The Hoccleve Regiment of Princes Archive:
An Online Critical Edition and Digital Editing Teaching Tool
Thomas Hoccleve was the first poet to promote the notion that the English literary canon begins with Geoffrey Chaucer, and he notably does so in his poem known as the Regiment of Princes. Written in 1411 for the rising Prince Henry (soon to be Henry V) to purportedly advise him on matters of good governance, this longest and most popular of Hoccleve's works presents one of medieval England's most sustained inquiries into the relationship between a sovereign and his subjects and the nature of literary authority. It also survives in more manuscripts than all but four other works of Middle English verse  Despite its significant presence in fifteenth-century English literary culture, however, only three print editions of the Regiment have ever been produced and only one since the nineteenth century. Additionally, none of these editions are fully critical (i.e. none record in an apparatus of notes all of the textual variations in the poem's manuscript corpus), making it nearly impossible for scholars to reconstruct how medieval readers encountered this poem in their own times.
The most recent edition, edited by Charles Blyth and published in 1999, began as a critical edition in the mid-1980s involving a team of six editors. Due to various extenuating circumstances involving the research and teaching priorities of the team members, however, all but Blyth had to leave the project before its completion and it was recast as a simpler student edition.  While this edition is very good at making the poem accessible to a student audience, it has limited usefulness for scholarship and for illustrating the extensive manuscript history of the text. Rather than reflecting the form of the poem in its 43 surviving manuscripts, it only collates the variants in two, while also significantly emending the text according to hypotheses about Hoccleve's "intended" spelling and other orthographic choices. 
Although manuscript variation data is not presented in this student edition of the poem, Dr. Blyth and the original team of editors painstakingly collected and compiled this data over the course of two decades. Since the publication of the edition, however, this data has been stored away in Blyth's files unseen and unused by scholars. In a famous statement Blyth made in a 1996 essay on his editorial process, he defended the exclusion of the variation data from the edition by claiming that the data only would be of value to a small number of scholars and would unnecessarily burden student readers. He then generously offered to provide access to the data to anyone who needed it.  Since my research depends heavily on the manuscript history of Hoccleve's works, I took him up on his offer in 2009. At that time Blyth, who was semi-retired, allowed me to take over the stewardship of his files.
Through the course of working with the variation data, however, I came to dispute Blyth's implication that it would be of little value to students. The data consists of full handwritten transcriptions of every single manuscript of the poem (collated by line) and microfilm facsimiles of these manuscripts—essentially all the archival research one would need in order to produce a critical edition of the poem. If a method were devised to offer general access to this material, it could provide scholar-teachers of literature an organized and visually dynamic platform for teaching today's students about the nature of medieval manuscript publication. If a method were devised to open up the process of constructing a critical edition from this data to include non-specialists and students, it could provide a teaching laboratory for exploring how scholars attempt to make sense of the characteristic variability in medieval texts.
I propose to develop these methods, both for providing scholars access to this cache of variation data for their own research, and for teaching modern undergraduate students about the nature of writing and publishing before the age of the printing press. To this end, I will launch a collaborative online editorial process in which any interested scholar-teacher and his or her students could participate through practical exercises in editing, with the goal of verifying, transcribing, and tagging all the variation data. The eventual result of this process would be a computerized expandable critical edition of the poem that could reproduce and display searchable transcriptions of any of the poem"s extant manuscripts when prompted by a reader. My goal is to succeed in publishing the first critical edition of the poem where others have failed by allowing numerous participants to contribute editorial work in small increments.
In the first phase of this Archive project, the manuscript variation notes for the poem need to be preserved and published online in a manner that both can be useful to scholars while the edition is being assembled and can serve as the basis for the edition's transcription and tagging process. This will involve scanning and archiving the existing hard copies of manuscript variation notes as image files, and situating this archive in an interface that links it to an existing hypertext version of the student edition of the poem and images of correlating manuscript pages. (I will soon post an illustration of the end result of this phase in the Archive section of this site.)
