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November / December 2004

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Finding Adam


Finding Adam
Medieval manuscript research solves age-old mystery about Chaucer's scribe

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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 1380s90s. 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 thee befall
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 (200304) 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
November-December, 2004

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