Teaching the Canterbury Tales with online manuscripts/incunabula: a quick intro

This semester is my first time teaching the Canterbury Tales to doctoral students. To rise to their level, I decided manuscripts would be a big part of my teaching: after all, as digitization is much advanced since I myself was getting a PhD [mumble] years ago, manuscripts can, and probably should, now be a key focus to medievalist graduate training anywhere, even in the hinterlands of Manhattan.

Apart from the expected Ellesmere and Hengwrt manuscripts, and the useful tools at the Norman Blake Editions of several key CT manuscripts and, as well, Manly and Rickert, here’s what’s undoubtedly a partial list of fully digitized Canterbury Tales manuscripts, or, at least, the ones I’ve found easiest to navigate:

British Library, Harley ms 1758.
British Library, Harley ms. 7334.
Cambridge Trinity R.3.3.
Cambridge Trinity R.3.15.
Caxton 1476 and 1483 printings
Codex Bodmer 48.
Oxford, Bodleian, Christ Church ms. 152.
Oxford, Bodleian Douce 218 (Richard Pynson printing, 1491-92).
Oxford, Corpus Christi College ms 198.
Yale, Beinecke Library, Takamiya ms 24 (the ‘Devonshire Chaucer’).
Yale, Beinecke Library, Takamiya ms 32 (the ‘Delamare Chaucer’).

If you’re reading this, I trust you’re already familiar with manuscript variance with the Cook’s Tale or the variously omitted stanzas from the Envoy to the Clerk’s Tale (or the omission of the Envoy altogether). I trust you’ll want less famous examples, maybe to help you through this term, or to get you started on the next.

What varies most, perhaps, is the manuscript apparatus, like section headings and divisions, which give us a sense of how this work might have been read and sorted. For example:

Bodleian, Christ Church MS 152

Bodleian, Christ Church MS 152 26v

This is the Knight’s Tale. How do the pieces fit together? Where the Riverside has “Explicit secunda pars / Sequitur pars tertia,” and where Hengwrt 25v has “Explicit prima pars / Incipit pars secunda,” Christ Church 152, 26v, has “the ordinannce of lystys that thesyiis ordaynyd.” Does the Knight’s Tale comprise abstract parts of equal weight, or is it a sequence of events? If so, whose doings are worthy of “ordaining” the divisions of the plot?

Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v

Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v

Or here’s the Reeve’s Prologue in Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v. Our medieval scribe has started the tale at the prologue itself (“Explicit fabula molendmain [the Miller] / here bygynneþ þe Reeues tale” — note the mixture of Latin (Explicit) and English (bygynneþ)); an early modern reader intervenes, and writes “Prologue” in the margins. Are they comparing manuscripts? Or is it a sign of an independent interpretation?

When does the Wife of Bath’s Tale start? In at least one case, her tale – or one of them anyway – begins after the Pardoner interrupts her:

Harley 7334 89r

Harley 7334 89r, with a red “Narrat” in the margin.

Here, then, the Wife’s prologue is split between a prologue, where she does scriptural interpretation, and a tale, where she finally begins to tell us something of her “experience.”

Most interesting to me, however, is what the manuscripts call what the Friar does at the end of the Wife’s Prologue, or first Tale, or whatever else it might be called. Here’s my (crowded) slide:


Is it just “words between” the Friar and Summoner? It is an “interpretation” of the Wife’s tale? An “interruption”? Or is it just a neutral ending of the Wife’s prologue, and the words of the Friar, following neatly? It depends! And a lot depends on it.

As we all know, in their capacity for nuanced forms of emphasis, manuscripts are closer than print is to speech. We on the other side of Gutenberg have generally lost rubrication, marginalia too, or underlining, manicules, and slight enlargements, like so, from the Friar’s Tale:

Codex Bodmer 48 91r

Codex Bodmer 48 91r

Should the carter be taken down to hell? “Nay q[uo]d þe deuel,” he absolutely should not.

Finally, a bit on early modern readers of Chaucer. Griselda’s story is a marriage story, after a fashion, which perhaps helped suit this blank space for an early modern family record:

Harley 1758 126v

Harley 1758 126v

The Fox children crowd in over the course of the sixteenth century, here and on the next page, before the Franklin’s Tale — not the Merchant’s — begins.

