To those expecting that famous writers occupy their time with lofty, noble and improving thoughts, Chaucer’s shortest surviving poem must come as something of a disappointment. In fine British tradition, it’s a moan elevated to the level of an art form:
‘Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle,
Boece or Troylus for to wryten newe,
Under thy long lokkes thou most have the scalle,
But after my makyng thow wryte more trewe;
So ofte adaye I mot thy werk renewe,
It to correcte and eke to rubbe and scrape,
And al is thorugh thy negligence and rape.’
The poem – Chaucer’s account of his working relationship with his scribe – strikes an authentic note of irritation I can relate to today, especially considering that the third line translates (approximately) as an imaginative wish for the scribe’s annoying hipster beard to be afflicted with chronic flaky dandruff.The gist of the message is that Adam, the scribe employed by Chaucer to copy out his genius literary output, is constantly introducing errors. Chaucer is forced to spend his time doing corrections which, clearly, he feels are beneath his dignity.
For us, readers accustomed to print culture and to digital culture, to copyright laws and to fairly frequent news stories of authors jealously guarding their work against the distortions of film adaptations, TV versions or, even, internet fanfic, this seems a natural attitude for an author to take. We may snigger at Philippa Gregory – who now ‘insists’ on a clause in her contract prohibiting film makers from changing what the novelist, well known for her flexible relationship with historical fact, calls ‘the history of the novels’. But we broadly understand what she means.The accumulated changes and variations of generations of scribes represent a progressive ‘corruption’ of the original text that wrongs the author. Editors of medieval texts, from Caxton to George Kane, represent themselves as diligent correctors, wading through the scribbled masses of badly-copied manuscripts to weed out scribal errors. And it’s easy to imagine that this process is a process of restoring the author’s reputation, repairing damage done to his work and his reputation. Scribes and authors are thus natural enemies: the former weakening and chipping away at the work of the latter.
But I wondered, did medieval authors really feel this protective desire to control their words? Despite his poem to his scribe, Chaucer often seems oddly keen to exploit the potential for scribes to come up with different, and variant, readings. I’ve argued before that his Legend of Good Women is a suspiciously error-prone text, almost begging for the inclusion of predictable scribal variations. I’ve shown how the name of one male protagonist – Theseus – gives way immediately to the oddly similarly-named Tereus, at exactly the point in the text at which Chaucer begins to talk about the corrosive effects of words and the slippery significance of men’s names. It seems entirely in keeping with the antifeminist cynicism of the Legend to find that, elsewhere, one scribe misread the word ‘venym’ (venom, or poison) as ‘wenym’: women. Such changes seem less like misrepresentations of the original spirit of the text, and more like deputised workings from the same source that set up the potential for error in the first place.
Enter a theory from Ben Clarke, who makes analogy – persuasively – to popular culture. He argues that we might see the inevitable splitting of the work of medieval authors such as Chaucer into multiple, different versions as akin to that great invention of J. K. Rowling, the Horcrux.
Horcruxes, as you will recall, are the splinters of the soul into separate parts, which increase the power of the individual by allowing him to send his soul out into the world, diversely embodied. Each Horcrux, or soul-fragment (or manuscript) acts both subordinately to the guiding soul, and with physical autonomy. The image is one of schism and splitting of soul (authority, self) that is not merely destructive, but paradoxically powerful – and it is powerful because it accepts this inevitable pluralising of the self and this process of reduplication. With this analogy in mind, perhaps we can stop thinking of the variant manuscripts of a text such as Chaucer’s Troilus or his Legend of Good Women as a series of erratic scribal corrosions of Chaucerian authority.
Each new manuscript isn’t so much a fragmentation that disempowers the author, as a Horcrux, a split fragment of his soul that goes out into the world to carry on his authoritative work in (or on) a multitude of new bodies.