21 July 2017

Thomas of Erceldoune I -- Preliminary Remarks

Lystyns, lordyngs, bothe grete & smale,
And takis gude tent what j will saye:
I sall ȝow telle als trewe a tale,
Als ever was herde by nyghte or daye:
And þe maste meruelle ffor owttyne naye,
That euer was herde by-fore or syene,
And þer-fore pristly j ȝow praye,
That ȝe will of ȝoure talkyng blyne.

Listen, lordings, both great and small,
And take good heed of what I will say:
I shall you tell as true a tale,
As ever was heard by night or day:
The most marvellous, there's no denying,
That ever was heard before or since.
And therefore readily I you pray,
That ye will of your talking cease.

I am about to embark on a task for which I am not particularly well qualified, being rather an expatriate Classicist than a native Medievalist. But I am going to try to provide some kind of text of the Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune. I am doing this because I find it an interesting work, of undoubted influence, and because no one, as far as I can see, has done so since 1875. I hope that what I come up with will at least be useful because of its accessibility, even if it might not be all that every Medievalist (and sometime Classicist) would want it to be. 
That hat, those shelves!

The 1875 edition, published by the Early English Text Society (reprinted 2008), and edited by the James Murray, is also available at archive.org. The online edition is hard to work with because of the formatting, and the EETS reprint is bit dear. This led me to a mistake. I purchased (though not from EETS) what turned out to be a criminally overpriced, abominably bad scan of Murray's edition. I can only concede that I got what I paid for. It was so poor, blurry, and faint that I found it nearly impossible to read. Had I lashed it to a brick and hurled it through the manufacturer's window, a jury would have called us even. 

I then inquired of the good folk at the Middle English Texts Series whether anyone had an edition in the works for them. They said no, but declared themselves always willing to consider proposals. Though I backed slowly away, I nevertheless kept thinking that this work should be available and readable. So recently I bit the bullet and bought a library rebinding of the actual first edition. It's a wonderful little book, with the library hard covers bound over the original soft covers, and the marvelous ragged edges of a book whose pages came uncut. (If you've never cut pages, it is both thrilling and a little scary. The Collection Budé series of Latin and Greek authors still came with uncut pages as recently as the 1990s.)

What did I mean above when I said I meant to provide 'some kind of text' of this work? Well, nothing as ambitious as a critical edition. I haven't the time or the ability to go see the manuscripts themselves, of which there are five, nor do I have the expertise in Middle English, its northern dialects, or its paleography to establish or emend a text. Murray gives the texts of all five mss. I shall give only the text of the oldest, Thornton (Lincoln MS 91), which was made in the 1430s, a generation or so after the Romance was composed (Murray, xxiii), and about a century and a half after the historical Thomas the Rhymer lived (ca. 1220 - ca. 1298). For this I give two reasons. The oldest ms is often (though not always) the best, since it is closest to the source.  And simplicity: Murray supplies all five mss, as nearly side by side as can be managed on a small page, but this makes following the tale from one page to the next more difficult and at times confusing. At least this was so for me. By restricting myself to the Thornton MS, I aim to provide a text of the story that is easier to follow. In the end, that's what it's all about.

Wherever the other mss offer interesting details or readings of note, I will of course bring them in. Any scholarship more recent than 1875 that I find and can get my hands on will also find a place here along with my own comments on the text. I imagine that in time I will bring in the later material from the ballads, though I am still undecided about what to do, if anything, with the prophecies. But obviously the place to start will be with the Romance itself, which I will begin putting up soon. Any questions and suggestions will as always be welcome. Just be kind: in the fine tradition of Harlan Ellison, I am working without a net here.

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