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Insular BooksVernacular manuscript miscellanies in late medieval Britain$

Margaret Connolly and Raluca Radulescu

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780197265833

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: September 2015

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197265833.001.0001

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(p.301) 17 Afterword
Insular Books

Ardis Butterfield

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

This short coda to the volume draws links with the poetic miscellanies or recueils produced in continental Europe during the same period, noting points of comparison between the two categories of manuscript. This is an important reminder that even insularity has its limits, and that literary and textual traffic permeated international borders even in the pre-modern age.

Keywords:   recueil, French medieval manuscripts, chansonniers, insular manuscripts, Guillaume de Machaut, lyric, troubadour

COINCIDENTALLY, THIS NOTA HAS a predecessor, which is the Epilogue to the first of two earlier paired collections of essays on Continental medieval recueils.1 Organised and edited in parallel by scholars from Geneva and Louvain, respectively, these two collections represent the fruit of an extended analysis of Continental vernacular books from the 13th to the 15th centuries, divided chronologically at around the mid-14th century. There are interesting differences between the two volumes: in the first the selected manuscripts in the earlier period show just how diverse compiling procedures could be. Along the way, questions are asked about how and why different genres are presented. Do romans tend to be grouped with other romans? Are fabliaux presented as a distinct genre? What is to be made of the various textual combinations that occur among lyrics, chronicles, vies des pères (short pious tales and miracles), bestiaries, encyclopedias, and didactic treatises? What do the encyclopedic characteristics of certain types of compendia such as L’image du monde, Brunetto Latini’s Livre du trésor, and the mysterious Rosarius (a huge work c. 1328–45 that falls somewhere between Marian hagiography, florilegium, and notated lyric anthology), amongst others, tell us about matters of medieval intellectual organisation? The second volume shifts dramatically to author collections, special emphasis falling on Guillaume de Machaut, Christine de Pizan, and Charles d’Orléans. This is apt: the transformation in book history caused by Machaut’s remarkable attention to the publication of his own works is rightly shown to dominate subsequent courtly vernacular book production on the continent.

So large-scale a project still only breaks the surface of the great surviving archive of French medieval vernacular manuscripts. Several other contemporaneous research networks have been developing further approaches, and the work (p.302) is far from complete.2 As the editors of the present volume on insular books remark, collective attention to insular ‘miscellanies’ is also in its infancy. Even so, and with necessary provisionality, comparisons between Continental and insular compilations are worth making. I suggest that comparisons between the methodology and style of scholarly commentary on insular and Continental manuscripts is intriguing and instructive. My brief comments and examples are largely based on lyric manuscripts, which, although a subgroup in Continental terms, are much more widely representative of insular manuscripts than any student of the Continental material would expect.3

Lyric manuscripts on the continent contrast sharply with insular sources of lyric. In 12th-century Occitan and 13th-century northern French, spilling out into northern Italy and Germany, the troubadours and trouvères produced a great body of verse that was self-consciously defined, highly artful, and anthologised in beautifully produced chansonniers. A good proportion of music survives: about a tenth of troubadour songs (315 discrete musical settings survive for 246 poems, for which we have 42 composers, and 40 chansonniers) and two-thirds of trouvère songs (over 2000 survive in total).4 The puzzle is the context in England. In contrast to the continent, we find enormous diversity in the material and in its manuscript contexts, haphazard copying, a paucity of surviving music, and a largely anonymous culture. There is no theoretical or meta-commentary in the way that there is for Occitan, French, and Italian lyrics. The sheer lack of overt purpose for the writing down of lyrics in English is evident from the comparison: where the chansonniers are busy with the self-promoting effort to glamorise, authorise, and visualise the songs, English manuscripts act more like makeshift placeholders for the short verse they contain. Mere, often haphazard, containers for verse, such as the all-English mid-14th-century Oxford, BodL, Rawlinson poet.175 (SC 14667), a copy of the Prick of Conscience with a range of added verse items piled on top, are common until well into the 15th century. This is also true of manuscripts which contain only French and Latin, such as the (p.303) 13th-century BodL, MS Selden supra 74 (SC 3462), which has a list of items varying from the Speculum ecclesie, various moral poems, a verse sermon, dialogues, and proverbs. An even more obvious example is provided by BodL, MS Rawlinson B. 332 (SC 11670), a 15th-century St Albans cartulary, where a Middle English lyric in three quatrains suddenly appears amongst the Latin, and a page of short verse (including another Middle English lyric) is scribbled without ruling inside the front leaf.

Compared to the fastidious care with which the Machaut manuscripts present whole, highly crafted pages of music, text, and image, the material disposition in which lyrics qua lyrics are copied in insular vernacular manuscripts seems largely underplayed until the Tudor songbooks and, ironically, the poems of Charles d’Orléans. BodL, MS Douce 322 (SC 21896) is another example of a manuscript in which, although care is taken over the decoration, ‘lyric’ items, such as ‘In a tabernacle’ (which has the refrain Quia amore langueo) are set alongside prayers by Richard Rolle, a versification of several short treatises, Latin prose, an ars moriendi, and a metrical calendar assigned to Lydgate, all in English (though with some Latin refrains) without any particular discrimination of form or type.

