Fiddling with Manuscripts at Last!

I have now been living in London for just under six weeks, and the first “Poema Morale” manuscript that I was able to see was London, British Library, Egerton 613, which contains not one but two copies of the poem. Both date to the thirteenth century, though one is earlier than the other. Since the only experience I had had with manuscript images of the poem came from black-and-white microfilm images of Cambridge, Trinity College B. 14. 52, I was happily surprised to see the alternating red and green initials throughout the first copy of “Poema Morale” in Egerton 613. Clearly, the scribe was taking his time with this copy, as opposed to the slightly earlier one [in a different hand] that is now in the back of the manuscript. That same hand also included an Anglo-Norman treatise on the titles of nuns and what they had to do to deserve those titles–may be worth reading some other time. For now, it’s just a distraction.

I have to say, however, that I was even more delighted upon seeing Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby 4. Trying to find a good description of this manuscript is incredibly difficult [currently waiting on an article by Betty Hill to be sent to me by the NYU libraries], so imagine my surprise when this tiny little manuscript comes out in the typical gray box. By my measurements, it’s approximately 87mm x 117mm with the later binding clasps still intact. Granted, this amazing little book is written largely in Latin–there’s a Seneca text in there, as well as a long piece on herbs–with maybe some Anglo-Norman (though none jumped out at me) but then there’s wonderful “Poema Morale” at the end. The only English text in the whole miscellany. What I find interesting is the fact that, unlike the other texts, “Poema Morale” contains only one enlarged red initial for the /i/ in “Ich” at the beginning of the text. The rest of the text is in black ink while the other non-English texts of the manuscript have other large initials in varying red or green (maybe even blue) with occasional rubrication in new sections. Even the Mater de virtutibus herbarum before the “Poema Morale” contains colored initials throughout.

So, why the different treatment with the only English text of the manuscript? Probably because it’s in English. However, of all the other poems and religious texts out there that the scribe could have copied down and of the three different languages in use at the time [Latin, Anglo-Norman, and English], he found this text worthy to be included in his miscellany. Why? Because it was popular? The text was versified and not written out in continuous prose–like, for example, the version of “Poema Morale” in London, Lambeth Palace Library 487–which shows that time was taken to include this poem. But did anyone ever really read it? I’m inclined to say no because of the lack of finger traffic along the edges of the parchment. In Oxford, Jesus College 29, for example, there is ample evidence of continued reading. Not only are the edges of the pages a little more worn, but also an attentive later reader underlined and glossed unfamiliar words. This is noticeably different from the treatment of the poem in Digby 4, and I find this all fascinating.

If I could, I’d post some of the manuscript images online here, but I don’t have the libraries’ permissions, so I can’t. Maybe I’ll be able to reproduce some images when it comes time to finish my dissertation [and then hopefully when I publish my first book!]. Next week, I revisit Jesus College 29 and Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 343 (the Old English translation of The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew with sæ-steorre imagery and “The Grave”), as well as get my first glimpse of the Ormulum (first through facsimile images, and then, hopefully, the real thing!). Then, I’ll be off to Cambridge to see my final “Poema Morale” manuscript, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, McClean 123.

Wish me luck!

About carlamthomas

I received my PhD in 2016, and I'm finishing up a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellowship at New York University this year. Next year, barring some last second postdoc or job coming through, I will be living in Tennessee with my husband, dog, and cat to save money while I go on the academic job market yet again. My concentration is Early Middle English literature, language, and manuscript culture although this stretches from Old English influences to later Middle English iterations of developments in my period. I'm also an intersectional feminist, trying to inject such theory into some of my newer work, and I dabble in the monstrous (pre-modern and modern) on occasion.
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