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In 1387, John Trevisa, a Cornish writer and chaplain, translated Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon into English at the behest of his master, Lord Berkley. Higden’s Polychronicon, written between 1327 and 1344, is a massive seven-volume universal history. This text was one of many translated into English during the 14th century, at which time there was a marked transition to vernacular languages in medieval texts. Though this transition has been fairly well studied with regards to the body of such works, little effort has been made to explore the emergence of the vernacular navigation aids accompanying these texts, such as the index. The English index of Trevisa’s Polychronicon is one of the first English indices that we know of, and as such it has the potential to provide invaluable information about the emergence, compilation, and transmission of such indices.
In the summer of 2011, the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program gave me the opportunity to work with Professor Emily Steiner of the Penn English Department on her fascinating project, entitled the Alphabetical English Index Project. The work I did this summer will serve as the foundation for an article that Professor Steiner intends to publish later this year, which will examine the index of John Trevisa’s Polychronicon and alphabetical indices in general from a historical and theoretical perspective. Some of the questions we attempted to answer this summer include: How does an English index come into being? What is novel about the concept of an English Index? And why is having an English index useful? We also hoped that by examining and collating these indices we would be able to determine how the indices developed and were transmitted.
Over the course of 10 weeks I worked diligently with Professor Steiner, both here and across the pond, in an attempt to answer these questions. The first few weeks of my research involved transcribing and collating four different indices of Trevisa’s Polychronicon (Additional 24194, Chetham’s Library 11379, Aberdeen University Library 21, and Senshu MS1). This was necessary in order to have a full understanding of each index layout, so that we might begin to connect different patterns, similarities, and differences between the various extant manuscripts. Pattern identification will lead to the establishment of a baseline or ideal manuscript; this is a key component of Professor Steiner’s article. After transcribing these manuscripts, the Additional 24194 appeared to be the most likely to receive the designation of ‘baseline manuscript’. However, one other manuscript, the Harley 1900, had serious potential, so it was necessary for us to travel to London and examine it for ourselves.
In preparation for our trip, I examined the article “The Manuscripts of Trevisa’s Translation of the Polychronicon Towards a New Edition” by Ronald Waldron. This paper surveyed the fourteen extant manuscripts of Trevisa’s Polychronicon. Though fascinating, Waldron’s work made very little mention of the manuscripts’ indices, but provided extensive information on the text and its transmission, which will provide a useful comparison, once we establish our own base manuscript and theory on transmission.
With the bulk of our research completed, we were ready for the next phase of our endeavor. In late August, Professor Steiner and I traveled to London and spent five days working with the manuscripts at the British Library. While there, we double-checked our transcription of Additional 24194, did a comparative transcription of the Stowe 65 index, examined the Cotton Tiberius D VII manuscript and an earlier Latin version of the Polychronicon, and created a new transcription of the Harley 1900 index. This new material, in addition to our copious notes and previous transcriptions will help us answer our research questions and establish a base manuscript. Though our trip to London was very busy and required a lot of focus and hard work, I also had the wonderful opportunity to tour the city in the evenings and visit friends.
The entire research project was a thoroughly wonderful experience and one of the highlights of my educational experience. More than anything else this process gave me a real sense of what it takes to conduct humanities research, and I have learned that it is something I really enjoy. This project also introduced me to some truly fascinating medieval material. Though I am an Anthropology major focusing in Archaeology rather than an English major, I hope to combine my interests in the future and perhaps pursue a career as a medieval archaeologist, with the goal of contributing to the global understanding and appreciation of this fascinating period.