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

Physical make-up

National Library of Scotland -


There have been several studies of the codicology of the Auchinleck Manuscript and its complexity means that it has repaid repeated study. Kölbing (1884) was the first modern scholar to examine Auchinleck closely and corrections and supplement to his work were provided by Bliss (1951) and then Cunningham (1972) who was able to examine the manuscript when it was taken apart for re-binding. The major conclusions of these studies have been adopted by Pearsall and Cunningham (1977), Guddat-Figge (1976), Mordkoff (1981) and Shonk (1981 and 1985). The only major objection to the views of Kölbing, Bliss and Cunningham concerns the number of scribes that copied this manuscript.


The following codicological description indicates the findings of the most recent scholarship:


Auchinleck was produced between c. 1331 and 1340. This is based on palaeographical evidence and internal references. The unique ending to The Anonymous Short English Metrical Chronicle (item 40) refers to the death of Edward II and has a prayer for the 'young King Edward' (that is, Edward III), who came to the throne in 1327. This date, 1327, has for some time been regarded as the terminus a quo for the Auchinleck manuscript. However, there is another, later reference in the Chronicle which I am grateful to Professor Helen Cooper for bringing to my attention. This slightly later date is implied in the account of how Lancelot held Guenevere in Nottingham Castle. As Turville-Petre (1996) describes, the account merges "...a recollection of the French Mort Artu, in which Lancelot protects Guenevere in Joyeuse Garde, with a much more recent memory of Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella in 1330 barricading themselves into Nottingham Castle, from which Mortimer was ignominiously dragged and sent to London to be hanged...". Since the events at Nottingham took place on 18 October 1330 (or a day or two later), it is highly unlikely that the manuscript could have been produced before 1331.


The present binding is at least the manuscript's third. The first binding is known only from the sewing holes and that this was not the original binding is suggested by pencil notes indicating that the folios of gathering 47 were disarranged in the eighteenth century. The second binding is most likely to have taken place during the 1820s when the Advocates' Library had many of its older manuscripts rebound. The binding that the manuscript now has was carried out by HMSO Bindery in Edinburgh in 1971, when the 1820s cover had become worn and the cords broken.

Damage, condition and losses

The manuscript is now made up of 331 folios and 14 stubs. An additional 10 folios have been discovered detached from the manuscript. There are four folios in Edinburgh University Library (Edinburgh U.L. MS 218; ff.1-2 from quire 3, a fragment of The Life of Adam and Eve and ff.3-4 from quire 48, a fragment of King Richard). Four more folios are held in St Andrews University Library (St Andrews U.L. MS PR.2065 A.15 and R.4; a fragment from quire 40, Kyng Alisaunder, and one from quire 48, King Richard). And two folios are held at the University of London library (London U.L. MS 593; another fragment from quire 40, Kyng Alisaunder). Folios are of good quality vellum and are now of 250 x 190 mm, though they have been significantly trimmed and should be compared to the University of London Library fragment of King Richard which measures 264 x 203 mm and may represent their original size.

Further losses to the manuscript are the result of miniature hunters. Frequently, the first leaf of a new text (where the miniature was positioned) has been cut out or, in some cases, just the miniature itself has been excised, rather than the whole leaf, resulting in a series of lacunae throughout the manuscript. These lacunae have now been patched as, for example, on f.21ra. Examples of stubs remaining where a leaf has been cut out appear at f.35r, f.37v and f.61ar. Only five miniatures now remain but the manuscript would originally have been decorative and visually attractive.

An indication of the number of texts lost from Auchinleck is provided by the item numbering. Þe Simonie is now the final text in the codex and has the original item number lx (60). This, then, indicates the minimum number of items in the original manuscript (the minimum number because it is possible that there were more items after Þe Simonie which have now been lost). With 43 texts surviving, this means that around 17 items have been lost (over one quarter of Auchinleck's texts). The original position of these lost items is indicated by the surviving item numbers: five items have been lost from the start of the manuscript as the first item bears the number vi (6); five more from between items xxxvii (37) and xliii (43); four are lost between xlvi (46) and li (51); and three from between lvi (56) and lx (60). These calculations are, however, only approximate as they rely upon the accuracy of the item numbering of the lost leaves and do not take account of the scribe's sometimes erratic numbering.

Foliation and collation

The manuscript was made in fascicles. That is, in groups of continuously copied quires ('continuously copied' here refers to texts written one after another with no spaces between them). The only spaces in the manuscript occur at the very ends of fascicles with the exception of f.104vb (the end of Scribe 3's stint of copying). In total, 47 quires survive and these constitute 12 fascicles of between one and nine quires each. Each quire is made up of eight folios with the exception of quire 38 which is made up of ten folios and which, containing the whole of Otuel a Knight, is a self-contained unit with regard to content. Quire 52 contains only Þe Simonie and is also likely to have been a self-contained unit, though this cannot be stated with certainty as this is the final quire and it ends imperfectly. The other 45 quires are not independent in terms of content and fall into ten booklets containing between two and nine items. There is a tendency to place major poems at the beginning of new fascicles; for example, Guy of Warwick, Beues of Hamtoun, Kyng Alisaunder, Sir Tristrem, King Richard and The Anonymous Short English Metrical Chronicle each appear at the head of a fascicle. Mordkoff (1981) argues that there is some integrity of content within each fascicle and proposes that, with the exception of fascicle 3, each is characterised by an identifiable theme (such as, religion, heroes of England, patriotism, French heroes, love).


