Oct 27, 2014

Latin Glosses to Chaucer's Tales

San Marino, Huntington Library MS EL 26 C 9 (Ellesmere Chaucer), fol. 63v

Most people interested in a medieval work will turn to a modern edition in order to read a text. Modern typefaces are easier for most modern folks to read than medieval scripts. Explanations provided by editors of these editions can prove invaluable for attempting to understand parts of the work that use archaic vocabulary or refer to practices or events no longer typically in use. Unfortunately, many of these editions relegate marginal annotations found in the manuscript to footnotes, endnotes, or appendixes – if they are included at all.

Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales MS 733B
Some marginal scribblings are just that. They give names of readers who have practiced their signatures, or are attempts to practice writing the alphabet, or other pen trials. They can provide a wealth of information about a manuscript’s history, but in most cases they do little to add to the work. Other marginalia are meant to comment upon the text itself, written by readers who are responding with quotations from other relevant material, summations of a story’s “moral,” or indications of important points.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer exist today in a plethora of manuscripts. The earliest, most well-known and often-edited of these are the Hengwrt manuscript (Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales MS Peniarth 392), and the Ellesmere manuscript (San Marino, Huntington Library MS EL 26 C 9); both of these manuscripts were copied by the same scribe, Adam Pinkhurst, shortly after Chaucer’s death.

The Canterbury Tales is a relatively long work, containing many tales and links. Both the Hengwrt and the Ellesmere, along with many other Tales witnesses, contain numerous marginal glosses, many of which are in Latin, and are relatively stable (Kerby-Fulton 210). The earliest copy of many of these glosses is the Hengwrt manuscript, and many of the glosses that appear in Hengwrt also appear in Ellesmere, although Ellesmere also includes glosses not found in Hengwrt. Other notable vernacular, non-biblical works that use a Latin apparatus include Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes and John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (209).

The Latin glosses of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue add a tier of learnedness in two senses. Firstly, medieval authors wanted to impress their audiences by slotting their work into the already-established literary tradition. The most prestigious literary works were in Latin, and associations with great Latin works, even in vernacular literature, presented a new work with an air of authority (Caie, “I Do Not Wish” 11). Many scholars suggest that the Latin annotations to the Canterbury Tales were added in order to confer this authority upon the work (Pearsall 19).

Portrait of Chaucer from the Ellesmere MS


The other way in which the Latin annotations in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue are meant for tiers of learnedness is apparent to the reading audience (Kerby-Fulton 218). The Latin glosses accompanying the Wife of Bath’s Prologue refer to sources which would immediately refute many of the Wife’s arguments for marriage and re-marriage. One of the most often-cited texts in the Wife’s Prologue is Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum. This text is, roughly, an argument Jerome writes against Jovinian’s belief that marriage was equally as holy in the eyes of the Lord as virginity. An extremely learned reader would read the Wife’s argument, read the Latin gloss, and recall Jerome’s position. This reading would place the Wife’s argument, that of an uneducated woman, against the highly respected Jerome. “One might therefore assume that the glossator is deliberately turning our attention to the application of the text, and forcing us to compare that application with the teller’s [Jerome’s] own use of it” (Caie, “Significance” 77). The arguments the Wife makes, in this context, appear misguided, if not wrongheaded. Such misapplication of biblical quotation allows consideration of whether or not a layperson like the Wife of Bath ought to be entrusted with the ability to apply such an important text, an argument in which Chaucer’s contemporaries would have been interested.

A slightly less learned reader might not have Jerome’s treatise readily in mind, but nevertheless would be able to read the Latin glosses provided. These readers would probably recognize the Latin biblical quotations, though they probably would not realize that they were reading them through Jerome’s treatise rather than in direct translation. In the case of the Ellesmere manuscript, where both text and glosses are written in the same script and are carefully planned for (Doyle 51), these marginal arguments would appear to weigh against the Wife’s. Graham D. Caie describes this interplay in “The Significance of Marginal Glosses in the Earliest Manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales”: “The glossator prompts the reader to compare the interpretive context of the quotation, perhaps remembering its usual application” (77).

Portrait of the Wife of Bath from the Ellesmere MS
Other readers, able to read the English text but unable to comprehend the Latin glosses, would read the Wife’s arguments in much the same way as students, reading from editions which do not publish the Latin glosses next to the text, often do today (Blake). To these readers, the Wife’s arguments stand up relatively well, although they come off somewhat boldly. Among this readership, according to Susan Schibanoff, is also likely those to whom the text was read aloud. Schibanoff argues that it is unlikely that those who read the text aloud to listening audiences would also  have read the marginal glosses present in the work, leaving the higher tiers of learned reading of this text unavailable to the uneducated audience (Schibanoff 47-48).



Corie Wiebe

References and Further Reading

Blake, Norman. “Editing the Canterbury Tales: An Overview.” The Wife of Bath’s Prologue on CD-ROM. Ed. Peter Robinson. Cambridge University Press, 1996. CD-ROM.

Caie, Graham D. “'I Do Not Wish To Be Called Auctour, But The Pore Compilator': The Plight of the Medieval Vernacular Poet.” Miscel├ínea: A Journal of English and American Studies 29 (2004): 9-22.

Caie, Graham D. “The Significance of Marginal Glosses in the Earliest Manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales.” Chaucer and Scriptural Tradition. Ed. David L. Jeffrey. Ottawa: U of Ottawa Press, 1984. 75-88.

Doyle, A. I. “The Copyist of the Ellesmere Canterbury Tales.” The Ellesmere Chaucer: Essays in Interpretation. Ed. Martin Stevens and D. H. Woodward. Berkeley, CA: U of California Press, 1995. 49-67.

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn, "Professional Readers at Work: Annotators, Editors, and Correctors in Middle English Literary Texts." Opening up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary and Visual Approaches. Ed. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Linda Olson, and Maidie Hilmo. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012.

Pearsall, Derek A. The Canterbury Tales. London: Routledge, 1993.

Schibanoff, Susan. “The New Reader and Female Textuality in Two Early Commentaries on Chaucer.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 10 (1988): 71-108. Rpt. in Writing After Chaucer: Essential Readings in Chaucer and the Fifteenth Century, ed. Daniel J. Pinti (New York: Garland, 1998), 45-79.


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