Could Medieval Women Read?

As a specialist in the study of women’s education and literacy in England in the Middle Ages, I’m asked this question a lot. I’ll cut to the chase: YES. 

How do we know this? 

Medieval England (on which I’ll focus this blog) was a multilingual nation.1 English had been its primary vernacular from the time of the Anglo-Saxons (about 450) until the Norman Conquest of 1066, when French became the language of the nobility, government, and diplomacy.2 By the mid-fifteenth century, though, English had reasserted dominance as the primary vernacular language, while the Church, clerics, and higher education continued to use Latin.3 Because medieval English people would have heard and used all three languages in daily life, children were taught to read and speak all of them.4 Whether children’s reading knowledge became advanced depended on the importance of reading in their lives and what socioeconomic station they attained. In fact, most of the evidence for literacy survives from the upper classes; uncovering the history of less privileged groups remains difficult. 

In infantia

Medieval scholars commonly thought of childhood in three divisions: infantia (birth to about 7 years), pueritia (about 7 to 14 years), and adolescentia (about 14 to 21 years).5 The teaching of reading began in infantia with parents and nurses, if the family could afford such help. 

Girls and boys began by learning the letters of the Latin alphabet and the sounds they made. In this way they acquired the basic skills of early reading, called contemporaneously sillibicare (sounding out syllables) and legere (sounding out words), even if they didn’t understand what those sounds or words meant.6 Singing might have been used as well to teach pronunciation, as sung Latin was used in church services. Because reading was important to promote spiritual instruction, and had indeed been cited at least as far back as Jerome in the fourth century as a reason girls should be taught to read, some of the earliest texts learned were the Pater Noster, the Ave, and the Creed. Alphabets and these simple prayers could be written out on a variety of surfaces: boards, painted walls, wooden trays covered in ash or sand, ceramic or metal vessels, or hand-held tablets made of materials such as slate, horn, or board covered in parchment (more on this below).

Beginning around 1300 in England, medieval parents had a model of teaching in St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. Depictions of her teaching Mary to read appeared in stained-glass windows, manuscript illuminations, wall paintings, and other artistic representations.7 One such survives today in the Church of St. Nicholas in Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England.

Image of stained glass window of Saint Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read
“Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to Read,” about 1330­–50, the Church of St. Nicholas, Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England; south aisle, east window, farthest left panel. Image from Painton Cowen’s The Online Stained Glass Photographic Archive

In this window, Mary is shown sitting in Anne’s lap and holding a bound book with letters written on its pages. She holds the book open so the text is visible to the reader. Her mother Anne points upward, in a gesture both teacherly and pointing heavenward, perhaps emphasizing the importance of reading for spiritual development.8

This beautifully-painted miniature from a Book of Hours shows Anne and a young Mary holding a book together. With her right hand, Anne isolates text for Mary to examine.  

Saint Anne Teaching the Virgin to Read, a miniature painted by Master of Sir John Fastolf (French, active before about 1420–about 1450), in a Book of Hours created in France or England about 1430–1440. Tempera colors and gold ink on parchment. Los Angeles, Getty Museum, MS 5 (84.ML.732), fol. 45v

Other surviving representations show Anne using a hornbook (mentioned above) to teach Mary to read. This illustration comes from a Book of Hours that originated in England around 1325­–1300. 

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 231, fol. 3 

This detail shows the hornbook more closely. 

Though the hornbook was at least a medieval invention (discussed recently by Erik Kwakkel and Trinity College, Cambridge, librarians), it survives only from early modern centuries, as in this example, created in London around 1625. The text is printed on sheepskin parchment and fixed to an oak paddle with a brass frame and iron nails; the handle is used for holding the hornbook. The parchment is laminated over with a processed animal horn (hence the name) to protect the text. 

“Aabc (English hornbook),” Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 13813.6 (dated 1625).

