Saturday, 21 June 2014

F. 172- A Middle English manuscript in Worcester Cathedral Library.

Worcester Cathedral Library has a very interesting fifteenth-century manuscript written in Middle English, using the much the same language as Chaucer fifty years earlier. It is known by its catalogue title of ‘F. 172’, and is an anthology of religious writings, popular tales called Middle English Romances, and items thought to be true history. This type of work was very popular in its day.

Photograph of MS F172. Image copyright the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.), 2014.
F.172 cannot be described as a decorated or lavish manuscript. It is written in quite a clear neat style, with simple page decoration but no illustrations. It has more than 200 pages, was copied by a single scribe, and is fairly easy to read, once you are used to reading Middle English. The handwriting style or palaeographic hand is known as an anglicana secretary hand.


A good deal is known about the scribe that penned this lengthy manuscript. The scribe is referred to by scholars as the ‘Hammond scribe’ and he is known to have produced 11 other manuscripts asides from F.172, all of which are either held by the British Library or Trinity College, Cambridge.

It is not certain how this manuscript, originally written in fifteenth century London, came to be found in Worcester Cathedral. It is not mentioned in the seventeeth-century library catalogues, but two signatures written on the first page provide some clues.


Signatures of previous owners of F172. Image copyright the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral Library (U.K.), 2014.

The first signature says ‘William Ballard 1707’. This is probably the man who is known to have been mayor of Worcester in 1723, a benefactor of St Nicholas’ parish church, and an administrator of a charity for poor prisoners in the city gaol. He subscribed to an edition of the Antiquities of Warwickshire, and perhaps was a collector of old manuscripts, and the year may be when he first acquired it.

The second signature belongs to William Thomas D.D., rector of St Nicholas, grandson of a seventeenth-century bishop of Worcester, and a student of ancient literature. Perhaps the manuscript was a gift to him from William Ballard. He made some notes on the contents, and presumably donated it later to the Cathedral.

What is the evidence for the fifteenth-century origin of the manuscript? Apart from the language, and watermarks found in the paper used, quite unusually there is good information about the Hammond scribe and also the probable first owner, both suggesting a date sometime during the reign of King Edward IV, between 1461 and 1483.

Another page has a monogram, indicating that it belonged to John Vale, one of the three manuscripts found with this monogram.

John Vale's monograph in F172. image copyright the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.), 2014
John Vale was steward and secretary to Sir Thomas Cook, a wealthy draper and mayor of London in 1462. But remember that this was the time of the ‘Wars of the Roses’, and although Sir Thomas was in favour with King Edward, he was later accused of treason for lending money to the wife of the exiled Henry VI, imprisoned and heavily fined.

It is not known what happened to the manuscript for more than 200 years after this, but it is likely to have remained an important family heirloom. Even after the rise of mechanical printing and the gradual ending of manuscript copying, books remained expensive and manuscripts could have continued in use for many tears.

Photograph of F.172, f. 117 v. an obliterated page. Image copyright the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral library (U.K.), 2014. 

A clue to the later use of the manuscript is shown on three pages which have been crossed out with later pen lines.  These pages mention prayers and services that could gain indulgences and relief from the punishment of sins in Purgatory after death. The doctrine of indulgences had been rejected by the English Reformation, and the scribbling-out showed willingness to accept the new belief, along with a wish to keep the manuscript in use well into the sixteenth century and beyond.

In other blogs I hope to look at some of the interesting, amusing and controversial contents of this manuscript.

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