Lichfield cathedral (George Mahoney, Creative Commons License)
Ralph Hanna


Lichfield was a largely unimportant place, because a relatively accidental construction attendant on a purely human geography.  It began, several miles south of the eventual town, as simply a convenient way-station situated at the juncture of two Roman roads.  There one of medieval England's great arteries, Watling Street (the modern A5, joining London and Wroxeter),  crossed a much less prominent route.  This was Ryknild Street, which began near Cheltenham and connected the Southwest Midlands with south Yorkshire, via Birmingham, Derby, and Sheffield.  Each of these routes was entwined with other important connecting roads; to the east of Lichfield, a spur of Watling Street ran off to Chester, and in south Yorkshire, Ryknild Street joins England's spine, The Great North Road.

Watling Street is of national importance, but Lichfield history/culture prioritises the second of these routes.  In 669, St Wilfrid sent Chad from York down Ryknild Street to become apostle and bishop to the Mercians, and he established his church north of the road junction (see Bede, Historia 4.3, including the earliest reference to Lichfield as a place).  This was to become the cathedral to the Mercians, although one with a rather discontinuous history (the see was removed to Chester 1075-1228, for example).  But a religious centre and eventually (s. xii med.) a grand church administered, like other secular cathedrals, by canons persisted here, as a local pilgrimage-centre drawing worshippers to honour Chad's relics.  Again, transit and journeying remained central to local notoriety and prosperity.

Indeed, Lichfield the town was planned, planted, and administered from Chad's church.  There were, for example, no parish churches, only chapels dependent upon the Cathedral.  This was a small provincial centre, with perhaps 3000 people in the later fourteenth century, about the fiftieth most populated place in England.  The town, originally to provide services – and tolls – for the Cathedral, again capitalised on its transit links to become a market centre.  In this part of England, a prosperous market depended upon livestock and related crafts, leather-goods and woolens (from Derbyshire sheep coming down Ryknild Street).  And the town fairs profited from certain long-haul goods, for instance fish from the Irish Sea.  But with one exception c. 1400, the town's only real contribution to British literary culture has remained its eighteenth-century sons, David Garrick and Samuel Johnson.

Lichfield's transit network was not limited to commercial goods, and the town's literary importance, in years around and just after 1400, was as an entrepôt specialising in texts.  This traffic was initially all one-way: virtually the full canonical range of extensive Yorkshire writing c. 1290-1375 passed through the town.  Here this material was revamped for non-Northern consumption, an activity inferentially sponsored to some degree by cathedral canons.  This local value-added activity was clearly designed, in the most copiously recorded manuscript example, The Prick of Conscience, to construct instructional materials for local use.  But Lichfield's road connections also insured that revamped local products passed into a, usually but not exclusively, local hinterland.  These became the popular text types both in Lichfield's ecclesiastical ambit (east Warwickshire) and its marketing one southward along Ryknild Street.  There, in northern Worcestershire, in particular, these materials formed central components of the largest Middle English devotional manuscript, Vernon, and its twin Simeon – and both may have been copied in Lichfield for use in its hinterland.

One individual, the scribe responsible for Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.3.8, with the 'Southern Version' of the Yorkshire biblical history Cursor Mundi, has always been perceived as  central to these procedures – and has become more so as study intensifies.  In addition to the Trinity manuscript, he shared copying of a seminal version of Rolle's epistles, the head of a wide West Midlands distribution, including the representations of these texts in both Vernon and Simeon.  And he produced two copies of The Prick.  One of these was taken from an exemplar that stands at the head of an originally local tradition.  In varying forms, this comprises nineteen surviving books (and, as Angus McIntosh demonstrated, an original census of at least 100), nearly all from Lichfield or its adjacent hinterlands – but also including an exceptional southwestern spread down Ryknild Street and beyond its end, so far away as Devon.

Many of these activities remain imperfectly investigated.  But one remains impressed by their thoughtful suppleness and diversity of approach.  While much Lichfield work is distinguished from its sources by plain and simple error, there is extensive attention to finding appropriate local lexis, to careful excision of materials, and a considerable amount of small but telling interpolation.


Primary Texts

Cursor Mundi (The Cursur o the World)..., ed. Richard Morris, 7 vols, EETS 57, 59, 62, 66, 68, 99,101 (London, 1874-93).