And this, a record of what one early modern reader cared most about:

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r gives us an early modern reader who, like many of us, is curious about the rest of the Squire’s Tale. They’ve clearly “sought in diuers places” for the “the reaste” but found nothing except the final two lines about Apollo, just like you have in your Riverside.

More interesting is what doesn’t get changed: in red, “The Prologue to the Merchaunt.” Turn the page, and we have the words of the Franklin to the Squire, but here assigned to the Merchant, and then the Merchant’s Tale (“Whilom there was dwelling in Lombardy / A worthy knight”). No correction. No correction. No indication of difference, despite our reader likely having encountered the Franklin and his tale in these passages as they hunted in diverse places. Here at least is one reader who wasn’t bothered by variance in Tale order. If you’re having your students read Arthur Bahr, this is as good illustration as any of ways to think the Canterbury Tales as other than “fragments.”


Briefly noted for The March for Science: in the margins, a little faith, a little reason, a little unclarity


This morning, the British Library tweeted that a manuscript of Henry of Huntington’s Historia AnglorumArundel MS 48, had just been digitized, so, rather than get into some real writing, I took a brief tour. Among its many treasures (so many marginal faces!), including a cute little miter, I found this bit, where Brutus seeks an omen from Diana about his future. Here’s a 19th-century edition of the Latin, if you like.

You’ll notice, however, that a much later commentator has issues. Earlier, they had complained about the avarice of contemporary clerics; here, they write ‘de veritate huius, doctores dubita[n]t’, ‘about the truth of this, theologians/scholars/teachers doubt.’ Of course Brutus didn’t hear from a sylvan goddess about his future passage to Britain! That’d be absurd!

But then, in response to ‘cui dea respondit’ [to whom the goddess responded], that is, Diana’s answer to Brutus’ supplication, our same commentator sniffingly intervenes, ‘cui diabolus respondit,’ ‘to whom the devil responds.’

I’m reminded, as I’m sure you are, of François Hédelin, whose 1627 treatise, Des satyres, brutes, monstres et démons, takes up the question of the famous talking satyr from Jerome’s Life of Saint Paul, the First Hermit. It’s perhaps a hard story to believe. Jerome himself offered proof, namely, that the corpse was sent along, salted, to the emperor in Antioch [postea cadauer exanime, ne calore aestatis dissiparetur, sale infusum et Antiochiam, ut ab Imperatore uideretur, adlatum est]. The skeptical and scientific Hédelin, however, insists that Constantine was already dead, so clearly this was impossible. And, anyway, the corpse must have been a monkey.

As for the talking satyr? Obviously a demon.

Skin color and musical notation: A few fascinating manuscript images

One of my (many!) procrastination habits is poking around in manuscripts online to see what might turn up. Recently, I’ve found the following–

To start you off lightly, here’s a multicolored embroidered repair to a hole in a Historia Scholastica manuscript, in a section about the various woods used to manufacture Jesus’s Cross:

point 5

Aarau, Aargauer Kantonsbibliothek, MsWettF 9 203r

And then this – the Occitan Abreviamen [or Abreujamen] de las Estorias, Egerton MS 1500, c. 1321-1324, an illustrated universal history, specifically, a diagrammic chronicle, remarkable, to me at any rate, for its representations of differences in skin color. Here’s one image:

and here’s another, 52v, from the same manuscript:


Guy of Lusignan and Sibilla of Jersualem;  Isabella, below, with 3 of her 4 husbands [Almaric, Henry & Conrad]

There is work on the manuscript by Catherine Leglu and especially by Federico Botana, but to my exceedingly limited knowledge, nothing on its skin tones. We could use further comparison. Botana’s superb codicology puts Egerton 1500 alongside Venice’s Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, MS Zanetti Latino 399, but unfortunately, as the latter manuscript isn’t online, I don’t know how it shows its sultans, nor its Sibilla or Isabella. Nor do I know enough about diagrammic chronicles even to know whether it’s more or less unusual to decorate genealogies with faces: for example, click through for a Biblical genealogy from the Aargauer Kantonsbibliothek, MsWettF 9 239v, mostly a list of names, but also featuring a delightfully nonplussed bird, grumpy at being dragooned into the Flood story. Cambridge, Trinity Library O.1.78 provides only the names of the English kings; see also this mixture of the two in the Biblical genealogies in Dijon Bibliothèque municipale Ms 634, a manuscript of Peter of Poitiers’ Compendium.

