London Guildhall: cradle of English Literature

Posted on 9 August 2010

Two University of York researchers have found evidence that the London Guildhall served as the cradle of English Literature in the late Middle Ages.

Illustration: City of London, London Metropolitan Archives, Custumal 12 (Liber Albus), folio 60r, the first page of the Inspeximus  of Henry IV confirming royal grants to the City of London, written by the scribe Richard Frampton and with red marginal annotations by Richard Osbarn.  Photograph by L.R.Mooney. Reproduced with permission of London Metropolitan Archives.

It was the home to scribes who copied the first manuscripts of works by fourteenth-century authors Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower, as well as early copies of other Middle English authors including William Langland and John Trevisa.

Professor Linne Mooney and Dr Estelle Stubbs, of the Centre for Medieval Studies at York, discovered evidence of the identities of several scribes of Middle English literature who were members of the civic secretariat at the London Guildhall. 

They include John Marchaunt, the Common Clerk of the City from 1399 to 1417, who copied two of the four earliest manuscripts of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. He also copied all or parts of eight manuscripts of Gower's Confessio Amantis ('The Confession of the Lover') as well as manuscripts of works by William Langland and John Trevisa.

Richard Osbarn, the Clerk of the Chamber of the City from 1400 to 1438, copied two early manuscripts of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. He also copied manuscripts of works by William Langland and anonymous authors based in the north and west of England whose writings were apparently brought to London for dissemination. 

The discoveries were the result of painstaking research in the London Metropolitan Archives, where the York scholars matched the handwriting of scribes copying important early English literary manuscripts with the hands of Guildhall clerks copying documents and custumals.

The names and dates of Guildhall officers were already known, and research into their roles identified certain entries for which they would have been responsible. For instance, Marchaunt and Osbarn both served as Clerks of the Chamber at different times. The Chamber Clerk was responsible for recording in the Letter Books the decisions of the Chamberlain regarding the care of the orphans of Freemen of the City. The dates at which entries regarding orphans match the hands of literary manuscripts coincide with the dates when Marchaunt and Osbarn each served as Chamber Clerk.

Our findings show that not only did major authors of early English literature live in London, but their works were disseminated by the clerks who worked for the City's Mayor and Aldermen

Professor Linne Mooney

Osbarn, in particular, appears to have been responsible for writing copies that would be kept at the Guildhall to be lent out for further copies to be made (the equivalent of publishing in the pre-print era). 

These findings confirm Professor Mooney's discovery six years ago that Adam Pinkhurst, the scribe who worked directly for Chaucer and wrote two early copies of his Canterbury Tales, also worked in a clerical position in the City.  Professor Mooney and Dr Stubbs have now also discovered his hand in documents of the City, including its Letter Books recording the decisions of Mayor and Aldermen, demonstrating that he, too, worked in some capacity for the City as well as for the Mercers' Company. 

Osbarn also took on clerical work for the Goldsmiths' Company, and another Middle English copyist worked in this capacity for the Skinners' Company. 

Professor Mooney said: “Our findings show that not only did major authors of early English literature live in London, but their works were disseminated by the clerks who worked for the City's Mayor and Aldermen, supported by the City itself through its governing body and through its guilds.”

The work is part of a major Arts and Humanities Research Council project, 'Identification of the Scribes Responsible for Copying Major Works of Middle English Literature', in which Professor Mooney and Dr Stubbs are collaborating with Dr Simon Horobin, of Magdalen College, Oxford.

Notes to editors:

  • More information on the University of York’s Centre for Medieval Studies at www.york.ac.uk/medieval-studies/
  • Each year the Arts and Humanities Research Council provides approximately £112 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities. In any one year, the AHRC makes approximately 700 research awards and around 1,300 postgraduate awards. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.

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