15.03.11, Fein and Jonston, eds., Robert Thornton and his Books

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William Rogers

The Medieval Review 15.03.11

Fein, Susanna and Michael Johnston. Robert Thornton and His Books: Essays on the Lincoln and London Thornton Manuscripts. Manuscript Culture in the British Isles. Woodbridge, Suffolk: York Medieval Press, 2014. Pp. xii, 310. ISBN: 9781903153512 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
William Rogers
Case Western Reserve University

While attention to Robert Thornton and his work as a scribe has been steady for the past few decades, Susanna Fein and Michael Johnston's collected edition reassessing his two manuscripts offers promising evidence and material with which to reconsider the nature of manuscript production and textual transmission in the fifteenth century. In fact, as Michael Johnston makes clear in the introduction ("The Cheese and the Worms and Robert Thornton"), "Thornton is, in the vein of micro-historiography, the marginalized exception that can help us understand better the rules governing book production and circulation in fifteenth-century England" (2). Johnston's point here is nuanced and welcomed: by highlighting the scribal work of Thornton, he and the other contributors of the volume attempt to uncover a kind of book production that is not commercial in nature, and one which, in its uniqueness, can provide both general knowledge of manuscripts and specific information about the Lincoln and London Thornton manuscripts, outside the context of larger narratives about professional copying or the works of Chaucer, Gower, or Langland.

In the first essay, "The Contents of Robert Thornton's Manuscripts," Fein brings together descriptions of both manuscripts, copied by Thornton, and first explains the nature of his copying, the layout of the manuscripts, listing the texts arranged by their respective booklets. In her discussion of the manuscripts, Fein tracks the "ways in which Thornton signified his presence as their maker" (16), teasing out thematic connections: she argues for example that, with Booklet 1 of the Lincoln manuscript, "Thornton has framed his manuscript as a World History, secular in its thrust for these first booklets" (17). Fein continues in this way, bringing together codicological evidence of the manuscripts with the interpretations of the texts, based on subject, theme, and arrangement, cogently demonstrating the nature of Thornton's copying as a kind of "pious work" (19), undertaken in order to create texts for his family. Following her concise outlining of the manuscripts, Fein next expands on the contents of the two manuscripts, describing each text in detail and giving textual witnesses from other manuscripts, where they exist.

Fein's highlighting of the personal and pious nature of Thornton's copying naturally leads to the next essay, George Keiser's "Robert Thornton: Gentlemen, Reader, and Scribe." Keiser's contribution begins with a discussion of Thornton's private chapel, established in 1397 (67), as Keiser explains how the life of Robert Thornton and what is known of him in the extant historical record. In keeping with the volume's concentration on the microhistory of the manuscripts and their compiler, Keiser considers how such a chapel likely had an effect on the construction of the two Thornton manuscripts. Arguing that the "two manuscripts Robert Thornton compiled offer abundant evidence that his education had been shaped, directly or indirectly, by a monastic sensibility" (69), Keiser speculates about the possibility of a tutor for the young Thornton who likely had monastic ties himself. These suggestions introduce the focus of Keiser's essay, the tracing of graphic forms used in the manuscripts and how they change, together with concise readings of the texts in the respective manuscripts. Keiser's essay takes as central the order of the copying of texts, their date, demonstrating a kind of unifying theme for the Lincoln and London manuscripts. He concludes by observing that the "Lincoln manuscript provided directions and examples to strive for worldly glory, goodness and joy in a world subject to Fortune, while at the same time yearning always for true good and stability of God" (106), in contrast to the London manuscript which as a whole gives voice to the 'inexorable forces of divine will" (106).

Next, in "The Thornton Manuscripts and Book Production in York," Joel Fredell examines the illustrations in both the Lincoln and London Thornton manuscripts, demonstrating how these manuscripts, their compilation, and illustrations shed light on not only the reading practices of a learned laity in Northern England but also on the existence of "a complex relationship between romance and devotional literature" (109) and "evidence of mini-collections that came to Thornton as exemplars" (109). Fredell's essay firmly fits the larger aims of the collection, seeing the idiosyncrasies of Thornton's book production and its place in larger histories of manuscript creation in the fifteenth century. By examining the ties between Thornton's manuscripts--especially the existence of two styles of illustration within the Lincoln manuscript, one of which appears localized to Yorkshire, and London, BL, Cotton Nero A.x--Fredell's essay suggests that a complicated relationship existed in illustration of sacred and secular texts in books produced in and around York. Helpful to the reader of this volume will be the appendix which follows in which Fredell outlines the specific illustrations of the Thornton manuscripts, organized by respective manuscript and booklet.

In "The Text of the Alliterative Morte Arthure: A Prolegomenon for a Future Edition," the carefully-argued essay that follows, Ralph Hanna and Thorlac Turville-Petre take as their focus the edition of the Alliterative Morte Arthure produced by Mary Hamel. Central to Hanna and Turville-Petre's evaluation of Hamel's work is the age of this edition--over 30 years old and published before LALME and Hoyt N. Duggan's "important set of articles on those constraints governing alliterative metrics" (132). Methodically, the authors describe how Hamel's edition often represents not what the poet wrote, but what Thornton copied (131), a judgment which Hanna and Turville-Petre illustrate by means of close examination of specific lines and their alliteration. Of great interest to the reviewer and other readers of this essay is the discussion of the importance in using Malory's text to fashion proper alliteration and lines more closely to those written originally by the poet.

