The Arc Blog and Podcasts

Drolleries and the Juvenilia of the Harley 2253 Scribe

As I worked on editing and translating the verse and prose contents of MS Harley 2253, a recurring pleasure and intrigue rested in trying to spot the literary tricks of a playful and instructive scribe. He certainly shows a penchant for linking poems of disparate types by finding (or adding) verbal repetitions to endings and beginnings. He also likes to juxtapose wryly matched items by setting them side by side on the page. And he loves puns and multilingual jokes. We can’t really know why he toyed with these maneuvers, but, in reading Harley 2253 straight through, we can discover and enjoy them. He may have been a professional entertainer, or simply a schoolmaster, or a secular chaplain for a household, or mainly just a witty lawyer. Very likely, he was a charismatic confection of all these types.

Some delightful instances of his youthful wit may be found in another of his manuscripts, MS Harley 273, where his presence may be dated some twenty to thirty years before his hand and mind began to create the marvelous Harley 2253 project. Harley 273 shows us that he worked with an older scribe and that, together, they not only made sure that the young scribe learned his clerical lessons, but they also shared lighter moments, sometimes drawing droll animal heads on initial letters or funny hybrid creatures in the margins.

Harley 273 is, like Harley 2253, available in color facsimile at the British Library Catalogue, Digitised Manuscripts site: www.bl.uk/manuscripts/, s.vv. “Harley MS 273” and “Harley MS 2253.” I recommend that you go there and see for yourself, for example, the funny creature with rooster feet, bunny ears, camel hump, and a ruff on folio 58rb, the cowled critters on folios 59rb and 95va, and the woman’s head with a hairnet on folio 102vb. These were all made, I think, by the Harley Scribe in his youth.

A listing of the doodles and drolleries that attach to the juvenile oeuvre of the Harley Scribe can be found in my recent article, “The Harley Scribe’s Early Career: New Evidence of a Scribal Partnership in MS Harley 273,” The Journal of the Early Book Society 19 (2016): 1-30. Although I don’t reproduce these doodles and drawings in the article, it would be wonderful for this hidden dimension of the famous Harley Scribe to become more widely known. Therefore, I urge you to go to the digitized facsimile and view the artistic creativity enjoyed in a pedagogical scriptorium, circa 1314-15. Here was an atmosphere of convivial learning that nurtured the literate playfulness of the Harley Scribe.

I also urge you to delve into the incomparable Harley Lyrics, and especially the rich world that exists in and beyond them when they’re read amid the unusual strategies of the Harley Scribe. Quite deservedly, he’s now seen as a major personality in the cultural history of Middle English literature. A new generation of Harley studies—seeing the manuscript as a whole artifact and the product of an artful compiler—promises to disclose much that we didn’t know before about his literary tricks and games.

by Susanna Fein, Kent State University