My goal for the second phase of this project is to design an easy-to-use, web-based editorial system that will produce a basic foundation for an extensible digital edition that could be updated as technologies change and new uses for the edition arise. This foundation will be a single XML file that contains computer searchable transcriptions of all variant versions of the poem. The main production obstacle to overcome in this phase is the time-consuming process of data-entry and XML tagging. Because of this, I want to turn the edition into a collaborative and visually-rich project that busy professors can incorporate into their teaching curricula to help illustrate manuscript variation and the medieval experience of reading to modern-day students.
In what might best be characterized by the neologism "crowdsourcing," my plan is to divide the initial transcription and mark-up of the poem into work parcels that an undergraduate student could do as part of a writing project in a course on medieval literature, digital humanities, book history, the history of reading, or other relevant subjects. Each work parcel would require a participant to check the existing transcription notes against digital images of manuscripts, and then to enter the transcription data into a web-form. That form would then generate an automatically tagged version of the transcription to add to the main XML file. I am currently consulting with experts at the Washington University Humanities Digital Workshop to develop a systematic process using open-source workflow-management and mark-up software to incorporate each work parcel into the whole project, within an intuitive multi-frame visual interface. This system will also offer feedback to each contributor in the form of a visual contextualization, which will help participating students write about and present their work. With interested colleagues, I will then compile a set of practical exercises, written assignments, lesson plans, and syllabi to promote the editorial system's use in coursework.  One possible assignment, for instance, might have students compare variant versions of the passages of the poem that they are transcribing, in order to explore the different meanings each version offers to its readers.
Also to capitalize on the benefits of a crowdsourcing development model, I will draw on the extensibility of this editorial system to post an open call for projects that would expand the utility of the base mark-up protocol. I would hope to solicit projects that enhance the edition's visual display and search interface, or enrich the content of the transcriptions with indexes, images, critical annotations, and links to external sources. Such a call would involve building relationships with computer scientists, historical and corpus linguists, librarians and libraries, digital humanities specialists, and any medievalists interested in exploring reading and manuscript variation in their research and teaching. I would publicize this call on list-serves hosted by the Modern Language Association, Medieval Academy of America, and American Association for Corpus Linguistics. I also intend to submit article length essays detailing and defending the scholarly benefits of this project to refereed journals, such as Digital Medievalist and Fifteenth-Century Studies, and propose papers making a case for the project's pedagogical aims and its collaborative and flexible nature at relevant upcoming conferences. Currently, I am scheduled to participate in a session on the Regiment of Princes at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in 2011, and I would like to propose a presentation at Digital Humanities 2012.
Launching the project as an extensible editorial system, rather than a completed edition, will help make it feasible to develop a demonstration version of the digital infrastructure to support both phases of the project within the term of a two-month summer stipend. It will also help to solve two basic problems that digital editions have faced over the last 20 years: their slow development and their underutilization by scholars, teachers, and students.  The prevailing opinion among scholars has been that acquiring the technical competence required to produce or use digital editions takes too much time away from research and teaching. By launching this project I hope to provide a way for professors to join a digital editing project that seeks to integrate teaching and research aims, without a large personal cost in time and effort.
Ultimately, with this project I hope to open up the process of electronic editing and the process of textual scholarship on Hoccleve's poem to professors and students who may each be interested in Hoccleve and manuscript variation on a relatively small-scale. My goal is to validate and utilize this small-scale participation to make this combined archive, edition, and teaching tool serve as a nexus for scholars and students to explore how textual scholarship and editing are on-going processes that can teach us how our cultural ancestors read. I believe an additional, important consequence of this project will be to promote the appreciation of this key fifteenth-century poet, his magnum opus, and the significance of its vast manuscript history.
The Hoccleve Archive Project
Elon Lang, General Editor
Rebecca van Kniest, Web Design
Technical Advice provided by the Humanities Digital Workshop at Washington University in St. Louis
Contact: Perry Trolard
Created: September 30, 2010
HTML Hit Counter