Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

The Four Scribes of MS Harley 2253

Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

The Four Scribes of MS Harley 2253

Article excerpt

My subject is a familiar manuscript with a familiar scribe: the Harley Lyrics manuscript. (1) London, British Library MS Harley 2253 is filled with an eclectic range of entertainments and edifying matter in French, English, and Latin, copied in the vicinity of Ludlow, England, near the Welsh border, from around 1331 to 1348. Its main scribe is well known, but less well recognized is how his labor is situated sequentially between the work of two others and how on the flyleaves it is conjoined with another scribe's product. (2) The relationship among these four scribes is the focus of this article. To be specific, the different styles of rubrication in Harley 2253 reveal how, in the manuscript proper, successive scribes received and used each other's work. By observing the sequence and mix of hands, we can perceive how two of these scribes did more than write texts: they also read the texts they had inherited from a previous scribe. And we can learn more: upon the flyleaves, which are cut from an old roll, we have the hand of a colleague-scribe whom the main Harley scribe knew personally.

The principal scribe, that is, the person responsible for preserving such an important and remarkable array of texts, was a Ludlow-area man who worked as a legal scrivener--a fact we know because of the brilliant detections of Carter Revard, who discovered the scribe's hand at work in forty-one writs, each precisely dated and placed in Ludlow or its environs. The scribe had training in religion and law, to judge from his known library, which survives not just in Harley 2253 but in two other books as well: British Library MSS Harley 273 and Royal 12.C.xii. Scholars think it likely that he served as chaplain for a well-to-do household and that he held among his general duties, besides being spiritual counselor, the education of boys (that is, young heirs in a French-speaking English household) and the planning of entertainments for mixed-gender social events. (3)

Two names have been used to designate this anonymous man: he is called, generally, either the "Ludlow scribe" or the "Harley scribe." (4) Most of the critical literature on the Harley 2253 texts has centered on his work alone, and it is his hand that is featured in the EETS facsimile. Specifically excluded from the facsimile are forty-eight folios holding the work of Scribe A, who employs a late-thirteenth- or early-fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman textura to inscribe religious texts. The Ludlow scribe fills out the remainder of the manuscript in his own distinctive anglicana. Here I designate the Ludlow scribe as Scribe B in order to emphasize his chronological place in the making of the manuscript. He is the second scribe but is considered the principal one because when he appended his labor to the matter of Scribe A, his endeavor filled ninety-three more folios/ thereby creating a much larger codex, his own portion being substantial in its own right. Moreover, the whole book seems to have been in his possession through the period of his adding to it, seemingly until his death. An earlier specimen of his hand is present on one side of a single roll that was cut to make the flyleaves, so it would appear that he bound the codex himself.

What brings importance to his status as scribe is the extraordinary melange of texts gathered on folios 49 to 140, which display a rare degree of compilational authority, autonomy, and aesthetic discernment. Taken together, the texts found here are revelatory of poetry-making in England before the age of Geoffrey Chaucer. In brief, Harley is a critically significant book because of Scribe B's trilingual activity as a copyist, compiler, and sometime translator. It contains, in English, love lyrics, satires, political poems, proverbs, and religious songs. In Anglo-Norman, there are interludes, fabliaux, courtesy books, debates on women, and a series of Bible stories contrived by the scribe himself. In Latin, one finds saints' lives, moralizations, prayers, and religious instructions. …

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