Thursday, 2 August 2012

Guest Post by Amy Ellis-Thompson: Manuscript culture: poets, scribes and compilers or the modsnottor mon of the medieval manuscript

Consideration of the medieval manuscript is not merely that of a single hand in an isolated monastery, etching words of devotion into a well-treated animal hide, but a train of investigation that spans the entire medieval period. Manuscript culture applies to all literary production before the introduction of the printing press, from Germany into England by William Caxton in the 1470s. Although early medieval manuscripts were primarily religious and Latinate, the four extant vernacular poetic codices (Exeter, Vercelli, Cotton Vitellius or ‘Beowulf’ and Junius) contain between them the entire gamut of Old English literature that we read today. Late Medieval manuscript culture considers the parallel existence of print and manuscript in the 14th and 15th century. As print became dominant, the scribal system fell into disuse, and the use of ‘rude speche’ and ‘olde bookes’ was homogenised into the faster-moving dissemination of printed pamphlets and sonnet sequences. 

Scop poetry in the Old English Exeter Book
The manuscript itself problematizes our modern perception of both book and author. Authorship in the Anglo-Saxon period was not of the importance it is today, so the textual production and culture of the Old English poem comes to the fore in the absence of an authorial biography. The compiler of a manuscript florilegium (excerpts of other writing; literally a gathering of flowers) does not seek to present a single authorial voice, but constructs a complete entity from a diverse selection of vernacular poetry. The codices of Old English poetry are often themselves hearkening back to tradition: gatherings of poems based on earlier oral traditions of a scop or Anglo-Saxon minstrel. Such self-conscious references to orality (seen, for example in the scop poems Deor and Widsith of the Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501, compiled c. 950) makes the Exeter Book a collective product of the Anglo-Saxon imagination.  Despite the restricted literacy of tenth century Anglo-Saxon England, the codex was written within a literate, monastic context, drawing upon secular and religious sources for its Christian readership.

The important consideration for the modern reader is that there is no single author of the codex: when we read the Exeter Book we are considering a manuscript arranged by a compiler. This may or may not be the same person as the single scribe who copied out all of the poems over a length of time, who differs again from the original poets of each text, who may have written the texts generations apart. There may potentially be more than fifty authors of the Exeter Book. Without explicit information regarding the original composition of each poem, they can be considered within the context of a single volume: the arrangement in which they have been placed by the compiler.

The other three extant Anglo-Saxon vernacular poetic codices – the Vercelli, Cotton Vitellius or ‘Beowulf’, and Junius manuscripts – are also florilegia, although arguably not as diverse in theme and style. The Exeter Book ranges from the Christology beginning the codex through saint’s lives, elegiac narratives, maxims, riddles, a bestiary triptych and homilies, entirely in verse. Although the Exeter Book is the most diverse collective example of early vernacular poetry, there is a lack of uniformity to all four codices.

Beowulf begins: immortal lines from the Cotton Vitellius manuscript
The structure of a single manuscript, and the compilation of a diverse range of poetry, is tantamount to a consideration of what that codex offers the reader. The ordering of the manuscript, in the absence of any information about the original authors of the poems, can help us make sense of what the compiler of, for example, the Exeter Book is trying to achieve, what wisdom can be gained from reading the manuscript as a whole from start to finish. Basically, what the point of the entire codex is. Palaeographical and codicological evidence (see Patrick Conner) has shown that the Exeter Book codex is made of three separate manuscript booklets. However, it is not written in stone (or etched on pig-hide) what literary issues bind each booklet as one entity within the entire codex. Each reader, considering the literary themes of the poetry of the Exeter Book alongside the codicological facts of how the manuscript as a physical book was put together, may come up with different suggestions to this engaging riddle.

