The Harley Lyrics

The Harley Lyrics Facsimile Edition

Benedictine priory of Leominster, Herefordshire (United Kingdom) — Late 13th century – first half of the 14th century

Ecclesiastical and secular poetry of outstanding quality: an incomparable treasure of English manuscripts of the Middle Ages due to the rarity and abundance of the collection

  1. Created ca. 1340, it was written in Gothic cursive by the skilled hands of three scribes

  2. The manuscript includes secular and religious texts in Middle English, Anglo-Norman, and Latin

  3. Numerous red and blue initials adorn the text, which also has blank spaces for unfinished initials

The Harley Lyrics

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  1. Description
  2. Facsimile Editions (1)
The Harley Lyrics

Created ca. 1340, the so-called Harley Lyrics is a compendium of religious and secular poetry that is considered to be one of the most important surviving English medieval manuscripts due to the rarity, quality, and abundance of this unrivalled collection. It was written in Gothic cursive by the skilled hands of three scribes and can be divided into two parts. Part I consists of a collection of hagiographical texts written in Anglo-Norman while Part II consists of miscellaneous secular and religious texts in Middle English, Anglo-Norman, and Latin. Numerous red and blue initials adorn the text, which also has various blank spaces for initials indicating that the decoration of the manuscript was never completed. The coveted manuscript was owned by numerous bibliophiles before being acquired by the British Library as part of a larger collection in 1753.

The Harley Lyrics

Once owned by and named after the famous bibliophile Robert Harley (1661–1724), this coveted mid-14th century manuscript is famous for being the earliest collection of secular and religious lyrics – short poems – written in Anglo-Noman, Middle English, and Latin as well as comprising more than half of the secular lyrics written before the 15th century. It is also prized for containing three hagiographies of Anglo-Saxon saints and four fabliaux – comical and bawdy minstrel tales from northeast France – as well as biblical stories, pilgrim guides, and interpreted dreams. Other works give insights into daily life such as compilations of common sayings, conduct literature, political songs, satires, and comedies. The sheer scope and variety of texts preserved in the manuscript, which is a cross between a miscellany and an anthology, make it one of the most precious English medieval manuscripts that has survived to the present.

The Ludlow Scribe

The manuscript has been dated to ca. 1340 although many of the texts are much older. There is evidence of three hands but only one is identifiable, albeit still anonymous, the so-called Ludlow scribe, who is responsible for copying most of the text. While scribes A and C are completely unknown, scribe B has been identified in three manuscripts and 41 legal writs. Like most medieval scribes, he is identifiable only by his characteristic handwriting. He is assumed to have been a successful professional legal scribe and chaplain working in the vicinity of Ludlow in Shropshire between 1314 and 1349.
Evidence of the Ludlow scribe’s formal education in Latin, religion, and law combined with his taste for secular performance pieces indicates that he may have been a private chaplain in a manorial household. In this role, he would have been responsible for providing his noble employers with spiritual guidance, legal advice, and entertainment while also educating and teaching manners to their male heirs. Evidence suggests he may have perished during the Black Death, which afflicted England from 1348 to 1350.

Making Sense of the Manuscript

The contents of this codex can be maddeningly hard to comprehend when read from beginning to end because it was not organized that way a modern book would be and is rather chaotic and random instead. That being said, the delineation of internal booklets, seven in total, has been helpful in distinguishing both the scribes and the potential organization of the contents. Some scholars have argued that there is an overarching metanarrative for the anthology that juxtaposes successive texts with one another’s narrative or viewpoint. However, this relationship is not always clear in booklet three and requires a knowledge of the sources used by the scribe.
In the fourth booklet, the relationships between the texts become clearer. For example, it begins a hagiography of St. Ethelbert, an Anglo-Saxon king who was martyred by pagan Vikings, which is followed by the tale of Simon de Montfort, leader of the Second Barons’ War who ruled briefly as de facto ruler of England before being defeated and killed by the forces of King Henry III at the Battle of Evesham on August 4th, 1265. He is presented as a martyr against the tyrannical overreaches of royal power similar to Thomas Becket, which reflects local sympathies for the barons’ cause in opposition to petty, corrupt rule and arbitrary taxation.


Alternative Titles
Harley 2253
Henri d'Acre: Miscellany of secular and religious lyrics
Miscellany of English, French, and Latin works
Miscellany of the 'Harley Lyrics'
Size / Format
284 pages / 29.0 x 19.0 cm
Late 13th century – first half of the 14th century
Gothic Gothic cursive
Red colored initials
Collection of hagiographical texts in Anglo-Norman French (ff. 1r-48v); Miscellany of texts including secular and religious lyrics in English, Anglo-Norman, and Latin, also known as the 'Harley Lyrics' (ff. 49r-142v)
Artist / School
Previous Owners
Edward Harley
Henrietta Harley
Margaret Cavendish Bentinck

Available facsimile editions:
Oxford University Press – Oxford, 1965
Facsimile Editions

#1 Facsimile of British Museum MS. Harley 2253

Oxford University Press – Oxford, 1965

Publisher: Oxford University Press – Oxford, 1965
Commentary: 1 volume by Neil Ker Ripley
Language: English
1 volume: This facsimile is not complete. Reproduction of the folios 1r-48v, 141rv and 142v of the original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
Price Category: € (under 1,000€)
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