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Chaucer’s Own Scribe? Adam Pynkhurst and the Production of Middle English Literature

by Lawrence Warner, Reader in Medieval English, KCL

Book cover of Chaucer’s Scribes by Lawrence Warner.

Dr Warner’s third monograph, Chaucer’s Scribes: Medieval Textual Production, 1384-1432, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2018. He is also undertaking a new critical edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He is recipient of the 2016 Beatrice White Prize of the English Association for outstanding scholarly work in the field of English Literature before 1590, and Honorable Mention for the Richard J. Finneran Award for 2013, awarded by the Society for Textual Scholarship.

How did I end up writing a book arguing that the most exciting announcement ever in Chaucer studies — in medieval literary studies, perhaps even in English studies as a whole — was, to be blunt, wrong?

When I first heard the news, ‘They found Chaucer’s own scribe!’, I was thrilled. This was Adelaide, South Australia. Winter 2004 there, summer up here. In the days before Facebook and Twitter, my first source of this amazing discovery was an undergrad who lurked on a medieval listserv. Soon enough in the New Chaucer Society’s newsletter I would learn about the ‘utterly persuasive disclosure of the identity of “Adam Scriveyn”‘, the addressee of an irritated seven-line poem called ‘Chaucer’s Words unto Adam His Own Scrivener’, ‘as Adam Pynkhurst’, whose entry into the Scriveners Company Common Paper in the 1390s looks rather similar to the most famous early copy of The Canterbury Tales, the ‘Ellesmere’ manuscript.

This was a bombshell. The teaching of Chaucer fundamentally changed. ‘Adam Scriveyn’ now offered us a window onto a historical reality: articles in the journals began referring to the ‘discovery’ of Chaucer’s scribe; Pynkhurst eventually received an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography; and both the scholar who made the discovery and Pynkhurst himself were fictionalized in various novels. As one critic wrote, the study of medieval English literature had experienced ‘a Copernican revolution’ since the announcement of his identity.

I was thus a bit surprised, upon settling into my office on the Strand after taking up a lectureship here at King’s in 2013, to come upon an essay from a few years earlier by KCL Emerita Professor Jane Roberts casting doubt on the claim. But this didn’t keep me from posting a celebratory Instagram photo of the book burnishing Pynkhurst’s credentials taking pride of place in my new office in the Strand Building.

An Instagram post showing Scribes in the City in pride of place in the office.

The journey from there to Chaucer’s Scribes took a while to reveal its existence. In the wake of completing my previous book I was casting about for another project and found myself wondering about the scribal treatment of Chaucer’s metre. That led me elsewhere, to Thomas Hoccleve, who left behind some of his poetry in his own hand, enabling a proper study of the topic. Oh! I remembered: there was a newly-discovered holograph (copy written in the poet’s own hand) of Hoccleve’s most important work just around the corner, in the British Library. Hmm. It didn’t look like his hand. Its metre wasn’t his either.

Then came a few stages of writing, submitting, and dealing with readers’ reports that in effect said: look harder at the big picture. Read Scribes and the City (see Instagram screenshot above) way more closely. I had to do that a few times before I realized what was really going on. The story wasn’t just about Adam Pynkhurst but also about the Guildhall: Was it the cradle of English literature as that book and its attendant press releases claimed? More pressingly, it was about the ways in which scribes’ hands have been identified.

Sheila Lindenbaum’s important insights over dessert.

Well-timed conversations with experts in the field kept me on track. Sheila Lindenbaum invited me for lunch at her Marylebone flat and in the inside cover of my Scribes and the City I carefully recorded her words as she prepared pudding for us. This led to Chapter 4, presenting hundreds of new items in the hand of one of the most important scribes of Chaucer and Langland (‘the Huntington Hm 114 scribe’). Lisa Jefferson gave me a seminar on the production of the Goldsmiths’ Register of Deeds and Charters, in which that scribe played a major role. Tony Edwards and Jane Roberts shared their deep knowledge of medieval English manuscripts. I often went astray but advice from these and other colleagues in London and beyond brought me back.

Now that the book is out, what might I have done differently?

Now that the book is out, what might I have done differently? Not invite readers to open the online facsimile of the wrong manuscript at a crucial moment! (On p 39 top line, change ‘Tr’ to ‘W’.) Also, perhaps pushed a bit harder to include this collage:

A collage of scribe work that showcases the decorative feature believed to be ‘Pynkhurst’s signature’

This is more effective than my written list of representative appearances of the ‘double-slash, dot, double-slash’ motif from 1291-1415. Either way, the point is that the belief that this decorative feature was ‘Pynkhurst’s signature’, cited as the key piece of evidence that he was Chaucer’s scribe, is without foundation. Another little thing: a generous colleague has told me that one idea I discuss at length (if to deny its plausibility), that Hoccleve was Chaucer’s first editor, had been mooted decades earlier than I had realized, in a venue I should have checked. Such things happen and I’m sure there are other errors awaiting discovery, and that years from now I’ll wonder at why I wrote this phrase, sentence, chapter instead of that?

