The purpose of this study is to
give some idea of the richness and variety of the national collection of
English literary manuscripts. As a representative body of material drawn
from the whole course of imaginative literature written in English in Britain,
the holdings of the National Library cannot be matched elsewhere. They
range in a date from the earliest specimens of Anglo-Saxon to drafts of
work by living authors. They include manuscripts by Scottish, Irish and
Welsh writers, such as Robert Burns, James Joyce and Dylan Thomas. They
cover every variety of prose, verse and drama. And they embrace every possible
type of literary document, from medieval illuminated texts and autograph
fair copies to annotated typescripts and corrected proofs. As a result,
they are of interest equally as much to the editor and textual critic as
to the literary historian, the biographer and the student of handwriting.
That this collection of English
literary manuscripts should have such a range is hardly surprising, for
it is founded on a series of private libraries each of which is rich in
some particular period or field. The four great collections that were combined
in the British Museum Library in 1759 are those of Sir Robert Cotton, Sir
Hans Sloane, Robert and Edward Harley, 1st and 2nd Earls of Oxford and
the Old Royal Library formed by successive monarchs from Edward VI to George
II. They were supplemented, during the first thirty years of the 19th century,
by a further half-dozen collections of distinction. In our own century
the George Murray Smith Bequest and the purchase of the Ashley Library
of the bibliographer T.J. Wise have added enormously to their holdings
of manuscripts of writers from the romantics to Conrad. Many modern literary
autographs were acquired through a scheme set up jointly with the Arts
Council of Great Britain in 1969 (since discontinued); while, following
the Theatres Act of 1968, the British Library now has responsibility for
copies of all English plays performed in the United Kingdom since 1824,
and formerly lodged with the Lord Chamberlain.
Some of the manuscripts have interesting,
even extraordinary, histories. Two of the very finest, both belonging to
the later 15th century, were discovered quite independently in 1934. The
autobiography of Margery Kempe turned up in a cupboard of household oddments,
while the owner was searching for ping-pong balls; and the unique manuscript
of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur was discovered in the Fellow’s
Library at Winchester College, where it may have lain unrecognised since
the early 17th century. The famous “Percy Folio” of English ballads was
found in about 1750 by Thomas Percy during a visit to a friend’s house
were the maid was using it to light the fire -hence the missing or mutilated
leaves at its beginning.
The charred covers of Traherne’s
Commentaries of Heaven tell a similar story. This was rescued
from a burning rubbish-tip in South Lancashire around 1967. The finder
subsequently emigrated to Canada, where the manuscript was identified in
1980, the latest in a series of discoveries of unsuspected manuscripts
A trunk of papers uncovered in a
London bank-vault in 1976 turned out to have belonged to Lord Byron’s friend,
Scrope Davies. When the contents were examined they were found to include
-amongst the bills, betting-slips and other memorabilia-poems by both Byron
and Shelley that Davies had undertaken to carry from Italy to England.
They had been abandoned when his mounting debts forced him to flee the
country early in 1820. The number and frequency of such discoveries over
the past half-century offers a very strong likelihood of more to come.
It might be as well to consider
what is meant by literary manuscripts. In the strictest sense, of course,
they are hand-written texts of works of creative literature, such as Beowulf
or Le Morte d’Arthur; the revised fair copy of the play of
Sir Thomas More; Browne’s drafts for Urneburiall
and Pope’s for his translation of the Iliad; or Dicken’s
Nicholas Nickleby and the notebooks of W.H. Auden. Many pieces
of imaginative writing never intended for publication, like Pepy’s Diary,
Coleridge’s notebooks and marginalia, or the letters of Edward Lear, undoubtedly
also deserve to be included. By the same token one may admit non-fictional
or philosophical masterpieces such as Hobbe’s Leviathan,
Gibbon’s Autobiography or Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting
Man, for these have become part of the English literary heritage.
But there are other types of document that may be considered as literary
manuscripts-namely, almost any hand-written item deriving from or relating
to a writer and his work, or to the production and publication of that
work. This brings in, besides modern typewritten drafts and revised proofs,
the records of the 16th and 17th century Masters of the Revels, business
letters of certain Victorian publishers, and even the drawings with which
Keith Douglas proposed to illustrate his Alamein to Zem Zem.
Something should also be said of
the terms used in describing literary manuscripts. First, the word “autograph”
means quite simply “written in the hand of the author of the work”; the
autograph fair copy of Gray’s Elegy is therefore that which
was copied by himself. Clearly, a man’s own signature must be an autograph;
but to speak of “an autograph” as if it denotes a signature is a misuse
of the term, perpetuated in works like The Guinness Book of Autographs,
which is exclusively a collection of signatures by famous people in facsimile.
