The Scribblings of a Codex-Curious PhD Student

Tag: Miscellany

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.

Making Connections…

Congress Convert

Part 2: #NCS16

After a brief rainy repose in the Lancashire Pennines, staying with family and recuperating from the IMC, I travelled back to London for Congress #2, The 20th Biennial Congress of the New Chaucer Society, (hereafter NCS) held at Queen Mary University of London 11th-15th July.

This was four days of papers presented by some of the most established scholars in the field of late-medieval literary studies. I came away with a full notebook and many significant things to think about.

One of the words that best defines the NCS for me is nexus. The congress was the coming together of late-medieval English literature scholars, a series of papers connected together through ‘threads’, and a perfect opportunity for professional networking, but aside from all of this, there was a definite focus on the networks of Chaucer and his contemporaries and on the relationship of readers to their texts.

The theorising on these networks began in the plenary session: Did Shakespeare Live in Chaucer’s London?  with Paul Strohm, Helen Barr, Farah Karim-Cooper, Bruce Holsinger, and Gordon McMullan each considering the two “Fathers of English Literature”, their relationship with one another, as well as their relation to the City of London. Some of the most meaningful questions to arise from this session revolved around how far a writer can define place, as well as what influence the city can have on an authors’ writing: what shared experiences can it offer to two authors separated by time, but inhabiting the same environment? Is there a collapsing of time within the writings of these two London authors? And can a city really belong to a single author, when so many writers were simultaneously inhabiting and creating within London, both Chaucer and Shakespeare being part of their own social group who were responsible for inspiring and sharing their writing?  Should the question instead then, be about London’s Chaucer, rather than Chaucer’s London?

Bruce Holsinger provided an eloquent response to this problem, stating that we should view London not as a palimpsest, as so many have done, as a place written over anew by each author, but we should instead view is as a miscellany, as these texts and their authors being in conversation with one another by the accident of their physical proximity, occupying the same space, but removed from their original context. This codicological analogy interrupts the narrative which is written by the canon, of one great author inheriting the London of the other great author who preceded him. It instead presents the idea that this is a narrative we have invented through our want to see a miscellany as anything other than miscellaneous. The obsession with the author is our own.  Quite a bold statement for the opening session of a conference named for an author and his legacy. But as the following sessions of the week proved, Chaucer, though pervasive, did not dominate, there were as many – if not more – papers presented on not-Chaucer, representing the diverse literary culture of the period. This was exciting for me, an advocate for the anonymous text, for the authorless, and for a non-hierarchical understanding of culture.

The nexus theme was continued in the first panel I attended; Networks in Late-Medieval Manuscripts, organised by Michael Madrinkian. This included Tony Edwards presenting on non-networks, suggesting that ‘reading communities’ could be less about common readership and more to do with like circumstances and regional patterns of transmission dictated by factors other than taste. This worked well in dialogue with Michael Johnston’s paper on provincial scribal networks, which focussed on trying to provide a narrative of literary culture for the areas outside of London, principally through looking at the scribes copying documents and also literary texts within provincial locales. Johnston’s paper was then contrasted by the final paper of the session presented by Simon Horobin. Horobin presented a convincing case for the potential circulation of Troilus and Criseyde during Chaucer’s own lifetime outside of the courtly context, in copies which have either not survived or are fragmentary, concluding that a lack of surviving evidence does not constitute evidence that there were a lack of copies, thereby challenging the accepted narrative that Chaucer’s audience was restricted to the court during his own life and opening up the audience to a wider urban context. This panel was of incredible use and interest to my own research, the networks of a fragmentary textual transmission being central to my thesis. It also raised an important methodological question: when pursuing literary networks, how does the missing corpus disrupt the network ‘narrative’, and how do we overcome it? A problem I am still trying to work out as I continue researching the transmission of the fragmentary Awntyrs and its literary networks.

It is in this session that I asked my first question of the congress, to three scholars whose work greatly underpin my research (particularly Johnston, whose Romance and the Gentry in Late Medieval England (2014) presents an argument for several of the manuscripts containing The Awntyrs off Arthure as belonging to a gentry literary culture, of forming part of a ‘gentry ideology’ in the later Middle Ages, and whose work on this matter I hope to contribute to in my thesis). The confidence gained from presenting at Leeds, and from engaging in discussion there, carried over to the NCS. Asking a question to a room filled with half my bibliography would have been much too daunting a prospect a year ago, but on this occasion I had the confidence to assert my opinion, showing just how much I’ve gained from the past few months and, in particular, from the conference experience.

Another excellent panel on manuscript studies which succeeded in challenging the way I now think was the session How They Thought Then, organised by Katherine Zieman and Sarah Noonan. In particular Daniel Wakelin’s paper ‘Reading Boring Manuscripts’ forced me to reassess some of the assumptions I have made about the books I study. After teasing us with images of luxurious manuscripts, of books with fun marginalia, tears, and intriguing details, he then proceeded to show us the sheer quantity of plain pages, the pages which never get digitised or tweeted because we value the rare, the strange, and the beautiful over the blank. Wakelin then questioned the interpretations of these blank books as being unused, as having not engaged their readers, and argues instead for a consideration of these books as aesthetically pleasing in their own right, or as perhaps as having signified a different type of reader engagement, an intense, absorbing type of reading, or continuous reading, which may not incite the same types of marginal engagement as other types of text. This has forced me to problematize my own readings of some of the copies of Awntyrs and its related texts, which appear frequently in very boring manuscripts. I have taken these to represent books not intended for consumption, but as Wakelin observed, the very blankness of the page could signify a type of conscious consumption; the blank indicating excess space and thus excess wealth. Likewise, it was questioned whether this layout could be to aid performative reading, where marginal annotations would distract the performer, who similarly may not be reading with pen in hand. Wakelin successfully reminded us of the dangers of imposing our own conceptions of aesthetics and taste onto a medieval reader, and likewise the danger of assuming that they did not read like us; we can sit and lose ourselves in a novel, why could it not be possible for the medieval reader to engage in a similar practice of reading?

Proving Daniel Wakelin’s point. The only slide tweeted from his paper is that featuring fun marginalia.

Manuscript studies were a prominent feature of NCS this year, with numerous papers discussing the material form and function of the book. Many of these were contemplating the miscellany, on how to interpret this, the most uncategorisable of books, something scholars have been trying to do for years. In the panel Queer Manuscripts: The Textuality of Error, Kathleen Kennedy applied Queer Theory to the miscellany, calling for us to stop over-categorising, to stop trying to define the book on our terms, and to simply accept and delight in the miscellany; “allowing it to just be miscellaneous”, bringing us back full circle to the codicological analogy proffered by Bruce Holsinger in the opening session.

This recognition of the literary past and the books that have transmitted it as a diverse, jumbled, collection of multiplicitous histories is significant; it allows us to discard the singular narrative of culture that the canon has built. Culture is not linear, nor ordered, it is amorphous, as complex as the people that engage in it. Furthermore, medieval literary culture remains fragmentary. By viewing books as a nexus, a literal binding together of texts, but also as the connection between the people that read them, we may be able to reveal some of the  text’s meaning to its readers. By considering the social and historical networks of these texts, we can begin to interpret that which is missing. Although I suspect this will never deliver us a fully satisfying narrative, thinking about literary culture in this way may allow us to represent it without having to impose our own rules, we would be able to  delight in the miscellany of the past.


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