The Live Book

A Visit with the Auchinleck Manuscript

By Morgan Bielawski

Summer 2021 Issue

Image above: Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland

On August 8th, two years ago, I jumped out of a car on the left side of the road. The traffic was terrible due to the tourists for the Edinburgh festival; It would be faster to run. I was late for an appointment at the National Library of Scotland to visit a nearly seven-hundred-year-old manuscript, nicknamed “The Auchinleck.” I leapt up the sprawling, sandstone steps of the Library, past the busy café and the gift shop to a small desk. A young woman with short ringlet-curls sat there. 

“I’m here to visit a manuscript,” I said, “I have an appointment. I’m so sorry that I’m…”

“Don’t trouble yourself. The head of Special Collections is stuck in traffic too.” 

They took my photograph and printed me a glossy ID. “That way to the researcher lockers” she said and pointed with a painted fingernail. I found a locker and pushed my wet raincoat into it, trying to look like I belonged here to the other people seated around circular tables eating sandwiches in mostly beige tones. 

I went over the rules again in my head: “if you are touching the manuscript, then you are not touching your pencil” and the like. Thank god for my Medieval Studies professor at Bard — she gave me the rundown on exactly how to handle the precious manuscript via email some nights before. 

I took the elevator up to Special Collections, way at the top. With me I had my notebook, my pencil, and my shiny new identification with a red sticker on it, meaning “permitted to handle rare books.” Fear shed off me and I felt pure excitement. I rose higher and higher in the elevator. I felt like a champagne cork being shot at the roof. 

There was a metal detector, a second debriefing, and then I was given a seat with two halves of a foam “cradle” for the manuscript, and two page-weights or “snakes” to hold the pages in place while reading. 

The room had huge windows looking out over town — buildings and chimneys poked up like the points on a coal-colored crown. I sat at one table among many. Across me, a man in tweed looked at a beautiful illuminated manuscript. He frowned and savored it. 

I gave a tug to the loops of my necktie and approached the great, long desk. “I’m here to see the Auchinleck manuscript.” 

“Right.” The woman behind the counter smiled intelligently, “You’re the 1PM. Have you ever handled a book like this before?”

“No,” I confessed. She disappeared and returned with the book in a small, grey box. It was smaller in length, but thicker than I imagined. She helped me situate its spine in the cradle, smiled, and left me. 

I carefully opened the book. It exhaled a musty, sheep-like smell. I was struck at the feeling of skin on my skin, that came from the vellum pages. For a moment, I was simply stunned. Then my thinking brain started to kick in. I remembered the words of the Auchinleck scholar Ralph Hanna. He said, 

“The machine requirement of reloading pages estranges one from visual contact with the book, now a discontinuous sequence of images. Handling the ‘live book’ interposes no such discontinuity and thus allows considerably more immediate perceptual refreshment.” 

It certainly did seem alive. I leaned in to smell it again, hoping the man in tweed wouldn’t catch me. 

The Auchinleck is the only one of its kind. We know that it was written between 1331 and 1339. It is among the earliest surviving books written almost entirely in English. By any and all likelihood, it was commissioned, but not by a King. Perhaps it was a merchant’s book, since trade was allowing for relatively regular folk to accumulate wealth. A book like this would have been an enormous purchase for a family in the 1330’s. It would have entertained the family with its forty-four items. 

One of the most widely accepted theories behind the book’s production is that it was made in a bookshop with six scribes, 3 rubricators, and at least one illuminator. (The number of scribes is disputed since some think Scribe I and Scribe VI are the same).

Graphology is difficult to resist; I remember using the scribal handwriting to project the scribes’ personalities in class. Scribe I, with his even and organized lettering, would have been the practical one — kind, but never mawkish, perhaps a bit stern. Scribe II, with his deviations from the formatting rules, was a troublesome man with a perpetual smirk. 

After months of studying digital facsimiles of the text, reading printed versions, studying secondary sources, and writing about the manuscript, here it was in front of me. 

