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:

[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.

The Material Gospel Conference: A Brief Overview

What do Gospel books have in common with collections of medical recipes? What do practices of erasure and destruction tell us about early Christian identity? Can we tell biographies of books?

Early Christians materialized Gospel literature in diverse formats and technologies. As material objects, these instantiations of “the Gospel” participated in ritual, political, economic, and readerly contexts. Gospel books were powerful. Augustine of Hippo complains that his audiences put Gospel books under their pillows to cure toothache. Amulets attest that even short excerpts enabled users to access the protective power of the material Gospel. The Gospel codex sometimes represented Christian identity, as Gospel books were processed in liturgy and imposed on the shoulders of ordinands. In times of persecution, Gospel books might even be subject to public execution in place of Christ himself. Yet Gospel books might also be erased or destroyed for apparently more mundane reasons, as various kinds of recycling attest. As an anthological object, the multiple-Gospel codex contributed to the development of a fourfold canonical Gospel. Early Christian readers developed novel strategies to facilitate knowledge, navigation, and use of Gospel literature. In each of these contexts, the materiality of Gospel literature plays a decisive role.

To address this theme, David Lincicum and I organized a conference on The Material Gospel at Notre Dame on 31 May 2019. The conference was generously sponsored by the Medieval Institute, the Institute for the Study of the Liberal Arts, and the Department of Theology. It brought together a number of scholars of Gospel literature and material culture to discuss the Gospel as a material object in the early Christian centuries. The day-long conference involved six papers and extended discussion between speakers and audience members.

To begin the day, Clare Rothschild (Lewis University) offered a paper on “Galen’s De indolentia and the Early Christian Codex.” The codex, a book format with pages and covers, quickly became a marker of Christian practices — to such an extent that scholars have suggested that the codex format became a marker of Christian identity, perhaps even chosen because of its visual distinctiveness. Rothschild intervenes in this conversation, emphasizing that the early Christian preference for a codex format was not only about visual distinctiveness or the perceived value of the texts, but also about the utility of the codex format. Comparison with the second-century physician Galen (129–ca. 216 CE) offers one window into second-century use of the codex. Rothschild offers a close reading of a passage where Galen describes the loss of parchment codices with medical recipes and of his own medical treatises. Similar genres appear in both formats. Galen describes the codices of recipes as having enormous intellectual and pecuniary value, but one of his own treatises, written on a scroll, was even more precious. But if the codex format was neither a bibliographic marker of genre or an indication of value, then why might Galen have used it? And why might Christians have adopted this technology? Rothschild argues that the codex affords durability, accessibility, expandability, and portability. These practical possibilities make it appropriate and convenient for Galen’s collections of medical recipes. Similarly, the codex format is practical for early Christian practices of study, liturgy, and travel in ways that exceed the possibilities of the bookroll. Conversations about the early Christian adoption of the codex for Gospels and other texts must, therefore, attend to the utility of the codex.

In a paper on “Navigating the Gospel: Nonlinear Access and Practical Use,” Jeremiah Coogan (Notre Dame) expands the conversation about the materiality of early Christian Gospel reading beyond the issue of codex format. Coogan argues that technologies for finding, dividing, and referencing illuminate late ancient Gospel reading, revealing how readers use Gospel books as objects. Coogan compares the modes of access invited by Gospel books with other practical texts in classical and late antiquity. Gospel books share visual features and practical affordances of access with recipe collections (like Galen’s or Scribonius Largus’), ritual (“magical”) anthologies (like PGM IV), and agricultural handbooks (like that of Columella). Paratextual interventions facilitate and expect Gospel access in various nonlinear ways — for liturgy, for divination, for moral instruction, for study. The late ancient Gospel book as an object frequently functions more like a recipe book than a linear text (such as the Iliad). Here, as in Rothschild’s paper, the focus is on the modes of use to which Gospel books as objects are suited. At the same time, the conversation must move beyond the codex as such, since Gospel books participate in material and paratextual conventions that facilitate access but that are not native to the codex. Coogan offers enlarged frames of comparison for the physicality and use of late ancient Gospel books.

