The Alliterative Morte Arthure: A “Hyper-Critical” Edition

This edition of the Morte Arthure introduces an approach to digital editing that enhances the archival practices pioneered by Jerome McGann and Hoyt Duggan, answering the criticisms of G. Thomas Tanselle and Peter Shillingsburg through critical engagement with the poem as both a textual artifact and unique literary object.[1] The foundation of my project is a new critical text of the poem, along with analogues from Thomas Malory’s writings, encoded in extensible Mark-up Language (XML) as defined in the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) guidelines.[2] XML is a programming syntax that allows editors to indicate a theoretically limitless number of features for any character, word, or phrase that a text’s audience can display and search in various ways. This markup functions as a dynamic gloss 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 these textual states exist in the underlying code. Furthermore, the dynamic nature of an electronic 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 employing 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 “deep-editing” method first outlined by George Kane.[3] Cycling through these views and consulting the apparatus accompanying each, readers can compare competing editorial approaches to either study those processes or decide what level of textual certainty best suites their research needs. This 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 by readers.

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 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.[4] 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 through its explicit representation in the edition’s markup. Even when the final decision between variants falls to 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 presenting multiple competing variants, judging their relative merit, and persuading an audience with full access to the evidence that these judgments accord with the edition’s professed theory. It also means, in contrast to common practice in print editions, explicitly confronting in the underlying markup the fact that rehabilitating a corrupted text is a matter of probability rather than certainty.[5] 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 many 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 XML markup to formulate new rules for the versification of alliterative long-lines in Middle English.[6] 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 the poem's alliterative and metrical structure necessitate West Midland dialect forms.[7] 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 some 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.

Dissertation Outline

    I.                    Critical Introduction

a.       Physical Description of the Texts

i.      Description: This chapter contains a full codicological analysis of the manuscript containing the alliterative Morte Arthure along with brief notes about the Winchester manuscript and Caxton printing of Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur.

ii.      Sections:

1.       Lincoln Cathedral MS. 91

a.       Overview

b.       Manuscript Date

c.       Physical Condition

d.       Collation

e.       Handwriting

f.        Arrangement of Page

g.       Decoration and Textual Presentation

h.       Punctuation

i.         Marginalia

j.         Binding

k.       Index of Contents

2.       British Library Additional Manuscript 59678 (Winchester MS)

3.       William Caxton’s 1485 Edition of the Morte D’Arthur

b.       Consideration of Related Texts

i.      Description: This chapter contains a consideration of other texts that serve as indirect witnesses to the alliterative Morte Arthure, including likely source texts, Malory’s analogues and other works with similar themes from the alliterative tradition.

 ii.      Sections:

1.       A Definition of “Related Texts”

2.       Source Materials

3.       Malory’s Analogues

4.       Alliterative Collocations: Martial Romances

5.       Conclusions and Future Directions

c.       Scribal Intervention in Lincoln Cathedral MS. 91

i.      Description: This chapter contains a detailed analysis of the scribal features in Lincoln Cathedral MS. 91, especially those changes reflecting what appear to be the copyist’s priorities. A modified version of this section is forthcoming in volume 58 of Studies in Bibliography.

 ii.      Sections:

1.       A Rationale of ‘Scribal Corruption’

2.       Past Assessments of Robert Thornton

3.       The Methodology of Reassessment

4.       Constructing Thornton’s Scribal Profile

5.       From Profile to Rationale

6.       Conclusions and Applications

7.       Appendix One: Summary of Manuscripts and Lines Examined

8.       Appendix Two: Full Listing of Scribal Habit Examples

d.       Description of Archetypal Versification Features

i.      Description: This chapter contains a detailed analysis of versification features in the alliterative Morte Arthure. A primary focus is an assessment of which a-verse metrical patterns coincide with suspect b-verse patterns or faulty alliteration.

ii.      Sections:

1.       Introduction

2.       Survey of Past Metrical Analyses

3.       Versification Analysis and the ‘Hermeneutical Circle’

4.       Breaking the Circle: Duggan’s B-verse Metrical Rule

5.       Testing the Applicability of Duggan’s B-verse Metrical Rule

6.       Testing Inoue’s A-verse Metrical Rules

7.       Coincidence of Error

8.       Conclusions and Future Directions

e.       Linguistic Description and Analysis

i.      Description: This chapter contains a detailed analysis of linguistic features within the alliterative Morte Arthure correcting the mistaken notion that the poem originated in the East Midlands.

ii.      Sections:

1.       Phonology

a.       Vowels in Tonic Syllables

b.       Consonants

2.       Morphology

a.       Metrical Considerations: The Status of Final –e

b.       Nouns

c.       Pronouns

d.       Adjectives and Adverbs

e.       Verbs

3.       Interpretation of Linguistic Description

a.       A Progressive History of Linguistic Analysis

b.       Problems with the McIntosh/Hamel Model

c.       A New Interpretation of the Evidence

d.       Conclusions

f.        Authorship and Date of Composition

i.      Description: This chapter contains a brief consideration of the authorship of the alliterative Morte Arthure, followed by a more extensive discussion of its date of composition building upon Larry Benson’s scholarship.

ii.      Sections:

1.       Complications to Authorship Study

2.       Traditional Date of Composition

3.       Reassessing the Date of Composition

4.       Conclusions and Implications

g.       Editorial Method

i.      Description: This chapter contains a detailed rationale for the editorial method, including a discussion of its theoretical basis and realization in the digital medium. A revised version of this section forms the basis of a solicited article on electronic scholarly editing currently under review by Arthuriana.

ii.      Sections:

1.       A Theory of Hyper-Criticism

a.       A Medium in Search of Method

b.       Electronic Editing and the ‘IATH Template’

c.       The ‘Archival Theories’ of Electronic Editing

d.       The Response from Critical Editors

e.       The Need for Critical Hypertexts

f.        The Hyper-Critical Model

g.       Applications and Future Directions

2.       An Application of Hyper-Critical Theory

a.       Adapting Theory to Practice

b.       Procedures for Identifying Textual Uncertainty

c.       Encoding Evidence: Direct Tagging and Hyperlinks

d.       The Representation of Critical Thought

e.       Limitations and Significance

3.       Users’ Guide to a Hyper-Critical Morte Arthure

a.       Technical Overview

b.       Usage Conventions Common to All Style-Sheets

c.       CSS 1 & 2: Diplomatic Styles

d.       CSS 3 & 4: Verse Pattern Exposures

e.       CSS 5-8: Emended Styles

f.        CSS 9: Show All Tags

h.       Select Bibliography

II.                 Critical Edition

a.       Description: A new transcription of the alliterative Morte Arthure made directly from the manuscript and including several views of the text segregated by the relative likelihood that individual emendations reflect an archetypal version of the poem.

b.       Views/Texts:

i.      Diplomatic Views

1.       Diplomatic View with Notes

2.       Diplomatic View without Notes (typographic facsimile)

ii.      Emended Views

1.       Conservative (only obvious error corrected)

2.       Cautious Eclecticism (slightly more intrusive corrections)

3.       Deep Editing (reconstruction of authorial text)

iii.      Verse Pattern Exposure Views

1.       Metrical and Alliterative Patterns (exposes versification markup)

2.       Metrical and Alliterative Patterns with Errors Highlighted

iv.      All-Tags (XML markup visible to reader)

[1] See The Piers Plowman Electronic Archive, ed. Hoyt N. Duggan et. al. (Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2000- ). Online at and available on CD-ROM; The complete writings and pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A hypermedia research archive, ed. Jerome J. McGann et. al. (Charlottesville, VA: Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, 1993). Available online at; Jerome McGann, ‘The Rationale of HyperText,’ TEXT 9 (1996): 11-32; G. Thomas Tanselle, “Textual Criticism at the Millennium,” Studies in Bibliography 54 (2001): 1-80; Peter Shillingsburg, Scholarly Editing in the Computer Age: Theory and Practice, 3rd ed. (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1996). Both Tanselle and Shillingsburg note that current digital archives restrict their collections to editions of documentary witnesses and propose adding critical editions in order to give such works focus and improve their usefulness to the wider academic community.

[2] The standard for text markup in the digital humanities is the set of guidelines produced by the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). The current version of these specifications appears online at

[3] William Langland, Will's visions of Piers Plowman and Do-Well: Piers Plowman, the A Version, ed. George Kane (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988). Kane’s ‘deep-editing’ methodology involves reconstructing authorial readings based on an editor’s understanding of a work even when the documentary sources for a particular emendation are non-existent or inconclusive. Often such reconstructions depend on indirect evidence like scribal tendencies, a poet’s individual style, or metrical norms.

[4] D. C. Greetham, Textual Scholarship: An Introduction (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994): 367; Similar arguments are dissected and repudiated in G. Thomas Tanselle’s 2001 review of recent publications in textual criticism [“Textual Criticism at the Millennium,” Studies in Bibliography 54 (2001): 1-80].

[5] See Murray McGillivray, ‘Towards a Post-Critical Edition: Theory, Hypertext, and the Presentation of Middle English Works,’ TEXT 7 (1994): 187-8.

[6] See Hoyt N. Duggan, “The Shape of the B-verse in Middle English Alliterative Poetry,” Speculum 61 (1986): 564-92; Hoyt N. Duggan, “Final –e and the Rhythmic Structure of the B-Verse in Middle English Alliterative Poetry,” Modern Philology 86 (1988): 119-145; Hoyt N. Duggan, “Extended A-verses in Middle English Alliterative Poetry,” Parergon 18 (2000): 53-76; Hoyt N. Duggan, “Some Aspects of A-Verse Rhythms in Middle English Alliterative Poetry,” Speaking Images: Essays in Honor of V.A. Kolve, ed. Charlotte Brewer and Robert Yeager (Asheville: Pegasus Press, 2001): 479-503.

[7] Angus McIntosh, "The Textual Transmission of the Alliterative Morte Arthure," English and Medieval Studies Presented to J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Norman Davis and C. E. Wrenn (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1962): 231-40; Anonymous, Morte Arthure: A Critical Edition, ed. Mary Hamel (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1984.

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The Alliterative "Morte Arthure": A Hyper-Critical Edition (Abstract) by John Ivor Carlson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.