The Scribblings of a Codex-Curious PhD Student

Tag: Arthurian

Missing Manuscripts and the Ghosts of the Women Who Read Them

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.

“Hit Waried Hit Wayment as a Woman”

Missing Manuscripts and the Ghosts of the Women Who Read Them

Below is a shortened version of the paper I delivered at MEMS Summer Festival on Saturday 18th June 2016. In Part 1 I consider literary evidence to argue for the female audience for The Awntyrs off Arthure, the fifteenth-century Arthurian romance that forms the core of my doctoral research. Part 2 focuses on how this text could have come to exist in female textual communities .

I want to argue that The Awntyrs off Arthure would have been read by women. The text’s reception amongst female audiences has not been previously considered beyond an acknowledgement that household miscellanies were often read within a domestic context – where women also lived. As one of the many ‘Gawain romances’ the text has been conceptualised as having a predominantly male audience; the great deeds of Sir Gawain acting as an example of chivalric behaviour to the knights and gentleman reading the texts. The text was copied by men, and certainly the only names to appear in the books before the late sixteenth century are the names of men: Thomas Patsall, John Patsall, Richard Thornton, William Thornton, Thomas Yrlonde. But these men, of course, did not exist separately from women.

 I believe that this text also could have appealed to a female audience, and that they may have in fact been the primary imagined audience for the poem. More than half of its lines are taken up by the conversation of two women; mother and daughter, queen and corpse, in a longer and more complex presentation of female character than any other surviving Middle English Arthurian romance of the same period – quite a bold claim, but one I’m going to stick to.

The Awntyrs off Arthure (hereafter Awntyrs) is a poem of 728 lines, in rhyming 13-line alliterative stanzas, presenting two episodes, or ‘adventures’. The first begins with a hunt, where Queen Guinevere, accompanied by Sir Gawain, is separated from the rest of the royal hunting party in Inglewood forest.

With the changing of the weather, the eclipse of the sun, hail and rain, there appears a figure out of a lake:

There come a lowe one the loughe in londe is not to layne

In the lyknes of Lucyfere laytheste in Helle

And glides to Sir Gawayn the gates to gayne

Yauland and yomerand with many loude yelle

Hit yaules hit yameres with waymynges wete

And seid with siking sare

“I ban the body me bare

Alas! Now kindeles my care

I gloppen and I grete”

Awntyrs ll. 83-91

(There comes a lowly one out of the lake – the earth does not lie/In the likeness of Lucifer, most hideous in Hell/And glides to Sir Gawain who blocks the path/It howls and wails with many a loud yell/And says with a soul-sickening sigh/“I curse the body that bore me/Alas! Now my child is my grief/I despair and I weep”)*

This figure is the animated corpse of Guinevere’s mother. The description of her takes place over seven stanzas (just over 90 lines) and begins first with the wailing of the ghost. The ghost, not yet identified in the narrative as Guinevere’s mother, is described using particularly gendered vocabulary: it “yaules” (howls) it “yameres” (wails), with “waymynges wete” (weeping tears). There are also numerous references to motherhood as the ghost curses her mother; “I ban the body me bare”, and despairs for her own child; “now kindeles my care” (now my child is my grief), “I gloppen and I grete” (I despair and I weep).  The despair of the ghost is then, through the verbal linking of the poem, connected to and mirrored by the character of Guinevere, who also despairs and weeps, the opening line of the next stanza reading “Then gloppenet and grete Gaynour the gay” (l. 92). The womens’ weeping is thus woven into the poetic structure of the text.

The description of the “grisly goost” (l. 111) continues, with more wailing, weeping, and mad murmuring, described in the following lines (perhaps the best lines of any alliterative poem ever):

Bare was the body and blak to the bone

Al biclagged in clay uncomly cladde

Hit waried hit wayment as a woman

But on hide ne on huwe no heling hit hadde

Hit stemered hit stonayde hit stode as a stone

Hit marred hit memered hit mused for madde


On the chef of the cholle

A pade pikes on the polle

With eighen holked ful holle

That gloed as the gledes

ll. 105-110, 114-117

(Bare was the body and black to the bone/All clotted with clods, un-comely clothed/It cursed, it bewailed, like a woman/But no skin, no form, no covering it had./It stammered, it stood stunned as a stone,/It muttered, it mumbled, it murmured for madness.[…]On the top of the neck/A toad bites into the skull/With eyes sunken and hollow/That glow as the coals.)

'A disputacion betwyx þe body and wormes’ British Library, MS Additional 37049, c.1460-1500, folio 32v

‘A disputacion betwyx þe body and wormes’
British Library, MS Additional 37049, c.1460-1500, folio 32v

The ghost then continues to be characterised by language specifically related to motherhood. Not only does she make comparison of herself in life to the rose and to the lily, the flowers typically associated with the Virgin Mary, but she also evokes the grief of a mother who has, through death, lost her child:

Now am I caught oute of kide to cares so colde

Into care am I caught and couched in clay

Lo sir curtays kniyght

How delfulle deth has me dight

Lete me onys have a sight

Of Gaynour the gay

ll. 151-156

(Now am I trapped in grief of death for my child, so cruelly/Into grief am I trapped and covered in clay./Oh, Sir, courteous knight,/How dreadful death has injured me!/Let me only have a sight/Of Guinevere the gay.)

