>(Yeah, I know I said I wouldn’t be posting again until tonight. I changed my mind.)
A few weeks ago I introduced my graduate students to our rare books and manuscripts holdings and talked about why looking at a text in its original contexts might matter — whether than means a medieval manuscript, a 19th century periodical, a first printing of a book that was later revised, or what have you.
And today I found a cool little example that I wish I’d had then. But I’ll use it in future classes. The best part of this example is that it’s only one little word, and yet it reveals so much about manuscript studies, reception studies, and medieval and early modern studies more largely. In a 15th century text (I won’t specify which one here) that features Christ speaking about his crucifixion, most modern editions feature a line in which Christ says of certain people that they had pity of his “payns” (i.e., “pains”). But a look at the manuscript facsimile shows that the word was originally “penaunce,” which has been crossed out by a later hand, with “payns” entered above it. And there in that little one-word change, you see a post-Reformation reader adapting a pre-Reformation text for his purposes, getting rid of the medieval/Catholic concept of “penance,” especially in the sense of the ‘satisfaction’ element of the sacrament, and replacing it with a generalized suffering. None of the student-used editions of this text show that this substitution has been made, and even in the scholarly edition, it’s buried in the textual notes. It’s much more obvious and noteworthy in the manuscript facsimile. What a quick and easy way to show the value of manuscript studies! This one little change speaks to major historical and religious changes in the 16th century and also the practice of adapting or rewriting and reusing old texts for new purposes, which in turn speaks to the continuities of late medieval and early modern culture. Awesome!