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Diversity and similitude in Middle English Ten Commandments texts

TCD MS 70, folio 144r

Religious miscellanies feature prominently among the Library’s holdings of Middle English manuscripts. Intended as manuals for religious instruction, they frequently contain texts of and commentaries on the Ten Commandments. A survey and analysis of the content and contexts of selected examples suggest that the creation of a flowing effect, whereby the various instructions almost ‘bleed’ into one another, was part of their aesthetic. Thus, the texts are arranged in order to suggest a way of reading whereby the reader becomes deeply familiar with essential religious knowledge. Contrasts in these texts shed light on a vibrant and heterogeneous creative culture of religious instruction, wherein a range of audiences and communities of readers engaged with catechetical material during the late medieval and early modern period.

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Manuscript Miscellanies

Medieval miscellanies are manuscripts comprising separate articles, studies or literary compositions brought together in the form of a book. Their contents are varied and challenging to interpret. As a Visiting Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub I considered several manuscripts in the Trinity collection that might, for different reasons, be described as miscellanies. Three of these were explored in a recent workshop with postgraduate students of medieval literature.

TCD MS 69 folio 78r
TCD MS 69 folio 78r

TCD MS 69 was written by two scribes, but its mixture of Latin and English, prose and poetry is thematically coherent. Its fourteenth-century compilers were interested in religious instruction, selecting the psalms, the ten commandments, and a long English poem, the Prick of Conscience. Amongst this material is a single sermon, ‘A Tale of Charite’ (folio 78r), which properly belongs with a full sermon cycle called the Mirror. It is unusual for sermons from this cycle to appear individually, and it would be interesting to know what prompted its inclusion here.


TCD MS 432 folio 75r
TCD MS 432 folio 75r

The Middle English poetry and drama of TCD MS 432 are well-known through an early twentieth-century edition compiled by Rudolf Brotanek, but that edition also distorts our sense of the whole codex. It disguises the fact that this manuscript is a composite, of vellum and paper, in six separate sections, with some parts copied in the thirteenth century, others in the fifteenth; it also contains French and Latin. Now bound in three volumes, it is hard to imagine that for some of its history at least this functioned as a single book.

Both these manuscripts have later annotations that show they continued to be read long after their own period of production. For example, the list of medieval Christian kings in TCD MS 432 was extended up to Henry VIII, and another sixteenth-century hand has added a note of how many years Henry reigned (folios 74v-75r).

TCD MS 352 folio 169r
TCD MS 352 folio 169r

The third miscellany, TCD MS 352, is a commonplace book, a type of miscellany that comprises a series of extracts from religious writings. It was compiled by Edmund Horde, the last prior of Hinton, a Carthusian monastery in Somerset. Initially the extracts focus on matters of individual spirituality – how to be a better Christian, how to resist temptation, and so on. Increasingly quotations from the Bible and the Church Fathers give way to contemporary sources such as Thomas More, and the focus turns to the question of ecclesiastical supremacy: in this book Horde was marshalling evidence against Henry VIII’s claim to be head of the church (folio 169r). Thus, in this instance, the personal miscellany was simultaneously a very political collection.

The Manuscripts & Archives Research Library holds around 50 Middle English manuscripts. For further information please refer to the Collections section of our website.


Dr Margaret Connolly University of St Andrews