The Reading of Books and the Reading of Literature

Reading the Ideal Copy > Collation and the Making of Literature

Long before the New Bibliographers, there was concern about the integrity of the text included in a given volume. If several manuscript and print copies existed, which one would form the basis of a new printed edition? Early modern editors practiced a form of collation in order to make what Greg would call “ideally perfect copy.” In the sixteenth century there were often competing “perfect” editions. Witness Thynne’s and Speght’s Chaucer volumes.


Depending on an editor’s collational practice, and his ideology, he could alter a text to such an extent that it would be an altogether different, and in some cases completely new, edition. These editions, in turn, produce starkly different readings of the same literary text. The “bad quartos” of Shakespeare plays have often been characterized as pirated or products of greedy actors’ faulty memories. Cheaply produced quartos may not have been collated, or even edited, at the time of their production, but they have been since. There has, for instance, been significant debate about King Lear, which can be found in two early modern and three modern editions. The Norton Shakespeare contains three instantiations of the tragedy: the quarto text, the folio text, and a conflated text.


The bibliographical efforts of John Bale were crucial for sixteenth-century editors of medieval texts. Following the suppression of the abbeys, Bale traveled around England, cataloguing manuscripts and creating an early bibliography of English literature. Bale’s efforts culminated in his two volume Scriptorum illustriu[m], printed in Basle (1557-59). This book, written in Latin, catalogues English writers, their life stories, and their works. Although he did not edit and collate texts, Bale’s work was foundational for early canon formation and remains an important resource for textual editors.


In addition to an early bibliographer, this section focuses on a 1554 edition of Confessio Amantis and the second folio of Shakespeare’s works. The editors of these books are bibliographically self-conscious and disclose, however vaguely, their collational principles.


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