Otherwise I feel like Chaucer’s Scribes pretty much wrote itself, so the question is not so much what led me to write a book on the topic but rather what led to it being me who wrote that book? Big questions remain about how Adam Pynkhurst recast the field of Middle English manuscript studies in his own image. Perhaps one day someone else will write that book.

Featured images: courtesy of Lawrence Warner


You may also like to read:

‘Science Fiction was around in Medieval Times – Here’s what it looked like’

‘Founders of England? Tracing Anglo-Saxon myths in Kent’

‘The long read: Medieval women, modern readers’


If you have any comments on this interview please use the ‘Comments’ section of this blog post.

Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and neither those of the English Department, nor of King’s College London.

Ideologies of Integration and Exclusion in the Neoliberal University: An interview with Dr. Christine Okoth

By Harriet Thompson and Christine Okoth in conversation

Dr. Christine Okoth

Christine received her PhD from King’s in November 2018 and is now a Research Fellow in the English Department at the University of Warwick. Christine’s supervisors at King’s College London were Jane Elliott and John Howard. Her PhD was examined by Nicole King (Goldsmiths) and Celeste-Marie Bernier (Edinburgh).  As part of the Leverhulme funded project ‘World Literature and Commodity Frontiers: The Ecology of the ‘long’ 20th Century’ run by Mike Niblett (Warwick) and Chris Campbell (Exeter), Christine is writing a monograph tentatively entitled The Novel of Extraction.

Harriet is a PhD student in the English department and co-editor of the King’s English blog.

Harriet Thompson (HT): I wanted to start by congratulating you on completing your PhD last year. The catalyst for our conversation was the news that you’ve recently been awarded one of only six Elsevier Outstanding PhD Thesis Prizes granted at King’s in January 2019, and the only award granted to a thesis in the Faculty of the Arts and Humanities. I know your thesis explores the integration of African immigrant literature into the economic, political, and cultural fabric of the United States. I wonder if you could talk about how your research relates to ongoing debates about the value of migration and particularly the issue of which migrant persons are deemed valuable or disposable?

Christine Okoth (OK): Thank you so much – I’m still quite shocked that I even have a PhD let alone that my examiners thought it was good enough for a prize! In what is probably a familiar tale, I had no idea what my thesis would eventually become when I started at King’s in 2014. It all started with Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts, a book that I encountered during my masters and that remains my favourite academic monograph. In it, Lowe develops a theory of Asian American political and cultural production as a kind of antithesis to the American national project. The history of Asian exclusion, which, by the way, isn’t taught nearly widely enough in UK universities, serves as the backdrop to Lowe’s argument. The idea that immigration legislation relates closely to the position that cultural production by immigrants holds within the U.S. nation-state stayed with me. I wanted to ask more questions about how the sudden popularity of African migrant literature – Adichie’s Americanah and Teju Cole’s Open City for example – related to shifts in U.S. immigration legislation. These novels weren’t exactly narratives of exclusion but are instead emergent genres of integration that take place against the backdrop of a changing political discourse around immigration.

Continue reading Ideologies of Integration and Exclusion in the Neoliberal University: An interview with Dr. Christine Okoth

Presenting the Early Modern Inns Of Court and the Circulation of Text

PhD researchers in the English department organise many conferences throughout the year. We asked current PhD researcher Julian Neuhauser, co-organiser of “The Early Modern Inns of Court and the Circulation of Text” with newly-minted Dr Romola Nuttall, to reflect on what inspired the conference and the various other events that are set to take place this summer.

By Julian Neuhauser, PhD candidate in the English Department

Since their establishment in the 14th century, the Inns of Court have been at the centre of legal scholarship and practice. Thought of as the ‘third university’, the Inns attracted graduates of Oxford and Cambridge who wanted to professionalise as lawyers and politicians. These student members of the Inns brought with them the habits and forms of sociability that they learned at university, including their socio-literary activities.

Grays Inn
Grays Inn courtyard

In order to investigate the literary history of the Inns of Court, I have been co-organising, along with Romola Nuttall (who defended her thesis at King’s in 2018), a conference called “The Early Modern Inns of Court and the Circulation of Text”. The conference will pull together cutting edge, materially-grounded, and culturally critical literary scholarship about the Inns, and we are also arranging a whole host of events around the papers and keynotes.

