Reading the Spaces: Pictorial Intentions in the Thornton MSS, Lincoln Cathedral MS 91, and BL MS Add. 31042

By Hardman, Phillipa | Medium Aevum, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview
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Reading the Spaces: Pictorial Intentions in the Thornton MSS, Lincoln Cathedral MS 91, and BL MS Add. 31042


Hardman, Phillipa, Medium Aevum


Manuscripts containing Middle English narrative texts which have been provided with programmes of illustration are comparatively rare.(1) Very few vernacular biblical narratives, for example, have picture cycles; nor do most English romances. It is all the more important, therefore, not to overlook the evidence of those manuscripts which, while they contain no illustrations, show that they were originally intended to receive a series of pictures by preserving spaces that have never been filled; special consideration needs to be given to the status of texts that are neither illustrated nor unillustrated, but whose illustrations have not been realized.(2) Studies of these manuscripts and their texts may be enriched by an investigation of the pictorial intentions implied by the spaces.

A striking case of unexecuted pictorial intentions may be seen in the two Thornton MSS, Lincoln Cathedral Library, MS 91, and London, British Library, MS Add. 31042 (c. 1430--50). Both commence with a text which appears to have been prepared for a set of illustrations that it has never received. It is, of course, impossible to be certain that Robert Thornton was the originator of these picture schemes (though there is some evidence to suggest that he may have been); but whether he created the programmes or was preserving or adapting schemes that he found in his exemplars, it is nevertheless his choice that has determined their presence in his collections. By examining these texts and the pictorial intentions they reveal, and by considering in turn the relationship of the illustrated narrative to other texts in the manuscript, it is possible to make some discoveries about the planning of each volume and the intended reception of its texts.

I

The Prose Life of Alexander, the first text in the Lincoln Thornton MS (fols 1--[49.sup.r]), preserves ten blank spaces which appear on folios [1.sup.r], [2.sup.r], [2.sup.v], [3.sup.v], [6.sup.r], [7.sup.r], [22.sup.v], [24.sup.v], [26.sup.r] and [26.sup.v].(3) The prose text occupies the full width of the ruled area, and the spaces, approximately square in shape, slightly taller than they are wide, extend from the left margin for a little under half the width of the written area. There is no obvious indication in the manuscript layout or in the text to suggest how the spaces should function: no picture caption, no rubric or summary of the ensuing action, no large coloured initial in the text to mark a division in the narrative.

In terms of their relation to the written text these spaces look like the empty squares left for decorated initials to be added at a later stage of manuscript production. This is precisely what has happened in one case: a large coloured initial Q has been inserted into the space on folio 6, in a style which matches that of decorated initials throughout the manuscript. But this initial cannot have been intended as part of the decorative programme, for unlike every other large initial it has no guide letter in the margin, and the scribe has not omitted the letter which is to be rubricated from his text: the word when is never spelt as here (Qwhen) anywhere else in the text, nor are any other whwords spelt qwh.(4) None of the other nine spaces has any indication that a large initial was intended: the Q is a unique anomaly.(5) One type of illustration that would suit the size, shape and placement of the spaces -- historiated initials -- can thus be excluded from the range of possibilities in trying to reconstruct Thornton's planned programme of illustrations.

The irregular distribution of the spaces (two clusters separated by fifteen uninterrupted folios and followed by a further twenty-three folios), makes it unlikely that they are meant for miniatures that would serve to divide the text into chapters or reading-lengths. It seems more likely that the spaces indicate Thornton's intention to provide illustrations of passages that had especial significance in his reading of the text.

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