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Rochester project democratizes access to medieval English literature

September 16, 2020
image of illustrated medieval textA rich collection, in three languages, of lyric poetry, satire, comedies, collected sayings, and other text from medieval England, the Complete Harley 2253 Manuscript—housed in the British Library, with a detail of a page shown here—is one of the most important literary books to survive from the Middle Ages. (Courtesy of the British Library)

A pioneering initiative to make texts from the Middle Ages available to scholars and students around the world receives continued support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Middle English Texts Series “puts the literature out there for everybody.”

Teachers and students of medieval literature long faced a problem that people studying other literary periods did not: the scant availability of texts.

That’s not because there wasn’t plenty of literature produced in the Middle Ages or because not much survived. The problem was access.

image of translated medieval text

METS print and digital editions offer the original Middle English text and a facing-column modern English translation, as seen in its edition of the Harley Manuscript. (Courtesy of Robbins Library)

Publishing medieval texts isn’t like offering editions of literary works created after the advent of the printing press. “Everything was copied by hand in the Middle Ages, and so every medieval copy is different. And we almost never have the copy that was written by the author. We just have copies of copies of copies,” says Anna Siebach-Larsen, director of the University of Rochester’s Rossell Hope Robbins Library and Koller-Collins Center for English Studies.

Each copy introduces difference. The scribes made mistakes or repeated words as they carried out the grueling work of copying. When working in languages they did not know, they sometimes introduced misspellings or substituted one word for another. Words, sentences, and even paragraphs might be omitted from a particular copy.

Scholars of medieval literature have traditionally had to travel to different archives to compare copies—and, if publishing an edition, decide which of the copies is most authoritative and create the notes and context that explain the differences between the various manuscript copies. German scholars took on a lot of this work 200 years ago.

“The German editions, they were made for experts by experts. They’re often from the 19th century. They’re hard to use and hard to find,” says Siebach-Larsen. As a result, undergraduates studying medieval literature were largely confined to the texts—frequently, just excerpts—available in anthologies. The narrow slice of medieval literature that achieved canonical status shut out “many of the widely circulated texts and authors that medieval people actually read and shared,” she says.

It left students—and anyone else interested in medieval literature but outside the scholarly community or without access to a world-class library—high and dry.

‘Changing the study of Middle English literature’

Russell Peck, for more than 50 years a Rochester faculty member and now a professor emeritus of English, knew there had to be a better way. In 1990, working with the Teaching Association for Medieval Studies (TEAMS, of which he is a founding member), he established the Middle English Texts Series (METS). It offers free digital and affordable print editions of a wide range of medieval writing.

“It completely changed the study of Middle English literature,” says Peck, the general editor for the series, as he looks back over 30 years of work.

Long history of leadership in medieval studies

The University is home to several other digital projects on medieval life and literature: the Camelot Project, the Crusades Project, the Robin Hood Project, and Visualizing Chaucer.

The Early Worlds Initiative, established in 2017, builds on Rochester’s long-standing strength in the study of medieval and early modern cultures. It’s an interdisciplinary research project at Rochester that extends from the 5th to 18th centuries and strives to move beyond the limitations and biases of research conducted in the US and the UK to achieve a truly global perspective.

A comprehensive collection of materials

The personal collection of Rossell Hope Robbins provided the nucleus for the Robbins Library, which contains comprehensive holdings across medieval history, literature, art, and culture. The library continues to be funded by Rossell Hope and Helen Ann Mins Robbins’s endowed gift.

An internationally regarded expert on medieval author John Gower—a friend and contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer’s—Russell Peck, a professor emeritus of English, was instrumental in establishing the collection at Rochester, where he has helped propel the University to a place of prominence in the world of medieval studies.

Siebach-Larsen, who holds a PhD in medieval studies from Notre Dame, used METS texts herself as a student. “METS democratizes access,” she says. “It puts the literature out there for everybody.” And by offering a more complete view of the literary period, the series has helped “transform our understanding and study of medieval culture,” she adds.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) recently awarded the project a three-year grant to support its mission of offering the broadest possible readership—from specialists to undergraduates and high school students to people simply curious about the Middle Ages—access to the full range of literary output from medieval England. The latest award extends a long history of support for the project from the NEH.

“METS takes as its mission the creation of affordable editions that would pass scrutiny from the most demanding expert, yet would prove comprehensible, and even enticing, to someone who had never read Middle English before,” the team wrote in its application for support from the NEH.

Tools of the trade

Each volume in the series offers both the scholarly apparatus demanded by researchers and the tools that help a novice understand the text: glosses and facing-page translations, textual and explanatory notes, contexts and background.

Thomas Hahn—a professor of English, the consulting editor to METS, and the principal investigator for the NEH grant—says the series “offers the richest portal into the Middle Ages to the largest number of people with the widest range of interests and expertise of anything that exists out there.”

Among the many titles METS has published are William Caxton’s The Game and Playe of the Chesse, a chessboard-inspired allegory about contributions to the common good; Prik of Conscience, among the most popular medieval English poems; and the Complete Harley 2235 Manuscript—one of the most important literary books to survive from the Middle Ages, it’s a rich collection, in three languages, of lyric poetry, satire, comedies, collected sayings, and more.

METS is a partnership between TEAMS, scholars in the field, Rochester’s Department of English, and the River Campus Libraries, in particular, the Robbins Library—the University’s medieval studies library—and the Information Discovery Team, along with the Digital Scholarship Lab and other library metadata and IT experts.

Individual volume editors are scholars from around the world, supported by METS’s own editorial team, which includes Rochester graduate students and undergraduates. The students hone their skills in paleography—the study of handwriting—and copy-editing, and acquire a wide range of digital humanities skills. The project is a “source for both intellectual rigor and growth and marketable, career-driven skills,” says Hahn.

A ‘lifeline’ for scholarship and teaching

Ninety-five volumes have been published online and in print, offering today’s readers more than a thousand texts. The series includes prose, poetry, drama, travel writing, devotional literature, autobiography, and other forms—all from the British Isles between the 12th and 16th centuries. The online texts, hosted on the River Campus Libraries’ website, generate about half a million hits per year. Online readers are predominantly from the US and the UK but also come from about 135 countries and a wide variety of language groups around the world.

The multilingual dimension of METS is now central. The series has broadened its focus to include many of the languages in use in medieval Britain, including all the dialects of English, Older Scots, Welsh, Anglo-Irish, Anglo-Norman, and Continental French.

Among the tasks ahead for the creators of the series is an overhaul of its digital editions—an effort already well underway—to improve sustainability as well as access and possibilities for future users. The age of COVID-19 has demonstrated how critical such multimodal, user-friendly interfaces are.

“This pandemic has only made more clear how important METS’s dedication to open access is,” says Siebach-Larsen. “We have heard from researchers and instructors around the world that METS’s digital editions have been a lifeline for their scholarship and teaching.”

Read more

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The interdisciplinary Early Worlds Initiative aims to help faculty, researchers, students, and even the general public delve deeper into the complex field of medieval studies.
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Visualizing Chaucer

Managed by the Robbins Library, the digital project makes accessible to scholars and students postmedieval illustrated versions of the work of medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer.
photo of russell peck
Russell Peck honored by Medieval Academy of America

“[Russell] Peck has made extraordinarily important contributions to the field of medieval studies,” noted the executive director of the Medieval Academy as the longtime professor of English received the academy’s award for outstanding service in 2015.

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Category: Society & Culture