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22.01.09 Lainé, A Late Fifteenth-Century Commonplace Book

22.01.09 Lainé, A Late Fifteenth-Century Commonplace Book

The critical edition provided by Ariane Lainé of the liturgical manuscript from the Late Middle Ages MS Gg.6.16 is an impressive tool that sheds light on not only the history of medieval liturgical texts, but also on social history and the history of mentalities. Through an accurate analysis that includes palaeography, codicology, and philological approaches to the sources, the author seeks to understand what the intentions of the compiler were in his selection of texts, to reveal how the book was used, and to contextualise the history of its contents alongside the social history of the region.

The manuscript, preserved today at the Cambridge University Library under the shelfmark Gg.6.16 is a miscellany of religious texts, compiled by a parish priest for his preaching activities and dated to the 15th century. This manuscript consists of five quires and lies at the core of Lainé’s study: its edition (117-199) is accompanied by a very rich introduction with a description of the content, linguistic and codicological features of the manuscript, as well as a comparative analysis of its sermons with those extant copies in other related manuscripts (35-116). The explanatory notes that follow the edition of the manuscript provide the readers with the sources of the sermons and ten related manuscripts (201-242), all preaching texts written in Middle English, which Lainé regularly compares with the Cambridge manuscript.

After a short presentation of the content in the five quires, Lainé outlines the linguistic features of the manuscript in the introduction. The author is very careful in her linguistic descriptions: drawing from the database LALME (A linguistic atlas of late mediaeval English), she highlights seven types of language evidence in the text of the manuscript with various regional characteristics of word forms. This linguistic data allows the author to locate the manuscript to the region around the border of Norfolk and Suffolk (41).

Lainé next focuses on the material dimensions of the volume. Having observed the formal distinction of the manuscript in three parts according to the existing quires (quire 1; quires 2 and 3; quires 4 and 5), the author, however, wisely questions the seemingly obvious conclusion on the possible division of the content into three separate parts. She instead suggests we follow the “internal organic logic” of the text (43) and builds her analysis on the qualities of the ink and of the layout, allowing us to find an internal logic through what combines all three parts of the manuscript. The table demonstrating the presence of seven types of ink and three different layouts, redistributed between all five quires, demonstrates the disparity within the manuscript. This helps to clarify Lainé’s argument on an inconsequent character in the compilation of the quires, quire 1 being particularly important in the collection of sermons as complementary to quires 2 and 3. Scrupulous observation of the hands and the way in which the empty spaces in the manuscript are filled leads the author to suggest that much of the textual material from quire 1 was added after the other quires had been written. Having thoroughly observed the material characteristics of the folios in the quires as well as the content, the author argues that quire 1 is the key to understanding the whole compilation of the manuscript as written and supervised by the same man (52-53).

Lainé proceeds with a detailed analysis of the contents of each “booklet” of the quires. She shows that quire 1, which mostly contains exempla, helps us to reconstruct the act of preaching and perhaps sheds light on the memory-processes religious people practiced through building up their preaching collections. Quires 2 and 3 contain seven sermons, divided into theme, protheme, principals, and prayer, which are possibly vernacular translations of university sermons in Latin. Quires 4 and 5 have eleven sermons (the text finishes abruptly in the middle of the Lent sermon). At the last stage of her analysis Lainé builds up a stemma codicum where she shows that the Cambridge manuscript Gg.6.16 could have formed the origin of the compilation from which the common archetype of both branches derived, thus confirming the hypothesis of Susan Powell (A Critical Edition of the Temporale Sermons of MSS Harley BL 2247 and Royal BL 18 B.xxv [1980]; John Mirk’s Festial [2009]), and Stephen Morrison (A Late Fifteenth-Century Dominical Cycle [2012]) to whom the author refers (102).

Lainé points out that the sermons are largely not original, but she does highlight two sermons in the manuscript, composed for a wedding ceremony, that have not been recorded elsewhere (79). She also points out that these sermons were rare among the Middle English corpus, because the priest often simply invented something of his own. This original element makes the explored manuscript particularly promising for historians of religious practices and of the Alltagsgeschichte. The remaining sermons, as Lainé highlights, contribute to the study of textual traditions in medieval English sermons, but also more broadly to social history as they contain themes that were relevant to contemporary audiences. Another fascinating particularity of this manuscript, mentioned in the introduction and revealed more in-depth at its very end, is the fact that this manuscript piqued the interest of a post-Reformation reader who emended the text. The nature of his emendations thus puts this manuscript into the orbit of implicit religious debates, making this historical source especially unique and precious.

Lainé’s edition is remarkably rich. It is more than an edition of the one manuscript, also reconstructing the history of preaching textual traditions of the area. Even if the author relies more on established historiography to discuss linguistic developments (particularly the database LALME), she is much more confident in her codicological analysis. As such, the analysis of the material data of the manuscript is an impressive and convincing contribution to the scholarship. A small remark could be made about the recapitulary tables, which contain the sermons from all affiliated manuscripts reunited into groups. While being very useful, they could be better positioned alongside the outline in the introduction so that their context could be more fully understood. Moreover, their placement might be confusing for a potential reader who is not very familiar with this particular corpus of Middle English sermons as they appear directly after the bibliography and before the introduction opening the book. A clearer explanation of the groups created within these affiliated manuscripts would be very welcome.

Overall, Lainé’s book is an impressive and welcome contribution to the body of Middle English religious manuscripts containing preaching material. Not only does this edition introduce the complete story of this one curious testimony and its textual tradition, but also reveals much concerning the history of religion and mentalities of the time. It remains in a constant dialogue with historiography on this corpus of affiliated manuscripts, confirms existing hypotheses, further refines and adds to existing scholarly analysis, shedding light on a manuscript that, although predominantly a reproduction of common sermons, is intriguingly original in its composition.