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Newnham College : William Langland, Piers Plowman

Newnham College

<p><i><b>William Langland (c. 1325–c. 1390), <i>Piers Plowman</i></b></i></p><p style='text-align: justify;'>This manuscript, dating to the first half of the 15th century, contains the B-Text of William Langland's <i>Piers Plowman</i>, the allegorical dream-vision poem, accompanied by <i>The Lay Folks' Mass</i> and a short <i>Old English Grace</i>, all written in Middle English. <i>Piers Plowman</i> was likely copied c. 1420, while the following two texts are thought to have been added up to 30 years later.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'><i>Piers Plowman</i> is written in alliterative Middle English verse. The poem describes the journey of the poet-narrator, Will, who falls asleep while wandering the Malvern Hills in the West Midlands region of England, and enters a "merveillous swevene" (a dream) (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(9);return false;'>1r</a>, l. 11). The text proceeds through a sequence of dream-visions, or 'passus', which engage allegorical tropes and figures to explore the nature of Christian devotion, the institution of the Church, and the social and religious issues of late fourteenth-century England. Throughout Will's dreams, he seeks the allegorical figure Piers the Plowman, a journey which represents the Christian way of life as a movement toward salvation. The complex satire, however, is also famously resistant to systematic interpretations, and the poem frequently plays with the boundaries between the concrete and the allegorical, the theological and the political, and community and the individual self. The result is a multi-layered and self-theorizing text, which has been the subject of many decades of academic work, and which continues to offer a rich, albeit famously challenging, source for literary, theological, philosophical, and historical scholars alike.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Langland's poem exists in multiple versions and survives in over 50 manuscript copies, presenting a challenge for any modern reader attempting to identify a single 'text'. The versions are usually categorised into three groupings, known as the A, B, and C versions. The A-Text is thought to have been produced in the later 1360s (after 1362), the B-Text a decade later (c. 1377–before 1381), and the C-Text a decade later still (after 1388). The A-Text is the shortest version, running to around 2,500 lines, while the latter two versions run to around 7,700 lines. The B-Text, as found in the present manuscript, adds seven more dreams to the A version, including two dreams-within-dreams.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>This manuscript witness of <i>Piers Plowman</i> is a well organised and neatly copied text. The manuscript boasts an elaborately decorated border on the first page, decorated initials at the start of each passus, red and blue paraph markers, and red ink for proper names, marginal headings, and Latin phrases. The scribe has adhered to the page rulings, which locate 40 lines to each page. Blank lines have been left after each paragraph. With this professional presentation, the manuscript reproduces what Simon Horobin has called a 'professional metropolitan' layout (2014, p. 184), of a kind with <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.15.17</a>, also containing the B-Text, which has been used as a base text for many modern editions. Other such copies include <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 581</a> and <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson Poetry MS 38</a>. It is not known for whom this copy was produced: the lower margins of four pages (ff. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(9);return false;'>1r</a>, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(77);return false;'>35r</a>, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(144);return false;'>68v</a>, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(204);return false;'>98v</a>) contain an eagle drawn with a red 'L' on its chest, standing on a green mound with wings outstretched, but the name of this owner has not been identified.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>This witness (listed as no. 'xvi' and collated as 'Y') was used by W.W. Skeat in his editions of <i>Piers Plowman</i> for the Early English Text Society, first published in 1886. Skeat proposed a single author for the different versions of the poem, and though this gave rise to many years of authorship controversy, it is now generally agreed that the poem is the work of a single poet.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The second and third texts in the manuscript are written in a different hand. The second, <i>The Lay Folks' Mass</i> (also known as <i>The Lay Folks' Mass Book</i>), is a Middle English guide to the mass originating from the late 14th century. It survives in various forms in nine manuscripts, including the present copy. The poem is written in rhyming couplets, offering descriptions of the actions of the priest and recommended responses for the congregation (e.g. "A large cros on the thyn make / Seyeng thus in this maner" [Make the sign of a large cross on yourself / Saying the following in this manner], f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(217);return false;'>105r</a>, ll. 34–35). The present version was edited together with five other variants by Frederick Simmons for his EETS edition, published in 1879 (the remaining three manuscripts were discovered later).