A text from the 1230s, written by a layman, Walter of Bibbesworth, also reveals much about how boys and girls learned, especially languages, in a gentry household. Bibbesworth was a wealthy English landowner and a knight who wrote this book for his neighbor and fellow member of the gentry, Dionisie de Munchensi. Dionisie had three young children to educate, and as part of the expectations of their class, they would have needed to learn a French more advanced than what they would have picked up through everyday living. The image below shows the opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz

The opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz. The manuscript dates from 1325. London, British Library, Additional MS 46919, fol. 2r. 

Walter addresses Dionisie in column 1, lines 10-20, identifying the purpose of his text: “Chere soer, pur ceo ke vous me / pryastes ke jeo meyse en ecsryst [sic] / pur vos enfaunz acune apryse / de fraunceys en breve paroles” (Dear sister, because you have asked that I put in writing something for your children to learn French in brief phrases). What follows is a narrative poem, beginning in column 1, line 21, that describes childhood, starting with birth and ending in young adulthood with a large household feast. In each scene, Walter presents French vocabulary for Dionisie’s children to learn.

Many clues in the text demonstrate that the physical book was shown to children so they could learn the reading of words on a page, not just the sounds of them. Walter gives many homophones, for example, that would only make sense in writing, rather than in pronunciation. Some of the vocabulary also has English translations written in between the lines of the main text. You can see this in the image above in the poem, which starts at column 1, line 21, and goes into column two. All the smaller words written between the lines give the English translation of the main text, which is written in French.

In pueritia and adolescentia

Once they moved into pueritia (about 7-14 years of age), girls of the upper classes would often transition into the care of a mistress (called at that time magistramagistrix, or maitresse). The mistress provided education in such things as deportment, embroidery, dancing, music, and reading.9 For any skills the mistress did not herself have, she could bring in other household members, such as the minstrel for musical training, the chaplain for more advanced reading and spiritual instruction, and the huntsman for hunting. Specialized academic tutors could teach girls more advanced academic subjects. Sometimes these well-to-do girls were sent to other households to be fostered, serving as ladies-in-waiting to upper-class women. Girls, especially those of the upper classes, could be sent to nunneries as well (sometimes beginning in infantia) for education. Not all girls sent to nunneries were meant for the vocation of nun.10

As their reading abilities progressed, girls and boys moved on to reading comprehension (intelligere) and began to read more sophisticated spiritual texts, such as prayer-books, books of hours, psalters, antiphonals, and saints’ lives. They also would continue on, as personal libraries grew in the thirteenth century, in reading romances, histories, poetry, classical authors, theology, philosophy, and more. It is most likely, given that women were not admitted to the university (unlike boys, who could progress from this stage to Latin grammar school and then on at a university level to the study of business, liberal arts, medicine, canon or civil law, or theology), that the reading of these last few would have been limited to girls whose families could afford private tutors.

Miscellany of religious, medical, and secular verse and prose in French, Latin and English. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS Digby 86, fol. 68r. Produced in Worcestershire, England, c.1271–83, this “common-place book” contains French, Latin and eighteen English texts of various genres including fabliau, romances, devotional and didactic texts, prognostications, charms and prayers, among others written between 1271 and 1283. The manuscript was written by its owner and has amateurish scribal drawings and decoration. This image shows three sections of French text: the end of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit) (top 11 lines); a list of the unlucky days in the year (middle section of the text); and at the bottom a list of Arabic numerals 1 through 46. Three shields decorate the bottom. 

In adulthood

By the time they reached adulthood, women who were privileged enough to have obtained a sophisticated education and their own libraries could be avid readers. 

Gospel lectionary written in Latin, made in England c.1025–50, later owned by St. Margaret of Scotland. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Lat. liturg. f. 5, fols. 21v–22r. This opening shows St. Luke with the start of his gospel reading. The Bodleian Libraries digital Treasures exhibition notes: “A compact selection of passages from the Gospels, this finely illustrated book was Margaret’s favourite, and one she read and studied closely, even when she travelled. A poem added at the front describes how this very book was dropped into a river but remained almost unharmed: this miracle contributed to her growing reputation for holiness.”

