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The Hannah Scot Manuscripts


The Hannah Scot Manuscripts comprise two volumes of Medieval tales, legends and Middle English Breton lais – collections that may once have existed. They have been translated here into Modern English prose in order to let the reader judge more clearly whether they are truly as astounding as the copyist Hannah Scot claims them to be, in her late-fifteenth century hand on one of the flyleaves.

A personal selection of tales that Hannah felt are in need of explanation

It cannot be said with any great certainty when these two handsome volumes of ancient paper and faded leather were written, but it is indisputable that they were both produced by the same hand and that the bulk of the work is of the late-fifteenth century. A single visible watermark is not as definitive as it might have been but points to one of the volumes, Volume Gowther, having been copied sometime between 1458 and 1474. The contents of this volume, too, point to such a date.

Not only do these two volumes comprise a good collection of stories and tales in the finest traditions of Medieval Romance and Arthurian adventure, but they also, through a marginal comment by the transcriber to be discussed later, claim to offer a key to a body of lost knowledge. This is a very unusual claim to be found in a Medieval document.

Volume Gowther is undoubtedly the older of the two volumes. Its youngest literary composition, The Floure and the Leafe, is known to have been composed in the fifteenth century, probably no more than a few years either side of 1470 and comfortably within the range indicated by the watermark. Most of the other pieces are of the mid-to-late fourteenth century, although four of the stories can trace a direct ancestry back to the twelfth century.

The work was initially bound into four volumes. The second of the two that we now possess, Volume Ragnelle, comprises three original manuscripts that have been bound somewhat haphazardly into one volume. At least one of these three original manuscripts could not have been copied until the spring of 1508 at the earliest, since a footnote, appended to an Arthurian tale, shows that it was taken from a printed edition that survives to this day and was first published in April of that year. Production of the handwritten text that now comprises these two manuscripts seems, therefore, to have spanned between thirty and forty years of someone's life.

And we can say this because we know that the handwriting of both manuscripts is that of a single copyist. Volume Gowther contains 174 pages of text with two flyleaves at the beginning and one at the end. Volume Ragnelle has 205 pages of text with four flyleaves at the beginning and a torn flyleaf at the end. None of the significant text in either volume has been lost.

On the first flyleaf of Volume Gowther is written the name Hannah Scot. Records once kept in the archives of the library of Durham Cathedral show that a Hannah Bokenam was burned at the stake for witchcraft in 1509, and there is strong evidence to believe that she is the Hannah Scot who married Henry Bokenam in St Mungo's church at Simonburn, six miles north of Hexham in the North Tyne valley, on 6th April 1480.

Both volumes measure about twenty-seven centimetres by nineteen, or a little under eleven inches by eight, of paper. The binding, surprisingly, is early-Victorian; a red leather on oak with the mark of a Harrogate bookbinder. Perhaps this helped to conceal the true age of the work until they were discovered very recently in a private collection and gifted to a university library in the east of England.

The text of both manuscripts is written within an area of the page approximating twenty-two centimetres by fifteen, a space which utilises more of the page than many Medieval texts and gives a first indication that the work is from the pen of an amateur scribe. Horizontal line ruling is always visible but on many pages a box enclosing the text is absent. Only where the writing exists in two columns to a page, most notably in the tale of Ipomadon, are vertical guidelines always present. There is no ornamentation.

The spelling in these handwritten manuscripts betrays a northern dialect, and the name 'Hannah Scot' on the flyleaf of Volume Gowther is written in an identical hand to the main body of the work. This all lends support to the conclusion that the manuscripts were copied by Hannah herself. The contents of both volumes, which total twenty-four Medieval poems, tales and romances, are all known from other manuscripts. But Volume Gowther is unique in claiming that its stories reveal a body of concealed knowledge. Four lines written in red ink at the end of the volume, just after Geoffrey Chaucer's story of the House of Fame, repeat an identical quotation in an identical red ink that can be seen on the second flyleaf at the front of the volume. The words appear to be of fourteenth century origin and may have been copied by Hannah from an earlier collection of tales lying in her father's library, or perhaps she composed them herself.

  1. The menskful wight swich tales kepe
  2. ful dernly and ful yerne,
  3. shal wite the lay of Briton clerkys
  4. and ancien sothe shal leren.

(The noble person who preserves these tales, with love and with discretion, shall know the creed of the ancient druids and come to understand a long lost belief.)

