Category Archives: Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Studies

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.

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

Founders of England? Tracing Anglo-Saxon Myths in Kent

by Fran Allfrey, working on a LAHP-funded PhD about the cultural history of Sutton Hoo, and Beth Whalley, English and Geography PhD funded by the Rick Trainor Scholarship and Canal & River Trust.

‘The medieval’ in the contemporary moment

‘A Spot Called Crayford’ is a Heritage Lottery Fund project led by Crayford Reminiscence and Youth (CRAY), all about making the earliest Anglo-Saxon histories of Kent more accessible to school children. As part of the project, King’s medievalists led workshops in two Crayford primary schools, and a day-long journey to five sites in Kent associated with Anglo-Saxons stories.

One site we visited provoked questions that link to a research interest important to both of us: how ‘the medieval’ exists in the contemporary moment. Addressing collisions of archaeological enquiry, folk-stories, and over 1,000 years of writing about this place tested the possibilities of fun but critical activities, and asked us to confront the role of emotional responses to histories and spaces.

Kit’s Coty House and the White Horse Stone. Images via Wikimedia Commons.

The site, or rather two sites, known as Kit’s Coty House and the White Horse Stone, are part of a scattered collection of Neolithic standing stones and barrows known as the ‘Medway Megaliths’. We had been asked by CRAY to lead activities for children aged 8-14 that engaged with these sites and their association with Horsa and Categern, two mythological fifth-century figures integral to the story of the adventus anglorum, the coming of the Angles.

Continue reading Founders of England? Tracing Anglo-Saxon Myths in Kent

The long read: Medieval Women, Modern Readers

by Fran Allfrey, LAHP-AHRC PhD candidate, and Beth Whalley, Rick Trainor Scholarship and Canal & River Trust PhD candidate.

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day was ‘Press for Progress’. The campaign focused on the reality that gender parity – which the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report projects as being over 200 years away – cannot happen without organised and inclusive collective action. The theme got us thinking about the ways that our own discipline, medieval studies, intersects with feminist activism, and the ways that medievalists might be able to participate meaningfully in these conversations. And so, on the 28th March, supported by LAHP and King’s Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies, we held a two-part event to celebrate medieval women and women in medieval studies.

Part 1: The Wikithon

The first part of our event was a ‘Medieval Women, Modern Readers’ Wikithon, which aimed to improve references to scholarly work by women and non-binary people in articles related to medieval studies, and to create and improve pages for women and non-binary medieval scholars and artists who study or remake medieval texts, objects, or themes.

Continue reading The long read: Medieval Women, Modern Readers

A Day in the Life of the Humanities

by Alan Read, Professor of Theatre; Lizzie Eger, Reader Emerita in Eighteenth-Century Literature; Rowan Boyson, Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature; Josh Davies, Lecturer in Medieval Literature; Clare Lees, Professor of Medieval Literature and History of the Language; and Ruth Padel, Poetry Fellow

Six members of the English Department reflect on three events which took place on a single day. The day was Tuesday 10 May 2016. But, as Alan Read suggests, the date itself is of little importance. The variety of connections and conversations remembered below is typical of what might be experienced, should a curious mind find themselves in College with an hour or two spare, a ready ear, and the patience to pinpoint the precious gems among the ineluctable events emails that come with an @kcl.ac.uk email address.

Figure 1: Pablo Neruda, Mario Vargas Llosa (seated), with Roger Caillois and Angel Rama (standing on the right), at a literary meeting at Vina de Mar (1969)
Figure 1: Pablo Neruda, Mario Vargas Llosa (seated), with Roger Caillois and Angel Rama (standing on the right), at a literary meeting at Vina de Mar (1969)

Diagonal Science

On days like this you might imagine you are in a University as it was always intended. Drifting between critical conversations, discussions, presentations, performances, poetry readings and parties, across all levels of the King’s Strand campus, the orthodoxies of subjects fall away, the expectations of expertise are confounded, the surprising connections rather than disciplinary distinctions prevail.

The early nineteenth century architecture of Robert Smirke, a distinguished architect with a somewhat unfortunate name, shimmers where it once stood solid, glimmers with the fireflies of thought and expression dancing across its static surfaces, a disorder of things you could say. Of course, the privilege to wander in this way might be rare, for students and staff alike, deadlines and demands still call. But when a college of colleagues and communities works like this the French Surrealist Roger Caillois would recognise it as a flaring of ‘Diagonal Science’. Continue reading A Day in the Life of the Humanities

Buried Treasure (or not) at Sutton Hoo

By Fran Allfrey, LAHP/AHRC-funded PhD student in the English Department

‘The traveller to Sutton Hoo must make two kinds of journey: one in reality and one in the imagination. The destination of the real journey is a small group of grassy mounds lying beside the River Deben in south-east England. The imaginative journey visits a world of warrior-kings, large open boats, jewelled weapons, ritual killing and the politics of independence’

Martin Carver, Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings?

The travel gods were against us. The trip to Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, usually takes about two hours from London. But on this day in March, our journey took over three hours and involved a ride to the end of the London Underground, a coach, two trains, and a twenty-minute trudge uphill.

Continue reading Buried Treasure (or not) at Sutton Hoo