manuscripts in English
The story of English in the Middle Ages is one of reception and evolution. Old English is a Germanic language, descended from the continental tribes who began settling in England in the fifth century. When the Vikings started to arrive in the eighth century, they brought with them many Old Norse words that eventually would enter the language, words as fundamental as the pronoun "they." Three centuries later the Normans arrived, bringing with them the French language: its influence gradually transformed Old English into something more like what we know today. Even so, the language continued to develop over the succeeding centuries – and it shows no signs of stopping! Relatively few texts in English survive from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and those few texts typically are in scruffy, workaday manuscripts. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, English had regained a level of prestige similar to the status it enjoyed before the Norman Conquest, and English texts began to appear in more opulent manuscripts.
Takamiya MS 31 is a Wycliffite Bible from circa 1400. The Wycliffites, wanting to make the word of God more accessible to the laity, translated it into English from Latin. This manuscript, still in its original binding, is larger and in better condition than many other Wycliffite Bibles. The extended margins and tidy format contribute to its stately appearance, and the extensive annotation on the bottom right indicates that the book was carefully studied.
Takamiya MS 8 is a deluxe copy of Nicholas Love’s devotional work The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ. To have such delicate floral ornamentation adorning Middle English prose suggests that, by around 1410, English truly had “arrived” as a status language. Notably, this manuscript was given by Joan, Countess of Kent, to another aristocratic woman.
Beinecke MS 281 is a copy of the English poet John Lydgate’s Life of Our Lady. Lydgate’s English is often described as “aureate,” and here we see a manuscript to match, decked with gold leaf and ornate floral borders.
Takamiya MS 6 contains a copy of John Hardyng’s Middle English poem Chronicles of England, open here to his account of Uther Pendragon, father of the legendary King Arthur.