Teaching Resources for University

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Section 1: The Making of a Medieval Book

This activity is aimed at students encountering bibliography, codicology, or the process of medieval manuscript production for the first time. It assumes no particular knowledge of Middle English and so can be used in History of the Book survey courses as well as classes for novice medievalists.

Suggested Introductory Discussion

Medieval manuscript production. Medieval books were generally made from animal skin, not paper, and each copy had to be written by hand, often by monks but also by laypeople, especially professional scribes.

Activity #1: Manuscript Copying

This exercise brings home to students the process of manuscript copying, and how texts change from copy to copy even without the copyists meaning to introduce alterations.


Copy by hand the following passage from George Economou's verse translation of the beginning of the C Text of Piers Plowman:

In a summer season when the sun shone softly
I wrapped myself in woolens as if I were a sheep;
In a hermit's habit, unholy in his works,
I went out into the world to hear wonders
And to see many strange and seldom-known things.

In Class

Hand your copy in to one of the students and instruct him (or her) to copy it by hand. Give him one minute and 20 seconds to copy the text. When time is up, have him pass his copy to the next student to copy. Continue until every student has copied the previous student's copy. (If the class is very large, students can be broken into smaller groups for this activity.) Take the final copy and compare it with the original (on an overhead document projector if available) to see where errors, misreadings, or unintentional changes occur.

Optional Extension

Pass this text (or another of your choosing) around again, this time inviting students to "improve" or "edit" the text as they see fit. Scribes sometimes made extensive alterations to the texts they copied in an effort to make them more up-to-date, easier to read, or more to their liking aesthetically.

Activity #2: Using the Archive

This activity demonstrates for students how copies of the same text differ, and how those differences affect our reading of the literature.


Make copies of this text from the standard Kane-Donaldson B-text Prologue (lines 78-82). Here is the edited text and a translation:

Were þe Bisshop yblessed and worþ boþe hise eris
His seel shoulde noʒt be sent to deceyue þe peple.
It is noʒt by þe bisshop þat þe boy precheþ;
Ac þe parisshe preest and þe pardoner parten þe siluer
That þe pouere peple of þe parisshe sholde haue if þei ne were.

If the bishop were blessed and worth both his ears,
His seal would not be sent to deceive the people.
It is not by leave of the bishop that the boy preaches,
But rather the parish priest and the pardoner share the silver
That the poor people of the parish should have if it weren't for them.

If no overhead projector is available, copy the relevant lines from the Archive's transcript of Manuscript F (lines F1.71-76) into a word processing program and make paper copies for students. The text and a translation are as follows:

But where þe blessynge bisshop / worþ boþe his eryn
His seel sholde not be sent / to disseyve þe peple
But it not be þe bisshop / þat so þe boy precheþ
But þe parsoun er þe preest / ys cawse of þe gilte
For þe prest & þe pardoner / shulle departen þe syluer
þat þe pore men of þe parschʒ ; sholde have if þey nere

But if the blessing bishop was worth both his ears
His seal should not be sent to deceive the people.
But it [is] not by the bishop that the boy so preaches,
But the parson or the priest is cause of the guilt,
For the priest and the pardoner shall share the silver
That the poor men of the parish should have if it weren't for them.

In Class

Distribute copies; explain that the passage attacks priests and pardoners for taking the money meant for the poor (without the permission of the bishop, who is powerless to stop them). Also point out that 'þ" means "th" and "ʒ" means "gh."

On an overhead projector, pull up the Prologue of Manuscript F. (Or distribute paper copies.) Point out the differences in wording, especially in line 80. In F this line runs: "But it not be þe bisshop / þat so þe boy precheþ." The meaning is the same, but the words and spellings have changed, and the scribe has accidentally left out the "is" that should come after "it"! Then point out the new line that the scribe composed directly after line 80: "But þe parsoun er þe preest ys cawse of þe gilte" (translation: But the parson or the priest is cause of the guilt - i.e. is guilty). This new line states outright the accusation that the other version only implies.

Finish the lesson by pointing out how someone who read the F manuscript would have had the attack on priests made obvious to him: he couldn't miss it, where a reader of a different manuscript or even of the edited version printed by Kane and Donaldson would have to do more work to understand the meaning of the passage. Point out that even the edited version doesn't give us what Langland himself wrote: it is, at best, a reconstruction of what he might have written!

Optional Extension

If time allows, pull up the image of the manuscript page for students to look at. Have them find the lines discussed and try to match the letter forms in the type-written copy with those in the image.

Paleography and Textual Editing

Below are suggested manuscripts to use for practice transcription in paleography classes. Using the first page is recommended because it contains the most familiar material.

Activity #3: Paleography Practice

For Absolute Beginners: Pull up an image from Cr1, Robert Crowley's first 1550 printing of Piers Plowman. Have students transcribe the text, being careful to keep capitals, punctuation, and "u" and "v" as they appear in the printed text. You might also suggest that they transcribe long "s," round "s," and round "r" as they appear rather than regularizing them.