As further evidence that I poked around a bit, I can also cite these from the British Library: Royal MS 14 B VI (genealogy of the Kings of England, faces and for most kings, full bodies); Royal MS 14 B V (similar but with the full complement of silly medieval marginalia – snails, animal doctors, deer-hunting rabbits, &c); Add MS 48976 (the Rous Roll, so delicately drawn, whose genealogy diagrams are just names, sometimes becrowned); Cotton MS Domitian A VIII (English kings, just names); Cotton MS Nero D I (Matthew Paris’s notes, just names); Harley MS 7353 (Edward IV and biblical typography plus an actual genealogical tree with potentate portraits as leaves, and, well, just click through). The Abington Chronicle [Cambridge Trinity R.17.7] sadly isn’t online yet.

If anyone’s fishing around for an essay topic, then, you might want this in the mix as well:


King Penda, a red-faced pagan. Houghton Library 40, Chronicle c 1470

No other king in the manuscript is so colored; and if you’d like to try to guess by reading about Penda in a proximate English history, be my guest.


Marvel at this notation of hunting horns, represented as floating in air, as sound, in Hardouin de Fontaines-Guérin’s Livre du Tresor de Vanerie. There are just the three manuscripts, one of which, I believe, is a postmedieval copy, and the other unillustrated. But one, BnF 855 is so, so wonderful:

Notation like this graces so many of its illustrations. Of course your humble procrastinator is not the first to notice these: as of the 1990s, the modern expert is Eva Marie HeaterJulien Brunelliere has written on it more recently; and Henri Kling cracked the code in 1911.


Finally, it was edited twice in the nineteenth century, its illustrations reproduced both times, and once in a style that, at least for those of us who read independent comics in the 1990s, recalls nothing other than Dame Darcy’s legendary Meat Cake

Please compare, and with that, I am done, and back to much more mundane medieval matters:


Dame Darcy, Meat Cake #0, 1996.

You know, the one with the Rocks – Trinity Colllege R.3.3

CaptureIn last night’s Chaucer class, while trying to illustrate a point about the Manciple’s Tale. I found myself in Cambridge, Trinity College R.3.3, a Canterbury Tales manuscript of c. 1450-1475. This is what grabbed me, above: at 108r, you’ll see the ending of the Prioress’s Tale (here reading “for the reverence of his moder Marie. Amen”), followed not by Thopas, but by the FRANKLIN.

Dividing the Prioress from the Franklin, we have: “Hic incipit prologus de Frankeleyun cum fabula sua de Rokkes de Brytaine” (here begins the Franklin’s prologue with his tale of the Rocks of Briton [or Bretagne]”)

Forgive me if I’m repeating something someone already said: I’m not a manuscripts scholar, my paleography is weak, and various quick, morning searches in various databases for Trinity R.3.3 commentary haven’t been successful, even though I know some of you have written about it: but I love this incipit. I would suspect our students, and most of us too, think of the Franklin’s Tale as mostly about honor, truth, the problem of sovereignty, class conflict in narrative and rhetoric, and the indifference or nonexistence of the gods. But here’s someone who, like Jeffrey (eg here and here), thinks it’s a tale mostly about ROCKS.

(by the way, Jeffrey’s Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman is available here!)

(quick check suggests there are no other such incipit summaries in the mss (the others are just tags like “here begins the Cook’s Tale,” etc, but we do have this this rather self-satisfied, nonmedieval manicule at 38r)Capture2

(I don’t suppose anyone knows off hand if any of the other fifteenth-century copies of the Franklin’s Tales are marked this way?)

Fire, Air, Earth, Water: Elemental Order vs. Phenomenological Order


Here’s a T-O Map from the Mandeville epitome that begins that famous fifteenth-century Carthusian miscellany, British Library Add 37049, f. 2v. (also famous for including the unique copy of the Middle English “Disputation between the Body and the Worms,” which I write about here).

Warning: I’m not a map scholar, and, as Chet van Duzer probably already said what I’m about to say here, I apologize. Be patient and imagine briefly that you’re one of my students, befuddled, curious, and confused. Or imagine you’re one of my colleagues, ideally one who knows more about paleography, maps, and medieval science than I do. I humbly submit myself to the correction of all.

