This project began in 2009 under the working title "Women Scribes of Middle English Literature, " and aimed to identify Middle English female scribal signatures. The basis for this research relies on scholars' recent acknowledgement of the importance of manuscript study for understanding medieval literature and the culture from which it is produced, and my own interest in Middle English writing systems, the analysis of writing systems, and female participation in the literary culture of the Middle English period. The project hoped to investigate the questions and complications surrounding the identification of non-monastic Middle English female scribes, and was based on the methodology developed for my doctoral workOlsen, Kenna L. "An Edition of the Middle English Poem Cleanness and a Study of its Writing System." Diss. U Calgary, 2007. Print, and partly employed in the Cotton Nero A.x. ProjectOlsen, Kenna L. and Murray McGillivray. "Cotton Nero A.x. Transcription Policy." 2011.

Using the manuscript evidence - female signatures and names inscribed in manuscripts - it has become clear that Middle English women were actively engaged in the literary and textual culture of their time. As such, the title of the project has changed to "Material Girls: Middle English Secular Female Scribes and their Cultural Agents," to more accurately reflect the project's goals and progress since its inception.


This project aims to answer these questions: did women living in England during the Middle English period copy books?; and, how did women living in England during the Middle English period signal their participation in literary and book producing culture of their time? In recent years medieval scholars have acknowledged the importance of manuscript study for understanding medieval literature and the culture from which literature was produced; however, our knowledge of medieval book production is undermined by persistent questions surrounding medieval book culture, scribal practice, scribal identity, and secular women’s involvement in each. In many cases it would seem impossible to determine the actual copyist of a certain manuscript text, as scribes rarely claimed credit for their work by recording their own name. Still, scholars have in fact been able to identify different hands responsible for copying, and in very few cases have discovered female scribal signatures, for instance in the well-known Findern manuscript, and thus scholars postulate connections to other manuscripts. Links of this kind have prompted questions regarding the tendencies of medieval book production. The question of women’s participation in the Middle English literary culture remains one of the most mysterious and haunting for present day medieval literary scholars.

Any answers to the question of female scribes, or potential connections between scribes and their works, have remained elusive for at least two reasons. First, scholars have not formulated or implemented a method to systematically analyze Middle English scribal output. While scholars have recognized this difficulty for several decades, no manageable method has been widely adopted for the analysis of Middle English writing systems. Second, evidence that may indicate female participation has been largely ignored. While scholars have continued to articulate questions regarding female ownership of and activity in the Middle English book producing culture, scholars have continued to largely ignore evidence – female signatures and names inscribed in manuscripts – that may well allow for some answers regarding to such persistent and troubling questions.

This project will address the difficulty of scribal analysis by relying on the methodology I developed for my doctoral research in order to generate scribal profiles from which female scribes’ work can be analyzed and compared. By using this method, it may become possible to identify scribes, their copying tendencies and their work. This project will also address the issues of evidence and unawareness. Working with the records of female literary participation and the materiality of extant manuscripts, I will collate the evidence available. These approaches will build on conclusions developed over the course of my recent research, and will also generate scribal profiles; this data will not only contribute to future research – it will enable future scholarship on Middle English literature and manuscript studies that has been previously impossible or impractical.

Detailed Description

Medieval Female Scribes and Scribal Identification: In recent decades scholars of Middle English literature have benefitted from renewed emphasis on manuscript study, which emerged as a response to the contemporary desire for improved contextual understanding of literature. Most significantly, emphatic manuscript study has proven necessary for thorough understanding of much medieval literature. Studying literary works in their original manuscript setting can provide missing information. A notable example is Loomis’s 1962 study of the Auchinleck manuscript (MS Advocates’ 19.2.1), which argues for evidence of a London bookshop publishing Middle English work more than one hundred years before the introduction of printing in England. Even in cases where authorship is certain, scholars have localized literary cultures by identifying the scripts of particular scribes in manuscripts. For instance, in 1978 Doyle and Parkes demonstrated how one scribe was responsible for copying works by Chaucer and Gower in London during the fifteenth century. Since this identification, recent scholarship has endeavoured to understand for whom specific works were intended. In 1998 Edwards compared the copying patterns of Doyle and Parkes’s scribe with other scribal activities, and successfully illustrated how the works copied in London were “first understood and their responses evoked” (Edwards 1). Scholars were then able to demonstrate how these same scribes not only copied for specific customers, but also strategically interfered with the texts as a sort of marketing scheme (Kerby-Fulton and Justice 218). More recent work by Linne Mooney and Simon Horobin identifies a Piers Plowman manuscript (B-text, Trinity College Cambridge MS B.15.17) as being copied in the same hand as the hand responsible for copying the Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscript copies of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This discovery has troubled long-held assumptions within Langland studies and about the London literary culture of the Middle English period. Additionally, in a 2006 article entitled “Chaucer’s Scribe,” Mooney positively identified this same scribal hand as belonging to Adam Pynkhurst, a registered scribe of the Scrivener’s Company of London. This identification allows for further insight into the copying habits of Middle English scribes and their relationships with Middle English authors.

