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Representing the Middle English Manuscript

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 September 2014

Derek Pearsall
Affiliation:
Former Professor and Co-Director of the Centre for Medieval Studies, York, and Professor of English at Harvard University
A. S. G. Edwards
Affiliation:
University of Victoria
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Summary

The relationship between older texts and post-medieval strategies for representing them goes back to the beginnings of printing in England. The earliest printers reflected some awareness of the distinctiveness of their received materials. Caxton, for example, included a thorn sort in his fonts for printing Middle English. In the mid-sixteenth century John Day printed the first book using specially cut Anglo-Saxon types. But for about 250 years after the introduction of printing into England the standard form of representing Middle English was by black letter. A typographic form that was initially the norm for all printing became increasingly restricted to certain specific categories of texts after the introduction of roman and italic fonts to England in the early sixteenth century. All editions of Chaucer down to 1721, for instance, were printed in this way, and it was the conventional way of representing passages of Middle English in works printed in other types. This strategy obviously both signified the historical distance separating the original from the present and embodied it in what was increasingly from the early sixteenth century an ‘archaic’ form, one that offered a visual correlative to the lexical, dialectal and syntactical antiquity of the original.

Such signalling is itself a reflection of the increasing incomprehension in the post-medieval period about Middle English. Urry's 1721 Chaucer edition, the first printed in roman type, is, among other things, an acknowledgement that the distance of time had created the need for other strategies than black letter to represent what was, in effect, now an alien language.

Type
Chapter
Information
New Directions in Later Medieval Manuscript Studies
Essays from the 1998 Harvard Conference
, pp. 65 - 80
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2000

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