Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Complication of Oxford, Bodleian Library. MS Digby 86

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Complication of Oxford, Bodleian Library. MS Digby 86

Article excerpt

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Digby 86 is one of the most famous manuscripts of the period of `early Middle English', and it is undoubtedly one of the most important. Traditionally thought to have been compiled sometime between 1271 and 1283,1 the manuscript contains over eighty texts in three languages: English, Anglo-Norman French, and Latin. The texts, almost all of them copied by a single scribe,2 range over an astonishingly wide variety of subjects, from the literary to the decidedly non-literary - medical treatises, confessional material, charms and prognosticatory items.3 The book is probably best known to scholars of English literature for the fact that it includes unique attestations of two particularly intriguing pieces: Dame Sirith and The Fox and the Wolf, known as the only extant pre-Chaucerian instances in English of, respectively, a fabliau and a work derived from the Continental `beast-epic' Le Roman de Renart. The manuscript also contains the earliest surviving version of The Thrush and the Nightingale - the most famous birddebate in English after The Owl and the Nightingale - as well as various English lyrics which have been printed in influential collections and discussed in major critical works.4 The book is of equal interest to specialists in medieval French, since it includes unique texts of a number of pieces of AngloNorman origin, and unique Anglo-Norman versions of works composed on the Continent.5

MS Digby 86 was the subject of detailed study as early as the nineteenth century, when Edmund Stengel published an annotated survey of its contents, together with complete texts of many of the items.6 More recently, in an article entitled `The early history of Bodleian MS Digby 86',7 Brian Miller has drawn conclusions about the provenance of the manuscript and its fate in the years immediately following its compilation, on the basis of a saints' calendar and numerous marginal inscriptions which appear within the pages of the book; the collection is also the subject of a new facsimile edition, with introduction by Judith Tschann and Malcolm Parkes.8 Tschann and Parkes present their own hypothesis concerning the compilation of Digby 86, but I wish to suggest that the manuscript may have been put together according to an alternative 'philosophy', rather different from the one that they describe. I wish also to point out certain features of the contents of the book which have not, for the most part, been registered by scholars: above all, that a number of the texts have, apparently, been tampered with in what may seem some bizarre ways. As an illustration of the organizational criteria to which a medieval book and its constituent items could be subjected, Digby 86 can be seen to be as fascinating a manuscript as it is for the nature of the material which it contains.

According to Tschann and Parkes, Digby 86 falls into two principal sections, which were intended to receive `different kinds of texts'.9 The first of the sections, they suggest, is dominated by pieces `with practical application' (it includes the `non-literary' material referred to above), and the second `contains secular verse texts for edification or entertainment, including some devotional texts'. Tschann and Parkes note that the items in the first section are prose works; those in the second include what they describe as an `adjunct or "annexe"' in which the leaves of the book are ruled in long lines `to accommodate verse texts written in ... alexandrines or fourteeners'.10 While they register formal differences between the works contained in the manuscript, then, the primary criterion by which they distinguish the sections into which they divide Digby 86 would appear to focus on subject-matter: in the first part of the book, the compiler seems to have been interested in collecting items of 'pragmatic' value, while the second contains an assortment of pieces which, in the main, lack this value.

Whether Tschann and Parkes are right to emphasize the differences in the subject-matter of the texts over the differences in the formal layout of the manuscript is, however, questionable. …

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