Research into medieval scribes in the Guildhall

This study is very interesting - showing how modern research can give insights beyond the textx.

The following is from Salon 265

'Late medieval English scribes named

A new online catalogue has been launched by the team that is studying the handwriting of the scribes who made the first manuscripts copies of works by five major Middle English authors: Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, John Trevisa, William Langland and Thomas Hoccleve.

Combining the research of our Fellow Linne Mooney, Professor in the Department of English and Related Literature and the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York, with that of Dr Estelle Stubbs, of the Universities of York and Sheffield, and Dr Simon Horobin, of the University of Oxford, the project has identified the characteristic letter forms of 524 scribal hands. Some individual scribes have even been identified, such as Adam Pinkhurst, Scrivener of London, who wrote the first copies of works by Chaucer, and to whom Chaucer addressed a tongue-in–cheek poem chastising him for careless errors.

The new website provides a description of each manuscript, including details such as dating and dialect, detailed descriptions of each scribe’s handwriting, and illustrations of a typical page written by each scribe. It also features illustrations of eight letter forms typical of each scribe’s writing so that further identifications of work by them can be made.

As part of the project, Professor Mooney and Dr Stubbs discovered that scribes in the civic secretariat at the London Guildhall were responsible for some of the most significant early copies of English literary manuscripts. The discovery was made by matching the handwriting of scribes copying literary manuscripts with the hands of Guildhall clerks copying documents and custumals (civic records). Professor Mooney said: ‘The clerks of the London Guildhall form the invisible link between medieval authors like Geoffrey Chaucer and their first audiences, the original owners of the medieval manuscripts we study today.’

They included John Marchaunt, the Common Clerk of the City from 1399 to 1417, who copied two of the four earliest manuscripts of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. He also copied parts of eight manuscripts of Gower’s Confessio Amantis and works by Langland and Trevisa. Richard Osbarn, the Clerk of the Chamber of the City from 1400 to 1437, copied two early manuscripts of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Langland’s Piers Plowman and works by anonymous authors based in the north and west of England.

John Carpenter, Common Clerk of the City from 1417 to 1438, copied the manuscript of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde that belonged to Henry V and two manuscripts of Gower’s Confessio Amantis. Carpenter was the principal executor of the will of London mayor Richard Whittington, with whose legacy he partly funded the building of the Guildhall Library, the first civic library in the country. He and his colleagues at the Guildhall had personal libraries including literary works, some of which may have formed the first collection in the Guildhall Library.

Michael Pidd, HRI Digital Manager at the University of Sheffield’s Humanities Research Institute, said that the website was ‘already attracting international recognition … and I anticipate that it will become a flagship resource for anyone undertaking research into the written culture of the late medieval period’.


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