Thursday, October 5, 2006

How much Middle English spelling can students take? Or: on choosing an edition of Malory

OK, folks, once again I’m asking for your input in designing my classes for next term.  No, I’m not lazy – I just think I’ve reached the limits of my own bright ideas and need fresh thinking.

Last time I taught my upper division medieval survey class, I taught Malory’s Morte Darthur from the Norton Critical Edition, edited by Stephen H.A. Shepherd.  (That link takes you to the Amazon page, and it’s worth a whole ‘nuther post to discuss the baffling ways in which Amazon thinks one edition of a text is the same as the next.  The “search inside this book” function takes you to the Penguin edition and the customer reviews discuss other editions as well.)  While you can’t see it on the Amazon page, Shepherd’s edition for Norton is really, really cool.  Not only is it in Middle English, but it tries to reproduce the visual experience of the Winchester manuscript by reproducing the marginal decorations and the rubrications of proper names, albeit in black and white (he uses bold and a slightly larger font).  There’s something really stunning about the pages where battles and feast take place and lists of names are invoked, because when one looks at it without actually reading it, one is confronted by a sea of ink that turns the epic catalog into a visual effect instead of a rhetorical one.  I’m not sure what the theoretical import of that is, but I think my students get it more immediately than they would by simply reading the lists.  And the marginalia is interesting as a way of finding one’s place in the text and also perhaps seeing what Malory or his scribe thought was significant.  In addition to the marginalia and the tricks with bold, Shepherd has used something along the lines of the so-called Old English font for the entire text.  Of course, that doesn’t really reproduce the hand of the manuscript, and a modern typeface/font is thoroughly anachronistic, but then the Morte Darthur is itself an anachronistic feast of nostalgia, so on some meta-commentary level, I think it works.

But here’s the deal.  It’s certainly a lot harder work for the students to read.  Malory’s Middle English is much easier than Chaucer’s, but when you add that funky typeface, even familiar letters get hard to discern.  In some ways, that’s good.  I like students to be a little defamiliarized from a story that’s been replicated so much they think they know it and they think they know what it’s “about.”  But, practically and realistically speaking, it’s rough going for them.  That was especially true last year when I assigned Malory in chronological order – thus, at the end of the semester – and assigned a lot of the work, just when they were overwhelmed with papers and projects in other classes.  So next time, I may start with Malory.  There are theoretical reasons as well as practical ones to do this.  Malory’s text is the only one on my syllabus that had an immediate print life and was circulated and read continuously from its own day to ours  – whereas all the other texts we discuss disappeared for centuries at a time.  So Malory is a direct link between our reading world and the medieval one.  (Chaucer, let me remind you, is a separate course at my institution.) And I can use it to emphasize what print did, how it affected what we read and how we read, and contrast it with the Norton’s simulacrum of a manuscript (not to mention the ways Caxton shaped the text, and the way modern editors, including Shepherd, shape it as well).

But – and here, finally, are my questions to you – should I assign an easier-to-grasp edition?  One that doesn’t make the very letters and words difficult to perceive?  When we assign Middle English texts with original spelling, are we mystifying rather than illuminating the Middle Ages?  And more practically speaking, are we turning off legions of students who can’t get past the intimidating surface of Middle English?  Will I turn students off of Malory and thus risk turning them off of my course in general if I start with the Norton edition?


Virgo Sis said...

Could you use the Shepherd/Norton text but put "easier" versions on reserve for those who need them? That would get them into the library!

negativecapability said...

(totally gut-level personal-experience response ahead): I really hated it when assigned "easier" editions as an undergraduate, especially as an undergrad. I actually felt kind of insulted that my profs didn't think upper-level English majors could handle middle English. Then again, I'm in graduate school in English now so I'm probably not normal. I would have entered grad school as a medievalist if I had encountered the original texts - just having read translations I had this idea that the middle ages was kind of boring and uncomplicated.

I think vs' suggestion is a good one - tell them you'll be using that edition in class and they're required to cite it when writing, but if they need the aid of a translation they are available (even I get help from reading a translation when I'm reading something like Langland). I did this with the Norton Chaucer this semester in a survey and encouraged the students to bring in whatever translation they were using (usually on online version). I was able to make a big impression with the Wife of Bath's Tale about how much they would have missed had they only read the translation.

Rob Barrett said...

I would ditch Shepherd: his typographical choices make for a distracting read (even for me). I'd recommend using Helen Cooper's Oxford World classics edition (if you must have Winchester) or the Penguin Classics edition of Caxton's Malory (the version read by most post-Malory and pre-Vinaver audiences). If you want to talk about alienation effects and defamiliarization, why not give the students photocopies of different editions (including a page from the Winchester MS) and ask them how the bibliographic codes of the various texts affect reception.

As you note, Shepherd's typographical choices are faux-medieval in any event (it's telling that you admit his edition is a "simulacrum of a manuscript"). Why alienate your students for what's surely a minor part of your total interpretation of Malory?

But then you're clearly more interested in book culture and textual production than I am--I never spend any time discussing the Caxton/Winchester distinction when I teach Malory, primarily because I'm concentrating on either the conventions of romance (genre analysis) or the gap between Malory's nostalgic knighthood and the realities of the War of the Roses (historicist analysis).

The entire situation is why I prefer facing page editions: the original is there if needed, constantly reminding the students that they're getting a translation/modernization, but comprehension is emphasized over fidelity. At the undergraduate level, that seems like an acceptable trade-off.

Dr. Virago said...

Rob, your comment made me laugh because I realized that I'm *just* as interested in the kind of genre and historicist analysis that you are interested in, and, as you point out, the manuscript/print stuff is only one portion of what I do. And your comment is exactly what I needed to read/hear, too, because I was having a hard time giving up the just plain neat-o factor of the Shepherd edition.