In this passage the ghost implores Sir Gawain, who is blocking her path from the Queen, to only have a sight of her beautiful daughter “Gaynour the gay”. The narrative thus creates a depiction of the ghost which is both frightening and pitiful, the sorrow of her suffering in death, separated from her child, is amplified by the grotesque blackened corpse plagued by toads and serpents. Guinevere is as beautiful and young as her mother is rotting and dead. The text is participating in the pervasive memento mori tradition of the late-medieval period, the dead queen acting as a mirror for the young beautiful one. In this, it has links to the legend of The Three Living and the Three Dead, the poetic version of which shares Awntyrs’ unusual verse form. But Awntyrs is doing much more than this; the function of the ghost goes beyond the warnings of Guinevere’s mortal fate. Both Guinevere and her mother have been developed into multifaceted female characters.

Awntyrs is principally derived from two texts, the first, The Trental of St Gregory, has the ghost of St Gregory the Great’s mother visiting her son to ask for prayers to ease her suffering, as a reminder to remember the dead. The author of Awntyrs adapts this parent-child relationship, presenting a more intimate mother-daughter relationship, emphasised further by the ghost’s first uttered words, cursing her own mother and despairing for her child, linking the three generations of women together, living and dead.

The ghost’s function is not, however, simply to remind her daughter to pray for her, but is also to impart advice. The ghost offers spiritual and practical guidance to the Queen, teaching her meekness, mercy, pity for the poor, charity, chasteness, and the worth of these values, not just to Queen Guinevere, but to the salvation of all King Arthur’s kingdom. As Paul Lee states in his study of Nunneries, Learning and Spirituality in Late Medieval English Society; ‘Women had an important role in the sanctification of the domestic sphere, in noble and gentry households, where they were responsible for the religious education of the children and the servants’ (Lee, 2001, p.141). The text extends this into the Arthurian world, the Queen being responsible for her royal household, as well as for all of her subjects, acting as an example to all. This example is being set for the reader too, the words of the ghost giving them advice on how they can also lead a good spiritual life. Through this presentation of the two female characters, the poem is acting as an exemplum text, surviving as it does in household manuscripts and subscribing to the same conventions of both devotional and conduct literature known to have been read by women, such as ‘How a Good Wife Taught her Daughter’, which also appears in several gentry household manuscripts.

The author also expands upon the poem’s other principal source text, the alliterative Morte Arthure, in which Guinevere is just a minor character, only mentioned for her adulterous relationship with the usurper Mordred which takes place while the King is on campaign in France. The poet of Awntyrs likely expected his audience to be familiar with the earlier poem, and sets the Awntyrs at the beginning of Arthurs’s reign, before his conquests in Europe, rather than at the end. As a kind of ‘prequel’ to the alliterative Morte, the Awntyrs also focuses on female sexual behaviour, and develops this theme further, it is Guinevere’s mother who is the adulteress, warning her to “be war of my wo” (l.195) for she did “brake a solemn vow” (l.205), that is the marriage vow, her sins being “love paramour, listes and delites” (l.213). Functioning as a mirror for Queen Guinevere, her mother represents both her past and her future to come, the future that has been prophesied – the future that the readers have already read. The ghost’s role is also developed further as it is she who delivers the prophecy of King Arthur’s death and the downfall of the entire Arthurian court to Queen Guinevere, whereas this prophecy in the alliterative Morte is shown to King Arthur in a dream by Lady Fortune. The ghost in Awntyrs reveals the usurper to be just a child in the King’s court, “The barne playes at the balle/That outray shalle you alle” (The child that plays with the ball shall be the one to destroy you all; ll. 310-11). By representing the usurper as just a child, the role of mother is once again being evoked, as is the implication that Guinevere has agency to alter events by following a more spiritual life.

These women thus serve as examples to their readers, those who would benefit most from this example being women. They are also given agency: Guinevere is given equal role in governing Arthur’s court, enacted in the second half of the poem, when Guinevere asks mercy of the King to save the lives of the two fighting knights. The poem then ends with Guinevere writing into the west “wisely” (l. 703), that is with learning and spiritual insight, having remembered her mother’s lessons, she requests songs and prayers and “a mylion masses” (l. 706) for the Arthurian court.

The poem thus dedicates over half of its length to the ghostly interaction of Guinevere and her mother, as Gawain, the supposed main character, stands silently in the background. As soon as the ghost appears, the episode is no longer an adventure of Gawain, but of Guinevere. In the second episode too, although it is a fight between Gawain and an unknown knight, neither is the champion (unconventional for ‘Gawain romances’ where Gawain usually comes out on top). The knights are equally matched and in the midst of killing one another when Guinevere steps in, leading to them both according and forgiving each other’s wrongdoings. She is the unspoken heroine of this poem and as such, it makes sense to me that this text would have been written for an intentional female audience, and it is likely too that it was read by women, for its devotional instruction as much as for its entertainment. However, as no material evidence survives for the female readers of Awntyrs they become just ghosts to researchers, and they certainly haunt me.