Clues as to how the fascicles were organised and arranged during the various stages of production are not easily found or interpreted as no regular system of signatures has survived in the manuscript. There are letters on some quires, written on the right-hand side of the lower margin of the recto side of folios, but these conform to no obvious pattern. The most clear examples of surviving signatures are on quires 19 and 22; recto folios from the first half of quire 19 have an h and recto folios from the first half of quire 22 have a d (though on both quires sometimes only the top of the letter survives due to trimming). Also visible on the manuscript is an h and the number iiij at the foot of f.58r (in quire 9) and a k at the foot of f.63r (in quire 10). Shonk (1985) describes two groups of signatures in the manuscript: a first group in brown ink and a second set in red (which he argues is probably due to the first set having been trimmed off during an early stage of production and then replace by the same hand, possibly during the rubrication stage but before the volume was bound). I have failed to find these signatures in red described by Shonk.


That the fascicles are in their original order is confirmed by the catchwords which correctly refer to what follows and by the item numbers which run throughout the manuscript. Thirty-seven catchwords survive in the manuscript, appearing in the lower right-hand corner of the verso side of the last folio of a quire. Thirty-six of these were written by Scribe 1. These include catchwords linking his own quires to those of Scribe 2 (on f.38v), Scribe 3 (on f.69v), Scribe 4 (on f.107v) and Scribe 6 (on f.267v) and linking quires successively written by Scribe 5 (f.168v). Scribe 1's catchwords, then, provide links of some sort for the work of every scribe and this has provided important evidence to support Shonk's (1985) hypothesis that Scribe 1 had an editorial role in the manuscript. Shonk proposes that each section of the manuscript returned to Scribe 1 for organisation and compilation after it had been copied. The catchword on f.99v has been the subject of disagreement: Bliss (1951), Pearsall and Cunningham (1977) and Mordkoff (1981) argue that it was written by Scribe 3, whereas Shonk (1985) asserts that, like the other catchwords, it was written by Scribe 1.

Item numbers

Item numbers run throughout the manuscript, appearing as lower case roman numerals in the centre of the upper margin of every recto. For example, for item 30, Beues of Hamtoun, xxx appears at the head of every folio from the beginning to the end of the text. These numbers are all in the same hand, first identified by Cunningham (1977) as that of Scribe 1. The difference in ink colour indicates that item numbers were not written at the same time as the text (as, for example, can clearly be seen in Of Arthour & of Merlin, f.203r). Errors would indicate that the numbering was not done consecutively but that the numbers were written in batches as they came back to the compiler. Furthermore, the arrangement of certain item numbers on the page indicates that they were added to the manuscript after rubrication and illumination had been completed. For example, on f.72r, Scribe 3 has failed to leave any space at the head of the text for a miniature. As a result, the miniature has been placed to the side of the text and then the item number has been placed to the far side of the miniature, indicating that it must have been inserted after the miniature was in position.


Titles are in red ink and have been added to most items. They were added after the copying and decoration of the manuscript had been completed, perhaps at about the same time as the item numbers. They appear to have been an afterthought, squeezed into any available space. For example, on f.259rb the title has been placed away from the beginning of the text, and on f.21ra the title for Seynt Katerine is inserted, confusingly, into the space after the explicit of the previous article (Seynt Mergrete).

Illumination and ornamentation

The decoration of the codex displays sufficient uniformity to imply that a design plan was in place at an early stage of production. Generally, throughout the codex the first letter of every line is picked out in red. All scribes isolate the initial letter of the line with a ruled column. Scribes 1, 3 and 5 separate the initial letter of each line from the rest of the line. The work of Scribes 2 and 4 is notable for its inconsistency with this general format and is therefore likely to have been produced at a different stage from the work of the other scribes. More information on specific aspects of illumination and ornamentation can be found below in paragraph signs, initials and miniatures.

Paragraph signs

The different styles of paragraph signs, or paraphs, in the manuscript suggest that it was decorated as a unit within an atelier where several craftsmen worked. That the changes in style occur at new quires (rather than at the opening of a new poem or when a change of scribe occurs) indicates that craftsmen worked on the manuscript quire by quire. The most common style of paraphs in the manuscript (for example, on f.8r) can be compared with the style of those in the latter sections of work by Scribe 3 (for example, on f.77r) and with the all-red paraphs which appear in the work of Scribe 2 (for example, on f.39r). The artists added the paraphs by following the marks of the scribes: Scribe 1 uses a horizontal line; Scribe 3 a letter q; Scribe 5 a short vertical mark; and Scribe 6 two horizontal lines.