The historical and literary records provide examples of such sophisticated learning, primarily among the nobility. For example, the Norman monk and chronicler Robert of Torigni (c.1110–1186), praised the education of St. Margaret of Scotland (d. 1093) and her daughter Matilda (1080–1118), wife of Henry I, writing, “Quantae autem sanctitatis et scientiae tam saecularis quam spiritualis utraque regina, Margareta scilicet et Mathildis, fuerint” (Of how great holiness and learning, as well secular as spiritual, were these two queens, Margaret and Matilda).11

In a different Latin life, commissioned by Matilda about her mother Margaret, the biographer describes how Margaret from her childhood would “in Divinarum lectionum studio sese occupare, et in his animum delectabiliter exercere” (occupy herself with the study of the Holy Scriptures, and delightfully exercise her mind) and notes that her husband, King Malcom III, cherished the “libros, in quibus ipsa vel orare consueverat, vel legere” (books, which she herself used either for prayer or reading), even though Malcom himself could not read Latin.12

London, British Library, Harley MS 2952, fol. 19v. Book of Hours, made in France c.1400–1425. 

This image above shows the unidentified female patron of this Book of Hours kneeling on a prie-dieu, her prayer book open to the text “Maria mater gratiae” (Mary, mother of grace). This open book with its discernable text has several functions: it leads the reader into the  prayer; it demonstrates the piety of the patron, kneeling in prayer before both her spiritual book and the Blessed Virgin and Christ (illustrated on the facing leaf); and it shows one of the primary purposes of teaching children to read: being able to use spiritual texts in personal devotion. 

Even women who were not noble and who were not able to read much Latin possessed and used books such as the one pictured above. In the mid-fifteenth century Englishwoman Margery Kempe wrote through her scribe of a memorable time in her church of St. Margaret in King’s Lynn when a chunk of masonry fell from the ceiling down onto her as she was praying with her prayer book in hand.

The image below comes from her Book of Margery Kempe as preserved in London, British Library, Additional MS 61823. Lines 24-28 narrate, “Sche knelyd upon hir / kneys heldyng down hir hed. and hir boke in hir hand. / prayng owyr lord crist ihesu for grace and for mercy. Sodeynly fel / down fro þe heyest party of þe cherche vowte fro undyr / þe fote of þe sparre on hir hed and on hir bakke a ston / whech weyd .iii. pownd” (She knelt on her knees, bowing down her head and holding her book in her hand, praying to our Lord Christ Jesus for grace and mercy. Suddenly fell down from the highest party of the church out from under the foot of the rafter onto her head and her book a stone which weighed three pounds). She survived, for which she credited the mercy of Christ.

The Book of Margery Kempe, online facsimile and documentary edition hosted by Southeastern Louisiana University, project director Joel Fredell. London, British Library, Additional MS 61823, fol. 11r.

Finally, a note on those of the working classes. I have not discussed them in detail as it is unfortunately difficult, in fact nearly impossible, to say much about the reading skills of those who left few or no records behind: the great majority of women (and men) of the medieval population were laborers who left little trace in the written record. Yet as we see from the image here below, even for working women, especially in the last few centuries of the Middle Ages, possession and use of books was within the norm, provided those books could be afforded. 

A woman attendant reading a book, from La Bible historiale of Guyart des Moulins, c. 1470s. London, British Library, Royal MS 15 D I, fol. 18.

Conclusion

My focus here has been tightly on the teaching of reading to medieval English girls. Girls and boys alike were taught to read, and began their reading education in the same ways. Boys alone could attend the medieval university and reach the highest (and best educated) ranks of clerics, but if girls had access to the right resources, they too could be highly educated. The evidence demonstrates that the teaching of reading was not linked specifically to gender; rather, it was a function of both socioeconomic station and the usefulness of such skills for one’s life.

If you’re interested in this topic, I cover the subject in much greater detail, with many other examples and suggested readings, in my article, “Women’s Education and Literacy in England, 1066–1540,” in an upcoming special edition of History of Education Quarterly and the accompanying HEQ&A podcast, both of which will be linked here once live.  