From the 10th to the 14th century, the medieval manuscript exists in a very different context. The monastic scribe and Christian emphasis shifted into a commercial venture. The 14th C illuminated Auchinleck manuscript, for example, allows us to raise issues of authorship and identity on a different level to that of the Old English Exeter Book. It is a collection of Middle English lays, copied by four of five different scribes, and its use of both the vernacular and impressive illuminations suggest it is a commercial venture. L.H. Loomis proposed the production of the Auchinleck manuscript in a London ‘bookshop.’ Recent criticism has suggested that the scribes were not working in a physical ‘bookshop’ under one roof, but were operating under similar scribal principles. There is an undeniable sense of unity and ordering throughout the entire manuscript. The use of the vernacular shows issues of national, rather than authorial identity: England struggling to reclaim its language and identity over three hundred years after the Norman Conquest. Like the Exeter Book, the Auchinleck MS tells its own story of culture, authorship and the literature being read by a pre-Chaucerian generation

Eye-catching: the visually appealing pages of the Auchinleck Manuscript, containing Middle English lays for the 14th C secular reader.
The medieval manuscript allows us to read more than Old or Middle English literature: it allows us to read the medieval reader themselves. Manuscript annotations show us which elements of a medieval text were emphasised or even disputed. The 15th C red-ink annotations on the 14th C Middle English devotional vernacular prose text The Book of Margery Kempe (see Kelly Parsons) provide us with a laymen’s reading alongside a text scribed by Carthusian monks. The annotations in red ink underline and repeat for emphasis words in the text referring to ‘seculer pepil,’ and women, as well as the readers own ‘amen amen amen(s)’ of affective piety in the margins. Not only do we have a medieval spiritual biography, but a record of the particular chords it struck with a late medieval reader.

The Book of Margery Kempe: annotations in different hands add small drawings and comments around the text.
Manuscript study allows us to read around the words of the Old or Middle English poem itself, considering poets, scribes, compilers and annotators, as well as the culture of textual production, to consider ‘authorship’ in an entirely different and fascinating way.

Amy Ellis-Thompson is an MA student in Medieval Literatures at the University of York. Contact email:

Further Reading:

Brown, Michelle P. ‘Anglo-Saxon Manuscript Production: Issues of Making and Using,’ in A Companion to Anglo-Saxon Literature, eds. Philip Pulsiano and Elaine Treharne (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001).

Conner, Patrick W. ‘The Structure of the Exeter Book Codex (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501)’, in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: Basic Readings, ed. M. P. Richards (London, Garland Publishing, 1994), pp. 301-315.

Jayatilaka, Rohini. ‘Old English Manuscripts and Readers,’ in A Companion to Medieval Poetry, ed., Corinne Saunders (Wiley and Sons: Oxford, 2010), pp.51-64.
Lerer, Seth. Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon Literature (London: University of Nebraska Press, 1991).

Parsons, Kelly.  Kerby-Fulton, Kathyrn and Hilmo, Maidie ed., 'The Red-Ink Annotator of The Book of Margery Kempe and his Lay Audience,' in The Medieval Professional Reader at Work: Evidence from Manuscripts of Chaucer, Langland, Kempe and Gower, (Canada: Victoria, 2001), p. 143.

Shonk, T.A. ‘A Study of the Auchinleck Manuscript: Bookmen and Bookmaking in the Early Fourteenth Century,’ Speculum, 60 (1985) pp. 71-91.


  1. Thank you for an interesting post Amy!

  2. Great stuff Amy, and I agree it is good to know exactly what the medieval mind was thinking

  3. "The medieval manuscript allows us to read more than Old or Middle English literature: it allows us to read the medieval reader themselves. "

    that is something a lot of people forget about, that contemporary sources are just a window into the world of their time and more importantly their people, either if we are speaking about those who made them or their audience.

    This was in general a very interesting and well writen post! Congratulations to both the blog and guest, the Wu.Hstry team hopes to read more entries like this, which we are sure will happen!

    Lillian Cespedes

  4. The idea of a florilegeum is fascinating. Were the compilers choosing from a wide range of options, or is the collation simply a matter of chance availability of manuscripts? Source material being so scanty that there is a need to include everything to hand, discarding nothing? That might be a function of the wealth of the monastic house. Another consideration might be the length of time they were compiled across, bringing more material into contact with the compiler simply by chance. How do you know when your compilation is finished? Perhaps when you have the kind of volume of material that would have been an impressive memory feat for an oral bard?
    Interesting article, thank you - as you can see, it's sparked all kinds of questions in my mind :)