Cambridge University Library, Additional MS 2604: Repackaging Female Saints' Lives for the Fifteenth-Century English Nun

By O'Mara, Veronica; Blanton, Virginia | The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

Cambridge University Library, Additional MS 2604: Repackaging Female Saints' Lives for the Fifteenth-Century English Nun


O'Mara, Veronica, Blanton, Virginia, The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History


Of late, scholars interested in East Anglia have focused their attention on devotional practices, and these contributions have enriched our understanding of book production, manuscript circulation, and issues of literacy. (1) Especially useful is the increased understanding of women, both religious and lay, as readers of hagiographical texts. Our work-in-progress, an edition of Cambridge University Library, Additional MS 2604, promises to enhance current discussions of devotional reading by making readily available a manuscript containing twenty-two (mainly female) saints' lives in Middle English. The brief description of this edition offered here includes an examination of the contents and physical composition of this manuscript, which has not hitherto received any serious scholarly attention, and a discussion of the Latin sources, which present a complicated tangle of manuscript and print in the late-medieval period. (2) Alongside the discussion of these complications will be an investigation of the identity of the possible convent for which the lives were intended. By focusing on issues of content, manuscript decoration, and postmedieval provenance, we hope to unravel the complicated history of Add. 2604 and provide some indication of how Latin lives were being repackaged for reading by English nuns. The present brief article serves as an introduction to the larger project. (3)

As may be seen in the appendix, this manuscript consists almost entirely of female saints, all of whom are virgins, martyrs, or nuns. At first glance it may seem odd that the collection opens with two male saints, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, and closes with another male saint, Leonard. Yet in medieval tradition the chastity of the Evangelist was emphasized, just as the Baptist's link to the virgin martyrs was evident in many roodscreen paintings. (4) Moreover, the two St. Johns share an iconographic tradition from the fifth century onward, and they, together with Leonard, are often found as the dedicatees of medieval nunneries. (5) The lives of these three male saints frame a rather eclectic mixture of female saints, beginning with the Roman virgin martyrs Columba, Agatha, Cecilia, and Barbara, followed by ten English saints, whose lives have familial ties and geographical associations with East Anglia and Kent. We then return to the Bible with Martha, then back again to Rome with Domitilla, Justina, and Benedicta before going to Ireland with Modwenna and France with Leonard.

The manuscript, which is in a single hand of the second half of the fifteenth century and consistent linguistically, has definitely been copied from another manuscript, as is evident from the frequent examples of dittography, and it is missing many pages (sometimes entire quires). (6) The saints' lives cross quire boundaries, and so any argument about the individual groupings being found in separate booklets is not tenable. The only saints that are each separately contained within the same quire boundaries are Modwenna and Leonard at the end of the manuscript, so they could have conceivably circulated independently.

This manuscript seems to comprise three little cycles broadly following the order of the liturgical calendar, although they look to be anything but a coherent whole. (7) The manuscript opens with the universal saints, starting with the two biblical Johns and ending with the virgin martyr Barbara, whose feasts run from June 24 to December 4. Put physically in the center are ten English saints, whose feasts run from June 23 to November 17, starting with /Ethelthryth and finishing with Hild. Then the manuscript ends with another universal group, starting with the biblical Martha and ending with Leonard, whose feasts run from July 29 to November 6 (with Modwenna in a decidedly odd placement). For complicated textual and codicological reasons, it is clear that the collection must also have originally included two other lives. …

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