Ping pong merrily on high
In 1934, two exceptional discoveries in the history of medieval studies were made. And they were both made by accident.
In July 1934, Walter Oakeshott, a teacher at Winchester School, decided to go looking for some interesting book bindings in the Fellows’ Library, at the suggestion of his friend, James Basil Oldham. He was keen to look at some manuscript bindings. The manuscripts were kept separately from the books, in a safe in the Warden’s bedroom. Oakeshott wrote that this safe had
'a legendary reputation with me since not so many years before a knowledgeable visitor who had made his way into it had recognised in the bedside mat, a magnificent piece of Tudor tapestry … probably woven for the occasion of the christening of Prince Arthur, Henry VII’s eldest son in Winchester Cathedral.'
Image of the 'Roses Tapestry', formerly known as a bedside mat, Winchester College
Opening the safe, Oakeshott felt immediate ‘disappointment’. There were no interesting bindings. He decided to glance at the manuscripts nonetheless. One of them was ‘clearly about King Arthur and his Knights’, but it was lacking a beginning and an end. Oakeshott ‘made a vague mental note’ of the manuscript and moved on to the next one.
What Oakeshott had stumbled on was the only known manuscript of Thomas Malory’s great work of Arthurian legend, the Le Morte Darthur — the last major work on Arthurian legend to be produced in the Middle Ages, but also the first and only text in Middle English to recount the entire legend of Arthur from his birth to his death. It was only when, a few weeks later, he was preparing for a visit from the Friends of the National Libraries that Oakeshott returned to the safe and realised the significance of what is now called ‘the Winchester Manuscript’, British Library Add MS 59678.
The first surviving folio of Thomas Malory's 'Le Morte Darthur', Add MS 59678, f. 9r
When Oakeshott made his discovery, the only surviving copy of this text was a print by England’s first printer, William Caxton (c. 1422–c. 1491). The manuscript is not the original one made by the author, but its version of the text is thought to be closer to the original.
Later that summer, in September 1934, another chance discovery was made. This time, the discoverers were not even looking for books, but ping pong balls. Maurice Butler-Bowdon described how he was playing ping pong with some friends at his family’s Georgian house near Chesterfield and how,
'one of us trod on the Ping Pong ball and my father went to the cupboard to get out a replacement and it was soon apparent that he was having difficulty in finding either a ball or a tube of balls … There was in there an entirely undisciplined clutter of smallish leather books.'
Image courtesy http://elsebremsrejsefond.dk/?page_id=856
Butler-Bowdon recounted his father’s exasperation at this pile of book-clutter: ‘I am going to put this whole ––– lot on the bonfire tomorrow and then we may be able to find Ping Pong balls & bats when we want them’. Thankfully, the books were not burnt before one of them in particular had been identified: its cover ‘had been eaten away, presumably by a mouse’. It was none other than the lost Book of Margery Kempe, which had previously only been known in seven pages of extracts printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501. How the manuscript came into the possession of the Butler-Bowdons is unclear — they apparently owned it in the late 18th century, but before the Reformation it belonged to the Carthusian brothers at Mount Grace Priory in Yorkshire.
The opening folio of the 'Book of Margery Kempe', Add MS 61823, f. 1r
The Book of Margery Kempe, Add MS 61823, is sometimes called the earliest autobiography in English. Margery lived in the East Anglian town of Lynn in the early 15th century and was at various times a horse-mill owner and a brewer, but later in her life she became a visionary and mystic. She was also the mother of 14 children. Her remarkable Book is a window into the life of an ordinary, middle-class person in a prosperous town in late-medieval England but, perhaps more importantly, it is a rarely-opened window into medieval female experience.
Never judge a book by its mouse-eaten cover: the chemise binding of Add MS 61823, the 'Book of Margery Kempe'.
At the end of the essay in which he describes his extraordinary encounter with the Malory manuscript, Oakeshott compares his discovery to the biblical story of King Saul, who was sent to seek his father’s lost asses:
'We are told that Saul the son of Kish went out to seek his father’s asses and found a kingdom. The fate of the literary detective is comparable only in that, if he finds anything at all, he will find something different from that for which he is looking. It is seldom a kingdom … The asses almost always prove obstinately elusive. Certainly I did not, on this occasion, find them. All I could tell Oldham was that there were no bindings on the manuscripts to interest him.'
The lesson of this remarkable year in literary history is clear: you must always keep searching, because you might find something magical, beneath a mouse-eaten cover, while looking for something quite different altogether.
I have been reading more about these stories of discovery as part of my writing and research for the medieval section of the library’s Learning site, Discovering Literature, which will go live early in 2018. The site ties in with a new on-site adult learning course, Discovering Literature: Beowulf to Chaucer, which will run over six weeks, on Tuesdays, from 24 October 2017. The final session of this course will feature a rare opportunity to work with original manuscripts from the British Library. You can find the course description and booking form here. Places are now down to the last few, so please book as soon as you can.
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