Modes of Manuscript Book Production in Late Medieval England with special reference to British Library, Harley MS 3810/I and Related Manuscripts




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De Montfort University


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Peer reviewed


This study re-examines a fifteenth-century manuscript which is known primarily as being one of only three surviving witnesses to the short Middle English romance, ‘Sir Orfeo’: London, British Library, Harley MS 3810/I. This study presents a new codicological description of this unassuming fifteenth-century manuscript and shows that, rather than being one whole-book production, it was formed of two smaller books produced by the same professional scribe who was working in Warwickshire in the mid-1400s.

This new knowledge of the collation of Harley 3810/I leads to questions about the circumstances of its production and this study examines the wider landscape of late medieval English manuscript culture to situate Harley 3810/I within a more specific production context. This study explores three broad modes of book production during this period and provides evidence that the scribe of Harley 3810/I was working within an entrepreneurial and independent commercial speculative mode of production and deliberately created his two small and cheap books of vernacular poetry to appeal to a market of buyers with a low budget.

This study also examines a selected corpus of related manuscripts of Psalms and short romances and compares their codicology and mode of production to the two small Harley books to see how common these kinds of productions were. A group of manuscripts from within this corpus show patterns of production which echo that of the Harley scribe and suggest that the speculative mode of production, particularly that which resulted in the independent, small, cheap, and low-end book, was much more prevalent during the late medieval period than previously allowed for by scholarship. The findings of this study highlight the importance of not underestimating the entrepreneurial and commercial spirit of scribes working in the fifteenth century.





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