In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Harley 2253 Manuscript

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Facsimiles and Reference Works
  • Manuscript Layout
  • Metrics and Dialects
  • Literary Affiliations
  • Themes in Harley 2253 Studies

Medieval Studies The Harley 2253 Manuscript
Susanna Fein
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0197


London, British Library MS Harley 2253 is one of the most important literary books to survive from the English medieval era. In rarity, quality, and abundance, its collection of secular love lyrics in Middle English is unrivaled. Mixed with the love poems are contemporary political songs as well as delicate lyrics designed to stir religious devotion. Additionally, in French and Latin, the book contains more rare treasures: for example, four fabliaux (the largest set from medieval England), three tales of Anglo-Saxon Mercian saints, and a wealth of satires, comedies, debates, interludes, collected sayings, conduct literature, Bible stories, dream interpretations, and pilgrim guides. Rich in texts in three languages, the book’s trilingual fluency and literary range are astounding. The main scribe—generally known as the Harley scribe—worked as both compiler and copyist. He possessed unusual curiosity, a discerning eye for textual acquisition, and an irrepressible literary wit expressed by compilation. Specimens of his earlier work (instances of professional scrivening or remnants of his clerical training) may be found in forty-one legal writs (dated 1314–1349) and in two other manuscripts (London, British Library MS Harley 273 and MS Royal 12.C.12). He has been identified as the redacting author of the French prose Fouke fitz Waryn (an ancestral romance and outlaw tale), the French prose Old Testament Stories (appearing uniquely in Harley 2253, fols. 92v–105r), and the Short English Metrical Chronicle (which, like Fouke, appears in the Royal manuscript). In Harley 2253, three other scribes’ hands appear: an Anglo-French scribe who copied an impressive set of religious narratives in verse and prose (ten items found in two booklets; fols. 1–48), a scribe who inserted eight paint recipes (fol. 52v), and an accounts scribe (who probably knew the Harley scribe), whose hand appears on the flyleaves. On folios 49–140 of Harley 2253, the Harley scribe collected 115 items in five booklets, appending his work to the ten texts of the Anglo-French scribe, whose format and content he initially imitated. Harley scholarship has historically focused on the spectacular collection of Middle English secular, religious, political, and satirical lyrics, and there has been a secondary—and usually unrelated—line of enquiry on the French fabliaux. With the publication in 2014–2015 of the manuscript’s full contents, research is poised to launch into studies of the whole manuscript and its fascinating range of other texts.

General Overviews

Overview studies of Harley 2253 are somewhat rare. Most scholarly examinations look at individual texts or specific genres. The broad question of classification—that is, whether the book is a miscellany or an anthology—is addressed in Stemmler 2000 and Lerer 2003. Jeffrey 2000 surveys the known authorship of the relatively few non-anonymous items. Birkholz 2009 is interested in geographical localization of the English lyrics, focusing on Hereford, where the scribe may have received clerical training. The evidence unearthed in Revard 2000, however, points definitively to the region of Ludlow as the main locus of the Harley scribe’s activity. On the Ludlow localization, see also Hines 2004 (cited under Literary Affiliations). Turville-Petre 1996 emphasizes the book’s trilingual nature and emerging Englishness. Fein 2000 surveys Harley 2253’s history of ownership and the gradual publication of its contents.

  • Birkholz, Daniel. “Harley Lyrics and Hereford Clerics: The Implications of Mobility, c. 1300–1351.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 31 (2009): 175–230.

    Birkholz sets the lyric contents of Harley 2253 within the milieu of Hereford Cathedral and its familia of episcopal clerks. Bypassing questions about the scribe’s identity and agency, this study seeks to characterize the male poets’ preoccupations with love and their geographical mobility.

  • Fein, Susanna. “British Library MS Harley 2253: The Lyrics, the Facsimile, and the Book.” In Studies in the Harley Manuscript: The Scribes, Contents, and Social Contexts of British Library MS Harley 2253. Edited by Susanna Fein, 1–20. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2000.

    Fein discusses the state of scholarship on Harley 2253 up to 2000, recounting the history of previous owners and early notices of the contents.

  • Jeffrey, David L. “Authors, Anthologists, and Franciscan Spirituality.” In Studies in the Harley Manuscript: The Scribes, Contents, and Social Contexts of British Library MS Harley 2253. Edited by Susanna Fein, 261–270. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2000.

    Jeffrey surveys the relatively small range of known authors represented in Harley 2253, and he ponders the evidence of possible Franciscan influence.

  • Lerer, Seth. “Medieval English Literature and the Idea of the Anthology.” PMLA 118 (2003): 1251–1267.

    DOI: 10.1632/003081203X68018

    For Lerer, Harley 2253 offers a window upon the medieval concept of the “literary.” Its juxtapositions of items, languages, and textual technologies illustrate the scribe’s visual sensibility and the nature of the items’ cultural transmissions.

  • Revard, Carter. “Scribe and Provenance.” In Studies in the Harley Manuscript: The Scribes, Contents, and Social Contexts of British Library MS Harley 2253. Edited by Susanna Fein, 21–109. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2000.

    The study provides essential information about the Harley scribe. Revard reports the discovery of the Harley scribe’s legal writs and discusses the nature of his three manuscripts. Because the writs are precisely dated (1314–1349) and placed, changes in the scribe’s script are datable, and his Ludlow provenance is established.

  • Stemmler, Theo. “Miscellany or Anthology? The Structure of Medieval Manuscripts: MS Harley 2253, for Example.” In Studies in the Harley Manuscript: The Scribes, Contents, and Social Contexts of British Library MS Harley 2253. Edited by Susanna Fein, 111–121. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2000.

    Stemmler lays out the defining codicological features (authors, language, form, genre, etc.) of a miscellany versus an anthology, and admits to some ambiguous blurring of the lines. He argues that Harley 2253 is a miscellany but displays anthologizing impulses.

  • Turville-Petre, Thorlac. “Three Languages.” In England the Nation: Language, Literature, and National Identity, 12901340. By Thorlac Turville-Petre, 181–221. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

    Turville-Petre’s chapter examines the interplay of languages and literature in Harley 2253, gives specific attention to the English verse in context, and analyzes attitudes on “Englishness” projected by Harley items.

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