I recently published a note. The specific new discovery that it reports is not going to rejig the landscape of scholarship. By remarking on the previusly unrecorded appearance of a rhyming proverb in Bodleian Library MS Digby 99 the note alters our understanding of the textual and geographical affiliations of Balliol College, MS 354 (available online here), the so-called ‘commonplace book’ of Richard Hill.
But I make a broader point in my conclusion. In work on Middle English verse we rely on a set of indexes to keep track of what is what and where:
- The Index of Middle English Verse (IMEV)
- Supplement to the Index of Middle English Verse (SIMEV)
- A New Index of Middle English Verse (NIMEV)
- The Digital Index of Middle English Verse (DIMEV)
The only previous known witness to the proverb concerned, Balliol MS 354, dates from after 1500. In the past the rhyming proverb that I found has oscillated in and out of the status of ‘Middle English verse’ because the various indexes do not share the same cut-off date. This is partly because of the advent of William A. Ringler’s less well known but rather handy Bibliography and Index of English Verse in Manuscript, 1501-1558 (London, 1992). The copy of ‘my’ proverb in Digby 99 is (I think) from before 1500 and so makes this text more securely Middle English.
Looking it up in all the indexes and tracking their different chronological criteria was a useful reminder for me that while these tools are helpful, they’re not as transparent as they seemed when I started using them way back when I was a fresh MSt student in 2011. Perhaps observing this is a callow thing to do and everyone else thinks about this all the time—but that’s not my impression. IMEV, SIMEV, NIMEV and DIMEV are tools which are ostensibly easy enough that no one ever spends five minutes training you in using them. Having had to look into how they work, I kind of wish I’d at least been told to read their prefaces.
Those prefaces—here I’m going to add some observations that aren’t in the note!—make for interesting reading. Rossell Hope Robbins wrote the preface for IMEV less than a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and closed it like this:
Coming out in the midst of war, the Index serves a second purpose of proclaiming the freedom and recognition of learning among the United Nations, and thus takes its place among the contributions to knowledge from Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States of America, the potentialities of which may be fully realized only with the final victory over international fascism. (xiii)
…which certainly puts IMEV on a rather grander stage than we might imagine when reaching for it to look up a little rhyming saw scribbled of the margin of a fourteenth-century book.
SIMEV‘s preface involves a little paean to libraries, including an echo of the same war in its mention of ‘Lambeth Palace, where, in 1947, I worked among the remains of charred buildings and charred books’. The prefatory materials for NIMEV and DIMEV are more restrained, but, read carefully, explain why NIMEV and DIMEV are separate entities.
Besides all this passing interest, there’re the crucial changes in the cut-off date used, which effectively, inevitably, legislate on what is and isn’t ‘Middle English verse’. Trying to record all the known instances of every Middle English poem is clearly hard! I’m glad we have these tools but I’m going to try to use them more knowingly in future.