I Herd an Harping on a Hille: Its Text and Context
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 1 (1984)
That the literary context of a poem may have some bearing upon the poem is a commonplace of our age; that the context of a poem in a medieval manuscript may have some relevance to the poem is not commonplace at all. Too often expediency has appeared to be the principle by which manuscripts were ordered, and frequently the most diverse sorts of materials were juxtaposed. Yet I would argue that expediency, although common, is not the sole principle of manuscript organization, and that the Norton Reader approach does not always obtain in the compilation of manuscripts. Just as, in the present age, the context of a given work may provide an added dimension to that work, in rare instances, the context of a medieval manuscript may provide the necessary insight that makes it accessible to a modern audience. Such seems to be the case with “I Herd an Harping on a Hille” which appears uniquely in MS Don. c. 13 as one of a group of seven metrical pieces in the concluding folios of a fourteenth-century collection of Wycliffite sermons. That it is no accident that “I Herd an Harping on a Hille” is included in a collection of Wycliffite writings, and that the poem has a strong thematic kinship with fourteenth-century reform and Wycliffite teachings forms the basis for the reading of the poem.