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13 8. Dd and the making of the Canterbury Tales

The textual tradition of the Canterbury Tales is notably complicated because Chaucer’s holograph is not extant, the poem is fragmentary and survives in a great number of witnesses dating up to the end of the fifteenth century (Manly and Rickert 1940, 1). 

Because of the textual dissimilarity among manuscripts, historically scholars have tried to make sense of the complicated textual transmission of the Canterbury Tales and the order of the tales by gathering the extant witnesses into groups. Manly and Rickert proposed the most influential study on the classification of the surviving manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales in their 1940 edition. The corpus of manuscripts is divided into four main groups: a, b, c, d. These groups are not, however, related chronologically to one another, that is, the manuscripts in the a group are not older than the ones in the d group, and this classification mainly refers to the order of the Tales (Manly and Rickert 1940, 2 and Dempster 1946). However, editors and textual scholars have adopted these groups to better understand possible textual relationships between one manuscript and the other, and the textual “authority” of the manuscripts belonging to each group (for example, Robinson 1997, 2000 and 2004).

Dd is an early witness of the textual tradition which is associated with the a group (see for example, Zupitza 1892, Skeat 1894, Koch 1913, 1928, Robinson 1933, Manly and Rickert 1940, 2, p. 51, Blake 1985, Owen 1991, pp. 18-19 and Robinson 2004). But it is perhaps Dd’s contribution to the order of the Canterbury Tale which is worth remarking upon here. 

As explained in the ‘Content’ section, the order of the tales in Dd is usually associated with El. Manly and Rickert (1940) note: ‘The MSS of Group a have essentially the same arrangement as El, but it is textually clear that the group is not derived from the same immediate ancestor as El’ (2, p. 480). Subsequently scholars refer to the type a order as the a-El order. Pratt considers this order authoritative, because this was how Chaucer had arranged his pile of papers. ‘The scribe of El and a knew the authentic ‘Chaucerian’ tradition of the order of the tales’ (Pratt 1951, p. 1165). Benson subsequently supported this theory arguing that only Chaucer could have arranged the tales in this way: ‘The creator of the Type a order had an intimate knowledge of the contents of the tales, by which he knew that D, E, and F came in that order’ (Benson 1981, p. 111). To this argument Robinson (1999) adds: ‘The Ellesmere order appears to have been the order of α, the very early exemplar we think was copied (like Hengwrt itself) direct from Chaucer’s working draft of the Tales’ (p. 206). Other scholars such as Dempster first (1949, 1138) and Blake later (1985a) argued that the a-El arrangement is a development of the Hg order after scribes realised that certain parts could have been misplaced.

These suggestions concerning the a-El order seem to focus in particular on two main assumptions: 1. a and El order is the same; 2. The order could or could not originate from an existing order, whose copytext is not extant. In either hypothesis, codicological evidence across the manuscripts’ tradition is rarely discussed with the notable exception of El and Hg. It also seems to me that El and the a group had probably two copytexts with different orders, or El is a consequence of the development of the a order. It is at this juncture that Dd brings evidence to bear on the development of this order.

The codicological analysis of the making of Dd shows that the Dd scribe was not working with an existing order of a complete manuscript. Uncertainties in the way in which the scribe is mapping the text onto the page are evident in several quires, and the replacement of folios in quire 5, for example, evinces that the scribe is working with two orders, the one he has first received and the one he then imposes that is CL, L13 and 14 and the beginning of ME. 

There are other examples in the manuscript in which the scribe shows uncertainty. Gaps are left between one textual part and the next between CO and L7, SU and CL, SQ and FK, PH and L21, PD and SH. It is not clear why these gaps are present in Dd; perhaps they represent authorial intention (Partridge 2000), or they could coincide with textual and organizational problems that the scribe had to solve when dealing with piecemeal material. For instance, the empty recto before SH could have been a gap left to receive a prologue that never arrived, and the gap at the end of NP and beginning of NU was left most probably to accommodate the prologue of NU. 

There are also borderline situations in which the scribe is aware of the sequence of tales and links, but does not copy them progressively, for example GP KN L1 MI and L2. This is a scenario which is not unique to Dd, but is shared with Hg for example (Hanna 1989 and Stubbs 2000).

Finally, the absence of uncertainty between ML and WBP till SU and between NU L33 and CY implies that the scribe is following the arrangement of his exemplar.

Considering this evidence, the Dd scribe was working with different types of textual entities: 1. Parts already arranged and parts arranged and supplied at different times; 2. Parts without rubrics; 3. Parts to be arranged and inserted. It is obvious that the Dd scribe or his supervisor, if there is one, is dealing with a complex set of exemplars which duplicate material as well as offering alternative ordinationes. It is also notable that the Dd scribe did not have the complete a order, but it is likely that he was working towards establishing a stable order. Whether Dd is the earliest manuscript with the a order, or it illustrates an organisation of the text in which someone was trying to achieve the El order, it is not possible to say. 

The scribe, however, must have been part of an informed network of scribes which would readily supply material in varying form and order. This circle of individuals must also have been working in close proximity. Thus, the suggestion that the Dd scribe is working in London and collaborated with other scribes there is plausible (Da Rold 2007a). But is Chaucer involved in this network? What exactly did he leave at his death and to whom? This is not possible to say, and further codicological work on the early manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales may well provide more answers. It is, however, intriguing that the Dd scribe had to correct the ordinatio of the text in quire 5. He cut, copied and re-arranged quite a few folios, if this order was only scribal, why would he go to so much trouble if it was not textually important? The scribe did not just work on the material he had available, he also shaped this material in an intelligent way, and it is likely that he was actively trying to achieve the a order; under the agency of whom is, however, still uncertain.