- Robert Thornton and his Books: Essays on the Lincoln and London Thornton Manuscripts ed. by Susanna Fein and Michael Johnston
Robert Thornton is known chiefly through the two manuscripts he copied in Yorkshire in the second half of the fifteenth century, Lincoln Cathedral MS 91 and British Library MS Additional 31042. The contents of both manuscripts are largely in Middle English verse and prose and include a number of important texts, some of which are unique, including (in Lincoln): a prose Life of Alexander, the alliterative Morte Arthur, the romance Sir Perceval of Gales; (in BL Additional): the romances, The Sege of Melayne, and Duke Roland and Sir Otuel, the alliterative debate poem, Wynnere and Wastoure and a verse rendering of The Three Kings of Cologne. But beyond such unique items these manuscripts assemble a range of materials, literary, religious and (pseudo) scientific that in totality offers a broad spectrum of vernacular written resources.
The present collection of essays on these manuscripts comprises eight chapters and an ‘Afterword’. Susan Fein begins by providing a detailed description of the contents of both manuscripts and their codicological divisions into booklets, together with a full range of documentation. The result is bibliographical work of lasting value. There are few features that are unclear or invite correction: is there a meaningful distinction between the formula ‘No other manuscript(s)’ used variously in the description of the Lincoln manuscript between items 1–78 and the subsequent formula used from item 88 ‘Other manuscripts unknown’? In the British Library manuscript these forms appear apparently interchangeably (see items 8, 10, 20, 23, 26, 35, for the first, and item 25 for the second). It could profitably have been noted under item 32 of the Additional manuscript that the St Andrews University Library manuscript is a fragment of National Library of Scotland MS 19.2.1. Under item 15 of the same manuscript there are 40 not 36 other manuscripts of Lydgate’s Verses on the Kings of England. Under item 16, Lydgate’s Dietary, an additional copy was sold at Christie’s, 27 January 2006 as part of lot 501. But overall this essay should become the first port of call for all students of these manuscripts. [End Page 200]
George Keiser’s lengthy ‘Robert Thornton: Gentleman, Reader and Scribe’ is necessarily in part a recapitulation and reappraisal of his own numerous writings about Thornton. He offers a developed overview of the design and meaning of both manuscripts and of their interrelated concerns. Not all will be convinced as to the nature and extent of the quite intricate purposive design he (and others in this collection) believe these manuscripts to possess, a perceived subtlety of fifteenth-century poetic sequencing somehow readily accessible to twenty first century literary critics. Such an attempt to ‘read’ the manuscript as a coherent whole is, however, of a piece with modern tendencies in the study of Middle English manuscripts. Elsewhere in this essay he has some particularly helpful observations of Thornton’s changing graphic forms.
Joel Fredell continues researches that seek to establish York as an important site of vernacular manuscript production. He focuses particularly on the evidence of forms of penwork decoration in the Thornton manuscripts and the affinities he feels they share with others that are localizable. There are problems with such a methodology, some of which Fredell acknowledges. Common decorative features do not self-evidently demonstrate a shared site of production (though they may indicate shared training). And the seeming localizable features may prove more widespread as the number of manuscripts examined becomes larger. More fundamentally, the perceived shared stylistic decorative features are not always evident to the viewer on the basis of the (admittedly not very good) reproductions here. The insistence that the decorator is ‘professional’ (for example, pp. 113 and 115) is not firmly buttressed by evidence: why should not a decorator (perhaps Thornton himself, as has often been...