Romola was keen that we think about how to incorporate the Inns’ tradition of holding revels into our program. Revels were opulent and mirthful events, held annually around Christmas. They included lavish dinners, student run plays, and flyting – that is, combative (though usually well-spirited) extemporaneous oral jousting.

On the occasion of a particularly riotous Middle Temple revel in 1598, the poet and Middle Temple man Sir John Davies smashed a cudgel (like a Quidditch beater) over the head of fellow poet and lawyer Richard Martin. The event resulted in Davies’ ban from Middle Temple, but it also prompted him to return to New College, Oxford and, perhaps as an act of self-reflective contrition,[1] compose his poem Nosce Teipsum (‘Know Thyself’, check out an excerpt here.) Continue reading Presenting the Early Modern Inns Of Court and the Circulation of Text

Reinventing Stardom on the Strand

by Rob Gallagher, postdoctoral researcher with Ego-Media

“I was photographed three times a week[,] for which I received a settled income…

Two famous dressmakers, one in London and one in Paris, dressed me for nothing, and a famous English designer called her models after me and made my clothes at a very nominal fee…

My picture advertised all sorts of wares, and face creams and soaps, and I gave advice in all the papers on how to keep healthy and beautiful and young. If I had followed the regime I laid down, I could never have finished in the twenty-four hours…”

So writes Constance Collier in her 1929 memoir Harlequinade, reflecting on her time as a ‘Gaiety girl’ on the 1890s Strand. On 8 February, I’ll be talking about Collier as part of an event at the London Transport Museum, themed around London love stories, representing the Centre for Life-Writing Research’s Strandlines project (an online archive of stories about ‘life on the Strand, past, present and creative’ – do contribute if you haven’t already…). I’ll be describing how Collier and her co-stars won the hearts of late Victorian Londoners with a series of racily contemporary ‘musical comedies’ combining cutting-edge fashions, romantic spins on everyday scenarios and saucy/sentimental songs. Pitched somewhere between ‘legitimate’ theatre and burlesque, musical comedies turned Gaiety impresario George Edwardes into a very rich man and many of his ‘girls’ into household names. Continue reading Reinventing Stardom on the Strand

In troubling times, it’s best to turn to your inner poet

by Ruth Padel, Professor of Poetry. Emerald, published by Chatto & Windus, is her 11th poetry collection.

“Never be afraid of saying you like poetry,” Jeremy Corbyn told thousands of people at Glastonbury in 2017, after reciting the end of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy‘:

“Rise like lions after slumber … / Shake your chains to earth like dew … / Ye are many, they are few”.

Shelley wrote that poem – an apocalyptic vision of Britain’s destructive, corrupt, hypocritical rulers – after the Peterloo massacre in 1819, when the cavalry charged a peaceful crowd listening to speeches on parliamentary reform. Fifteen people died. “I met Murder on the way/ He had a mask like Castlereagh/ Very smooth he looked, yet grim;/ Seven blood-hounds followed him”.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819, by Alfred Clint, via Wikipedia.

In the following stanzas, the foreign secretary, prime minister and lord chancellor of the day accompany Lord Castlereagh, the leader of the House of Commons, through the groaning land, along with Anarchy, Shelley’s name for capitalism. The procession is stopped by a young woman called Hope (who “looked more like Despair”), who lay down in front of the horses.

I learned about Corbyn’s endorsement of poetry in discussion with Shami Chakrabarti in a “poetry and human rights” event at King’s College London, part of a series that highlights poetry’s conversation with all aspects of life, public or private, political or scientific. Continue reading In troubling times, it’s best to turn to your inner poet

Science fiction was around in medieval times – here’s what it looked like

by Carl Kears, lecturer in Old and Middle English literature before 1400 at King’s College London, and James Paz, University of Manchester and King’s alumnus.

Science fiction may seem resolutely modern, but the genre could actually be considered hundreds of years old. There are the alien green “children of Woolpit”, who appeared in 12th-century Suffolk and were reported to have spoken a language no one could understand. There’s also the story of Eilmer the 11th-century monk, who constructed a pair of wings and flew from the top of Malmesbury Abbey. And there’s the Voynich Manuscript, a 15th-century book written in an unknowable script, full of illustrations of otherworldly plants and surreal landscapes.

These are just some of the science fictions to be discovered within the literatures and cultures of the Middle Ages. There are also tales to be found of robots entertaining royal courts, communities speculating about utopian or dystopian futures, and literary maps measuring and exploring the outer reaches of time and space.

The influence of the genre we call “fantasy”, which often looks back to the medieval past in order to escape a techno-scientific future, means that the Middle Ages have rarely been associated with science fiction. But, as we have found, peering into the complex history of the genre, while also examining the scientific achievements of the medieval period, reveals that things are not quite what they seem. Continue reading Science fiction was around in medieval times – here’s what it looked like

Pop Enlightenments

by Emrys Jones, Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture, and host of Pop Enlightenments Listen on Soundcloud and iTunes.