Practices of reading and access are embedded in larger discourses. In his paper on “The Gospel Read, Sliced, and Burned: The Material Gospel and the Construction of Christian Identity,” Chris Keith (St. Mary’s Twickenham) argues that the use of the Gospel as a material object becomes part of early Christian identity. Drawing on the work of anthropologist Jan Assman , Keith argues that the early Christian book functioned as a material locus of memory and tradition. Far from being secondary or peripheral, textual objects become part of the visualization of literary memory. Practices of Gospel reading shape Christian understandings of the Gospel book as object. Christians read Gospel books in ways that are strikingly similar to how Jewish communities read Scriptures. However, there is a conceptual replacement of Torah with “Gospel” in (some) early Christian reading practices. Through practices of public reading, the book becomes a cult object. As a result, early Christians think in decidedly literal (and yet metaphorical) terms about textual change. Early Christians imagined Marcion of Sinope’s textual editing as gnawing, slicing amputation. Textual change is construed as an assault upon physical objects themselves. Finally, the centrality of the Christian book as object becomes a key issue in persecution under the Emperor Diocletian in the early fourth century. In seeking to destroy the Christian book, Rome attests its central significance as material object. For Eusebius, to destroy either churches or material texts is an attack upon Christianity. The construction of Christian identity is about what one does with the material Gospel.

Practices of book destruction, however, are not always violent or polemical. In her paper on “Erasing the Gospels: Insights from the Sinai Syriac Gospel Palimpsest,” Angela Zautcke (Notre Dame) analyzes the palimpsesting (erasing and rewriting) of late ancient Gospel books. Focusing on Syriac manuscripts, especially those held at St Catherine’s Monastery (Sinai, Egypt) and the British Library (many also from Sinai). Zautcke focuses on the potential role of erasure as intentional destruction, and concludes that there is no evidence to suggest that obsolete textual traditions like the Old Syriac Gospels were more likely to be palimpsested than other kinds of texts. Rather, parchment Gospel books often circulated for some four centuries before being recycled for other texts. The preponderance of palimpsested texts in the extant monastery collections have various scriptural texts (not always Gospels) as the undertext, reflecting the predominance of these texts in the existing collections available for palimpsesting. Zautcke demonstrates the need for further study of palimpsesting in material and social histories of early Christian texts, but concludes that the destruction of Gospel books by erasure is part of the life- cycle of the Gospel as object. The medium often continues past the text itself.

Returning to the issues of codex and roll, Sofía Torallas Tovar (University of Chicago) discussed the opposite case in a paper on “Resisting the Codex: Christian Rolls in Late Antiquity.” While modern scholarly imaginations associate early Christian book culture with the emergence of the codex, Torallas Tovar demonstrates that scrolls continue to function in a range of contexts. While the codex becomes a standard format for some kinds of Christian literature, the media ecology of Christian texts also includes the continued use of scrolls — for episcopal letters, for texts like Didache and Jubilees, and for day-to-day letters and documents. Both the codex and the roll belong in a wider landscape of late ancient Christian material texts.

Finally, Matthew Larsen (Princeton) offered a paper on “Codex Bobiensis: A Real-and-Imagined Biography of One Gospel Manuscript.” Applying a model of “real-and-imagined” history from the work of Heather Blair, Larsen narrated the biography of the Latin Gospel manuscript known as Codex Bobiensis (Turin National University Library, G.VII.15), from its production in Roman North Africa to its current dismembered state in Turin. This manuscript offers an unusual — and often ignored — Gospel text and an even more unusual hybridized epitomized form, combining Mark and Matthew. It takes its common name from Bobbio Abbey, where it was preserved in part because of a remembered association with the Irish missionary Columbanus (ca. 540–615 CE). The story of this object ends (for now) in Turin, where the manuscript exists as a collection of dismounted folios. Larsen’s paper offers new lenses with which to examine the continued and changing materiality of Gospel texts as objects.

Jeremiah Coogan, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

Riddles, Reindeer, and Irish Prostitutes, Part 2

Find Part 1 to this post here!

