The Myrowr of Recluses, a Middle English translation of the Speculum Inclusorum, a guide to the life of an English anchorite, decorated manuscript on paper [England (probably London region, perhaps Barking Abbey), first half of fifteenth century (probably soon after 1414)]
66 leaves (plus 3 modern paper endleaves at front and back), catchwords and leaf signatures throughout, complete, collation: i-viii8, ix2, single column of 21 lines of a professional English vernacular hand, paragraph marks in alternate red and blue, small initials in red or blue with contrasting penwork, three large variegated initials in red and blue with scrolling penwork extending height of upright margin, some notes for rubricator left in margins, paper heavy and with no apparent watermark, small spots and stains, many leaves with slight discolouration at corners from old water damage (a few leaves with parts of margin notes for rubricator washed out by this), else excellent condition, 200 by 140 mm.; English nineteenth-century blind-tooled brown leather, spine gilt with: MYSTERYE OF RECLUSES / M.S. / 1414, leaves with red edges
The only complete manuscript of this Middle English text on the life of a religious recluse, perhaps produced in Barking Abbey as part of the female education campaign of Abbess Sybil de Felton
1. The prologue to the text, unique to only this manuscript, dates the beginning of its composition to the this Wednysday bi the morrow, the even of the blissed virgyne seynt Alburgh, the secunde yeere of the worthy christen prince oure souerayn liege lord þe kyng Henry the Fiftis, that is 10 October 1414, with the next day the Feast of St. Ethelberga, sister of St. Erkenwald the patron saint of London. In 1414, 10 October was indeed a Wednesday. This copy is of the first half of the fifteenth century, and most probably was copied soon after the translation of the text into Middle English. The first few leaves here have apparent authorial corrections, but it must be noted that E.A. Jones has suggested instead that these are the work of a contemporary corrector trying to improve on the syntax. More importantly, Jones tentatively locates this translation of the text, and thus perhaps also the site of copying of this witness, on the basis of the dedication to lady Seynt Marie and of my … lady Seynt Alburgh, to the abbey of Barking, a Benedictine foundation for women a few miles to the east of London, and the education campaign there of Abbess Sybil de Felton. She owned or obtained for that house one of the earliest copies of Nicolas Loves Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, as well as William Fletes De Remediis contra Temptationes and the Clensyng of Mannes Soule. Moreover, Barking may have been the site of the composition of, or first audience for, The Chastising of Gods Children, and as a house of educated women it was turned to by Henry V to aid in the royal foundation of the English Benedictines at Syon. Indeed, one of Sybil de Felton followers from Barking, named Matilda Newton, became the initial abbess of Syon although she never professed as a Bridgettine. She returned to Barking in 1417 to live as a recluse (this nun has also been tentatively identified as a translator of texts: see M. Cré in A Companion to Marguerite Porete and the Mirror of Simple Souls, 2017). Barking Abbey was suppressed on 14 November 1539 and its possessions scattered.
2. Passing then into apparent lay hands: Roger Saddlar: his sixteenth-century inscription on fol. 10v; and Robert Leche (d. 1587) of Christ Church, Oxford, and then proctor of the university in 1560 and 1566, and chancellor of the diocese of Chester in 1562 (J. Foster, Alumni Oxonienses, 1891, p. 892): his inscription: In dei nomine, amen. Auditis, visis, et intellectis, et plenarie discussis per nos Robertum Leche artium magistri et in LL baccallarii reverend in Christo patris et domini, domini Willelmus permissione dia […] episcopi on fol. 66v.
3. John Wylde, his seventeenth- or eighteenth-century ex libris and no 133 at the head of fol. 1r.
4. Most probably William Ford (1771-1832), Manchester bookseller: inscription in hand of Joseph Brooks Yates on first endleaf recording 2.12.6 from Mr Fords collection, 26 Sep. 1820, presumably recording its price in £, shillings and pence. Fords initial catalogues were formed from his own vast private library, allowing the identification given here. Ford noted, perhaps prophetically, in a letter to Dibdin that It was my love of books, not of lucre, which first induced me to become a bookseller. He went bankrupt in 1810, but continued to operate as a bookseller and issued catalogues as late as 1832.
5. Joseph Brooks Yates (1780-1855): his inscriptions on endleaf on purchase from Ford and exhibited at L & P Society April 1844 (ie. Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society, of which he was president).
