Gower Bibliography

Patterns of Scribal Activity and Revisions of the Text in Early Copies of Works by John Gower

Parkes, Malcolm. "Patterns of Scribal Activity and Revisions of the Text in Early Copies of Works by John Gower." In New Science out of Old Books[:] Manuscripts and Early Printed Books: Essays in Honour of A.I. Doyle. Ed. Beadle, Richard and Piper, A.J.. London: Scolar, 1995, pp. 81-121.


Parkes' new essay constitutes a sequel to the groundbreaking study of the Trinity College MS of CA that he and Ian Doyle (the dedicatee of the festschrift in which the present essay appears) published in the festschrift for another of the century's great palaeographers, Neil Ker, in 1978. In the earlier essay, Doyle and Parkes studied the collaboration of five scribes in the production of a single copy of Gower's poem, and they concluded that while the scribes worked simultaneously, they must have worked independently, and that they could not therefore have been part of the same scriptorium. In his new study, Parkes examines a very different situation, the evident collaboration of ten different scribes whose hands can be detected either copying or revising six of our most important MSS of Gower's works: the four earliest MSS of VC, the "Fairfax" MS of CA (which served as the basis for Macaulay's edition), and the "Trentham" MS, containing shorter French and Latin compositions. All but the last of these contains significant rewriting over erasure and additions to the text that evidently reflect Gower's own revisions and alterations. Based on deductions from the nature of the revisions and from the pattern of the scribes' activity, Parkes drives what ought to be the final nails into the coffin of Macaulay's notion of a scriptorium in which Gower himself supervised the production of copies of his works, and adds some important details to our understanding of the operation of the London booktrade in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. His suggestions also complicate rather than simplify our understanding of the evolution of Gower's text. Parkes begins with a conventional account of Gower's revisions to his text as the poet's responses to contemporary events, an explanation that works better for the changes in VC than it does for those in CA. In the latter case, the allusions are not as direct, and many of the links to specific events that have been proposed are only speculative. For Parkes' purposes, however, sufficient evidence of chronology is provided by the non-controversial allusions to three key events: Henry's accession to the throne in 1399, Gower's blindness in approximately 1400, and his death in 1408. The most detailed and most interesting part of Parkes' essay is his close examination of the work of the ten scribes (illustrated in eight very valuable plates from the MSS that he discusses). His identification of the different hands at work in each MS is evidently identical to Macaulay's, but he gives a more precise account of the different stages of the work of the scribes who entered some of the more extensive revisions, based on changes in their handwriting and in the color of the ink. He also goes much further than Macaulay in identifying the same hand when it appears in other MSS, and he is thus able to compare the contribution that each scribe made in each copy on which he worked. One of his more important observations is that a scribe didn't necessarily work from the same exemplar when he entered revisions in different copies. Parkes is also able to show that there is no evidence of collaboration among the different scribes, or even that they worked simultaneously. He thus concludes that they worked fully independently of one another, as well as outside the poet's supervision. How did such a situation arise? The revised MSS must not have been produced for Gower himself, he deduces, but for different patrons who were likely the original owners of the "unrevised" copies, and who commissioned scribes to provide them with updated revisions. "The owners of these manuscripts must have been persons who knew that Gower had revised his texts, or perhaps that he had revised his views," who independently chose the same scribes since they all probably lived nearby in London. They evidently left to the scribes themselves, however, the procuring of an exemplar. The picture that Parkes offers here explains a great deal about the appearance of the surviving copies, but in other respects it raises more questions than ever. Parkes refers to these manuscripts as "first generation" copies, but it appears from his argument that none of them can be considered a replica of Gower's own exemplar. His discussion of the many layers of revision of the "Fairfax" MS casts doubt on all of the assumptions that Macaulay made in using it for his edition; it remains to some future editor to figure out how it and the other surviving copies, each with its own very complicated history, can be used in reconstructing Gower's text. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 15.1]

Item Type:Book Section
Subjects:Manuscripts and Textual Studies

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