Making a Women’s Manuscript: Medieval Women and their Books II

Although many manuscripts survive from the Middle Ages, there are comparatively few that reveal certain signs of female participation in their production. One of the most fascinating is the Findern Manuscript (Cambridge University Library MS Ff.1.6), a household collection of Middle English literature compiled gradually over more than a century (between c.1446 and 1550). The book is associated through its domestic documents to the Derbyshire gentry family of Findern which reached the peak of its prosperity and prominence with John Findern II, an influential lawyer who expanded their estates markedly during his stint as head of the family (c.1390 to 1420). John II would no longer have been alive when the Findern Manuscript was begun, but he set the economic and social stage for the family’s elevated literary aspirations in a time when reading books, especially the right books, was a measure of sophistication and success among the rising middle classes.

The Courtly Contents of the Findern Manuscript

There can be no doubt that the compilers of the Findern Manuscript set their literary sights high despite the homemade quality of their book. There are no costly illustrations, but some of the poems included in the manuscript are the work of major English courtly poets like John Gower, Thomas Hoccleve, John Lydgate and Geoffrey Chaucer. Certain pieces were even copied from a family of exemplars also used to produce an important and much more professional cluster of fifteenth-century Chaucer manuscripts (exemplar is simply the term used for the manuscript from which a scribe makes a new copy of a text). So Findern’s makers obviously had some impressive connections–the name of Anne Shirley above one of its poems hints at what they may have been, since Anne was almost certainly a member of the same family as John Shirley, the middle-class bookmaker whose work was so important to the collection, attribution and transmission of the writings of Chaucer and Lydgate. The compilers of Findern also possessed a strong sense of what constituted fashionable reading, organizing their anthology much like those professional Chaucer manuscripts around the popular theme of love, its pleasures and trials, its gender games and literary debates.

Findern’s Love Debate and Playful Scribes

In the Findern Manuscript, however, we find among the works of well-known authors a number of otherwise unknown lyrics, and many of these actively participate in the book’s debate on love. So, for example, before the Book of Cupid by John Clanvowe, one of Findern’s more than forty scribes inserts two unique lyrics that take opposing sides in the love debate begun by the nightingale and cuckoo in Clanvowe’s poem. The first lyric echoes in its vows of fidelity and service the nightingale’s idealistic perspective on love; the second seems to respond directly to the first, taking the cuckoo’s more pessimistic view of love as suffering, and love-service as a hopeless effort.

Contributions like these reveal in Findern a literary dialogue over an open-ended question of the sort very fashionable in courtly circles of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: “Is loyalty and service in love rewarded?” The way in which certain sections of Findern are copied piecemeal by several different scribes, each contributing only a few lines at times, may well extend this to a social game or even an appealing educational exercise where the book in-progress and its exemplar(s) are passed around a group of amateur scribes. Several have even recorded their names, or in some cases perhaps playful code names or pseudonyms, like Nicholas Full of Love, Crocit Dyton, and A God When.

The Female Scribes and Authors of Findern

Among the named scribes of Findern are at least two Derbyshire gentry women–Elizabeth Cotton and Elizabeth Francis, whose names appear at the end of the Romance of Sir Degrevant. Since the Degrevant romance is among the earliest texts copied into Findern (c.1446-1461), in these two female scribes we may have the initiators of the anthology. Elizabeth Francis married into the Findern family (the use of her maiden name may indicate that she was still unmarried when she copied her part of Degrevant), so she could well have been the one who determined the book’s focus, which tends to settle on young, intelligent and independent female characters and their perspectives. She could also have been responsible for encouraging the literary game among contributors beyond her co-scribe, some of whom may also have been women–certainly other women’s names appear in the manuscript, like Anne Shirley, Margery Hungerford and Frances Cruker.

Particularly compelling is the argument that gentry women may have been not only the scribes, but the authors of some of Findern’s unique lyrics. The use of female voices and perspectives, sometimes even feminine pronouns in the lyrics hints at, but certainly does not necessitate, female authors. Yet the emotional frankness and experimental style of several of these lyrics, which depict medieval women in ways much truer to their reality than we find in the type of male-authored courtly love poetry that the Findern lyrics imitate and transform, strongly suggest the probability of women writers. Certainly some of the authors were local, for several of the unique lyrics demonstrate Derbyshire dialect features, and in certain cases it would seem that scribe and author are one and the same. When we have, for instance, a scribe correcting in a poem with a feminine Derbyshire voice not simply what seem scribal errors, but actually replacing words and lines with poetically superior ones, as though revising in the manner of an author, then it is much more likely than not that we have a local gentry woman still composing her lyric as she copies it into the manuscript.

Both the scibe recorded as A God When and another by the name of Lewestoun correct in precisely this authorial way. And Lewestoun does more: she contributes a witty English lyric that lays bare the manipulative nature of male poetic language (its “dowbilnys”) and inverts the tradition of courtly love to shape a literary and social game more favourable to the needs and desires of real women. Just what we might expect of a book conceived and produced by medieval English gentry women.

Sources

  • Beadle, Richard, and A.E.B.Owen, eds. 1977. Findern Manuscript: Cambridge University Library MS Ff.1.6. London: Scolar Press.
  • Doyle, Kara A. 2006. “Thisbe out of Context: Chaucer’s Female Readers and the Findern Manuscript.” Chaucer Review 40: 231-261.
  • Hanson-Smith, Elizabeth. 1979. “Woman’s View of Courtly Love: the Findern Anthology.” Journal of Women’s Studies in Literature 1: 179-194.
  • Harris, Kate. 1983. “Origins and Make-up of Cambridge University Library MS Ff.1.6.” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 8: 299-333.
  • McNamer, Sarah. 1991. “Female Authors, Provincial Setting: The Re-Versing of Courtly Love in the Findern Manuscript.” Viator 22: 279-310.
  • Olson, Linda. 2011. “Romancing the Book: Manuscripts for ‘Euerich Inglische.’” In Opening Up Middle English Manuscript Studies: Literary and Visual Approaches, ed. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Olson and Maidie Hilmo, Chapter 2. New York: Cornell University Press.
  • Robbins, Rossell Hope. 1954. “Findern Anthology.” PMLA 69: 610-642.

Article published first time by Linda Olson on: April, 2011