Newnham’s medieval manuscript of Piers Plowman preserved for the 21st Century and beyond

Newnham College Library has digitised a medieval manuscript in Cambridge Digital Library, preserving it for the centuries to come.

This manuscript, Newnham MS 4, dates to the first half of the 15th century and contains the B-Text of William Langland’s Piers Plowman, the allegorical dream-vision poem, accompanied by The Lay Folks’ Mass and a short Old English Grace—all written in Middle English.

The manuscript was donated to Newnham College Library in 1906 by Henry Yates Thompson, who inherited it 50 years earlier from his maternal grandfather, Joseph Brooks Yates, and this provenance links the books to Newnham’s Legacies of Enslavement enquiry.

The UCL database Legacies of British Slave Ownership records that, at the point of abolition in 1833, Joseph Brooks Yates was associated with claims relating to 18 estates and 2287 enslaved people in Jamaica. It is therefore likely that Joseph Brooks Yates acquired the manuscript from the financial proceeds of slave-ownership. Henry Yates Thompson engaged directly with the question of slavery during his lifetime. He travelled across America during the Civil War and recorded his journey in diary entries, newspaper articles, and letters arguing with family members. He was a supporter of the North and the Union, and an advocate for abolition.

The digitisation of this manuscript marks the commitment of the Librarian and Archivist to further research the provenance of our holdings, to acknowledge them publicly, and to make them more available to students and researchers around the world. The digitised catalogue record contains more information about the manuscript’s provenance alongside a gloss written by Newby Trust Research Fellow Dr Hannah Lucas.

This manuscript will join other archival objects on Newnham’s repository: the War Work 1914-1918 book, which records the work done by over 700 Newnham women during the First World War; a Lawn tennis dress c.1880; a Steamboat Ladies Gown; and a Newnham College Boat Club rowing vest. Plans are now underway to digitise another of Newnham Library’s manuscripts: L’Epistre Othéa by the earliest professional women writer in Europe, Christine de Pizan.