Crafting English letters: a theory of medieval scribal practice

How did our conventions for writing English develop? When early writers wrote in English, what choices of script, spelling, letter-forms, and method of transferring text from exemplar to copy were available to them? What factors - literary, economic, social, communicative, practical - shaped their choices?

vernon fol. 237r detailThe Vernon Manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Eng.poet.a.1, fol. 237r)

Despite its foundational significance for Anglophone culture across the world, medieval scribal craft, its practices, development, and infrastructure, are little understood. This project focuses on understanding the problems that scribes faced when they copied English, on distinguishing different solutions, and on explaining the variety of practices and their relationships. Current hypotheses use a model of three types of copying: letter-by-letter, dialect translation, and mixed practices. This project aims to demonstrate the inconsistencies and inadequacies of this model, to test and refine it through investigation of selected manuscripts from the earliest survivals to c. 1500, and to produce a new theory of the craft practised by scribes of English writing. The result will be a new perspective on the thousands of hand-written texts that comprise the medieval English archive.

Professor Wendy Scase was supported by a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship for three years to pursue this project.