Earlier this year, I received what might be my favourite ever comment from an anonymous peer reviewer. It was regarding an article I had written for Literature Compass surveying recent scholarship on the eighteenth-century poet, Alexander Pope. I had offhandedly remarked in the essay that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the 2004 film written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry, was Pope’s moment of greatest visibility in modern popular culture.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, poster c. Focus Films via Wikimedia Commons.

I didn’t think this would prove too controversial. The film takes a line from Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard (1717) as its title, and has one of its characters quote that line as part of a larger extract from the same poem. But the peer reviewer—amiably, it must be said—disagreed. Had I considered the Elvis song, ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’, with its assertion, cribbed from Pope but attributed to generic “wise men”, that “fools rush in”? Had I watched the 1997 film—a Friends-era Matthew Perry vehicle—that took its title from that same line of poetry (Essay on Criticism, 1711, l.625)? I was sorely tempted to rewrite the whole article at this stage, to turn it into a lengthy dissertation on Pope’s importance for the romantic comedy genre. Hope Springs, anyone? But instead I stuck to my guns, politely insisted on Eternal Sunshine’s pre-eminence, and resubmitted the essay. Continue reading Pop Enlightenments

Shakespeare at war

By Amy Lidster, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of English, @amy_lidster

Productions of Shakespeare’s plays have been regularly used to comment on the political and public affairs of their performance moment – occasionally provoking heated responses. In 2017, for example, the Public Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar at Shakespeare in the Park prompted a media furore (led by Fox News), because the presentation of Caesar bore a striking resemblance to Donald Trump.

The Public Theatre, other news media, and Shakespeare scholars (such as Stephen Greenblatt) were quick to point out that Shakespeare’s play hardly condones the assassination of Caesar and that it explores, instead, the conspirators’ flawed and extreme reactions to a democracy under threat. But audience responses cannot be contained by a careful reading of the text, and, while a production may clearly announce its relevance to contemporary politics, it is difficult to pinpoint a specific application or to control public responses to it.

Shakespeare in the Park/ ‘Julius Caesar‘, New York, 2017.

Continue reading Shakespeare at war

Cottonopolis cut down: An English atrocity and its far-reaching consequences

by Clare Pettitt, Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature and Culture, Department of English

“The first action of the battle of Manchester is over”, wrote Major Dyneley of the 15th Hussars, “& has, I am happy to say ended in the complete discomfiture of the Enemy.” At 4 pm on August 16, 1819, Dyneley was already back in the Hulme Barracks with his regiment. The “Enemy” was the 60,000 to 80,000 people, most of them textile workers, who had assembled that morning in St Peter’s Field on the outskirts of Manchester city centre, to hold a peaceful demonstration to protest against the Corn Laws, and to call for parliamentary reform. The Enemy was the people. And discomfited they had surely been.

Henry Hunt, the orator who had addressed the meeting briefly before being arrested and beaten up, said that the Manchester Yeomanry, volunteers who made the first incursion into the crowd, before the Hussars, had “charged amongst the people, sabring right and left, in all directions. Sparing neither age,sex, nor rank”. It all happened very quickly. Ten minutes after the first charge, William Joliffe remembered that “the ground was quite covered with hats, shoes, musical instruments and other things”. Another eyewitness recounted that, “[s]everal mounds of human beings still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered.

Continue reading Cottonopolis cut down: An English atrocity and its far-reaching consequences

‘Yours Truly, Lady Macbeth’

The Shakespeare Academy has been running at King’s for the past three years as a Widening Participation project. In 2017-18 we reached over 350 students, continuing to develop close partnerships with teachers and pupils at eight London state-funded secondary schools, from Key Stage 3 to GCSE. We run workshops with the students that investigate Shakespeare’s plays through seminar-style sessions, readings, and creative writing activities. Read more about the Shakespeare Academy here.

Below you can read some examples of creative writing by Years 9 and 10 students from our summer 2018 workshops. We asked them to imagine what Lady Macbeth might have written if she had left a suicide note. As you can see, the pieces are inspired by the imagery and language of the play, but re-imagined for a modern audience.

I was particularly encouraged by the ways in which students engaged with the gender politics of Macbeth. Their writings express the limitations of Lady Macbeth’s agency within early modern patriarchy with a subtlety that I found truly impressive. The entrants showcased below were chosen for their originality, insight and imaginative engagement with Shakespeare’s text.  They express the individual poetic and creative voices of the students, while maintaining close adherence to the characterisation, imagery and tone of the play.

Dr Gemma Miller, English Department and Globe Education Continue reading ‘Yours Truly, Lady Macbeth’