Jolly Jankin Meets Aristotle

By Hanna, Ralph | The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

Jolly Jankin Meets Aristotle


Hanna, Ralph, The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History


It should go without saying that if one is seriously interested in medieval English manuscript culture, one needs to recognize that England was a trilingual state throughout the post-Conquest medieval period. Quite simply, there was a vastly greater (and often more interesting) volume of Latin and, particularly early on, French (not limited to Anglo-Norman) literature written and circulating in England in this period than texts written in English. Because of this manuscript evidence that more was written in other languages than in English, it is clear that medieval people with any serious degree of sophistication, for whatever reason, valued materials in other languages, including ones certainly "English" because written by Englishmen, a great deal more than they did ones in "the vernacular." The professionalism of "English studies," which must be seen as complicit with a kind of nationalistic narrative that most university lecturers would disavow in any contemporary context, has greatly skewed the prioritization of modern research interests.

Indeed, even if one were interested in English alone, one would need to face the problem that there exist more items belonging to "the English [language] archive" than have ever been noted in any standard bibliographic tool. (2) The uncatalogued items of English, like the snippet that I will discuss here, remain unnoticed simply because modern monolingual English researchers have not bothered to investigate the vastly richer world provided by the other languages used in medieval England. Nor have they considered with much care what the juxtaposition of these languages with bits of English might mean.

My exhibit on this occasion comes from Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College, MS 109/178. Folios 1 to 109 of this book (independent in production from, although long bound with, the remainder) are mainly given over to a thirteenth-century copy of a fairly widely disseminated scientific work. This is Michael Scot's translation of the Aristotelian biological corpus as a single nineteen-book whole, De animalibus. (3) It is obviously a highly learned text of the sort one would initially come upon in a university master of arts course, where it would be a staple of any discussion of "natural philosophy" (although not its center, which was provided by Aristotle's De anima). Certainly, there is evidence that the book was used in a manner in keeping with such a siting. Like many such volumes, it bears a variety of learned notations of various sorts in a variety of later medieval hands.

One of these annotations is particularly striking, mainly because it can scarcely be described as consonant with learning at all. In the outer margin of folio 28v, a hand from the second half of the fourteenth century that I have not spotted elsewhere in the book has added a two-line note:

   now is al my loud sang
   layd vndir my credil-band.

This is certainly English, and certainly a verse text. The lines are written in the rough four-stress of most informal Middle English writing; "loud" at least should have a grammatical "-e," although "layd vndir" shows stress- juxtaposition. And although from a fastidious modern point of view there is no rhyme here, that would not be a medieval perception. (4)

Moreover, somewhat counterintuitively, this bit of marginalia is not thorough whimsy but a legitimate effort at a gloss. It is situated in the margin by the following bit of the Aristotelian text, a discussion of birds' song:

   Et ex eis est que uociferat post prelium et uictoriam, ut gallus.
   Et ex eis est quod uociferat dulce mas et femina, ut hardon. Quoniam
   femina uociferat sicut mas et cum incubat oua, quiescit a uoce.

   [And among them is a bird that calls out after battle and victory,
   namely the cockerel. And among them there's a species where both
   the male and female sing sweetly, namely the "hardon." For the
   female sings just like the male, and when she broods on her eggs,
   she stops singing. … 

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