Megan J. Hall, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

Twitter @meganjhallphd


[1] On languages in medieval England, see Amanda Hopkins, Judith Anne Jefferson, and Ad Putter, Multilingualism in Medieval Britain (c. 1066–1520): Sources and Analysis (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2012).

[2] W. M. Ormrod, “The Use of English: Language, Law, and Political Culture in Fourteenth-Century England,” Speculum 78, no. 3 (July 2003), 750–87, at 755; and William Rothwell, “Language and Government in Medieval England,” Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur 93, no. 3 (1983), 258–70.

[3] David Bell, What Nuns Read: Books and Libraries in Medieval English Nunneries (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1995), 57.

[4] On the complexities of a trilingual England, with a number of helpful citations therein for further reading, see Christopher Cannon, “Vernacular Latin,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 641–53. 

[5] A variety of frameworks were imposed upon the ages of humankind, though these major divisions for the stages of childhood were fairly commonly accepted. For a discussion, see Nicholas Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry: the Education of the English Kings and Aristocracy, 1066-1530 (London: Methuen, 1984), 5–7; and Daniel T. Kline, “Female Childhoods,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, ed. Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 13–20, at 13.

[6] Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “‘Invisible Archives?’ Later Medieval French in England,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 653–73. For more on levels of reading Latin, see Bell, What Nuns Read, 59–60; and Malcolm B. Parkes, “The Literacy of the Laity,” in Scribes, Scripts, and Readers: Studies in the Communication, Presentation, and Dissemination of Medieval Texts1976 (London: Hambledon Press, 1991), 275–97, at 275.

[7] On the cult of St. Anne and the teaching of reading, see Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 244–45; and Clanchy, “Did Mothers Teach their Children to Read?,” in Motherhood, Religion, and Society in Medieval Europe, 400–1400: Essays Presented to Henrietta Leyser, ed. Conrad Leyser and Lesley Smith (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011), 129–53. For further examples and a detailed analysis of the Education of the Virgin motif, see Wendy Scase, “St. Anne and the Education of the Virgin,” in England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1991 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Nicholas Rogers (Stamford, UK: Paul Watkins, 1993), 81–98.

[8] For a discussion of this window, see Orme, Medieval Children, 244–45.

[9] Boys (especially royal princes) typically followed the same path of moving from the nursery into the care of an educator-caretaker: pedagogus (a term used into the eleventh century) or magister or me[i]stre (terms in use from the twelfth century forward) (Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry, 19).

[10] Excellent reading on the education of girls in nunneries is found in Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries, c. 1275 to 1535 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1922); Alexandra Barratt, “Small Latin? The Post-Conquest Learning of English Religious Women,” in Anglo-Latin and Its Heritage, Essays in Honour of A. G. Rigg on His 64th Birthday, ed. Siân Echard and Gernot R. Wieland (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001), 51–65; and J. G. Clark, “Monastic Education in Late Medieval England,” in The Church and Learning in Late Medieval Society: Essays in Honour of R. B. Dobson; Proceedings of the 1999 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Caroline Barron and Jenny Stratford (Donington, UK: Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins, 2002), 25–40; and Dorothy Gardiner, English Girlhood at School: A Study of Women’s Education Through Twelve Centuries (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1929).

[11] Robert of Torigni [Robertus de Monte], Historia nortmannorum liber octavus de Henrico I rege anglorum et duce northmannorum, ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia cursus completus, series latina 149 (Paris, 1853), col. 886; translated in “History of King Henry the First, by Robert de Monte,” ed. Joseph Stevenson, The Church Historians of England vol. 2, part 1 (London, 1858), 10.

[12] Transcribed in Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectanea, ed. J. Hodgson Hinde, vol. 1 (London, 1868), at 238, 241, from the version preserved in London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius D iii, fols. 179v–186r (late twelfth century).

Finding Hoccleve: Part 2

If you haven't already done so, don't forget to read "Part 1" here first.

