Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Devilish Details: A New Record of the Towneley Plays

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Devilish Details: A New Record of the Towneley Plays

Article excerpt

This article announces a discovery which may have profound implications for the early provenance of one of the most important sixteenth-century English literary manuscripts, the Towneley Manuscript preserved in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California (hereafter HM 1). To state the matter briefly, four lines assigned to the First and Second Demons in the Towneley Judgment Day play, and possible references to two more of the plays in HM 1, exist among sixteenth-century marginalia in London, British Library, Sloane MS 480; the marginalia also include personal names, a location, and what appears to be a sketch of a strapwork initial not dissimilar to some found in HM 1 (as well as to some in the copy of the York Plays in BL Add. MS 35290). The marginalia date to the middle of the sixteenth century, and thus provide by far the earliest external witness to HM 1 's texts. Since I came upon them entirely by accident while looking for something else (confirming one of the relentless axioms of scholarship) I will content myself here with giving some modest background on the Sloane manuscript and the visual details of the graffiti, venturing only a few preliminary suggestions as to their relevance.

The manuscript

Sloane 480 is a small (135 x 85 mm), tightly bound volume containing only a Latin astronomical calendar (fols iv-2jv) and a Middle English translation of both books of John of Rupescissa's alchemical treatise De consideration quinta essentia (fols 26'-16T), in a single column varying between fourteen and eighteen lines per page, on vellum except for front and rear paper flyleaves. Until now its scholarly presence has been confined exclusively to lists: it is included in the medical inventories of Dorothea Waley Singer (1928) and Singer and Annie Anderson (1950), and more recently by pioneering Rupescissa scholar Robert Halleux as one of the several Middle English versions of the De consideration whose textual relationships are not yet established.1 Within the last twenty years it has also been listed in John B. Friedman's Northern English Books, Owners, and Makers in the Late Middle Ages, in George R. Reiser's volume on scientific writings in the Manual of the Writings in Middle English, and in Marguerite A. Halversen's unpublished dissertation on the Middle English translation of Rupescissa in Glasgow, Hunterian Library, Ferguson 205.2 Other recent scholars ignore the copy, contributing to the overall 'stealth' quality of its presence in studies of Rupescissa's remarkable iatrochemical treatise and of Middle English medical writings as a whole.3

We can trace the manuscript with certainty back to 1697, when it is recorded in the library of Dr Francis Bernard (1627-98) as T24. A Book of Medicinal Receipts. Membran'.4 Bernard, who was elected Apothecary and Physician to St Bartholomew's in London in 1661 and 1683 respectively, amassed a library of some 50,000 individual volumes; upon his death these were dispersed at 'the most extensive library sale of the seventeenth century', a sale which famously included between one and two dozen Caxtons.5 His friend Hans Sloane purchased the Rupescissa manuscript at this time, and thus the notation 'Bern[ard]. 124' in Sloane's hand appears at the top centre of fol. 2r along with his interpretation of its contents: 'A Kalendar / Liber de 5a. / essentia / Medicinal! receipts' (the last of these referring to the second book of Rupescissa).6 Following the transfer of Sloane's collection to Montague House in the 1750s, the two components of the volume received their original British Museum catalogue entries as 'Calendarium. In perg. Sec. xv' and 'Liber de quintae essentiae. (Angl.) In perg. Sec. xv'.7

How and when the manuscript came into Francis Bernard's possession is beyond my current ability to ascertain,8 but since 1904 'John Postylthwayt of Pontefract' has been catalogued as a former owner.9 This Postylthwayt, whose name appears on fols 4'' and 162' (the name John' also appearing solus on fol. …

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