Selections from the Auchinleck Manuscript (14th June)

Harrowing of hell BL MS Arundel 157 f. 110
Harrowing of Hell, London, British Library MS Arundel 157, f. 110

Next meeting: Wednesday 14th June / Room 2.46 / 3-5 pm

This month we will be reading some of the minor texts from Edinburgh, NLS, MS Advocates 19.2.1, the early-fourteenth-century miscellany known as the Auchinleck Manuscript.

Long known for its collection of Middle English romance, the miscellany also contains a significant number of religious texts, moral texts, and a fabliau. There are forty-four items in total, of which eighteen are romances. Several of these are unique to Auchinleck (the stanzaic Guy of Warwick, Reinbrun, Lay le Freine, Roland and Vernagu, Oteul a Kniȝt, Sir Tristem and Horn Childe). Derek Pearsall notes that the bulk, or approximately 3/4, of the manuscript consists of popular romance. [1] Yet nineteen items are religious tales, saints’ legends, and didactic texts, and, again, many of these – thirteen, in fact – are unique to the manuscript.

We will be reading some of the other, lesser known texts: two debates, a ‘closet’ drama, and an ABC. Photocopies of alternate versions of the texts will be supplied where Auchinleck is missing lines since, unfortunately, the manuscript has sustained significant damage through the removal of its miniatures in the past.

The readings:

  • þe Desputisoun Bitven þe Bodi & þe Soule. Versions of this dream vision / debate text occur in six manuscripts, including the Simeon and Vernon MSS. See
  • The Harrowing of Hell. This ‘closet’ drama, composed in rhyming couplets, is also included in the late-thirteenth-century miscellany, Oxford, Bodleian, MS Digby 86, and in the early-fourteenth-century London, British Library, MS Harley 2253. A number of lines are missing from the version in Auchinleck. See
  • The Thrush and the Nightingale. This debate poem on the virtues and vices of women is also included in MS Digby 86. See
  • Alphabetical Praise of Women. This poem, a unique text, has a French source which also appears in MS Harley 2253. See


Topics for discussion:

  • The mixture of secular and religious texts in the manuscript, as well as the intermingling of secular and religious themes and imagery within texts. The Alphabetical Praise of Women, for example, justifies praise of women by the virtue of the Virgin Mary, yet also includes lines such as these: ‘Ouer þe se, þat ebbeþ & flouþ, | Is non so swete in his reles, | So is a cosse of womannes mouþe; | For priis of spices ichir ches, | Most of vertu & namcouþe’ (ll. 180–4).
  • Miscellaneity; Helen Phillips’s ‘chance, incompleteness, and unlooked-for juxtapositions’ [2]
  • English identity. Susanna Fein captures the novelty of the miscellany and its collection of vernacular texts, many translated from Anglo-French, describing them as ‘first-time-in-English literary works for edification and entertainment’. [3] Venetia Bridges questions an inward-looking sense of English-ness, arguing that booklet eight, including The Thrush and the Nightingale, gestures towards a multilingual, learned identity. [4]
  • Versification, including mixed versification within texts
  • Audience: family? the young? aspirational? Chaucer……?
  • Aspects of oral performance
  • Speeches
  • Genre


[1] Derek Pearsall, ‘The Auchinleck Manuscript Forty Years On’, in The Auchinleck Manuscript: New Perspectives, ed. by Susanna Fein (York: York Medieval Press, 2016), pp. 11–25 (p. 13).

[2] Helen Phillips, ‘Auchinleck and Chaucer’, in Auchinleck Manuscript, ed. by Fein, pp. 139–55 (p. 143).

[3] Susanna Fein, ‘Introduction: The Auchinleck Manuscript: New Perspectives’, in Auchinleck Manuscript, ed. by Fein, pp. 1–10 (p. 6).

[4] Venetia Bridges, ‘Absent Presence: Auchinleck and Kyng Alisaunder’, in Auchinleck Manuscript, ed. by Fein, pp. 88–107 (pp. 104–7).



The Auchinleck Manuscript, ed. by David Burnley and Alison Wiggins (National Library of Scotland, 2003) <;

The Auchinleck Manuscript: New Perspectives, ed. by Susanna Fein (York: York Medieval Press, 2016)


Nightingale (2)
Unknown A Nightingale; Bats, about 1250 – 1260, Pen-and-ink drawings tinted with body color and translucent washes on parchment Leaf: 21 x 15.7 cm (8 1/4 x 6 3/16 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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