          ever has been
This erth was wyde and wast          wide and empty
     and no gud on yt grovyd;          nothing good on it grew
On the heght the Holi Gast          on high; Holy Ghost
     abown the waters movyd.          above; moved

By translating these hard words, I hope you can see that I’ve gone even further toward establishing meaning by eliminating alternative meanings. This is tough stuff indeed.

And it gets worse. Because now I’m going to go through the final step of editing: explanation. I really love this part, frankly, as it requires a kind of wide-ranging thought that I seem to be pretty good at managing.

Most of the above poetry is pretty straight-forward once you get past the language barrier — this is, after all, a paraphrase of the opening lines of Genesis — but let’s look back at that fourth line, which is the first bit I underlined in red up above, and part of which (“only with hys word”) you can see here zoomed in really close:

To capitalize or not to capitalize, that is the question.

     all only with Hys word hath wroght     created

This is simple enough, right? We might paraphrase the paraphrase something like this: “God has created it all only with His word.”

But wait … “word” can have a couple of different meanings, especially in a theological context such as this. Here, for instance, is the explanatory note that I’ve written to accompany these lines in my forthcoming edition of the Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament:

Much depends on the editorial act of capitalization. What the poet means by hys word (line 42), for instance, is quite uncertain due to the lack of standardized capitalization practices within the vast majority of medieval manuscripts, including those associated with the Paraphrase. If uncapitalized, the poet’s phrase states only that God spoke Creation into existence — in accordance with the opening verses of Genesis 1. If capitalized, the poet’s phrase states that Christ (as Word) was the acting agent of Creation, a theological revision of Genesis through the lens of John 1:1–3: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was made.” As editor I have opted for the latter, capitalized reading, influenced by the poet’s observation, in lines 47-48, that the Holy Spirit was likewise in presence: since the Council of Constantinople in 381, the co-eternal and consubstantial nature of the Trinity has been the mainstream doctrine of the Christian Church (see Bell, Cloud of Witnesses, pp. 65-74). It is thus both doctrinally sound and rhetorically expected to find both Word and Holi Gast in united substance and action with God from the very beginning of this mammoth biblical paraphrase.

The problem, in other words, is whether “word” refers to God or not. As editor, I have to decide — since I can’t have it both ways — whether to capitalize the word in my text (making it God-the-Son acting as creative agent) or not to do so (making it God’s voice). Both readings are entirely logical, both are perfectly reasonable and theologically legitimate for the time and place.

Knowing Thinking what I do about the poet behind this work, I’ve chosen to capitalize the term, but I remain uncertain about it. There is a right answer here, but I cannot access it. I still think capitalizing it is the best choice — for the reasons I explain in my note, especially that appearance of the Holy Ghost just a bit further on (which is the other part underlined in red up above) — but it’s probably only a 51% likelihood in my mind. The odds might be in my favor (at least I think they are at this moment), though I confess they aren’t great.

At any rate, we’ve now edited 12 lines of this poem. If you’d like to read the rest of it, you only need to edit 18,360 more lines.

Or you can just buy my 700-page edition when it comes out this summer and hope that I made the right choices. 🙂


  1. Anita Livingston

    What patience it takes to do this type of editing, and now we see how difficult it can be to determine certain meanings in the translation. What an accomplishment when you finish! Future scholars will appreciate your time and effort, as they read your translations.

  2. I find what you do fascinating. Thank you for sharing this. You must have the patience of a saint to edit these manuscripts. For all the world, the example you showed doesn’t even look like it’s in English to me. This also a reminder that language is a continually evolving entity.

  3. I’m not ealsiy impressed. . . but that’s impressing me! 🙂

  4. @ Tayna Thanks for the thanks! And you’ll be among the first to accuse me of sainthood. 🙂

  5. Amazing work. Ever since I attended the course of Old and Middle English, I realized why was it so hard for people to learn how to read and write.

    Great job!

  6. Thanks, Lily. Always glad to hear how impressive I am. 😉

  7. Why aren’t Middle English texts ever published with Modern spelling as Shakespeare is? It is almost as though medievalists only intend other medievalist to be able to approach their writings. Surely something like this would be more approachable to the common man without a degree.

    In this beginning god us wis
    well for work with will and thought
    In this book that called is Genesis
    there may men see the sooth unsought
    How God, that builds in endless bliss,
    all only with His word hath wroght
    Heaven on hight for Him and His,
    this earth and all that ever is ought.
    This earth was wide and vast
    and no good on it groved;
    On the height the Holy Ghost
    aboven the waters moved.

    I’ve read the Old Testament but I imagine it would have taken considerably less time spelt like this. It would also make it easier to assimilate the unfamiliar vocabulary by not forcing the reader to hunt down the modern spelling and pronunciation.

  8. It’s a good question, Sam. The primary reason is that those spelling oddities contain a vast amount of data in terms of locating the time and place in which the text is composed. So in terms of usefulness to other researchers, the text needs to be preserved when edited. What the TEAMS series does is combine that research-useful text with extensive on-the-page glossing (the very thing those Shakespeare texts have) to result in what should be a fairly readable text for general readers, too.

    Is it the perfect text for ALL readers? No. Not at all. But a “translated” text wouldn’t be possible without the edited text. So now that I’ve accomplished that, perhaps next up will be that “easy” translated text!

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