While it doesn’t quite match up to the gorgeous manuscripts currently taking pride of place in the BBC’s Illuminations series, the catchily-named Trinity College, Cambridge, MS B.14.39 is certainly attractive in its own way. Intricate blue initials, along with frequent use of red wash, give the sense of an object that had value attached to it. But what makes this particular manuscript, and this particular page, really Cool™? Mise-en-page.
The term comes from French, and literally means ‘putting-onto-the-page’ (but let’s face it: ‘page layout’ doesn’t have the same ring to it). Studying mise-en-page allows us to get closer to the manuscript itself, as most editions of manuscripts don’t represent these kinds of paratextual features particularly faithfully.
So what is it that is mis en page on this folio? In keeping with the other texts in the manuscript, which are frequently devotional in nature, it’s a summary of the effects of each of the Seven Deadly Sins on the individual. Here’s a close-up, accompanied by a transcription and translation from the original Anglo-Norman:
This particular extract shares much of its material and expression with longer canonical works such as Edmund of Abingdon’s Mirour de Sainte Église, in particular its emphasis on boastfulness and inventing falsehoods, but the interest here is how the information, unique or not, is conveyed. Manuscripts of the Mirour do not tend to make use of these lines, preferring instead to rely on paraphs (see right). If the scribe was working from an exemplum of some kind, then, this use of lines represents an exciting addition.
There’s also the question of whether or not the scribe, like students and lecturers the world over, is making use of hierarchy here. It’s not immediately clear, but it’s certainly possible that the ‘branching’ lines (the second and third separate from the first) lead to points that are subordinate to the first two. ‘Boasting of qualities that one does not have’ certainly could be the first ‘part’ in a three-part ‘list’ that also incorporates lying, although in all honesty this line of argument becomes rather hard to support after a few more sins. By the end of the text, on the next folio, the system of lines has become so confused that any sense of hierarchy is very hard to make out.
In any case, there’s certainly something visually striking about this page, and the way in which the clear connection between cause – the sin – and effect – the consequences – is reflected in what we today would call the ‘design’ of the folio. It’s a timely reminder of the power of the visual, and one that certainly strikes me as Really Cool™. A note to my PhD supervisors: if you’re reading this, then expect to see some fancy tree-diagrams in my future notes.
Edward Mills is a postgraduate research student in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Exeter, UK, looking at how education was understood and enacted in the centuries following the Norman Conquest. He loves meeting nice people, medievalists or otherwise, through his Twitter and personal blog, although he does tend to get a little overly enthusiastic about Anglo-Norman.
1 The manuscript has been studied and edited by Reichl in the awesomely-titled Religiöse Dichtung im englischen Hochmittelalter: Untersuchung und Edition der Handschrift B.14.39 des Trinity College in Cambridge (1973). Thankfully – given my appalling German – the French medievalist Paul Meyer has also paid some attention to it in the 1903 issue of Romania, available here. For the truly curious, the manuscript is itself available online, through Trinity College’s website.
2 Compare the text above with an extract from our good friend Edmund’s: ‘Orgoil est amour de propre hautesce […] inobediens encontre Dieu [ou] encontre son sovereyn […] homme se avaunte des biens qu’il ad d’autre […] homme [se] fet aver des bien qu’il n’ad mie […]’ (‘Pride is love of one’s own eminence and arrogance … (man is) disobedient towards God and his lord … boasts about his virtues to others … claims to have qualities that he does not’). This particular quotation (my translation) is taken from A. D. Wilshere (ed.), Mirour de Sainte Eglyse: Edmund of Abingdon’s Speculum Ecclesiae, Annual Publications Series, 40 (London: Anglo-Norman Text Society, 1982), p. 23.