Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Manual to Miscellany: Stages in the Commercial Copying of Vernacular Literature in England

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Manual to Miscellany: Stages in the Commercial Copying of Vernacular Literature in England

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The origins of the commercial book trade in England can be traced back as far as the mid-thirteenth century, when professional scriveners began to copy Anglo-Norman romances and works of pastoral instruction, such as Grosseteste's Chasteau d'amour and William of Waddington's Manuel de peches. These texts often circulated in small independent fascicles, which allowed the scriveners to provide an expanding readership with a broader choice of material. Small portable collections of these fascicles, sometimes referred to as 'manuals', in due course gave way to the larger Middle English miscellanies, such as the famous Auchinleck manuscript of c. 1330.

If the term 'grubstreet' is taken to refer to the commercial production of sensationalist fiction by anonymous hacks working in the heart of the city of London, then its origins go back much further then is commonly supposed. 'That fatal revolution' deplored by Oliver Goldsmith, 'whereby writing is converted to a mechanic trade; and booksellers, instead of the great, become the patrons and paymasters of men of genius', (1) is well in evidence by the 1330s when a team of six London scriveners produced a massive compendium of popular English material, MS Advocates 19.2.1 in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, the famous Auchinleck manuscript. The attraction of the volume lay in the broad range of material it offered: forty-four items in all, including saints' lives, secular and religious romances, miracles of the Virgin, couplets on the Seven Deadly Sins, the Harrowing of Hell, and the Pater Noster, religious debates, and other poems of moral instruction, but also humorous tales and political satires. It was, as Derek Pearsall puts it in his part of the introduction to the facsimile, 'the first, and much the earliest, of those "libraries" of miscellaneous reading matter, indiscriminately religious and secular, but dominated by the metrical romances, which bulk large in the popular book-production of the late Middle Ages in England'. (2) Well represented in the collection are the tail-rhyme romances, such as Horn Child, Guy of Warwick, and Beves of Hamtoun, that Chaucer satirized mercilessly in his Tale of Sir Thopas. (3) Yet if much of the material seems little better than competent hack work, the book is a handsome one, carefully copied into double columns with generous use of rubrication and marginal flourishes in green, blue, and red ink, and a series of what were once probably over thirty miniatures, although only five survive.

An obvious question about the construction of the Auchinleck MS is how so large a team might have been assembled. One possible explanation, first proposed by Laura Hibbard Loomis in 1942, might be that the scribes worked together under the same roof in a single atelier or bookshop. (4) But as A. I. Doyle and M. B. Parkes point out, there is little to indicate that vernacular copying had reached this stage of commercial organization so early. (5) As we have learned more about the way stationers and scriveners in London or Oxford were squeezed into a few streets, often cheek-by-jowl with parchment makers and illuminators, an alternative explanation has emerged. (6) If a scribe wanted to produce a large book in a hurry, he could farm out sections to his neighbours, or call on one of them to complete the rubrication or decoration. Since the scribes were not all working under the same roof, they would not have been likely to have traded off in mid-page but would have worked on separate units. The Auchinleck MS could well have been produced in such a manner. It can be divided into a series of fascicles or booklets, independent sections comprised of anything from one to ten gatherings that are devoted to a single text or a group of thematically similar texts, and each of these fascicles was copied by a separate scribe.

The one major point of contention is whether the various fascicles were copied as a speculation in advance of any commission, as Derek Pearsall suggests (p. …

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