With the exception of the text copied by Scribe 4 (The Battle Abbey Roll), texts are divided up with large blue initials with red ornamentation, such as those on folio f.140vb and on f.324r-v. The scribes often used guide letters, as can be seen, for example, on f.39ra. The initials are consistent in style, implying that they are the work of a single artist throughout the codex.


Most items in the manuscript were originally preceded by a miniature (with the exception of a few of the shorter texts and the texts by Scribes 2, 4 and 6). Unfortunately, most of these have been lost to miniature hunters who either removed the miniature by cutting around it, leaving square holes which have now been patched, or cut out the entire folio leaving just a stub. Five miniatures remain, though one of these has been defaced. They appear at: f.7ra, at the head of The King of Tars, 31 x 62mm; f.72r, at the head of The Paternoster, 30 x 24mm; f.167rb, at the head of Reinbroun, 68 x66 mm; f.256vb, at the head of Þe Wenche þat Loved a King, 52 x56 mm, now defaced; f.326ra, at the head of King Richard, 42 x 68 mm. The surviving miniatures are all of the same style and seem to be the work of a single artist. The issue of the production of these miniatures has provoked disagreement among art historians. Robinson (1972), Mordkoff (1981) and Shonk (1985) each propose that they were from the same atelier that produced the exquisite Queen Mary Psalter (British Library MS Royal 2.B.vii). However, this attribution has elsewhere been rejected on the grounds that the Auchinleck miniatures are of inferior quality to those of the Queen Mary Psalter (for example, Hibbard Loomis (1942) asserts that the Auchinleck miniatures are by comparison "...small and perfectly commonplace.."). It may, perhaps, be the case that the artist knew the work of the Queen Mary Psalter atelier though was not actually employed there.


As with the miniatures, the format of the codex is dominated by a consistent design but it is notable that a number of irregularities have been tolerated. Ruling is generally 44 lines to the column and texts are generally written in double columns. Exceptions to this format are the Battle Abbey Roll (in four columns f.106r), The Legend of Pope Gregory (in long lines f.6r), Þe Simonie (in long lines f.334v), and the Speculum Gy de Warewyke (where Scribe 2 has provided his own ruling of 27 lines to the column rather than the usual 44, f.39r).


This manuscript was copied by six scribes. They are all anonymous and none has had his work identified elsewhere. All use varying shades of brown ink. Ruling is in ink and was generally done by the scribe who was to write the quire. When a change of scribe occurs within a quire the new scribe either uses the ruling as it is or adapts it. For example, Scribe 2 copied The Sayings of the Four Philosophers on a folio ruled by Scribe 1 and, as Scribe 1's ruling is much narrower than his own, Scribe 2 can here be seen to significantly compress his script to fit the ruling (f.105r). Consideration of which scribes copied which texts produces a rather mixed picture. There is no obvious division of labour or delegation whereby major works were copied by a 'master' scribe with assistants filling up the remaining leaves of a fascicle. Rather, the scribes vary their roles throughout the manuscript. Scribe 1 takes the major portion of copying (copying about seventy per cent of the surviving codex) and the other scribes take different kinds of work during their various stints. The nature of the scribes' collaboration on the manuscript provides important information about production methods and has been discussed in the work of Hibbard Loomis, Shonk, Robinson, Pearsall and Cunningham. The Linguistic Atlas of Late Medieval English (1986) provides dialect profiles for each of the Auchinleck Scribes who copied literary texts (see the discussion of language in The Auchinleck Manuscript - Its Importance).


Palaeographical analysis provides some additional information about each of the scribes. Scribe 4 copies only the list of names (the Battle Abbey Roll) and his hand is square and formal, a style is well suited to the presentation of this the only non-verse item in the manuscript. Scribes 1 and 6 have clear and straightforward bookhands, sufficiently similar to have lead Robinson (1972) and Hanna (2000) to suggest that these were, in fact, the same scribe. Scribe 5's hand is scratchy and is described by Bliss (1951) as 'very ugly...disjointed, and...difficult to read'. The hands of the other two scribes have some particularly interesting features. Scribe 2 has what has been described as a formal and "...almost liturgical..." bookhand (Bliss, 1951); much has been made of this feature by Mordkoff (1981) in order to support her thesis that the manuscript was the product of a monastic scriptorium. Scribe 3 has a cursive bookhand described by Parkes (1969) as an early idiosyncratic form of Anglicana Formata and by Bliss (1951) as showing some evidence of Chancery training. Bliss comments that "...the length of f, r and long s (all of which run well below the line), shows the influence of Chancery hand...". This is highly significant with regard to manuscript production. It may imply that Scribe 3 worked within Chancery and would supplement this regular work with freelance copying, such as his stint on the Auchinleck Manuscript. The appearance of this hand also argues strongly against Mordkoff's notion that Auchinleck was a monastic production, endorsing, instead, the likelihood that it represents an enterprise that was lay and commercial.