Thaisen (2012 Congress)

Jacob Thaisen
(Department of Cultural Studies and Languages, University of Stavanger)
“How Middle English Scribes Avoided Eyeskip When They Copied Texts”

Abstract of Paper Presented at the 47th International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, 2012)
Session on “Material and Craft Aspects of Manuscript Production”
Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Sean M. Winslow
2012 Congress

[First published on our first website on 21 May 2012]

This paper presents quantitative evidence for the presence of distinct spelling forms in separate positions in the late medieval English verse line.  The evidence I offer comes from ten manuscripts.  These materials differ in their poetic content and form, and they represent the varied output of several scribes.  This diversity permits the generalisation that the presence of distinct spelling forms in different parts of the end-rhymed verse line is independent of the individual text or its scribe.  The evidence takes the shape of similarity metrics computed on the basis of letter-based probabilistic models, a technique long established in natural language processing but rarely applied to the present type of materials.  While it is widely accepted that line-final position tends to record spelling forms unattested or less frequently attested line-medially, line-initial position has received little scholarly attention.  The present similarity metrics, however, indicates that line-initial position tends to record a mix of forms typical of non-peripheral position and forms typical of line-final position.

I conclude from this finding that initial position in the end-rhymed verse line regularly prompted late medieval English scribes to suppress their tendency to introduce their own spelling forms in favour of replicating those encountered in their exemplars.  I follow Frances McSparran (2000) in suggesting that their replication provided scribes with an inconspicuous means to avoid eyeskip.  The study of spelling should therefore be a key tool to both historians of the English language and editors of medieval texts.

McSparran, Frances (2000):  “The Language of the English Poems:  The Harley Scribe and His Exemplars,” in Studies in the Harley Manuscript:  The Scribes, Contents, and Social Contexts of British Library, MS Harley 2253, ed. Susanne Fein (Kalamazoo:  Western Michigan University, Medieval Institute Publications), 391–426.