My previous post discusses the identification of Thomas Hoccleve’s handwriting in Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othea and a glossary in London, British Library, Harley MS 219. This is only the second manuscript identified to date in which Hoccleve copies literary works by other authors.[i] The find is more striking when we consider the other contents of the manuscript and their implications for Hoccleve’s original compositions.

Hoccleve's Gesta
A page from Hoccleve’s Gesta Romanorum. London, British Library, Harley MS 219, fol. 47v. Image courtesy of the British Library.

The major contents of Harley MS 219 are as follows:

  • Odo of Cheriton’s Fables in Latin, fols. 1r–37r.
  • Selections from the Gesta Romanorum [Deeds of the Romans], in Latin, fols. 37r–79v.
  • An incomplete French translation of the Secretum Secretorum [Secret of Secrets, an advice text supposedly authored by Aristotle for Alexander the Great], fols. 80r–105v.
  • Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othea [Letter of Othea], French, in Hoccleve’s handwriting, fols. 106r–147r.
  • A glossary of French terms translated into Latin and/or Middle English, in Hoccleve’s handwriting, fols. 147v–151v.

These are followed by items in later handwriting: A list in French of offices managed by the English Treasurer in later fifteenth-century handwriting (fols. 152v–153r); two English prayers, added in a sixteenth-century hand (fol. 153v); and a Latin recipe for the preservation of eyesight, added in a late fifteenth-century hand (fol. 154r).

Those familiar with Hoccleve’s poetry will recognize the Gesta as a source for two tales in Hoccleve’s SeriesTheTale of Jereslaus’s Wife and The Tale of Jonathas– and the Secretum as a major source for the Regiment of Princes, an advice text Hoccleve dedicates to the future Henry V. For Hoccleve studies, one major question for both the Gesta and the Secretum has always been what form of the text Hoccleve used. In the case of the Gesta, there are a large number of manuscripts and almost innumerable variants among them that could have influenced Hoccleve.[ii] For the Secretum, the issue becomes one of language and then variable versions: did Hoccleve use a Latin version or a vernacular translation, and in either case, which one of many possible versions?

For me (and the reviewers of my original article manuscript), a crucial question was whether Harley MS 219 could resolve these uncertainties. The answer I found was yes, though not without much questioning of my eyesight and sanity, and some consultation with other scholars of Hoccleve’s handwriting. There are multiple scribes throughout Harley MS 219, and their handwriting is often excruciatingly similar. After all, when multiple professional scribes copied portions of a literary text that would be combined, they attempted to regularize their handwriting. The same aim of a more or less consistent handwriting across scribes would be valuable likewise in the Royal Office of the Privy Seal, where Hoccleve and – I think it likely – the other scribes in Harley MS 219 were employed.

As it turns out, Hoccleve does not copy the entire text of the Fables, Gesta, or Secretum. Instead, he copies at least one quire (bundle of pages) of the Fables and Gesta, he copies intermittent folios (pages) in the Gesta, and he provides corrections and annotations to the Gesta and the Secretum. The other scribes that copy the Fables and Gesta have very similar handwriting and demonstrate features common to Privy Seal scribes. The scribe who copied the Secretum displays stylized features – decorative strokes and flourishes – typically found in later handwriting, which would certainly seem to mark him as younger than Hoccleve. This scribe also leaves a blank when the French text indicts England for problematic politics, leaving it to his superior Hoccleve to decide whether to follow the French source and write England’s name in the space left (he does).

Copy of the Secretum
A page from Harley MS 219’s copy of the Secretum. London, British Library, Harley MS 219, fol. 83. Image courtesy of the British Library.

This unusual mode of copying and the corrections across the many sections of the volume suggest that Harley MS 219 may have been a collaborative volume produced by Hoccleve and his Privy Seal colleagues, perhaps even a training exercise for junior clerks under his supervision.[iii] Such an exercise might explain why Hoccleve often copies intermittent folios in the Gesta– to provide an exemplar for certain handwriting traits, not to share the copying of a lengthy text.

