Literature Dungeons and Dragons

About two-thirds of the way through my lecture class meeting on Wednesday, one of the students shouted out, loudly enough for the whole room to hear: “THIS IS JUST LIKE LITERATURE DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS!” Not all of the students were quite that enthusiastic about the day’s activity, but most of them got into it and I think that the activity that I will be calling Literature Dungeons and Dragons from here on out (it is medieval, after all), was a success.

Literature Dungeons and Dragons is an activity meant to demonstrate to students some of the problems of textual transmission in a manuscript reading culture and how it is that a text gets to us in an published, edited form like the ones that they are reading in my class. I did a version of this activity last year on a much smaller scale in the seminar version of this class that I am now teaching as an 80-student lecture. This semester, I planned it to take place after a lecture on literary activity at the court of Alfonso X, in which we had discussed the role of various actors and agents and looked at images of some of the Cantigas manuscripts, especially the images that portray scribes writing at the king’s feet.

In lecture, I also presented them with a passage from a prologue of one of the Alfonsine texts, as well as a passage from a prologue from a mirror of princes composed by Alfonso’s nephew and cultural heir, and asked students to compare and contrast the two men’s attitudes towards authorship and the role of the author as one of the stakeholders in creating a text. In the following class session, we took on an activity that allowed students to experience some of the conditions of authorship that led to these considerations.

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Students were divided into six groups and assigned roles at random: Each group was made up of two councilors to the king, three scribes, three medieval editors, and two modern editors. One of my TAs played the role of Alfonso X, took the councilors out of the classroom and read them a text that was meant to be guidance for what should be included in the book that the king was ordering to be written. We used two of Aesop’s fables to stand in for the animal fables of Kalila and Dimna that were translated at Alfonso’s court but that are far to long to use in an in-class activity with an oral-transmission-of-text component.

The councilors returned to the classroom and explained the king’s request to the scribes in their respective groups. Each scribe wrote down his or her version of the fables and handed it off to the editors, who were required to edit the text into a final version.

While the editors and scribes were working, my TAs and I took actions to mimic some of the problems with textual transmission: I armed one TA with a bottle of water and one with a pair of scissors, and they were a flood and a bookworm, respectively, and went around damaging the manuscripts at various states of production. I was an overzealous reader and went around crossing things out and adding marginal annotations to their pages. I “killed” two scribes with the plague; other scribes had to finish their work, and yielded manuscripts with two different hands represented in each. I took one scribe’s notebook and dropped it off with another group.

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Cleverly FEREPA-compliant photo of the activity in progress by my TA, “Alfonso X”.

Then it was the turn of the modern editors from each group to get together and compare the final version that had come to them from their group. I wanted to show that transmission problems are not a thing of the past, so halfway through their work I took one editor’s version away from her, as though it had been mis-shelved in the rare book library and so she had to contribute to the edition from memory and from her notes. The students made their edition in Google Docs, so I deleted a few sentences and replaced it with the text: “Hard drive crash. Did you back up your files?”.

Finally my TA read the whole class the fables that had formed the king’s original instructions and we compared the versions, especially what kinds of textual features were most likely to have been changed or to have been preserved.

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After the activity was over, I asked all the students to reflect on the kinds of decisions they had to make within their role in creating the edition and the kinds of challenges they faced while they worked. They made good observations about which versions they preferred to rely on as they edited (they often preferred the longer one) and what kinds of decisions they chose to make when prioritizing different characteristics and aspects of transmitting the text (one of the councilors said his priority was action words in recounting the king’s instructions).

The exercise, of course, paints book history in broad strokes. But still, I hope that the students had a little bit of fun and will walk away from my class with a memorable understanding that when they open a print edition of a text, they’re not necessarily seeing an “original” version of that text or everything that contributed to its creation.

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