This study brings emergent methodologies of literary geography to bear upon the unique contents—or more to the point, the moving, artful, frequently audacious contents—of a codex known as London, British Library MS Harley 2253. The Harley manuscript was produced in provincial Herefordshire, in England’s Welsh Marches, by a scribe whose literary generation was wiped out in the Black Death of 1348–1351. It contains a diverse set of writings: love-lyrics and devotional texts, political songs and fabliaux, saints’ lives, courtesy literature, bible narratives, travelogues, and more. These works alternate between languages (Middle English, Anglo-Norman, and Latin), but have been placed in mutually illuminating conversation. Following an Introduction that explores how this fragmentary miscellany keeps being sutured into ‘whole’-ness by commentary upon it, individual chapters examine different genres, topics, and social groupings. Readers from literary history, medieval studies, cultural geography, gender studies, Jewish studies, book history, and more, will profit from the encounter. Harley 2253 is famous as medieval books go, thanks to its celebrated roster of lyrics, fabliaux, and political songs, and owing to the scarcity of material extant from this ‘in-between’ period in insular literary history. England’s post-Conquest/pre-plague era remains dimly known. Despite such potential, there has never been a monograph published on Harley 2253. Harley Manuscript Geographies orients readers to this compelling material by describing the phenomenon of the medieval miscellany in textual and codicological terms. But another task it performs is to lay out grounds for approaching this compilation via the interpretive lens that cultural geography provides.
The Introduction describes the shifting place of the Harley manuscript within English literary history. Following early promotion by nationalist antiquarians (impressed by its unique vernacular poems), the volume enjoyed a period of historiographical consequence, followed by decline into oblivion. After description of Harley 2253 as a material object and rehearsal of its publication history, there follows enumeration of thirteen ‘Aspects of the miscellany’ as a codicological form particular to this era. ‘Harley manuscript geographies’ next examines two related methodologies: first, the burgeoning subfield of ‘literary geography’, and second a materialist philology (or History of the Book) approach known as ‘manuscript geography’. Harley 2253 remains famous for certain Middle English items (chiefly, love-lyrics and political songs). Yet the compilation is linguistically mixed (containing Anglo-Norman and Latin), diverse of genre, and fascicular (produced in sections later stitched together). Appreciating the constitutive irony of Harley studies—that this variegated artefact, so often at odds with itself, keeps being sutured into ‘whole’-ness by commentary upon it—prepares the way for subsequent chapters. These undertakings are distinct textually and topically, but share a baseline proposition: that the Harley manuscript is a book interpretively produced, as much as it is a storehouse of vernacular treasures found.
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.
Shortly before Edward I’s 1290 expulsion of England’s Jews, Bishop of Hereford Richard Swinfield rebuked his flock for accepting invitations to a Jewish wedding. Chapter 2 seeks to discover, within texts preserved by Harley 2253, such trace as Hereford’s expelled minority may have left in the cultural imaginary of this borderlands region. Recent scholarship has established that Jews constitute an ‘absent presence’ central to both Christian devotion and conceptions of Englishness. Hereford has a unique profile as a frontier Jewish community, while the Harley manuscript straddles the historical watershed of 1290. This codex has not yet received Jewish studies-based inquiry. But understudied texts near its centre provide material: Anglo-Norman biblical paraphrases that feature the Levites (or priestly class of the Hebrews), and devotional travelogues attuned to the location of biblical and post-biblical Jews. Exploration of these Old Testament stories and Holy Land itineraries, wherein ancient ‘Hebreus’ and latter-day ‘Gyiws’ figure, suggests that Harley departs from period norms. Its texts (and additions) reveal a provincial copyist who is stuck in the distant past, yet perspicacious about Jews’ historical present. Jews have long been absent, but Harley 2253’s fellow clerkly traveller proves disarmingly cognizant of the challenges facing Levitican ‘captives among us’.
Counterfactualist approaches to the past are standard in certain subdisciplines of history, and prevalent in film and fiction. But literary criticism and medieval studies have only begun to consider the phenomenon, despite counterfactual history’s potential for opening up the past in new ways. Chapter 3 risks the censure of ‘responsible’ historians by asking what implications an interweaving of genre prescription, gender ideology, and historical contingency may have for the practice of counterfactual literary medievalism. Its case study, drawn from an eclectic quire of Harley 2253, is an obscure Anglo-Norman bourde (jest, tale) known as Gilote et Johane: a genre-bending hybrid in which two damsels debate sexual mores, take lovers, outwit fathers, confound priests, advise passing wives, preach their audacious ‘lesson’ to churches full of femmes, then burst forth to spread their mobile erotic doctrine ‘across all England and Ireland’. As our narrator frames it, the tale is designed to provoke outrage and redoubled vigilance; however, Gilote et Johane's imagination of an alternative social future enables other, less deterministic species of response. Taking seriously the radical counterfactual vision presented by this rollicking ‘cautionary tale’ allows readers to re-map medieval gender relations, while reassessing Harley 2253’s place in Anglo-Norman and English literary history.
Chapter 1 proposes that the once-canonical ‘Harley Lyrics’ require literary-geographical re-contextualization. These poems’ backwater status is not native, but a consequence of the peripheral location assigned them by metropolitan narratives preoccupied with formal-genealogical influence. Harley 2253 was produced for a gentry household near Ludlow, Herefordshire, by a copyist using exemplars from across England and beyond (Paris, Avignon, Ireland). By attending to lyric transmission, and through readings of genre and geography, ‘Harley Lyrics and Hereford clerics’ demonstrates how, notwithstanding the provincial gentry setting of their copying, these adaptable poems align formally and socially with another textual community. This underlying context lies in the well-travelled secular clerks and episcopal officials of Hereford Diocese. The collective experience of such men was defined by unusually pronounced mobility, cohort solidarity, and district boosterism. But if these clerical lives, given incessant travel, are defined by spatial dislocation, so too are the Harley Lyrics preoccupied with geographical displacement. Waxing nostalgic for a ‘hom’ located vaguely ‘by west’, they idealize the figure of a beloved ‘levedi’ [lady] or ‘lef in lond’ [love in land]) who is brought into being through passionate poetic longing. Such (imported) conventions bespeak the cosmopolitanism of the Harley Lyrics, while underlining their regional orientation.
Ye goon to … Hereford? Regional devotion and England’s other St Thomas
The Epilogue reviews how—after much anarchic pulling apart—the Harley miscellany comes together as a literary-cartographic compilation. Sacred space manifests here as a Hereford-centred ecclesiastical regionalism. Harley 2253 is famous for other genres, but saints’ lives govern its undertaking. Its saintly roster proves diverse (biblical/medieval; foreign/domestic; political/parodic), but committed to locally grounded sanctity. Providing a focal point for ‘Ye Goon to … Hereford?’ is St Thomas Cantilupe, a Hereford bishop (canonized 1320) whose cathedral shrine competed on even footing, for a while, with the royal-associated cult of Archbishop Thomas Becket, whose Canterbury shrine dominates English literary history (via Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) and cultural geography. Cantilupe’s fortunes recall those of the Harley manuscript within literary studies; both acquire meaning via their regionalist character. Reading Harley 2253 and Hereford Cathedral together challenges the dominance of Becket, Chaucer, and Canterbury Cathedral. To seek St Thomas of Hereford in the Harley manuscript is to borrow trouble codicologically—he won’t be found, any more than Becket’s shrine is reached by Chaucer’s Pilgrims. But pursuing his absent presence, in a book that privileges sanctified geography by planting local saints at threshold locations, does move us towards Hereford Cathedral, where a famous mappamundi awaits those approaching Cantilupe’s shrine.