In This Article The Vernon Manuscript

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • Bodleian Library Catalogues
  • Other Catalogues
  • Lists and Indexes of Contents
  • Page Preparation, Scribes, Volume Structure
  • Decoration and Illustration
  • Language
  • Provenance

Medieval Studies The Vernon Manuscript
by
Wendy Scase
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0153

Introduction

The Vernon manuscript is the accepted name in scholarly literature for Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Eng. poet. a. 1. Named after Colonel Edward Vernon, who presented the manuscript to the Bodleian c. 1677, Vernon is the largest surviving manuscript of Middle English literature and arguably one of the most important. Based on internal references, contents, and decoration and script it is usually dated 1390–1400, and based on dialect evidence it seems to have been made for an audience in the English West Midlands. Physically it is of extraordinary proportions: it weighs 22 kg, measures about 54.4 cm x 39.3 cm, and has 700 pages (350 leaves) although originally it had 422 leaves or more. Containing over 370 texts, Vernon provides a compendium of religious, devotional, and moral literature: it is described internally as a book of sowlehele (i.e., for the health of the soul). Many of the texts in the manuscript are extensive vernacular compilations that circulated widely in later medieval England, such as the Prick of Conscience and the South English Legendary. It includes literature from a wide range of times and places, from older literature in modernized language (e.g., Ancrene Riwle, originally a 13th-century guide for women recluses) to recent work (e.g., works by Walter Hilton [d. 1396]) and from writings originally composed in other regions (e.g., the Northern Homily Cycle) to work with Midlands associations (e.g., Piers Plowman). The volume is lavishly decorated with illustrations and many hundreds of initials and fine borders. It is clear that the volume was intended to provide materials to support the prayer, meditation, and religious education of audiences in the West Midlands whose preferred literary language was English. This may have been because they were not educated in Latin or French (the literary languages, respectively, of the Church and universities and the higher aristocracy) or on account of ideological persuasions (the manuscript is clearly not heretical but it was made in the period when John Wyclif and his Lollard followers were controversially advocating the provision of the Bible and ancillary material in English). The provenance of the volume, however, remains an unsolved problem; we have no firm evidence for where it was produced or who financed its production, nor for its audience and owners until it came into the possession of the Vernon family in or before the late 16th century (names of members of the family in this period are recorded on an endleaf).

General Overviews

There is no book-length overview of or introduction to Vernon. Vernon studies are part of two main disciplinary fields: Middle English language and literature and medieval manuscript studies. There are many overviews of Middle English aimed at orientation of beginners. In manuscript studies, particularly relevant to Vernon, though mostly aimed at specialists, are works that treat later medieval vernacular manuscripts from England.

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