What’s in a Line?: Harley’s Horn and the significance of mise-en-page, Part 1

class noir image
A classic noir image. You know what kind of movie you’re looking at based not on narrative or dialogue, but on the camera angle, lighting effects, costume, and colour — all visual cues of mise-en-scène.

The study of medieval poetics and literature has begun to benefit immensely from the boom in manuscript studies. We’ve seen, even in past entries on this blog, how the layout of a poem in a manuscript can affect the way it is read. It is worth considering as well how the layout of a manuscript page can affect the way we interpret a text even before we begin reading it. In the same way directors signal and elicit particular responses from viewers of film or theatre with mise-en-scène, a scribe attuned to the potential of mise-en-page (also ordinatio) employs different page layouts to ask readers to begin understanding a text in a generic fashion a priori to any close engagement with the text.

A sterling example of the power of mise-en-page is London MS Harley 2253, which offers a smorgasbord of literary treasures from medieval England matched by few manuscripts. A number of scholars have observed how certain choices related to layout point to ways of reading the manuscript. Kerby-Fulton, for instance, observes the speech-markers in Gilote et Johanne, making a text “ready for performance” (54). The mise-en-page in the Harley MS serves as a visual entrée for many of these texts (after all, we are often told that we eat first with our eyes, not our stomachs), asking a reader to consider how they will read before they begin to do so. Because its contents are varied, the manuscript gives us the chance to see how one scribe employed mise-en-page with different types of texts. Of these various genres, languages, and layouts in that manuscript, one text, King Horn, stands as an anomaly of both genre and layout that can go some way in suggesting how layout can influence our reading of a text.

This is not to suggest that the Harley scribe was absolutely consistent, but he was consistent enough to show that his choices in layout were not dictated by whim. For instance, the vast majority of texts with a rhyme scheme of abab or abababcc (with a bob) were written out in a long-line form, with two verses to a line. Poems with an aabb scheme were, with the sole exception of King Horn, written in short lines, usually in two or three columns to a page.

BL Harley MS 2253, fol. 73r, showing at top a two-column aaabcccb poem and at bottom a single column abab poem in long lines.

Tail-rhyme poems of various sorts are also usually written in short lines, with a verse to a line (e.g. 71v-72). Poems with more complex rhyme schemes, such as that on fol. 76 (abababddb) or fol. 63v. (aabaabbaab) are written in a block of text, with virgules separating verses. Prose texts are written out in blocks as one would expect, and such is the case with the Anglo-Norman biblical material following Horn in the manuscript. On the rare occasion where space has apparently become an issue, as on fols. 82v-83 Maximian, the scribe does change layout to suit his needs, switching from a three-column layout to prose form with virgules separating verses at the top of 83r.

Harley Manuscript King Horn

BL Harley MS 2253, fol. 83r, showing at top the final lines of Maximian, written in prose form with verses separated by virgules. Below that is Mayden moder milde, abababab, and finally, King Hornaabb, two verses to a line.

While there is much to say about the various genres and rhyme schemes and their respective mise-en-page, suffice it to say here then that there was a method to the scribe’s ostensible madness. Elizabeth Solopova has given a useful overview of several features of mise-en-page, but she frequently stops short of offering reasons for selecting particular layouts, except to observe the dominance of the rhyming couplet as a guiding principle in line arrangements (e.g. 381). In her assessment, there is much consistency in layout throughout the manuscript. So why does Horn, a poem written in aabb rhyming couplets and the longest text in the manuscript, appear in long lines with two verses to a line, violating the principles of ordinatio that the scribe had been follows elsewhere?

It might seem a trivial question, but it is one that can be explored to give us some sense of how one of the earliest poems of the “romance genre” was thought of by its audiences. Come by next week to read my take on the connection between Horn‘s genre and its layout.

Andrew W. Klein
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn. Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2012).

Solopova, Elizabeth. “Layout, Punctuation, and Stanza Patterns in the English Verse” in Studies in the Harley Manuscript, ed. Susanna Fein (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000).


