Dissertation Abstract

 The Alliterative Morte Arthure: A Hyper-Critical Edition (Copyright: January, 2007)

This edition of the Morte Arthure introduces an approach to digital editing that eschews common archival practices for critical engagement with the poem as both a textual artifact and unique literary object.  The foundation of my project is a new critical text of the poem's first 1221 lines, along with analogues from Thomas Malory’s writings, encoded in extensible Mark-up Language (XML).  XML is a programming syntax that allows editors to indicate a theoretically limitless number of features for any character, word, or phrase that can be displayed and searched in various ways by the text’s audiences.  These ‘tags’ function as glosses on the text that can convey multiple layers of literary and textual annotation for manipulation and search through programmatic means.  One example of how such mark-up can facilitate research is the ability in my edition to view the Morte Arthure with metrically deficient lines highlighted, emendations correcting these errors, or the unaltered manuscript readings since each of those textual states exist in the underlying code.  Furthermore, the fluid nature of encoded text means that readers can choose to display only select editorial corrections based on conditions like whether a reading is supported by specific types of evidence or has been deemed more probable than competing emendations.  Those reading my edition of the Morte Arthure can choose to see the diplomatic text, a number of lightly corrected conservative editions, or a more experimental version of the poem following the rules for “deep-editing” first outlined by George Kane.  Cycling through these views and consulting the apparatus accompanying each, one can actively compare competing editorial approaches to either study those processes or decide what level of textual certainty best suites one's research needs.  Fluidity is not the same as formlessness, however, and introductory essays provide rigorously documented critical arguments while conjectural readings are accompanied on-screen by encapsulated representations of textual evidence that expose editorial decisions to immediate scrutiny.

Beyond demonstrating innovative ways for readers to interact with a critical edition, my work also confronts and challenges some lingering misconceptions stunting the growth of digital editing and its attendant theory.  There have been scholars, including some proponents of the field like D. C. Greetham, who suggest that work in the digital medium is “post-critical” and dependent for its shape and purpose on readers rather than a professional editor.  While my experience has certainly convinced me of the collaborative nature of hypertext editions, I would argue that the endeavor is actually “hyper-critical” since editorial mediation does not disappear but rather becomes an object open to conscious study.  Even when the final decision between variants is left to the individual readers of an edition, an informed choice to view emendations based on either codicological or source-study evidence must be anticipated by an editor’s decision to encode those options and explain their relative value.  Therefore, the editor’s role does not diminish under these circumstances but rather expands to include fully presenting competing variants, judging their relative merit, and persuading an audience with full access to the evidence that this judgment accords with the edition’s professed theory.  It also means, in contrast to common practice in print editions, explicitly confronting the fact that rehabilitating a corrupted text is a matter of probability rather than certainty.  My edition of the Morte Arthure embraces both this ambiguity and the expanded role for the editor, using the dynamism of encoded text to illustrate how a consistent editorial theory allows one to resolve textual uncertainty but need not require one to deny the possibility of alternate approaches.

Finally, alongside its contributions to the digital humanities and editorial theory, my dissertation's format has also made possible new insights into more traditional literary questions surrounding the alliterative Morte Arthure.  For instance, building on the metrical theories of Hoyt Duggan, I was able to use statistical analysis of the markup to formulate new rules for the versification of alliterative long-lines in Middle English.  In particular, the coincidence of lines violating Duggan’s rules of b-verse metricality with certain a-verse stress patterns suggests the latter are also non-authorial corruptions.  Similarly, automated collation of the poem allowed me to challenge Angus McIntosh and Mary Hamel's widely accepted yet mistaken attribution of the poem to an East Midland author by identifying passages in which West Midland dialect forms are necessitated by the poem's alliterative and metrical structure.  Observations such as these, which have eluded talented scholars employing traditional methods, demonstrate how the ability to swiftly organize large amounts of textual data and track complex patterns using digital tools can revolutionize philological fields that are currently moribund.  In essence, this edition of the Morte Arthure represents a model for future scholarship that underscores the importance of traditional textual disciplines and editorial acumen while also demonstrating new applications for these skills in digital media.