Fragments and Assemblages: Forming Compilations of Medieval London

Fragments and Assemblages: Forming Compilations of Medieval London

by Arthur Bahr

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In Fragments and Assemblages, Arthur Bahr expands the ways in which we interpret medieval manuscripts, examining the formal characteristics of both physical manuscripts and literary works. Specifically, Bahr argues that manuscript compilations from fourteenth-century London reward interpretation as both assemblages and fragments: as meaningfully constructed objects whose forms and textual contents shed light on the city’s literary, social, and political cultures, but also as artifacts whose physical fragmentation invites forms of literary criticism that were unintended by their medieval makers. Such compilations are not simply repositories of data to be used for the reconstruction of the distant past; their physical forms reward literary and aesthetic analysis in their own right. The compilations analyzed reflect the full vibrancy of fourteenth-century London’s literary cultures: the multilingual codices of Edwardian civil servant Andrew Horn and Ricardian poet John Gower, the famous Auchinleck manuscript of texts in Middle English, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. By reading these compilations as both formal shapes and historical occurrences, Bahr uncovers neglected literary histories specific to the time and place of their production. The book offers a less empiricist way of interpreting the relationship between textual and physical form that will be of interest to a wide range of literary critics and manuscript scholars.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226924922
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/18/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

Arthur Bahr is associate professor of literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Forming Compilations of Medieval London


Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-92491-5

Chapter One


The Corpus of Andrew Horn

The broad argument of this chapter will be that, despite their generally utilitarian appearance, both the codicological form and the textual contents of the manuscripts superintended by Andrew Horn participate in and help create an urban, mercantile reading culture in which compilational interpretation formed one crucial facet of a broader textual competence necessary to protect London's civic liberties from abrogation. Despite the fine scholarship that aspects of these manuscripts have recently received, the corpus as a whole remains relatively unfamiliar, and the manuscripts' codicological situation moreover is dauntingly complex. I will therefore give a brief summary of both, along the way flagging texts and issues that I take up later, before summarizing more thoroughly the particular arguments that the chapter advances.

The 328 will of Andrew Horn includes this bequest:

Item lego camere Gildaule London[ie] unum magnum librum de gestis anglorum in quo continentur multa ultilia, et unum alium librum de veteribus [word omitted] anglorum cum libro vocato Bretoun et cum libro vocato speculum Justic,' [sic] et alium librum compositum per Henricum de Huntingdon[ia]. Item alium librum de statutis Anglorum cum multis libertatibus et aliis tangentibus civitatem.

Item: I leave to the London Guildhall one great book containing the ancient deeds of the English in which are contained many useful things, and one other book concerning the ancient English [laws] with a book called Bretoun and with the book called the Mirror of Justices, and another book composed by Henry of Huntingdon. Also another book concerning the statutes of the English with many liberties and other matters pertaining to the city.

The first of these books is the most complex, and I will consider it last. Concerning the rest, scholarly consensus is that the volume by Henry of Huntingdon has been lost and that the last book named, "concerning the statutes of the English," refers to the Liber Horn still held in the Corporation of London Record Office; it is a comprehensive collection of the statutes of Henry III and Edward I together with some thirteenth-century legal treatises. The second book Horn describes as a collection that includes within it (hence the repeated cum libro formulation) two other self-contained works, "Bretoun" and "speculum Justic." These titles indicate that the original volume was subsequently separated into the two manuscripts now shelved as Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MSS 70 and 258. These contain the so-called London Collection, a version of the legal text Quadripartitus that owes its sobriquet to interpolations that glorify the City and its various civic liberties; Britton ("Bretoun"), a well-attested redaction of some of the more important laws of the first half of Edward I's reign; and Mirror of Justices ("speculum Justic"), an idiosyncratic legal treatise that now survives only in this copy. The strangeness of Mirror, and of its juxtaposition with the far more conventional Britton, will form the first argumentative node of this chapter.

The first of the books in Horn's will, the only one that he calls "great," probably refers to one of the two massive custumals that he compiled over the course of his tenure as City chamberlain, Liber custumarum and Liber legum antiquorum regum. The good news is that these two monumental volumes have mostly survived, the bad that they have done so in singularly confusing fashion. Jeremy Catto's narration is tartly succinct: "The two custumals fell into the hands of Sir Robert Cotton, who divided them into more than twenty different fragments, reassembled them into three piles, returned one to the Guildhall (the modern Liber Custumarum), kept another (British Library MS Cotton Claudius D.ii), and gave the third to Sir Francis Tate (Oriel College, Oxford MS 46)." Catto's reference to "the modern Liber Custumarum" indicates a feature of contemporary nomenclature that frustratingly compounds this already complex situation: the volume called Liber custumarum in the Middle Ages corresponds only in part and nonsequentially with the volume now housed at the Guildhall under that title (the first of the "three piles" cited by Catto), which was pieced together from fragments of both medieval custumals. Fortunately, fifteenth-century tables of contents survive for both custumals, which allowed Neil Ker to summarize the codicological situation as follows (note that his "MS C" represents the contents of the original, medieval Liber custumarum and his "MS D" that of the original Liber regum; by "Liber Custumarum" in the following descriptions he designates the current, modern volume so named):

MS C. Guildhall, Liber Custumarum fo[l]s. 103-172, 187-284 + Oriel Coll., Ox 46 fo[l]s. 1-108 + Brit. Mus., Cotton Claudius D.ii fo[l]s. 116-123.

