The Transmission of "The Book of Shrift"

By Hanna, Ralph; Zieman, Katherine | The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

The Transmission of "The Book of Shrift"


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


"The Book of Shrift," a 4000-line penitential handbook in verse (Index of Middle English Verse 694), forms one of the typical additions to the original text of Cursor Mundi. (1) In the early (s. xiv1) circulation of this massive biblical history, "The Book" usually appears at the very end of the work. As a result, it has been subject to those vicissitudes that typically afflict the ends of manuscripts, and although all early copies of the Cursor Mundi seem originally to have included it, "The Book" now only survives in full in a single one of them, British Library, Cotton Vespasian MS A.iii. (2)

Nevertheless, "The Book of Shrift" does not exist simply as a pendant to the enormous Cursor. Much later in the fourteenth century, perhaps in the 1390s, a pair of scribes copied what would appear to be excerpts from the text. These are found in BL, MS Cotton Galba E.ix, which Morris printed (scribe hereafter designated G) and in Bodleian Library, Rawlinson poet. 175 (hereafter R). (3) On the basis of considerable overlap of contents, as well as remarkably close textual relations (most pronounced in their versions of The Prick of Conscience), the two books appear to have emanated from the same copying center, probably somewhere in northern Yorkshire. Indeed, the two scribes contributed independent portions to a third book, British Library, Harley MS 4196, where scribe G copied quires 18-21 and scribe R quires 27-34. (4) The two versions of "The Book" copied by these scribes will provide some further evidence for their connection and typical behavior.

One's initial response to the renditions of "The Book of Shrift" in G and R is one of difference. Neither book offers quite the same text nor in the same order. In G, one finds the following presentation: folios 67ra-73va: two large chunks, comprising Morris's lines 27548-28063+ and 28614-29547+ (edn. pp. 1527-51, 1560-86). (5) The break between the two selections is marked by a large, centered "Amen" on folio 69rb, and a similar colophon appears at the end of the selection. In addition, immediately following, at fols 73vb-75ra, G presents a versified Pater Noster, with exposition (Index 788). This, excepting the same three Cursor manuscripts which have "The Book of Shrift," is a unique text. (6)

In contrast to this presentation, R provides, in some respect or another: folios 80va-93rb, 101va-103vb, lines 25864-27523, 27548-28063+, 28614-29547+ In other words, R presents the text from its opening, as it appears in Vespasian, while G appears as probably engaged in editorial behavior, tailoring a full text by selection. Neither of the two books contains lines 28064-28613, for which Vespasian remains the only witness.7 Finally, although R takes up, after this hiatus, at the same point as G, it then lacks altogether lines 27523-547.

However, R's presentation of "The Book of Shrift" is considerably more erratic than this summary would suggest: folios 80va/1-87ra/23 provide the rubric "Here bigyns a schort tretyce of schryft" and lines 25684-27161 (edn. 1470-1514). At this point, seven couplets past the rubric "Of be poyntes bat falles to be preste," the manuscript unexpectedly provides: folios 87ra/24-91ra/24, lines 28660-29547+ (edn. 1561-86). The selection ends with the couplet "And tyll his kyngdom he vs ken I Thurgh prayer of his moder Amen." It is succeeded by the rubric "Of be seuen dedly synnes and of bair braunches," and there follows: folios 91ra/27-93rb/40: lines 27548-28063+ (edn. 1527-51), concluding with the same centered "Amen" as appears after both segments presented in G and with a further pair of blank lines at the column foot.

In addition, more of the poem appears later in R, and in a most unexpected place. These materials are buried in the center of another text that has been copied later in the book. This is a verse translation from Latin called "The Gast of Gy" (Index 3028). It begins at the head of folio 96ra and is separated from R's consecutive copying from "The Book of Shrift" by a passion lyric also in G (Index 2080) and two extraneous verse texts of wide circulation (Index 1781 and 1718). …

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