Middle English Word of the Moment

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Muddling a manuscript

So, in an attempt to get all this information straight in my head, I’m going to do a blog post about it.

I’m trying to reconstruct a reasonably thorough codicological description of Cotton Cleopatra D IX, a codex which is an early modern collection of three, five, seven or eight 14th century mss (depending on how you count). It is, by the way, the codex that includes the short monastic chronicle of the civil wars of Edward II which I was translating [??] a while back. There’s a lot of missing information, much of it simply lost to time but a frustrating amount which could be resolved by looking at the codex. Or if any of the scholars who have, over the past century, commented on various articles within the codex had bothered giving trivial details about things like, oh, size of the page, or which pages are more worn than others, or whether the titles given to various entries are in a contemporary hand or an early modern one, or in fact only exist in the catalogue, and trifling little details like that. The most recent catalogue for the Cotton mss was published in 1802, and it’s rather cursory. I hear there’s another catalogue in process, due to be completed at the end of 2009, so this post may be rendered obsolete or proved inaccurate in several points within a few months – here’s hoping!

In brief, the main five manuscripts:

- a collection of historical writing from the Benedictine abbey of Lichfield,

- a brief chronicle from 1066-1314 from Gloucester or thereabouts,

- a chronicle with supporting documents relating to the events of 1322 and their aftermath from the Augustinian priory of Fineshade,

- a treatise of advice (speculum) to Edward III on the bad management of the kingdom,

- a fragment of a few saints’ lives from the South English Legendary, probably from the 1340s, somewhere around Gloucestershire or Oxfordshire.

We can call it six if we include the two leaves from a 14C service book which help to bind the codex as a while; seven if we count the single leaf attached to the Fineshade chronicle which appears to be an official proclamation from 1325; and, at a stretch, eight, if we count the two (almost) blank leaves binding the South English Legendary section.

So there is a certain thematic and temporal coherence, particularly if one considers the saints’ lives as historical sources on much the same footing as the other documents (as most people in this period would). The trouble is that they weren’t assembled in the 1300s – there’s no reason to think that the two whose origin we can pinpoint left Fineshade and Lichfield before they were dissolved by Henry VIII (1536 and 1538 respectively). And yet the Speculum Edwardi III is written on paper. It must have been kept very, very carefully to still be legible even by the 1500s, never mind by 2009, and I find it very hard to believe that it wasn’t bound up with other (parchment) mss very early to have survived at all. There is also thematic continuity between the Speculum and the concerns of the Fineshade chronicler in the manuscript immediately preceding it, though that may be just coincidence; but the ordering of the first four mss suggests a very careful grouping and consideration and knowledge of contents (and the historical events to which they refer), managing to approximate a chronological order for a chronologically complex group of texts. And yet, this care for the text is not reflected in the vandalism of a service book to bind them - unless it’s specifically a care for the text, not the manuscript? Or the binder had plenty of service books at his disposal (post-dissolution, presumably) and considered them far too ornate and popish (and common) to be worthy of the respect accorded to these more unique documents? Or were these four mss grouped by one person, and later bound together with the SEL fragment by another?

I’ll throw in a name at this point – Sir John Price, originally Ap Rhys (born in Wales, but built up quite a career in London before retiring to Herefordshire). He was heavily involved in the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, gathered an extensive personal library from their collections, and we know that he had at least the SEL fragment in his possession. Possibly he was the one to bind it with the two folios that surround it in the codex: we know he was opposed to rebinding volumes that were already bound, and we owe the preservation of many fine 11C volumes to his opinions in that regard. However, the SEL fragment was already broken up and had lost many leaves already (we don’t know how many because every collection of the SEL is different, so there’s no way of knowing how many legends this ms originally contained), and both the first and the last leaves extant are damaged. Preservation, in this case, would have meant protection rather than his usual more hands-off approach.

He would not, however, have been the man to bind the ms together with the other four. He may have owned them all – at least the first three of the five seem to be monastic in origin – but unfortunately the monasteries that we can identify as dissolved by Price are all concentrated around the Welsh border (Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Shropshire, Worcestershire). The brief chronicle from around Gloucestershire might have fallen into his hands, but he would be venturing rather afield to reach Lichfield in Staffordshire, and Fineshade (Northamptonshire) would seem to be far outside his purview. So it’s more probable that either he acquired them later, or that when his library was broken up at his death a friend with similar interests acquired those mss Price had, and this other collector combined them with one or more of his own collection to form the codex we have now. This other collector may have been Cotton – does anyone know how likely Cotton would have been to bind this sort of collection together? – but it may also have been someone else from whom Cotton later acquired this volume as it now stands.

