22 January 2013
When I identified my corpus of English lyrics for Chapter One of my thesis, I compiled a list of over 100 manuscripts of lyrics copied between 1200 and 1400. The year 1400 was a useful limit since it was then that the production of books of all kinds increased. In the fifteenth century, innovations such as paper and the printing press dramatically alter the literary landscape. Focusing on lyric manuscripts copied before 1400 therefore allowed me to significantly reduce my corpus, a necessary move given that I wanted to limit coverage of the medieval context of English lyric to one chapter of my thesis. At the same time, however, it became evident that the field after 1400 would be a particularly fruitful area for further research. The period and literature after 1400, sometimes referred to as Late Middle English, includes far more anonymous lyrics and manuscripts. A common phenomenon is for a short anonymous lyric to appear in one or two books prior to 1400, and for scribes to then generate 10 or 20 more variations of that lyric by 1600.
Medieval English scholars have in the past thirty years revealed much about named lyric poets writing after 1350 and into the fifteenth century—for example, John Hoccleve, John Lydgate, John the Blind Audelay, Charles d’Orleans, William Dunbar, and Robert Henryson. When scholars turn to the anonymous religious and secular poetry in this period, however, it is difficult to know where to start. Without the guiding category of the author’s name, the field is for practical purposes a chaotic mass of manuscripts. A notable attempt to make inroads in the field is Julia Boffey’s Manuscripts of English Courtly Love Lyrics in the Later Middle Ages, which investigates fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscripts of short amorous verse. Boffey’s book is one sign of Middle English scholars’ mounting curiosity about anonymous lyrics. And yet for every secular lyric from the period there are perhaps two or three “religious” lyrics. About 75 percent of the lyrics written in English in the fifteenth century are thus devotional, religious, or moral lyrics. These lyrics are particularly relevant to the study of amorous verse, since the devotional lyrics share many literary techniques, refrains, and tropes with courtly lyrics.
Social network analysis has much potential to map out the myriad surfaces of the field of both religious and secular late Middle English anonymous lyrics. Networks theory and practice can offer an entry point into a field that has up to now rather intimidated Middle English scholars. My first step is therefore to add to my own list of 150 fifteenth century manuscripts containing short and anonymous English verse. Next, I will cross-reference the lyrics which occur in multiple copies in these manuscripts, and map relationships between these lyrics. Scholarly work on the textual overlap of specific manuscripts currently relies on detailed written descriptions of this overlap, rather than any visual representations. I will use Gephi, a social networks mapping software, to provide a visual display of identifiable groups of books.