That said, Virgo Sis's compromise was a good compromise! And NC -- thanks for the perspective of an undergraduate who didn't want to be babied! But Rob, I think bringing in samples of various editions would make my point well enough and then students can concentrate on the content of the text.

Plus, thanks for the Cooper suggestion. I'd forgotten there was an alternative to the Vinaver edition for Winchester MS versions. I was thinking I might have to settle for the Penguin, but no longer! Woo-hoo! (I'm not really all that invested in the Winchester/Caxton face-off, but there are little bits of the Winchester version that I prefer. It's really just a matter of taste.)

And yay facing-page editions! (Just saying.)

Rob Barrett said...

Dr. V., sorry to imply you don't do formal analysis/historicist analysis. It's just that other posts on this blog have made it clear to me that you have a strong interest in medieval book culture and manuscript production--you've taught a course on those issues, yes? :)

Cooper's edition is pretty solid with one exception: she tends to cut out sections of text within the romances she excerpts from the Winchester MS. Those omissions are marked with asterisks, but students would have to look up the notes signaled by the asterisks to release what's going on--and, as we both know, many undergraduates ignore the notes.

Dr. Virago said...

Rob -- Oh, I'm totally obsessed with manuscripts these days. Clearly. But I knew you knew I did other things in the classroom, too. I just found it funny that lately my obsession with manuscripts has made me forget that I teach other ways of approaching texts. I had kind of a "duh!" moment when reading your comment -- and really needed it, too!

I haven't, btw, taught a manuscript class per se -- I just try to bring as much of manuscript and book culture into my lit classes as possible. So much so that my colleagues are joking that I'm going to start raising sheep on campus green so that I can make vellum and have students make their own manuscripts! Hey, one of my colleagues has a small printing press and does a print bookmaking class, so maybe I *should* start a scriptorium! :)

I don't know why I've moved from performance to manuscripts, by the way. I'm still trying to figure that one out. I'm a little obsessed with appropriation, audience, and reception in general, I guess.

Dr. Virago said...

OH, and thanks for the warning about Cooper.

Ian Myles Slater said...

At Amazon, it really doesn't matter which version of a book a reviewer selects to review. The software may lump and split reviews arbitrarily, and careful considerations of one translation, or edition, may end up with all the others. (Protests are usually ignored.) But small differences in cover titles between printings may produce several pages for what are, in fact, identical texts, and the reviewer may have to submit multiple times to cover them all.

In the case of editions of Malory, which are so various, I wound up posting a review of the Norton edition in conjunction with the old-spelling Oxford paperback of Vinaver's "Complete Works" edition, which has its own page because the title doesn't match. This allowed me to do some justice to both, without being more confusing then necessary. I mentioned these, but considered only editions of Caxton's text, with a strong preference for the Penguin edition, on the "Morte D'Arthur title. (The latter review is now back on page 2.)

I agree about the Cooper edition (which I mentioned in passing). The Lumiansky edition, in modernized spelling, used to be an easy alternative as well; unfortunately, it seems to be out of print. If there are library copies available, it might be a something else to add to the reserve shelf.

The on-line "Companion" to the Norton Critical Edition" is "unavailable" at the moment, although it was operating nicely a couple of days ago. I'm assuming that the problem is temporary. A link to it can still be found on the Norton page for the book (

History Geek said...

As a student I'd want do be working with the Norton Critical Edition.

Maybe you could link them to a more easy to read copy on the web or as another commentor suggested have the other edition on reserve in the library?

I really can't a student taking a upper division medieval survey course and NOT expecting to have to read middle english. It's like the young man in my Chaucer class that complained a good deal about having to read Chaucer in middle english. (He either droped or just quit attending classes. Perpahs he was tried of us glaring at him when he'd complain before class?)

I so envy your students next term, and can only hold out hope they offer something simliar at my college soon.

Ecce Equus Pallidus said...

I just want to second (third?) the recommendation of the Cooper edition of the Morte. I'm not sure if she revised the text at some point or not, but I have a copy of her edition, dated to 1998, and the omissions are now summarized briefly in the main text of the book, rather than marked out with asterisks and summarized in the end notes.

Frankly, if the Norton edition didn't use a strange typeface, I would be inclined to jump on the bandwagon of support for that book, but while I think it's fair to expect students ot read Middle English, and to deal with the non-normalized spelling, but a font that makes them work physically harder to read the book, rather than asking them to work harder intellectually, seems a bit unfair. In addition, I suspect it would be more likely to lead to students giving up on their reading than odd spelling, but I have nothing to back up my suspicion.

Gillian said...

Don't compromise on the edition. This one suits your teaching goals, so go with it. Students can be eased into typeface and language and content, though. Maybe an exercise where they compare extracts from the different editions and make sense of the editorial choices? Or maybe an exercise where they do a retelling of a particularly cool episode, so they are forced to engage with the narrative closely from very early on?

Rob Barrett said...

It's worth noting that Cooper's Oxford World's Classics text is not a translation of Malory--it's a modern-spelling edition. The syntax and vocabulary are still Middle English, making the volume less of a compromise than it seems.


It may be worth pointing out, for those unfamiliar with it, that the main text of the Norton Critical Edition is in Fairfield Medium (and Bernhard Modern for display), which are quite normal modern typefaces. The odd-looking Cloister Black (which would not have been my first choice, either) is used for the rubricated passages in the Winchester MS. (And for some which should have been, if the scribes had been consistent). Since this includes all personal names, the mix of types gives the pages an extremely odd appearance; but no less so than some web-pages.

The use of an ornate display type for this purpose does have the advantage that it is unlikely to be changed in later printings. I have seen books in which actual red ink was used for the purpose, but were reprinted in all-black type.