Middle English Word of the Moment

Friday, December 18, 2009

A study of Cleopatra D IX: Introduction.

For an earlier mention of my investigations into this manuscript, see this post. Some things mentioned in it turned out to be incorrect or were dropped from the final study because I pursued a different angle, but I’m leaving it as is.

BL Cotton Cleopatra D IX has received only intermittent scholarly attention, and that piecemeal. Here a poem has been isolated from its manuscript and published, there a list of names or saints’ lives has been analysed for its relation to other such sources. One line – and not the most reliable - from a single chronicle has repeatedly been quoted to add weight to arguments that Edward II’s relationship with Piers Gavaston was sexual, with no consideration of the source.[1] As the codex is an early seventeenth-century assembly of disparate fourteenth-century texts, it has received no consideration as an entity; and it might reasonably be argued that it ought not. The authors and scribes of the various manuscripts contained in it certainly intended no relationship to the others, and Cotton’s assembly of it has no great psychological or historical significance. Moreover, the manuscripts contained in it are generally obscure enough that there must remain serious lacunae in our comprehension of the provenance and movements of the component parts, until the moment of their combination.

However, the mysteries and tantalising clues of their histories are precisely what have the potential to inform our broader understanding of the composition and later reception of manuscripts of this type. A collection of this type provides a ready collection of facts, impressions and resulting hypotheses – all potentially mistaken but all valuable to speculate around - of circumstances, motivations and habits of composition, and simultaneously of the treatment which the manuscripts were likely to receive at the hands of the early modern antiquarians.

Combined and bound by Cotton around 1616, the volume contains three large manuscripts (the Liber Alani de Ashbourne, the Epistola and the South English Legendary fragment), between which are bound two briefer manuscripts (a brief chronicle from Gloucestershire and the Fineshade chronicle collection). There is a considerable degree of order and intent in the collection and arrangement of the manuscripts in the volume, but it remains a superficial imposition. This volume was one of many assembled by Cotton from similar manuscripts in the mid 1610s, and as such is part of a larger project in which page size and number of folios seem also to have been a weighty consideration.

The codex begins with what Cotton probably considered the most valuable or useful of the book: the Fineshade collection was borrowed by Archbishop Bancroft in 1608 and consulted by John Selden c. 1617 (Tite 45 & 215), and before it fell into his possession had been copied and incorporated into other histories of the bishopric and the county. The first four manuscripts are reasonable uniform in size and nature, as well as appearance and layout if Brereton’s error is indicative (see later entry on the Liber Alani de Ashbourne). There is some thematic continuity, also, between the concerns of the Fineshade chronicler and William of Pagula’s reproaches against Edward III’s governance (mss III-IV). All are products of fourteenth-century England, although there is a possibility that the Epistola (ms IV) was copied in Gascony, and Cotton appears to have gone to some effort to arrange them into chronological order, which would require more than a passing glance at their contents.

The fifth manuscript, a fragment of the South English Legendary, stands out: popular culture, non-historical (at least to post-Reformation eyes), highly Catholic, middle English and clearly incomplete, the only elements in common with its companions seem to be its size and date.

A possible clue to its inclusion can be found in the original fly-leaves of the volume as Cotton bound it. Until 1913, the codex had fly-leaves formed of two leaves from a fourteenth-century psalter. The same psalter was also cannibalised for binding material for at least twenty-five other newly assembled Cotton volumes c. 1615-1618, most of which what appear from Planta’s catalogue to be similar historical collections, often local or monastic. Carley and Tite document this fragmentation, and have concluded that the remaining bulk of the psalter, which was bound into what is now Royal 13 D I, was intended by Cotton simply as filler after he removed something else from that volume (97 &c). The psalter has now been reunited with its missing leaves, rebound in 1913 as Royal 13 D I*, but its traces leave a useful record of Cotton’s activities in the mid 1610s.

As demonstrated by his treatment of the psalter, Cotton’s approach to his library was utilitarian rather than reverential, and he frequently fragmented or rebound manuscripts according to convenience of consultation. Sharpe observes that items “were bound together that were often consulted together” (69). This codex seems only to half embody that impulse: the first four booklets can all be described as fourteenth-century local histories with a broader political view, but the South English Legendary fragment stands alone. Perhaps it was added, being an appropriate size, simply to complete the bulk of the volume for binding, as with the psalter in Royal 13 D I. If this was the motive, we cannot exclude the possibility that Cotton himself is responsible for dismembering the complete South English Legendary manuscript as he did the psalter: they are, after all, both overtly Catholic texts with little of interest to offer Cotton’s generation of antiquaries. Perhaps we ought to seek its missing leaves in the pastedowns and fly-leaves of other Cotton volumes.