For Intermediate Beginners: Pull up an image of Manuscript C (a B Text). Have students identify the style of handwriting and practice transcribing a few lines; with more advanced students, who won't need to compare notes with one another, you might divide the page up and ask each student to transcribe a different section.

For Advanced Students: Pull up an image of Manuscript G (another B Text). Again, have the students identify the style of handwriting. Because it is in secretary hand, this manuscript is much more difficult to read. Make sure that students note the conflation of "y" and "þ" and the potentially confusing forms of final "s" and "e."

Optional Extension for Textual Editing Students: As students transcribe passages of the above texts, have them make note of what they would want to mark in a diplomatic or critical edition. Discuss how they would go about marking notable details like rubrication, marginalia, and alterations (by the scribe or, as in G, by a later hand), either in a traditional typescript or a digital presentation. In the case of a digital editing class, see the Archive's transcriptional protocols for examples of how such marking has been done in a TEI-compliant project.

Reading a Medieval Book

This activity is aimed at students reading Piers Plowman in the original but who are not necessarily experts at reading Middle English. It introduces such novices to the culture of reading medieval books with an antiquarian interest, a practice that developed in the Renaissance with great collectors like Sir Robert Cotton and Matthew Parker. It allows them to recognize that they are not the first to find these "old" books difficult or confusing and provides an inroad into appreciating Langland's late Middle English.

Activity #4: Reading a Manuscript

Provide students with a typescript of the first page of the Prologue of Manuscript Vc (main text only):

IN assomur seson / wan softe was þe sonne
Y shop me in-to schrobbus / as y a schephurde were
In abit as an Eremite / vn-holy of werkes
Y went forth in þe wordle / wondres to here .
And saih meny selles / and selcouthe þinges .
Ac on a may morwenyng / on maluerne hulles
Me by-fulle fort to slepe / for werynesse of wandring .
And in a launde as y lay / lened y and slepte
And merueylously me mette / as y may ȝow telle .
Al þe welþe of þis world / and þe wo boþe .
Walkynge as hit were / wyterly y sauh hit .
Of truthe and of trecherie / treson and gyle .
Al y sauh slepinge / as y shal ȝow telle .
¶ Estwarde y byheold / aftur þe sonne .
And sauh a tour as y trowede / truthe was þere-ynne
¶ Westward y waytede in a wyle aftur
And sauh a dep dale / deth as y leoue
Wonede in tho wones / and wyckede spirites
¶ A Fayr felde ful of folk / fond y þer by-twene
Al manere of men / þe mene and þe ryche .
Worchynge and wandryng / as þe worlde askeþ .
¶ Somme putten hem to þe plouh / and pleyden ful selde
In settyng and in sowyng / swonkon ful harde .
And wonnon that þeos wastourrs / wyth gloteny destruen .
¶ Somme putten hem to pruyde . and paraileden hem þer-aftur
In contenaunce of cloþyng / in meny kynne gyse .
¶ In preyeres and penaunces / putten hem menye
Al for þe loue of oure lorde / lyueden ful harde
In hope to haue good ende / and heueneryche blisse .

Point out that "u" and "v" are interchangeable, "þ" is "th," and "ȝ" (here) is "y." Ask students to read through the passage (if they have read Piers Plowman it should be at least slightly familiar) and underline words they would like to have glossed in order to understand it fully.

On an overhead projector, pull up the image of the first folio of Manuscript Vc and explain that all the writing in the margins and above the lines is by a sixteenth-century (Renaissance) reader who was trying to gloss the difficult words.

Point out the words and phrases he selects for glossing (marked mostly by underlining), and the translations he assigns them. (They are very difficult to read in the image because of the handwriting, but the glosses are in the transcript.)

Y shop me in-to schrobbus
saih, selcouthe
be-fulle, fort
me mette
wyterly y saugh
þe mene
pleyden, selde
pruyde, paraileden
kynne gyse

Gloss: I gan me or I crept in amoong busshes .
Gloss: appareil
Gloss: saw; selcouth or [part of gloss illegible] quasi seldom known or vnknowen (Note: quasi = "as in")
Gloss: but
Gloss: befell , chanced; for
Gloss: I drempt
Gloss: aduisedly i sawe; witterly . quasi [part of gloss illegible] intent of wit .
Gloss: gyle or deceit
Gloss: while
Gloss: beleue
Gloss: dwelt
Gloss: common sort
Gloss: woorking
Gloss: went to lawe; seldom tymes
Gloss: labored
Gloss: wan . got .
Gloss: Pryde; did apparell
Gloss: maner faire
Gloss: did live
Gloss: heuenly

Note that for the most part he is accurate in his translations ("me mette" does indeed mean "I dreamt"), but he was thrown off by the grammatical ending of "pleyden" and mistook it for the preterit of "plead" (as in "to plead at the bar"); context tells us that it means exactly what we would assume it means: "to play."

Have students compare this page with the glosses they find in their own textbook: many will be the same, but Vc is one of many C-text manuscripts that has "schrobbus" (shrubs) instead of "shroudes" (shrouds, robes). What a difference, creeping into bushes versus creeping into a hermit's clothing!