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The refoliation of the manuscripts

With very few exceptions, all Canterbury Tales manuscripts (like almost all manuscripts) are foliated in catalogues according to a simple and straightforward mechanism. The cataloguer numbers the first surviving folio as “1” (usually writing “1” in the top right of the recto), numbers the next one “2”, and carries on to the last surviving folio.  This has advantages. It provides an unambiguous way of referring to each folio and it can be done without having to spend any time looking at the contents or structure of the manuscript. If the task is to foliate a large number of manuscripts, and if there is only a limited time to do this work, this is the clearly the best way to proceed: hence the very large number of manuscripts foliated by this method.

However, there are problems with this procedure.  In theory, universal use of this system should lead to one foliation only for each manuscript. In practice, duplicate and conflicting foliations are rather common: either because the original foliation skipped or duplicated numbers, and so was helpfully corrected in a later foliation; or because the manuscript itself has changed. Leaves (or whole quires) may be added, removed, or reshuffled, necessitating a refoliation.  What was orderly and unambiguous is no longer so.  Further, this traditional foliation is at best uninformative and commonly misleading. The first page of the text of the Hengwrt manuscript (Hg) is numbered “2” because at some point in the history of the manuscript, someone decided to bind a quite unrelated single leaf from a musical manuscript in front of this first page. So this became “1”, and so the first page of the Tales, though the first page of the first regular quire of 8, became “2”. In contrast, the Corpus manuscript of the Tales has lost its first page (as analysis of the quire shows), and hence the text of the Tales commences at line 72. However, in this case the traditional foliation awards this page the number “1”, although this was not the original first page of the manuscript. The result is puzzling: it appears from the foliation as if something is missing from the beginning of Hengwrt, while nothing is missing from Corpus, where in fact the reverse is the case. 

There is an alternative. One could number the pages according to what one can deduce of the original construction of the manuscript.  That is: one would skip numbers where it appears the manuscript has lost leaves, and exclude pages added to the original manuscript from the numbering.  In the case of Hengwrt and Corpus, this would have the first page of Hengwrt numbered "1", not "2", which would be consistent with the Tales beginning on this first page, the first page of the first quire. It would have the first page of Corpus numbered "2", consistent with the loss of the first leaf of the first quire, and with it the text of the first 72 lines of the General Prologue. One can see the benefits of this system in our foliation of Bodley 414.  This has lost the first folio, and so we begin it at 2r.  It has also lost the final two folios of quire 7, folios 55 and 56, and has bound two singletons in front of the first folio of quire 8. We number these two additional folios 56a1 and 56a2, to indicate that they have been added after where 56 should have been. Our foliation of Hengwrt also demonstrates how this approach is more informative about the original manuscript and what has happened to it.  As well as showing correctly that the Tales begins on the first page of the original manuscript, the added singleton in quire 21 appears as "127a", between 127 and 128, and the added ten leaves in quire 22 appear as "137a1" through "137a10", between folios 137 and 138. The refoliation also shows the misbinding of the original manuscript, with the original quires 27-29 (folios 199-222)  placed after quire 12, and so appearing between folios 86 and 87 in our numbering, with a corresponding gap between folios 198 and 223 later in the manuscript.

Accordingly, the project has long considered replacing the traditional foliation by one which reflects the original construction of the manuscript.  However, so long as we were dealing piecemeal with only a few manuscripts at a time, it was not practically possible to carry out this foliation. The preparation of the new project site in Textual Communities, presenting all 30,000 pages of all 88 c15 versions of the Tales, gave us the opportunity to carry out a complete refoliation of every manuscript and incunable. This task was only possible because of the extraordinarily careful analysis of every one of the these copies by Daniel W. Mosser over a thirty year period, now presented in his Digital Catalogue of the pre-1500 Manuscripts and Incunables of the Canterbury Tales (first edition, Scholarly Digital Editions, 2010; second edition online, 2013, at http://www.mossercatalogue.net/. Working closely for over a year with this Catalogue as we prepared this refoliation has only increased our admiration and appreciation of his work.  That we have been able to offer a few corrections to his Catalogue is a pleasant bonus.

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