MS D. Guildhall, Liber Custumarum fo[l]s. ii, 1-102, 173-186 + Claudius D.ii fo[l]s. 30-40, 42-115, 24-135, 266-277 + Oriel Coll. 46 fo[l]s. 109-211.

Hereafter, my use of the terms Liber custumarum and Liber regum refers to their medieval forms as orchestrated by Horn and pieced together above. The second argumentative node of this chapter will concern a few texts that are unique to Liber regum. Like Mirror of Justices, they are thematically consonant with what surrounds them, but they create juxtapositions that both imply and encourage more complex modes of reading than the predominantly practical and archival nature of Liber regum suggests.

In addition to these surviving texts, Horn appears to have written portions of the Annales Londonienses originally found in Cotton Otho B.iii, whose depiction of Mayor Richer de Refham's exercise in collective civic research I considered in the introduction. This manuscript having been mostly destroyed in a fire, the annals survive only in an eighteenth-century transcript. They begin acephalously with the year 1194 and proceed until 1293, relying largely on Matthew Paris's Flores Historiarum, as well as other chronicles not now identifiable, but freely excerpting and adding material that might particularly interest a London audience. The annals from 1293 to 1301 are lost, and it is for the portion of the work from their resumption in 1301 to their conclusion in 1316 that Horn has been posited as author. The most detailed of these cover the years 1307-12, from the coronation of Edward II to his dramatic appeal to Londoners following the murder of Piers Gaveston. Likewise now apparently lost is whatever was designated as "Summa Legum per Andream Horne" in the list of manuscripts held by Westminster Abbey included in Bernard's Catalogi Manuscriptorum Angliae et Hiberniae.

Already this is an extraordinary amount of knowledge to possess about the contents and disposition of so substantial a textual corpus. We can further deduce a good deal about the order in which these volumes were produced and the uses to which some of them, at least, were put. The originally conjoined Corpus MSS 70 and 258 and Liber Horn appear to have been produced relatively early in Horn's career as a compiler, for a note in the former cuts short an announced set of statutes of Edward I with the following announcement:

Ista statuta quorum prohemia superius hic intitulantur in libro isto non scribentur nec Registrum, quia alibi habeo et quia intendo ex libro isto et aliis impostrum deo dante magnum codicem componere, quia utile duxi posteris presentia temporum nostrum exprimere.

Neither these statutes [their rubrics are given above] nor the register of documents shall be written in this book, because I have them elsewhere and because I intend to compile, with God's grace, from that book and others a great codex of those things I think useful to portray to posterity the circumstances of our days.

Ralph Hanna has plausibly speculated that the "elsewhere" referred to here is Liber Horn, while the magnum codicem anticipates the production of Liber regum or Liber custumarum in the 1320s. This hypothesis fits the dates: a colophon partway through Liber Horn identifies as it Horn's and dates it to 1311, though a continuation (which is considerably larger than the original collection) adds material through 1319. By this time, a table of contents had been provided for the entire manuscript, which appears to have served as a practical, working copy; notes added throughout indicate sources for various documents held in other Guildhall volumes, leading Debbie Cannon to the conclusion that "the Liber Horn seems to have been designed to function as a kind of unofficial referencing system to its [London's] rapidly expanding collection of documents at the beginning of the fourteenth century."

Of Horn's two large custumals, Liber regum can be dated to 1321 or just afterward and Liber custumarum to between 1324 and 1327. Both draw substantially, though not wholly, on Liber Horn; the words hic incipe and non scribe have been written next to portions of Liber Horn that do and do not, respectively, get copied into the later volumes. Liber custumarum, meanwhile, also includes material from Liber regum; Hanna describes both of these as containing "(a) a Latin collection of pre-Statute law, extending from Ine of Wessex to Richard I (the logic for entitling one of the volumes 'Liber legum antiquorum regum'); (b) an extensive collection of Statuta Anglie, the latest items from c. 1321; (c) another extensive collection, in this case of London legal materials (the 'custume')." While their largely historical, legal, and civic contents look broadly similar to those of Liber Horn, however, these volumes display important differences of presentation and visual impact, which in turn draw attention to some of the idiosyncratic, less obviously practical texts within Liber regum that I take up in this chapter. Ker anointed Liber regum "the finest of the city books, admirably written and illuminated," while Hanna notes both custumals' "opulent page layouts." Lynda Dennison, meanwhile, has demonstrated that their border and figure illuminations were influenced by the Queen Mary Psalter Group of illuminators, who worked on a great number of prestige manuscripts. While Liber Horn also boasts substantial decoration, its quality is less impressive than that which distinguishes Liber regum, and whereas Liber Horn was apparently used as a practical guide, assembled over the course of nearly a decade, Liber regum appears to have been constructed all at a go. It seems designed, as Cannon puts it, both "as a complete reference work, and as a showpiece item, rather than as an ongoing notebook. Its contents are dignified by the visual impressiveness of the book in which they are contained." Hanna concurs, deeming both it and Liber custumarum "expressions for posterity ... tailor-made for the City as its communal records of memory."

