How did medieval people read texts? How did they use them? And why do so few survive? These are the central questions I am attempting to answer through my study of the material details of four fifteenth-century manuscripts containing the alliterative Middle English romance, The Awntyrs off Arthure.
For me, one of the most meaningful realizations of late-medieval reading practice is this detail from the Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 91, also known as the Thornton manuscript for its compiler and owner, Robert Thornton, a gentleman from Yorkshire who produced two large miscellanies to be read and used by his family. This folio is the opening of The Awntyrs off Arthure text. It is dirty, worn, and most importantly, has been torn across, halfway down the page. This tear has then, at some point, been lovingly sewn back together – highly unusual for a manuscript written on paper. This tear and subsequent repair, as well as the significant colouring to the folio, is suggestive of the poem having been read over and over by Thornton’s family, especially when compared to the relatively pristine condition of some of the books’ other texts.
The thread from this repair has been removed as the manuscript has undergone several stages of conservation, the pages are now mounted on modern paper leaves. We cannot be sure therefore that the original repair was done by the Thornton family in the fifteenth or early sixteenth century. But the holes still remain and the damage suffered by this text exemplifies how easily so many copies of it came to be lost. Other copies of the text were not so lucky; the leaves often missing their torn halves, and in fact other texts within Lincoln MS 91 were not similarly saved.
The manuscript’s construction further demonstrates that this text was valuable to Thornton, it is written onto a new page in a single column, with a larger and more decorative initial than any other text of the manuscript (compare it to the similarly beautifully decorated, but much smaller, opening of the fourteenth-century romance Sir Ysambrace ).
This interpretation of the material can therefore give us an alternative perspective of literary consumption that bases itself not only on the survival of texts, but also on the lack thereof. The fact so few romances survive from this period is not necessarily indicative of an unpopular status, but rather, these texts were so popular they were read until they literally fell to pieces, with the poems’ other readers perhaps not quite as dutiful as the Thorntons of Yorkshire.