*All translations are my own and are far from perfect. I’m no Simon Armitage.
Read Part 2 of Missing Manuscripts and the Ghosts of the Women Who Read Them

A Tear in the Page…

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 ).

Opening decorated initial of 'Sir Ysambrace'

Opening decorated initial of ‘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.


Why the Immaterial Matters…

a book is a fragile creature, it suffers the wear of time, it fears rodents, the elements, clumsy hands. If for a hundred and a hundred years everyone had been able freely to handle our codices, the majority of them would no longer exist.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

I returned to The Name of the Rose after hearing the sad news of Umberto Eco’s passing. For me, Eco captured in his novel our love of books and the intrigue of a mystery to be solved, of the “lost” historical text set within in a labyrinth of a medieval monastic library. His portrayal of particularly unwelcoming and hostile librarians may or may not (depending on your experience) be a work of fiction, but the novel’s suggestion of a great library now lost is unfortunately an accurate one, and it made me miserable for the many books and texts now lost to us.

The majority of medieval codices, along with the libraries that once housed them, are indeed now gone.The survival rate of medieval English texts has been estimated to be at around 2 to 5 per cent [Bale 2014, 131]. These numbers, derived largely from the examination of pre-reformation library catalogues, are problematic, for how can we accurately calculate that which is missing? But they nevertheless allow us to contemplate the potential scale of books lost to us as modern researchers, and the reasons for why this may be the case.

Certainly, many books were lost in the reformation, but this would not have had such an effect on romances, which were largely uncontroversial to over-zealous reformists. It is more likely that the Middle English romances were lost as a result of the ‘wears of time’, or ‘clumsy hands’, as Eco suggests. Middle English poems were frequently produced in small, individual booklets made of paper – less durable than the more expensive parchment – and so were far more exposed to damage, particularly if left unbound, or handled with too much enthusiasm by readers.

Or perhaps these texts were just not considered worth keeping. The Percy Folio (British Library MS Additional 27879) was supposedly first discovered being used by housemaids to kindle a fire. This manuscript is witness to several unique copies of Arthurian romance in Middle English, and without Percy’s intervention, they would have gone up in smoke and resulted in a entirely different conception of popular Arthurian romance in late-medieval England.

It is not just the missing books that we have to consider, but also the missing pages within surviving ones. The integrity of a book which is lacking half its pages presents a particular problem when attempting to reconstruct the function and meaning of a text; the text is given meaning not only by its materiality (its production materials, presentation, format, illustrations etc.), but by its textual situation; by the other texts it is presented with and read against. Likewise, in a wider sense, books can only be read against other books. If we are to get a sense of the literary culture of any given period, that which is missing has to be of equal importance to that which survives.

The low rate of survival for medieval books affects the value of those that have survived the test of time. Medieval manuscripts are valuable because of their historicity, but also because of their rarity. For example, we may deem a text particularly important because only one copy of it survives, when this copy may in fact be a representative of a widely transmitted and much read text. This text may have survived poorly because its contemporary readers either didn’t care much to keep it, or the very opposite; they enjoyed it so much, and with such voracity, that the text did not survive its readers. To the contrary, a text may survive in huge numbers precisely because nobody read it, but simply were expected to own it, like the copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace that sits on my shelf and gathers dust.

So how can we reconstruct a textual history with any accuracy if most of the texts are missing?

My research is very much twisted up in this problem, of representing that which is missing from the historical record. The material details of the manuscripts which do survive often provide the answers, even if they are only partial ones. Study of fragmented texts, damaged codices, and how they compare to similar, more complete books, can tell us about how such things were read, and used, and potentially how such books came to be lost.

The four surviving manuscripts of The Awntyrs off Arthure for example, reveal that three of them were produced as paper (rather than parchment) booklets. Two of these copies are scribal exemplars, meaning they were intended to be the copy-text for reproducing the poem. These have therefore not been read as actively as they may have been had they been copies owned and consistently read by a family, as is the case with the Thornton Awntyrs of the Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 91 (c.1430-50). This has evidence of significant wear and (quite literally) tear, with sections of the text missing. The only reason for its survival is perhaps its position in the very middle of Robert Thornton’s very large book, made up of 340 folios and 65 texts. Had the text circulated and remained as booklets, as I’m almost certain was the case, there is very little chance of these having survived.

Immateriality matters because of how this informs our reading of the material which does survive and vice-versa. How texts were used is important for thinking about what they meant in any given literary culture, and, as my research continues, I hope to be able to demonstrate that the survival of Awntyrs presents a window into a much more extensive literary culture, of texts being produced for active consumption by eager audiences of Arthurian romance, of a literary culture not necessarily represented by the vestigial manuscript record, but which can be reconstructed through a close examination of the texts and codices which remain.

This has been adapted from a blog post originally written for Material Witness, an interdisciplinary doctoral training programme for the interrogation of physical objects, spaces and environments by humanities researchers. You can view the original post here.

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