After some hours, I found “Sir Beves of Hamtoun,” whose illumination stuck out to me like the face of a friend in a crowd. Below are the first 54 lines of that particular story translated by me from Middle English, to Modern English. “Bevis” is one of the stories that does occur in other manuscripts, and it is considered in some circles to be one of the most important non-Arthurian stories of its time. 

Though we often consider the past, especially the far past, to be obsolete, I would argue that it is still very much alive. Homo Sapiens is the same animal that it was in Medieval Europe; there is much that Medieval literature can continue to teach us about our own predilections, desires, and potentials. 

Beves of Hampton Translation

Lords, harken to my tale! 

It is merrier than a nightingale, 

That I shall sing;

Of a knight I will tell you,

Beves, he was called, of Hampton,  

Without lying. 

I will tell you all together

Of that knight and of his father,

Sir Guy.

Of Hampton he was sired 

And of all that same shire,

To guard. 

Lords, this, of what I tell, 

Never a man of flesh was fell 

Neither one so strong.

And so he was in each strife,

And ever he lived without a wife,

All too late and long. 

When he fell into old age,  

That he himself could not wield,

He then took a wife;

Soon thereafter, I understand, 

Rather than lose all his land, 

He should have her forsake.

As an old man a wife he took in hand

The daughter of the King of Scotland, 

So faire and bright. 

Alas, that he ever chose her!

For her love he lost his life

With much vice. 

This maiden of whom I’ve told

Faire she was, and bold

And nobly born;

Of Germany, that emperor 

She had loved him, paramour

Much before then.  

Often to her father he had sent 

And he himself had there went 

For her sake; 

Often he desired to make her his wife

The king for no thing alive

Would let him take her

Then he gave her to Sir Guy 

A stalwart and hardy earl

Of South Hampton. 

Man, when he falls into oldness

Grows feeble, and loses boldness 

Though he is still right in reason. 

Eventually they went together to bed

A boy-child between them they had, 

Beves, he was called. 

He was a fair child, and bold.

He was not but seven winters old

When his father was killed. 

Lordinges, herkneþ to me tale 

Is merier þan þe niȝtingale

Þat y schel singe;

Of a kniȝt ich wile ȝow roune,

Beues a hiȝte of Hamtoune,

Wiþouten lesing.

Ich wile ȝow tellen al togadre

Of þat kniȝt and of is fadre,

Sire Gii.

Of Hamtoun he was sire

And of al þat ilche schire,

To wardi.

Lordinges, þis of whan y telle

Neuer man of flesch ne felle

Nas so strong,

And so he was in ech striue,

And euer he leuede wiþouten wiue,

Al to late and long.

Whan he was fallen into elde,

Þat he ne miȝte him self welde,

He wolde a wif take;

Sone þarafter, ich vnderstonde,

Him hadde be leuer þan al þis londe

Hadde he hire forsake.

An elde a wif he tok an honde,

Þe kinges douȝter of Scotlonde,

So faire and briȝt.

Allas þat he hire euer ches!

For hire loue his lif a les

Wiþ mechel vnriȝt.

Þis maide ichaue of ytold

Faire maide ȝhe was & bold

And fre yboren;

Of Almayne þat emperur

Hire hadde loued paramur

Wel þarbeforen.

Ofte to hire fader a sente

And he him selue þeder wente

For hire sake;

Ofte a ernede hire to wiue;

Þe king for no þing aliue

Nolde hire him take.

Siþe a ȝaf hire to sire Gii,

A stalword erl and hardi

Of Souþhamtoun. 

Man, whan he falleþ into elde,

Feble a wexeþ and vnbelde

Þourȝ riȝt resoun.

So longe þai ȝede togedres te bedde,

A knaue child betwene hem þai hedde,

Beues a het.

Faire child he was & bolde;

He nas boute seue winter olde,

Whan his fader was ded.

Morgan Bielawski is a contributing writer to The Documentarian based in Chapel Hill, NC.