‘Babbling in the Vernacular’: The English Language in the Middle Ages

Among the riches being digitised as part of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York are three codices containing English, one eleventh-century, one thirteenth- or fourteenth-century and one fifteenth-century. Collectively, these three manuscripts give us an interesting snapshot of the status of English in the Middle Ages and the complex history of its emergence as a written language.

We now take reading and writing in English for granted. Netflix sends us emails telling us what we should next stream, we can buy a range of daily newspapers, or browse their websites, to find out what is going on in the world, and we can visit a library to borrow a novel to make the commute seem painless. Our primary and secondary educations habituate us to reading, writing and a life mediated through the medium of text.

All this rests, however, on a long process of technological, linguistic and ideological innovation that, for English at least, took perhaps 1,500 years. It requires a conviction that English ought to be written; an alphabet; a set of accepted mappings between the sounds of speech and these symbols of writing; upgrades to the vocabulary and syntax of spoken language so that abstract concepts can be conveyed clearly and without circumlocution; and a highly-developed set of conventions for the presentation of text on the page.

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Ghost Records: A 19th-century manuscript copy of lost chancery rolls

TCD MS 177, p. 1

Many may wonder why the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project at Trinity features a 19th-century manuscript of reports relating to the Court of the Exchequer (TCD MS 1747), yet this work provides a fascinating insight into Ireland’s medieval history and contains unique copies of medieval records that no longer survive today in their original form, making these copies in effect ‘ghost records’. This post explores the creation of the report, how the medieval texts were destroyed and what work is being done to resurrect them.

Title page of the Irish Record Commission’s Report of Searches, dated 1816 (TCD MS 1747)

The medieval Irish Chancery was the secretariat of the kings and queens of England, responsible for issuing royal letters under the Great Seal of Ireland. The lord chancellor of Ireland was the keeper of this Great Seal, which authenticated documents on behalf of the crown. The chancery issued legal documents relating primarily to property rights, grants of land, appointments to office, pardons, and fines. Outgoing letters were also recorded by chancery clerks, who copied the text onto long rolls of parchment known as the chancery rolls. The chancery rolls suffered loss, damage, and neglect over time through multiple fires and poor storage conditions in Dublin Castle. In 1810, the Irish Records Commission was established to survey the surviving rolls and produce a calendar of the medieval records up to the year 1600. By 1816, the rolls were moved to the Record Tower of Dublin Castle and the IRC had produced this remarkable report on the chancery rolls.  

(Left) Introduction to the Irish Record Commission’s Report of Searches signed by Secretary William Shaw Mason on 27 April 1816 in the Record Tower of Dublin Castle (TCD MS 1747, p. 3), and (right) a present-day view of the Record Tower (image via Wikipedia)

The Secretary to the IRC, William Shaw Mason (1774-1853), and a team of sub-commissioners undertook the challenging task of searching the chancery rolls and other documents to identify and transcribe records relating to the Clerk of Common Pleas in the Court of the Exchequer, Ireland. Mason presents the findings of their searches, with listings of the Clerks of Common Pleas and Chancellors of the Exchequer, followed by the record extracts in chronological order from the reign of King Edward III of England (1327-1377) to 1805, the 45th year of the reign of King George III (1760-1820).

Rolls extract in Latin (left) and English translation (right) relating to a petition of John Penkeston, Clerk of the Common Pleas, dated 6 June 1377 (TCD MS 1747, pp. 56-7)

In 1867, the Public Record Office of Ireland was established under the Public Records (Ireland) Act and over a period of several years the documents held in the Records Tower of Dublin Castle, including the chancery rolls, were moved to the new building located in the Four Courts. However, these records were largely lost in the fire of the Public Records Office of 30 June 1922 in the opening engagement of the Civil War. Ranging in date from the 13th to the 19th centuries, only a handful of these historic documents survive today in their original form with many more known through copies, transcripts, and other records like the 1816 IRC report. The report itself was deposited in Trinity Library in November 1920, thus avoiding the fire.

(Left) Detail of the front cover of the Report featuring the stamp of the Public Records Office of Ireland (TCD MS 1747), and (right) Model of the interior of the Virtual Record Treasury, from the Beyond 2022 project

The Irish Record Commission’s Report of 1816 is now fully digitised and available to view here on the Digital Collections website. The manuscript will feature in Beyond 2022: Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury, the all-island and international collaborative research project to create a virtual reconstruction of the Public Records Office of Ireland. The project is being led by Programme Director Dr Peter Crooks (Department of History, Trinity College Dublin) and will launch on the centenary of the Four Courts blaze in 2022.

Dr Alison Ray

Follow us on Twitter @TCDResearchColl

The work of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project has been made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Further reading:

Beyond 2022: Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury project website: https://beyond2022.ie/

CIRCLE: A Calendar of Irish Chancery Letters c. 1244-1509 project website: https://chancery.tcd.ie/content/irish-chancery-rolls

P. Connolly, Medieval Record Sources (Dublin, 2002)

Virtual Trinity Library is a digitisation initiative of the Library of Trinity College Dublin’s most valued collections. It will conserve, catalogue, curate, digitise and research these unique collections of national importance, making them accessible to a global audience, from schoolchildren to scholars.

Reading the Manuscript Page: Design Features of the Medieval Book

Modern readers today rely on design features found in the pages of printed books to navigate their way through the text, but did you know that medieval manuscripts were read in much the same way? This post looks at the design features added by scribes to medieval pages, using a 14th-century Latin Vulgate Bible produced in East Anglia (TCD MS 35) and recently digitised as part of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project: click here to see the manuscript in full. This decorated single-volume Bible features layout elements typically found in books of the Middle Ages to guide readers when consulting their manuscripts.

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‘Like the culverted waters of the Farset and the Poddle, queerness flows through us by way of subterranean channels…’

Human experience and rivers both tend to meander, and shapes people and cities. Our guest authors introduce an artistic project in which the comparison of archival and contemporary maps of city rivers echoes marginalised human experience.

For our contribution to this year’s Student Forum III project at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, my co-creator Ben Malcolmson and I interpreted the Forum’s central theme of access and accessibility by unearthing the rivers of queerness we trace through our respective cities of Dublin and Belfast. As an environmental historian, I was interested in consulting archival maps of our cities and of Ireland as a whole, using GIS software to visually compare them with one another and virtually embed our GPS-captured contemporary movements in the cartographic history of these places. This process had previously yielded interesting findings for me when comparing historical maps of my hometown, and applying it to a more artistic project proved just as rewarding.

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A Manuscript’s Journey through the English Civil Wars

TCD MS 174, f. 50r

The Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project has now digitised an early medieval collection of saints’ lives (TCD MS 174), produced between the late 11th- and early 12th centuries as one of four companion volumes at the Old Sarum Cathedral of Salisbury. See the manuscript in full here. So how did this manuscript reach Trinity College Dublin? To find out, we must follow this manuscript’s journey through the English Civil Wars (1642-1651).

Old English inscription reading of searbyrig ic eom (‘I am of Salisbury’), from TCD MS 174, flyleaf i-recto

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