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by Arantxa Serantes


 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 from Traherne.

 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.


 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
  (Beowulf, line I)
or later:
  In a somere seyson whan softe was the sonne....
  (Piers Plowman, line I)
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.

 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 in 1845.

(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.