The Northern Homily Cycle: The Expanded Version, ed. Saara Nevanlinna, 3 vols, Mémoires de laSociété néophilologique 38, 41, 43 (Helsinki, 1972-84).

The Pricke of Conscience (Stimulus Conscientiae)..., ed. Richard Morris (Berlin, 1863).

Richard Rolle Prose and Verse, ed. S. J. Ogilvie-Thomson, EETS 293 (Oxford, 1988).

The Southern Version of Cursor Mundi, gen. ed. Sarah M. Horrall, 5 vols (Ottawa, 1978-2000).

Speculum Vitae: A Reading Edition, ed. Ralph Hanna using materials collected by VenetiaSomerset, EETS 331-32 (Oxford, 2008).

Yorkshire Writers, ed. C. Horstman, 2 vols (London, 1895-96).

Secondary materials

The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, Volume I. 600-1500, ed. D. M. Palliser (Cambridge,2000).

Dareau, Margaret G., and Angus McIntosh, 'A Dialect Word in Some West Midland Manuscripts ofthe Prick of Conscience', Edinburgh Studies in English and Scots, ed. A. J. Aitken, McIntosh, and Hermann Pálsson (London, 1971), 20-26.

Doyle, A. I., 'Introduction', The Vernon Manuscript: A Facsimile of Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS.Eng. poet. a.1 (Cambridge, 1987).

Greenstead, M. W., ed., A History of the County of Stafford, volume XIV: Lichfield (Oxford, 1990).

Kaiser, Rolf, Zur Geographie des mittelenglischen Wortschatzes, Palaestra 205 (Leipzig, 1937).

Lewis, Robert E., 'The Relationship of the Vernon and Simeon Texts of the Pricke of Conscience',So meny people longages and tonges: Philological Essays on Scots and Medieval EnglishPresented to Angus McIntosh, ed. Michael Benskin and M. L. Samuels (Edinburgh, 1981),251-64.

-----, and Angus McIntosh, A Descriptive Guide to the Manuscripts of The Prick of Conscience, Medium Ævum Monographs NS 12 (Oxford, 1982).

McIntosh, Angus, 'Two Unnoticed Interpolations in Four Manuscripts of the Prick of Conscience',Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 77 (1976), 63-78.

Stenton, F. M., 'The Road System of Medieval England' [need ref]

The diocese was peculiar in a variety of ways, not least because Chad's canons shared the right to elect their bishop with the Benedictines of Coventry.  For an extensive recent local history, see Greenstead.

  1024 individuals are listed as paying the 1377 poll tax.  For comparative purposes: Coventry, one of England's four or five largest provincial towns, returned nearly five times that number, and such lesser yet apparently comparable places as Shrewsbury or Hereford, twice so many.  Even Ludlow would appear to have been about 15% larger.  See Cambridge Urban History xxx.

  For example, the Cathedral Library's greatest treasure, 'The Lichfield Gospels', product of a Northhumbrian/Iona nexus shared with the Lindisfarne Gospels and Book of Kells, was an import,  probably of s. x.  The volume had early been in at Llandeilo, as is indicated by the inscription recording its donation, the earliest surviving writing in Welsh, c. 800.

Or so the early provenance evidence would indicate: the Rolle manuscript mentioned below belonged in succession to two Lichfield canons, by at least 1451; for the activities (beyond his two 'local version' copies of The Prick, Lewis-McIntosh nos 23, 89) of the Vernon front-matter scribe John, see Doyle's discussion of John Scriveyn, whom notes say is to produce a new Speculum Vitae for a man associated with the Cathedral.

  Morris printed the Trinity MS, in parallel with central Northern copies, in his Cursor Mundi, and its lexical revisions provided the basis for Kaiser's still unreplaced study.

  See Lewis-McIntosh 7-8, with references to copies, all of which they describe.  This version, at least inferentially, appears of South Yorkshire origin on basis of the related books, their nos 28, 29, 35, 43, 62, 93.  For important studies, see Dareau-McIntosh and McIntosh.

See Richard Rolle lii-lx (for example, Ogilvie-Thomson's RSVWGH2; more ready comparison in the parallel texts of Yorkshire Writers 50-70, although not revealing the generative local copy of 'Ego dormio'); Northern Homily Cycle 1:1-4; Speculum Vitae 1:lxxxv n.67.