An Interim Report on the Standard Edition(s) of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer

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Ruth Evans is Executive Director of the New Chaucer Society and Dorothy McBride Orthwein Professor of English in the Department of English at Saint Louis University, MO. This post is about the current state of scholarly editions of the complete works of Chaucer.

This is a strange moment for scholars and teachers of Chaucer in North America. There is no good option for an up-to-date, standard, scholarly edition of Chaucer’s complete works. The Riverside Chaucer (gen. ed. Larry Benson, 3rd edition, Houghton Mifflin, 1986), the edition that has long been considered the standard – for some scholars, the “gold standard,” is now over 30 years old, and does not reflect the past 30 years of textual scholarship and literary criticism on Chaucer. It is also, because the rights to it were acquired by a trade publisher, prohibitively expensive for US buyers.

The Riverside Chaucer first appeared in the US in hardback from Houghton Mifflin in 1986 (according to WorldCat). Its text was based on F.N. Robinson’s highly esteemed second edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1957). Houghton Mifflin did not produce a paperback edition of the Riverside Chaucer. It was first issued as a paperback by Oxford University Press in 1988, with distribution rights in the US. The UK paperback had an arresting bright blue cover – a sharp contrast to the somewhat staid and unenticing maroon cover of Houghton Mifflin’s hardback – and a statement on the front by the contemporary British novelist Anthony Burgess (“This is the best edition of Chaucer in existence”), a statement that was authoritative and which – by virtue of the association with Burgess – made Chaucer seem edgy and of the moment.[1] OUP subsequently issued several reprints of this paperback (1989, 1991). It was cheap; it was convenient, because all the works were together in one volume; its text was reliable. Its monumental size impressed those around you if you pulled it out to read in public spaces. OUP reissued their paperback Riverside Chaucer with a new foreword by Christopher Cannon in 2008, at the very moment that Houghton Mifflin was bought up by the publishing giant Cengage Learning. It was the same 1986 text; the only new thing was the foreword. The Riverside Chaucer is now unacceptably outdated: not so much its text, which is sound, but its introductory notes, glosses, textual notes, and commentary – to say nothing of its presentation of the texts, such as the parceling of the Canterbury Tales into ten “fragments” (for some time a matter of considerable scholarly debate[2]) – do not reflect post-1986 criticism on Chaucer, which now includes (inter alia) feminist Chaucer, Chaucer and critical theory, queer Chaucer, postcolonial Chaucer, and global Chaucer. Nor does the Riverside represent the vast amount of scholarly work that has been done since 1986 on the manuscripts, or the lively debates about scribal attribution.

The vagaries of the publishing industry account in part – but only in part – for why the field does not have a reputable standard edition of Chaucer. Cengage Learning, formerly Thomson Learning, acquired the assets of the Houghton Mifflin College Division in 2008, and thus acquired the rights to the US Houghton Mifflin edition of The Riverside Chaucer. Cengage Leaning markets it today as the Wadsworth Chaucer (because Thomson Learning, the previous incarnation of Cengage Learning, owned an imprint known as Wadsworth Publishing). It is a poor quality, photographic reprint of the original 1986 edition. It is unavailable in digital format: their Learning Customer Technical Support department informs me that “due to the age of the textbook, [Cengage] do not have plans to create an ebook for it at this time.” This print-on-demand edition currently costs $99.95; its wholesale price is $75. Students can also rent a copy. OUP tried to agree terms with Cengage to extend their licence to distribute the paperback edition in the US, but were unfortunately not successful. OUP’s UK paperback edition, both the 1988 and the reissued 2008 one, are no longer in print, but limited quantities of past stock are available direct from OUP in the UK, and (still) at good prices on Amazon and other sites.

For teaching purposes, there are very good editions of individual works: for The Canterbury Tales, Jill Mann’s edition for Penguin Classics (2005), the Broadview Canterbury Tales, 2nd edn., ed. Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor (2012) – both of which nevertheless preserve the “fragments,” and the Norton Dream Visions and Other Poems, ed. Kathryn L. Lynch (2006). There is also the Canterbury Tales Project, which does not aim to produce a text for teaching but rather an electronic transcription of all the manuscript and early printed versions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

The good news is that at least two new editions of the complete works of Chaucer are about to appear, or are at a relatively advanced stage. The most imminent is David Lawton’s eagerly-awaited Norton Chaucer: The Complete Works, which will be out next spring (2018), in both hard copy and a digital edition. It uses a slightly revised version of E. Talbot Donaldson’s regularized spelling, used in his Chaucer’s Poetry: An Anthology for the Modern Reader (1958). One might note, though, that the decision to use regularized spelling may render this edition less useful for scholars. A new edition of Chaucer’s complete works is also in preparation for OUP’s Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, edited by Christopher Cannon and James Simpson. This text of this edition will be based on W. W. Skeat’s 1894 edition, with line by line editorial revisions, to correct errors in transcription and to look afresh at matters such as final -e.[3] This edition is not due to appear in the immediately foreseeable future, but it is considerably advanced. Penguin is also planning an edition. There may be other proposed editions of the complete works that I do not know about.

It does not matter how many editions of Chaucer’s complete works there are on the market, as long as there is a standard edition or editions for graduate students and scholars that provides a reconsidered version of the text and its variants (with imaginative ways of representing those variants), of the on-page glosses (if used) and of the entries in the glossary, of the textual notes, of the critical commentary, and of the headnotes, and that gives attention to new textual discoveries and new arguments about the manuscript evidence, as well as to the ordering of the works: why, for example, should the Canterbury Tales come first, as in the Riverside? It is striking that there has been very little public discussion about what is entailed in editing Chaucer’s large oeuvre, given that there are so many manuscripts and that notions of editing have moved on considerably from the late 1980s. The editing of Piers Plowman, by contrast, has occasioned a good deal of reflection on precisely these issues.[4] The Manly-Rickert eight-volume edition of The Text of the Canterbury Tales (1940), despite its flaws, nevertheless contains a wealth of information, but has generated no real discussion today about editing Chaucer.

An online, open access edition, with the text considered completely afresh (as opposed to a reliance on Skeat or Robinson), with all the glosses and notes linked, with the most up-to-the-minute yet durable critical interpretations, and with the possibility of periodic updating, is probably the desideratum: an edition for the twenty-first century.

[1] See David Matthews, The Making of Middle English, 1765-1910, U of Minnesota P, 1999, p. 187.

[2] Robert Meyer-Lee, “Abandon the Fragments,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 35 (2013): 47-83; Arthur Bahr, Fragments and Assemblages: Forming Compilations of Medieval London, U of Chicago P, 2013. See also Arthur Bahr’s blogpost “Celebrate Fragments” on the NCS website, and Ruth Evans’s post “Literary Criticism with Book History: A Response to Arthur Bahr’s ‘Celebrate Fragments’,” also on the NCS website. Elizabeth Scala’s Absent Narratives: Manuscript Textuality and Literary Structure in Late Medieval England, Palgrave, 2002, argues for the importance of “fragmentariness,” fragments and their attendant absences, as a means of understanding medieval texts in their codicological context.

[3] See Christopher Cannon, “Some of Chaucer is Missing,” Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (February 9, 2015).

[4] For example, Charlotte Brewer, Editing Piers Plowman: The Evolution of the Text, Cambridge UP, 1996; Angela R. Bennett Segler’s Digital Piers; the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive.

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