A saving hand (a nerdy drama)

Hello everyone. I thought today I would do something a little different and write a post about the manuscript I work on, the copy of Forme of Cury in the John Rylands Library, Manchester. Don’t worry, foodies, it’s not that dull.

Well, it’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating, that this copy of the famous cookery book of Richard II is the best and likely the oldest of all those surviving, including the better known, roll version found in the British Library which was produced several decades later (c. 1425). Hey, go Manchester!

Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7, f. 4r with enlarged detail. By permission of the University of Manchester.

‘Inne 1377 / 1611 / 234 yeres ago. M.’

Someone in 1611 points the reader to the year 1377, when Richard II succeeded to the throne as a 10-year-old boy.

Most sources suggest Forme of Cury was penned around 1390. This makes some sense as it is after a period of much trouble for Richard (due to his subjugation by the so-called Lord Appellants), and was at a time when he was expanding his reputation as a king of culture, holding in that year what has been called the ‘social highlight’ of his reign, the Smithfield tournament, during which the most splendid feasting took place. (See The Reign of Richard II: From Minority to Tyranny 1377-97, trans. and annotated by A. K. McHardy, Manchester University Press, pp. 258-61.)

It’s easy to imagine some of the dishes in Forme of Cury being served during this glittering event.

Despite one editor back in the 1980s opining how she wished she’d known about the Ryland’s copy before embarking on a collaboration to produce a critical edition, it’s not, however, without its flaws.

There is, for example, a missing folio, which means three recipes are completely absent and one other has the opening third of its text lost.

The missing folio. Recipe 183, ‘clxxxiij Chewettes on flesch day‘, finishes and is followed by the last two thirds of recipe 187 Chastletes: ‘euery syde, kerue out keyntlyche kyrnels aboue in þe maner of batelyng, etc…’ (‘each side; carefully cut out the battlements above in the manner of parapets’). The missing recipes are Chewetes on fysche day, Hastletes of fruyt, and Comadore.

Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7, ff. 85v-86r. By permission of the University of Manchester.

One other curious thing is the messing up of the order of three recipes. I thought you might want to see what happened in this case, because it tells the story of a disappearing scribe, a self-absorbed scribe, and one hyper vigilant scribe who saves the day. I hope you all like hyperbole.

So, welcome to my world of scribal drama!

Inserted half folio

As you can see from the images below, recipe 37 ‘Blank dessorree xxxvij’ has been inserted into the book as a half folio. The verso side (the back) of the folio is blank.

Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7, f.26 r-v

This half folio is appended out of sequence, after recipe 39 ‘xxxix Charlet’ commences but before it finishes.

The hand (i.e. handwriting) of the inserted recipe 37 is contemporary with the other hands responsible for the surrounding recipes (36, 38) but is not the same. Let me establish this with some close-ups.

Three scribes

Three scribes are at work here. All of them use the same script, but there are subtle differences in the way they write this script. Let’s first compare the hands of recipes 36 and 38 before we take a look at the hand of 37. (Hang in there; it gets very exciting at the end.)

Hand 36 (‘xxxvj’), writing out ‘Blank maunger’, appears to use a thicker quill nib, creating a less elegant hand than 38 (‘xxxviij’) who writes the recipe ‘Morree’.

Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7, f. 25, r and v. By permission of the University of Manchester

At first sight, they may look like the same hand, but look more closely and you’ll see that hand 38 is finer, more refined, than 36. Look, for example, at the way hand 36 forms its letter ‘h’ with a rather chunky, awkward flick at the bottom of the descender (the downward stroke):

Constrast that with 38’s more elegant flick:

You might imagine hand 38 lifting the wrist slightly with a measure of panache, if not (bridled) passion, each time the letter ‘h’ was formed; whereas hand 36 seems a more ponderous scribe.

If you need a little more convincing, take a look at the way each writes the word ‘grynde’:

Aside from the fact that hand 36 tends to have slightly thicker strokes (perhaps the scribe cut the quill nib thicker), note the writing of letter ‘r’: hand 38 has a more recognisable, short, almost modern ‘r’ but hand 36 uses what is known as the long ‘r’ (i.e. it descends below the writing line).

Hand 37

Hand 37 is relatively easy to distinguish from the other two.

It has a noticeably more cramped look; the letters are all narrower. Also the scribe uses a darker ink. But most characteristic are the descenders on the letter ‘y’ turning right (‘grynde’, whyte’, and ‘wyne’), the opposite of both hand 36 and 38; and the distinctive abbreviation marks (contractions) that appear over the letter ‘n’ of ‘almaund[es]’ and ‘blaunched’. Whereas the other two hands just use a plain line to indicate the omission of ‘u’, hand 37 bookends the line with vertical tags. Sexy!

Where’s hand 36 gone?

So, I’ve persuaded you (I hope) that there are three scribes in this (nerdy) drama. Now, let us take a look at the end of recipe 36:

Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7, f. 25r, detail. By permission of the University of Manchester

Oh la! Where’d he go? Has the scribe suddenly taken ill? Did King Richard need him for some rival writing task, notwithstanding his chunky descender flicks? Did his bladder give way mid sentence (I know that feeling)? Did he die? I said it was dramatic, did I not?

As you can see, behind my melodrama lies the fact that hand 36 just suddenly stops writing, and the eagle-eyed among us will have noticed that the recipe is finished off by hand 37: that dark ink, the sexy-weird contraction mark on ‘almaundes’ and those right-bending ‘y’s!

More intrigue occurs when we realise that hand 38, he of the stylish ‘h’ flicks, doesn’t appear to notice that poor hand 36 has met with some terrible fate, because he just ploughs on with what he thinks is the next recipe. Only the heartless dim-wit got it wrong, didn’t he? Probably preoccupied with perfecting flouncy flicks!

A new scribe takes over, beginning with ‘xxxviij Morree’. True, he leaves a spare line in case someone else wants to bother with completing recipe 36, but ploughs on heedless of the fact he’s missed out recipe 37. But there is a saving hand in the wings!

Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS 7, f. 25v. By permission of the University of Manchester.

As you can see, the dark-inked hand 37 finishes off the last 4 words of hand 36’s recipe, whilst hand 38 heedlessly proceeds with what he feels is the next recipe: 38.

Thankfully, this drama has a happy ending, as you should have worked out by now, assuming you haven’t fallen asleep.

Yes! The hand that completes recipe 36 is the hand that saves recipe 37 by writing it on a spare half-sheet of parchment and inserting it as best as he could. Aww, a sweetie really!

Mind you, I hope he pointed it out to hand 38. These are, after all, not monastic scribes of early medieval England, here. There should be no forgiveness! Not even a morsel of kindness.

Thank you all for making it to the end. Now all I have to do is write the sequel:

The Returning Hand

Published by Christopher Monk

Dr Christopher Monk is creating Modern Medieval Cuisine

7 thoughts on “A saving hand (a nerdy drama)

    1. Haha! I have no idea yet whether hand 36 returns later in the manuscript. I suppose I need to find out now.


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