Perhaps this growing misconception is attributable to the popularity of
“autograph-albums”. Another term that is sometimes rather loosely used
as a synonym for “autograph” is “holograph”, which actually means “written
wholly in the hand of one man”, and should not be taken to imply that the
hand is that of the author. In the progress of a work from script to print,
an autograph draft usually belongs to an earlier stage of composition than
an autograph fair copy. Later still comes the typewritten copy of modern
times -though some writers have been known to move from manuscript to typescript
and back to manuscript- and finally the printed proof with autograph corrections
or revisions. The distinction to be drawn between these two last terms
is also an important one.
The aspect of manuscripts that probably
intrigues people most is their handwriting, the historical study of which
is called palaeography. The history of handwriting shows a definite line
of development. Simply stated, the various styles of hand -the common abbreviation
for handwriting- developed partly as a result of outside influences, such
as imitation of foreign models, and partly in response to the practical
necessities of copying. The formal book-hands, as they are called, that
are in the manuscripts of Chaucer’s age, developed for ease and speed of
copying in a growing commercial market into the cursive styles practised
during the 15th century. From the hands of the two Malory scribes of the
1470s to that of Sir Thomas Wyatt in the 1530s is only a short step; and
this Tudor cursive gave rise to the Secretary hand that reached its peak
during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I.
At the same time there appeared
the Roman or Italic style, originating from Italian humanist hands and
very widely taught by writing masters. Examples may be found in the handwriting
of Donne and Milton.
During the 18th century, writing-masters
began to teach a new round hand that is sometimes called “copperplate”.
In due course this became universally accepted as the “English hand”; its
influence may be traced in Jane Austen and Charles Lamb. In the 19th century,
aided somewhat by the invention of the steel-nibbed pen in the 1820s, handwriting
began to develop along more individualistic lines that tend defy categorisation.
Once again, speed, at this time of widespread literacy, was the catalyst;
and the pace of politics, business and journalism had the direst consequences
for legibility. It was this general decline in standards that led, in the
early years of the 20th century, to a movement for better handwriting,
and in particular for the revival of the Italic hand. The result can be
seen in the clear and careful hands practised by Sassoon and Douglas.
Apart from their interesting hands,
or their value as literacy relics, other kinds of information can be gathered
from manuscripts. For the period before the invention of printing they
are, of course, supremely important as witnesses to the text, and indeed
the very existence, of the works that they preserve. Even after Caxton
they retain their textual value whenever the work concerned did get into
print, or when it was printed after the author’s death, or merely without
his active supervision. The importance of the many verse-commonplace surviving
from the 16th and 17th centuries lies in the means that they provide of
checking the accuracy, and identifying the authorship, of poems that were
never seen through the press, or in constructing a pedigree -known as “stemma”-
for assessing the relative value of the surviving texts of a poet’s work.
With autograph or similar material, early drafts have been found to shed
valuable light on the processes of composition, and even to supply clues
to the author’s meaning in obscure passages.
Finally, it must be emphasised that
the information to be derived from a manuscript is seldom exhausted. The
most meticulous edition of photographic-facsimile cannot reproduce all
the details of the original. As our knowledge grows about an author and
his methods, and as news techniques of scientific examination are developed,
so fresh questions suggest themselves and new avenues of approach open
up. We cannot, however, anticipate what these may be, and it is therefore
essential that we spare no effort in preserving and recording the manuscripts,
since any aspect of their physical make-up, however trivial it may seem
to us, may be the subject of fruitful research and literary discoveries
in the future.
ENGLISH LITERARY MANUSCRIPTS: FROM
THE BEGINNINGS TO 1500
The written records of Old English,
as the language of the Anglo-Saxons is nowadays called, include the largest
quantity of creative literature to have come down to us from the early
Middle Ages in any language except from Latin. As with all older literatures,
its most significant and highly-developed aspect is its poetry. While native
Anglo-Saxon prose begins only with the revival of learning fostered by
King Alfred of Wessex (848-899), the earliest oral poetry is sometimes
considerably older. The anonymous epic of Beowulf, which
celebrates the exploits of a 6th century Scandinavian hero, probably belongs
to the following century. Its unique manuscript (1), which dates from roughly
1000 A.D., seems to owe its existence to a general impulse towards the
systematic preservation of specimens of Old English poetry. The Cotton
Library fire of 1731 that charred its margins and damaged or destroyed
other contemporary works reminds us that Anglo-Saxon literature must have
sustained many similar losses throughout the ages.
