Medieval Literature in Manuscripts Before the Printed Book
First, dispense with the notion that it will be easy to talk about an "original" or "authoritative copy" of a medieval work, as in a more correct version of what the author actually intended to publish. "Publishing" as we understand it did not exist, at least in the commercial, mass-produced, automated, author-originated form. Think, instead, of "works" being present in multiple copies, each of which is in its own sense an "origin" of the work for its audience. The multiple copies of a work in circulation at any one era comprise a field of possible versions of the text, versions which would be represented differently by the physical artifact one held in one's hand rather than by a canonical text presented by scholarly editors as "authorized."
For an example of one form of gorgeous interpretive representation of a narrative that exists in many forms, click here and look at a few images from two manuscripts of the Estoire de Saint Graal, one of the Arthurian Holy Grail stories. Double click on any image to expand it to readable size. Think about the production of literature without publishers, printers, or even (as we understand them) professional authors. Poetic composition was a preoccupation of courtiers, those noble and aspiring gentry people who got things done in monarchical governments, and most of their work circulated in unadorned manuscripts, shared and copied by their friends. An illuminated manuscript like the Estoire is produced only rarely. Occasionally a courtier might present a finished work to a higher noble in this form, or a noble might commission the production of such a book, ordering the book's contents, decorative scheme, and other details from the monks working in the local monastery's "scriptorium," the medieval "copy center." The contents might be a single work of literature, but often books were libraries in miniature, containing many works or fragments of works, selected according to the tastes of the patron. Chaucer's tales of Canterbury sometimes occupy their own manuscripts, like the famous "Ellesmere Manuscript" now at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, but some tales are copied alone or in groups alongside the works of other authors, recipes, spells, household accounts, and miscellaneous lyrics various owners had copied into blank pages or margins. Determining the various states of the text of Chaucer's tales was one of the great achievements of the twentieth century, and when scholars realized that The Canterbury Tales did not exist as a single unified work of literature, it helped them to challenge and finally to defeat New Criticism's claim to preeminence as an interpretive theory--there was no single "work" whose conflicting tensions, ambiguities, and ironies could be be resolved and unified by a pattern of themes, though countless critics claimed to have discovered the magic key. It is simply a different kind of "literature" than that produced for commercial publication by modern professional poets.
We will be discussing the development of book technology and vernacular literacy all semester, but this kind of text is our starting point. You also might be interested in an explanation for how the manuscripts of CT were placed in "families," and how manuscripts get accidentally altered in production. The errors actually helped us discover the relationships among the MSS and tell us many things about how the surviving manuscript editions of Chaucer were produced in the fifteenth century. (We have no manuscripts from Chaucer's era [late 14th-century, 1340-1400], and that means we have no "autograph" manuscripts bearing his handwriting.) If you are interested in medieval manuscripts but feel intimidated by the jargon, click here for a link to Timothy Seid's online undergraduate introduction to manuscript interpretation. This site is strongly recommended as a summer reading project for English majors considering graduate study in any era. Principles guiding manuscript description, analysis and interpretation are largely the same whether the manuscript is being prepared by a medieval scribe or is being used by a modern author to compose a novel, poem or dramatic script. Manuscripts contain invaluable clues to authors' developing intentions for their works, and they are the basis for all scholarly editions of literary works.