‘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.

Continue reading “‘Babbling in the Vernacular’: The English Language in the Middle Ages”

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.
https://www.tcd.ie/virtual-trinity-library/

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.

Continue reading “Reading the Manuscript Page: Design Features of the Medieval Book”

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

Continue reading “A Manuscript’s Journey through the English Civil Wars”

A medieval manuscript in two parts

TCD MS 514, f. 3r detail

When modern readers encounter medieval books, they are not always in their original form and the contents of many manuscripts have been altered over time by owners and institutions. One such example is a miscellany book of historical and religious works (now TCD MS 514), with a section of text missing and now part of a second compilation manuscript (now Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 77). In this post, we explore the ways of identifying the separated manuscript portion through written and visual signs.

The Trinity miscellany is made up of 15 separate texts relating to history and theology, including Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (‘The History of the Kings of Britain’), A history by Dares Phrygius on the fall of Troy, Pope Innocent III’s De miseria humanae conditionis (‘On the Misery of the Human Condition’), and Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger’s Naturales quaestiones (‘Natural Questions’). This manuscript was compiled in the early 14th century by John of London (fl. c. 1290-133), a monk of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury. He later donated this book to the abbey and the volume is recorded as item number 900 on the 15th-century library catalogue of St Augustine’s Abbey (now TCD MS 360) explored in a previous blog.

Opening page of De excidio Troiae historia by Dares Phrygius (TCD MS 514, f. 3r)

Following the Dissolution of the abbey in 1538, the books of the library were destroyed or dispersed with many volumes acquired by private individual owners. The miscellany may have been later owned by English mathematician and antiquarian Sir Thomas Allen (1542-1632), who was an avid collector of works of history and sciences from monastic centres. It was during this period that the portion of the miscellany manuscript was separated and added to the second book. The miscellany was acquired by Allen’s acquaintance and fellow antiquarian, James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland (r. 1625-1656), whose collection is now housed in Trinity College Library, Dublin. The missing portion of text was bound with a second manuscript later owned by Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665), Allen’s former student to whom he bequeathed the majority of his books, now housed in the Bodleian Libraries as the Digby collection.

There are several signs that demonstrate the portion of the Digby manuscript formerly belonged in the Trinity miscellany (B.C. Barker-Benfield, (ed.), Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues: St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury (London, 2008) volume 2, item BA1.900). The text of Pope Innocent III’s De miseria humanae conditionis ends imperfectly, breaking off in chapter 3, book 26 ‘Discedite a me maligni in ignem’ on the last line (TCD MS 514, f. 204v). The text continues without break in the same hand on the top line of the Digby manuscript, ‘eternum. Non erunt…’ (Bodleian Library, MS Digby 77, f. 83r).

The text of the Trinity manuscript (TCD MS 514, f. 204v) continues without break in the Digby portion in the same scribal hand, showing it was originally one work (Bodleian Library, MS Digby 77, f. 83r: photo by Matthew Holford, Bodleian Library)

The Digby portion of the text is followed by another work, De essentiis essentiarum of Thomas Cappellanus, an alchemical treatise on the essences of God, minerals and animals. This text also originally featured in the Trinity manuscript, as the work is included in a list of contents written in the hand of John of London as ‘Item de esse et essentia tractatus nobilis’ (TCD MS 514, f. 2v). The original manuscript was additionally marked and foliated in the 15th century by the librarian of St Augustine’s Abbey, Clement of Canterbury (fl. 1463-1495), including a drawn face and pointed hand manicule that highlight passages of text in a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae with a similar drawing also surviving in the Digby portion.  

Face Off: Two manicule drawings featuring a face with pointed hand by abbey librarian Clement of Canterbury feature in both the Trinity manuscript (TCD MS 514, f. 76r) and the Digby portion (Bodleian Library, MS Digby 77, f. 96r: photo by Matthew Holford, Bodleian Library)

Clement’s foliation numbers survive in both manuscripts, showing that the medieval folios numbered 204-229 are missing from the Trinity miscellany, and the exact folio numbers appear in the Digby manuscript (now Digby 77, ff. 83-108). The Digby manuscript further contains another portion of text from a second book (now Oxford, Merton College MS 251) that was previously owned by Thomas Allen (Digby 77, ff. 150-197). Although it is not possible to reunite these works in their physical forms, we could reconnect these works in the near future using digital technologies such as the International Image Interoperability Framework (III-F) for readers to study and enjoy online.

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:

B.C. Barker-Benfield (ed.), Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues: St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury (London, 2008) volume 2, item BA1.900

Medieval Libraries of Great Britain online (MLGB3), entry for Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 77, ff. 83-108 http://mlgb3.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/mlgb/book/6606

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.
https://www.tcd.ie/virtual-trinity-library/