Mar 7, 2017

Troy Book Comparisons

The last of Hailey Mullock's series on decoration in manuscripts of Lydgate's Troy Book.

Cambridge, Trinity College MS O.5.2, fol. 38r
The Hierarchy of Decoration within the Troy Book text in British Library MS Royal 18 D II appears to be integral to the text. In order to determine how integral the decoration was to the text or if it was integral at all, I compared Royal 18 D II to other manuscripts that contain the Troy Book text. There are currently twenty-three manuscripts that contain John Lydgate’s Troy Book, eight of which are illustrated, “and a basic visual program can be detected in each of them” (Whitehead v). Of those twenty-three, only three digital facsimiles are available on the Web at this time: of British Library MS Royal 18 D II; Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O.5.2; and Cambridge, Massachusetts, Houghton Library, Harvard University MS Eng 752.

In examining these three manuscripts, it appears that the hierarchy of decoration is not consistent or integral to this particular text, as the manuscripts vary in decoration. However, further research into the inaccessible manuscripts shows that most of the time the manuscripts containing the Troy Book text have a hierarchy of decoration similar to both Royal 18 D II and Trinity O.5.2. The majority of the manuscripts contain similar decoration at the beginning of each book and the decorations are all in the same order of the hierarchy in each manuscript. The beginnings of the books are marked by an illustration, border decoration, and a large display initial following the illustration. What is even more interesting is that although the illustrations are not always identical, the subject and placement of the illustrations are the same for the majority of the manuscripts. It is possible that there was a presentation copy, an exemplar, from which all of the illustrations were copied.

British Library MS Royal 18 D II, fol. 66v

Almost all of the Troy Book manuscripts, both illustrated and not, are subdivided into sections by medium display initials in addition to the large display initials that mark the beginning of each book. The initials are consistently placed from manuscript to manuscript, with the exception of Royal 18 D II, which has additional medium and small display initials. The medium display initials divide the text at stages of the narrative.

Of the three manuscripts Royal 18 D II is by far the most highly decorated. At the other end, Harvard University MS Eng 752 has no decoration. One of the main methods of indicating textual division is by decorative elements. But the only decoration in this manuscript is a scroll at the end of Book 4; otherwise there is no textual division.

Houghton Library, Harvard University MS Eng 752, fol. 160r

Cambridge, Trinity College MS O.5.2, fol. 43v
Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O.5.2. has a level of decoration that is in between the other two. Stylistically, it is very different from the decoration of Royal 18 D II, but has similar elements. All of the decorative elements in Trinity O.5.2. can also be seen in Royal 18 D II. In both manuscripts, each book begins with an illustration followed by a large display initial and decorated borders. Another similarity between Royal 18 D II and Trinity O.5.2. is that they both use medium display initials that act like signals of chapter divisions. Most of the medium display initials in Trinity O.5.2. correspond with those in Royal 18 D II; however, Royal 18 D II has significantly more. Almost all of the decoration in Trinity O.5.2. corresponds with the decoration in Royal 18 D II, not only in its placement in the text but also in its placement within the hierarchy of decoration.

British Library MS Royal 18 D II, fol. 11v
It appears that the owners of the Troy Book were provided with a standard structure of the text that functioned to mark the divisions of the text in a visual way. If all of the decoration was standardized, then it is likely that the decoration is integral to the Troy Book text.

The decoration of a medieval manuscript may be integral to the reading of a text
This study of the hierarchy of decoration in John Lydgate’s Troy Book has resulted in many discoveries about the text but has also sparked new questions about the function of decoration within medieval manuscripts. The decoration of a medieval manuscript may be integral to the reading of a text. If it is, are we missing something that was intended for the reading of these texts when print editions are made without the decorations found in the manuscripts? Now as more medieval manuscripts are digitized, we are able to view and question what it is that makes up a text and how it could include decoration as well as words.

Hailey Mullock


Whitehead, Tammy Y. The Illustrations of Lydgate's "Troy Book": The Visual Revitalization of a Literary Tradition in Fifteenth-Century England. PhD dissertation, Florida State University, 2015.

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