Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Tremulous Hand of Worcester and the Nero Scribe of the Ancrene Wisse

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Tremulous Hand of Worcester and the Nero Scribe of the Ancrene Wisse

Article excerpt

The shaky handwriting of the thirteenth-century scribe known as the tremulous hand of Worcester is known from entries in over twenty manuscripts dating from the ninth to the twelfth centuries. Several of the manuscripts are large homiliaries and in these in particular his hand may be seen in various degrees of tremulousness as he returned to the manuscripts adding glosses in layers over a period of time.1 He is probably best known as a glossator of Old English, but the manuscripts also contain many marginal annotations and nota signs by passages which seem to have interested him. He also wrote in his own hand Worcester Cathedral, MS F. 174, containing a copy of AElfric's Grammar and Glossary and two shorter texts, The St Bede Lament and The Soul's Address to the Body, which are also known as The Worcester Fragments.2 On fol. vi of Bodleian Library, MS Junius 121, there is a copy of the Nicene Creed in his hand,3 and in some of the manuscripts, fragments of worksheets survive which contain English-Latin word pairs drawn from his glosses. In one case the fragment is in first letter alphabetical sequence by English word, apparently part of an Old English-Latin glossary which he was building.4

It has generally been assumed that he was working in Worcester because many of the manuscripts he worked on have Worcester connections, but we do not know exactly when he worked. The extent to which his handwriting degenerated and the very large number of glosses he added in layers to at least twenty manuscripts have suggested to some that he must have had a very long career which could have spanned thirty or even fifty years, but I do not think this is necessarily the case. The type of tremble that is found in his handwriting and the leftward lean, splayed appearance, and exaggerated size of his later work were most likely caused by a congenital tremor, and the dramatic degeneration in his handwriting could have occurred within a few years.5 I think that it is at least possible that he could have produced all his surviving work in no more than five to ten years. Attempts to date him have ranged from late in the twelfth century to the second quarter of the thirteenth century, possibly close to 1250; but the evidence has been based only on the dating of the script of a Latin table of contents to which he made an addition.6 As such it can provide only a terminus post quem for the tremulous scribe. Obviously it would be very useful to be able to date the tremulous scribe's work more precisely; his work is a very important source of information about early Middle English in the south-west Midlands. No connection with any other scribe who might be directly comparable to him has yet been made. In this article I will argue that the earliest work of the tremulous scribe has a great many similarities to that of the unknown scribe of the Nero manuscript of the Ancrene Wisse, London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.xiv.

His characteristic tremble makes it relatively easy to identify the work of the tremulous scribe. The degeneration in his handwriting also makes it possible to assign a rough chronology to his work. In the earliest stage his handwriting is small, neat, and upright, lacking the splayed and disjointed appearance that is characteristic of the later stages. The tremble is only occasionally evident in this early stage. Examples of this stage are given in Figure 2. This early stage is found in a layer of glosses and marks in three manuscripts only: throughout Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 115 and in parts of Bodleian Library, MSS Hatton 113 and Junius 121.7 I have called this earliest layer the D layer because the glosses are uncharacteristically 'dark' and neat. Almost all the glosses in the D layer are English, and at this stage it seems he was marking up exemplars to be copied, updating some of the spellings, inflections, punctuation, and vocabulary, and behaving like a twelfth-century copyist of Old English. But unlike them, he seems to have abandoned this method of attempting to make Old English texts more intelligible and switched to glossing them, usually in Latin, though he continued to add some marks updating spellings and punctuation. …

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