The Hannah Scot Manuscripts are unusual in that they do not contain the normal Medieval mixture of romance, homily and pious verse. They were not intended to provide 'something for everybody'. They were clearly, however, intended to provide something for Hannah. Volume Gowther contains two stories from the pen of Geoffrey Chaucer, a life of Saint Brendan, some rip-roaring romances, an Arthurian epic and five Breton lays, one of which, the Story of Guigemar, is the only version of this tale known in Middle English, although a number of manuscripts preserve it in its original Old French. Volume Ragnelle continues in the same vein, recasting exciting, bizarre and for the most part undeniably ancient tales into a contemporary, late-Medieval framework.

Hannah Bokenam, neé Scot, died on 21 November 1509, at the age of fifty, so the records tell us, having suffered torture before being burned at the stake. Hannah was denounced for heresy in April 1509, tortured under the orders of the Dominicans and given over to the secular authorities for burning near the end of that year. Her husband, whom she had married at the age of twenty-two, was no longer there to protect her; he had succumbed to a fever the year before. None of her sons had survived into adulthood and a daughter, Susannah, was married and living in London at this time. The stepdaughter of a Hexham landowner, Hannah had spent her teenage years in educated surroundings. There is evidence that Hannah may have copied the eleven tales which make up Volume Gowther in her late teens and early twenties, perhaps from manuscripts in her stepfather's library. There is even a small hint in her confession that she may, in her teenage years, have been personally acquainted with the author of the poem The Floure and the Leafe.

Hannah's confession betrays a love of mystery and a deep fascination with the past. Her imagination had been stimulated by the remains of an ancient stone circle in Simonburn, near Hexham, Northumberland, and by an ancient carving incorporated into the fabric of the church in the village there, a church in which she would later be married. And as she confided to her inquisitors, she was intrigued by the remains of antique and mysterious circular shapes that were carved into an old standing stone that had been incorporated into the fireplace where she warmed herself on winter evenings when she was a girl. She had traced the groves with her fingers and felt their mystery. The books in her stepfather's library had also kept the young Hannah spellbound, and she could not help but try to interpret the perplexing clues that surrounded her, often as she walked along the line of the old wall that the Romans had built.

These tales and romances that Hannah copied and retold with such an eager understanding are presented here so that you can make up your own mind – they are tales that led Hannah ultimately to the stake.

Volume Gowther contains the following:

ff. 1–9. The Breton tale of Guigemar is included amongst a collection of Breton 'lais' preserved from oral minstrel tradition and written down in Old French in the twelfth century by a 'Marie' whom we now know as Marie de France. It describes a fantastic journey taken by a wounded knight in a boat that has parallels with the one that came to take King Arthur to Avalon.

ff. 10–22. The legend of the voyage of Saint Brendan is found in a collection of stories of the lives of Christian saints that was copied and added to throughout the fourteenth century and known as The South English Legendary. The voyage of Saint Brendan repeats the formula of an enchanted ocean found in many old pagan Irish tales such as the Voyage of Bran and the Voyage of Maeldun.

ff. 23–35a. The tale of Sir Degaré survives in a number of manuscripts, including two in the British Library, one at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and in the famous Auchinleck MS now lying in the National Library of Scotland. Some have suggested that this tale of Sir Degaré may be based upon a lost Breton lay, the Lai d'Esgaré. Others see parallels in Irish mythology. Certainly there is an enchanted castle and an aura of timelessness about the story.

ff. 35b–48. The Breton tale of Emaré is found in Middle English in an early-fifteenth century manuscript known as Cotton Caligula A.ii lying in the British Library. The story is found all across Europe in the late Middle Ages and a Latin version can be traced as far back as the twelfth century. It may not be insignificant that Emaré changes her name to Egaré halfway through the story, after a mysterious voyage in a rudderless boat.

ff. 49–57. The Breton tale of Sir Orfeo is a version of the ancient Greek legend of Orpheus set in Medieval England. It is found also in the Auchinleck Manuscript, written in about 1330-1340, a volume that may once have been owned by Geoffrey Chaucer.

ff. 58–63. The story of the Floure and the Leafe was written by an unknown hand sometime in the mid-to-late-fifteenth century and erroneously incorporated into an Elizabethan edition of the collected works of Geoffrey Chaucer. It describes a fairy drama enacted before a lady peering from the seclusion of a wooded grove.