Now that we know Hoccleve copied, supervised, and/or corrected these texts, we have evidence of new and specific sources he knew. My preliminary work with the Gesta shows that the Harley MS 219 Latin tales do correspond to features of Hoccleve’s English compositions.[iv] We now also know that – although Hoccleve certainly could have read the Secretum in Latin – he had access to this French version, which he knew well enough to correct when the main scribe hesitated or went astray. This opens up new avenues for determining how these versions correspond (or do not) to Hoccleve’s English renderings, and we can also start to explore more seriously how the Fables and Othea may have influenced Hoccleve’s work. In other words, this manuscript allows us to compare Hoccleve’s works with these texts as sources and influences to see more specifically how he translated, adapted, and innovated within his English compositions.

The process of completing this research was not long by most standards (from discussion in summer 2018 to advanced publication in summer 2019), but it was intensely involved, as I put most other projects on the back burner and moved from focusing on Christine’s Othea to the glossary, to evaluating the scribal handwriting against known samples of Hoccleve’s, to evaluating all the convoluted and similar scribal handwriting in the other texts, and to investigating the broader implications for Hoccleve’s work and career.[v] There is still much work to be done to fully realize the importance of this manuscript, but I have, I hope, made a valiant start.

If lessons are to be learned here, I would suggest they are these: keep looking at “weirdo” manuscripts; follow the even odder threads within them that interest you; be open to working on something that isn’t your “main” project (with the caveat that if you do, it may take over your life); and, of course, when there is something about a manuscript bothering you, share ideas and images with friends. The generosity of our colleagues in the field of medieval studies – trusted friends, editors, anonymous readers, and colleagues with shared interests – is one of our greatest resources.

Misty Schieberle, PhD
University of Kansas

About the Author: Misty Schieberle is Associate Professor of English at the University of Kansas, currently completing an edition of the Middle English translations of Christine de Pizan's Epistre Othea and continuing her work on Harley MS 219, including an edition of the glossary.

[i]The first is the so-called ‘Trinity Gower’ in Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.3.2 (fols. 82r–84r), in which Hoccleve copies a few folios of Gower’s Confessio Amantis. There may be another, according to Linne Mooney, whose work is forthcoming.

[ii]On which, see Philippa Bright, The Anglo-Latin Gesta Romanorum(Oxford, 2019).

[iii]On Hoccleve’s supervisory role from c. 1399-1425, see Linne R. Mooney, ‘Some New Light on Thomas Hoccleve’, Studies in the Age of Chaucer29 (2007), 293-340, at 297-99.

[iv]See Roger Ellis, ed., Thomas Hoccleve: ‘My Compleinte’ and Other Poems(Exeter, 2001), 263-68, who reconstructs from Hoccleve’s English and various Latin manuscripts (not including Harley MS 219) readings likely to have been in Hoccleve’s source for the Tale of Jereslaus’ Wife.

[v]See Schieberle, “A New Hoccleve Literary Manuscript: The Trilingual Miscellany in London, British Library, MS Harley 219,” Review of English Studies(forthcoming November 2019), currently available online for advanced access subscribers: https://academic.oup.com/res/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/res/hgz042/5510111

Finding Hoccleve: Part 1

Hoccleve's Othea In Harley MS 219

“You should look into Hoccleve.”

These words changed everything about the way I looked at London, British Library MS Harley 219. I’d been working with this volume of primarily Latin and French texts for several years, focusing on Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othea [Letter of Othea], a popular advice text, which Christine claims draws on a letter from Othea, the goddess of wisdom and prudence, to Hector of Troy.

Harley MS 219 is – to put it bluntly – a weird manuscript, one that had always bothered me because it is the only complete manuscript of the Othea with a dedication to Henry IV of England. Yet it is far from a luxury copy – how did the text travel from a manuscript fit for a king to this rather lackluster volume?

