Medieval manuscripts on my mind …

Today was my first day researching at the British Library as a Research Associate for the Digital Index of Middle English Verse, funded by the Modern Humanities Research Association. My job is to fill the gaps in the work that was begun by the project team in the 1990s, when information about much of the extant Middle English verse was collected. The major repository that was not investigated in the 1990s was the British Library, which holds hundreds of manuscripts containing examples of medieval English poetry. I am a very lucky researcher indeed: for my job involves spending hours pouring over original manuscript texts. This is exactly what got me into medieval studies as an undergraduate, the potential to hold in my hands something that was written, six, seven, eight hundred years ago. As a researcher of literature and of history, there is nothing more satisfying to me than the connection that can be formed with the scribe, who held that very book in his hands – whose pen trials and ink splodges, doodles and colophons are visible on the very page. Just recently, the writer of one of the other blogs that I follow wrote this piece on scribal colophons. They are so interesting because they shed some light into the world in which these men wrote, lived, suffered pain, and felt pride in their work. Da mihi potum, “Give me a drink”, one hears the scribe exclaim. This is why my job is so satisfying: because I am taking the product of the scribe’s hard work, copying it out into my computer, mining it for features that might be interesting to a twenty-first century scholar, and putting it onto the internet for everyone to see. Would the drinking scribe have ever imagined that?!

There’s nothing quite like the smell of 600 years of history.

My first day began very satisfactorily indeed. The first manuscript that I opened contained an inscription that is of great interest to my personal research beyond the project. This is so important to me. Though I am working on a funded project, I am keen to keep my own research juices flowing, and to generate and process ideas for my own academic outputs. Getting over the excitement of this discovery, I began to collect information about the verse contents of this manuscript. Many examples of medieval verse are shared by several different manuscripts. For example, the song that appeared in my first manuscript of the day was copied in four manuscripts (minimum – there might be more, hiding somewhere). However, this manuscript contained the song in a very distinctive Norfolk dialect, with many idiosyncratic forms presumably introduced by the scribe himself. This is one example of why my work is valuable: this manuscript contains an original record of a fifteenth-century dialect of East Anglia, and beyond that, of a spelling system that is particular to that scribe.  This new material could be of great interest to researchers of historical linguistics who wish to investigate the features and development of regional dialect, and it could also be of interest to those who study literary history, as a new example of the proliferation of this particular piece of verse within medieval East Anglia.

One of the fantastic features of my job is its randomness. The first manuscript that I picked up contained fifteenth-century songs. The second had poems by the monk-poet John Lydgate. The third was full of lullabies. The fourth had a text that was ominously labelled by a later scholar “The Destruction of Jerusalem etc”. Oh, how an ‘etcetera’ can seem somewhat frivolous after such a weighty preceding title! And my favourite part of the role so far? Marginalia! Yet another way in which one feels so close to the individuals who wrote and read the manuscripts all those centuries before. Many of the manuscripts contain centuries-old commentaries. The odd addition of the Latin word ‘nota’ here or there, acting as a reminder for the reader himself, or for another reader in some other time or place, that this moment in the text was of particular interest.

Or the drawing of a manicule (a little pointing hand), which is a particularly striking way of saying “look here…I am going to physically point out where you should be looking”.

The fun ending to my day came with the discovery of two little marginal sketches in the back of one of the manuscripts. One was a dragon, being shot in the nose by a man with a bow and arrow (and what mighty fine stockings the doodle-ist had drawn on this man!). And on the page preceding? The very same dragon, whose tail gets longer and longer and finally grows into a rather sheepish looking man’s head: a fine example of one of the  fascinating outputs of the minds of medieval readers.

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One comment

  1. Jeanne de Montbaston · · Reply

    I love your descriptions … you’re making me want to go rummage through the BL!

    (It’s Lucy A., btw … finally worked out how to comment on here.)

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