Scribal Transmission and Revision
A work transmitted
by different scribes in different places, each for different audiences
– in what sense may it be compared to a work undergoing authorial
revision? The versions of the "Debate between the Body and
the Soul" were not copied out by a single author; we do not,
in fact, know who made the first version of this text which is,
itself, a translation from an earlier Latin poem. Scribes are not
often thought of as revisers; they are rather seen as pre-industrial
printing presses, and traditionally their changes to the manuscript
material that they copied have been seen as corruptions.
Yet it has been acknowledged that scribes would regularly alter the dialect of the manuscripts that they copied so that the works might be more easily read by their local audience. An edition of French troubadour poetry by Simon Gaunt and Sarah Kay also suggests that contrary to the traditional assumption that stanzaic variation represents scribal corruption, the corpus of troubadour poetry hints that "stanzaic variation, may, in fact, represent different interpretations, a deliberate rearrangement of meaning for specific effects." (1)
This on-line edition attempts to continue questioning of the role of scribe by allowing all the textual variations of the Middle English "Debate between the Body and Soul" to be studied at once. If scribes took the liberty to change the texts that they were copying, what were the effects of this revision of transmission? By reading the different versions, and by comparing the differences between stanzas, the level to which scribes altered these texts becomes clear. Though these seven versions all present the same work, each composition is unique – thereby challenging our modern notions of authorial and textual authority.
Simon Gaunt and Sarah Kay, eds. The Troubadours: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. 76.