evening primrose

Middle English stories and legends

translated and retold in modern English


Six manuscript volumes of medieval literature


The Scot Manuscripts

Six books of medieval literary works have come to light. All of the writings are known from other manuscript volumes, but they may nonetheless shed some new light on old stories, not least because the copyist, whose often iodeosycratic notes are preserved here and there on the pages, is recorded as having been burnt at the stake for heresy in 1509.

Two of the volumes are the copyist's early work. She was Hannah Scot, who was born somewhere near Hexham, in Northumberland, England, in the second half of the fifteenth century, possibly around 1459. Her age was recorded as fifty and her name as Hannah Bokenham when she was burnt at the stake in November 1509, outside the church of Saint Thomas in Newport, on the Isle of Wight. Hannah Scot was married in 1481 to a young merchant from Newcastle named Geoffrey Bokenham at the village church in Simonburn, Northumberland.

Hannah Scot

Hannah Bokenam, neé Scot, died on 21 November 1509, at the age of fifty, so the records tell us, having suffered torture before being executed. Hannah was denounced for relapsed heresy in August 1509, confined to Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, where she was already working as a governess to a young lady named Margaret Bray, later tortured under the orders of the Franciscans and given over to the secular authorities for burning near the end of that year. Her husband, whom she had married at the age of twenty-two, was no longer there to protect her. He had met with an uncertain fate in Italy the year before. None of her sons had survived into adulthood and a daughter, Susannah, was married and living in London at this time.

The stepdaughter of a Hexham landowner, Hannah had spent her teenage years in educated surroundings. There is evidence that Hannah may have copied eleven of the tales which make up Volume Gowther in her late teens or very early twenties, perhaps from manuscripts in her stepfather's library. There is even a small hint in her confession that she may, in her teenage years, have been personally acquainted with the author of the poem The Floure and the Leafe. This was certainly the first tale that she chose to copy into her personal collection of writings, which would later become Scot MS Gowther. Scot MS Ragnelle is likely to have been her second volume of stories, collected and transcribed in a similar way, perhaps whilst she was still unmarried.

By good fortune, it has now been shown that four manuscript volumes which came to light in a private library in the south of England in the nineteen seventies are also Hannah's work. The scribal hand is clearly that of Hannah, although small differences in letter formation, when viewed against Scot MSS Gowther and Ragnelle, show that none of them could derive from the same period. They must therefore be later transcriptions from Hannah's scribal pen, probably made as and when she came into temporary possession of work that interested her. Further proof of this comes from the final tale in Scot MS Gowther, which is clearly an addition from a later re-binding of this volume and in a hand identical to that of Hannah's work in the White Book of Mottistone.

Hannah's confession betrays a love of mystery and a deep fascination with the past. Her imagination had been stimulated by the remains of an ancient stone circle in Simonburn, near Hexham, Northumberland, and by an ancient carving incorporated into the fabric of the church in the village there, a church in which she would later be married. And as she confided to her inquisitors, she was intrigued by the remains of antique and mysterious circular shapes that were carved into an old standing stone that had been incorporated into the fireplace where she warmed herself on winter evenings when she was a girl. She had traced the circular groves with her fingers and claimed to have felt their mystery. The books in her stepfather's library had also kept the young Hannah spellbound, and she could not help but try to interpret the perplexing clues that surrounded her, often as she walked along the line of the old wall that the Romans had built.

These tales and romances that Hannah copied and retold with such an eager curiosity are presented here in Modern English translation so that you can make up your own mind. All of them are found in manuscript copies elsewhere, sometimes uniquely. Many of them are tales that led Hannah ultimately to the stake.

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Six old manuscripts, sixty-five old tales

The spelling in these handwritten manuscripts betrays a northern dialect, and the name 'Hannah Scot' on the flyleaf of Volume Gowther is written in an identical hand to the main body of the work, and to that of the other five volumes, with the exception of part of the White Book of Mottistone, as already explained. Thus we can be confident that the copyist of all six volumes was Hannah Bokenham, neé Scot. The contents of all of these volumes – which total sixty-five medieval stories, legends and narratives if Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are counted as one work, or ninety if they are included separately – are all known from other manuscripts. But Volume Gowther is unique in claiming that its stories reveal a body of concealed knowledge. Four lines written in red ink near the end of the volume, just after Geoffrey Chaucer's story of the House of Fame, repeat an identical quotation in an identical red ink that can be seen on the second flyleaf at the front of the volume. The words appear to be of fourteenth century origin and may have been copied by Hannah from an earlier collection of tales lying in her father's library, or perhaps she composed them herself.

  1. The menskful wight swich tales kepe
  2. ful dernly and ful yerne,
  3. shal wite the lay of Briton clerkys
  4. and ancien sothe shal leren.

(The noble person who preserves these tales, with love and with discretion, shall know the creed of the ancient druids and come to understand a long lost belief.)