The Alliterative Morte Arthure is fleshed out further by Mary Michele Poellinger in her "'The rosselde spere to his herte rynnes': Religious Violence in the Alliterative Morte Arthure." Here she ties a consistent imagery of bloody and bodily wounds across generic boundaries, from religious depictions of the Passion to secular narratives describing the horrors of warfare. Noting that her "examination of the evocative language used in the alliterative Morte Arthure (Lincoln art. 8) illustrates not only the anonymous author's skill in weaving a litany of medieval traditions together, but also Thornton's ability, as compiler, to incorporate the individual text into the context of the manuscript" (157), Poellinger describes the Passion in both Lincoln and London Thornton manuscripts, and, simultaneously, highlights how this religious imagery can highlight the meaning of secular materials within the same manuscript. Concentrating mainly on Morte Arthure and, to a lesser degree, the Siege of Jerusalem, the essay illustrates how "violent images and the language of injuring become ways to borrow and share generic tropes, and, by their means, the secular protagonists of romance are both glorified and judged" (175).

Next, the violence of spiritual narratives is further discussed, in Michael Johnston's "Constantinian Christianity in the London Manuscript: The Codicological and Linguistic Evidence of Thornton's Intentions," in which Johnston argues that Thornton worked as scriptor, compilator, and commentator, drawing upon St. Bonaventure's fourfold distinction describing authorial or textual production. Johnston's essay is rich and varied and demonstrates through linguistic evidence the presence of four different exemplars in the construction of a kind of "Salvation History" (180) through the first five texts of the London Thornton manuscript. Johnston's reading of Cursor Mundi and its connection to the Northern Passion in the manuscript presents a compelling case that Thornton's activities qualify both as scriptor and compilator, but also as commentator who both reproduces writing from an exemplar but adds original content that explains the copied text. By working through this "Salvation History," Johnston also simultaneous sheds light on what he describes as Thornton's intentions: the creation of a "Constantinian Christianity" (200), a merging of religious imagery, language, and narrative with imperial aims. With this thought, Johnston concludes with a kind of idiosyncratic judgment. The reader might bemoan this creation of a noxious form of salvific history and at the same time celebrate the individual agency of a scriptor, compilator, and commentator, who could assemble his own texts in Northern England, before the concentration of textual production in the printing centers of London and Westminster (201).

Johnston's meditations on Cursor Mundi segue nicely to the next essay. There, in "Apocryphal Romance in the London Thornton Manuscript," Julia Nelson Couch argues that Thornton's Childhood of Christdiffers from two similar witnesses of the poem, in that Thornton's version foregrounds the apocryphal nature of the story and highlights its status as romance and notes how Childhoodis unique among the three versions in its avoidance of "an illusion of verity for the narrative" (205). Indeed, according to Couch, this narrative encapsulates not only the unifying thematic structure of the London Thornton manuscript as a whole, that is, the depiction of Christian hero versus enemy of Christ, but also rewrites the Passion in a manuscript as an event always present in Childhood. Indeed, it seems clear that this text of the childhood of Jesus rehearses each event from his youth as a reflection of the coming tribulations destined for the body of Christ. By reading this narrative as a romance, set outside time and space--the crucified Jesus is the constant specter haunting the events of the child Christ--Couch ably demonstrates how this narrative is key to understanding the unity of the manuscript, and it is a contribution that will prove especially useful as an addition to the two preceding essays.

It seems appropriate that the final essay, before the afterword, should discuss the ending of the Lincoln Thornton manuscript: the Liber de Diversis Medicinis and the incomplete herbal that follows. In "Thornton's Remedies and the Practices of Medical Reading," Julie Orlemanski traces the possible genesis of these two texts, an endeavor that simultaneous sheds light on the nature of medical texts in late Middle English manuscripts. Arguing that Liber was most likely copied before the rest of the Lincoln Thornton manuscript, Orlemanski characterizes this first self-contained text as a remedy book, later a "scientific and medical book" (245), once the now-incomplete herbal was added, and, finally, once these texts become part of the larger manuscript, an "ambitious household miscellany" (245). One implication of Orlemanski's argument is that Thornton's manuscript, in its mixture of medical texts and narratives about romance and religion, becomes another idiosyncratic feature of his copying, because, as Orlemanski's admits, the appearance of such extant compendia is quite rare. She concludes by considering the incomplete version of Lydgate's Dietary in the London Thornton manuscript, a text that introduces yet more questions both about the role of medical texts within larger manuscripts and what qualifies as a medical text.

The "Afterword: Robert Thornton Country," authored by Rosalind Field with Dav Smith returns to the Thornton's home, and offers an informative history not only of the surrounding environs, but also of medieval Ryedale. Moving from an overview of medieval Ryedale to a description of Stonegrave Minster and its Victorian rebuilding, this summary of Thornton's locale and history summarizes what is known locally of Thornton's life and laments, rightfully, the dearth of information and a proper tomb for the scribe. This section, as with the rest of the volume, demonstrates the richness of what is known of Thornton, even as it reminds the reader that much is either lost or still waits to be discovered. As a key to unlock the idiosyncratic activities of Thornton and to gain entrance into a world of manuscripts that offers still more unexplored territory, this collection is a necessity for all scholars of the English fifteenth century. Throughout the authors produce carefully-argued readings of Thornton's work, in clear, lucid prose, and the resulting collection suffers no infelicities in language, style, or thought. Perhaps the greatest endorsement this reviewer can give to this volume is that it reproduces the world of Thornton by creating an edited volume that reflects the scribal work of Thornton: unique, coherent, and destined to help shape the field of Middle English studies for years to come.

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William Rogers

Case Western Reserve University