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‘Canterbury Tales’ scribe unmasked

Six centuries after immortalizing British medieval author Geoffrey Chaucer’s seminal work “The Canterbury Tales,” an anonymous scribe has been unveiled as the long-haired son of an English landowner.

Adam Pinkhurst -- whose name was found by a U.S. handwriting expert -- wrote the 14th century manuscripts of Chaucer’s pilgrims’ stories, the most celebrated work of medieval English literature.

“I was amazed he had not been found before,” Pinkhurst’s discoverer Professor Linne Mooney, an American academic at Cambridge University, told Reuters on Tuesday.

Mooney came across his signature in a London library during a study of medieval scribes, known as “scriveners.”

She immediately saw it was the same as the manuscripts. “It took about a second to recognize! I was so excited,” she said.

Cambridge University has endorsed the find as authentic.

The crucial signature identifying Pinkhurst came from an oath he signed soon after 1392 when formally joining the Scriveners’ Company of London, an association of fellow scribes.

It was around that time when he was working for Chaucer, making proper copies of the author’s own versions of “The Canterbury Tales” probably made on poor-quality parchments.

‘Thou write mor trew’Stories such as The Wife of Bath’s Tale, the bawdy adventures of a sex-crazed, middle-aged woman, and The Knight’s Tale, partial inspiration for a recent Hollywood film, are a classroom staple and masterful portrayals of medieval ways.

But prior to this week, all literary academia knew about the scribe came from a typically blunt Chaucer poem about him.

In it, he wishes scabs to appear under the “longe locks” of Adam scrivener if he continues to make transcription errors:

“But (unless) after my makinge thou write mor trew,

So oft a day I mot (must) thy werke renewe

It to correct, and eke to rubbe and scrape,

And all is thorowe thy necligence and rape (haste).”

That may have been over-harsh on Pinkhurst.

“We’ve never had any complaints about the accuracy of his copying of The Canterbury Tales,” Mooney said. “Maybe he was young and after being chastised, he became a better scribe? Maybe Chaucer’s handwriting was awful and he couldn’t help making these mistakes because the scribbled pages were so bad?”

Pinkhurst was thought to have come from a farming area of Surrey, in southern England, and worked for Chaucer in the last two decades of the 14th century.

“Pinkhurst was thus a son of a small landowner within a relatively short distance of London, who went into the City to learn the trade and make his living as a writer of court letter,” a Cambridge University statement said.

“We do not yet know how he came to the notice of the poet, but Chaucer was well connected in the city.”

Pinkhurst’s manuscripts can be found in the National Library of Wales and the Huntington Library in California.

Mooney, usually based at The University of Maine in the United States, has spent the last year at Cambridge working on computer-assisted identification of scribes’ handwriting.

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