Medieval Studies John Shirley
Margaret Connolly
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 March 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0198


John Shirley, who died in 1456, was a scribe of later Middle English literature, particularly of works by John Lydgate and Geoffrey Chaucer. Shirley’s three autograph anthologies contain significant numbers of poetic and prose texts by these authors and others such as Thomas Hoccleve and John Trevisa, as well as many anonymous works. A distinguishing feature of Shirley’s scribal work is his provision of lengthy headings offering information about the texts he copied: in some cases this constitutes the only surviving evidence of authorship, meaning that Shirley’s witness is crucial for determining the canonicity of some works by Chaucer and Lydgate; indeed, his copies of some of their works are the only ones to survive. His anthologies also contain works in French and Latin, and he himself translated a number of prose works from these languages. Shirley owned other manuscripts, and he gave some to family and friends; the evidence for this is found in his distinctive monogram, motto, and inscriptions, usually placed at the beginning of the volumes. After his death Shirley’s autograph manuscripts were used by other London scribes, giving rise to a new generation of copies in which the influence of his distinctive headings and unusual spellings may be traced. His manuscripts were esteemed in the 16th century by antiquarians such as John Stow. As well as his scribal activities, John Shirley had a long career in the service of Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick. As a member of Warwick’s retinue Shirley fought in Henry IV’s campaign against Owen Glendower in Wales, and in Henry V’s wars in France. Shirley rose to the prominent position of Warwick’s secretary, and was a highly trusted member of the earl’s household, responsible for conducting much business. In the later years of his life Shirley lived at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London and was involved with the city’s mercantile community through his second wife, the daughter of a prosperous London wool merchant. Shirley’s life is richly documented, but the nature of the evidence has been interpreted in different ways. Early assessments of his prolific scribal output, combined with details of his property ownership, led commentators to claim that he operated a commercial proto-publishing business in the mid-15th century, before printing began in England. This interpretation stands in opposition to the alternative view of Shirley as an amateur copyist, concerned to preserve old texts and to lend copies to his friends and associates, particularly within the noble household.

Reference Works

Manuscripts associated with John Shirley are scattered across libraries in the United Kingdom and the United States; the published catalogues of individual repositories and collections, where available, provide the most useful starting points for the investigation of these codices. For manuscripts that are held in British institutions (excluding the British Library, the Bodleian Library, and Cambridge University Library), Ker 1969–1992 is an invaluable resource and one made more accessible by the subsequent publication of a set of comprehensive indexes—Cunningham and Watson 2002. The key Middle English reference work A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050–1500 (Severs, et al. 1967–2005) provides information about individual texts that will be helpful in understanding the range of sometimes unfamiliar material that Shirley copied. For Middle English poetry DIMEV: An Open Access Digital Edition of the Index of Middle English Verse (Mooney, et al. 1995–) has superseded earlier hard-copy indexes and may be freely accessed. There is as yet no equivalent for Middle English prose texts but the individual hand lists that have appeared as part of the Index of Middle English Prose (Edwards 1984–) will provide some useful information; searching these has become less laborious since the publication of a cumulative index (Rand 2014). For information about other individuals involved in book production in later medieval London, see Christianson 1990.

  • Christianson, C. P. A Directory of London Stationers and Book Artisans, 1300–1500. New York: Bibliographical Society of America, 1990.

    Alphabetical listing of individuals recorded as active in aspects of the London book trade. Short summaries provide many references to original documentary sources and secondary reading. Helpful indexes of names and manuscripts.

  • Cunningham, I. C., and A. G. Watson, eds. Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries by N. R. Ker. Vol. 5, Indexes and Addenda. Oxford: Clarendon, 2002.

    Provides eleven indexes to Neil Ker’s four-volume reference work, allowing searches focused on texts (by author, subject, title, first line) or named individuals (scribes, illuminators, owners, annotators). Addenda record changes in the locations of manuscripts or in the names of institutions, as the result of sales, closures, and corporate reorganizations.

  • Edwards, A. S. G., ed. The Index of Middle English Prose. Cambridge, UK: Brewer, 1984–.

    A total of twenty-one volumes published to date. Identifies Middle English prose writings and transcribes the first fifty and last twenty words of each item. Ambitious project organized by library or collection; only twenty-one hand lists published thus far, edited by different editors. Hard-copy only. Each volume has a comprehensive set of indexes.

  • Ker, N. R. Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries. 4 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969–1992.

    Alphabetical listing of medieval manuscripts held in British libraries arranged by repository. Volume 1 covers London; Volumes 2–4 cover Aberdeen–York. Each manuscript entry provides a physical description and brief list of contents. More detail given about manuscripts in smaller, lesser-known collections for which no other information is available.

  • Mooney, Linne R., Daniel W. Mosser, and Elizabeth Solopova, eds. DIMEV: An Open Access Digital Edition of the Index of Middle English Verse. York, UK: University of York, 1995–.

    The digital successor to hard-copy indexes that were published in 1943, 1965, and 2005. Records all known works in English verse from the period 1200–1500, numbered and arranged alphabetically by first line. May be searched by author, first line, or manuscript reference. Regularly updated as new discoveries emerge. Freely accessible.

  • Rand, Kari Anne. The Index of Middle English Prose: Index to Vols. I to XX. Cambridge, UK: Brewer, 2014.

    Cumulative index to the first twenty volumes of the Index of Middle English Prose. Vital research tool to anyone working with Middle English texts.

  • Severs, J. Burke, Albert E. Hartung, and Peter G. Beidler, eds. A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050–1500. 11 vols. New Haven, CT: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1967–2005.

    Classifies and describes all known writings in Middle English under twenty-five headings. Offers a comprehensive listing of all known manuscripts and early printed editions with bibliographical citations. Hard-copy only, so increasingly dated bibliographically, but still the best quick reference guide to the subject. Volume 6 is especially relevant to Shirley.

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