Compilation and Contemplation: Beholding Thomas Hoccleve's Series in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Selden Supra 53

By Watt, David | The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Compilation and Contemplation: Beholding Thomas Hoccleve's Series in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Selden Supra 53


Watt, David, The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History


Thomas Hoccleve's Series is a sophisticated compilation of texts linked by its narrator's account of making the book that preserves them. (1) The narrator's account of literally making his book is so important to the structure of the Series that John Burrow has suggested it might better be known as the "Book of Thomas Hoccleve." (2) Given the narrator's claim that his book is meant "forth to goo / Among be peple," it seems reasonable to ask what others might have made of it. (3) In an attempt to answer this question, the article that follows engages in a close reading of what Jerome McGann would call the "linguistic code" of the Series. (4) This close reading focuses on the form and content of two stanzas in "Learn to Die"--the first part of the Series that the narrator claims to have set out to make--and their relationship to the book as a whole. (5)

It may seem as though this article will take a formalist approach. It will. However, my definition of the book as a whole expands the unit of analysis to include what McGann would describe as its "bibliographic code." (6) My close reading of the Series attempts to consider text and language alongside what Stephen Nichols calls "the important supplements that were part and parcel of medieval text production: visual images and annotation of various forms (rubrics, 'captions,' glosses, and interpolations)." (7) As Roger Chartier writes, and as Hoccleve knew from experience, "readers ... never confront abstract, idealized texts detached from any materiality. They hold in their hands or perceive objects and forms whose structures and modalities govern their reading or hearing, and consequently the possible comprehension of the text read or heard." (8) The premise for the argument that follows is that the best way to understand what people might have made of Thomas Hoccleve's book is to examine how it was literally made.

The way that Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Selden Supra 53 was made provides evidence that its makers and readers perceived Hoccleve's Series as a textual mirror--a compilation designed to encourage contemplation. As Sister Ritamary Bradley and subsequent critics have argued, medieval writers used the term speculum (mirror) to describe many different kinds of books, from scripture to story collections, from confessional manuals to advice for princes. (9) What connects the generically diverse texts known as mirrors is the kind of self-reflexive contemplation they either encourage or allow. For example, Hugh of St. Victor justifies calling one of his books a mirror because it is designed to help readers behold themselves critically: "and it is rightly called a mirror; for we can see in it as a mirror in what state we are, whether beautiful or deformed, just or unjust." (10) The narrator in the Series attempts to undertake this kind of self-reflection as he stands in front of a literal mirror in the "Complaint." When he fails to identify any immediately obvious faults, he concludes that "Men in her owne cas bene blinde alday." (11) As the Series progresses, he turns his attention from his literal mirror to various textual mirrors: moral treatises, exemplary stories, and "Learn to Die," his translation of the first part of Heinrich Suso's Horologium Sapientiae.

This article focuses on two stanzas in "Learn to Die" because their appearance in MS Selden Supra 53--the most authoritative scribal copy of the Series--invites readers to see the book as a textual mirror and to engage in the kind of self-reflexive contemplation modeled in the compilation as a whole. The first two sections explore the form and content of these stanzas in two manuscripts made by Hoccleve himself between 1422 and 1426. (12) The third and fourth sections examine the appearance of these stanzas in MS Selden Supra 53. The fifth section considers the possible reception of the Series in the Selden manuscript in light of other textual mirrors written by its main scribe. The final section asserts that additions to the Selden manuscript made by other hands reveal that its early readers made this book out to be a compilation designed for contemplation and that they, in turn, contributed to its making. …

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