Bobbing for Answers

London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x (pet-named the Gawain-Manuscript and at times the Pearl-manuscript) contains the only extant copies of some of the most celebrated Middle English literature. As a 14th century Middle English manuscript, and one that survives without any Anglo-Norman or Latin companion pieces, the illuminated initials and the various illustrations, mark it as a unique, multimedia project.

Illustration of the Green Knight ‘s interactions with King Arthur’s Court © The British Library Board, Cotton Nero A X (art 3) f. 90v

This can be taken a step further, as the audience of this manuscript would be twofold, namely those reading and experiencing the literature visually, and those listening and experiencing it aurally.

One of the most peculiar features of the manuscript may be the placement of the metrical “bob” in the last poem in the manuscript, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The respective bobs most often appear as many as two or three lines above its accompanying “wheel” directly before which, editors (and indeed most scholars) assume the bob would have been read. Despite that all editors from J. R. R. Tolkien onward move the bob in order to metrically perfect the poem, sloppiness on the part of the scribe seems doubtful considering the care taken in illuminating initials, thus the placements of these bobs may well be intentional.

Bobs out of Place? © The British Library Board, Cotton Nero A X (art 3) f. 111v.

By positioning the bob in such a way, Kathryn Kerby-Fulton sees potential for equivocation and the possibility that this bob might be a floating marginal device resonating with more than one line. Because of the syntactic flexibility of a bob, it can in fact (sometimes much more sensibly) be understood in the context of where it actually occurs in the manuscript. For a reader of this text (which is to say a literate, visual audience), such an interpretation is appealing. Kerby-Fulton persuasively argues that wyth wynne, placed between lines describing the respective foundings of Rome and Britain, could equally apply to both joyful events.

Founding of Rome and Britain wyth wynne © The British Library Board, Cotton Nero A X (art 3) f. 91r

Howell D. Chickering has an interpretation of the irregular positioning of the bob, which reflects aural reception and considers the performative function of the poem. The audience of such a performance would likely understand the bob in only one place, where it is spoken; however, Chickering argues that the bob often appears preemptively to alert the recitator of the abrupt shift in meter, and almost always is found on the same page as its accompanying wheel. In giving the recitator this warning, Chickering suggests the performance might move more smoothly. These two interpretations both highlight the importance of manuscript context in understanding both the literary texts and their multimodal means of understanding and experiencing the poem.

Preemptive bobbing © The British Library Board, Cotton Nero A X (art 3) f. 106r.

The manuscript also reveals that a symbol, called a “trefoil”, often accompanies bobs, and if this symbol serves to add emphasis, as Peter J. Lucas has demonstrated it does in the work of John Capgrave, the trefoils in Sir Gawain may similarly indicate the importance and purposeful placement of bobs. While the manuscript’s systematic reasons for employing certain symbols remains a mystery, it seems likely that there was some premeditated method to the scribal adornment of bobs with trefoils.

Trefoil accompanying bob © The British Library Board, Cotton Nero A X (art 3) f. 112r.

Indeed, analysis of the positioning of bobs in Sir Gawain demonstrates how close attention to the manuscript presentation of a text contributes to a better understanding of how it might have been read and performed.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

This post is part of our ongoing series on Medieval and Early Modern Poetics: Theory and Practice.


Further Reading:

Baugh, Albert C. “Improvisation in the Middle English Romance.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 103.3 (1959): 418-454.

Borroff, Marie. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Stylistic and Metrical Study. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1962.

Chickering, Howell. “Stanzaic Closure and Linkage in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Chaucer Review 32.1 (1997): 1-31.

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn. Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary & Visual Approaches. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2012.

Lucas, Peter. “John Capgrave: Scribe and Publisher.” Transactions of the British Bibliographical Society V (1969).

Pearsall, Derek. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Essay in Enigma.” The Chaucer Review 46.1-2 (2011): 248-260.

Putter, Ad. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and French Arthurian Romance. Oxford, England: Clarendon University Press, 1995.

Tolkien, J. R. R. and Gordon E. V. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 2nd edition. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.