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English Language Honours Options

Reading the Past: from script to print
Late Medieval English Literature 

Resources in Special Collections

  Home Page for Medieval mss.
  Religious and devotional mss. 
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  Late Medieval literary mss.
  Histories & chronicles

Josephus Jewish Antiquities and Jewish War
England: twelfth century (second quarter)
  MS Hunter 4 (S.1.4)

Flavius Josephus, a Jewish priest of aristocratic descent and a Pharisee, was appointed military commander of Galilee during the revolt of Judaea (A.D. 66-70). The Jewish revolt was crushed by Vespasian, and Josephus - basically pro-Roman and without sympathy for extreme Jewish nationalism - settled in Rome where he became a Roman citizen and where he wrote the two works contained in the volume. Although his chronology is faulty and his facts somewhat exaggerated, he manages to unite in one person the tradition of Judaism and Hellenism, providing a connecting link between the secular world of Rome and the religious heritage of the Bible.

The works of Josephus were much appreciated by the Church Fathers and were well known in England during the Middle Ages. The scriptorium at which this manuscript was produced is not known, but M.R. James conjectured from a defaced ex libris that it had once been in the possession of Reading Abbey. Its large size suggests that it was possibly meant for reading aloud in a monastic refectory. Beautifully written in a stately display script, the manuscript also contains a number of magnificent Romanesque initials of twisting foliage and fantastic beasts. In the initial 'A' shown below (folio 136r), the shafts and cross pieces of the letter are made from the body and neck of a dragon combined with a section of a panel or column. These initials in tandem with the rubrication, paraph markers and marginal glosses would contribute to the layout of the manuscript and were incredibly important in helping readers navigate through a long text.

folio 2r

folio 136r

folio 156v (detail)

folio 204r

Henry of Huntingdon Historia Anglorum
England: fourteenth century (first quarter)
MS Hunter 288 (U.6.6)

Henry states in the prologue that he was commanded to write his history of the English at the command of Bishop Alexander the Magnificent. He based his text upon Bede, but also drew upon a wide range of other sources such as the Anglo-Saxon chronicles, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Nennius. After 1127, however, his narrative is probably original, written contemporaneously with the events described. The first version of the work ends at 1129, but Henry continued to add to it at various times, resulting in a number of variant 'editions' or versions of the text. This fourteenth century copy describes events up to 1146 (version 4). Annotated throughout by fifteenth and sixteenth century readers, a note at the end remarks that the text is incomplete, lacking details of Henry II's reign. Later versions of the work take the narrative up to 1154, the year of Stephen's death. In this copy, spaces have been left for larger initials to be added to mark the beginning of sections but these have never been filled in (see folios 1r and 1v for examples).

While the history was written both to inform and reform its readers, Henry also sought to entertain and move his audience. The description of Cnut attempting to rule the waves (vi, 17) - shown here on folio 71v - is one instance of a story so capturing the imagination of succeeding generations that it passed into the mythology of English history.

This copy belonged to William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520-1598).

folio 1r

folio 1v

folio 7r

folio 71v

Thomas Elmham  Metrical History of Henry V
England: fifteenth century (third quarter)  MS Hunter 379  (V.1.16)

Written in 1418, Elmham's Metrical History covers the first years of Henry V's reign, from 1413-1416. It is based on the anonymous Gesta Henrici Quinti, completed the previous year by one of the King's chaplains in an attempt to justify Henry's renewed recourse to war in the quarrel with Charles VI of France. Henry, taking advantage of the internal troubles of France, had demanded the restoration to the English crown of all the land that Edward III had owned in 1360, together with Anjou and Normandy. In support of this claim, he invaded France in 1415 and again in 1417.

Elmham, formerly a monk at St. Augustine's Abbery, Canterbury, had in 1414 been appointed under royal patronage Prior of the Cluniac monastery of Lenton in Nottinghamshire; the following year he became Vicar General (and Chamberlain) of the province of England and Scotland, and the Metrical History may have been written in connection with such preferment. The work reveals a number of details, not included in the Geata, which must have come from personal knoweldge: in, for example, the account of the pageant celebrating Henry's return home following the battle of Agincourt in 1415 he describes, with disapproval, the horned head-dresses of the ladies watching from the windows.