ff. 63–115. The tale of Ipomadon in Middle English verse survives complete only here and amongst the works contained in a substantial, late-fifteenth century manuscript known as Chetham 8009, lying in Chetham's Library, Manchester. Composed sometime in the late-fourteenth or very-early-fifteenth century, this English version of Ipomadon is a retelling of a late-twelfth century work by Hue de Rotelande, an Anglo-Norman poet who composed his tale perhaps only a few years after Marie de France had set down the Breton tale of Guigemar and at a time when Chrétien de Troyes was writing his Arthurian romances. The hero of this romance, Ipomadon, takes on so many disguises that some might be forgiven for thinking him to be an incarnation of the Irish god Manannan.

ff. 116–125. The tale of Sir Gowther is a Middle English work whose anonymous author claims: 'I sought high and low for a Breton lay and have brought out of this marvellous region the following strange tale...'. The story exists elsewhere in two other manuscripts of the late-fifteenth century: British Library Royal MS 17.B.43 and National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.3.1. It owes more than a little to the twelfth century romance Ipomadon by Hue de Rotelande, whose hero also disguises himself as a red knight, a black knight and a white knight, knights whom nobody knows the true identity of.

ff. 126–145. The tale of The Fair Unknown is found in a number of Medieval manuscripts, including one of the mid-fifteenth century known as Cotton Caligula A ii. lying in the British Library, a volume that was rescued from a fire in the library of Robert Bruce Cotton in 1731. Composed in around 1380 by a poet named Thomas Chestre, it uses a number of pre-existing Arthurian story elements fashioned around a journey taken by a maiden and her dwarf found in Hue de Rotelande's tale of Ipomadon, but recast uniquely in a way that finds resonance at last with the Breton tale of Guigemar, when a lady is released from imprisonment within the stone walls of a castle by the hero's love.

ff. 146–159. The tale of the Man of Law is one of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - a collection of short stories each recounted from the mouth of a pilgrim on the way to Saint Thomas Becket's shrine in Canterbury Cathedral. Geoffrey wrote this tale towards the end of the fourteenth century, but like much of Medieval storytelling, it is based upon earlier traditions, in this case the story that the tale of Emaré also evolved from. Geoffrey chose to incorporate a seeming time dislocation near the end of his story that recalls a similarly perplexing time displacement found in the tale of Sir Degaré, and by doing so may betray his own clear understanding of the material he was working with.

ff. 160–174. The House of Fame was written by Geoffrey Chaucer sometime around 1380, when the bulk of his work on the Canterbury Tales still lay before him. In this poem he dreams that he is carried by an eagle into the realms of the crystal spheres where he finds a palace made from a single crystal of beryl in which resides a goddess who knows everything that happens on Earth. Her feet are on Earth but her head is in heaven. Geoffrey then makes an equally courageous journey down to a revolving house that he has seen from this high vantage point. It makes a sound like a stone cannonball flying through the air; but for all its orbiting and revolving it gives no impression of movement when Geoffrey finally enters into its confines with the help of his eagle. At this point the story breaks off. Perhaps it would have been dangerous for Geoffrey to continue, at a time when the child King Richard II was on the throne of England and there was no guarantee of immunity from prosecution for heresy.

Volume Ragnelle contains the following:

ff. 1–22. The story of Amis and Amiloun is a tale of two children who are conceived and born to different parents in different parts of a district but nonetheless are so alike that they can convincingly impersonate each other. When one of these pseudo-twins finds himself required to swear falsely to his own innocence before a trial by combat, this is precisely what they decide to do. Violence and infanticide betray a dark and sinister side to this tale, which is found in the Auchinleck Manuscript of c. 1340.

ff. 23–33. The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle relates an incident that, as legend has it, once happened to King Arthur in Inglewood Forest in Cumbria, involving a 'loathly lady' who makes appearances also in Irish mythology as well as in Chrétien de Troyes' twelfth century Arthurian romances and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tale of the Wife of Bath.

ff. 34–47. The Knightly Tale of Gologras and Gawain is a Middle English Arthurian romance whose earliest copy survives in a printed edition dated 1508, now lying in the National Library of Scotland. As in the story of Amis and Amiloun, the two principal players in this story exchange places – much to King Arthur's distress when Sir Gawain appears to have been defeated in single combat; the king is so distraught that 'the tears trickle down his cheeks.'

