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English Language Honours Options

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

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'Moral Gower', as Chaucer calls him in Troilus and Criseyde, used the Peasants Revolt of 1381 in his Vox clamantis to describe the faults of the various classes of society. The earlier portion of the work contains a vivid account of the uprising in the form of an allegory; the remainder is a version in Latin of the strictures that he had already made in a 30,000 line poem in French, the Speculum meditantes.

In this copy of the revised version of the Vox clamantis and Chronica tripertita, the text is preceded by a full page representation of the author firing his shafts at the world (folio 6v). This globe is composed of the elements of air, earth and water in three compartments. A second illustration (folio 129r) includes a shield with the Gower arms supported by two flying angels, with a cloth-covered bier at the foot of the page; Gower did not die, however, until 1408, some years after this manuscript was written. There is a palimpsest of a third illustration on folio 131v, but its details have been lost.

folio 6v

folio 129r

folio 131v


This is Gower's most acclaimed English work. Completed in its first version in 1390, when Gower was about sixty, it is a lover's account of his confession to Genius, the priest of Venus, under headings supplied by the seven deadly sins: these are illustrated by tales in which the general nature of the sin is described together with the particular forms it may take in a lover. The poet ultimately receives absolution and is dismissed from the service of Venus, for which his age makes him unfit.

The decorative scheme in this manuscript was for the beginning of each book to be marked by an illuminated and decorated page. However, several of these pages (including the beginnings of books one, two, six, seven and eight), have been lost and this may mean that they originally included miniatures as well. The floral and leaf motifs of the surviving decorated pages are in the same style as the spraywork of many of the borders in a Book of Hours and Psalter in the Pierpont Morgan Library, and Kathleen Scott has suggested that they may be from the same workshop. There is a seventeenth century inscription in the book indicating that it was owned by the Benedictine Abbey of Bury St Edmonds: if this is correct, then this copy is likely to have been read by John Lydgate.

folio 1r

folio 65v

folio 87r

folio 141r

Originally composed in French in the thirteenth century by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, this poem on the art of love was one of the most popular of all poems in the Middle Ages. Probably written in the first half of the thirteenth century, it is an allegory of courtly love designed for the amusement of an aristocratic audience. Less than a third of Chaucer's Middle English translation of the poem has survived. Although the question of the authorship of the translation has caused considerable argument, it has become generally accepted that Chaucer wrote the first section of what remains, to line 1705, and that this was completed before he left for Italy in 1372. This manuscript is extremely important in being the only extant copy of Chaucer's poem and is itself incomplete. It was copied in an English vernacular script c.1440-1450, some decades after Chaucer's death in 1400. It was bought by William Hunter on 18 May 1774 at the sale of the antiquarian Thomas Martin of Palgrave. Elegantly decorated throughout with gilt letters and floral sprays, there are several particularly ornate pages embellished with an abundance of floral designs, chiefly of Lords-and -Ladies or Cuckoo Pint. This flower is an appropriate accompaniment to a poem on love, and the artist has made exuberant play with its suggestive appearance.  It has been demonstrated that this volume was used by William Thynne as the copy text for his 1532 edition of Chaucers' works. Thynne clearly marked off sections of the text in order to make up the pages of print: on folio 6r, for example, the '6' in ink to the right of the page indicated where page 6 of the printed text was to begin.

This manuscript (along with the library's copy of the Thynne edition (Sp Coll Hunterian Bs.2.17)) has been digitised in its entirety: go to Romaunt of the Rose pages mounted by English Language Department.

folio 6r

folio 13v

folio 17v

folio 57v

John Lydgate (c.1370-1449) was a monk at the great Benedictine Abbey of St Edmund at Bury. He is credited with some 145,000 lines of verse, almost a quarter of which is contained in the Fall of Princes, his single longest work. The poem is based on Laurent de Premierfait's translation of Boccaccio's De casibus virorum illustrium. Lydgate greatly amplifies the French text, however, with additions from a variety of sources including the Bible, Ovid and other works by Boccaccio. The result is a universal encyclopaedia of history and mythology, somehwat ponderous in tone and exhaustively fleshed out with moral teaching. The work was commissioned from Lydgate in 1431 by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, younger brother of Henry V and Protector of England during the minority of Henry VI, and it occupied the following eight years of his life.

