What’s in this manuscript?
This manuscript – Harley MS 2253 – contains a collection of 100 secular and religious lyrics in Anglo-Noman, Middle English and Latin. ‘Lyrics’ are short poems, which often have an unidentified narrator. The texts in this manuscript are a jigsaw of works in different languages, all mixed together and not clustered into any obvious groupings. Despite their mixed nature, the poems are known in modern scholarship as the ‘Harley Lyrics’.
In the medieval period the idea of an anthology – the idea of putting related texts together in a single volume – didn’t really exist. Books often contained all kinds of texts: medical recipes and philosophical works alongside poetry and sermons. Although Harley MS 2253 mainly contains literary texts, the contents are hugely varied. There are four French comic narrative poems, called fabliaux, three lives of Anglo-Saxon saints, some descriptions of the Holy Land, biblical stories, satires and some debates (similar to The Owl and the Nightingale).
Why is this manuscript important?
The manuscript is particularly precious because it contains many secular lyrics, which were less likely to survive than religious lyrics. Many of the secular love poems and the political poems do not exist in other manuscripts – and so this manuscript provides us with a unique source for a whole area of English poetry from this period.
Who copied the manuscript?
The manuscript is dated to c. 1340, although many of the texts it contains appear to have been written earlier. Three scribes were involved in the copying of this manuscript – because we do not know their names, they are known as Scribes A, B and C. We don’t know anything about Scribes A and C, but the hand of Scribe B, who is also known as ‘the Ludlow Scribe’, has also been found in several other manuscripts. This scribe seems to have worked as a professional legal scribe in Ludlow, in Shropshire, between 1314 and 1349. Susanna Fein, who edited the published version of the Harley Lyrics, says that in his intriguing choice of texts for the manuscript the scribe ‘shows himself to have been a man of unusual curiosity, acquisitiveness, and discerning connoisseurship’.
View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.
- Article by:
- David Crystal
- Language and voice
David Crystal explains how Middle English developed from Old English, changing its grammar, pronunciation and spelling and borrowing words from French and Latin.