ff. 48–64. The romance of Sir Tryamour can be found in a manuscript dating to the middle of the fifteenth century in the library of the University of Cambridge. Probably an English work composed around the same time that Geoffrey Chaucer was composing his Canterbury Tales, it rehearses the familiar theme of a young warrior who engages his own father in battle without knowing it. Like Ipomadon, the young man in question goes off after winning a tournament that has as its prize the hand in marriage of a proud maiden ruling her kingdom alone. Like Ipomadon, this young man likes to hunt, and he returns to claim the maiden only when she is in danger of being forced to marry an ugly brute. Unlike Ipomadon, he does not pretend to be this ugly brute after defeating him in single combat: the whole romance has a more realistic atmosphere.

ff. 65–82. The Romance of Octavian is another story in which a mother is exiled and a young child separated from his father and it contains a curious scene in which a baby is carried off by a griffin and suckled by a lioness. Another exiled sibling is taken by an ape and brought up by the family of a merchant in Paris. Originally written in Old French in the thirteenth century, the story is found in Middle English in a book that also contains the story of Sir Eglamour of Artois, lying in the library of Lincoln Cathedral.

ff. 83–118. Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century wrote a compelling adventure set in King Arthur's extended kingdom in which Sir Yvain adopts a lion and becomes known as the Knight of the Lion. Nobody knows who he really is. He goes about in disguise. If this sounds to you like an unusual theme for a medieval romance, you really need to read a few more romances! Yvain and Gawain retells Chrétien's tale in Middle English and was composed by an unknown author possibly around 1350, the time that Geoffrey Chaucer was a boy.

ff. 119–132. The tale of Sir Eglamour of Artois is an English composition written at about the same time as the Middle English Yvain and Gawain, and in it there are fights with giants, a conflict with a dragon, strange journeys across the sea, supernatural encounters with mythical beasts and at the end of it all, the possibility of a knight winning his mother's hand in marriage, just as Sir Degaré does in his own romance, and of course, Oedipus did, in ancient Greece.

ff. 133–171. If somebody skinned a deer and asked you to sew yourself into its hide, how likely is it that you would look at the end of it all exactly like a deer? Pretty unlikely? Impossible? Legs and arms all the wrong shape? Well, medieval people weren't fools either. The story of William and the Werewolf is an Old French romance dating to the same time that Chrétien de Troyes was writing his Arthurian romances. This Middle English version of the story dates to sometime around 1350 and includes an episode of disguise that must surely be symbolic of something else.

ff. 172–189. The romance of Sir Perceval of Galles is found in the Thornton Manuscript lying in the library of Lincoln Cathedral, and although starting in the same vein as Chrétien de Troyes' tale of Sir Perceval, this fourteenth century English version of the story soon goes entirely its own way. It has been suggested that Geoffrey Chaucer had this Middle English tale of Sir Perceval of Galles in mind when he wrote a parody of romance in the Canterbury Tale of Sir Thopas. Sir Perceval fights a giant and defeats an entire army with the help of a magic ring. But like Chaucer's tale of Sir Thopas, this romance may well repay a thoughtful read.

ff. 190–191. So what is Geoffrey Chaucer's parody about? Sir Thopas gallops his horse suicidally through a forest looking for a lady of the Otherworld whom he has fallen in love with and ends up in elfland, where he meets a giant. Geoffrey says it is the best tale that he knows. Is it just a tiny bit possible that, deep down, he might not be joking!

ff. 192. One of Geoffrey Chaucer's short poems is addressed to someone named Bukton and a number of possible figures have been put forward to fit the name. Few people seem to have made the point, however, that, whoever Bukton was, he appears to be receiving a friendly but necessarily veiled warning. Remember that Chaucer was a poet – he could write on more than one level at once.

ff. 193–196. Chaucer's Canterbury Tale from the Wife of Bath is set in the days of King Arthur. It tells of a knight who finds an old lady in a forest who offers to save his life if he will promise her one request. He has no other choice but to agree. She saves his life and requires him, in return, to marry her. But things do not turn out the way he expects, just as in the story of the Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle.

ff. 197–204. If you want to read a surprising piece of Medieval science fiction, then Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tale from the Squire is for you. It is a story involving pictures broadcast from across the world, invincible weapons, antibiotics, a device for travelling through the air to exotic locations, and, Oh yes, one thing we don't already have, an ability to understand the language of the birds. Now didn't Sigurd acquire this when he tasted the heart of the dragon Fafnir in an old Icelandic version of the ancient cycle of pagan Scandinavian poetry about the Volsungs?

ff. 204–205. Chaucer's short poem the Former Age is a lament for a lost era.

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