>OK, folks, once again I’m asking for your input in designing my classes for next term. No, I’m not lazy – I just think I’ve reached the limits of my own bright ideas and need fresh thinking.
Last time I taught my upper division medieval survey class, I taught Malory’s Morte Darthur from the Norton Critical Edition, edited by Stephen H.A. Shepherd. (That link takes you to the Amazon page, and it’s worth a whole ‘nuther post to discuss the baffling ways in which Amazon thinks one edition of a text is the same as the next. The “search inside this book” function takes you to the Penguin edition and the customer reviews discuss other editions as well.) While you can’t see it on the Amazon page, Shepherd’s edition for Norton is really, really cool. Not only is it in Middle English, but it tries to reproduce the visual experience of the Winchester manuscript by reproducing the marginal decorations and the rubrications of proper names, albeit in black and white (he uses bold and a slightly larger font). There’s something really stunning about the pages where battles and feast take place and lists of names are invoked, because when one looks at it without actually reading it, one is confronted by a sea of ink that turns the epic catalog into a visual effect instead of a rhetorical one. I’m not sure what the theoretical import of that is, but I think my students get it more immediately than they would by simply reading the lists. And the marginalia is interesting as a way of finding one’s place in the text and also perhaps seeing what Malory or his scribe thought was significant. In addition to the marginalia and the tricks with bold, Shepherd has used something along the lines of the so-called Old English font for the entire text. Of course, that doesn’t really reproduce the hand of the manuscript, and a modern typeface/font is thoroughly anachronistic, but then the Morte Darthur is itself an anachronistic feast of nostalgia, so on some meta-commentary level, I think it works.
But here’s the deal. It’s certainly a lot harder work for the students to read. Malory’s Middle English is much easier than Chaucer’s, but when you add that funky typeface, even familiar letters get hard to discern. In some ways, that’s good. I like students to be a little defamiliarized from a story that’s been replicated so much they think they know it and they think they know what it’s “about.” But, practically and realistically speaking, it’s rough going for them. That was especially true last year when I assigned Malory in chronological order – thus, at the end of the semester – and assigned a lot of the work, just when they were overwhelmed with papers and projects in other classes. So next time, I may start with Malory. There are theoretical reasons as well as practical ones to do this. Malory’s text is the only one on my syllabus that had an immediate print life and was circulated and read continuously from its own day to ours – whereas all the other texts we discuss disappeared for centuries at a time. So Malory is a direct link between our reading world and the medieval one. (Chaucer, let me remind you, is a separate course at my institution.) And I can use it to emphasize what print did, how it affected what we read and how we read, and contrast it with the Norton’s simulacrum of a manuscript (not to mention the ways Caxton shaped the text, and the way modern editors, including Shepherd, shape it as well).
But – and here, finally, are my questions to you – should I assign an easier-to-grasp edition? One that doesn’t make the very letters and words difficult to perceive? When we assign Middle English texts with original spelling, are we mystifying rather than illuminating the Middle Ages? And more practically speaking, are we turning off legions of students who can’t get past the intimidating surface of Middle English? Will I turn students off of Malory and thus risk turning them off of my course in general if I start with the Norton edition?