The Vernon manuscript is one of the Bodleian Library’s greatest treasures and one of the most important books in English to survive from the medieval period. This online exhibition, curated by Professor Wendy Scase, University of Birmingham, offers unprecedented opportunities to examine its remarkable features as well as opening a window onto the world of the manuscript book.
The Vernon contains a huge hoard of poetry and prose. Together its 370 texts are two and a half times as long as Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Much like discovering a hoard of buried treasure, to open the leaves of the manuscript is to find an astonishing wealth of literary texts. What we find in the hoard is suggestive of the tastes and purposes of its owners. The texts are all on moral or religious subjects and conform with the teachings of the medieval Church.
As well as containing hundreds of texts, the Vernon includes a wealth of decoration. Close-up examination reveals the different styles of the illustrators and decorators and suggests that a large number of artists was involved.
One of the most remarkable features of the manuscript is its language: it is almost all in English. The dialect is that of the English West Midlands, but some of the texts still carry traces of the dialects of other regions of England. This reveals that the makers of the book gathered up texts from far and wide and may have ‘translated’ them into the dialect of their own region.
From references to historical events in a few of the texts, we can deduce that the manuscript must have been made around the end of the fourteenth century, perhaps 1390-1400. By comparing the manuscript with other books from this period, it becomes clear just how remarkable the Vernon is. There are few English books that can match its quality of production, and none that can match its enormous size.
One of the big puzzles posed by the manuscript is who commissioned it and what readers it was intended for. One of the mysteries is why a shield, obviously intended for a coat of arms, was never painted, and another is the identity of a man in a religious habit who is pictured on one of the folios. The history of the manuscript is only known from c. 1677, when Colonel Edward Vernon presented the volume to the Bodleian Library.
Looking very closely at the pages can give us tantalising glimpses of the people who made and used the volume. One can see traces of how the book was put together, such as notes made by the scribes in very tiny writing. One can also see the marks on the book made by early readers, and these help us to imagine what the book meant to them.
The exhibition has ten themes:
This online exhibition celebrates a landmark in the history of the Vernon manuscript: the publication of the first full colour facsimile and transcription and the unprecedented access this now gives to every page of this extraordinary book. The exhibition uses images made for the edition and draws on research carried out in conjunction with this project. The research and the making of the edition were led by Professor Wendy Scase, University of Birmingham, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The facsimile edition is now available for purchase: A Facsimile Edition of the Vernon Manuscript: A Literary Hoard from Medieval England, edited by Wendy Scase with software by Nick Kennedy, Bodleian Digital Texts 3, DVD-Rom, £199 + VAT (individual price), ISBN: 978 1 85124 333 4. Order online at the Bodleian shop.