Medieval Studies Rate Manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 61)
Wendy Matlock
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0240


Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 61 is often referred to as the Rate manuscript after the codex’s scribe, who signs the name nineteen times throughout the volume of 162 paper folia and often adds drawings of fish and roses at the ends of texts. The codex measures about 418 mm by 140 mm. It likely was produced for urban household use, given its strong interest in domestic life, including practical material for household maintenance such as recipes and accounting advice along with poems for lay devotion and popular entertainment. Watermark evidence suggests production dates between 1479 and 1610, but the scribe’s hand precludes a date after the first decade of the 16th century, so scholars typically use c. 1500 to date the manuscript. Dialect places Rate in Leicestershire. Little otherwise is known about Rate, but his careless copying and idiosyncratic editing combined with the codex’s unusual format suggest he was an amateur scribe producing the volume for his own or his household’s use. The manuscript compiles forty-one works, although some numbers include multiple or incomplete texts. Its eclectic contents, primarily in Middle English excluding macaronic works and three Latin epigrams, range from short didactic poems and prayers to long devotional treatises like The Northern Passion. It includes literature from a wide range of times and places. Among the earlier are the late-13th-century Saint Eustace and The King and His Four Daughters, which translates part of Robert Grosseteste’s Anglo-Norman Le Château d’Amour, but a majority date to the 15th century. Some are extant only in the Rate manuscript; for example, The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools and The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls are unique. Other texts, however, circulated widely in later medieval England (e.g., A Prayer to the Virgin Mary, preserved in forty other manuscripts and itself excerpted from the immensely popular Speculum Christiani). Ashmole 61 is noteworthy for its five popular romances: four are signature Middle English tail-rhyme romances—Sir Isumbras, The Erle of Tolous, Lybeaus Desconus, and Sir Cleges—and the fifth is Sir Orfeo. It also includes two comic poems in tail-rhyme stanzas, Sir Corneus and King Edward and the Hermit. The manuscript as a whole compiles works concerning good manners, correct conduct, and the claims of the afterlife, issues of great interest to 15th-century readers. It is often compared to other 15th-century miscellanies, such as Cambridge University Library MS Ff.2.38; Edinburgh National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.3.1; Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson C. 83; and the Lincoln Thornton MS.

General Overviews

There are no book-length overviews or studies of the Rate manuscript. Most scholarly examinations look at individual texts or specific genres, and because of Rate’s idiosyncratic copying practices, editors tend to use other sources as copy texts when they exist. Blanchfield 1991a, a dissertation completed at the University College of Wales, remains indispensable in its careful study of the codex. Blanchfield 1991b and Blanchfield 1996 offer foundational characterizations of the scribe and his bias toward religious and family themes. Wiggins 2012 introduces the manuscript to popular audiences.

  • Blanchfield, Lynne S. “‘An Idiosyncratic Scribe’: A Study of the Practice and Purpose of Rate, the Scribe of Bodleian Library Ms Ashmole 61.” PhD diss., University College of Wales, 1991a.

    In this dissertation, Blanchfield describes Rate’s practice, purpose, and personality as revealed in the contents he selected for the manuscript and his practice of scribal editing. She also uses historical records to try to identify him and his social background. The dissertation transcribes the whole manuscript in a second volume.

  • Blanchfield, Lynne S. “The Romances in Ms Ashmole 61: An Idiosyncratic Scribe.” In Romance in Medieval England. By Maldwyn Mills, Jennifer Fellows, and Carol Meale, 65–87. Cambridge, UK: Brewer, 1991b.

    In this foundational study of Rate’s scribal practices and identity, Blanchfield argues that he adapts the romances to conform with his moral and didactic interest in family values and describes her efforts to identify Rate in Leicester city records.

  • Blanchfield, Lynne S. “Rate Revisited: The Compilation of the Narrative Works in the MS Ashmole 61.” In Romance Reading on the Book: Essays on Medieval Narrative Presented to Maldwyn Mills. Edited by Rosalind Field, Jennifer Fellows, Gillian Rogers, and Judith Weiss, 208–220. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1996.

    This article seeks to identify thematic groupings within the whole manuscript, finding it tripartite: (1) pragmatic instructional verse; (2) narratives on the ill consequences of wrath and infidelity, including romances and exempla; and (3) narratives on heaven and hell. Blanchfield concludes that Rate was more interested in content and tone than in genre when selecting works to copy.

  • Wiggins, Alison. “Scribes and Settings.” In The Romance of the Middle Ages. Edited by Nicholas Perkins and Alison Wiggins, 61–87. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2012.

    This chapter addresses a popular audience in a beautiful book produced to accompany the Bodleian Library’s 2012 exhibition. Wiggins confidently identifies the scribe as “John Rate” and describes his manuscript as an extremely conservative and systematic reading program (pp. 78–82). Wiggins also describes the drawings, providing a color illustration of the Shield of the Passion from folio 106r.

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