</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The final text in the manuscript, the short <i>Old English Grace</i>, is a verse prayer in six lines, and can be found in four other manuscript witnesses. The prayer appears to have been a grace to be said before supper, and asks God to bless the bread and ale to be consumed, just as he blessed the bread at the Last Supper (Maundy Thursday: 'mawde', in this version). The text was also edited by Simmons in his EETS edition of <i>The Lay Folks' Mass Book</i> (1879, p. 60).</p><p style='text-align: justify;'><i>The Lay Folks' Mass</i> and the short <i>Old English Grace</i> are more plainly presented than <i>Piers Plowman</i>, with black and red ink used throughout in alternating sections. Plainly decorated elongated brackets are used to group the couplets of the former text, with alternating colours used for text and bracket respectively. Red ink is also used for initials on each line. All texts in the manuscript are written in a neat Anglicana Formata, though the scribe of <i>Piers Plowman</i> has a more uniform hand, while the hand of <i>The Lay Folks' Mass</i> and <i>Old English Grace</i> is less consistent in size and placement on the line. Neither scribe has been identified.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The manuscript's paratextual materials include various notes of ownership and editorial work. On the verso of the front binding, an ex libris reads "EX MUSÆO HENRICI YATES THOMPSON, Inherited from Jos B. Yates 1856". The plate indicates the manuscript's ownership by the collector Henry Yates Thompson, who inherited it from his grandfather, Joseph Brooks Yates, and later donated it to Newnham College (see Provenance). On the opposite page is pasted a clipping from "a Catalogue of an exhibition of illuminated MSS to which I [Henry Yates Thompson] lent this volume", with corrections to the printed description added in the same pen as this note. On the following folio, another pasted slip folds out to reveal a letter penned by W.W. Skeat to Thompson, including the clipping of his description of the manuscript in his EETS edition. In this letter, Skeat notes that the "MS. proved very useful", and that he has categorised it in "sub-class b of Class B" of his scheme for the <i>Piers Plowman</i> witnesses. In the description, Skeat thanks "Mr Thompson in an especial manner for his kindness in lending me this MS, and so enabling me to become thoroughly acquainted with its contents at my leisure".</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Dr Hannah Lucas<br /> Newby Trust Research Fellow<br /> Newnham College</p><p style='text-align: justify;'><i><b>Henry Yates Thompson (1838–1928)</b></i></p><p style='text-align: justify;'>This manuscript was donated to Newnham College Library in 1906 by Henry Yates Thompson (for his ownership, see the Provenance section), who inherited it 50 years earlier from his maternal grandfather, Joseph Brooks Yates. The UCL database Legacies of British Slave Ownership records that, at the point of abolition in 1833, Joseph Brooks Yates was associated with claims relating to 18 estates and 2287 enslaved people in Jamaica. It is therefore likely that Joseph Brooks Yates acquired the manuscript from the financial proceeds of slave-ownership.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Henry Yates Thompson was a renowned manuscript collector. In this pursuit, he was influenced by Joseph Brooks Yates, who bequeathed ten illuminated manuscripts to his grandson. Yates Thompson inherited an enthusiasm for collecting too, and claimed that his passion for antiquarian books 'came from his maternal grandfather Joseph Brooks Yates, of Liverpool [...] Yates Thompson published a portrait of him in 1912, acknowledging that his "example made me a collector of manuscripts"' [De Hamel (1991), p. 79]. Yates Thompson was famous for limiting his collection to one hundred and selling old manuscripts every time he bought another to add to his collection. This collecting policy meant that he sold or gave away almost all the manuscripts he inherited from his grandfather once he found better copies. He and his widow presented some 50 rare books and manuscripts to Newnham College. Other notable beneficiaries were the Fitzwilliam Museum and the British Museum. Henry Yates Thompson appears to have been meticulous about recording the provenance of his books and manuscripts. This has allowed Newnham College to identify two medieval manuscripts and four early printed books that were originally in the collection of Joseph Brooks Yates. This is one of the medieval manuscripts.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Henry Yates Thompson engaged directly with the question of slavery during his lifetime. He travelled across America during the Civil War and recorded his journey in diary entries, newspaper articles, and letters arguing with family members. He was a supporter of the North and the Union, and an advocate for abolition. His compiled writings [<i>An Englishman in the American Civil War: the diaries of Henry Yates Thompson, 1863</i>, ed. Chancellor (1971)] provide source material of interviews and encounters with slave owners and occasionally with enslaved or formerly enslaved people.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Eve Lacey<br /> Librarian<br /> Newnham College Library</p>

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