Immediately after the Othea, there is a glossary of French terms into Latin and, less often, Middle English that has fascinated me. Some content is standard for glossaries of the time – words with double meanings, body parts, animals, occupations, tools, family members, and such. Some entries may directly draw on vocabulary in the Othea, essentially providing a practical aid to assist an English reader with the French language.[i] The final folio contains a series of phrases in French then English ranging from the expected, like “wype your hands,” to the bizarre, such as “the body is withynne the tombe” and “this is an hyred hors.” Some phrases were clearly added later by the same scribe who produced the Othea and glossary. Aspects of this scribe’s handwriting tugged at my brain: from my paleography classes, I knew that w– and this circular one in particular – was an important feature and might help me identify the scribe. Yet this was not my main project, and I could only justify spending a little time on the glossary for a short paper on fifteenth-century Anglo-French at the New Chaucer Society conference.

Hoccleve's Glossary
Excerpt from Hoccleve’s Glossary in London, British Library, Harley MS 219, fol. 149v. Photo courtesy of the British Library.

I included images of the glossary in my talk, and I could scarcely suppress a wry smile when a friend asked about the scribe and the manuscript’s history. These were the crucial questions, as they are so often for manuscripts whose scribes and readers are unknown. I relayed what little was known: it was produced in England, dated to the late fifteenth century, and the French texts show Anglo-Norman spellings. My friend, who has done significant research on Thomas Hoccleve and documents produced in the Royal Office of the Privy Seal (which wrote letters for the King), noted characteristics of Privy Seal clerk handwriting, and advised, “You should look into Hoccleve – it could even be him.”

The room buzzed at the possibility, with some audience members agreeing and at least one expressing doubt. If we had been in a cartoon, the light bulb above my head would have come on: that is why the was troubling me – it is one of Hoccleve’s characteristic letter forms (though by no means unique to him). And crucially, Hoccleve’s connections to the King would explain the mystery of the Harley MS 219 Othea’s origins. Scholars accept that Hoccleve translated Christine’s Epistre de dieu d’amours into The Letter of Cupid (1402) from a copy in Henry’s possession, making the same path of transmission conceivable for Henry’s Othea to Hoccleve.[ii]

Of course, I only articulated these ideas in print after painstaking comparison of iconic Hoccleve letter forms – figure-eight A, flat-headed g, circular w, self-dotting y, and tilted h– with those in Harley MS 219.[iii] At several points, I stepped back to ensure I wasn’t guilty of simply wanting this to be Hoccleve’s handwriting, which led to a fair amount of double- and triple-checking. In the end, significant evidence suggests that Hoccleve – one of the most prominent English poets after Chaucer – is indeed the scribe who copied the Epistre Othea and glossary into Harley MS 219.

Linking Harley MS 219 to Hoccleve shifts radically our understanding of the manuscript, its Othea, and Hoccleve’s sources for his original poetry (more on the latter in part 2). The manuscript had been dated to 1475, based on stylistic features of another text. However, since Hoccleve died in 1426, and his handwriting appears throughout the majority of the volume, the manuscript must be dated before then. I suggest early fifteenth century, near Hoccleve’s translation of the Letter of Cupid and close to Henry’s receipt of the original, sent to him around 1401-02, according to Christine’s own account.[iv]

Hoccleve's Othea
A page from the Othea in London, British Library, Harley MS 219, f. 133v. Photo courtesy of the British Library.

The Harley MS 219 Othea has rarely received interest from scholars, in part for its Anglo-Norman spellings. Yet even with spelling differences, minor scribal variants, and some disordered chapters (likely due to disorder in Hoccleve’s source), this manuscript deserves renewed attention and more authority. Hoccleve was no bumbling Anglo-Norman scribe; he was a practiced clerk who used French daily in his occupation. His French may not be of the Continent, but it is certainly competent, and we can plausibly construct a direct line from this copy to Henry’s original.[v]

Of course, questions remain, namely, who were the readers and what was the purpose for this volume? It seems likely that the audience would have been other educated clerks who enjoyed literary material, and the volume may be evidence for a literary circle for Hoccleve and his colleagues. There are two indicators that the audience must have been educated:  the main texts are in Latin and French, and the glossary uses Latin more often than English to translate French words. Readers would have to know Latin to appreciate the narratives and even use the glossary.