I’m fond of this map because it comprises two intersecting two-dimensional planes, which together generate an approximation of three dimensions. Note, first, the geography: the left bottom quadrant is Europa, the right bottom quadrant Affrica, and the top half Asya (if I’m reading that right). Various cities and regions have been labeled: Syria, Alpes, Roma, Gallia (France), Hispania, Ethiopia, Carthago, etc.

Meanwhile, at the very top we find a band of red, which is Fire; below that, a band of clouds running through a scribble of blue, which is Air; below that, written below a band of trees, Earth; and then, dividing the Asia, Europe, and Africa, the element of Water.

If fire, being lightest, is above the slightly heavier air, and if both of these are above the surface of the earth, then the labeling of elements intersects the world map at a perpendicular. There’s a catch, though: as earth is heavier than water, the labeling of elements reverses the final two, as it places water below the earth. The simple explanation is that this reversal just represents our experience of our world: so long as we’re not wading or drowning (or being rained upon), earth, for us, is above the water, whatever the claims of natural science.

The reversal also neatly represents our world’s slightly off-kilter arrangement of elements, as explained by one far-seeing mid-fourteenth-century theorist. Jean Buridan’s commentaries on Aristotle’s De caelo et mundi and Meteorologica consider the question of whether the whole earth is habitable. His answer? One quarter, yes, the rest not. He doesn’t get to that conclusion without some struggle. In Joel Kaye’s summary, Buridan first:

raises a question that Aristotle had never considered: why would any one quarter of the earth be more likely to remain above water and habitable than any other quarter?…Given the spherical nature of the earth, given that according to Aristotelian physics all earth falls naturally to the earth’s center, given the great abundance of water with respect to land, and assuming with Aristotle…that the universe is eternal…why in the fullness of time should any portion of land whatsoever remain habitable above water? (94)

To save the world from drowning, Buridan concocts “an interconnected physical system in dynamic equilibrium” (95), in which heat and cold make the earth above waters slightly lighter than drowned earth, so that the earth’s weight and its center of magnitude slightly differ. Only the earth below the waters is as cold as it naturally should be. The off-kilter interaction of earths of varying density, balanced in an eternal motion of unbalance, keeps exactly one ever-shifting quarter of the earth above water (96).

Is this eternal, Weeble Wobbly unbalance what’s represented by the T-O map of BL Add 37049? Doubtful. More likely, it represents the lived, human experience of elements, with the earth below us, and the water, we hope, even lower. But were some Carthusian bro a committed Aristotelian (unlikely!), we can imagine him looking at this map, on the verge of unloosing yet another “well, actually,” but then thinking back to his studies, and resting content, temporarily above the waters.

A nice elemental chart

ElementsFrom Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, Codex 149(558), page 172, a 10th-c. manuscript. Drawn at the very end of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Here we see the four element, from left to right: Fire (Ignis), Air (Aer), Water (Aqua), and Earth (Terra), with their constituent qualities of dryness (Siccus), heat (Calids*), wetness (Humida), and coldness (Frigida).

  • Maybe someone with better Latin & better Paleographical chops than mine can tell me why this is “calids”

An Early Modern Child’s Drawing, in Melusine


While looking for a suitable illustration to help teach Geoffrey of Auxerre’s version of the Melusine story (n35 here for more), I ran across this, in Jean d’Arras’ prose Roman de Melusine, BnF fr. 1485:

That’s GREAT. I’m pretty sure this drawing’s escaped (for now) the attention of Erik Kwakkel, that indefatigable emissary for medieval manuscripts, though he has blogged on doodles, and even children’s doodles.
Please let me know if you’ve seen this before, and where. Google searches for child drawing Melusine or l’enfant dessin Melusine get me nothing useful. For now, we’ll just observe that this drawing, dating from, I guess, the late 16th or early 17th century, is all too appropriate in a story so concerned with lineage.
And, uh, dinosaurs and maces.
(parenthetically, because I’m far outside my expertise here, but I’ve been asked to explain why I think this is a child’s drawing. My stupid response is just that it looks like one. More considered, and even less expertly, I’d say that the elongation of limbs coupled with the enlargement of areas to accommodate detail (in this case, in clothing) that can’t be rendered finely with a child’s typically gross motor skills coupled (tripled?) with the complete indifference to the image’s interaction with the text just says child to me. But it could be Paul Klee too! If this touches on your field, hazard a guess in comments, please.)