The manuscript is well written on vellum in a large text hand, and its decorative initials are in a style influenced by Flemish and Netherlandish artists.

folio 3r

folio 9r

folio 9v

folio 32r

Ranulf Higden  Polychronicon (translated by John of Trevisa)
England: c. 1470  MS Hunter 367  (V.1.4)

Written in seven books, in imitation of the seven days of Genesis, this chronicle was a standard work of general history, covering the period from the Creation to 1357. Originally composed in Latin, the translation by John of Trevisa (c.1330-1412) was commissioned by Thomas, Lord Berkeley; it was finished on 18 April 1387, as the colophon records. This manuscript is one of some fourteen surviving manuscripts of the translation. It also includes a copy of Higden's preface to the work, the Dialogue of the Lord and the Clerk.

The manuscript is well written on vellum and is skilfully decorated with illuminated initials and floreated pages. Kathleen Scott has established that the decoration is related both by its design and by the execution of the motifs to a group centred on a copy of Alain Chartier's Quadrilogue, etc in Oxford; the illuminator here, however, is likely to have been an assistant in the shop which produced this group rather than the master artist of the Chartier manuscript.

folio 1r

folio 34r

folios 55v-56r

folio 113r

Prose Brut
England: fifteenth century
  MS Hunter 74 (T.3.12)

The prose Brut chronicle is a comprehensive history of England from its first discovery and settlement to what were, for its original readers, modern times. In both the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance it served as the standard account of English history, and it is often cited as being the most popular secular work of the fifteenth century. Much of its appeal has been attributed to its dramatic style; chivalric in tone, there are many descriptions of vivid battle scenes and elaborations on the mythical elements of history. Over 240 manuscript copies of the work are still extant and versions exist in Latin, Anglo-Norman French and English. In its original form, the chronicle ended with the death of Henry III in 1272, but the work was constantly rewritten and updated: the final 'continuation' (printed by William Caxton in 1480 as the Chronicles of England) ends with the death of Henry VI in 1461. Rather than working as a factual account of English history, these later versions are imbued with the political and social characteristics of the fifteenth century: key facts are often omitted or facts distorted to present a view of events in line with the writer's beliefs.

There are six manuscript copies of the Brut in Glasgow University Library - all late versions of the text produced in the fifteenth century. This copy is a fairly high grade manuscript. Its first folio boasts a decorative border with gold leaf sprays and flourishes forming a compartment; an originally blank shield in the lower margin has been completed by a later owner - it is argued that the shield shows that the manuscript at some point belonged to the Wauton family of Great Staughton, Huntingdonshire.  It is well written in English in a neat Anglicana script (with some secretary features) by three scribes whose dialects have been identified as respectively, Northwest Essex, Central South Essex, and South-East Suffolk (Ipswich area) .The original text (ending the chronicle in 1419) has been augmented by an incomplete continuation (copied from Caxton's printed version), written in a poor hand of the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. Amongst the pages shown here is the chapter describing the Battle of Hastings (folios 48v-49r).

folio 1r

folio 11v

folio 27v

folios 48v-49r

This is a much more workmanlike copy of the Brut Chronicle. It is a composite manuscript: it consists of an original Brut text that ends imperfectly, written in a Scottish secretary hand (folios 15r-127v); this is substantially augmented by material added by a second scribe both at the beginning and the end. The additional prefatory material includes a prologue and Fructus Temporum with a table of contents adapted from the St Albans printed edition of the text (published c.1483); the same scribe 'completes' the imperfect original text, using a different version of the Brut, and then augments this even further by adding a continuation from the Polychronicon, to bring the chronicle up to 1461; he then adds a text of Warkworth's Chronicle. This second scribe writes in a hybrid secretary hand (using some Anglicana features) and copies the woodcuts as well as the text from the printed edition of the Brut. As in the copy above, this is another instance of an early modern reader updating a manuscript to keep it current. The use of printed books as copy texts for manuscripts was surprisingly common in the Fifteenth Century - while there were obviously some printed copies of texts in circulation, they might have been beyond the reach of some readers, either through relative scarcity or because of their cost; therefore, in many circumstances, it must still have been cheaper and simpler to have copies written out.

This manuscript has been well used and is annotated by various readers from the fifteenth to the later seventeenth centuries. Amongst the early annotations on the blank flyleaves are transcriptions of a tail-rhymed lyric poem and two carols accompanied by music. There is no reason why such music and lyrics should be found in a prose chronicle, except that the copyist was making use of scare blank paper in a volume that was likely to be preserved. Such annotation has been fortuitous in recording otherwise unknown music - of the two carols found here, Salve sancta parens is unique to this manuscript, while Nova, nova is a variant.

In spite of its overall humble appearance, this manuscript has a royal association in that its early seventeenth-century binding bears the Royal arms of Henry, Prince of Wales (1594-1612).

folio 4r

folio 12r

folio 42r

folio 146r

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