‘Of making many books there is no end’: a new catalogue of Middle English manuscripts

In the library of Archbishop James Ussher (d.1656), which was to become the foundation of our manuscripts collection, was an impressive variety of manuscripts containing Middle English and some Old English. Summarily catalogued in the last century, they have now been definitively described in a newly published catalogue by emeritus professor John Scattergood, with the assistance of Dr Niamh Pattwell and Emma Williams. To mark the publication the Library, with the Manuscript, Book, and Print Culture Research Theme in the Long Room Hub Trinity’s institute for arts and humanities, has organized a round-table discussion of some of the highlights of the collection to be hosted by the Hub. Professor Scattergood has also provided today’s guest post, surveying some of the most significant items with which he has dealt in his catalogue:

“His expenses were much in books, while he enjoyed the means of his Archbishoprick: a certain sum every year he  laid aside for that end specially in the getting of Manuscripts and Rarities, as well from remote parts of the world, as near at hand’.  Thus writes Nicholas Bernard, James Ussher’s chaplain and biographer, in 1656 the year of  Ussher’s death. Ussher’s manuscripts, which came to Trinity with the rest of his books, by a circuitous route in 1661, have been added to over the years, but his preferences and tastes still largely define the nature of the collection.  Ussher did acquire some fine books – such as the beautifully written and decorated Winchcombe Psalter (MS 53) and The Book of St Albans, written and lavishly illuminated with many pictures by Matthew Paris (MS 177) – but his collection was basically a working library devoted to his two main interests, religion and history.  There is little representation of imaginative literature – scraps of Chaucer, nothing of Gower’s English works, no Hoccleve, and very little from the rich tradition of medieval romance. Nevertheless, ‘Here is God’s plenty’.

“He acquired manuscripts, mostly by purchase, in a wide variety of languages. They have often been catalogued – most comprehensively, but in a summary form, by T.K. Abbott in 1900. Ussher’s holdings were mainly in Latin and the Renaissance Latin manuscripts were described in great detail by M.L. Colker, in two large volumes, in 1992. The new catalogue produced by the present writer, with the assistance of Niamh Pattwell and Emma Williams, describes the many manuscripts containing Middle English and the few containing Old English in much more detail than ever before.

“In these manuscripts, the two areas – religion and history – again predominate, though other utilitarian subjects such as cosmology, astrology, alchemy, law and others are represented. There are manuscript copies of many of the most popular orthodox Catholic religious texts of the later Middle Ages. There are several copies of The Prick of Conscience and its derivatives (MSS 69, 155, 157), two copies of the sermons in John Mirk’s Festial (MSS  201, 428), several  texts by Richard Rolle, both in Latin and English  (MSS 71, 75, 155, 159, 271, 432), one of the English translations of William Flete’s Remedies Against Temptations (MS 154), a copy of the compilation known as The Pore Caitif, and copies of the famous mystical texts The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counselling, bound together with a long extract from Walter Hilton’s  Scale of Perfection (MS 122). Perhaps most notable amongst the religious texts is the copy, in MS 678, of the earliest English translation of Thomas a Kempis’s Imitatio Christi, made almost certainly at Sheen, and copied by the expert and prolific Carthusian scribe Stephen Dodesham and corrected by his fellow Carthusian William Darker. It is also notable that one of the copies of Piers Plowman, MS 212, contains the famous authorship note, confirming that William Langland was the author of one of the best and most frequently copied poems of the fourteenth century.

“However, Ussher was a Protestant and, more than that, a controversialist, and his collection is rich in texts dealing with religious dissent. There are several copies of parts of the Wycliffite translations the Bible into English (MSS 66, 67, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 195), one of which may be in the hand of John Purvey, one of Wyclif’s most important followers (MS 75). One copy of the New Testament (MS 73) was made as late as 1569, a seemingly political gesture of Protestant  defiance to the ‘Rising of the Northern Earls’ of that year, whose adherents were determined to replace Queen Elizabeth with Mary Queen of Scots and to re-establish the Catholic religion in England. There are also incomparable collections of Wycliffite polemical material (MSS 244, 245, 246), containing some texts found nowhere else and, indeed, some of which are not yet published. But there is also MS 352, a commonplace book compiled by Edmund Horde (d. 1575), who signs his name on fol 1r, which includes extracts from many texts from medieval orthodox Catholic writers from the Middle Ages as well as extracts from the printed books of later recusants.        

“And, in relation to history, something of the same patterns are discernible. There are texts of traditional chronicles, such as the English Prose Brut, the most popular vernacular chronicle of the later middle Ages, all beginning in much the same way, but all ending at different dates (MSS 489, 490, 505, 506, 5895). MS 489 is particularly interesting:  it was probably written in London or thereabouts after 1461, migrated by way of Cheshire to Dublin, but was read and annotated by the Dublin aldermanic patriciate in the sixteenth century.  There are also two related early English translations of Giraldus Cambrensis’s Expugnacio Hibernica (MSS 592, 593): in the second part of MS 593 there are various seventeenth-century comments, sometimes referring to other texts, adding to and questioning the veracity of Giraldus’s account.  But there are again unique texts.  In MS 509, along with other texts relating to London, appears The Chronicle of London, compiled by the scrivener John Bale: it is concluded for the year 1461, in MS 610, which was probably attached earlier to MS 509 but is now separated. Equally remarkable are the historical materials in MSS 432 and 516, including many poems not found elsewhere, relating to the English civil wars of the fifteenth century.  MS 516 is particularly interesting. It is a personal commonplace book compiled by John Benet, vicar of Harlington (Bedfordshire) and latterly rector of nearby Broughton between 1444 and 1474 and includes personal insights and unique texts (some still unpublished). Where Benet acquired some of these texts has still to be established. But personal and immediate as they are, they deliver what Shakespeare called ‘the very age and body of the time, his form and pressure’ (Hamlet, III. ii).

“Our new catalogue of this material is, as all catalogues are, an interim venture: we hope it will take its place on the shelves of the Trinity College Manuscripts & Archives Reading Room with its iconic predecessors. We also hope that what we have got right will be an incentive and a sound basis for future research, and that where we have erred it will be corrected and improved by future manuscript scholars: ‘of making many books there is no end’ (Ecclesiastes 12: 12).”

John Scattergood

John Scattergood, with the assistance of Niamh Pattwell and Emma Williams, Trinity College Library Dublin: A Descriptive Catalogue of manuscripts containing Middle English and some Old English (Four Courts Press: Dublin, 2021)  xxxvii + 366 pages.

John Scattergood became Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Trinity College Dublin in 1980, and is internationally renowned for his expertise in medieval English literature from 1300 to 1550. He was elected a Member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1991. Dr Niamh Pattwell received her PhD from Trinity and is now an Associate Professor of English in UCD, with a particular interest in the production and circulation of vernacular prose writing in the late middle-ages. Emma Williams, who studied Anglo-Saxon English and Old Norse with Professor Scattergood, and was a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow in Trinity,  is a corporate vice president of Microsoft.