The Perils of Studying Virgil 

That the erudition of Irish scholars in the early Middle Ages was not always cast in a positive light is reflected in a letter, written nearly two centuries earlier, by Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury (d. 709). Aldhelm writes in admonishing language to his student Wihtfrith that he is none too pleased with the latter’s decision to go study in Ireland. He wonders why Wihtfrith would forsake the study of the Old and New Testament to read foul pagan literature, i.e., Virgil, which was apparently being taught in the monastic centres of Ireland. More colourful still is Aldhelm’s language in the oft-quoted passage below:

Quidnam, rogitans quaeso, orthodoxae fidei sacramento commodi affert circa temeratum spurcae Proserpinae incestum—quod abhorret fari enucleate— legendo scrutandoque sudescere aut Hermionam, petulantem Menelai et Helenae sobolem, quae, ut prisca produnt opuscula, despondebatur pridem iure dotis Oresti demumque sententia immutata Neoptolemo nupsit, lectionis praeconio venerari aut Lupercorum bacchantum antistites ritu litantium Priapo parasitorum heroico stilo historiae caraxere.

What, pray, I beseech you eagerly, is the benefit to the sanctity of the orthodox faith to expend energy by reading and studying the foul pollution of base Proserpina, which I shrink from mentioning in plain speech; or to revere, through celebration in study, Hermione, the wanton offspring of Menelaus and Helen, who, as the ancient texts report, was engaged for a while by right of dowry to Orestes, then, having changed her mind, married Neoptolemus; or to record—in the heroic style of epic—the high priests of the Luperci, who revel in the fashion of those cults that sacrifice to Priapus […].[1]

But Aldhelm did not stop there. No, truly, Ireland held further dangers still than the dactylic hexameters of the Augustan poets of old. He continues:

Porro tuum discipulatum ceu cernuus arcuatis poplitibus flexisque suffraginibus feculenta farna compulsus posco, ut nequaquam prostibula vel lupanarium nugas, in quis pompulentae prostitutae delitescunt, lenocinante luxu adeas, quae obrizo rutilante periscelidis armillaque lacertorum terete utpote faleris falerati curules comuntur, […]

Moreover, I, compelled by this foul report, beg your Discipleship, genuflecting, as it were, with arched knee and bent leg, that you in no wise go near the whores or the trumpery of bawdy houses, where lurk pretentious prostitutes with luxury as their pander, who are adorned with the flashing burnish of leg-bands and with smooth arm bracelets, just as ornamented chariots are adorned with metal bosses; […]

It would seem that reading Virgil and engaging prostitutes go hand in hand, the beneficiary being equally worthy of damnation in Aldhelm’s eyes. It is a pity that we never find out whether Wihtfrith actually heeded his teacher’s advice or, indeed, what lines (facetiously penned in hexameter?) he may have tendered in response to assuage his anxious master’s fears. The letter to Wihtfrith, along with many others of Aldhelm’s writings, survives today only in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, an early-twelfth-century history of the English bishops. Aldhelm’s letters are contained in Book V of the Gesta, the section of William’s work dedicated to the history of Malmesbury Abbey and to Aldhelm, its founder.

