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

At Work in the Anchorhold and Beyond: A Codicological Study of London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.XIV

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

At Work in the Anchorhold and Beyond: A Codicological Study of London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.XIV

Article excerpt

The thirteenth-century English manuscript London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero Ajciv ("Nero") is one of four complete thirteenth-century manuscripts of the well-known early Middle English text Ancrene Wisse, a guidebook for anchoresses. (1) Following its composition, sometime after 1215, the A Wgrew exponentially in popularity and over the next three centuries was adapted for and read not just by the small original audience of anchoresses for whom it was written, but by all kinds of religious--canons, canonesses, monks, and nuns--as well as by lay men and women, both literate and illiterate; it was also translated into French and Latin. (2) In short, the AW was the runaway bestseller of vernacular devotional guides in the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries. It marks the start of a rich Middle English tradition of vernacular anchoritic literature that continued into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries with such works as Richard Rolle's The Form of Living, Walter Hilton's Scale of Perfection, the vernacular redaction of Aelred of Rievaulx's De institutione inclusarum, and the anonymous Myrour of Recluses. (3) Agreat deal, perhaps the bulk, of AWscholarship is carried out by scholars of the late Middle Ages because of the integral role the Airplays in the study of vernacular devotion and literacy in England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. (4) Too, because so many AWmanuscripts survive--seventeen in total--scholars have naturally been drawn in large part to critical editions from which they can derive textual studies, rather than working with specific manuscripts. As a result, individual manuscripts are typically elided, despite the critical information they can provide about the reception of the AW, particularly in its early stages. Investigations into fading Latin literacy, an increasing demand for vernacular literature, the adaptation of the AW for late medieval readers, and changes in readership over the history of the A Wcarried out by scholars who focus on late medieval England readership, such as Bella Millett, Catherine Innes-Parker, Christina von Nolcken, and Nicholas Watson, can be deepened and fruitfully complicated by considering not just codicological questions, but by asking such questions of the earliest manuscripts in the tradition. (5) Such study tells us much about, for example, the early uses of the text and the increasing popularity of the AW, and frames the late medieval vernacular readership with a larger understanding of the progress from Latinate to vernacular readers. Though the particular manuscript I examine here, Nero, is a bit earlier than the usual scope of this journal, it plays a critical role in the development of the A Wmto the form studied by scholars of Middle English texts and merits consideration.

Nero is textually the earliest witness to the AW, preserving as it does the reference to the three sisters still presumed to be the original audience, and was initially the surviving manuscript favored by scholars. (6) With Tolkien's interest in the AB language in the early twentieth century, though, attention swiftly shifted to Corpus ("A" of the AB manuscripts), with its fine production quality and better text as the preferred base-text for critical editions. (7) Growing interest in Corpus also coincided with an increased interest in material and manuscript studies, and so Corpus has benefited from a relatively good deal of codicological analysis. (8) Nero, conversely, fell out of favor before codicological studies became popular and has never received a thorough treatment. Despite its significant place in the AW tradition as one of the earliest manuscripts, the timing of its scholarly popularity along with its simple aesthetics--it is a small, plain manuscript, effectively undecorated, with nothing particular to recommend it outside of that reference to its original audience and the Wooing Group material found in its last quire--it has been overlooked. Mabel Day, editor of the EETS edition of the Nero manuscript, is, as far as I am aware, the only scholar to provide an extended codicological consideration of Nero in her introduction. …

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