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  • The Texts and Contexts of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 108: The Shaping of English Vernacular Narrative ed. by Kimberly K. Bell and Julie Nelson Couch
  • Mariusz Bęcławski
Bell, Kimberly K. and Julie Nelson Couch, eds, The Texts and Contexts of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 108: The Shaping of English Vernacular Narrative (Medieval and Renaissance Authors and Texts, 6), Leiden, Brill, 2010; hardback; pp. 368; R.R.P. €130.00; ISBN 9789004192065.

This volume is the culmination of several projects that started at the Thirty-eighth International Congress on Medieval Studies held in Kalamazoo in 2003. There was a three-step research agenda set out for the project, [End Page 208] implemented over three years, which included conference sessions, articles, and finally this book. Edited by Kimberly K. Bell and Julie Nelson Couch, the collection comprises thirteen chapters and an Epilogue that derive from the shared interest of the editors and contributors in reading Havelok the Dane in its original manuscript context.

The name of the manuscript comes from its owner William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury (1633-45) and Chancellor of Oxford University (1629-41) who had acquired it by 1633. The manuscript was subsequently donated, along with a large collection of other manuscripts, to Oxford's Bodleian Library in 1635. Bodleian, MS Laud Misc. 108 is of particular interest as it contains a collection of seminal medieval English texts that range from religious to secular genres. The manuscript is well known for containing the South English Legendary (SEL), i.e., the Middle English set of saints' lives, in a version that is significantly different from the standard version in both content and organization. The manuscript is also remarkable for containing the two earliest extant Middle English romances, namely, the earliest known version of King Horn and the only complete copy of Havelok the Dane.

The source material is looked at from three main perspectives: physical, contextual, and critical. Technically, the collection is usefully divided into two parts: Part I, 'The Manuscript and its Provenance' concentrates on the codicological and historical aspects of the manuscript, while Part II, 'The Manuscript and its Texts', offers other literary considerations relevant to a contextualized interpretation of the texts found in the manuscript.

Among the most interesting articles, Andrew Lynch discusses the coexistence of the two genres of 'saint's life' and 'romance' in the manuscript. Lynch notes that mixing of genres in manuscripts was commonplace and argues that Horn and Havelok differ significantly from each other when it comes to content, style, and discursive emphases. He concludes that despite a remarkable resemblance between them, it is unlikely that Horn and Havelok would have been read as saints' lives, at least not in the typical form of the SEL.

In his contribution, A. S. G. Edwards discusses the contents, construction, and circulation of the manuscript, describing, for instance, the decoration of the texts in light of paleographical and dialectal criteria; his technical knowledge is impressive. Another contributor, Thomas R. Liszka, attempts to determine the date of origin of the SEL, Havelok the Dane, and King Horn, compiling a meticulous chronological list of other scholars' findings on the matter and juxtaposing the results with his own.

Christina M. Fitzgerald's article tackles the intriguing issue of the ownership of the manuscript before it came into Archbishop Laud's collection [End Page 209] in 1633. Her consideration of different scenarios leads her to propose two possible candidates: Henry Perveys, a well-to-do London draper and William Rotheley, of uncertain occupation. Both men had connections with the famous and affluent Eyre family. While Fitzgerald concentrates too heavily on the examination of the mercantile society from which both men came, this essay reads very well.

To conclude, I was genuinely impressed with this insightful and thorough publication. It offers a comprehensive examination of a manuscript that is crucial to the understanding of early Middle English culture, and has been produced by a group of scholars who amply demonstrate their extensive knowledge of the field. The Texts and Contexts of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 108 should be essential reading for anyone interested in this late thirteenth-century vernacular manuscript...


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