This project on the work of women’s involvement in the Middle English textual culture similarly involves scribal analysis, but the scribal research is pointedly informed by literary concerns such as genre and reader reception, and the data used is collected using a systematic method. Three existing studies concerned with women copyists of the Middle Ages are limited to women in religious communities in the twelfth century (Bavaria, Beach 2004; Alsace, Griffiths 2007; late medieval Germany, Cyrus 2009), and are thus concerned with women’s Latin learning, not the vernacular literary culture of the Middle English period. Similarly, the only manuscript in which a female scribe from medieval England has been positively identified is, to date, in a twelfth century manuscript copied at a female religious house (Robinson 1997), and is thus again a product of female monastic culture. Works of this nature focus on women writers as religious visionaries – a scholastic silence still exists around “ordinary” secular women scribes of the Middle English period. Studies of medieval English women’s access to literary culture and their representation within it have been offered by Carol M. Meale (1993) and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton (2005) but these studies are based on wider questions of literacy and work largely from external evidence, rather than from manuscript evidence – women’s signatures and names – that specifically suggests a female role. There are manuscripts in which women are believed to have partici pated in some role (the Findern manuscript, Liverpool, Chaderton F.4.8, Huntington Library MS 128, Cambridge Gonville & Caius MS 669/646, the Vernon manuscript, Cambridge University Library Dd 1.17, British Library Harley MS 4912 and the Devonshire manuscript), but no one has attempted a study on the role of Middle English women in medieval book culture based on a systematic approach from the manuscript evidence. The Findern manuscript, in particular, has received a range of scholarly attention due to the belief of women’s participation in several of its lyrics, the appearance of five female names or signatures within it, and its collection of works from authors of texts that are still valued today such as Gower, Lydgate, Hoccleve and Chaucer. For instance, attempts have been made to understand the female reading culture the Findern manuscript suggests (Robbins 1954; Doyle 2006; Kinch 2007), and studies have been made of the manuscript’s codicology and scribal output. However, such studies have been persistently undermined, and their value to future research challenged, due to the absence of formalized methods for the analysis of Middle English scribal output and for the collection of evidence. For example, the need for future work on women’s involvement in Middle English book production (and the Findern manuscript itself) was perhaps most pointedly argued by Julia Boffey in her recent study of Middle English women author’s and women’s literacy: “The nature of the [Findern] manuscript’s contents, and the number of female names it contains, must suggest that women read it with interest (perhaps even that they organized its production), but the status of its lyrics as the compositions or the copy of ‘writing women’ must await further proof” (Boffey 171). For these reasons, my research will significantly expand our knowledge of the Middle English (vernacular) literary culture and the role of women within it in order to provide much needed information regarding Middle English book culture and literacy.

Middle English Writing Systems and their Analysis: Knowledge of medieval book production is undermined by enduring questions surrounding medieval scribal practice and scribal identity. In many cases it would seem impossible to determine the actual identity of a copyist of a certain manuscript, as scribes rarely claimed credit for their work by recording their name. Still, scholars have in fact been able to identify different hands responsible for copying, and in very few cases have discovered what appear to be scribal signatures, for instance in the Findern manuscript, and thus scholars postulate connections to other manuscripts. While medieval scholars have long articulated the need for a system to improve knowledge of scribal tendencies, my doctoral work (2007) is the first study that suggests a manageable method for the analysis of Middle English writing systems.

Angus McIntosh was perhaps the first to argue, in a series of articles, for a systematic study of written Middle English (“The Analysis of Written Middle English” (1956); “Towards an Inventory of Middle English Scribes” (1974); and “Scribal Profiles from Middle English Texts” (1975)). In these essays McIntosh attempted to outline a method by which scribal output could be summarized and analysed, by studying linguistic habits evident from both the written form, and the handwriting of a scribe. McIntosh suggested that a text should be characterized palaeographically. This characterization, called a graphetic profile, is ultimately based on surveying from dialectology (such as that in the Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval Studies), which uses a questionnaire system for the construction of linguistic profiles. While McIntosh provided a necessary basis for graphetic profiling, the question of how to store, or present, or process the results of such a questionnaire system so that the information gleaned might be used in the comparison of other graphs in other manuscripts, and so on, was not resolved. Additionally, complicating factors such as script, orthography and scribal idiosyncrasies are not addressed in McIntosh’s questionnaire system. The method that will be used in this project, though relying on digitization, is based on long-accepted methods for medieval textual editing and will allow for the systematic analysis of Middle English writing systems, thus facilitating future manuscript studies and our understanding of medieval secular scribal work.