My proposal that enjoyment may have been a purpose for the volume stems largely from external evidence in Hoccleve’s poetry and from the glossary. In the Series, Hoccleve claims that his friend must bring him the concluding moralization to a narrative he has been writing. In Harley MS 219 that particular story is complete, but another lacks the moral, and in the copying and codicology of a wider set of tales, one quire (bundle of pages) ends with a blank folio (page); it is followed by an additional quire in a different hand, as if a friend or colleague did indeed add a missing section Hoccleve’s volume needed.

Additionally, the glossary has – I think – more than one “inside joke” for readers familiar with Hoccleve and his poetry, but I will hold myself to only one example. The phrasebook in particular conveys Hoccleve’s playfulness in producing it, especially the unexpected “this is an hyred hors” (fol. 151v), which seems a strange inclusion. Surely proclaiming that one has rented his mode of transportation could not be a significant necessity abroad.

Yet this phrase calls to mind Hoccleve’s analogy for an inconstant woman in Letter of Cupid: “Shee for the rode of folk is so desyrid, / And as a hors fro day to day is hyrid” (102-3). This must be an inside joke for Hoccleve’s friends, and the manuscript as a whole may suggest evidence for the sort of circle of literate friends that Hoccleve imagines in the Series and in one of his ballads for Henry Somer (who worked in high positions in the English Treasury) that depicts a lively dining club whose members may have appreciated literary texts in all three of the languages present in Harley MS 219, Latin, French, and English.

But the importance of the discovery of Hoccleve’s involvement in the production of Harley MS 219 goes much further when we enlarge the scope of our inquiry beyond the Othea and glossary to find Hoccleve participating in the production of other texts in the volume, two of which were major sources for his original compositions.

Click here to read Part 2.

Misty Schieberle, PhD
University of Kansas

About the Author: Misty Schieberle is Associate Professor of English at the University of Kansas, currently completing an edition of the Middle English translations of Christine de Pizan's Epistre Othea and continuing her work on Harley MS 219, including an edition of the glossary.

[i]Stephanie Downes, “A ‘Frenche booke called the Pistill of Othea’: Christine de Pizan’s French in England,” in Jocelyn Wogan-Browne et al. (eds), Language and Culture in Medieval Britain: The French of England c.1100–1500(York, 2009), 457–68,  at 461–5, notes how the glossary seeks to educate the reader in various aspects of the French language, including verb tenses and terms relevant to the Othea.

[ii]On which, see James C. Laidlaw, ‘Christine de Pizan, the Earl of Salisbury and Henry IV’, French Studies, 36 (1982), 129-43.

[iii]See H. C. Schulz, ‘Thomas Hoccleve, Scribe’, Speculum, 12 (1937), 71–81; Thomas Hoccleve: A Facsimile of the Autograph Verse Manuscripts, introd. J. A. Burrow and A. I. Doyle, EETS s.s. 19 (Oxford, 2002), xxiv-xxxvii. My own article, “A New Hoccleve Literary Manuscript: The Trilingual Miscellany in London, British Library, MS Harley 219” will appear in Review of English Studies in November 2019, and it is currently available online for advanced access subscribers: https://academic.oup.com/res/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/res/hgz042/5510111

[iv]Christine de Pizan, The Vision of Christine de Pizan, trans. Glenda McLeod and Charity Cannon Willard (Cambridge, 2005), 106-7.

[v]The Harley MS 219 Othea’s chapters go from 86 to 93-98 and back to 87 over the course of fols. 142r-144r, without a break in quire structure, which suggests that Hoccleve’s source had a misplaced quire. Thus, there could be an intermediary between this manuscript and Henry’s original, though that is not strictly necessary – Henry’s own copy could have been misfoliated at some point.