Joseph Ritson and the publication of early English literature
McNutt, Genevieve Theodora
This thesis examines the work of antiquary and scholar Joseph Ritson (1752-1803) in publishing significant and influential collections of early English and Scottish literature, including the first collection of medieval romance, by going beyond the biographical approaches to Ritson’s work typical of nineteenth- and twentieth-century accounts, incorporating an analysis of Ritson’s contributions to specific fields into a study of the context which made his work possible. It makes use of the ‘Register of Manuscripts Sent to the Reading Room of the British Museum’ to shed new light on Ritson’s use of the manuscript collections of the British Museum. The thesis argues that Ritson’s early polemic attacks on Thomas Warton, Thomas Percy, and the editors of Shakespeare allowed Ritson to establish his own claims to expertise and authority, built upon the research he had already undertaken in the British Museum and other public and private collections. Through his publications, Ritson experimented with different strategies for organizing, systematizing, interpreting and presenting his research, constructing very different collections for different kinds of texts, and different kinds of readers. A comparison of Ritson’s three major collections of songs – A Select Collection of English Songs (1783), Ancient Songs (1790), and Scotish Songs (1794) – demonstrates some of the consequences of his decisions, particularly the distinction made between English and Scottish material. Although Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795) is the most frequently reprinted of his collections, and one of the best studied, approaching this work within the immediate context of Ritson’s research and other publications, rather than its later reception, offers some explanation for its more idiosyncratic features. Finally, Ritson’s Ancient Engleish Metrical Romanceës (1802) provides a striking example of Ritson’s participation in collaborative networks and the difficulty of finding an audience and a market for editions of early English literature at the beginning of the nineteenth century.