16.09.27, Fein, ed., The Auchinleck Manuscript

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Ad Putter

The Medieval Review 16.09.27

Fein, Susanna, ed. The Auchinleck Manuscript: New Perspectives. Woodbridge: York Medieval Press , 2016. pp. xi, 253. ISBN: 978-1-903153-65-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Ad Putter
University of Bristol

Almost forty years have passed since the publication of the facsimile of the Auchinleck manuscript (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates 19.2.1), and a lot has happened since then. The 2003 digital edition by David Burnley and Alison Wiggins () epitomizes the changes ushered in by the twenty-first century. For anyone interested in the state of current scholarship, this substantial collection of thirteen essays is a must. The essays go back to a conference held in London in 2008. That, too, is now a while ago, and the time lag could explain why some of the contributors are not fully up-to-date. However, with the exception of a couple of essays that are below par, these are lively and intelligent essays on a manuscript that is of crucial importance to the study of medieval romance and Middle English studies more generally.

Susanna Fein's introduction is a model of its kind. In a brief space she summarizes recent developments in scholarship and contextualizes the essays. The first of these is by Derek Pearsall, who with I. C. Cunningham wrote the introduction to the facsimile edition of 1979. Pearsall looks back at forty years of scholarship and recognizes that even lasting contributions to the field are of their own time and place. The Auchinleck facsimile itself rode a "wave of published facsimiles of manuscripts of Middle English verse" (11). What keeps Pearsall fresh is his readiness to adapt, and what makes him sympathetic is his readiness to admit that he has changed his mind. In the introduction to the facsimile edition, he (like George Kane) described the writers of popular romance as "professional hacks"; but he has now "stopped using this term" (14). He remains, however, sceptical of a connection between the Auchinleck romances and professional minstrels. Floris and Blanchefleur, he thinks, was probably composed by a "clerk in a lord's house for the ladies of the household who did not know French" (23). This seems very plausible, but we certainly cannot explain the differences between the extant manuscript versions of Floris as products of the "usual processes of scribal transmission," as Pearsall claims: some of these differences suggest that at some stage of its transmission this romance had been stored in someone's living memory. If Pearsall cannot "make the leap from performance to written copies" (note the order), this is because of his tacit assumption that "oral" and "written" are mutually exclusive and that the former comes before the latter. There is, however, plenty of evidence to indicate that many medieval romances co-existed in both oral and written forms, and that the latter could provide the basis for the former. Some engagement with work on this topic--e.g., Murray McGillivray, Memorization in the Transmission of the Middle English Romances (New York, 1990), Karl Reichl (ed.), Medieval Oral Literature (Berlin, 2011), Linda Zaerr, Performance and the Middle English Romance (Cambridge, 2012)--might have led Pearsall to rethink his position even more thoroughly.

The second chapter in this collection is by A. S. G. Edwards. By giving attention not just to the romances but also to the religious items in the manuscript, Edwards corrects the impression that Auchinleck is a collection of opportunistic translations from Anglo-Norman. The lines of transmission in fact included Latin and English. The consideration given to religious texts continues in Cathy Hume's chapter on the Life of Adam and Eve. Comparing this story with its source, Hume shows that the English poet turned Adam and Eve into positive role models for a medieval Christian family.

The fourth chapter, by Patrick Butler, deals with multilingualism in Of Arthour and of Merlin and claims that the prologue "depicts French as a means of avoiding needless bloodshed before the Hundred Years War" (32). Access to French has advantages, says the poet. People can read theological books, keep themselves from sin, and hem no tharf neuer spillen. The supposed connection with warfare is furnished by spillen, which Butler thinks means "kill," but the usage here is intransitive and the sense is "perish, go to hell." The records of the Hundred Years War which Butler proceeds to cite are therefore not particularly relevant, and Butler's translations are riddled with errors: totez foitz ("nevertheless") is translated as "every time"; que Dieu defende ("which God forbid") as "who God defends"; apris ("learned") as "afterwards." The topic of multilingualism does not play to this author's strengths.

