The Auchinleck Manuscript. Back to home page
King Richard f326 *


National Library of Scotland -


The importance of the Auchinleck Manuscript (National Library of Scotland Advocates' MS 19.2.1) has been acknowledged since at least 1804 when Sir Walter Scott brought the manuscript to notice by publishing an elaborate edition of Sir Tristrem with an introduction describing the manuscript. But what is it about Auchinleck that makes it so valuable? What particular aspects of its content and make-up should be regarded as 'important' and why?


This discussion considers the following areas of significance:

The English Language

Auchinleck has held a prominent place in discussions of the history and development of Middle English. Its texts provide important information about English dialects at an early stage (the 1330s) and dialect profiles are included in the Linguistic Atlas of Late Medieval English for all five Auchinleck scribes who copy literary texts (it is not possible to analyse the dialect of Scribe 4 as he copied only the Battle Abbey Roll, a list of names). These profiles locate the written language of Scribe 1 in Middlesex, Scribe 3 in London, Scribe 5 in Essex and Scribes 2 and 6 in areas close together on the Gloucestershire / Worcestershire border. Scribes 1 and 3 have received particular attention as they form a basis for M. L. Samuels' (1963) well known typology of late medieval London English, where he describes their language as representative of a distinctive stage (his 'Type II') in the development of the London dialect. The collection of texts in Auchinleck have also been important to studies of phraseology and style, such as the recent analysis of pious language in romance by Dalrymple (2000).

The Auchinleck Manuscript and English Literature

Auchinleck contains a large collection of Middle English poetry from a period when relatively few ME texts survive. That is, it offers a rare snapshot of the kind of English literary texts which were in circulation in England in the period before Chaucer. A wide range of genres are represented in the manuscript which includes romance, hagiography, texts offering basic doctrinal instruction, a chronicle, humorous tales, and poems of satire and complaint. That couplet and stanzaic verse forms dominate is indicative of the manuscript's Southern and Eastern axis. However, Auchinleck also includes two alliterative items (Þe Simonie and The Four Foes of Mankind), as well as two more items in which alliteration is a marked feature of style (Sir Tristrem and The Thrush and the Nightingale) and these texts of Northern and Western origin indicate that the London compiler of Auchinleck and London readers at this date had access to texts from far beyond their own immediate geographical region.

23 texts are unique to Auchinleck (or, at least, in unique versions). These are:


The saints' lives and legends

  • The Life of Adam and Eve
  • Seynt Mergrete
  • Seynt Katerine
  • St Patrick's Purgatory
  • The Life of St Mary Magdalene
  • The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin

The religious verse texts

  • Þe Desputisoun Bitven Þe Bodi and Þe Soule
  • The Clerk who would see the Virgin
  • On The Seven Deadly Sins
  • The Paternoster
  • Dauid the King (or, Psalm L)

The moral texts

  • The Sayings of the Four Philosophers
  • The Four Foes of Mankind

A fabliau

  • The Wenche þat Loved þe King

An ABC poem

  • Praise of Women

Eight romances

  • the stanzaic Guy of Warwick
  • Reinbroun
  • Of Arthour & of Merlin (though the first quarter of this text is found in four other manuscripts)
  • Lay le Freine
  • Roland and Vernagu
  • Otuel a Knight
  • Sir Tristrem
  • Horn Childe & Maiden Rimnild

Though Auchinleck contains a variety of texts it is most famous for its collection of verse romances. That such a large number of ME romances are assembled together in one volume is remarkable. Of Auchinleck's 44 surviving texts, 18 are romances; 8 of these are in unique versions (listed above) and all are in their earliest copy, with the one exception of Floris and Blancheflour. A wide range of different types of romances are represented. Alongside Auchinleck's substantial collection of romances of English heroes (including Guy of Warwick, Beues of Hamtoun and Horn Childe & Maiden Rimnild) are heroes of France (Otuel and Roland and Vernagu from the Charlemagne cycle) and of antiquity (Kyng Alisaunder). There are examples of Arthurian romance (Of Arthour & of Merlin, Sir Tristrem), romances which show an interest in the supernatural and the fairy world (Sir Orfeo, Reinbroun) and in piety (the stanzaic Guy of Warwick) as well as romances written, by contrast, in a more epic, heroic style (such as King Richard and the couplet Guy of Warwick). Different forms are also represented, including Breton Lay (Sir Orfeo, Lay le Freine), didactic romance (The King of Tars) and stanzaic (Amis and Amiloun) as well as couplet forms.

Auchinleck is also remarkable for its time for what it does not include. There are no French or Latin texts, which are typically found in other literary manuscripts from this date (such as the contemporary West Midland manuscripts BL Harley MS 2253 and BL Royal MS 12.c.xii). There are no pragmatic or 'household' items (such as recipes, remedies, accounts or prognostications) of the kind which tend to characterise many later miscellaneous volumes and to lead them to be described as 'household books'. By contrast, Auchinleck could be described as perhaps the first example of a collection specifically designed for enthusiasts of literary and historical texts in the English language.

