Part 2

Read Part 1: “Hit Waried Hit Wayment as a Woman”

Having presented the literary evidence for a female audience of The Awntyrs off Arthure in Part 1 of this paper, I will now discuss how this text could have come to exist in female textual communities.

So little evidence survives of female textual communities, particularly for romance and so-called “secular” texts. I would argue that texts like the Awntyrs typically considered “romance” challenge conceptions of “devotional” and “secular” literature, and as such an investigation into the networks for devotional texts can be useful in reconstructing the textual networks of romance, with these texts often circulating together, and being compiled into the same books. The alliterative Morte for example, which survives in Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 91 along with the Awntyrs, was transmitted in the same exemplar as The Privity of the Passion, which also appears in this manuscript.

Scholars such as Carol Meale have commented on the evidence’s ‘scattered and fragmentary’ nature; ‘ranging from internal references in literary texts…

This storie is also trewe, I undertake,
As is the boke of Launcelot de Lake,
That wommen holde in ful greet reverence.

                          ‘Nuns Priest’s Tale’, The Canterbury Tales ll.3211-13

to inscriptions made in surviving manuscripts and (on rare occasions) citations within probate records and inventories” (Readings in Medieval English Romance, 1994, p. 209). Evidence of female ownership and thus also readership is almost exclusively found in devotional literature, evidence being compiled from marginal inscriptions and bequests in wills. This however, might say more about the status of certain books, and it has long been argued that romance were unlikely to be included in wills (by either men or women), unless they belonged in very luxurious manuscripts.

The manuscripts I am considering do not come into this category. They are relatively inexpensive paper books, sparsely illustrated (if at all), and produced in small booklets compiled into larger miscellaneous codices, owned by members of the middling class. That is not to say that they weren’t valuable to their users, in fact the Thornton’s copy of Awntyrs is witness to a loving repair of a torn page. These books are commonly referred to as household miscellanies, read within the domestic sphere. Both the Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 91 and Princeton University Library MS Taylor 9 versions of Awntyrs are found within this context, as part of a collection of texts belonging to a gentry household. The implications of reading within this context suggests that women must have formed part of the audience, through either reading the texts themselves, or by having it read to them. Yet few traces of their interaction with these books survive.

One brilliant example is Cambridge University Library FF.1.6, also known as the Findern Anthology (CUL Ff.1.6) produced in Derbyshire in the fifteenth century, it includes texts by both Chaucer and Lydgate, as well as romances and numerous vernacular religious lyrics. There are over 30 scribal hands evident in the codex, and at least 2 of them women. It has been suggested that the Findern Anthology represents members of the local community, both men and women, sharing and copying their literature into one large anthology.

More can also be discovered from looking at the social and personal networks of women reading devotional literature, particularly that of women in religious houses. Though evidence is still fragmentary, and no library lists survive from female institutions, through inscriptions and dedications within manuscripts, as well as classmarks and ex libris within the books, a literary culture can be shown to have existed within female religious communities, especially within the larger houses, such as Syon Abbey, and of particular interest to my study, Barking Abbey of Essex. This was the second largest female religious house of medieval England and held a substantial library. It is known that they had a librarian and from the Abbey’s fifteenth-century ordinal accounts the nuns can be shown to be engaging in a distinct literary culture: it describes how on the first Monday of Lent , on the chapter house floor, the Barking librarian spread a carpet and placed on it all the books from the book cupboard (armario) she then read each nun’s name aloud, together with the name of her borrowed book from the previous year and, if the sister had finished the book she placed it on the carpet with the others, before the books for the next year were then given to each nun. Since the ordinal states that the community numbered about 50, the abbey must have had a book collection at least that large.

Mary Erler, following David Bell, has done much to trace the books of Barking Abbey and other female houses, and Erler goes far in illuminating a reciprocal relationship between the nuns at Barking and the lay women of the local community, as well as the familial connections through which many texts were transmitted. (Woman, Reading, and Piety in Late Medieval England, 2002). Books and texts came to be shared along personal, social connections, from mother to daughter, books borrowed, gifted, and bequeathed to friends and family. Those living in religious communities were, as Erler shows, very much involved in these personal connections, showing that books came to be transmitted from secular female communities to religious communities, and vice versa.