So that’s a simple overview of what we know about the later history of the mss in Cotton Cleopatra D IX – more questions than answers. The whole codex in itself presents (or in some cases, tries to obscure) an interesting story, or set of questions, about the production and dissemination and collection of manuscripts from the fourteenth century onwards. It is, after all, essentially a collection of collections, or possibly a collection of collections of collections. I still have no firm answers to almost anything about this book, and all the visible trails are broken at least once or consist of nothing more than a single point. But we have enough that we can see the broad strokes of the picture, and a few random finer ones that don’t really make up anything comprehensible, but which allow us to consider the more human aspects behind inspiration, purpose, production, retention, collection, in ways that may not answer any questions definitely, but at least give us plenty of other interesting and more germane questions to consider.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Structure and symmetry in the Gilte Legende (1): St Julian

So, a couple of weeks back I discussed the disjointed nature of some of the vitae in the Gilte Legende (ed. Richard Hamer, EETS OS 327-8, 2006-7). I also mentioned the plethora of stories of Julians that the author tells under the entry for St Julian (v. 1 pp. 141-47) just to make sure we know which St Julian is the right St Julian; but despite the generally confused nature of that entry, the story of St Julian itself is beautifully symmetrical, and his saintly functions relate perfectly to the events of his life.

Briefly, the story is this. Fleeing a prophecy that he will kill both his parents (laid on him as punishment by a hart he was hunting), he moves away, marries and conveniently gets set up as a lord in a nicely feudal castle, as happens to so many unconnected vagabonds. When his parents find his castle, his wife invites them in, realises who they are, lavishes hospitality on them and gives up her bed to them, going to sleep elsewhere for the night. Returning home, he sees a man and a woman in his wife’s bed and kills them both in a fit of jealousy. As he emerges from the bloody chamber he meets his wife emerging, pointedly, from the chapel, and is slightly chagrined to hear her explanation. Realising that “whan I wende to eschewe this sorifull dede I most cursed haue fulfelled it” (144), he flees his castle and society and goes hermit – with his wife, who refuses to desert him. “And thanne they went togedre besides a grete flode where many men perisched, and there besides in that desert thei made a litell hospitall for to do there penaunce and for to bere ouer all tho that wolde passe” (ibid), until one day a horrible slimy smelly old leper turns up and says HELP ME ACROSS THE RIVER. Well, given the Greek-myth heritage of this story which has already been so obvious I didn’t even bother to use the word Oedipus anywhere, we know how this bit goes. He helps the leper, takes him in and feeds him and, because he's dying of cold, “toke hym in his armes and bare hym to his bedde and hilled hym diligently” (ibidetc). And lo and behold, the leper is secretly an angel sent by God to receive his penance and promise him that he will be taken to God soon. Incidentally, that “hilled” is probably “healed” but could also mean “cover, wrap” and possibly “embrace”. So perhaps it’s not surprising that if he was cuddling a leper (who probably had flu, and also fleas) in his bed, it was only “a litell after” that he and his wife both “slepten in oure Lorde Ihesu Crist”.
Just like Sir Gawain, this story invites diagrams. So:

No, I'm not procrastinating, why do you ask?
The story is driven by three revelations, each following an action of Julian’s. Pursuit of the hind leads to a prophecy, the murder of his guests is followed by the revelation of their identity and charity to the leper is followed by the revelation of the angel. In turn, each revelation leads to a journey:

I COULD continue to elaborate this picture and add all the other little structural things mentioned below and more, but I don't think Paint would let it be legible after another two lines or so.
Interestingly, the first two journeys are principally away, fleeing a prophecy and his shame respectively. It is only the third journey, instigated by God, that is a journey to a specific destination. Also, the first journey would seem to be in an upwards direction: socially, he ascends, and topographically he ends up in a nice tall castle which is presumably on some sort of a hill. But the folly of this social and earthly ascension is revealed by the consequences of his (newly acquired?) social pride, when his jealousy leads him to murder. The next journey is deliberately downwards, through the social scale and to the banks of “a grete flode”, and it is here that the spiritual state is reached which allows him to ascend correctly in the end. Or, to put it another way, his initial quest is away from his birth identity, now revealed as dangerous, to one which is more socially pleasing and validated by the community but leads to grave sin through a lack of his own self-knowledge (failing to recognise his parents), and thence towards social obscurity that leads him to discover a purer and truer identity in God.
There are other pleasing little contrast-dualities happening in the structure:

  • Most obviously, Julian’s attitude to his guests changes from the initial monstrous misunderstanding of his duties as host (and son) to his parents, to the self-sacrificing devotion he shows to an unfamiliar leper (who stands in for his spiritual father). There are shades of a similar guest in the hart, not recognised by Julian even as human until it speaks, and thereby foreshadowing his slaughter of his parents.
  • Wilderness vs. culture, where the first (initial forest, final flood) bracket the second and seem to be places of truth and self-knowing, while the second causes obscurity of the soul and blinds with frivolous things.
  • More specifically, the bedroom vs. the church. Note that, while Julian was in his bedroom being murderous, lustful, prideful, greedy et al, his wife was in the church, dutifully at her morning prayer after being beautifully hospitable and giving up her bed to the guests. Both emerge from their respective spaces of darkness and light at the same moment, and it is the sight of her that initiates the revelation of Julian’s error (“and whanne he seigh her he hadde mervaile”, 144), removing his blindness.
  • His wife has a pleasing sense of symmetry also, promising to stay with him in good time and in bad, “for sethe I haue parted with you in ioye I shall be partener of your sorw”. Their impending departure (and de-part in Middle English could also mean divide) “parts” the story into two, and there is a sense that her presence and her “part” in his fate will be a decisive factor in making this a clean break, providing a sort of rebirth.
  • The initial promise of the hart is echoed and laid to rest in the promise of the angel, the first predicting dire acts and bloody division from his parents, the second imminent peace and reunion with his heavenly father.
So, all in all, a very clever little example of certain elements from classical legend rewritten comprehensively enough to a) not feel patchy and disjointed and b) seamlessly rewrite the messages to a mediaeval Christian moral setting.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009

    Querela divina and Responsio humana in BL Add 37049 (transcription)

    For reference, this is the full text of the poetic exchange on the page discussed in the last post (BL Add 37049 20r).  Couplets are compressed onto one line for space, line breaks indicated with /.  The only punctuation is an occasional medial punctus, transcribed as a full stop.  Maiuscules follow the manuscript.  Abbreviations are expanded with italics.  The scribe made a few errors in the final lines (were they obscured in his original?) and has crossed them out, possibly with some attempt at scraping or rubbing – it’s hard to say on the colourless image.  On the first two occasions he crossed the letters out before completing the word and continued on the same line, while on the third he completed the line before realising his mistake and inserted a superlinear correction.

    Querela diuina

    O man vnkynde / Hafe in mynde

    My paynes smert

    Beholde and see / Þat is for þe

    Percyd my hert

    And yitt I wolde / Or þan þu schuld

    Þi saule forsak

    On cros with payne / Scharp deth agayne

    Ffor þi luf take.

    Ffor whilk I aske / None oþer taske

    Bot luf agayne

    Me þan to luf / Althyng abofe

    Þow aght be fayne


    Responsio humana

    O lord right dere / Þi wordes I here

    With hert ful sore

    Þerfore fro synne / I hope to blynne

    And grefe no more

    Bot in þis case / Now helpe þi grace

    My frelnes

    Þat I may euer / Do þi pleser

    With lastyngnes

    Þis grace to gytt / Þi moder -eh- eke

    Euer be –þry- prone

    Þat we may alle / In to –þat- \þi/ halle

    With ioy cum sone



    The words around the wound in the heart: 

    Þis is þe mesure of þe wounde þat our / Jhesus crist sufferd for oure redempcoun [sic – I just can’t make out an i anywhere in there!]


    Christ’s words:

    Þies woundes smert. bere in þin hert and luf god aye. / If þow do þis . þu fil haf blys with owten delay

    Incidentally, the scribe originally started writing this verse higher on the page, stopping when he realised that the words would run into Christ’s halo.  There seems to be an attempt at scraping the first attempt away, and the line enclosing the text banner is thicker over the half-erased words in an attempt to hide them.  It’s probably not to much of a jump to hazard that the scribe was also the illustrator, and didn’t do anything very elaborate in the way of plotting out his page layout beforehand.  I think we also have an indication that he was thinking about the illustrative rather than the poetic side of things when copying out the second line of this couplet, in that he (automatically?) added the usual “en” to “withowten”: it rather destroys the rhythm, and could have been omitted.

    Monday, November 2, 2009

    Herte and mesure in BL Add. 37049 20r: in response to Caroline Walker Bynum

    I was reading through an article by Caroline Walker Bynum a few days ago (see below for citation), and found a few points with regards to one manuscript image she discussed that I wanted to expand.

