Medieval manuscript research solves age-old mystery about Chaucer's
Geoffrey Chaucer never finished his
classic The Canterbury Tales, but the stories were told and retold in
manuscripts for decades before the introduction of the printing press in
England in 1476. The problem is, medieval scribes had a habit of
embellishing, correcting or omitting text — or just making mistakes —
when they copied. With no surviving copies of The Canterbury Tales
written in Chaucer's hand, the question has long been which existing
manuscripts are closest to the original.
Now University of Maine Professor of English Linne Mooney has found
evidence to solve the mystery. Through her research on medieval
manuscripts, Mooney has identified the scribe who wrote the earliest
surviving copy of The Canterbury Tales.
Just as important, the UMaine literary scholar has determined that the
scribe, Adam Pinkhurst, probably worked under Chaucer's direction in the
1380s–90s. Chaucer wrote a short poem gently chiding a scribe who worked
for him named "Adam." He was scolded for having so many errors in his
manuscripts that Chaucer had to correct them in proofreading.
Chaucer's Wordes Unto
Adam His Own Scriveyne
Adam scrivener, if ever
Boece or Troilus for to write new [again],
Under thy longe locks thow maist have the scall,
But [unless] after my makinge thou write mor trew,
So oft a day I mot [must] thy werke renewe
It to correct, and eke to rubbe and scrape,
And all is thorowe thy necligence and rape [haste].
Scholars have long accepted that the
so-called Hengwrt manuscript, now in the Hengwrt Collection at the
National Library of Wales, and the subsequent Ellesmere manuscript, now
in the Henry E. Huntington Library in California, were written by the
same hand. What hasn't been known until now is the scribe's identity and
where he came from, lived and worked.
Pinkhurst probably came from Surrey, where his surname derived from
Pinkhurst Farm, near Abinger Common, between Guildford and Dorking. The
son of a small landowner, he would have gone into London to learn the
trade and make his living as a writer of court letter.
Mooney matched Pinkhurst's handwriting in the manuscripts to his
signature on an oath he took when he joined the Scriveners' Company of
London shortly after 1392. With this identification, Mooney has learned
important facts about the scribe, including evidence that Chaucer may
have supervised Pinkhurst when he made the first copies of the author's
prose translation of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy (Boece) and
Troilus and Criseyde, written in the 1380s.
Pinkhurst also may have been working for Chaucer in the late 1380s and
in the 1390s when he was writing The Canterbury Tales, Mooney says.
"Therefore, the Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts were not just written
by someone hired by Chaucer's executors to copy his last unfinished
work, but by a scribe who had worked for Chaucer over a number of years.
This lends still more authority to these two copies of the Tales."
Even if the manuscripts were written after Chaucer's death, she says,
they were written by someone who had a close working relationship with
the author while he was creating the Tales. The scribe would have known
Chaucer's intentions for ordering and linking the Tales, which remained
unfinished with the poet's death in 1400.
Mooney, currently a Visiting Professor of Medieval Literature at the
University of York in Britain, presented her findings to the biennial
congress of the New Chaucer Society in Glasgow, Scotland, in July.
Mooney made her discovery while serving this past year as a Visiting
Fellow at Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge, Britain. Her
most recent work in the United Kingdom (2003–04) was supported by a
National Endowment for the Humanities grant for collaborative research
with John Daugman at the Cambridge Computer Lab. Their research involved
computer-assisted identification of medieval scribal handwriting.
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.