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Medieval stories and legends

translated and retold in Modern English

Six manuscript volumes of medieval literature

Ninety Middle English stories, lais, legends, verse romances and other popular medieval traditions, retold in Modern English prose

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The Scot Manuscripts


Six books of medieval literary works have come to light. All of the writings are known from other manuscript volumes, much to the disappointment of scholars, 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, was 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 April 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, although sometimes uniquely. Many of them are tales that led Hannah ultimately to the stake.


Six old manuscripts, ninety old tales

Regarding Scot Manuscript Gowther and Scot Manuscript Ragnelle, it cannot be said with any great certainty when these two handsome volumes of ancient paper and faded leather were written, but it is indisputable that they were both produced by the same hand and that the bulk of the work is of the late-fifteenth century. A single visible watermark is not as definitive as it might have been but points to one of the volumes, Volume Gowther, having been copied sometime between 1458 and 1474. The contents of this volume, too, as well as that of Scot MS Ragnelle, point to such a date, with the exception in each of these volumes of one late addition.

The four other manuscripts have a slightly later provenence. A watermark in one of the quires in the Yellow Book of Calbourne date the folio on which it occurs to between 1491 and 1502. The scribal hand is clearly the same as in Scot MSS Gowther and Ragnelle, as it is in Calbourne's three sister manuscripts, Wellow, Shalfleet and Mottistone (mostly), and the bindings, in yellow, blue, red and white calfskin, seem to date to the closing decades of the eighteenth century. The White Book of Mottistone is anomalous in that it is clearly an amalgamation of two earlier volumes, only one of which is the work of the copyist who produced Scot MS Gowther, Scot MS Ragnelle and MSS Calbourne, Wellow and Shalfleet. These two volumes may have been joined together during the eighteenth century rebinding, or quite possibly earlier.

Not only do these six volumes comprise a good collection of romance, dream vision, Arthurian legend and much else, in the finest traditions of medieval storytelling, but they also, through a marginal comment by the transcriber to be discussed in a moment, claim to offer a key to a body of lost knowledge. This is a very unusual claim to be found in a medieval document.

Scot MSS Gowther and Ragnelle are undoubtedly the oldest of these six volumes. Scot MS Gowther's youngest literary composition, The Floure and the Leafe, is known to have been composed in the fifteenth century, probably no more than a few years either side of 1470 and comfortably within the range indicated by the watermark. Most of the other pieces are of the mid- to late-fourteenth century, although four of the stories can trace a direct ancestry back to the twelfth century.

Both Scot MS Gowther and Scot MS Ragnelle initially lacked their final story, which is in the copiest's later hand, a hand identical to that in much of the White Book of Mottistone. The Arthurian tale that closes Scot MS Ragnelle could not have been copied until the spring of 1508 at the earliest, since a footnote appended to this Arthurian tale shows that it was taken from a printed edition that survives to this day and was first published in April of that year. Transcription of the handwritten stories, legends and narratives that now comprises these six manuscripts seems, therefore, to have spanned between thirty and forty years of someone's life.

Scot MS Gowther and Scot MS Ragnelle contain unusual annotation. Volume Gowther contains 178 leaves of text with two flyleaves at the beginning and one at the end. Volume Ragnelle has 213 leaves of text with four flyleaves at the beginning and a torn flyleaf at the end. None of the significant text in either volume has been lost. Both volumes measure about twenty-seven centimetres by nineteen, or a little under eleven inches by eight, of paper, making them the same width but two centimetres taller than the four later volumes. The binding, surprisingly, is early-Victorian; a brown leather on oak with the mark of a Harrogate bookbinder. Perhaps this helped to conceal the true age of the work until they were discovered very recently in a private collection and gifted to a university library in the east of England.

The text of both manuscripts is written within an area of the page approximating twenty-two centimetres by fourteen, a space which utilises more of the page than many medieval texts and gives a first indication that the work is from the pen of an amateur scribe. Horizontal line ruling is always visible but on many pages a box enclosing the text is absent. Only where the writing exists in two columns to a page, most notably in the tale of Ipomadon, are vertical guidelines always present. There is no ornamentation.

On the first flyleaf of Volume Gowther is written the name Hannah Scot. Records once kept in the archives of the library of Durham Cathedral show that a Hannah Bokenam was burned at the stake for heresy and witchcraft in 1509, in the south of England, and there is strong evidence to believe that she is the Hannah Scot who married Geoffrey Bokenam in St Mungo's church at Simonburn, six miles north of Hexham in the North Tyne valley, on 6th April 1481.

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.)