Compariing Three Versions of Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale

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Compariing Three Versions of Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale


One of the interesting things about the works of Chaucer is the amount of difference one can find between the different manuscripts of his work. I thought it would be interesting to look at the difference between two manuscripts, using the transcriptions available in the Chaucer Society Specimens of all the Accessible Unprinted Manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales. I found a copy that has comparative versions of the manuscripts assigned to us, taking a look at the Pardoner's Tale. While we have not looked at that tale in class, and given that it was the only sample I could find in the scattered volumes of the Specimens, I felt it would be interesting to look at them, especially compared to the Riverside edition we are reading in class.

Beginning with the Riverside edition, the introduction to the Pardoner?s tale begins with ?Heere endeth the Phisiciens Tale? and ?The woordes of the Hoost to the Phisicien and the Pardoner.? (Benson, 193) These introductory words, as well as the closing words for the previous tale, are not present in the Bodleian text. One could surmise that the transcriber of the text felt these to be perfunctory and unecessary, and though the reproduction I have does not reproduce it, it?s possible that there could be some other dividing point to break off one tale and begin another. The Additional MS has a conjunctive phrase, though it is different than that presented in the Riverside edition. ?here ende the Maister of phisikes tales? and ?Here bigynneth the prologe of the reheytyng of our hoost.? (Specimens 91, 2) It is interesting to not the difference of terminology here. The physician is ?Phisicien? in the Riverside text, yet the ?Master of phisikes? in the Additional MS. One wonders why one is preferred over the other, and which is the more authoritative version. With only these three texts assigned, it is not for this author to speculate, and again, with a small sample, there can easily be isolated differences.

One of the most interesting things to note in these differing manuscripts, I?ve found, is the variance and change that even identical passages can take, separated into various edition. Much like modern English, when you ask several different people to write the same thing, you can get many different variations base on how they?re transcribed.

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I take now the first few lines of the Pardoner?s prologue for an example.

Riverside Edition
?Lordynges?, quod he, ?in chirches whan I preche,?
I peyne me to han an hauteyn speche,
And rynge it out as round as gooth a belle,
For I kan a by rote that I telle. (Benson, 194)

Bodleian MS
Orlinges coth he in church when I. preche.
I peyne me to haue an haute speche.
Ryng it out as rounde a goth A. Belle.
ffor I. can alle by rote that I. telle. (Specimens 90, 14)

Additional MS
Lordynges quod he in chirce whan I preche
I peyne me to haue an hauntin speche
And rynge it out as round as goth a belle
For I can al bi rote that I telle (Specimens 91, 6)

The most obvious difference between these is the use of quotations in the Riverside edition, though I believe this to be an editorial choice for better comprehension by a modern audience. If there is note of this in the text, I cannot find it, yet it does bear mentioning as the most obvious change. The punctuation differs in each text as well, though it does not seem to be truly important, either. I cannot begin to presume what the periods after the capital letters stand for in the Bodleian text, but the other periods seem clearly to denote the ends of the lines, a simple editorial choice, it appears.

The differences between the two texts stand out here in two sections in particular. In the Riverside text, the Pardoner talks about ?chirches,? yet this noun is singular in both of the selections that I was assigned. This perhaps implies that he doesn?t get around much, or it could simply be another editorial choice. However, even a small change like this could make the Pardoner appear in a different light.

Another thing to note is the ease at which a modern English reader can confuse things that are different. The word hauteyne in the Riverside text, translated in its footnotes as impressive or loud, is rendered as haute in the Bodleian text, but hauntin in the Additional text. This last rendering is confusing, at the very least, as it appears to be closer to the modern term haunting, which gives a decidedly different tone to the kind of speech that the Pardoner is describing. This small difference in appearance also shows the importance of having these multiple texts. The meaning of something can drastically change over the differences presented here, especially to modern readers, and without the benefit of written work in the author?s own hand, there is no single authoritative edition to work from to resolve these incongruities in the text.

Another example of these incongruities arises from actual differences in the texts themselves. Here is again a selection from each version of the Canterbury Tales, a few more lines from the Pardoner?s prologue.

Riverside Edition
If that this boon be wasshe in any welle,
If cow, or calf, or sheep, or oxe swelle,
That any worme hate ete, or worm ystonge,
Task water of that welle and wassh his tonge, (Benson, 194-195)

Bodleian MS
If that this bone be wassshen in a. welle
If Cow or Calf Shepe or Oxe swelle.
That eny worme hath eten or stunge
About the herte or ellis the lunge (Specimens 90, 20)

Additional MS
If that this bon be wasshe in any welle
If kow or calfe or sheep or oxe swelle
That any worm hate ete or worm y-stonge
Take water of that welle and wasshe his tonge (Specimens 91, 6)

With this, it can be easily seen that the Bodliean text contains a significant difference from both the Additional MS and the Riverside edition. Again, of course, are the differences in spell and punctuation that were pointed out in the earlier sample, but there is a new, more striking difference. Whereas in Additional and Riverside the ailments listed end at worms eating and stinging, the Bodleian text removes the direction to take water from the well and wash the tongue, replacing it with an extension of the description of the sting, and adding what appears to be a lung ailment.

It is this kind of difference that stands out the most when looking at these manuscripts, though they take searching to locate. One must speculate why the Bodleian text is so drastically different here than the others, and which one is the correct rendering of the phrase, if any are exactly as Chaucer would have preferred it. Again, we are left to the editors to decide for us. In this case, the changing of the line does not significantly alter the point of the prologue, but it is a definite difference in the texts, and easily stands out above the smaller matters.

I find the exploration of these texts in this sense to be interesting, at the very least, but also frustrating. While the texts have differences in each manuscript, the slight changes are mostly to spelling and punctuation. Close examination on this level does reveal differences that can be significant if not carefully studied, however, they pale in light of the more noticeable differences of story order and omission. A true study of the differences in the texts, however, cannot be done without a look at both aspects of the texts, and though this is but a glimpse from one tale, the differences therein are significant enough to gain mention.

Works Cited:

Benson, Larry, ed. The Riverside Chaucer. Illinois: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Zupzita, Julius, ed. Bodleian MS. 414. Specimens of all the Accessible Unprinted Manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales. 90 (1897): 5-21.

Zupzita, Julius, ed. Additional MS. 35,286, Brit. Mus. Specimens of all the Accessible Unprinted Manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales. 91 (1898): 3-10.


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