Pre-Fifteenth-Century Scribes Copying Middle English in More Than One Manuscript

By Hanna, Ralph | The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Pre-Fifteenth-Century Scribes Copying Middle English in More Than One Manuscript


Hanna, Ralph, The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History


One of the most impressive (and potentially significant) current manuscript research projects is that devoted to medieval scribes. This is housed at the University of York and headed by Linne R Mooney and Simon Horobin. (1) In the main dedicated to fifteenth-century copying, it seeks to isolate the work of scribes clearly professional because attested in multiple manuscripts. The researchers are particularly interested, as a variety of references below will indicate, in identifying hands responsible for the promulgation of what would become national Scripture, the writings of Chaucer and company. The Scribes Project is also engaged in undertaking further identifications of these copying individuals and their careers.

This note offers a provisional prequel to Mooney and Horobin's impressive efforts. I present an initial listing that will point to what precedes their project, pre-1400 scribes engaged in copying more than one book. However, my goals are limited: I seek to identify only those persons responsible for at least one English book, although they may be recorded elsewhere copying other languages.

This limitation is, of course, necessary, given the nature of English scribal culture for the greater part of the Middle Ages, the long stretch from circa 700 to the period I survey. Mooney and Horobin survey the first period in which English materials held a place remotely comparable to those in Latin and French (which still appear vastly more frequently in fifteenth-century books than does English). But the scribes I survey below represent a considerably broader range of engagements, even in those books they copy containing English. Here numbers 1, 7-10, and 12 in my listing would testify to the polylingual mix typical of medieval England. Including scribes not engaged with English, given the relative scarcity of such materials before 1400, would swell the number of individuals to be listed a very great deal.

This would particularly be the case for the period between 700 and 1200. During this era, books and bookmaking may be strongly, if not nearly exclusively, associated with monastic environments. In this situation, individuals might spend a generation copying volumes for their house and its library, and such repeated hands, including ones working before the Conquest (and a few copying Old English), have long been a center of studies. Among the scribes I list here, numbers 7 to 10 and 19 exemplify such book-production by members of regular orders. (Moreover, numbers 11, 13, 17, and 18 might be construed generically similar, since they may well have been cathedral canons.) Similarly, in the years after 1200, the growth of Oxbridge threw together men with a need for books and a capacity for copying them. Like the monastic situation, most such copying will not include English, but it would again extend any list of professional scribes a great deal. (2) Ultimately, a database of medieval English scribes will need to expand well beyond even the already extensive archive envisioned by Mooney and Horobin.

Yet even this skeletal listing of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century scribes does present at least one feature of interest. The Mooney-Horobin project is inspired by Ian Doyle and Malcolm Parkes's important showing of the interconnection of hands at work on important Chaucer and Gower manuscripts just after 1400. (3) Doyle and Parkes focus on one important conjunction, the development, in the hands of a very few individuals, of a recognizable "English canon," a set of masterworks that now stand at the head of modern conceptions of English literature. But repetitions of major texts, or those deemed particularly important, among professionals scarcely began in 1400, and it is informative to see that manuscripts communicating Chaucer and Gower. were engaged in replacing an earlier library of "literarily worthwhile" objects, themselves subject to repeated copying by the scribes I have listed below. …

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