Dame Eleanor Hull: The Translator at Work

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The fifteenth-century translator Dame Eleanor Hull was until recently virtually unknown. In 1987 I gave a paper on her at the first University of Cardiff conference on the theory and practice of translation in the Middle Ages; (1) in 1995 the Early English Text Society published my edition of her translation of a French commentary on the Penitential Psalms, (2) and she will have her own entry in the New Dictionary of National Biography. (3) This is an outline of what we know about her at present. Eleanor Hull was born the only child of Sir John Malet of Enmore in Somerset, probably during the last decade of the fourteenth century as her father was dead by 1395. Malet was a retainer of John of Gaunt and of his son Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV. Eleanor Hull's mother, Joan Hylle of Exeter, was the sister of Robert Hylle, compiler of the Hylle Cartulary. Perhaps around 1407, the year her own mother remarried for the first of several times, and certainly by 1413, Eleanor Malet married John Hull, esquire, who was also in the service of the Lancastrians: probably much older than his wife, he was a retainer of John of Gaunt and later ambassador to Castile for both Henry IV and Henry V. Eleanor bore him one son, Edward (he was a small boy in 1417), who as Constable of Bordeaux was to die in the last engagement of the Hundred Years War in 1453. In 1417 Eleanor Hull was given a royal grant as servant to Joan of Navarre, Henry IV's second wife, and also in that year she, her husband, and son, like so many other Lancastrians, were admitted to the confraternity of the Benedictine abbey of St Albans. By 1421 she was a widow and seems to have spent much of her time when not at court at Sopwell Priory, a house of Benedictine nuns dependent on St Albans and less than a mile from the abbey. She probably went to France with her son in 1444 to attend the proxy wedding of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou: Edward became one of the queen's knights. She never remarried, and eventually retired to the Benedictine nunnery at Cannington, near the family seat of Enmore, where she died in 1460, leaving a will written in her own hand. (4)

Eleanor Hull's translations are preserved in Cambridge University Library, MS Kk.1.6, (5) a large and unusually well-documented manuscript of religious verse and prose put together, and in part written out, by Richard Fox, steward or procurator of St Albans Abbey. When Richard died in 1454 he left a will referring to this manuscript in identifiable terms as still in quires, so it can be very precisely dated. CUL MS Kk.1.6 contains two texts attributed to Dame Eleanor Hull: a translation of a commentary on the Seven Penitential Psalms (fols 2-147) and a translation of a collection of prayers and meditations (fols 148-179v). After the second text Richard Fox records that 'Alyanore Hulle drowe out of Frenche all this before-wreten in this lytylle booke', without further explanation. This attribution has been the starting point for all later research. The prayers and meditations are also found, without the attribution to Eleanor Hull, in University of Illinois, MS 80, a manuscript that A. I. Doyle dates as certainly no earlier than CUL MS Kk.1.6. (6)

It seems likely that Eleanor Hull made both translations during the early years of her widowhood, while she was staying at Sopwell and perhaps enjoyed access to the library facilities of St Albans. As an heiress, she must have received a better than average education that included English, Latin, and Anglo-Norman; as a royal servant in fifteenth-century England, she would naturally have a knowledge of spoken and written French, particularly as she had been in the service of the French wife of Henry IV. Further, she probably translated the prayers and meditations, which are written in a style of affective piety very familiar in late-medieval England, before the far more ambitious, and less superficially attractive, commentary on the Penitential Psalms. When Fox was compiling his manuscript in the 1450s she would have been still alive, but relatively inaccessible in the depths of Somerset. …