Robert Thornton's Lyrics
A Digital Edition by Trinity University English Students
Lincoln, Cathedral Library MS 91, f. 213r (selection): "May the aforementioned R. Thornton, who wrote, be blessed. Amen."
The Scribe and His Poems
Robert Thornton (d. c. 1465) of East Newton, Yorkshire is known today for his work on two large manuscripts: London, British Library MS Add. 31042 and Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 91. Thornton was a gentleman scribe, preparing these volumes in smaller units (booklets) that cohere roughly around subject-matters—narrative romance, devotional literature, practical medical texts, etc.—meant, apparently, for the use of his household. The lyrics edited here are all part of the Lincoln manuscript, and they all appear in the section devoted to religious material. They do not, however, form a single block in this section; instead, they are scattered throughout the booklet, and while some were evidently copied as major texts in their own right, others fill space left blank after a longer work. As the digital facsimile accompanying the edition indicates, Thornton sometimes writes these religious lyrics in a smaller script, apparently trying to fit them in between larger texts he had already copied. Others blur the line between poem and colophon, the sort of tag added by scribes at the end of their work—as in the example reproduced above from the Lincoln manuscript. And this raises another intriguing question about Thornton's work: that is, while some of the poems he copied are the work of known authors, and others, while anonymous (like most Middle English lyrics), appear in other manuscripts and seem clearly to have been copied by Thornton from a preexisting exemplar, quite a few of the Thornton lyrics are preserved uniquely in the Lincoln manuscript, suggesting the possibility that Thornton might not just be their scribe but also their author.
Many of these lyrics have not been edited since G. G. Perry's Early English Text Society volume (1867, rev. 1889) and Carl Horstman's Yorkshire Writers (1895-96), and some have never had the benefit of publishing in even semi-critical form, including (as we do here) variants from other manuscripts. It is therefore hoped that this digital edition will be a tool to support further work on these texts, which provide crucial evidence for literary and devotional priorities in the North of England in the fifteenth century, for the textual cult of Thornton's favorite author, the hermit and mystic Richard Rolle, and for Middle English lyric studies more generally.
For more on Thornton and his manuscripts, see the recent collection of essays, Robert Thornton and His Books, edited by Susanna Fein and Michael Johnston.
Work on this edition was done by students in Andrew Kraebel's seminar on medieval English lyric poetry in Fall 2019: Tyler Blackerby, Emily Bourgeois, Liz Cortez, Cat Cura, Austin Davidson, Rebecca Kroger, Camden Lemond, Maggie Lupo, Gretchen Maddock, Jessie Metcalf, Aulston Moore Adams, Claire Siewert, David Stiles, Kirsten Timco, and Stephanie Velasquez. These students prepared transcriptions of Thornton's texts, then edited them, correcting obvious scribal errors and comparing them to other surviving manuscript copies. They then prepared the XML markup for the digital edition and wrote the short essays that serve as introductions to each poem.
To more fully represent the range of Thornton's devotional sensibilities, our edition includes two samples of Latin religious lyrics from the Lincoln manuscript, one a widely copied hymn commonly attributed to Bonaventure and the other, like several of the Middle English lyrics, surviving uniquely in Thornton's manuscript. Work on these poems was done by Rebecca Kroger, Maggie Lupo, and Kirsten Timco, who also prepared translations of both texts.
How to Use the Edition
Our work makes use of Edition Visualization Technology, Text Encoding Initiative-based software which strikes a balance between the presentation of the manuscript as a digital facsimile and the transcription/edition of the manuscript's text. Much of this is self-explanatory: when you follow the link below to the edition, you'll find an image of the manuscript on the left and the text on the right, and the arrows on either side of the main display allow you to scroll from one page of the manuscript to another. You can also change content by selecting a different folio from one drop-down menu or by selecting a different text (cited by DIMEV number) from another. The info tab at the top-right of the display will provide you with an introductory essay on whatever poem you are currently viewing.
By default, text will be displayed as a transcription, with line-breaks corresponding to line-breaks in the manuscript. Thornton sometimes writes his poetry as prose, however, and so in this mode new lines of poetry are signaled by red dots containing the line number. Clicking on the "versi/verses" option at the bottom of the text window will present the same material as poetry, including stanza breaks where relevant. The blue dots that appear throughout the text contain textual notes, which will expand when clicked; these notes indicate variants from other manuscripts (identified in the info tab) or places where a clear scribal error has prompted editorial intervention.
Our thanks to Claire Arrand of Lincoln Cathedral Library for her help in arranging the photography of the manuscript, and to the Cathedral Librarian, Julie Taylor, for permission to reproduce the images as part of this edition. Thanks, too, to Roberto Rosselli del Turco for helping us prepare the XML file in line with EVT v. 1.3 while that version was still in production, and to Elizabeth Poff at Trinity's Coates Library for arranging the hosting of the edition.