Nov 7, 2014

Who Glossed the Canterbury Tales?

Portrait of the Wife of Bath from the Ellesmere MS
In the last post, we discussed how the Latin annotations present in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue in various manuscripts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales allowed readers the potential for multiple different readings. Many scholars have suggested that Chaucer himself may have been responsible for adding the glosses, and thus also providing these layers of meaning. If this is true, the depiction of the Wife of Bath that most undergraduate students encounter may be very different from the one Chaucer had intended. Chaucer may have viewed the Wife of Bath as more than a bold and independent woman who, perhaps rightfully, refuses to be subservient to her husband. He may instead have intended to create a less flattering picture of the Wife of Bath. Thus, for those seeking authorial intention in the Canterbury Tales, the question of “who wrote the Latin glosses” can become quite important.

Without the Latin glosses, the Wife of Bath appears as an independent, bold, and strong woman, but when these marginalia are considered, the Wife’s prestigious position becomes a bit marred. Many of the glosses surrounding the Wife of Bath’s Prologue are taken from Saint Jerome’s Epistola Adversus Jovinianum – a treatise explaining that complete chastity is more favourable than marriage, as marriage is merely an institution created to mediate a necessary sin. Next to Jerome, the Wife’s opinions lose some ground, simply because they are coming from the Wife herself and not from a similar authority. Jerome’s extreme point of view was controversial, however, even in the 14th century, so it is not entirely surprising that the Wife disagrees with this “clerk at Rome” (Chaucer line 673).

Of even more importance to Chaucer’s audience, the Wife misquotes a large number of sources in order to make her point. Throughout her preamble, the Wife cites arguments from various authorities, including  Ptolemy (lines 180-183, 323-327), and – extensively – the Bible, for example the apostle Paul (lines 64-74, 160-161) and the gospel of Mark (lines 145-146). She tells also the story of Metellius, who apparently killed his wife for drinking wine (lines 460-462) and Gaius Sulpicius Gallus, who divorced his wife for being outdoors with her head uncovered (lines 643-646). In doing so, she frequently twists such authorities to fit her argument, though the spirit of the original texts is often quite opposed to her viewpoint. This may go unnoticed or only mildly noted by Chaucer’s non-Latinate readership, but the Latin glosses in many of the manuscripts expose these inaccuracies, forcing more educated readers to re-evaluate their opinions of the Wife’s argument. It is as if “the glossator is deliberately turning our attention to the application of the text, and forcing us to compare that application with the teller’s own use of it” (Caie, “Significance of Marginal Glosses” 77).

The Wife’s inability to properly interpret authority would have been a major concern for early audiences. Production of an English Bible was, at the time, controversial – not because laypeople should not be allowed access to Holy Writ, but because they might misunderstand or misinterpret such important words. If the Bible remained in Latin, then it would be disseminated by those who could read and understand Latin. Since Latin education was received through the Church, this allowed the Bible to be interpreted by those who could do so properly. As Susan Schibanoff points out, the reading of the translated or vernacularized Scripture by the laity threatened the medieval Church: “It was not, of course, reading itself that presented problems to the Church but the fear that new lay readers would go beyond mere reading and interpret Holy Writ for themselves” (67). The Wife of Bath’s arguments show why this controversy was important to a religious audience, as she displays the very stubbornness in misinterpretation that was feared. The comment that the Wife of Bath’s Prologue makes on this controversy is provided largely because of the marginal glosses. If Chaucer wrote them, he probably intended the Wife’s prologue to comment more on the need to control biblical dissemination than on misogyny.
What makes scholars suspect that Chaucer wrote these Latin glosses? One reason is their appearance in the Ellesmere manuscript (San Marino, Huntington Library MS EL 26 C 9), one of the earliest known manuscripts of the Tales, and written by Adam Pinkhurst, who was probably Chaucer’s own scribe. In this manuscript, the glosses are carefully planned for within the layout of the page. Further, Stephen Partridge notes in the fifth chapter of Author, Reader, Book, that Chaucer's association with Pinkhurst would have given Chaucer reason to consider how his Tales would appear upon publication. Such considerations may very well have "made ordinatio an integral aspect of composition for Chaucer, rather than an afterthought" (113), just as Partridge suggests.

Another reason, not persuasive on its own, but to be considered along with the rest of this argument, is that early scribes of the Canterbury Tales found the glosses very important. Graham D. Caie notes that “some copyists, such as those of MSS Trinity College Cambridge R.3.15 and Additional 35286, added the Ellesmere glosses, although the texts themselves had been copied from non-glossed manuscripts” (Caie, "Significance of the Early Chaucer Manuscript Glosses" 351). In fact, “the glosses were recognized to be of such importance by the early scribes that they copied the glosses with great care, and they were recognized by later scribes as sufficiently important so that they perpetuated them through the century” (357-358). This suggests the scribes had a sense that these glosses were meant to accompany the Tales.

While it is not unusual for scribes to gloss manuscripts they are working on, some of the citations in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue are unusual because they are not indicated by the text. Daniel S. Silvia Jr. notes a gloss in the margin of line 199 of the Wife’s prologue in the Ellesmere manuscript. This quotation is “part of the final sentence of Book I of the Adversus Jovinianum.” Silvia argues: “There is no passage in the text for which this gloss serves as a comment, as a source citation, or as an explanation; instead, its presence seems clearly to imply that Chaucer felt he could amplify Alice’s veiled threat to the Pardoner” (31-32).
The gloss Silvia references in the margin of line 199.

