This post is really just the story of how one thing leads to another in research. It’s also to tell you about what I’ve been working on in the last three weeks, a sudden and unexpected digression from my poetics book. It’s also to highlight the role of noblewomen in the commissioning of English verse in the middle of the fifteenth century.
Over New Year’s, I went to the British Library to look at a fifteenth-century manuscript with a little-known prologue to a little-known text. The text, the Liber Proverbiorum, is a verse translation of an early fourteenth-century collection of proverbs and wise sayings by the friar and preacher Nicole Bozon. The text as a whole had been edited in two American PhD dissertations, but these were hard to get hold of, so I went to look at it myself.
Because it had been cited in the Middle English Dictionary, I knew that the epilogue, which had been printed in a German journal in 1900, made reference to verse-form, especially the different between the source’s quatrains and the rhyme royal of the translation. I wondered if the prologue contained anything interesting.
What I found was a surprise. This translation of a sapiential text was requested by a queen: ‘Right noble high and ful myghty princes | My most dred lady […] Moost cristiane princesse / oure alÞer souueraine | In quenely ordre / deuly consecrate’. For reasons I’ll explain in an article which I’m writing up at the moment, I think that this queen is Margaret of Anjou, who arrived in England in the spring of 1445 aged fifteen to marry Henry VI. The translation must have been completed quite soon after Margaret’s arrival, certainly by 1449 (the text is copied in a second datable manuscript). Margaret’s literary interests were clearly noted by her contemporaries: the ‘Talbot Shrewsbury book’, beautifully illuminated, was a gift to Margaret from John Talbot, first earl of Shrewsbury, who had escorted her to England for her wedding.
Margaret, the translator tells us, asked for this translation via a ‘moene’, an intermediary. Perhaps she asked for a translation of a familiar text to help her learn English, though she received a rather distinctive type of English from this author. The translator enriches his language with Latinate neologisms (crescence, toxicate, molestious) and also French-derived coinages (guerdinal, doucet, pliant). He also creatively extends existing English words (frequentiously, enormely, blamous). Perhaps she wanted to learn about English poetic form and English high-style poetic diction, more than to practise her new language skills. Perhaps the translator wanted to create a kind of courtly diction which synthesised English, Latin and French in celebration of the new Anglo-French peace.
Once I’d transcribed the prologue, I realised that the translator of the Liber Proverbiorum was also the translator of a French romance by an author called Coudrette, Mélusine, or, Le roman de Parthenay, known in its English version as the Romans of Partenay (I’ll explain why in the article!). The first section of text is missing, so we can’t be certain of the patron of this text, but the author attributes ‘gentilnesse’ and ‘hy notable gentilesse’ to his patron, and hopes that she or he will look kindly on any imperfection in his work ‘Off your hy wurthry soueraynnesse’. The work is a commission (‘at your request and commaundement / This warke on me toke’), and it could be that Margaret also asked this translator to translate this fashionable French romance.
Then I set about looking for more texts which Margaret might have commissioned. Searching the International Medieval Bibliography threw up Emily Wingfield’s suggestion that the French romance Cleriadus et Meliadice may have been brought to England by Margaret. A sixteenth-century Scots translation of this romance makes reference to an earlier English prose version of the same story, noted for its ‘langwage full ornate, / And lustie termis richt poeticall’. Again, it’s not possible to be sure, but perhaps this linguistically distinctive translation was by our Partenay/Liber Proverbiorum author?
Then, as I kept following up leads, looking sideways to see what was also being written in the mid-1440s, it became clear that this decade was full of women commissioning Middle English verse texts. Some of this patronage is relatively well-known: Osbern Bokenham’s Legends of Holy Women has individual saint’s lives written for a range of local men and women, including various noblewomen. Bokenham describes the festivities for Twelfth Night in January 1445 when he was asked in person for a translation of the life of Mary Magdalen by Lady Isabel Bourchier, countess of Eu. Some of it is aspirational: the author of the partial Middle English verse translation of Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris hopes for ‘gret ayde of sum noble pryncess’ to support his literary efforts: is he thinking of Margaret? Some of it is hidden away in textual notes: one manuscript of Stephen Scrope’s translation of Christine de Pizan’s Epistre d’Othea dedicates the text to a ‘ryght hiȝ princesse’. Might this be a text for Margaret too?
Like following a thread in a labyrinth, these last three weeks have taken me far from my starting point, which was a day-trip to see a prologue which I thought might be full of poetic terminology. It wasn’t full of technical terms, it turns out, but it did have a queen, and from this queen have come many princesses.