Beowulf was composed
in the Germanic measure known as alliterative verse, which depends on stress
and the internal rhyming of initial sounds, rather than on the syllable-counting
and end-rhymes familiar to us since the time of Chaucer.
Hwaet we Gardena ingear-dagum
When English, in its newly-modified form,
finally reasserted itself over the Latin and Norman French of the post-Conquest
period, this native tradition of verse-writing was revived. From the second
half of the 14th century two alliterative masterpieces survive. The romance
of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2) appears to derive
from Cheshire or South Lancashire, and the manuscript in which it is preserved
is remarkable as the earliest surviving attempt to illustrate any medieval
English poem. Very different in character is the social and religious allegory
of Langland’s Piers Plowman (3), the three successive versions
of which are represented by no fewer than seventy contemporary manuscripts.
(Beowulf, line I)
In a somere seyson whan softe
was the sonne....
(Piers Plowman, line I)
Literary works copied in the hands
of their authors are rarely met with before the 16th century. The enormous
success of Langland’s poem marks the virtual beginning of professional
copying of English literary works on a large scale; by the end of the century
the growing demand for copies was being satisfied by an increasing number
of full-time scribes. These craftsmen carried out commissions for wealthy
patrons of for the stationers who acted both as publishers and booksellers.
As occasion demanded they could turn out relatively plain texts on high-quality
papers that had recently begun to be imported from the Continent, or sumptuous
manuscripts on vellum.
Alliterative verse soon gave way
to the rhymed syllabic variety that was naturalised from French and Italian
models by Chaucer and his friend John Gower, a London lawyer whose poems
still survive in upwards of seventy manuscripts, including some fine presentation-copies.
The scribe of the Confessio Amantis (4) was a professional
copyist whose large and well-spaced hand is closely matched by that found
in one (5) of the five complete manuscripts of Geoffrey Chaucer Canterbury
Tales surviving in the Harley Collection. Chaucer’s great poem,
which has come down to us in over eighty contemporary copies, remained
uncompleted at his death, and in the absence of an autograph or other clearly
authorial versions Chaucer’s intentions have to be inferred from comparison
of all the different texts. This manuscript presents a unique ordering
of the tales, with some evidence of intelligent editing by an unknown hand.
The copyist of the Tales
was a prolific craftsman who around the turn of the 15th century produced
handsome collections of poetry by Langland, Chaucer and Gower; the decoration
was left, as was customary, to skilled painters. The portrait of Chaucer
found in the Harley manuscript of Thomas Hoccleve’s Regimen of Princes
(6) was certainly the work of such an independent artist, though as a likeness
it was presumably approved by Hoccleve, who had been a friend of Chaucer.
Interestingly enough, the scribe of the Chaucer manuscript is known to
have collaborated at some time with Hoccleve and other in copying a manuscript
of Gower’s Confessio that is now in Cambridge. As a Clerk
of the Privy Seal Hoccleve was an expert penman who was evidently happy
to supplement his income by occasional work of this kind.
From the 13th century, cycles of
short “Mystery Plays” on biblical subjects had been performed in towns
and cities by guilds of tradesmen on religious feast-days. Most of the
surviving manuscripts belong to the latter part of the 15th century. The
dialect of the so-called “N-Town Plays” (7), which were at one time thought
to originate from Coventry, points rather to the East Midlands. This paper
manuscript, smaller in format than the other surviving cycles and carefully
corrected in various hands, may have been the property of a travelling
company of players.
Two English prose-works of the 15th
century stand out from the rest. Margery Kempe of King’s Lynn, whose autobiography
(8) is only the second known book by an Englishwoman was (like most people
at this time) illiterate. The present manuscript, which belongs to the
decade or so following her death in about 1439, stands at two removes from
the earliest one.
But the greatest literary achievement
of the age is undoubtedly the vast compilation of Arthurian romances adapted
largely from French by Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, much of whose
adult life was passed in prison, as punishment for various unchivalric
misdemeanours. The unique manuscript (9) has in the course of its history
lost the first and last quires of its original 1,000 pages of text.
The presence of faint offset type-letters
on some pages of the Malory manuscript suggests that it had been in Caxton’s
office at Westminster while he was printing Le Morte d’Arthur (1485).
And so, ironically enough, it seems to have been used by the very man who
brought into England the craft by which the professional copying of finely-written
and illuminated literary texts was soon to be superseded.
