Wednesday, March 11th, 2020...02:30

Historical Dating through a Pseudo Manuscript

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Dale Couet

*Please note that both the manuscript and the following narrative are fictitious and exist for aestical purposes.

Couet, Dale. “Pseudo-Script”

Þe lord scheweth his face to vs alle
in þy endeles mercy þou heere our calle
þauȝ þe shadowe of deeth couerethe me
I will synge as fyr groweth on my tree
by grace I feare not knoweynge þat sone I
wil be but dust for in þy memorie
I shall liue in þy holy book deuyne
al þauȝ lyes tempte me my life is not myne
euery brethe I breethe is a ȝifte from þee
wiche wil þen be token whanne þou doth see.
for þe schort tyme on erthe is but a crumme
when sette on þe lif þat is sone to come.

The above manuscript was recently discovered under the flooring of an undisclosed house in Oxford, England. The handwriting that the author uses is not matched to any other known works. Contextualizing writings such as these provides an interesting challenge. While there are multiple approaches one may take to contextualize works such as these, there are two main approaches I will look into: linguistics and history. I will be looking at the prior first, in order to
determine approximately when the writing was done within the broad range of the English language, then use history within this narrower scope to find definitive dates.

Defining the earliest possible date linguistically can be done by looking at the most recent word in the work based on other records available. The earliest records of both divine and continue are 1340 (s.v. divine, n., sense 1 & continue, v., sense 1). This means that the work is most likely written after that date. For the sake of comfort we will mark the earliest starting date as 1300:

Couet, Dale. “Tentative Time Frame: from 1300-2000”

Something that readers may point out is that this poem follows a rhyme scheme (i.e. alle with calle or me with tree). However, I and memory do not rhyme with modern pronunciation. One could argue that this places the author before the Great Vowel Shift [1400-1800] (Liu, B.28) as I used to be pronounced /i/ which matches the ending syllable of memory /ri/. However, this is not effective, because it does not consider the possibility that the author may simply be a bad poet. Without any knowledge of the writer’s identity, it is presumptuous to claim that the author rhymes I with memory because the work existed prior to the Great Vowel Shift.

What is important to note, is that the writer spells according to pronunciation, such as token or sone, rather than taken or soon. Standardization led to the word taken be spelled exactly that way, even if certain accents may pronounce the <ta> more like /to/. This variation in spelling means that this was before standardization. While standardization began in the 1400s (Liu, B.27),
and variations were reduced after the spread of the printing press in 1476 (Liu, C.3) standard spelling did not become fixed in place until the introduction of dictionaries in the 1600s (Howard-Hill 16).

Alongside these variances in spelling is something called minim replacements. For example, myne is spelled with a <y> instead of an <i> so that the <in> is not mistaken for an <m>. This was commonplace in Middle English, and gradually reduced after the introduction of the typewriter in England in 1476 (Liu, C.14) Alongside minim replacements is the substitution of <v> and <u>. Words starting with a <u> will be spelled with a <v> such as vp, or vpon. A <u> may be used in the middle of a word to represent the modern consonant <v>, such is the case for deuyne. These variations slowly died out after the English use of the printing press alongside the use of thorns <þ> and yoghs <ȝ>, due to the printing press not having the adequate keys and French influence (Liu, C.13-14).

This gives us an ending date sometime in the Early Modern period of English, and definitely before the late 1600s:

Couet, Dale. “Tentative Time Frame: from 1300-1700”

Since language is fluid, it is impossible to find definitive dates. This is where historically we can narrow those numbers down with specific events. Since the author alludes to scriptures with phrases such as “Þe lord scheweth his face vpon vs (Wycliffite Bible, Num. 6:24-26) and “þe shadowe of deeth” (Wycliffite Bible, Pslam 22:4), it is reasonable to presume that the author is Christian and knows scripture, either through personal readings or through the mass. The author implies that they will burn at the stake when saying, “fyr growith on my tree” suggesting that they professed a certain heresy (Cavill 271). The burning being literal due to a profession of faith can be further enforced since the author uses the word tree to refer to how they will be burned, which besides the rhyme scheme, alludes to Christ-like imagery, as a tree is often used when referring to the cross (Wycliffite Bible, Acts 5:30). This clue allows us to narrow the time frame down. De Heretico Comburendo (Of the Burning of Heretics), which it permissible of those guilty of heresy to be burned, was not enacted until 1401 (Cavill 276). Therefore, the poem was written after 1401. The heresy that fits best within the established time frame is Lollardy. The persecution of Lollards ceased after the Elizabethan Act of Supremacy in 1558 (Atherton 1242). Therefore the dating we have is 1401-1558.

Couet, Dale. “Tentative Time Frame: from 1401-1558”

Based on the timeframe we have and the topic of the writing, the author is most likely a nameless Lollard in the 15th or 16th century. Until another manuscript appears that matches the style of writing and offers more insight into who he or she is, this is the closest approximation that we have.

Work Cited

Atherton, Ian, and David Como. “The Burning of Edward Wightman: Puritanism, Prelacy and the Politics of Heresy in Early Modern England.” The English Historical Review, vol. 120, no. 489, 2005, pp. 1215–1250. JSTOR , . Accessed February 1, 2020.

Cavill, P.R. “Heresy, Law and the State: Forfeiture in Late Medieval and Early Modern England.” The English Historical Review, vol. 129, no. 537, 2014, pp. 270–295. JSTOR, . Accessed January 21, 2020.

Howard-Hill, T. H. “Early Modern Printers and the Standardization of English Spelling.” The Modern Language Review 101, no. 1 (2006): 16-29. JSTOR, .Accessed February 1, 2020.

Liu, Yin. English in Time. University of Saskatchewan, 2019.

[OED] Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, 2019. Accessed January 20, 2020.

Wycliffite Bible. Gale. University of Saskatchewan Library. &version=1.0&docLevel=FASCIMILE. Accessed February 20th 2020.

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