Social Editions: The Devonshire Manuscript, Emily Ritson

This week’s readings’ theme was social aspects of texts.  Jerome McGann’s 2005 essay argues which format for critical editions is best: digital or paper-based.  He does this through examining an analysis of Coleridge’s poetry, and concludes that digital is superior.  I will come back to this later.  In the second reading, Ray Siemens discusses social media and the possibility for scholarly editions in electronic form to be constructed from the building blocks of emerging social media applications.  This begs the question, where is there space for scholarly editions on a social media platform?  Siemens also discusses reader involvement, social mediation of works, and the author acting as less of an authority figure and more a facilitator between text and reader for conversation and understanding.

This brings me to the final reading for this week that I will largely focus on: A Social Edition of the Devonshire Manuscript.  Firstly, what is the Devonshire Manuscript?  It is the “first sustained example of men and women writing together in the English tradition”, written in the 1530s and 1540s.  Colin Burrow says it is “the richest surviving record of early Tudor poetry and of the literary activities of 16th century women”.  Of the 185 texts included, 129 of them were written by a man named Sir Thomas Wyatt.  Since his writing style dominates most of the manuscript, there is a tendency to clump the other authors’ work with his, and this creates an ode to Wyatt as opposed to a collection of which he happens to be a part of.  This not only does a disservice to the authors, but also the work as a whole.  Ultimately it is the reader who pays for this decision to focus on the “Wyatt Canon”, as they receive a biased compilation, where it should be impartial.

There is a move to focus on the “social, literary, and historical contexts” of the texts.  By producing texts as this–that is, socially mediated–they demand attention in their own respect, not as an acceptable or unacceptable version of a specific author’s style.  In this case, it is Wyatt who dominates the conversation.  This edition is moving away from that tradition.  These “paratexts” as the WikiBooks site calls them, “[contribute] to the meaning and appreciation of the manuscript miscellany” in annotations, glosses, names, and illustrations, to list a few.  As such, in the current edition, a scholarly narrative accompanies the diplomatic transcription of the Devonshire Manuscript.

As stated at the beginning of this post, McGann surmises that the digital platform is superior to support social texts of scholarly works.  I agree with him.  In the example of the Devonshire Manuscript, it is far more accessible online with links to specific works by specific authors.  It is folly to assume each person interested in the manuscript should own a copy.  However, I can also see where scholars are hesitant to embrace the advantages to the digital platform.  It changes the meaning and experience of the text as a compilation when it is split up in this way online.  Books, and by extension, manuscripts are intended to be read and experienced in a certain fashion.  Yet one must be aware of the changing world and cannot ignore the benefits of making a collection like this available to the public.

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