Tradition and Innovation in Later Medieval English Manuscripts

By Hennessy, Marlene Villalobos | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Tradition and Innovation in Later Medieval English Manuscripts


Hennessy, Marlene Villalobos, The Catholic Historical Review


Tradition and Innovation in Later Medieval English Manuscripts. By Kathleen L. Scott. (London: The British Library. 2007. Pp. xiv, 194. $75.00. ISBN 978-0-712-34936-0.)

This volume examines five little-studied English manuscripts of the later medieval period that contain rare or enigmatic decoration and iconography. Scott uses these examples to argue that although fifteenth-century manuscript illumination has often been derided as derivative and dull, these specific manuscripts not only contain strikingly inventive pictorial elements but also raise intriguing questions about the broader contours of English book production and the function of illustrations in late-medieval manuscripts. The first chapter concerns Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 156, an English modelbook for a work known as the Postilla litteralis super totam Bibliam, a widely used literal exegesis of the Bible composed by Nicholas of Lyra (d. 1349). Although this manuscript does not include the full text of the commentary, which typically ran from three to five volumes, it contains illustrations intended to accompany the text, including images that depict practical information about the Bible such as diagrams, plans, and illustrations of the Temple of Solomon, the Table of Shewbread, the Brazen Sea, the Altar of the Holocaust, and so on. She posits that the Bodleian manuscript was a kind of archetypal exemplar or modelbook that provided copyists with a repertoire of imagery for use in the numerous other copies of the work produced during the period.The second chapter considers All Souls Library, Oxford, MS 10, the only surviving copy of an illustrated French Bible written in England. The origins of this manuscript are especially mysterious, as the text was written in French at a time when Wycliffite Bibles were readily available, but produced in an English illuminating shop by a prolific and well-known artist who seems to have moved in the highest circles of noble book-commissioning patrons. Although the manuscript contains many of the standard features of English book art, some of its iconography was clearly influenced by French models; moreover, it prominently features miniatures of readers and books. Scott unravels some of the potential implications of this evidence for ownership and, intriguingly, proposes that the book may have been commissioned by a French patron in forced residence in England such as Charles d'Orléans. Scott then focuses on British Library, Stowe MS 39, the only surviving English manuscript of the Abbey of the Holy Ghost, a Middle English treatise of spiritual guidance that employs architectural motifs to depict aspects of interiority. …

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