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).


Beginning with Almsgiving

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The Virgin Mary, at the crucifixion; the Ramsey Psalter, last quarter of the 10th century, England; BL Harley 2904, f. 3v

Translating a poem is a tall order. There are many factors to consider and issues which must be negotiated in the process. Which is better—literal accuracy or stylistic approximation? We have asked modern translators from the Medieval Institute and English departments at University of Notre Dame to share translations of their favorite Old English poems, digitally displayed alongside their medieval counterparts. Recitations, both in Old and modern English, will likewise be featured as complementary audio files, accompanying both versions of each respective poem translated.

Today, we’d like to draw your attention to the first of these translations, which is now available on our site.  Almsgiving is contained in the Exeter Book, a collection of Old English poetry copied c. 970, and thus the oldest surviving collection of English literature in the world.  Jacob Riyeff, a PhD candidate in Notre Dame’s Department of English, has translated this beautiful poem, and you can read it below, as well as hear recordings of him reciting the Old English text and his own modern English translation.  We hope you enjoy!

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame

from the Old English Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501)

 Translation and Recitations by Jacob Riyeff


Wel bið þam eorle þe him on innan hafað,
reþehydig wer, rume heortan;
þæt him biþ for worulde weorðmynda mæst,
ond for ussum dryhtne doma selast.
Efne swa he mid wætre þone weallendan
leg adwæsce, þæt he leng ne mæg
blac byrnende burgum sceððan,
swa he mid ælmessan ealle toscufeð
synna wunde, sawla lacnað.

ASPR III, 223.


That disciple is blest whose spirit burns
with generosity, renovating the inner room
of her heart. The world rejoices at her worthiness
and the Lord glories in the welcome glow of her light.

Jesus ben Sirach says a surging
flame will be snuffed, raging fires
put down with welling water—no longer
able to damage dwellings with burning—
when that disciple douses sin, healing souls
with the gracious gift of her alms.

Previously published in Dappled Things 9.3 (2014) and “Lofsangas: Poems Old and New,” a chapbook by Jacob Riyeff (Franciscan University of Steubenville Press, 2015).

Jacob Riyeff
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame

Buried Alive?

Late medieval anchorhold at All Saints Church, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England; photo by Megan J. Hall.

Have you heard of medieval anchoresses? Most people haven’t. Anchoritism was a fascinating (and odd) phenomenon that happened all across Western Europe and has roots in the early Christian desert hermit tradition. An anchoress was a laywoman who wanted to withdraw from secular life and live instead in solitude, enclosed in a small room attached to an exterior wall of a church or castle, devoting the rest of her earthly life to Christian devotion and such works of service as she could perform from her cell (embroidering liturgical cloths is one example). She would have required a patron or an income from landholdings or other source to support her needs, such as food, water, and clothing. Among women this phenomenon was first documented in England in the twelfth century and became an increasingly popular choice that continued well into the sixteenth. Several handbooks were written for these women, at first in Latin and then in English. Arguably the most famous is the Ancrene Wisse, composed in the early thirteenth century, of which an impressive seventeen manuscripts survive.

This lifestyle choice seems very strange to us today. Who among us would choose to confine herself to a one-room cell for the rest of her life? Wouldn’t you get claustrophobic, or addled by cabin fever, or die from lack of exposure to sunlight? Wouldn’t you just get bored? Not to mention the deeper and off-putting mythologies that have grown up about anchoresses: rites of the dead were said over them at enclosure, they were bricked into their cells, they dug their graves in their cell floors with their hands a little bit every day, they never saw anyone, and their cells were always on the north side of the church so they’d suffer more from cold (they were just that penitential).

A bishop blesses an anchorite as she enters her cell; Pontifical, England, 1st quarter of the 15th century; London, British Library, Lansdowne MS 451, fol. 76v.

Perhaps the most chilling myth is that anchoresses were all walled up in their cells, like Fortunato in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” In fact, while sometimes the exterior door of the cell was bricked in, that was not always the case. Further, the ceremony happened with great solemnity and was a voluntary commitment on the part of the anchoress. Various medieval pontificals, service books for Church bishops, record these rites. The office in the fifteenth-century pontifical of Bishop Lacy calls for the door of the cell to be built up. Others, like the sixteenth-century pontifical of Archbishop Bainbridge directs the anchoress’s door to be firmly shut from the outside. The image above, from an early fifteenth-century Pontifical held at the British Library, accompanies an enclosure rite that begins “Ordo ad recludendum reclusum et anaco/ritam,” or “Ordo [a book containing the rites, sacraments, and other liturgical offices of the Church] for enclosure of a recluse and anchorite.” The bishop makes the sign of the cross above an anchoress entering her cell before enclosing her.

As part of the research for my dissertation-in-progress, a study of lay English women’s literacy in the thirteenth century, I’m visiting a number of medieval English churches that hosted anchorholds (or are rumored to have done so) and chronicling it on my blog. Two of the sites still retain their medieval anchorholds, one pictured at the top of the post and the other below. Interestingly, both have exterior doors.

The Church of St. Mary and St. Cuthbert, Chester-le-Street, Durham: the late medieval anchorhold is pictured at the far left, sporting a door and a window; photo by Megan Hall
The Church of St. Mary and St. Cuthbert, Chester-le-Street, Durham, England: the late medieval anchorhold is pictured at the far left, sporting a door and a window. Photo by Megan J. Hall.

There is, of course, much more to be said about the exterior fabric of these cells and what has changed over the course of five or six hundred years than is room for here. Nonetheless, the evidence demonstrates that anchoresses’ access to the world was a more complex matter than myth would have you believe.

Megan J. Hall, Ph.D. Candidate
Department of English, University of Notre Dame


The Pontifical of Bishop Lacy: Exeter, Cathedral Library of the Dean and Chapter, MS 3513

The Pontifical of Archbishop Bainbridge: Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, MS F. vi. 1

F. M. Steele, “Ceremony of Enclosing Anchorites,” in Anchoresses of the West (London, 1903), pp. 47-51.

Rotha Mary Clay, The Hermits and Anchorites of England (London, Methuen 1914).