6. Henry Yates Thompson (1838-1928), his lengthy inscription on front endleaf recording his discussions on the volume with Mr Skeat of Cambridge (W.W. Skeat, Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, as well as a Middle English and Gothic language scholar), Frederick J. Furnivall (who worked with Skeat on the Early English Text Society publications) and Henry Bradshaw (Librarian Camb. Univ. Library) (liturgicist and linguist, who famously declared Books are to me as living organisms, and I can only study them as such; so every particle of light which I can obtain as to their personal history is so much positive gain), this dated 8 February 1880. Followed by a letter of the previous year from Skeat tipped in, declaring it an original of the date it professes to be 2nd year of Henry V and suggesting the dialect is that of London. Plus a loose note, presumably from Skeat suggesting two related published works.
7. Allan Heywood Bright (1862-1941), inherited from H.Y. Thompson: his bookplate, with pencil mark I/4. Sold in his descendants sale, Christies, 16 July 2014, lot 12, to the present owner.
This is the only complete copy of this work, known previously solely from the fragmentary witness in British Library Harley MS. 2372. The Harley manuscript is a less than perfect witness, lacking about a third of the text including the beginning, the end of part II and the end of part III. Additionally, it is clear that it was copied in the mid-fifteenth century at some remove from the original, and by the end of that century it was in Stamford, Lincs. (see A. Rogers in The Library, VII:15, 2014). The differences in the present text and that in the Harley manuscript show that neither is directly related to each other, but both were copied from a lost manuscript in Middle English, perhaps the original of the translation, with the present witness including some devotional verses on the Passion that were perhaps at some stage associated with the text. The present manuscript was not available to be consulted by Marta Powell Harley in 1995 when she edited the fragmentary text in the Harley manuscript, and likewise E.A. Jones in his parallel Latin and Middle English edition of the text published in 2013. Jones has subsequently published some brief observations on the text and the origins of the present copy, but it can scarcely be said to have been edited and much work remains to be done.
The text details the life of an anchorite, a religious recluse who withdrew from the temporal world to one of quiet contemplation and prayer. Anchorites differ from hermits in that they vow to remain in one place, and by the period the present manuscript was written, did so by being walled up in tiny cells built against the outer walls of churches (typically with a floor plan no larger than a coffin, but some smaller and not even allowing the inmate to lie down) with only minimal contact with the outside world for the remainder of their lives. Rites performed for them as they entered these cells were modelled after the funeral rite, and were meant to signify the status of the anchorite as beyond the world of the living, ensuring that they could not at any future time reverse their decision (an extant copy of this rite survives in British Library, Cotton MS. Vespasian D XV, fol. 61r). While some circumstantial evidence survives to suggest that a few may have been allowed visitors, in principle anchorites were only allowed to peep out of their cells to observe Mass, and withdrew from all other contact with people. Despite the apparent oddity of such practises to our modern perceptions, the taking up of such vows was common in the Middle Ages, and especially so in England among young women (see A.K. Warren, Anchorites and their Patrons in Medieval England, 1985 for further discussion). Indeed, the fact that this text was translated into the vernacular, combined with the uses of the female word ankeresse (in the charming sentence Swiche ankeresse bien more sikerly conserved and kept from the perels of the bodily witt of touching bi whiche entrith the lust of lechery, fol. 14r) rather than the gender-neutral recluse, strongly indicates that this manuscript was produced for a female readership, perhaps one already in seclusion in the wall of a church or contemplating such a life.
Perhaps unlike any other category, manuscripts in Middle English have continued to steadily grow in fascination for the private collector and institution alike over the last few decades, and have seen significant leaps forward in their realised values. Entire codices have reached market heights in the last few years with De Viribus Herbarum in Middle English translation, sold at Sothebys, 3 December 2008, lot 30, for £107,500; the Chastysing of Goddes Children, sold in Christies, 21 May 2014, lot 11, for £128,500; a Wycliffite Bible from the Ryrie collection, sold at Sothebys, New York, 5 December 2016, lot 9, for $1,692,500; and a Middle English John Mandeville, sold at Christies, 4 December 2018, lot 150, for £125,000; and surprisingly high sums have been achieved for even small fragments such as the two strips of The Prickynge of Love sold at Sothebys, 7 December 2010, lot 17, for £8125; a leaf from a Wycliffite Old Testament sold at Sothebys, 8 July 2014, lot 2, for £47,500; the fragments of the South English Legendary at Bonhams, 25 March 2015, lot 21, for £5250; the cuttings from a Middle English Brut Chronicle, sold at Christies, 13 July 2016, lot 106, for £15,600; and finally even charters in that language: see that sold in our rooms, 8 July 2015, lot 32, for £3072.
E.A. Jones, A Mirror for Recluses: A New Manuscript, New Information and Some New Hypotheses, The Library, 15:4 (2014), pp. 424-31.
Listed on the Arlima online database under Myrour of Recluses, presently as localisation actuelle inconnue.
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