This is an imposing de-luxe copy of the work, written out in a very neat hand. Its major decoration is found in six full page borders (folios 41r, 125v, 139r, 161r, 172r and 191r), filled with delicate sprays of penwork in a foreign style, in which an elegant balance of colour is provided by leaves, flower patterns and gold highlights. Like our copy of Gower's Confessio Amantis, this copy is incomplete, the pages at the beginning of Books three and four being cut out, probably for their decoration. One of the quires has also been misbound, and several notes in an early seventeenth century hand (including the instruction on one folio to 'Turne forwards eight leaves') attempt to make this explicit to any reader. Another interesting feature is a number of crossed out lines on folio 197r obliterating references to the female 'Pope Joan'. There are several early ownership inscriptions at the end of the volume, including records of the births of some members of the Lumner and Calthorpe families in the Sixteenth Century.

folio 41r

folio 125v

folio 161r

folio 197r

The Meditationes Vitae Christi, a devotional life of Christ originally written in Latin, was extremely popular throughout medieval Europe. The Mirror is a free tranlsation of the work, made by Nicholas Love (d.1424). Its purpose was to dispense meditative and doctrinal comment on the Bible: its sixty three chapters are each split into seven sections, each section representing a day of the week.

This is a fairly high grade manuscript written in an expert Anglicana Formata on good quality vellum. It boasts several floreated pages, with illuminated initials and decorative penwork throughout. Stephen Dodesham (d.1481/82), the scribe of this manuscript, is identified from a contemporary inscription on a flyleaf. He was a monk of Witham Charterhouse near Frome, Somerset; he later moved to Sheen Charterhouse in Richmond, Surrey, founded by Henry V in 1414. Dodesham was a prolific scribe whose career began in the late 1420s; over twenty of his manuscripts survive, including two others in the Hunterian collection: Richard of St Victor's De preparatione animi ad contemplationem, and Dionysius Cato's Disticha de moribus ad filium, both of which were originally part of the same volume (now MSS Hunter 258 and 259).

folio 1r

folio 3v

folio 38r

folio 133r

Eighty odd complete and fragmentary copies of Chaucer's most celebrated poem, The Canterbury Tales, survive today. The colophon of this copy supplies the information that this manuscript was written by Geoffrey and Thomas Spirleng and completed in January 1476 (folio 102v). Geoffrey Spirleng is mentioned occasionally in the Paston letters; he worked first as an estate servant for Sir John Falstof and then as a civic official in Norwich; the colophon indicates that he was born in about 1426. Although Geoffrey acknoweldges his son Thomas' help in writing out the text, in fact he carried out most of the work himself. Written on paper, the manuscript's leaves are generously sized but the layout of the text is economical with no attempt at expensive decoration. It is written in an ordinary cursive business hand, a variable mix of Secretary and Anglicana. It was probably copied by the Spirlengs for their own use.

This is a somewhat eccentrically ordered copy of the poem, with the Latin text of the legend of St Patrick's Purgatory now appended at the end (folios 116r-130). It has been established that the first forty-six leaves of the manuscript were derived from another extant copy (now in Cambridge University Library), which at the time belonged to another Norfolk man. However, from 47v onwards, a different examplar was used; this second manuscript was differently ordered from the first and consequently the Spirlengs copied the 'Shipman's Tale' and 'Prioress's Tale' out twice, while initially omitting the 'Clerk's Tale' and 'Canon's Yeoman's Tale' altogether. Having written out the colophon and copied St Partick's Purgatory, it was noticed that these two tales were missing. The second exemplar had evidently been returned, but Spirleng accessed the first copy text again to make good the omissions on an additional quire (now folios 103-115), using a different paper stock from that of the main manuscript. This insertion obviously spoiled the colophon's effect, so Spirleng added an explanatory note at the end of the 'Parson's Tale' and deleted the original colophon. The colophon was then repeated on folio 115v. These mistakes are a fascinating glimpse into manuscript transmission in the Fifteenth Century: that two tales were copied out twice and that two exemplars were used suggests that the manuscript was written in a very piecemeal fashion,  probably fitted in amongst Spirleng's administrative duties whenever possible. 

folio 3v

folio 77v

folio 102v

folio 103r

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