King Alfred and a Reindeer 

Having now moved from Ireland, via Wales, into Anglo-Saxon England, we are coming to our final stop on the journey through language contacts, manuscripts, and riddles in North-western Europe. While this section does not contain a riddle or admonition, it deals with one of the most interesting examples of language contact that I have come across. And it involves no lesser a man than Alfred of Wessex himself. As I mentioned before, it is only natural to reflect, when two languages come into contact, how these are both different and alike. When I recently listened to BBC4’s In Our Time podcast on the ‘Danelaw’[2] (referring to both an area of Norse occupation as well as customs and legal practices), one of the speakers, Prof. Judith Jesch of the University of Nottingham, discussed the story of the voyages of the Norwegian tradesman Ohthere during his stay at the court of King Alfred. Alfred had acceded to the throne of Wessex in 871, the only kingdom within Anglo-Saxon England that was not under Norse rule at the time, and later in 886, Alfred negotiated a treaty with the Danish king Guthrum, establishing a border between their two domains. Apart from being a skilled military and political leader, Alfred was also invested in cultural reform and education, looking for inspiration across the Channel to what had been achieved as part of the Carolingian Renaissance. One of the areas that Alfred’s efforts centred on was providing translations of important Latin texts, especially theological and historical works. One of these works was Orosius’ Seven Books against the Pagans, by that time the standard source for world history. At one time, it was even believed that it was Alfred himself who translated the text into Old English, although this theory has now largely fallen out of favour.[3] And it is as part of the Old English Orosius that we find the fascinating story of the voyage of Ohthere to Alfred’s court. Ohthere tells the king that he comes from the northernmost part of Norway, hardly inhabited, and brings him a gift of walrus tusks, containing precious ivory. Then he tells the king that:

He wæs swyðe spedig man on þæm æhtum þe heora speda on beoð, þæt is on wildrum. He hæfde þagyt, ða he þone cyningc sohte, tamra deora unbebohtra syx hund. þa deor hi hatað hranas; […]

He was a very rich man in those possessions which their riches consist of, that in wild deer. He had still, when he came to see the king, six hundred unsold tame deer. These deer they call ‘reindeer’.[4]

Ohthere’s account in British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius B i, f. 12v [5]
Several insights can be gained from this little anecdote. As Judith Jesch points out in the podcast, there seems to have been no translator present at the conversation between Ohthere and the king. It must be that either Ohthere—as a tradesman—had sufficient knowledge of Old English to talk to Alfred; or that in turn, Alfred and the members of his court had sufficient knowledge of Old Norse to navigate the conversation; or indeed, that Old Norse and Old English were similar enough that, to borrow Jesch’s terms, linguistic differences could easily be negotiated. Such a negotiation is particularly apparent from the above passage by the introduction of the word for ‘reindeer’ into the English language. Since English had no word for this foreign animal, the Norse hreinn was borrowed into English as hrán (see Bosworth and Toller s.v. hrán), as Old Norse ei is equivalent to Old English á (that the reverse happened also can be seen through the borrowing of English personal names such as Æthelstan into Norse as Aðalsteinn).[6] We can imagine Alfred’s clerk interrogating Ohthere as to what exactly a hrán was and why it made him so wealthy. Embedded in the wider context of the Old English translation of Orosius, we therefore find this fascinating exchange between Alfred the Great and a humble yet resourceful reindeer farmer from Norway.

This selection of anecdotes found and lifted from the pages of medieval parchment provides just a glimpse into the fascinating world of medieval Irish, Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse contacts. And just as the modern student diligently devotes their time to make sense of the difficult Old-Irish Paradigms and Selections from the Old-Irish Glosses, annotating their copy with helpful notes, so did medieval scribes annotate their Latin texts, spelling out difficulties and playing with languages. And as undergraduates and postgraduates apply to the most competitive and most coveted university programmes, either with or without the counsel of an academic mentor or advisor, so did Wihtfrith no doubt make Ireland his educational destination. And no doubt, when Alfred of Wessex received Ohthere at his court, we may not have anticipated learning so much about northern Norwegian fauna. What these examples teach us is that history and language, manuscripts and literature can never be studied in isolation, but must come together to allow us to construct the story of the past. And while the past may be a different country (pace Hartley),[7] they don’t always do things differently there.

Marie-Luise Theuerkauf, Ph.D.
University of Cambridge


[1] Lapidge, M. and Herren, M., Aldhelm: The Prose Works. D.S. Brewer, 1979: 154.

[2] Visit: [last accessed 28/04/19].

[3] Lund, Niels (ed.), Two voyagers at the court of King Alfred: The ventures of Ohthere and Wulfstan, together with the Description of northern Europe from the Old English Orosius. York, 1984: 6.

[4] Lund 1984: 20.

[5] The manuscript is available online here:

[6] Lund 1984: 56.

[7] Hartley, L. P., The Go-Between. Hamish Hamilton, 1953.