Chaucer and the Auchinleck Manuscript

Laura Hibbard Loomis, in a famous article of 1940, proposed that Geoffrey Chaucer read the Auchinleck MS as a boy and that it became the direct inspiration for his famous satire on verse romance, The Tale of Sir Thopas (from The Canterbury Tales). It is a theory based partly on circumstantial evidence (Auchinleck was produced in London c.1331-40 and Chaucer was born in the city at about this time, c.1340), combined with her claim for verbal similarities between The Tale of Sir Thopas and the Auchinleck stanzaic Guy of Warwick.

The idea that Chaucer knew Auchinleck can be classed as one of what Pearsall (1977) has called those 'persistent images' of reading medieval texts which are difficult to eradicate once they become established. It is a myth which presents a drastically over-simplified model of fourteenth-century book production. But it also belies an important point about the significance of this manuscript. Auchinleck preserves, and to some extent allows us access to, the kind of literary culture and literary language with which Chaucer grew up and was influenced by and which can be seen transformed and refracted in his own writings. Chaucer's interest in, for example, Breton lay, estates satire and chivalric and metrical romance are all apparent in The Canterbury Tales and all attest to close familiarity with the type of language and traditions represented in Auchinleck. This is not at all to say that Chaucer read Auchinleck itself, but that the contents of the manuscript are representative of the kind of literary environment and linguistic milieu with which writers of the later fourteenth century were familiar. That is, Auchinleck is especially valuable for understanding the development of English literature because it offers an insight into an English vernacular literary culture which preceded and was influential upon Chaucer and his generation.

The History of the Book

The Auchinleck Manuscript provides the earliest example of book production in England which was lay and commercial. Early examples have come down to us of books produced in monastic scriptoria or collections which were produced by an individual for their own use or for use by their family or local community. However, Auchinleck provides, for the first time, evidence of professional scribes collaborating on what was primarily a commercial venture. Though this is agreed, the specific details of how and where production took place have been the subject of considerable debate. The progress of this debate is itself of interest for the commentary it provides upon evolving critical perceptions of and approaches to the pre-modern book and it therefore deserves to be outlined here:

In what has been called an 'epoch-making' article, Hibbard Loomis (1942) proposes the theory that Auchinleck was produced in a London 'bookshop'. This establishment she envisages to be something like a secular version of the monastic scriptorium, involving a team of scribes in a workshop who would undertake translation and composition of texts as well as copying. This model is modified (though its essential points confirmed) by Robinson (1972) who proposes that Auchinleck was composed in booklets. The booklets are seen to represent a speculative stage of production and the purchaser selected a series of the ready-made booklets to his/her taste to be bound together to form the final volume.

In the 1980s the bookshop theory was finally supplanted by the work of Shonk (1981, 1983, 1985). Shonk uses the evidence of catchwords, titles and other organisational features of the manuscript to argue that Scribe 1 served as 'editor'. That is, that as well as copying a significant portion of the volume, he was responsible for co-ordinating production at all levels and liaising with the other scribes and the purchaser of the volume. It is a model which describes a more fluid and flexible arrangement, involving ad hoc collaboration between freelancing professionals, though essentially focused upon Scribe 1.

The most recent studies of Auchinleck offer a number of new approaches to the manuscript. Wiggins (2000) reconsiders the nature of Scribe 1's editorial role and emphasises the evidence Auchinleck provides for the existence of efficient networks of textual exchange at this date. Turville-Petre (1996) argues, for the first time, that Auchinleck is a highly themed manuscript: a 'handbook of the nation' designed to express and invoke patriotic sentiments. And as part of his study of fourteenth-century London literature, Hanna (2000) considers Auchinleck in its metropolitan context as the product of a distinctive London literary culture.

The importance of an electronic edition of the Auchinleck Manuscript

This on-line electronic version of the Auchinleck Manuscript is an example of the way in which electronic publication can successfully reconcile two traditionally discrete forms of edition: the ‘critical edition’ and the ‘facsimile edition’. These are difficult to accommodate in print but can be reconciled in the flexible, non-linear environment offered by electronic media. The result is an edition which has several advantages over traditional print publication.

The first involves the opportunities for linguistic analysis. The practical limitations of manual checking means that traditional methods of linguistic and dialect analysis rely upon sampling key words from select tranches of texts. Electronic texts make it possible to perform searches without these limitations and to exhaustively and comprehensively search a corpus. It therefore becomes possible to generate results more refined than could ever even have been imagined before the digital era.

This electronic version of Auchinleck also has a number of obvious advantages for codicologists and students of literature. For the first time, high-quality, colour photographs of the manuscript are now freely available to specialists and non-specialists alike. The ability to undertake repeated close-up analysis of the manuscript folios and to visually juxtapose edited text and manuscript image will, it is envisaged, encourage and aid the study of these texts in their original manuscript context.