A number of essays examine palaeographical aspects. It is usually assumed that the copying was done by six scribes, with scribe 1 also acting as the supervisor of the whole project. In her detailed study of the idiosyncrasies of scribe 2, Emily Runde (chapter 5) complicates this picture: the text, layout and the decorative scheme show that this scribe worked with a large measure of independence. A controversial issue that repeatedly rears its head in this book is whether scribe 1 and scribe 6 were or were not one and the same man. Ralph Hanna (chapter 13) thinks the hands are the same. His essay raises a larger methodological issue: on what basis do we identify hands? Zooming in on individual letter shapes, Hanna thinks, is not a good basis. We recognize hands by examining their general aspect at a comfortable reading distance. Experts may, in explaining their judgement to the non-initiated, point to some miniscule details, but the decisive factor is the experts' immediate impression of similarity/dissimilarity. The awkwardness of Hanna's position is that, in sharing with us his impression that hands 1 and 6 are similar, he also has to pick out a telling detail. Hanna's diagnostic detail is "biting": a feature shared by scribe(s) 1 and 6 but "not a particularly routine feature of scribes writing in English." Míceál Vaughan presents a detailed study of scribal corrections and the methods used by the different scribes (superscript, subpuncture, etc.). Interestingly, he finds evidence of corrections to scribe 1 in a different hand, thus casting further doubt on the view that he was the controlling force in the manufacturing process. Lovers of minutiae will also enjoy Timothy Shonk's study of paraphs. In the case of Auchinleck, the paraphs were added after the capitals, and just as there were multiple scribes, so, too, the paraphs were the work of multiple artists.

Three essays deal with individual Auchinleck romances. Venetia Bridges (chapter 6) highlights the book learning that is on display in Kyng Alisaunder and persuasively argues that readers went to Alexander romances with the expectation of thereby gaining access to clergie and to geographical knowledge in particular. Ann Higgins (chapter 7) deals with Sir Tristrem, and argues that the popularity of Tristrem and the Tristrem stanza in the North must mean that the manuscript was taken there very soon after its production. Actually, the poem was known in the North before it ended up being copied by a Londoner in the Auchinleck manuscript. Higgins does not seem to be aware that that it was probably composed in Yorkshire (see Ad Puttter, Judith Jefferson and Donka Minkova, "Dialect and Emendation in Sir Tristrem", Journal of English and Germanic Philology 113 (2014), 73-92). Even more convoluted is her argument that Minot changed the stanza form of one of his poems after coming across Sir Tristrem in the Auchinleck manuscript. Certainly, the last stanzas of this poem by Minot are in the same form as Tristrem, but the obvious explanation is that the stanza form was popular in Yorkshire. It also had currency in other dialect areas, as is clear from other uses of it, all of them unknown to Higgins. Its appearance in The Alphabetical Praise of Women, also in Auchinleck, should not have gone unnoticed. Marisa Libbon (chapter 8) contributes an essay on King Richard, showing the pervasive influence of Charlemagne material on this romance.

Finally, two chapters explore the literary interest of the Auchinleck poems more broadly. Helen Phillips (chapter 9) reconsiders the relations between Auchinleck and Chaucer's art. There are some interesting reflections on the miscellaneity of Auchinleck and that of the Canterbury Tales, but it has to be said that Phillips's essay, too, is a miscellany of disparate points. Siobhan Bly Calkin (chapter 10) writes very interestingly on questions of poetic closure: how did poets signal the end, and how did they convey the "sense of an ending"?

Reading this book cover-to-cover I learned many different things, and occasionally noticed that the contributors, too, could have learned something from each other. Pearsall would surely not have described Sir Tristrem as having a "5-line stanza" if he had read Higgins; Vaughan could have been alerted to the existence of Daniel Wakelin's work on scribal correction by Siobhan Bly Calkin's essay; and Cathy Hume and Ralph Hanna could have decided between themselves whether the source of the Life of Adam and Eve is Latin (Hume) or English or Latin (Hanna). Taken together, however, this collection is a great resource for further scholarship on the Auchinleck manuscript and the treasures it contains.

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