London, British Library, MS Harley 2253

Harley 2253 has two parts. The first, comprising folios 1r–48v, was written in a professional, late thirteenth-century, textura and is the work of a single scribe. Its contents comprise hagiographical texts in Anglo-Norman French. It contains, for example, an extract about the Passion of Jesus Christ from the versified history of the Bible by Hermann of Valenciennes (folios 23r–32v). The second part, comprising folios 49r–140v and 142rv, was written in a later medieval bookhand known as Anglicana formata, a more formal version of the business script current in the mid fourteenth century. Except for folio 52v, it is also the work of a single scribe, one who has been identified as a professional copyist active in or near Ludlow in Southern Shropshire from 1314 to c. 1349. He produced many charters and other datable documents, and Harley 2253 may be dated by reference to the evolution of his technique in his final period—that is, to after c. 1330. Ker also placed it in the 1330s, since the scribe uses a version of this script which has ‘rid itself... thoroughly’ of features found in versions current in 1310s and 20s. It is chiefly the second part that concerns us.

fire beastMuch discussed, the second part comprises a much discussed miscellany made up of texts in three languages: Middle English, Anglo-Norman, and Latin. The contents are remarkable for their diversity. Embracing both prose and verse and covering all manner of subjects religious and secular, they range across many different genres. Religious texts such as ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ (fols. 55va–56vb) and the ‘Debate between the Body and the Soul’ (fols. 57r–58v) are to be found alongside secular lyrics such as ‘The Lament for Simon de Montfort’ (fol. 59rv) and ‘The fair maid of Ribblesdale’ (fol. 66v). Even among the texts of the same generic type there is much diversity. There are, for example, some great contrasts among the hagiographical contents. Some are associated with the West Midlands, such as the otherwise unknown Legenda de sancto etfrido presbitero de Leominstria, ‘That which must be read about St Ecgfrith, the priest of Leominster’ (fols. 132r–133r). But there are also items relating to cults far removed from the region, such as a letter authenticating an arca, or ‘chest’, still preserved at Oviedo (Spain). It lists the relics contained within the arca, other relics at Oviedo, and the privileges granted to the pilgrims by the bishops and clergy of the see (fols. 131v–132r). Such diversity is difficult to explain. There would seem to be some kind of hidden rationale to the selection and arrangement of the texts, but that rationale has proved elusive.

With leaves measuring 280–290×190mm, Harley 2253 is a middle to large format book. Though the layout varies between a single and double columns, the texts are usually confined to an area which measures 215 × 145mm. The dialect of the Middle English items in the second section, and the incorporation into the binding of fragments of the Mortimer family’s financial records, and also of extracts from the ordinal of Hereford Cathedral point to an origin in the West Midlands. (The main seat of the Mortimer family was at Wigmore Castle in northern Herefordshire.) This provenance was confirmed in the 1970s when Carter Revard identified the scribe of the second section as a professional copyist based in or near Ludlow.

The book was later owned by John Batteley (1647–1708; archdeacon of Canterbury from 1688–1708), a Church of England clergyman and an antiquary whose nephew sold to it together with the rest of his collection to Edward Harley (5 November 1723). It thus became part of the great collection of manuscripts assembed by Robert Harley, the first earl of Oxford (1661–1724), and his son Edward Harley (1689–1741). This library was later sold to the nation in 1753 by Edward’s daughter and heir, Margaret Cavendish Bentinck (1715–1785). By this route the Harley manuscripts became one of the foundation collections of the British Library.

Online Facsimile: The entire manuscript is now available online at the British Library's Collection of Digitised Manuscripts. If the link fails to work go to British Library Digitised Manuscripts and search for the item by putting the phrase ‘Harley MS 2253’ into the manuscripts box. The British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts also offers access to various images of doubtful quality: folios 55v, 59v, 73r, 76v, and 131r.

Printed Facsimile: Ker, N. R. (ed.), Facsimile of British Museum MS. Harley 2253, Early English Text Society, o.s. 255 (Oxford, 1965). Shelved in Lower Ground Y6 (E/O) under ‘Early English Text Society’, vol. 255. Ker reproduces the second section of the manuscript.

Full Description: Ker provides a detailed list of its contents (available via Moodle); a thorough list may also be accessed at Manuscripts of the West Midlands: A Catalogue of Vernacular Manuscript Books of the English West Midlands, c.1300–c.1475; the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts includes a brief description, but it has a relatively full bibliography.

Cognate Manuscript: For a facsimile reproduction of a similar manuscript, largely written by the same hand, see London, British Library, Royal MS 12.C.XII, and for another which was assembled and augmented by the same scribe, see London, British Library, Harley MS 273. If the link fails to work go to British Library Digitised Manuscripts and search for these items using the manuscripts box.

Editions and Translations

  • For a comprehensive edition and translation of the entire contents of the book which can accessed online, see The Complete Harley 2253 Manuscript, ed. and trs. S. G. Fein, D. B. Raybin and J. M. Ziolkowski, TEAMS Middle English Texts Series 3 vols. (Kalamazoo, MI, 2014–5). Volume 1 covers booklets 1–2, volume 2 covers booklets 3–5, and volume 3 covers booklets 5–7.
  • Many of the Middle English Lyrics can also be read in the original and in translation at Wessex Parallel WebTexts.
  • Aspin, I. S. T. (ed.), Anglo-Norman Political Songs, Anglo-Norman Texts 11 (Oxford, 1953). Prints and translates four items: (i) the Lament for Simon de Montfort found on fol. 59rv (pp. 24–35); (ii) a poem on the Articles of Trailbaston (pp. 68–78); (iii) a complaint about royal taxation (pp. 105–15); and (iv) ‘L’ordre de bel ayse’, a satire on various religious orders (pp. 130–42). Note also that Aspin thinks that the poem ‘Against the King’s Taxes’ refers to events of the years 1336–38.
  • Brooks, G. L. (ed.), The Harley Lyrics: The Middle-English Lyrics of MS Harley 2253 (Manchester, 1948). YBRC. The standard edition of the lyrics, but does not include the political lyrics.
  • Brown, C., English Lyrics of the Thirteenth Century (Oxford, 1932), pp. xxxv-xl, 131–63. YBRC. Edits some of the Middle English lyrics.
  • Brown, C., Religious Lyrics of the XIVth Century (Oxford, 1924), pp. 3–14. YCB.
  • Conlee, J. W. (ed.), Middle English Debate Poetry: A Critical Anthology (East Lansing, 1991). YBRC.
  • Hall, J. (ed.), King Horn (Oxford, 1901).
  • Hellman, R., and R. O’Gorman (eds and trs.), Fabliaux: Ribald Tales from the Old French (New York, 1965). For items such as ‘Du chevalier qui fist les cons parler’ (fols. 122v–124v).
  • Robbins, R. H. (ed.), Historical Poems of the XIVth and XVth Centuries (New York, 1959), pp. 7–29.
  • Turville-Petre, T., Alliterative Poetry of the Later Middle Ages: An Anthology (London, 1989), pp. 9–37. YBRB.
  • Wright, T. (ed. and trs.), The Political Songs of England from the Reign of John to that of Edward II, rev. E. Goldsmid, 4 vols. (Edinburgh, 1884). MVG.H. For the Middle English political poems of Harley 2253.


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