It is clear, moreover, that Horn himself had a sense of the grandeur that books could possess; he uses the word magnum twice to describe the codicem that he plans to assemble, first in the note in the Mirror codex quoted earlier, and later in his will to designate one of the volumes left to the Guildhall. Even if we cannot establish definitively that Liber regum is that volume, as Catto proposes, it clearly merits the adjective both for its size and for its performative and practical power. For its collective owners, it offered the aesthetic delight of its many decorations, a sense of civic pride at owning so monumental a physical tokening of London's greatness, and the peace of mind of knowing that the documentary basis of the city's rights lay securely within. By making available to the City both these massive and beautiful volumes and his other, more modest and personal books, Horn convenes his fellow Londoners, present and future, as the reading community that will need to understand and use all these documents in defense of civic prerogative, just as he himself did. His carefully orchestrated textual productions implicitly urge comparably detailed contemplation of their contents, in a process not unlike that undertaken by Mayor Richer de Refham in 1310:

Hic antiquas consuetudines et libertates in rotulis et libris camerae civitati fecit persecutari, et, congregatis sapientioribus, potentioribus, una cum aldermaniis, coram eis fecit legi et pupplicari.

He [de Refham] caused the ancient customs and liberties in the rolls and books of the chamber of the city to be thoroughly searched [persecutari], and, the wiser and more powerful men having been assembled, together with the aldermen, he had them read and made public in their presence.

It is actions like these, Horn continues, by which Refham "was seen to preserve and reform the king's city in its former and unblemished dignity and authority." Texts here are imagined capable of convening London's citizens (congregatis) and thus literally re-forming (reformare) their beloved city.

The suggestion that such reform is necessary, however, hints that all this grandeur could in fact be read as evidence of the City's precarious position, since only those whose privileges are in jeopardy need to protect them so ostentatiously. This proposition is further strengthened by the fact that the grandest of all the volumes, Liber regum, was produced in or just after 1321, the year of the great Eyre and of London's consequent civic dismay. In this context, the Horn corpus's obsessive doubling and even trebling of contents across its various manuscripts starts to look like a sign of insecurity. Horn had good cause to worry that London would fall short of high-minded ideals of civic harmony in the future, as it had in the past, and that relations between City and Crown would continue to be rocky. We will see further evidence of all this in the evocations of London within the Canterbury Tales that I examine in chapter 3. Horn's volumes thus celebrate London's civic liberties while implying their essential fragility; to borrow the terms of my title, they are at once literal assemblages of London's privileges yet also reminders of how quickly those privileges, and the City that they define and protect, could be fragmented.

In this chapter, I argue that a comparable ambivalence underlies some of the odder texts, and textual juxtapositions, within Horn's corpus of manuscripts. I first consider the eccentric legal text Mirror of Justices and, in particular, the strangeness of its juxtaposition with the following, infinitely more conventional legal treatise Britton. That pairing, to which a marginal note draws our attention, prompts us to read Mirror for more than merely its frequently erroneous statements of legal practice; it is the codicological form of the Mirror codex, in other words, that helps determine Mirror's meaning. I then turn to a set of texts from Liber regum: William fitz Stephen's Description of London; a creatively edited set of excerpts from Brunetto Latini's Livres dou Tresor; and two sets of statutes for the London puy (which we briefly considered in the introduction). None of these is straightforwardly practical after the fashion of the laws, statutes, and charters that make up most of Liber regum, and each therefore encourages more creative forms of interpretation, particularly given the broader context of the Mirror-Britton juxtaposition, where such interpretation was necessary in order to make sense of Mirror. Each of these texts in Liber regum proposes a model for London that comes at some distance, whether geographic, temporal, or both. I argue that both individually, as discrete texts, and cumulatively, through their broader codicological situation within the custumal, they suggest a complex mixture of civic pride and insecurity, aspirationalism and nostalgia.


Excerpted from FRAGMENTS AND ASSEMBLAGES by ARTHUR BAHR Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Figures, Acknowledgments
Compilation, Assemblage, Fragment

Civic Counterfactualism and the Assemblage of London
The Corpus of Andrew Horn

Fragmentary Forms of Imitative Fantasy
Booklet 3 of the Auchinleck Manuscript

Constructing Compilations of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Rewriting the Past, Reassembling the Realm
The Trentham Manuscript of John Gower

Afterword, Bibliography, Index

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