It is where these two intersect, the textual communities of female religious houses and those of regional, aristocratic, gentry and mercantile households, that is of particular interest to me.

The two London copies of Awntyrs share a connection with Barking in some way. The scribe of Lambeth Palace Library MS 491’s dialect has been mapped to this location, and the later sixteenth-century names which appear in the manuscript belong to London Mercers who owned property in Barking, one writing: ‘Thomas Patsall of Berkyng’, in the margin. Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 324 shares this mercantile connection, with Thomas Johnson, citizen and draper of London, whose name appears in the margins of this manuscript, having owned two tenements in ‘Berkyng in the counte of Essex’. There seems to be a vibrant literary culture which existed between this part of Essex, with its proximity to London (and now a borough of London), and the merchants of the city.

There was also an active literary culture at Barking Abbey. The nuns of the abbey in the fifteenth century were increasingly drawn from gentry and mercantile families, with many wealthy London merchants choosing to send their daughters to this nearby prestigious house. The nuns can also be shown to be reading texts around death and purgatory, having owned a devotional miscellany  British Library MS Harley 1706, which contained texts such as ‘Craft of Dying’ along with some of Lydgate’s minor poems, including ‘Death’s warning’.

British Library MS Harley 1706 Belonging to the Nuns of Barking Abbey Folio 19v

British Library MS Harley 1706 belonging to the Nuns of Barking Abbey
Folio 19v

A.I. Doyle has provided convincing evidence that this manuscript has been copied from another owned by the nuns of Dartford Priory in Kent, who also owned a copy of the Middle English prose Brut, which of course contains some Arthurian material and is also found circulating with Awntyrs in Lambeth Palace Library MS 491. (Doyle, ‘Books Connected with the Vere Family and Barking Abbey’, Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society ns.25, 1958: 222-243).

Lastly, I want to draw attention to a claim made by Rosamund Allen about the possible patron of the Awntyrs (‘Place-Names in The Awntyrs Off Arthure: Corruption, Conjecture, Coincidence’, B. Wheeler ed. Arthurian Studies in Honour of P.J.C. Field, 2004: 181-198). The text’s reference to specific geographic locations places it within the Cumberland-Westmorland border region of England. It also makes several references to Scottish, Irish, and French lands, which Allen, and others, have shown to be associated with the prominent Neville family at the time of the poem’s supposed composition in the 1420s. Previous to Allen, scholars have suggested Ralph Neville as patron, but Allen points instead to his wife, Joan Neville, neé Beaufort, illegitimate (made legitimate) daughter of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford. An identification of Joan as patron would make the references to the adultery of Guinevere’s mother much more poignant, and it is with her mother, rather than with either of her husbands, that Joan chooses to be buried.  Joan, Countess of Westmorland, was a powerful and wealthy woman, not to mention fertile, with 16 children in total, 14 by her second husband Ralph Neville, 10 of which survived into adulthood. Her children alone, her sons through dukedoms and her daughters through marriages, created a wide reaching network throughout England, from Norfolk, to Durham, to Salisbury, to Kent, Buckingham, and York. One of her daughters, Lady Cecily Neville, becomes wife to Richard 3rd Duke of York and mothers two Kings of England. Joan Beaufort therefore has, as the ghost of Awntyrs declares: “kinges in my kyn knowen for kene” (l. 139). Most significantly perhaps is the status of her youngest daughter, Joan, or ‘Jane’ Neville, who just so happened to be a nun at a London religious house.

There is no evidence of either of these women ever knowing of The Awntyrs off Arthure, but it is through such familial networks, intersecting between lay and religious communities, that texts came to be transmitted, and it is just one of the ways I am imagining the Awntyrs and similar texts, all of which survive so poorly, could have been circulating; being shared and read by women.