Beowulf: This is the only
surviving medieval manuscript of Beowulf, the most important poem in Old
English and the first great English literary masterpiece. It tells of the
feats of the Geatish (Scandinavian) hero Beowulf. This anonymous 7th century
epic is the earliest surviving poem in a major European language and one
of the few specimens of Germanic heroic poetry known to us. The manuscript
dates from the first quarter of the 11th century but the exact date at
which the poem was composed is a matter of controversy. The manuscript
was copied on vellum several centuries later than the composition and was
damaged in the fire which ravaged the Cotton Library in 1731 and restored
(2) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:
About 1400 A.D. The manuscript of this alliterative romance on an Arthurian
theme is almost the earliest illustrated work of literature in English.
This rather crudely-drawn sketch represents the temptation of Gawain by
the wife of his opponent. This manuscript, copied about 1400, preserves
the only known contemporary text of the poem. It also includes three religious
poems, known as Patience, Cleaness and Pearl, that have been attributed
to the Gawain poet.
This anonymous poem is by far the
best of the medieval romances, written in the older alliterative verse-form
that relied on stress and internal assonance rather than fixed syllables
and end-rhymes. It is rich and imaginative and descriptive detail and full
of subtle touches of characterisation and humour.
Its narrative interweaves French
Arthurian legends with themes of challenge and temptation that traceable
to Irish and Welsh heroic folk-tales. Its unknown author, who hailed from
the North-West Midlands, seems to have been at work during the second half
of the 14th century.
(3) William Langland (about 1332 - about
1400): The Vision of Piers Plowman. Three separate versions
of Langland’s allegorical poem were composed between about 1362 and 1390.
This is a copy of the final or “C” text, and was transcribed about 1390-1400.
Each of the alliterative verses is marked by a red point at the break of
the line. Piers Plowman is a singular creation. It is an alliterative poem
unlike any other in that it survives in more than fifty manuscripts, and
a dream poem unlike any other in that it consists of a long series of dreams
linked by short waking-interludes. As an allegorical poem it is peculiar
too, especially in the conduct of its action. Each of the dreams has its
own narrative structure.
(4) John Gower (about 1330 - 1408): Confessio
Amantis. The earliest version of Gower’s English poem of “The Lover’s
Confession”, completed in about 1390, is shown here in a fine copy on vellum
of about 1400-1425. The poem is dedicated to Richard III and concludes
with a request to Chaucer to proceed with his Troylus and Crisseyde.
Gower has been described as “the first English transmitter of so many of
the classical themes which Renaissance poets and painters were to embroider”
(5) Geoffrey Chaucer (about 1340 - 1400):
“The Friar’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales. The scribe
of this handsome vellum manuscript of about 1410 was one of the most prolific
copyists of vernacular texts in this period. The decorative initial with
elaborate three-quarter border that is seen on the right-hand page was
added by another artist. The skilled professional who copied this manuscript
is known to have produced nine manuscripts of long poems by Chaucer and
by his contemporaries William Langland and John Gower.
Chaucer , son of a London winemerchant,
rose in the service of Richard II to become controller of customs in the
port of London. His great poem was conceived around 1386, after he had
settled in Kent, close by the road to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at
Canterbury. It’s framed as a series of stories told by a group of pilgrims
to enliven their journey. Left unfinished at his death, the 24 surviving
tales represent only a quarter of the projected cycle. In this comedy of
human life, Chaucer attained poetic maturity in a distinctively English
idiom. It is the first work by a major author to be written in a recognisably
modern form of language.
(6) Thomas Hoccleve (about 1368 - 1426):
The Regimen of Princes. This early 15th century portrait
of Chaucer, inserted at a relevant point in Hoccleve’s poem, shows him
in later life, a rather portly fair-haired man with a ruddy complexion
and a forked beard.
(7) The “N-Town Cycle” of Mediaeval Mistery
Plays: Late 15th century. Though formerly identified with Coventry, this
cycle is nowadays thought to have originated in the East Midlands. The
large Arabic “16” in the right hand margin indicates the position of this
play in the sequence, while the square brackets mark out the rhyme-scheme.
(8) Margery Kempe (about 1373 - about
1439): Autobiography. Margery’s vigorous narrative of her travels is the
earliest autobiography in the language. The only known manuscript, written
on paper in the mid-15th century, is the work of a scribe bearing the Norfolk
name of “Salthows”.
(9) Sir Thomas Malory (died 1471): Le
Morte d’Arthur. The sole surviving manuscript of Malory’s vast
compilation of Arthurian legends was copied at some time during the 1470s
or early 1480s. It is the work of two scribes, the hand of the principal
or supervising scribe being seen in the first six lines of this page. Malory
gathered together a variety of Arthurian tales in English and French, in
prose and verse, in alliterative and non-alliterative poetry. He translated,
edited, added to, abstracted from, and remodelled his originals, giving
shape to the whole chorus of medieval voices which told, piecemeal and
in different tongues, the matter of Britain.