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Research reveals the cradle of English Literature

Posted on 3 October 2011

Researchers at the University of York have played a pivotal role in a project to identify the 'movers and shakers' in the production and dissemination of English Literature and the rise of English as a national language during the Middle Ages.

Scholars led by Professor Linne Mooney, Professor of Medieval English Palaeography in the Department of English and Related Literature and Centre for Medieval Studies at York, carried out research aimed at identifying the scribes who made the first copies of works by major authors of the 14th and early 15th centuries, including Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland.

The clerks of the London Guildhall form the invisible link between medieval authors like Geoffrey Chaucer and their first audiences, the original owners of the medieval manuscripts we study today

Professor Linne Mooney

Funded by a four-year grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the research also involved Professor Simon Horobin, of Magdalen College, Oxford, and Dr Estelle Stubbs, of the University of York and working from a base at the University of Sheffield.

The project has launched a new freely-accessible website www.medievalscribes.com created by the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield, which illustrates each medieval or early modern manuscript of writings by five major Middle English authors: Chaucer, Langland, John Gower, John Trevisa and Thomas Hoccleve.

Professor Mooney said: “The clerks of the London Guildhall form the invisible link between medieval authors like Geoffrey Chaucer and their first audiences, the original owners of the medieval manuscripts we study today.”

The research began with Professor Mooney's discovery of the identity of Adam Pinkhurst, Scrivener of London, who wrote the first copies of works by Chaucer, including his Canterbury Tales.

The website includes a description of each manuscript, including details such as dating and dialect, detailed descriptions of each scribe's handwriting, and illustrations of a typical page written by each scribe. It also features illustrations of eight letter forms typical of each scribe's writing so that further identifications of work by them can be made.

As part of the project, Professor Mooney and fellow researcher Dr Estelle Stubbs discovered that scribes in the civic secretariat at the London Guildhall were responsible for some of the most significant early copies of English literary manuscripts. Professor Mooney and Dr Stubbs made the link by matching the handwriting of scribes copying important early English literary manuscripts with the hands of Guildhall clerks copying documents and custumals.

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 1437, copied two early manuscripts of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and manuscripts of works by William Langland (Piers Plowman) and by anonymous authors based in the north and west of England whose writings were apparently brought to London for dissemination. 

John Carpenter, Common Clerk of the City from 1417 to 1438, copied an important manuscript of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde that belonged to Henry V and two manuscripts of Gower's Confessio Amantis. Carpenter was the principal executor of the will of the famous London mayor Richard Whittington, with whose legacy he partly funded building of the Guildhall Library, the first civic library in the country.  He and his colleagues at the Guildhall had personal libraries including literary works, some of which may have formed the first collection in the Guildhall Library.

Notes to editors:

  • More information about the Department of English and Related Literature at York at www.york.ac.uk/english/
  • More information about the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York at www.york.ac.uk/medieval-studies/
  • More information on Oxford University’s English Faculty at www.english.ox.ac.uk/about-faculty
  • More information about the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield at www.shef.ac.uk/hri
  • 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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