BL MS Harley 7333: The “Publication” of Chaucer in the Rural Areas

BL MS Harley 7333: The “Publication” of Chaucer in the Rural Areas

Shonk, Timothy A.

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 15 (1998)


In the long history of the study of manuscripts containing works by Geoffrey Chaucer, Harley 7333 has been treated as something of a poor cousin. In spite of the increasing attention to manuscript studies in the past two decades and the resultant flood of publications, Harley has received very little attention. Since the initial study of the Chaucer manuscripts by Manly and Rickert in 1940, Harley 7333 has not been investigated at length in any published study of which I am aware. And there is some reason for this. While Harley 7333 is unique in the corpus of Chaucer manuscripts in some ways–the largest in size of the Chaucer manuscripts (approximately 450 mm./17″ tall and some 330 mm./13″ wide), the largest in terms of its collected holdings, and the only manuscript in which The Canterbury Tales makes up less than half the book1–the text is so corrupt that it carries no authority for literary scholars. The Parson’s Tale, moreover, breaks off incomplete, as do other Chaucer pieces, such as The Parliament of Fowls, which lacks its final stanza, and Anelida and Arcite, which lacks its final 120+ lines.

The manuscript, furthermore, neither presents itself as a sumptuous manuscript, like the famous Ellesmere, nor holds a place of importance in the date of its composition, like the equally famous Hengwrt manuscript. Harley 7333 dates from about 1460. But in my view the Harley manuscript holds great interest for those who study medieval bookmaking. It represents one of a relative few larger collections of secular literature produced in the rural regions–Harley in Leicester, some 100 miles from London. The manuscript also holds promise for Chaucer scholars, offering valuable clues about the manner in which Chaucer manuscripts were being produced, “published,” if you will, outside of London.

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