Student Papers, Literary History, and the Growth of Authorial Form
Teachers sometimes take for granted the process which has transformed their own writing from the extremely personal, informal, scribbled texts they made when children to the reader-oriented, extremely form-conscious, carefully composed texts they make as professionals. Unfortunately, modern American (and English?) high school students rarely accomplish this transformation before entering college, and their writing accurately reflects the practices of writers who don't expect their work to be seen and taken seriously by a varied, adult, literate audience. They tend to write for themselves, to express their feelings, rather than to persuade the world that they have discovered original, new ideas that the world should care about.
Oddly enough, the earliest authors in English we typically teach in the "canon" of literature usually did not title their own works, nor did many of them spend a lot of time trying to standardize things like page layout, spelling, or even usage. They wrote as they talked, and they tended to write for a small audience of friends or for a single, much higher "super-reader" (e.g., the king, a noble whose household they served, God, or a mortal lover). This produced many effects we also see in student writing: "elliptical" utterances lacking essential interpretive context (when your intended reader's right there, you don't bother to explain your girlfriend's name or which guy, exactly, she left you for--you just lament), grammatical errors (listen to the way people talk!), phonetic spelling that could vary from sentence to sentence, almost no punctuation or line breaks in poetry, little or no "documentation" of source authors or texts (e.g., citing anything written or thought to be written by Aristitle by writing "the Philosopher says"), no titles (why title something you're about to hand to its intended reader, like "Shopping List"?).
Some authors stand out as exceptions because their training included exposure to the Latin poets of the Roman Empire and early medieval clerics, whose readers might be scattered in any of the empire's provinces or in Christendom, that empire of the spirit early Christians imagined into being. In the English 211 syllabus, all our early poems in Anglo-Saxon or Old English are not titled. Had we read the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, however, we'd be looking at a work he titled himself as Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum in 731, situating his authorship in the Latin tradition because that's the language he was writing in (with brief quotations from works in Old English, like "Caedmon's Hymn" (which the illiterate Caedmon never titled after he composed it orally in Old English because it was something he sang to you in person). Famous poets came and went, like the anonymous one called (variously) the "Pearl-Poet" or "Gawain-Poet" (after two great works, themselves never titled until our era!), and William Langland, author of the huge dream vision we know as Piers Plowman or The Vision of Piers Plowman.
Geoffrey Chaucer, who came to see himself as a poet in the tradition of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Statius, gradually began to title his larger works, like the Troilus (which modern scholars sometimes insist on calling Troilus and Criseyde to acknowledge the startling originality of his invention of the female protagonist). However, Chaucer never titled the short lyrics (e.g., "Truth" 315) although fifteenth-century scribes sometimes identified them. Two MSS call the one we know as "Truth" the "Balade de Bon Conseyl" and others call it simply "Balade" or "Balade that Chaucier made on his death bedde" [no supporting evidence for that one] or "Moral Balade of Chaucer." Better evidence of the contextual power of titles over interpretation has rarely been provided in such an economical space. Chaucer's fierce protection of his works' internal text is expressed in the lyric warning his scribe, Adam, that he'd be cursed with a skin rash if he made copying mistakes, but elsewhere in his Canterbury Tales (which he never formally titled) he invites the readers to pick and choose which tales they read (see the "Miller's Tale Prologue," 237, ll. 68-73). His "Retracciouns," probably written near the end of his life, actually attempts to retract his authorship of various works that might lead readers to sin. John Gower, like the "Pearl-Poet" and Langland also Chaucer's contemporary, gave all three of his major works titles in an obvious bid for public literary authority: Confessio Amantis (a work in Middle English), Vox Clamantis (in Latin), and Mirour de l'Omme (in French, also titled Speculum Meditantis).
When William Caxton brought printing to England in 1476, he also began the process that turned a literary work's form into a major concern of authors. First, printers had to regularize spelling so they could precalculate how many lines of type the MS pages' words would take up before setting aside paper to print them and figuring out how many pages the type they had available would allow them to set up in advance. Line breaks and section layout also were standardized for the same reasons. Because printed books were imported and exported all over Europe, authors who knew their works were going to be printed immediately began to title them as part of the process of making them a salable commodity. Works produced during the manuscript era, for which no title was available, would be given titles by the printer.
A notorious and influential example of the printed book's confusion of manuscript writing practices is Sir Thomas Malory's Arthurian compilation, written during the author's imprisonment, probably between 1460 and his death in 1469 or 1470. Most of us, including the Norton's editors, know this work as the Morte Darthur (420-1). The work probably had no title when it left Malory's hands, but it bore an "explicit" on its last page which told his readers "Here is the ende of the hoole book of kyng Arthur and of his noble knyghtes of the Rounde Table that whan they were hole togyders there was ever an hondred and forty. And here is the ende of the deth of Arthur." That was followed by requests that his readers pray for his "good delyveraunce" from prison and, after his death, for his soul. When Caxton printed the book, his preface called it "a book of the noble hystoryes of the sayd Kynge Arthur and of certeyn of his knyghtes," but there was on title page on any of Caxton's books (his pressman, Wynkyn de Worde, began that practice) and they were sold unbound so there was no cover or spine imprinted with a name. That information was contained on the last page, called the printer's "colophon" (from Greek "summit" a "finishing" point in the text which contained the text's title, and the printer's name, graphic device or "logotype," city, and date of publication. Caxton's colphon called the book Le Morte Darthur, a title with an article gender error no French speaker would make (French nouns ending in "e" are feminine and take the article "la"). When the Winchester manuscirpt of this work was discovered in 1937, and found to have many explicits at various points in the text but no title, Caxton was thought to have misrepresented a collection of eight separate romances as a single large work, perhaps to encourage sales. This somewhat dated opinion is represented as unchallenged fact by the editors of the seventh Norton edition. This means the title's error was assigned to a merchant who had lived in Burgundy for decades, where he would be laughed at for speaking such bad French, and a man who made many translations from French to English in which he didn't commit that error. P.J.C. Field has argued convincingly that the title probably was Malory's, based on Malory's notoriously imprecise French grammar found in phrases elsewhere in the text (1998). However, this did not put an end to the speculations about the text's being one work or eight separate romances. The title debate was the trigger for an enormous controversy that divided Malory scholars for decades over the question of the text's unity. Because we have not got Malory's original, "autograph" manuscript, we have no way to tell what he thought he was presenting to the world other than the things he says about his work in the text. This book's "cover" tells us nothing at all.
So what are we to make of all this? Teachers should be patient and clear when explaining to college students what their papers should look like, and neither teachers nor students should take the conventional appearance of a paper for granted. Every part of it shapes readers' reception of it. A title establish its unity, and focus our attention on its topic and key concepts. Paragraphing helps the reader divide its parts into memorable stages. Double-spacing and proper margins allow the reader to annotate the text or respond to the author. Page numbering keeps the reader aware of how much of the work has been read and how much remains, locating the reader in the paper's space-time. Proper use of quotation marks, endnotes or footnotes, in-text citations, and endnotes or bibliographies establish the author's concern for scholarly practices because they clarify the text's supporting evidence, identify sources, and help the reader follow leads to other texts. All of these textual features have histories, and all must be learned as functional parts of a paper's format, not merely memorized and followed slavishly. Modern, print-era authors offer these textual features to readers as an essential courtesy which makes reading efficient, sympathetic, and thorough.