Early English Text Society

Here is a nice blog post about the 150th anniversary of the Early English Text Society. EETS publishes scholarly editions of Old and Middle English texts which are an invaluable resource to anyone studying medieval language and literature. (I just did a count, and I have seventeen EETS volumes on my shelves.) Without EETS most of these works would never be found outside of manuscripts held in a handful of libraries in Europe. The EETS web site is here.

Editing old texts is not the same thing as the editorial and copy editing process that new publications go through. Let’s take a look at a typical EETS publication, Byrhtferth’s Enchiridion, EETS S.S. 15, published in 1995, and edited by Peter S. Baker and Michael Lapidge, to see how it differs.

Byrhtferth was a late tenth/early eleventh century monk at Ramsey Abbey in Cambridgeshire. The Enchiridion (lit. handbook) is a manual on astronomy and the calendar. The work is preserved in one manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole 328, and excerpts appear in two other extant manuscripts. One of the roles an editor of a text like this has is reconciling differences between manuscript versions and correcting scribal error.

The EETS volume opens with the usual stuff, a preface and list of abbreviations used in the text. The introduction gives historical background to the text, detailing what we know of the Byrhtferth’s life and writings and information on medieval astronomy and computus, the science of calculating the calendar and dates. So far, this is all the type of material that one might expect to find in any edition of a work.

But scholarly editions of medieval texts typically include other material that you wouldn’t find in, say, an edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The introduction includes a section on the source material that Byrhtferth used to write his manual (in this case, mainly the writings of Bede, but there are others too). So the edition is useful in tracing intellectual history. There is also a section on language, which outlines the dialect it was written in and the grammatical and lexical peculiarities of the text. And there is a section on the manuscripts, discussing when and where they were copied, detailing how they are arranged and the scripts used and scribal hands that copied them. Finally there is a bibliography of other books and articles about the Byrhtferth and his book.

Then we get to the text of Byrhtferth’s book. Baker and Lapidge also provide a translation in addition to the original text, which is atypical for scholarly editions like those produced by EETS. One of the reasons for including a translation of Byrhtferth’s work may be that the text is in both Old English and Latin. (Most scholars of Old English, like me, have a good, working knowledge of Latin, but are not experts. It is rare to find someone who is really good at both.) Another may be the technical nature of the subject matter, which requires a rather specialized vocabulary and is challenging even to those expert in the languages. Translations are more common in older EETS volumes, those produced in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than they are in those published in recent decades.

The editors include a section of passage-by-passage commentary on the text, discussing scribal errors and anomalies and cruxes, detailing sources for that section, and providing other material needed to fully understand the passage.

Finally, the book includes a couple of appendices containing extracts from Byrhtferth’s computus and from another Old English computus, and it contains three glossaries: Old English, Latin, and proper names.

With the exception of the translation, all of this material is what you expect to find in a scholarly edition of a medieval work. There is nothing unusual about this volume in the type of material it contains. And you can see that it is useful in a wide variety of fields, including linguistics and language, history, and literature (although this one isn’t a literary text).

So you see that EETS volumes, and those like them produced by university presses and other scholarly publishing houses, are extremely valuable resources. They will also never make anyone’s bestseller list and the subject matter is of no interest to commercial publishing houses. You can turn a profit by publishing scholarly editions of Chaucer, but he’s about the only medieval writer for which that is true. So EETS and institutions like it fill a void.

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