A Manuscript of Short Texts?

Paris, BNF, fr. 837 (pre 1300), ff. 252v-253r
Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France: http://gallica.bnf.fr/?lang=EN

BNF, fr. 837 is mostly composed of short texts. Some of the shortest are lyric poems and texts denouncing bad behaviour; the longest is a saint’s life, and other long ones include a long lyric poem and a short story.

Although the longer texts are much longer than the shorter ones, the manuscript contains no extremely long texts; many other manuscripts have much greater variation in text length.

However, there are some places in the manuscript where several pages are missing, and for many of these, it is possible that some of the missing texts were long texts. Keith Busby suggests that the long texts were removed quite deliberately, to turn the manuscript into a collection of short texts, when perhaps it started off as a collection of texts of varying lengths.

Paris, BNF, fr. 837 (pre 1300), ff. 149v-150r
Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France: http://gallica.bnf.fr/?

This is one of those places. As well as a nineteenth-century note that there are some pages missing, there is also a note of missing texts in a fourteenth-century hand. Either this person had access to a table of contents for the manuscript, or he had access to another copy, and he felt it was a good idea to make notes of all the missing texts.

He notes that the rest of the text on the first page,  ‘Le Chevalier qui fist parler les cons’ is missing, and that the beginning of the text on the second page, ‘La Housse partie’, is also missing. He also notes one missing text between them: a version of Ovid’s Art of Love.

There were many different versions of Ovid’s Art of Love circulating in medieval French; four have survived, and we know of at least one, by Chrétien de Troyes, that hasn’t. They varied enormously in length.

It is possible that the missing Ovid had the full Latin text, and a French translation. That would make it a very long text indeed, and would fit Busby’s theory that somebody deliberately removed the very long texts.

On the other hand, some versions of the Art of Love were considerably shorter. There is a version that survives in another manuscript BNF, fr. 19152 which has a very similar medieval title, ‘Ci comence de Ovide de Arte’, and which is relatively short: the same length as the ‘Le Vair palefroi’, the third longest text in our manuscript. If the missing Art of Love were that version, it would not seem out of place at all.

We cannot know for certain. That is one of the fascinating (and sometimes frustrating) things about medieval studies – sometimes the answer is not recoverable.

Next: Reader intervention

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