Melford Hall Manuscript.

Daniel Starza Smith writes for OUPBlog:

The Melford Hall Manuscript is a large, expensively bound manuscript volume containing previously unknown witnesses of nearly 140 poems by John Donne (1572-1631), one of the most outstandingly significant poets and preachers of the early modern period. Discovered by Gabriel Heaton of Sotheby’s during a routine survey of Melford Hall in Suffolk, and restored by sale by the prestigious Brockman binders, it sold in 2018 for £475,000 (£387,500 plus auctioneer’s premium). After a high-profile sale at auction, the UK government intervened to keep the manuscript in the country, in recognition of its enormous importance to the UK’s cultural history. In December 2020, the British Library announced that the volume now resides with them, shelfmarked as Egerton MS 3884. While it is being prepared for use by readers in 2021, it has in the meantime been published online here. What can this manuscript tell us about this prolific and brilliant writer and the literary and textual worlds in which he lived?

Donne’s daring and groundbreaking poetry was printed posthumously as Poems, by J. D. in 1633 (then again in 1635 and five other seventeenth-century printings), but many of its earliest readers would have encountered him in handwritten, privately circulated scribal copies. Donne was the most transcribed literary author of his day, and a true publishing phenomenon of the manuscript medium. […] The Melford MS is the second-largest known collection of Donne’s verse in manuscript, and its discovery calls for a major reconsideration of his early readership and reputation. Studying an artifact like Melford can tell us a huge amount about who Donne’s earliest “fans” were, which of Donne’s writings were available to them, and how they accessed, read, stored, shared, and valued it.

It’s an exciting time to be working on Donne’s texts and early readers. Just last year another manuscript was discovered at Westminster Abbey by Matthew Payne, the Abbey’s Keeper of the Muniments. Where Melford is a large bound volume of poetry, the Westminster Abbey MS was a small booklet containing an unusual prose satire. It’s likely that other texts remain to be found, so it’s important that we know as much as we can about this influential figure and his milieu.

It’s fascinating to me that important texts by one of the most famous English poets are still being discovered, and of course it still amazes me that such things are available to all almost instantly via the magic of the internet.


  1. It’s a new witness, but I don’t see any indication that any of the poems are actually new—thus the stronger emphasis on how this will affect studies of Donne’s influence than on studies of his works themselves.

  2. Ah, I missed that. Oh well, it’s still a great find!

  3. I’m happy to know “Keeper of the Muniments” exists as a job title somewhere.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Donne still has the power to make you go “What? I can’t believe you just said that!”
    (in beautiful verse.)

  5. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I’m kind of fascinated by the idea of post-printing manuscript circulation, which isn’t something I was aware of – I really thought that the copying of manuscripts fizzled out.

    I mean, I know a bit about manuscript (folk) music collections, which do run on later than that in parallel with printed collections, and then there’s the tradition of commonplace books to copy your own favourite parts of printed works, but this sounds quite different again.

    Are these things which were deliberately kept separate or private, like hard copies of fanfic in the early days or some Russian works which hat has talked about, or is it more like letting your friends see your writing?

  6. Jen,

    Than as now, commercial considerations would have played a great part in getting a work published. Plus there were the added considerations of censorship/political & social suitability of getting a work published.

    For example, many Croatian works circulated as manuscripts long before they were printed. The classic work of Croatian baroque, Ivan Gundulić’s Osman wasn’t printed for about 2 centuries after it was written.

  7. I’m kind of fascinated by the idea of post-printing manuscript circulation

    If we abstract from the particular technology in use, there exist alternative publication technologies to the Web including Gopher (about the same age) and Gemini (only two years old). These protocols and formats are much simpler than the Web’s, so that individual programmers can easily write client and server software, and individuals can with little or no help publish their own gopher holes or capsules (the analogue of websites). While some of the content available there is also published on the Web, a good deal of it is not: many authors wish to keep their content available only to people who are willing to take the trouble to use alternative browsers. Gopher was once available on all browsers, but has been systematically eliminated except as a marginally working Firefox plugin.

    There are gateways that allow access to Gopherspace and Geminispace, for anyone who is curious.

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