The Continental comparison, in short, increases one’s sense of insular books as operating under different, looser assumptions. The very term recueil, which means an anthology such as a songbook (from recueillir to collect flowers), indicates this—the French do not have to worry to the same extent as English scholars about the coherence of a French medieval book, and which of a host of terms might be used to describe it.5 Even those French codices, such as Paris, BnF, fr. 837, the so-called fabliau manuscript, which appear most haphazardly organised, are usually operating on a higher level of organ-isation than their English counterparts. So the terms of discussion about recueils among modern scholars take for granted that compilation is active, quick-witted, purposive. It need not be a sophisticated activity, but it very often is. The notion of a recueil even leads to the supposition that a manuscript has some kind of controlling intelligence in charge. The compiler (who may be the scribe) does not have to be in charge of the whole book, just of sections of it, to give a sense of the intellectual energy that certainly belongs to his role.

I phrase these remarks with a (wry) lack of caution that may strike scholars of Middle English manuscripts as foolish, even naïve. Is it not important to allow that a book may have been the product of piecemeal and accidental—even mistaken—bricolage? Indeed it is, and one would be not only naive but ignorant to pass over the element of contingency that any book implies. But again, comparison is all, and it is notable how the kinds of cautionary (p.304) phrasing that Middle English scholars often feel burdened to employ are largely absent from the rhetoric of scholars of Continental French. Drive, conviction, and control are attributes of 14th- and 15th-century Continental French compilers that are visible on the pages. The insular books, by contrast, simply have fewer axes to grind. Sometimes, as several contributors to this volume convincingly argue, different works and genres will be gathered together to form an argument or a social function, but as one glance at BnF, fr 146 shows (the early 14th-century version of the Roman de Fauvel that contains 169 musical pieces and a subtle programme of illustration), the material form of the vernacular book in England is not conceived as a primary means of displaying intellectual connections to the extent that it is among those producing continental vernacular books.

My reason for emphasising this is not to perform some kind of jingoism on behalf of Continental book production. It is more to stress that the context this provides for insular books (especially vernacular or multilingual ones) helps to clarify the degree to which we need to understand their structure, and its special attributes. What Keith Busby calls ‘comparative codicology’ (see Chapter 3, this volume) can be a way of understanding the specific and unusual features of many insular books as attempts to form connections through the page across not just one dominant vernacular, but often all of the island’s written languages. That these connections are often only weakly articulated or even conceived is indicative of the relatively obscure status of English as a written language. It takes sensitivity on the part of a modern scholar to understand how the choices that determine the format of an insular book may often be choices between or about languages, and not only in the tri lingual books, but also those that are monolingual or bilingual. The kind of ease and control in Continental French books displayed overt matters of genre, length, mise en page, and vernacular authority do not enter English book production for at least a century later. One might argue that they never really do: by the time Caxton set up his press, the extravagant and luxurious productions of the French manuscript single-author codex were ready to be shelved in favour of coterie collaborative anthologies and the marketability of print and woodcut.6

In light of this, other strategies present themselves as an hermeneutic response to the construction of insular books. We might look at more glancing types of juxtaposition such as the ‘rolling archetype’ model of group text copying; at the way in which these independent textual groups are evidence of a cultural assumption that such texts are worth reading as a group to which (p.305) further satellite material might be aggregated. We might aim to take into account that texts often reach their position in a book through a complicated chronology of use, function, chance, and intent. It is precisely these more modest forms of intellectual inquiry that seem to be at the basis of medieval insular collections; the powerfully sophisticated efforts to control books and their impact on their audiences that we find in Continental books, and especially in author codices, are not part of the understated material culture of the insular compilation. But this is only to speak of their material form: clearly, as the chapters in this volume argue, there is much else on view. (p.306)


(1) Ardis Butterfield, ‘Epilogue’, in Olivier Collet and Yasmina Foehr Janssens (eds), Le recueil au moyen âge: Le moyen âge central, Texte, Codex & Contexte, 8 (Turnhout, Brepols, 2010), pp. 269–77; Tania Van Hemelryck and Stefania Marzano (eds), Le recueil au moyen âge: La fin du moyen âge, Texte, Codex & Contexte, 9 (Turnhout, Brepols, 2010).

(2) For instance, Milena Mikhaïlova (ed.), Mouvances et jointures: Du manuscrit au texte médiéval (Orléans, Paradigme, 2005); Keith Busby (ed.), Special Issue of the Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire, 83:3 (2005); Xavier Leroux (ed.), Special Issue of Revue Babel: La mise en recueil des textes médiévaux, 16 (January 2008); and O. Delsaux and T. Van Hemelryck (eds), Les manuscrits autographes en français au moyen âge, Texte, Codex & Contexte, 15 (Turnhout, Brepols, 2014).

(3) These reflections are stimulated by my ongoing research for a new Norton edition of Medieval English Lyrics, and a monograph on medieval song in which comparison between insular and Continental copying traditions is of fundamental interest.

(4) For an overview, see Ardis Butterfield, ‘Vernacular Poetry and Music’, in Mark Everist (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Music (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 205–24, and John Stevens and Ardis Butterfield, Troubadours, trouvères, Grove Music Online. The standard specialist account of troubadour music is Elizabeth Aubrey, The Music of the Troubadours (Bloomington, University of Indiana Press, 1996).

(5) I am very much in agreement with Keith Busby’s remarks on the recueil in Chapter 3, this volume.

(6) Jane Taylor, The Making of Poetry: Late-medieval French Poetic Anthologies (Turnhout, Brepols, 2007); Adrian Armstrong, Technique and Technology: Script, Print and Poetics in France, 1470–1550 (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2000).