Even more unusual, Silvia also points out, is the agreement between readings found in Chaucer’s poetry which uses the Adversus Jovinianum and those glosses which also reference the same text. These, Silvia argues, “agree so frequently, especially in the spelling of proper names,” which is impressive, “since the forms for many names vary greatly from manuscript to manuscript of the Adversus Jovinianum,” that “a logical explanation for such agreement would be that the manuscript used as the source for the text was the same as that used for the gloss” (38). This means that whoever wrote the glosses was likely using the same copy of the Adversus Jovinianum that Chaucer was. Silvia’s view here is corroborated by Thomas J. Farrell and John P. Brennan, the latter of whom concludes that, “since the glosses share so many textual peculiarities with the Latin text underlying Chaucer’s poem, it is likely that they were taken from the manuscript of that Latin text and were composed by Chaucer himself” (244). The use of similar source manuscripts is true outside of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue as well. “Robert Enzer Lewis has shown how the glosses in The Man of Law’s Tale from Innocent III’s De contemptu mundi probably came from the same source manuscript as that used by Chaucer when translating Boethius in his Boece, as the same phrasing and errors occur in both” (Caie, “I Do Not Wish” 20)! It seems well within reason, therefore, to suggest that Chaucer was responsible for these glosses; at the very least, a scribe with impressive access to Chaucer’s personal library was responsible for them.

Such a scribe would indeed be unusual. To again turn to the work and opinions of Stephen Partridge, to assume Chaucer is not responsible for these glosses requires their authorship to be attributed to some other literary editor or scribe with unusual access to Chaucer’s own library and intentions. Partridge asserts that “it is important that those who attribute the glosses to [this] kind of figure acknowledge just how unusual such a person must have been.” At this point, such a figure would be more difficult to imagine than the idea that Chaucer himself wrote the glosses. “We must therefore consider seriously the possibility that many of the El[lesmere] glosses derive from Chaucer himself; at the least, we cannot imagine that scribal or editorial introduction of El[lesmere]’s extensive apparatus was in any way typical or routine for an English manuscript.” Given this statement, it is important to note that other works copied by Adam Pinkhurst, the scribe of the Ellesmere manuscript, are not so heavily annotated, suggesting that Pinkhurst is not generally a scribe who adds his own glosses to the works he copies. While an intermediary scribe between Chaucer and Adam could be postulated, it appears unlikely, as Pinkhurst probably worked for Chaucer himself, an assertion based on Chaucer’s poem “Adam scriveyn”.
glosses were an integral part of the work for a medieval reader

While the discussion of whether or not Chaucer is responsible for how we read the Wife of Bath’s character is fascinating to modern literary scholars, it is important to note that such details would have been irrelevant to medieval audiences. Even if the glosses are not Chaucerian, their useful commentary on the text may have inspired some scribes to include them, even when their copy-texts did not. The glosses were important enough to be copied and re-copied in Tales manuscripts for a century. This is a fact which surprises the modern reader, as Norman Blake asserts: “We have in modern editions lost the sense of a continuous text provided with a running commentary of glosses and sub-divisions to direct our reading. Our response to the text is now quite different because of the way editors present it to us.” The glosses were an integral part of the work for a medieval reader, regardless of authorial intention. “They are in any case a potential gold mine of information about medieval readings of the tale” (Farrell 290).

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: Cambridge University Press, 1996. CD-ROM.

Brennan, John P. “Reflections on a Gloss to the Prioress’s Tale from Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum.” Studies in Philology 70.3 (1973): 243-251.

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 the Early Chaucer Manuscript Glosses (with Special Reference to “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue”).” Chaucer Review 10.4 (1976): 350-360.

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.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale." The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry Dean Benson. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 105-121.

Farrell, Thomas J. “The Style of the Clerk’s Tale and the Functions of Its Glosses.” Studies in Philology 86.3 (1989): 286-309.

Partridge, Stephen. “‘The Makere of this Boke’: Chaucer’s Retraction and the Author as Scribe and Compiler.” Author, Reader, Book: Medieval Authorship in Theory and Practice. Ed. Stephen Partridge and Erik Kwakkel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. 106-153. Print.

Partridge, Stephen. “The Manuscript Glosses to The Wife of Bath’s Prologue.” The Wife of Bath’s Prologue on CD-ROM. Ed. Peter Robinson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. CD-ROM.

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.

Silvia, Daniel S., Jr. “Glosses to the Canterbury Tales from St. Jerome’s Epistola Adversus Jovinianum.” Studies in Philology 62.1 (1965): 28-39.

1 comment :

  1. A comment kindly sent by Stephen Partridge, posted here in case it may be useful to others:

    Two further publications which explore cultural contexts to argue that the layout of the Ellesmere (and other *Canterbury Tales* manuscripts) reflects Chaucer's intentions:

    Laura Kendrick's chapter in *The Ellesmere Chaucer: Essays in Interpretation*, ed. Martin Stevens and Daniel Woodward (San Marino, 1995).

    Stephen Partridge, "'The Makere of this Boke': Chaucer's Retraction and the Author as Scribe and Compiler," in *Author, Reader, Book*, ed. Stephen Partridge and Erik Kwakkel (Toronto, 2012).