When medieval scribes give themselves away… or not

I am working on a manuscript from the thirteenth century, trying to work out its relationship to other witnesses of the text it contains. The text is a chronicle from Creation to the year 1225 written in England in the first half of the thirteenth century. In the middle ages, texts were transmitted in manuscript transcripts. Scribes copied texts from manuscript 1 into manuscript 2, then from 2 into 3, so on and so forth. All sorts of errors occurred during the process, which makes manuscript studies and textual criticism such an exciting business. Modern editors want to know how manuscripts of a given text relate to each other in order to discover the original text, as intended by its author. Often, these originals have been lost and what we have is copies of them, and copies of these copies.

For my research, I am trying to figure out the relationship between several manuscripts, hoping to unlock the history of the chronicle text they contain and which makes my doctorate roll. I have recently stumbled upon something exciting. The chronicle survives in the form of annals, like a list of years, each containing notable events (some less dull than others). One way to look at this text is to understand how it was put together. By looking at the manuscript evidence, one can often see scribal practice quite clearly. How scribes worked, what manuscripts they used when they copied their texts, what they thought of the work they were doing, etc. Sometimes they added stuff, sometimes they omitted things they considered irrelevant or, more prosaically, they missed lines of text and entire paragraphs in what could only be described as one of the most tedious of literate medieval jobs. The text I am looking at is not very reflective of this scribal presence and any hint as to how it was composed is greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm. What I discovered today may be something worthy of such enthusiasm.

At some point in the annals, under the year 1169, to be more precise, the manuscript gives the text found in another manuscript of similar date.

The annal for 1169 in manuscript British Library Additional 35168

The annal for 1169 in manuscript British Library Additional 35168

It contains a bundle of short of notes recording different things that went down in 1169. The year can be seen at the top of the image and is rubricated (painted red) in the original. Underneath the last bit of text there are two lines of what appears to be an erasure. Is it really one or just the stamped text from the verso? I checked and it’s not the verso. It must be an erasure. Have a look at a slightly enhanced image of this:

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 4.41.22It’s definitely an erasure, but what was the text? I am planning a trip to the British Library later this week to look at this under UV light, but until then, I thought I would try less forensic methods.

I inverted the values and I got this:

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 5.03.10On this you can see the imprint from the verso but also a bit of residual text from what once used to be a whole line of text, maybe more. Ok, what do we make of this? Why is it important? Let me put things in context. The extract is from a section of the chronicle which is already highly probable to have been incorporated from manuscript which did not supply the larger part of the text. In other words, the scribe was using more than one manuscript when we produced the manuscript text of the chronicle. The style of the text you can see here is different from that of the rest of the manuscript. It is short, paratactic, bland. The last sentence reads: Rex Henricus curiam in Natali tenuit apud Nannenum in Britannia (King Henry (II) held the Christmas court at Nantes in Britannny)

The next folio (page) looks like this:

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 6.08.21

It moves the chronicle on with the annal for 1170. The first sentence reads:

Anno ab Incarnatione Domini MCLXX Henricus rex Anglie filius Matildis Imperatricis tenuit curiam suam apud Namnetim in Britannia die Natalis Domini. (In the year from the Incarnation of the Lord 1170, Henry (II) king of England, son of the empress Matilda held the Christmas court at Nantes in Brittany).

Now that’s tricky. The last sentence in the previous annal had something similar, didn’t it?. Why then would a scribe, given that the text of the 1169 annal was in the manuscript from which the 1170 annal (and the rest) was copied, record the same thing twice? What’s worse, the Latin word for Nantes is spelt different each time. It looks as though the 1169 annal (and a whole series leading up to it) was not taken from the same manuscript in which the 1170 annal (and those following) was present. This seems to have been the case. Do we know which was the manuscript that might have been used for the 1169 annal? Yes and no. The original is probably lost but there is a copy that may help settle this problem. It all hangs in the erasure now. The 1169 annal in the manuscript I’m referring to looks like this:

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 6.20.52The fourth line from the top contains the same text as that in the first set of images: King Henry held Christmas court at Nantes. The spelling of Nantes is the same as that of the 1169 annal in the first set of images. What I think happened in the manuscript containing the erasure is that the scribe used a version of this latter manuscript (it couldn’t have used this one for lots of other reasons) to write the 1169 annal (and the series leading up to it). Then he went on to transcribe the 1170 annal from the same manuscript but then remembered that the 1170 annal was to be transcribed from a different manuscript – the one which ended up being copied – and went back to erase what had just been written, which was not much, anyway. My suspicion is, therefore, that the erasure hides the first line of the short 1170 annal, Coronatio iii Henrici regis filii (The Coronation of Henry III (the Young King), the king’s son. If we look at the images of the erasure more closely, we can see two short lines going under the baseline (the line where the letters stand), perhaps reflecting the last “i” in “Henrici iii” and that of “filii”. Both lines (called minims, by the way) descend below the line in the latter manuscript. Moreover, the first line of the erasure is considerably less cluttered than the other and the erasure seems, at least to my eye, to be confined to the centre of the line. This may suggest that there was stood the annal rubric indicating the year – just like at the beginning of the 1169 annal.

Yet, this is just a theory before I can bring the UV light to confirm or dispel the hypothesis.


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