The volume opens with Walter Hilton's Scale of Perfection, in the Latin translation of Hilton's contemporary in Cambridge and Ely, the Carmelite friar Thomas Fishlake (here in error "frater Johanns Ffyslake", fol.1r). This was Hilton's most popular work, and in this translation was the first work written in English to circulate on the European continent. It was printed by Wynkyn de Worde in Westminster in 1494 at the request of Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII, and five more times before the English Reformation. It is followed by a number of Middle English poems, including Litchfield's Prince of Pity (fol.176v: here under the title A dialog be twene god and man, opening "Owre gracious god prince of pyte / Whoos myght whoos goodnes never be gan ...": New Index of Middle English Verse 2714, recording 13 manuscripts); Caistor's Jhesu cryst that made me (fol.185v; NIMEV 1727, recording 26 manuscripts); and the anonymous, By a wey wandering (fol.187r; NIMEV 562, recording 7 witnesses).
These are followed by a verse epitaph in Latin (fol.188v), an extract from Pseudo-Bernard, Meditationes piissimae, opening "Dies hominis sicut umbra ..." (fol.189v), the epitaph of John Shirwood for Sowthel (fol.190r) and the poem Cur mundus militat sub uana Gloria (fol.191r).
The illuminated border on fol.3r and the penwork illustrations of a dark and disturbing scene of a soul tormented by two demons and the lifeless corpse of a tonsured cleric are Oxford work of the highest quality.
The border on fol.3r is by an Oxford illuminator who decorated Cambridge, Trinity College Ms.R.14.5. (Thomas Chaundler's Liber Apologeticus, 1465), for Thomas Bekynton, bishop of Bath and Wells. Kathleen Scott has attributed three other manuscripts to the same hand (Later Gothic MSS, no.103: one made in Oxford and dated 1457) and other examples can be found in Paris, BnF. lat.6729A, fol.6r (Dialogus de vite felicitate, which was owned by John Gunthorpe, by 1473), and British Library, Harley 3490, fol.11r (Gower, Confessio, with the arms of Sir Edmund Rede of Boarstall, Bucks.; knighted 1465, d. 1487).
The illustrator is strikingly close to that of another Chaundler text (Oxford, New College MS 288, Life of William of Wykeham by Thomas Chaundler, dated 1464), which was also made for presentation to Thomas Bekynton, and they may be the identical (cf. the head of the corpse here on fol.190r with the figures on fol.3v of the New College manuscript).
201 leaves (9 blank), 250mm. by 190mm., wanting a leaf or so at the beginning of the volume, else complete, collation: i2, ii12 (i and xii singletons), iii-xvi12, xvii10 (iv and vi singletons), xviii9 (all blank; iii a singleton), single column, 35 lines in black ink in a number of fine late gothic anglicana hands, ornamental cadels in some upper borders, rubrics in red, paragraph marks in blue and red, 2-line initials in blue with looping and curling red penwork extending up and down entire margin, one small initial 'D' in burnished gold on blue grounds with white penwork (fol.3r), single pen-line foliate extensions into two borders terminating in coloured leaves and gold bezants, finely executed penwork illustration of a corpse of a tonsured cleric, naked with his arms crossed, a Crucifix above his head with Christ's head inclined to gaze at him and a scroll rising from his lips: "deus propicius esto michi peccatori" (fol.190r), full-page penwork illustration touched in red (one column wide) of a soul pulled from his corpse (here a skeleton with its feet in the fires of Hell) by a hairy demon with horns, a hooked nose and face emerging from his chest, as another with faces on his knees claws at his stomach and stabs him in the head with a two halves of a broken pilgrim's staff (fol.188v), surrounded by three scrolls holding 4 devotional exhortations (including "hii qui nobis seruiunt sic sunt honorati" and "Sine fine taliter erunt cruciati", also recorded by M.R. James in Cambridge, Gonville and Caius, MS.230(116)), some small smudges and stains, split in fol.189 but with no loss of text, else in clean and fresh condition, nineteenth-century gilt-tooled vellum over pasteboards (split along spine) by William Parke of Wolverhampton (1797-1876), marbled endleaves
A hitherto unrecorded manuscript containing a previously unknown work by John Shirwood, one of the earliest English humanists
1. Written in Oxford in the third quarter of the fifteenth century, and most probably owned by John Shirwood (bishop of Durham from 1484 until his death in 1493), or a member of his close circle. He received his Master's degree at Oxford in 1450, and was already at that time a member of a small group of English intellectuals, including John Tiptoft (d.1470), earl of Worcester, Thomas Chaundler (c.1417-90) and John Gunthorpe (d.1498), who had begun to embrace humanist studies (see Duke Humfrey and English Humanism, 1970, for these men). Along with their patron, Humfrey, duke of Gloucester (1390-1447), these were the men responsible for cultivating humanism in England, and overturning the preconception of the backwardness of English learning in the mid-fifteenth century. Shirwood and his closest associate George Neville (brother of Warwick the king-maker and first cousin to Edward IV; bishop of Exeter from 1456, then archbishop of York from 1465-76) are acclaimed for their interests in the rarest forms of this new learning – Classical Greek texts. Shirwood amassed a large library of Greek literature and even commissioned Greek manuscripts to be written for him in England (P.S. Allen, 'Bishop Shirwood of Durham and his Library', English Historical Review 25, 1910; the bulk remaining at Bishop Auckland, and being given to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, by Shirwood's successor), and his competence in the language was noted in the letter of Richard III to Pope Sixtus IV in 1484 which nominated him for the cardinalate. "Greek studies in England during the third quarter of the fifteenth century appear to have been mainly confined to Oxford ... and the entourage of George Neville" (R. Weiss, Humanism in England During the Fifteenth Century, 1967, p.221, see pp.215-16, 218 and 222-25 for specific discussion of Shirwood). He is named in the rubric as the author of the Latin verse epitaph of John Sowthel, the seneschal of George Neville, on fol.190r of the present manuscript, and this is the sole surviving witness to this text. Indeed the only other witnesses to his literary activities are the Arithmomachia (on a variant of chess of indescribable complexity, printed at Rome by Plannck; see Allen, p.448 for a summary of the rules), and a note by Leland in 1545 that he had seen verses by Shirwood (De Scriptoribus Brittanicis, 1709, p.262), which may well have included the verses here. This epitaph is by a scholar steeped in the Greek classics with numerous citations of authorities such as Aristotle, Plato and the Athenian statesman, Alcibiadus (d.404 BC.).
2. Perhaps from the library of the Benedictine Priory of Brewood or the Augustinian Priory of St. Leonard, Brewood (both suppressed in 1537-8, their buildings and contents passing to Thomas Giffard), and certainly in the library of his descendants in Chillington Hall, Staffordshire, by the nineteenth century (bookplate); thence by descent.