Manuscript mise-en-page and the curious case of Trinity College, Cambridge, MS B.14.39 (Edward Mills)

Manuscript mise-en-page and the curious case of Trinity College, Cambridge, MS B.14.39 (Edward Mills)

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.[1] 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:


Transcription & Edition

Capture d’écran 2016-09-06 à 12.41.04This particular extract shares much of its material and expression with longer canonical works such as Edmund of Abingdon’s Mirour de Sainte Église,[2] 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.

Capture d’écran 2016-09-06 à 10.41.44There’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.

Obscure Saints are Really Cool (Amy Brown)

Obscure Saints are Really Cool (Amy Brown)

So, a priest walks into a brothel. He says to the prostitute ‘Hey I’d like to sin with you’, and she takes his money and takes him inside. But the priest is uncomfortable in the front room, and says ‘isn’t there anywhere else we can go? This isn’t private enough.’ So the prostitute, who’s probably used to priests by now, takes him downstairs and says to him ‘okay, this is private: no one but God knows we’re here.’

And the priest says ‘You really think God can see us?’

And the prostitute says ‘Yeah, he can see everything, he’s God!’

And the priest says ‘Then what are you doing committing all this sin??? You’re totally going to Hell, young lady.’

For some reason, instead of telling him to mind his own sodding business, the prostitute is overcome with repentance, and promises the priest she will give up her wicked ways and do whatever he says. And they go off together into the wilderness to do penance, forever and ever amen.

The text above is paraphrased from the Life of St Thais in the Northern Homily Cycle, and it’s Really Cool. I found it while looking for weird texts to include in my thesis on opposite-sex friendship – I’m not sure this will make it in, but it’s interesting from that angle because it doesn’t seem to think it’s at all weird, tempting or dangerous for a priest to go off and live in the desert with a reformed prostitute. (Compare to St Mary of Egypt, another reformed prostitute, who tells her story to Zozimos the priest, and in most accounts is still suffering from sexual temptation despite years in the desert living on beans and water.)

Also, it’s a “priest walks into a brothel” joke. The only difference between this and any number of x walks into a bar joke is that the prostitute is the butt of the joke, not the priest (although surely we’re expected to snicker at the priest as he seeks privacy in which to sin, too).

This particular version is Extra Cool because it’s only part of the standard saints life. There aren’t English translations of any of the Latin versions available online, that I can find, but TEAMS online have a parallel text of the Anglo-Norman life of St Thais, and there’s a version in the Caxton Golden Legend. Those narratives have as their climax the scene where Thais sells her goods, delivers a mini-sermon, and reproaches the men who she has sinned with before. The standard saints life also takes care to put more distance between Thais and the priest Pannutius – has her walled up in a cell, has Pannutius deliver some scathing words about how she deserves to piss in her chamber, and doesn’t let her out again until her death.

The version in the Northern Homily Cycle is designed to complement John 3:16-21, especially the bits on evildoers withdrawing from the light. That, to some extent, explains the joke-like format: it’s a humorous anecdote to be built into vernacular preaching. If you needed a reminder that homilies and sermons can be Really Cool, this is it.

(Image above: St Thais or Mary Magdalen, because all prostitutes are interchangable, right? 17th c, Jusepe de Ribera)

Amy Brown is Assistant in Medieval English Literature at the University of Geneva. She works on opposite-sex friendship, and maintains the belief, despite all evidence to the contrary, that obsessively tracking minute differences between adaptations and translations might lead her to something Really Cool.

You can find her blogging occasionally at Australian Medievalists, or nattering on twitter as @amisamileandme.

Show us your REALLY cool stuff!

Show us your REALLY cool stuff!


Hey you. Yes you. You’ve found some Really Cool Stuff in your research. Maybe your research is also Relevant To Society, has Impact (TM), and is easy to explain to your relatives at family dinners. This blog is not about that. This blog is about the REALLY COOL, obscure part that you know people would get excited about *if only they knew*. You’re a young/early career scholar, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to convince people your research is relevant: we just want to know what you’ve found that’s cool.


So show us your Cool Research! It doesn’t have to be a coherent conference paper, or have a definite argument, or even be your latest research. We all have those small, throwaway bits that cannot quite fit in our thesis/article/paper but IT’S SO COOL! Don’t just throw it out, share it with us! We are looking for 500-word submissions on that one thing that excites you right now, that gets you motivated to continue the research, that in real life you’d love to shove in people’s faces and scream ‘LOOK AT THIS HOW COOL IS THIS ISN’T THIS AWESOME????’.


Now, before you go all, well I LOVE viking burials but I haven’t researched any yet, lemme tell you: it doesn’t matter! It’s not a peer-reviewed journal. It’s reviewed by two humanities doctoral researchers, and the only thing we are looking for is your enthusiasm for the topic and a specific example of why it’s so Really Cool. So if you are a young researcher, and you are excited about something, let us and everybody else know! Send your 500-words submission (we also LOVE images), and an optional 100-word bio, to, and we will be in touch!