Medieval Studies Robert Thornton
Susanna Fein
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0211


The 15th-century Yorkshire landowner Robert Thornton (c.1397–c.1465) was responsible for the production—as sole copyist and mindful compiler—of two important manuscripts of Middle English literature: Lincoln, Cathedral Library MS 91 (the Lincoln MS) and London, British Library Additional MS 31042 (the London MS). Paper watermarks suggest that Thornton copied both books contemporaneously during the middle decades of the 15th century. They contain mainly texts in English, with bits of Latin and virtually nothing in French. The overall contents, broadly miscellaneous in nature, fall into generic sections. In the Lincoln MS, discrete booklets or sets of booklets hold romance, religion, and medicine. In the London MS, religion and romance combine to narrate, roughly, a cumulative history of salvation and mercy. Thornton’s name appears often in his books, and it also appears whimsically inside a decorated initial as a pictorial rebus on the name “Thornton” (a thornbush growing out of a tun) (Lincoln MS, fol. 23v). The manuscripts seem designed to function as household books for the entertainment and spiritual edification of Thornton and his family. In the 19th century different candidates were proposed to identify who Thornton was. Current consensus, based on surviving life-records, confidently accepts that the correct Robert Thornton was gentry lord of the manor of East Newton in the parish of Stonegrave, wapentake of Ryedale, North Riding, of Yorkshire. One hundred items found in the Lincoln MS (314 folios) include a major collection of romances, the most important being the Alliterative Morte Arthure, witnessed elsewhere only in embedded form in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. The religious section contains prayers, meditations, devotions, and instructions, including works by the Yorkshire hermit Richard Rolle, and items by Walter Hilton. The medical section holds a large set of recipes and an herbal that survives now as only a few fragments. Thirty-five items in the London MS (179 folios) include verse romances and religious works, including poems by John Lydgate and several alliterative poems. The figure of Robert Thornton is an important one in any discussion of late medieval vernacular book production. Because of the extraordinary nature of his collected texts, with much of it surviving nowhere else, editors and scholars have long sought to uncover details of Thornton’s reading habits, exemplars, and cultural milieu. The texts he copied tell us what a medieval English gentry man read, how he practiced his religion, and what worldly values he held for himself and his family.

General Overviews

Studies of Robert Thornton are rarely “general” because most research on him is deeply codicological or intricately historical, and it tends to be focused on one manuscript or the other, not both of them; or on one genre or another, not all of them (romance, religion, medicine); or on a specific text that is under the microscope of an editor. There are three essential book-length studies: (1) Brewer and Owen 1977, the Lincoln MS in facsimile (cited under Lincoln MS); (2) Thompson 1987, a well-illustrated descriptive study of the London MS (cited under London MS); and (3) Fein and Johnston 2014, a collection of critical essays, some of a general nature. In addition to these books, there are a few studies that attempt to synchronize the many micro-studies of Thornton’s scribal habits and cultural milieu. Pollard 1885–1900 and Easting n.d. provide complementary entries on the scribe and his books in the Dictionary of National Biography and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, respectively. Keiser 1979 and its supplement Keiser 1983 offer indispensible characterizations of the scribe’s life and milieu. Olson 2012 views the manuscripts as a family library designed for use within a gentry household (for more on this notion, see the section Vernacular Miscellanies). Representing modern sociohistorical studies of Thornton, Johnston 2014 reads the Thornton romances according to the social preoccupations of the gentry class (for more on this idea, see the section Late Medieval English Gentry Culture). Fein 2015 categorizes Thornton as a literary scribe whose entire oeuvre warrants critical analysis as a source for gleaning the scribe’s purposes and design. Several scholars have established themselves as authorities of the complex Thornton corpus, most notably, Ralph Hanna, Phillipa Hardman, George Keiser, and John J. Thompson. Citations of their research appear throughout this bibliography; taken collectively and with the books and studies named in this section, their scholarship (and especially that of Keiser) delineates the shape of modern Thornton studies.

  • Easting, Robert. “Thornton, Robert.” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. n.d.

    Easting concisely surveys the details of Thornton’s life: his parents, dates, marriages, station in life, and personal affiliations as known through life-records. Easting then profiles each manuscript by summarizing its contents, probable time-frame of compilation, and most notable features.

  • Fein, Susanna. “Literary Scribes: The Harley Scribe and Robert Thornton as Case Studies.” In Insular Books: Vernacular Manuscript Miscellanies in Late Medieval Britain. Edited by Margaret Connolly and Raluca Radulescu, 61–79. Proceedings of the British Academy 201. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    Defining Thornton as a “literary scribe,” Fein summarizes what is known of his intentions and affiliations, and isolates passages attributable to Thornton himself, including a bridge between the Cursor Mundi excerpts. She identifies another bridge in Fein 1998 (cited under Lincoln MS).

  • Fein, Susanna, and Michael Johnston, eds. Robert Thornton and His Books: Essays on the Lincoln and London Thornton Manuscripts. Manuscript Culture of the British Isles 5. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer, 2014.

    This collection of essays is the only book devoted to assessing Thornton’s contribution as a scribe. Essays of general overview include Johnston 2014 and Keiser 2014 (both cited under Thornton as Scribe), and Fein 2014 (cited under Both Manuscripts).

  • Johnston, Michael. Romance and the Gentry in Late Medieval England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199679782.001.0001

    In Chapter 5, “Robert Thornton Reads Romance” (pp. 159–205), Johnston adroitly situates Thornton in his historical, socioeconomic Yorkshire setting, demonstrating how the romances he gathers “encode gentry desires” (p. 186) with which Thornton would have identified.

  • Keiser, George R. “Lincoln Cathedral Library MS. 91: Life and Milieu of the Scribe.” Studies in Bibliography 32 (1979): 158–179.

    Examining local documents, life-records, and the Lincoln MS, Keiser adds particularizing detail to the scribe’s profile. He affirms that these clues fit what is known of the life and environment of Robert Thornton of East Newton in Ryedale.

  • Keiser, George R. “More Light on the Life and Milieu of Robert Thornton.” Studies in Bibliography 36 (1983): 111–119.

    Reevaluating the known life-records, Keiser characterizes the scribe’s probable education and ways he acquired exemplars for the texts copied in the two manuscripts.

  • Olson, Linda. “Romancing the Book: Manuscripts for ‘Euerich Inglische.’” In Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary and Visual Approaches. Edited by Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Maidie Hilmo, and Linda Olson, 95–151. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012.

    A significant portion of this well-illustrated chapter (pp. 116–139) focuses on Thornton’s books as a homemade family library designed for a gentry household. Olson includes a helpful list of every instance of a Thornton family name in both manuscripts (pp. 126–127).

  • Pollard, Albert Frederick. “Thornton, Robert (fl. 1400).” Dictionary of National Biography 56 (1885–1900).

    Pollard summarizes two candidates previously proposed as the scribe (i.e., an archdeacon buried at Lincoln Cathedral, a Benedictine prior from Lincolnshire). He also provides a history of the earliest publication of individual Thornton items in the 19th century, 1822 to 1889.

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