Richard James and the Seventeenth-Century Provenance of British Library MS Cotton Caligula A.XI

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In a recent article published in this journal Lawrence Warner drew attention to four manuscripts of Piers Plowman which appear to have connections with Matthew Parker and his circle. (1) One of these manuscripts, now British Library MS Cotton Caligula A.XI, was first associated with Parker by N.R. Ker, whose opinion that the table of contents on folio 2r was in a sixteenth-century hand belonging to Parker's secretary was cited by Kane and Donaldson in their description of the manuscript. (2) The association with Matthew Parker was also quoted by C.D. Benson and Lynne Blanchfield in their description of the manuscript. (3) In addition to the table of contents, Benson and Blanchfield also attributed the heading "Pierce Ploughman" at the head of the first folio of the poem to the same hand. It is not clear to which of the many Parkerian scribes Ker was referring here, although the title of "secretary" is most clearly associated with John Joscelin. (4) However, the hand that added the table of contents is quite different to that of Joscelin and I can find no similarities with that of any other member of the Parker circle. (5) The solution to this problem is apparent, however, if we compare the hand responsible for the table of contents in Caligula A.XI with other manuscripts in the Cotton collection. For the scribe responsible for adding the contents list to this manuscript, as well as many other manuscripts owned by Sir Robert Cotton, is Richard James, the first person to be employed by Cotton as librarian of his impressive collection.

Richard James was born in 1591 on the Isle of Wight, eldest son of Richard James and nephew of Thomas James (1572/3-1629), the first librarian of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Richard James took a scholarship at Corpus Christi College Oxford in 1608, and was admitted BA in 1611 and MA in 1615. Later that same year he was made a probationary fellow of Corpus. He subsequently took holy orders and graduated BD in 1624. His formal association with the Cotton library began c.1625 and among his duties were contributing to the cataloguing of the library, identifying manuscripts and their contents, and supplying them with tables of contents. As T.B. James writes: "If Cotton the collector of manuscripts was the father of the British Library collection, then James's scholarly and administrative work of collecting and identifying manuscripts and supplying contents' lists, which largely stand today, make him the godfather of that collection." (6) While Cotton himself added tables of contents to a small number of manuscripts in his collection, and another anonymous scribe using a distinctively florid hand added others, the majority of such lists were the work of Richard James. In his discussion of James's contribution to the organisation of Cotton's library, Colin Tite notes the impressive accuracy of James's identifications of the texts found in these manuscripts, especially given the lack of reference resources that would have been available to him. (7) Tite also provides a facsimile of contents lists supplied by James and the anonymous stylized hand in Cotton Claudius E.IV, containing the Gesta Abbatum Albani. In James's list we can see the same combination of palaeographical features found in Caligula A.XI: especially characteristic are the two forms of g: one a straightforward secretary form, the other a distinctive humanistic form in which the lower bowl forms a figure 8. Also distinctive are the upright ascenders on l, h, d with wedge-shaped serifs at the top.

Richard James's interest in Piers Plowman was not limited to his cataloguing responsibilities; he also transcribed extracts from the poem into one of his notebooks, now Bodleian Library James MS 2. The extracts begin on page 149 with the title "Peter Plowman. MS. Eius vita et visio explicit" and finish on page 159. These extracts were discussed briefly by Charlotte Brewer in her discussion of the poem's seventeenth-century readership and the manuscript was included by Ralph Hanna in his list of copies of the B Version. …