Middle English Word of the Moment

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cleopatra D IX: MS V, ff. 118-168. South English Legendary.

A fragment of an otherwise unknown manuscript of the South English Legendary.



Parchment, 51 ff., 265 x 165 mm with the text block 205 x 112 mm. Written in one column of 40 lines. Folios in twelves, with ff. 1-5 of the first quire lost and the final quire in eight. The last leaf is blank. Written in two hands, both Anglicana approaching textura, very clear. B is rounder with smaller strokes. A writes ff. 118-149v (John Evangelist, Thomas of Becket), B ff. 149v-166 (Theophilus/Virgin, Cecilia, Gregory). No decoration save the “traditional blue initials flourished in red with marginal extensions”, not filled in (Görlach, Textual tradition 112). All folios but the last numbered in modern foliation.



The end of a manuscript of the South English Legendary, lacking at least five leaves from its first quire and probably several other quires containing a more complete collection of the poems. The South English Legendary is a popular collection of saints’ lives in vernacular verse, surviving in many manuscripts, originating in the Worcestershire/Gloucestershire region in the late thirteenth century. Görlach observes that it seems to have been confined to this region “for the first 50-80 years of its existence, spreading into the Midlands only in the second half of the 14th century” (Revision 9). The legends contained in this manuscript are (Brown 267-68):

- 118r: The final eight lines of St John the Evangelist (Him sende here his ringe a3en & þonked him also...). ½ p.

- 118r-149v: St Thomas of Canterbury, followed by his Translation (Gilberd was Thomas fader name þat trewe was & god...). 32 ff.

- 149v-155v: St Theophilus, with Miracles of the Virgin (Seint Teophle was a gret man & gret clerk also...). 7 ff.

- 155v-158v: St Cecilia (Seint Cecile of noble kinne ibore was at Rome...). 4 ff.

- 158v-166v: St Gregory (All þat beoþ in sinne i-bounde / And þencheþ godes merci to abide...). 9 ff.



Görlach’s study of the dissemination and variations of the Southern English Legendary, together with the dialect and orthography of this version, led him to place it in the Gloucestershire/Oxfordshire region (Görlach, Textual tradition 112). Its acquisition by Prise may suggest a religious house in Gloucestershire, as he enacted the dissolution of many houses there and apparently none in Oxfordshire (cf. Pryce; Ker, Sir John Prise), although there is no evidence that he acquired it directly from its original location rather than from another collector.



Görlach judges both hands in this manuscript as belonging to the middle of the fourteenth century.


Later provenance and position within codex.

At some point during the sixteenth century the manuscript, or possibly its remains, fell into the hands of Sir John Prise, employed by Henry VIII during the 1530s to close down monasteries in the west of England (Ker, Sir John Prise 5). Prise’s aversion to altering or rebinding the manuscripts in his collection (ibid) suggests that it would have passed on to Cotton (presumably via one or more intermediaries) alone, unbound with any other manuscript within the codex. The gap in foliation between the previous manuscript and this, however, suggests the presence of two blank leaves, possibly used by Prise to enclose this fragile fragment to prevent the loss of further leaves (if indeed it was fragmented at this point).

While Prise may have been more concerned with the preservation of the original state of his manuscripts than many of his contemporaries, his attitude was not entirely reverent. Ker mentions the “numerous, strongly Protestant and anti-Becket” notes in Prise’s hand written in the margin by that legend: “What arrogance is this! of one that had spent his tyme more in merchandize hauking and hunting than in lernyng” (qtd. in Ker, Sir John Prise 21). Precious his books may have been to Prise, but ultimately utilitarian.

There is also the possibility that Prise may have received the manuscript intact. This is perhaps more likely: history was his subject, not the vagaries of poetic saints, and a mere fragment of such a text might have not seemed worth preserving. If, then, it passed on to Cotton as a whole and was fragmented by him (see introductory post), he may have bound it with another two leaves to distinguish it from the ‘serious’ matter of the volume, or to hold it together pending proper binding. This is another question on which the manuscriptitself could shed light, as the age and wearing of the outer leaves of the manuscript and of the sheltering leaves ought to give some clue as to how long each has spent unprotected.



Perhaps fittingly, considering its position as the final manuscript in the codex, this manuscript’s value as a witness lies less in its contents than in its later history. The poems it contains, with minor variations, survive in more complete manuscripts and have been published several times, while their cousins and progeny live on in texts such as the Canterbury Tales and the Gilte Legende. On the other hand, its treatment at the hands of Prise (and possibly Cotton) stands with the fate of the psalter in Royal 13 D I in testimony to the likely fate of a good many such manuscripts at the hands of the Protestant antiquarians. The violence visited on the ‘body’ of this manuscript seems to evidence a need to correct and subdue a recalcitrant creature amongst the diligent, precious subjects better beloved of their keepers. As such, the mystery of its missing leaves and the firm rebukes written in its margins form an appropriate counterpart to the quiet survival of the Brief Chronicle, and to the repeated studying and reproduction of the Liber Alani de Ashbourne.




Brown, Carleton. A Register of Middle English Romance and Didactic Verse. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1916.

Görlach, Manfred. The textual tradition of the South English Legendary. Leeds: University of Leeds, 1974.

----- An East Midland Revision of the South English Legendary: A Selection from MS C. U. L. Add. 3039. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1976.

Ker, Neil R. “Sir John Prise”, The Library 5th series 10 (1955): 1-24.

Pryce, Huw. “Prise, Sir John (Syr Siôn ap Rhys) (1501/2–1555).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford UP, 2004. 03 Dec 2009.


tenthmedieval said...

Is your dedication going to be rewarded with an actual sight of the manuscript at any point? You will certainly have your questions ready! My archive work is often of this sort of stamp, where I will only have a short amount of time so I have to go with a fistful of shelfmarks and very exact questions. One never gets to actually read anything that way, though, only look stuff up and check it. Hmph. May your time be less pressed when it arrives!

Ceirseach said...

Well, I'll certainly have something to request the first time I visit the British Library, yes. :) And I imagine I'd spend hours poring over it exclaiming in horror and delight over various really obvious things that no one had mentioned that completely disprove my theories / build entirely new theories. No trip to England booked as yet, but I'm sure I'll find a conference to be an excuse sometime in the next couple of years.