Versions of the Poem
Traditional editorial methods dictate that when multiple versions
of a text survive, the editor must first select a base text upon
which to found his or her work. The editor faces the task of comparing
the works to discover the level of correspondence between the extant
versions and then suggesting a genealogical classification of the
text – a stemma – upon which to base subsequent
The earliest and most complete parent text will often serve as the basis for the modern edition, and the editor will then annotate variant readings or moments of textual obscurity. Charles Moorman suggests that the goal of this type of critical edition is to "identify, if possible through comparison and elimination, the 'archetype' (sometimes called the 'original'), the most primitive and therefore the most accurate extant text, the text from which all surviving MSS presumably derive."(1)
And yet by identifying the "original" version of a work as the "best" version, the editor not only locates the center of his or her own editorial project but also judges the extant versions of a text, a judgment that privileges the text's first form and subordinates the subsequent "corrupt" versions that derived from it.
Recently scholars have begun to acknowledge that not all textual deviations from the base text can be explained adequately by relying solely on the stemmatic relationship between verisons. Certain types of scribal practices, such as when a scribe worked from multiple exemplars or even when a scribe composed an identical copy of the exemplar, provide challenges to the modern editor since they obscure the lines of textual transmission that can be traced with certainty.
It is also important to keep in mind that each version, regardless of its scribal errors, reorganizations, or how distant it lies from the original text, was read as an independent work by a specific community. The community that read the Vernon manuscript probably would only have been familiar with the version of the debate present within that volume. Though the Vernon's version might differ from those found in other manuscripts, each rendition would have been approached by its audience as the primary version of the "Debate between the Body and the Soul." By paying attention to the organizational and rhetorical choices of each version, and by examining the manuscript context in which it was written out, we can begin to appreciate how each version would have been approached in its own historical and literary context.
Of course, the stemma of a text can be a valuable tool - one that helps the editor and scholar to gain a perspective on how a text might have been disseminated within medieval culture. Wilhelm Linow provides a stemma for the "Debate between the Body and the Soul" in his 1889 parallel-text edition, and Nita Baugh continues his work (1956), suggesting that some the stanzaic reordering of the Vernon, Simeon, and Additional 37787 might have been caused by the misfolding of a folio during the binding of their common parent text.(2)
This on-line edition hopes to offer a new tool for scholars and students who wish to examine the textual nuances found in this medieval debate. As scribal interventions are increasingly seen as potential editorial shapings as opposed to careless corruptions, the student of medieval literature can use this site to begin approaching many of the difficult choices and altered assumptions that must accompany their study of these past works.
1. Moorman, Charles, Editing the Middle English Manuscript, Jackson, MI: UP of Mississippi, 1975. 49.
2. Baugh, Nita Scudder, A Worcestershire Miscellany, Philadelphia: Protat Frères, 1956. 49.