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Verses in Sermons Again: The Case of Cambridge, Jesus College, MS Q.A.13

From: Studies in Bibliography
Volume 57, 2005-2006
pp. 63-83 | 10.1353/sib.0.0004

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Even ninety years after the fact, Carleton Brown’s contributions to the study of the early English lyric remain monumental. Not only did he produce the only attempts at comprehensive, historically conceived editions of many texts (primarily short religious verse), but through his extensive bibliographical efforts he largely set the agenda followed by all subsequent scholarship. Whatever the limitations I will discuss below, his immense investment in the manuscript record of short verse and in its presentation to the scholarly community in organised form cannot be faulted.

Brown’s great monument, actually the second of his major bibliographical contributions, is Index of Middle English Verse, which appeared in 1943. Co-authored with Rossell H. Robbins, at the time a Cambridge graduate, it was the culmination of a quarter century of work.1 Brown had begun surveying verse in manuscripts before the first World War—at a time when large numbers of texts were known only ‘accidentally’, on the basis of their presentation in print from a single copy. Moreover, in the absence of comprehensive modern catalogues and indexes, knowledge of library collections was equally haphazard.

In this context, Brown went about the task of finding Middle English texts with considerable rigour. He did not try to survey everything but generally limited himself to manuscripts he believed would include English. But within these limits, he made reasonably scrupulous folio-by-folio surveys of numerous selected books. Further, he relied on similar surveys from correspondents he believed trustworthy (e.g. Col. R. B. Haselden, curator of manuscripts at the Huntington Library) for information about collections he could not visit personally. His exemplary manuscript bibliography, however partial its survey, performed an extremely useful service by demonstrating, most particularly to North American scholars who lacked continuous access to the British archive, precisely where verse of all sorts might be found.

One of Brown’s greatest supports in his search for verse was provided by past manuscript cataloguers. Preeminent here was the greatest manuscript scholar of the early twentieth century, M. R. James, who had carefully described nearly all the manuscripts in Cambridge college libraries in a series of magisterial catalogues. As James saw, in a customarily informative description, Cambridge, Jesus College, MS Q.A.13 (his MS 13) is a composite manuscript of sermons, at least portions of Franciscan origin.2 Latter parts of the book are joined by a medieval foliation (not replaced by any modern one). This begins at modern fol. 60, and one set of Latin sermons in double columns, copied in the second half of the fourteenth century, ends on medieval fol. 33v, fol. 91v in the continuous modern foliation (which shortly ceases). This is succeeded by a set of sermons in long lines, written in what an English palaeographer would describe as a secretary bookhand of the mid fifteenth century; these sermons cover the medieval folios 34–149v, with folios 149v–157v (the end of the manuscript) a table of topics treated in them.

The volume’s second, fifteenth-century set of sermons may well represent a collection from diverse sources. But within this section of the book, James noted English bits on folios containing a consecutive block of three sermons:

1.    Fols 79v–83v: ‘Ingredere ciuitatem Actuum 9[:6] et in epistola hodierna Reuerendi mei dicit Egidius De regimine . . .’, for inclaustrating a recluse;

2.    Fols 83v–90v: ‘Quid fecit quare morietur, primo Regum 20[:cf. 32] Wat hath ye man do yat he schal dy3e 3oo [l. þoo] Karissimi narrat Augustinus 10o. De ciuitate dei capitulo 19. . . .’, for Good Friday;

3.    Fols 90v–94v: ‘Tv es qui venturus es Matthei 11[:3] Karissimi Virgilius 6o. Eneidorum docet quod tria principaliter requiruntur in rege . . .’, for (?the first Sunday in) Advent?

As is customary in books of this sort, the English, which inspection proves to be rhymed verse, has been written consecutively within the Latin prose of the sermons.

Within these sermons, the scribe copies seven separate sets of verses. Following James’s notice, Brown surveyed the manuscript; as will emerge, this study did not form one of the triumphs of his indexing. Following his notice, several...

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