The Auchinleck Manuscript: A Study in Manuscript Production, Scribal Innovation, and Literary Value in the Early 14th Century
By Tricia Kelly George
PhD Dissertation, University of Tennessee – Knoxville, 2014
Abstract: The Auchinleck Manuscript (National Library of Scotland Advocates 19.2.1) was written in London by six scribes and contains 44 extant texts. This manuscript is an early 14th century English manuscript (c. 1331) best known for its many unique and first versions of texts, such as the first version of the Breton lay Sir Orfeo, a Breton adaptation of the Orpheus legend. It is also the first literary manuscript we have that is written almost entirely in English after the Norman Conquest. My research provides answers to some of the perennial questions raised by scholars concerning this manuscript: the identities of the master artist, the patron, and the scribes as well as the date and provenance. I have identified that the master artist for the Auchinleck was the Subsidiary Queen Mary Artist although his contribution is mostly indirect, that the wealthy patron commissioning the manuscript was tied to the Warwick title and most likely was Thomas de Beauchamp, and that the scribes were Chancery clerks who created this manuscript in London c. 1331. I demonstrate that the physical evidence, the mise-en-page, the work of the artists, the scribal agency in decision-making, and the unique content of the texts establish that the scribes and artists were working collaboratively to create this important literary English manuscript and were very likely conscious of its political impact. My analysis also demonstrates for the first time that there were two different scribal teams, a senior team and a junior team, with the senior scribes having agency and supervision over the junior scribes. My new presentation of their scribal collaboration helps not only to further clarify the identity of these scribes but also to make sense of many decisions made in the mise-en-page. Lastly, I also discuss the impact the contents of the Auchinleck literature appears to have had on its powerful patron, Thomas de Beauchamp, as he, his brother John, and their friend King Edward III prepared their countrymen for the Hundred Years War.
The Auchinleck Manuscript (National Library of Scotland Advocates MS. 19.2.1) has presented tantalizing mysteries for scholars for several centuries because the 334 extant folios of the Auchinleck Manuscript have not left solid evidence as to its provenance, date, scribes, master artist, or patron. In fact, this manuscript has left individuals since at least Sir Walter Scott puzzling over such identifications. Furthermore, although I argue that the manuscript can now be reliably dated to c.1331, the Auchinleck Manuscript still does not easily fit in the milieu of the early 14th century. For example, the 44 extant poems are composed almost entirely in Middle English at a time when Middle English was just starting to emerge as a literary language. In addition, the poems in the Auchinleck Manuscript are often regarded as the first extant versions or unique versions of the texts, so their sources cannot easily be determined. Furthermore, the fact that the manuscript contains five extant miniatures and two illustrated initials (and evidence for at least thirteen more miniatures) causes this manuscript to stand out from most of the early 14th century codices because illustrations were generally too expensive to add to manuscripts, particularly vernacular manuscripts. And yet, the illustrations themselves are too few and of too poor a quality to have drawn much notice from art historians. Indeed, many fundamental questions still exist about this extraordinary manuscript. Where was it written, by whom, and what patron was wealthy enough to finance its production? And for what end? The only evidence we have to answer such questions is the manuscript itself. Therefore, my dissertation presents a methodology (or a set of related methodologies) for ascertaining these identifications as well as the answers I propose to these long unsolved and tantalizing questions.