The Boston Public Library Manuscript of John Lydgate's Siege of Thebes: Its Scottish Owners and Inscriptions

By Bawcutt, Priscilla J. | Medium Aevum, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The Boston Public Library Manuscript of John Lydgate's Siege of Thebes: Its Scottish Owners and Inscriptions


Bawcutt, Priscilla J., Medium Aevum


John Lydgate's Siege of Thebes has received increasing attention in recent years: scholars have debated its date of composition (probably in 1421), its conception as an additional `Canterbury Tale', and, above all, its structure and precise significance.(1) The poem was certainly popular with medieval readers, surviving in at least twenty-nine manuscripts. The copy now in the possession of Boston Public Library (MS f. med. 94) was, like several others, unknown to the editors of the poem for the Early English Text Society.(2) This manuscript has a particular interest in that its scribe has recently been identified, in important articles by Professor A. S. G. Edwards and Dr A. I. Doyle, as Stephen Dodesham (d. c.1482), who in later life was a Carthusian monk, first at Witham in Somerset, and then at Sheen, near London.(3) Most of the manuscripts copied by Dodesham were religious and devotional, and it seems likely that this and two other copies of The Siege of Thebes also made by Dodesham (Beinecke Library, MS 661, and Cambridge University Library, Add. MS 3137) belong to the earlier part of his career, as a lay scribe, before he entered the Carthusian order. On the evidence of the decoration, Professor Edwards conjecturally places the Boston manuscript in the 1430s, Dr Doyle more cautiously dates it c.1430-60.

This article, however, is concerned not with the origin and production of the Boston manuscript but with its later history. Various entries, such as owners' names and short pieces of verse, provide valuable, if scrappy, evidence concerning Lydgate's reception in Scotland, and the literary interests of certain Scottish families in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Nearly twenty years ago Professor Edwards called for a more systematic study of Lydgate manuscripts and their early owners, yet this aspect of the manuscript has been curiously neglected.(4) The Siege of Thebes was certainly known to Gavin Douglas, and there is evidence that it and other poems of Lydgate were popular in Scotland.(5) The Boston text of the poem lacks marginal annotation, but this does not necessarily imply that it was read inattentively. The additional entries occur (as is common enough) on the blank leaves at the beginning and end of the manuscript (now foliated, in a modern hand, as 1, 2, 74, 75, and 76). They are written in a number of different hands, and in several languages -- Latin, French, and Scots -- and, as these leaves are dirty and badly worn, are often extremely difficult to decipher (see item no. 5 below, p. 94). The manuscript contains only one date (1592), but the other entries, which were evidently made at various times, cannot be dated so precisely.

The first owner, who was almost certainly English, probably commissioned the work from Dodesham some time in the mid-fifteenth century. The earliest entries occur on fol. [76.sup.r]: `Te deum laudamus te dominum confitemur' (repeated) and

   Pour dieu Remembres Vous de moy
   Remembres Vous de moy pour dieu.

This second inscription, which is written down the outer margin at right angles to the first, is in the same `neat fifteenth-century secretary hand', which Dr Doyle considers English rather than Scots.(6) He notes also that a piece of verse in Scots (no. 6 below) appears to be later and to be written over the first word of the second inscription. This French inscription might perhaps imply that the manuscript is a gift from one person to another, but, if so, it is impossible to identify the moy and vous.

By the last decade of the fifteenth century the manuscript was undoubtedly in Scotland. Some inscriptions on fol. [75.sup.v] show that it was then in the possession of the Lyle family, who owned estates in Renfrewshire. Some of these, unfortunately, are mere scribbles, such as `Sum scriptyr talis' and `Ioanne', and many words are now almost illegible. Nonetheless one Latin entry contains the names `Robertus lyle' and `Mareota Lylle'; and a little below this is written:

   Memorandum that Robert lylle borruyt a buk
   fra maryown lylle lade off huston
   [. … 

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