MS Kk.1.7 contains The Pilgrimage of the Soul – the Middle English adaptation of Guillaume de Deguilleville’s fourteenth-century poem Le Pèlerinage de l’Âme. All of the extant manuscript copies of the Soul reserve space for illustration, indicating that miniatures played an integral role in the manuscript tradition of the Soul. Close comparison of the scenes chosen for illustration reveals an archetypal programme of illustration. Most copies show preparation or completion of twenty-six scenes, and these scenes show a high degree of consistency in subject and, often, iconography.[i] In Kk.1.7, a total of seventeen scenes are illustrated, and possibly one or two others are missing due to loss. The illustrator made critical decisions not only about which moments of the narrative would receive greater emphasis, but also about the iconography of these scenes, thereby deciding how they were presented and constructing reader responses.
MS Ee.4.32 is datable to s. s.xv2 and contains two texts: The Three Kings of Cologne and the English Prose Brut Chronicle. Renown Brut scholar Lister Matheson asserts that: ‘The Middle English prose Brut survives in more manuscripts than any other Middle English work except the two Wycliffite translations of the Bible’. Matheson’s compiled catalogue of the Brut lists nineteen extant versions of the Latin Brut, forty-nine versions of the Anglo-Norman Brut, and over one-hundred-seventy versions of the Middle English Brut. For a complete list and location of these manuscripts, please see Matheson’s monograph The Prose Brut: The Development of a Middle English Chronicle.
The life of a book holds many stories, all leaving an invisible signature trapped in the pages, waiting to be read by those with the keenest eye. However, what if an eye is not enough? Invisible traces have seemed impossible to recover, but this is all changing with recent technological advances available to us. The emerging field of Biocodicology1 offers the tantalising prospect to read these long forgotten biographies, revealing complex stories of use, handling, storage and production.
But why is this relevant? What can we really learn that cannot already be ascertained from reading the text? The value of the materiality of manuscript production cannot be overstated. Understanding the craftsmanship involved in the production of materials, so intrinsically linked to the users themselves, are as much a part of the codex as the words inscribed on the page. Understanding book production in terms of the livestock economies that sustained them, the choice of animals (age, sex, breed), the idocincracies of each skin requiring specialist knowledge of treatment and production. But then there are additional stories imprinted on the completed text, how was it being used? Were these objects of reverence with barely a scratch as proof of their sacred status, or are they everyday books to be used and thumbed and splashed and cleaned? Much the same way as our favourite recipe books contain evidence of the ingredients we use, manuscripts may present similar signatures from their users, a drop of wine here, a stain of milk there, a veritable feast of biomolecules preserved for posterity, lying dormant waiting to be revealed.