Individually and as a group, from a literary perspective or a codicological, there are difficulties with using the contents of Cleopatra D IX as a historical source. The scope of vision of each is local and limited, and much of the information unique to these manuscripts can’t be relied upon unless verified from other sources. Similarly, there are simply too many lacunae to construct a firm picture of their composition, transmission, later history and collection, so they serve as a definite historical example neither for their own time nor for Cotton’s. On the other hand, there are benefits to using texts like these as a historical source. I do not mean the more mundane benefits that Haskins points to when he praises the Fineshade chronicle’s ability to augment and correct another manuscript’s list of the dead and punished after the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322 (Haskins, “Chronicle” 74-75). This sort of information-gathering has its place, of course, but only as it helps us understand more broadly the human and cultural implications behind the development of these manuscripts.

For example, the multiple layers of composition and contribution evident in each of the first three manuscripts provide a valuable example of the dangers of applying modern assumptions to a term like “author”. The presence of Des Grantz Geanz in the Liber Alani de Ashbourne, meanwhile, performs a similar service for the term “historical”.

In addition, comparison with other similar manuscripts could also provide the grounds for a detailed and powerful study of the motivations behind much of the historical writing of this period. Edward II’s reign, with its natural and civil upheavals and perceived perversions of the natural order upon which society was built, seems to have prompted a flurry of chronicles and other similar documents, suggesting a widely-felt need both to record momentous events to impose some imaginative order on them. While these manuscripts seem to belong, to varying degrees, to that tradition, they also give us a glimpse of a flurry of possible personal motivations informing the writing, from duty to the local parish to displacement from home, from higher instruction to memories of the dead.

The information gathered in the entries to follow is of necessity incomplete, even beyond the true lacunae imposed by time and obscurity. Only one page of the manuscript has been sighted in its assembly – f. 87v, reproduced in the appendix below. The remainder of the information is collected and deduced from the attentions of other scholars, some of whose interests lay in very different directions to my intent. For example, William of Pagula’s Epistola has received a respectable amount of attention, and much is now known about the circumstances, motivation and dating of its composition; but not one description of this manuscript is to be found. Brereton has published Des Grantz Geanz, from the Liber Alani de Ashbourne, but commenting on the contents of the other sections of the manuscript is out of her purview. This information, then, is incomplete, and many gaps could be filled by a simple trip to the British Library.

It should be also noted that in its assembly, I have deliberately engaged in speculation. Many hypotheses have had to be revised as new evidence came to light, and doubtless as many of the remainder would be proved incorrect if only all the information guessed at were available to us. I make no apology for it, however: the exercise of speculation in considering a collection such as this must be an end in itself, opening up possibilities and raising valuable questions about the individuals involved and the push and pull of cultural motivations in play, about what they believed they were doing in the act of writing, whom they thought they were serving and how, what “history” meant to each and how the community around them interacted with their text. The caveat remains, of course, that such speculation is only valuable – only safe – so long as one never forgets where it begins, and where it must end.

[1] “Quem filius regis intuens in eum / tantum protinus amorem iniecit quod cum eo firmitatis fedus iniit, et pre ceteris morta- / -libus indissolubile dileccionis vinculum secum elegit et firmiter disposuit innodare” (f. 86r, qtd. in Haskins, “Chronicle” 75), usually translated with varying degrees of luridness that occasionally almost match the Latin. References are typically to Haskins, occasionally mentioning the codex by pressmark. (See my previous post).


Brereton, Georgine E. (ed). Des grantz geanz: An Anglo-Norman poem. Oxford: Medium Ævum 1937.
Carley, James P. & Colin G. C. Tite. “Sir Robert Cotton as collector of manuscripts and the question of dismemberment: British Library MSS Royal 13 D. I and Cotton Otho D. VIII.”
The Library 6th series 14 (1992): 94-99.
Haskins, G. L. “Chronicle of the Civil Wars of Edward II.”
Speculum. 14 (1939): 73-81.
Planta, Joseph.
Catalogue of the manuscripts in the Cottonian Library deposited in the British Museum. The British Museum: Department of Manuscripts. London: Hansard, 1802.
Sharpe, Kevin.
Sir Robert Cotton 1586-1631: History and Politics in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979.
Tite, Colin.
The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton’s Library: Formation, Cataloguing, Use. The British Library. Bury St Edmund’s: St Edmundsbury Press, 2003.

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