The shaky writing of the 13th-century annotator known as the Tremulous Hand, who is believed to have made as many as 50,000 notes on Old English manuscripts in an attempt to make them comprehensible to later readers, is revealed in all its wobbly glory by a new project from the British Library.
The Tremulous Hand is thought today to have suffered from the nerve condition known as “essential tremor”, which results in uncontrollable shaking. He worked on at least 20 Old English manuscripts stored in Worcester. By the 13th century, Old English was no longer spoken in England, and his glosses between the lines of text and in the margins were written in Middle English and Latin, essentially translating bits of the text for his contemporaries. “In other places, he clarified word division and punctuation, and changed spellings. Sometimes he added a doodle, or notamark,” according to the British Library.
One of the manuscripts on which the Tremulous Hand worked is part of the British Library’s free new online resource, Discovering Literature: Medieval, which brings together digitised copies of more than 50 medieval manuscripts spanning the fifth to the 15th centuries, and includes some of the period’s most valuable texts, such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Incredibly fragile, the Beowulf manuscript dates back to the 11th century, and survives in a single manuscript that was singed in a fire in the 18th century.
“The Tremulous Hand was from one of the last generations who would have understood Old English. The language was changing a huge amount, and Old English was no longer spoken generally,” said the British Library’s Mary Wellesley, a specialist in medieval manuscripts. “In a way, we’re pleased he had this essential tremor, because it means we can identify his work on a huge number of manuscripts … He was interested in preservation [and his work] is a metaphor, in a way, for what we’re trying to do with these manuscripts today.”
Covering medieval drama, epic poetry, dream visions and riddles, the British Library project includes the eighth-century illuminated manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which Wellesley called “the first great piece of English historical writing”. Describing Christianity in Roman Britain, and the arrival of St Augustine in Kent, it recounts how the English were converted to Christianity.
Bede also tells of the first named English poet, a cowherd named Cædmon who lived at the Abbey of Whitby. According to Bede, Cædmon was one of his age’s greatest poets, but initially, “he was so shy that when the harp came out at parties he would hide,” said Wellesley. But then, Bede recounts, Cædmon had a vision; when he awoke he performed the song he had sung in the dream, amazing everyone.
“All of Cædmon’s poems are lost, but Bede gives a report of one of them – it’s a wonderfully compressed piece of poetic verse,” said Wellesley.
The collection contains many works that have been digitised for the first time, giving the general reader their first access to manuscripts dating back hundreds of years. Two Chaucer manuscripts are included in the Discovering Literature project: a copy of his dream vision, the Parliament of Fowls, in which a group of birds gather on “seynt valentynes day” to choose a mate, believed to be the origin of the idea that 14 February is for lovers; and his Legend of Good Women, an unfinished work that he began in 1386, in which the narrator is chastised by the God of Love and his queen for his treatment of women in prior works.
Several notable early works by female writers also feature in the collection, including early printed extracts of Margery Kempe’s book, the earliest known autobiography in English. These are taken from a drastically edited print from 1501 that effectively silenced Kempe’s voice; her longer, original autobiography, also part of the collection, was discovered by chance in 1934, and restores the author’s own account of her mystical visions and travels. The anchoress Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, the first work authored by a woman in English, and The Book of the Queen by the French author Christine de Pizan, the first woman writer to earn a living from her work, also feature.
“A library is a memory, and the British Library is the nation’s memory,” said Wellesley. “We have these unbelievably precious pieces of our literary heritage and we need to preserve them, but we also need to make them available for new readers. That’s what this is about.”
Launched in 2014, the Discovering Literature site has so far received more than seven million visitors, according to the British Library. Its collections already cover Shakespeare and the Renaissance, the Romantic and Victorian periods, and 20th-century literature and drama, with the library planning to continue adding to the resource until “it covers the whole rich and diverse backbone of English literature, from The Canterbury Tales to The Buddha of Suburbia”.