English pokes its nose in  

02 February 2018

Nicholas Cranfield sees an exhibition of early manuscripts in Oxford

Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

A late-15th-century copy of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1390s), at the division between The Tale of Sir Thopas and The Tale of Melibee. MS. Rawl. poet. 223, fol. 183r.

A late-15th-century copy of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1390s), at the division between The Tale of Sir Thopas and The Tale of Meli...

Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee,
Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three.
Next three Neds and Richard Two.
Henrys Four, Five, Six; then who?

THE mnemonic poses a good question, since the reign of King Edward IV proved controversial after he seized the crown from Henry VI. In part, it is answered by two manuscripts among those chosen by Martin Kauffmann, Madeleine Slaven, and Sallyanne Gilchrist for this intriguing show of nigh on a millennium of written English.

The Bodleian Library holds more than 10,000 medieval manuscripts, and nearly 950 of them are written in English, in whole or in part, from the marginalia of the late eighth century to the luxury world of illuminations in the high Middle Ages.

One manuscript (MS. e.Musaeo 42), which unfolds like a concertina, is a roll-codex completed between 1467 and 1469. It gives a chronological account of the descent of Edward IV from Adam and Eve. Evidently, the Yorkist would brook no opposition to his God-given right to rule.

It is displayed next to an all but identical copy of the decorated roll from the Lyell collection which was completed a little later, some time between 1469 and when Edward lost the crown to Henry VI on 3 October 1470. The patience of the scribes who decorated the rolls while the Wars of the Roses raged is remarkable.

But that is to run ahead of the story that, like all good storytellers, Daniel Wakelin weaves around an extraordinary collection of written words. The son of a sign-writer and a library-book fetcher, he grew up in Oxford surrounded by words, and he now teaches English manuscript studies there.

The visitor first gets to see “The Alfred Jewel”, generously loaned from its usual pilgrim site in the Ashmolean Museum around the corner. It is thought to be one of the elaborated bejewelled page-markers King Alfred (871-899) sent out to his scribes, suð ond norð (south and north), with what the king claimed to be his own translation of the pastoral manual for clergy written by Gregory the Great. Here the copy of the Cura pastoralis dispatched to Bishop Wærferth of Worcester between 890 and 897 is set out beneath the original page-marker.

The first book we read is open at the first two words of the Fourth Gospel in a Latin Gospel painted in Ireland by Macregol, who was probably Abbot of Birr in County Offaly (d.822). In between the maze of primary-coloured lines and interwoven knotted links that form the words we hear on Christmas morning, “In principio” (In the beginning), a later hand, generations later, has interpolated an English gloss in minute writing.

Did such glosses lead to an increasing demand for a translation of the Bible in English? Nearly half the Latin Psalters from Anglo-Saxon England have full English interlinear translations, sometimes entered before the Latin, as appears to be the case in the “Junius Psalter” of the 920s from Winchester.

In writing his great History of the English Church in Latin (in 731), the Venerable Bede himself intruded a poem written by the son of a cowherd from Whitby, and Caedmon’s poem praising the fashioner of the heavens, the world-warden, and worker of all wonders is shown here in an 11th-century copy.

Bishop Leofric of Exeter, who died in 1072, owned books written by Bede, including his commentaries on the Revelation to St John and the Catholic Epistles, which he donated to his cathedral library. In the list of his donations, the titles of all Latin books are written in Carolingian script, which was common across the Continent, while English titles are written in Insular.

Translation came in a different way with William Wey’s helpful pilgrims’ guidebook, compiled in the reign of Edward IV, which offered a Greek/English vocabulary. Everything from “Good Day” and “Good Eve” to “Christ have mercy” and the words for “a lamb” and then, in succession, “Father, Mother, Son and Holy Ghost”. The entries are not given alphabetically; so the frustration of fumbling in the pages at the back of a guide book, in restaurants or at foreign sites, is not new.

Although Dr Wakelin’s catalogue for the exhibition has the subtitle Early literature on the page, he is more than happy to stray beyond the parchment and vellum (although we are shown a prepared goatskin and an account book showing that parchment cost 3d.) and includes a dagger from the Sittingbourne Hoard (British Museum) and an Early English inscribed copper ewer that Lord Baden-Powell bought off an Ashante king.

Photographs supply what there is not room to display, and include English inscriptions on tabletop tombs (John Baret’s arresting cadaverous monument of 1463 from St Mary’s, Bury St Edmunds) and on commemorative brasses, decorated ceilings, and in stained glass. I was left wanting to know when the first bell was cast with an English inscription.

“Designing English” is at the Weston Library, Bodley Libraries, Broad Street, Oxford, until 22 April. Phone 01865 277094. www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk

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