New Light on Piers Plowman's Ownership Ca. 1450-1600

By Warner, Lawrence | The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

New Light on Piers Plowman's Ownership Ca. 1450-1600


Warner, Lawrence, The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History


This note offers a new identification of a very prominent fifteenth-century owner of a Piers Plowman manuscript and brings together some disparate materials, to my knowledge unknown to Langland scholars, about the ownership of a few manuscripts and printed editions in the Tudor and Stuart eras. At issue in each case is the extent to which an absence or silence is meaningful or merely testimony to the inevitably patchy state of the textual record.

A Fifteenth-Century King's Almoner, Registrar of the Order of the Garter--and Owner of British Library MS Add. 35287 (MS M of B) (1)

The rather sparse evidence regarding who read or owned manuscripts of Piers Plowman in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries has long been established, and often repeated. (2) This relative paucity has recently been interpreted as a sign that in the fifteenth century the ownership of Piers Plowman would have been akin to ownership of Lollard books, which "routinely served as evidence for prosecution." (3) In putting forth that case, John Bowers remarks that for the 120-odd years between Sir William Clopton (d. 1419), whose shield adorns the first page of University of London MS S.L. V. 17 (MS A of C), and Sir Adrian Fortescue, who copied Bodleian MS Digby 145 (MS K of A / [D.sup.2] of C) in 1532, the surviving manuscripts give no "evidence of high-status ownership." (4) I want now, however, to put forth an identification of an owner of Piers Plowman most closely associated with the very highest levels of English society of the mid-fifteenth century. The publication of London, British Library MS Add. 35287 (MS M of the B version) in the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive, edited by Eric Eliason, Thorlac Turville-Petre, and Hoyt N. Duggan, has enabled the identification of an owner who was intimate with the king himself.

These marks of ownership appear on the verso of the last folio, and are obscured both by the number of items there and by the fact that a large drawing of a mace has the effect of severing the constituent parts of the owner's signature. Two Latin tags, which I have elsewhere identified as being by "John of Bridlington" and John Gower, (5) appear on the left of this drawing, a feature that led Eliason, et al. (who provide by far the fullest account of the contents of this fascinating folio) to read the page in columns. They identify the words "danet the." on the left, and then remark:

   To the right of the mace are a set of pen trials, beneath which
   is a brief memorandum of expenses for Bruges satin in an early
   sixteenth-century hand:

        Item for a yerd and a quarter of saten ebregys [ij.sup.s] vj d

   beneath which is written the word Constat and various pen
   scribblings. (6)

But the "danet" and "Constat" are on the same horizontal plane, and in the same hand, and "constat" is perhaps the most common term by which ownership of manuscripts is indicated, usually via the formula "iste liber constat [name of owner]." Perhaps because of the mace's dominance, or perhaps on a whim, the inscriber here indicated his ownership by placing his name before rather than after the verb. The hand would seem to belong to the latter part of the fifteenth century (the PPEA editors place the drawing of the mace and its attendant verses, which clearly pre-existed this signature, in mid-century). The most likely candidate might already appear to be one "Thomas Danet": and as Thorlac Turville-Petre graciously pointed out to me when I first put forth this idea to him, what he and his co-editors identified as "the" is surely instead "Tho."

Thomas Danet was from a prominent family of Bromkinsthorpe, Leicestershire, his older brother Gerard dotting the pages of Eric Acheson's study of that county's gentry community. (7) Thomas himself left a trail of records of his remarkable and distinguished career, most of it helpfully collected by Emden, as summarized here. (8) He was most prominent in serving as privy councillor and almoner to King Edward IV, who sent him in 1475 to negotiate with Charles, duke of Burgundy, and in 1478 to take up the cause of Edward's sister, the duchess Margaret, with Louis XI of France. …

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New Light on Piers Plowman's Ownership Ca. 1450-1600
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