    The article focuses on the violence and gore in many high to late mediaeval theological images, its possible implications and the differing emphases laid on images of the perforated or violated body. The manuscript is BL Additional 37049, a Carthusian miscellany which has plenty of other creatively gruesome images. I particularly like this take on the usual memento mori: you may look pretty and rich and noble even in death, but you are still worm-food, frail mortals! Specifically, Bynum examines 20r:

    British Library Additional 37049 fol. 20r. Click for full size.

    Bynum cites this image to support her argument that the wounds of Christ “evoked love”. Specifically, she notes that Christ “displays his own heart … [which] bears within it all five wounds of Christ’s body, and the accompanying dialogue… ends with the hope that we will soon come to joy” (Bynum 18). She also adds that the image “returns us to the theme of fragmentation”.

    However, although she quotes the exchange between Christ and the kneeling man, she doesn’t, to my mind, adequately examine the literal centrality of the heart on the page and in the poetic exchange:

    Querela diuina: O man unkynde / hafe i[n] mynde / my paynes smert[.] / Beholde + see / Þat is for þe / percyd my hert [...]

    Responsio humana: O lord right dere / þi wordes I here / with herte ful sore[.] / Þ[ere]fore fro synne / I hope to wynne / And greue no more [...]

    The heart is the centre and focus of the page; but also, it seems to me, of their exchange. The pain in Christ’s heart is matched by the pain in the heart of man, caused by the same sin. The mutual wound suggests a shared heart – as indeed the page represents, presenting the heart as the means of communication, the addressee of the gaze and words of each. The word “heart” is exchanged between them as is the wound, something shared and mutually comprehensible. In this way, I’d question (or at least complicate) Bynum’s interpretation of the heart as Christ’s: it seems to me the heart shared between God and man. On the other hand, by that very token, it becomes a form of mediation between the human and the divine, the common halfway point: Christ himself, as the word made flesh, the mediator for humanity before God.

    Aptly, the heart literalises the concept of “word made flesh”: it appears to speak. The central wound seems almost a mouth, and the words around it may be seen as issuing from it. Interestingly, though the image of Christ is made to speak, and the heart appears to, the man remains silent, except for the voice in the poem. Silent before Christ, or only capable of speaking through the emissary of the heart – whether that be addressing God through Christ, or one’s own internal voice of prayer, rather than the potentially destructive external voice?

    Central throughout Bynum’s article is the idea of metonymy, “undergirded by… the doctrine of concomitance (the idea that the whole Christ is present in every particle of the eucharist)” (22):

    From folk assumptions that a measure or particle (fingernails or hair) can be the person to abstruse theological debates over the mode of presence of an immaterial God, medieval culture gloried in the paradox of parts that not so much represented as were the whole. (23)

    Bynum then draws the connection between this and the mediaeval obsession with numerology, particularly the ability of the right numbers to convey truth: effectively, to stand in as a metonymical “part” that might stand for / be the whole. I’d draw the comparison, for example’s sake, with the pentangle on Gawain’s shield and its ability to simultaneously represent Gawain (or the idealised version of him) and the perfection of Christ or the Trinity[1]. She applies this to the motto inscribed around the “mouth” of the heart:

    Þis is þe mesure of þe wounde þ[a]t our Ih[esu]s Christ sufferd for oure rede[m]ptiou[n].

    Bynum points out the emphasis on the precise length of the wound contained in “mesure”, pointing out a long mediaeval tradition in which “length is a metonym for person” (20). The correct dimensions of the wound carry with them the nature of the person represented by it, and therefore, if it adheres to those dimensions, “an image of the wound was Christ” (20). However, I’d venture to add to her conclusion. It seems to me that the evidence she cites to the effect that precise numerical detailing of an object can reproduce it in its precise identity means that perhaps in this case the numerical “mesure” need not be the central concern. If “mesure” has become abstracted to the extent she describes, we might as well read “this is the nature”, or “this is exactly that wound Christ suffered and how it was given him”. In this way the heart that is the focus of the gaze of Christ, of the kneeling man and of the reader (given the layout of the page) becomes a demonstration and revelation of the words they exchange through it: the manner of the wound, the piercing sin that harms both (or all three) in the doing, a visual representation of the exact truth – the “mesure” – of the Passion.


    Arthur, Ross G. Medieval sign theory in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Toronto: Toronto UP, 1987.

    Bynum, Caroline Walker. “Violent imagery and Late Medieval Piety”, German Historical Institute Bulletin 30 (2002), 3-36. Available online on the GHI Bulletin website.