Dying with Harley 2253
Last lyric things
in Harley manuscript geographies
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Scholars equate medieval culture with death culture, but such conceptions derive from obsessions that developed in the wake of the Black Death. Texts that dance with death (or relocate us spiritually by means of it) are never far away in the Harley miscellany’s fifteen quires. But neither do we encounter quite so morbid an obsession with coming ‘endyngs’ as haunt later imaginations. After providing a primer on medieval death, ‘Dying with Harley 2253’ asks whether this compilation may, in its late-added final quire, function as a proto-Ars moriendi. Pre-eminent among plague-inspired genres, these multi-media ‘craft of dying’ handbooks served increasingly to script late medieval end-of-life experiences. But whatever genuflections its closing quire’s Anglo-Norman devotions and Latin treatises may perform, our manuscript’s earlier English pieces are not so easily overwritten. These lyric meditations propose death-facing trajectories and afterlife orientations that refuse to be theologically gainsaid. Harley 2253 archives multiple kinds of dying, and models plural approaches to the locational crisis (‘Wher next shal Y fare?’) that mortality produces. Appreciation of the sublime extremities to which medieval lyric delivers its audience helps demonstrate how contemporary encounters with lyric form—often just as death-bent—owe debts to early exemplars, the eschatologies of which underlie their own.

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