A Note on Manuscript Construction and the Perils
Affecting Manuscript Survival:
The 1726 first printed edition of "The Battle of Maldon," added as an appendix to the Chronicle of John of Glastonbury, edited by Thomas Hearne, describes the source MS as "capite et calce mutilum," or "maimed at head and foot." We have another version this rare text because the original transcription from which Hearn set his type survived. Librarian John Elphinston, of the Cottonian library, copied it to paper by hand in a manuscript now known as MS. Rawlinson B203. Elphinston's copy is generally agreed to be more accurate than Hearne's and now serves as the "copy text" or model from which modern editions are made. "Maldon"s original manuscript no longer exists, however, because it was destroyed in the famous Cottonian library fire in October 1731, five years after Hearne fortunately printed his edition. Sir Robert Bruce Cotton had been the sixteenth-centurys most successful collector of ancient English manuscripts, and in the next century his collection was still stored at his estate, cataloged as he had left it. Each bookshelf was topped by a bust of a Roman emperor or other figure from Roman history, which gave its manuscripts their first name. The second and third numbers were the shelf number and the MS. number on that shelf. So MS. Cotton Otho A.xii.fol. 57a-62b ("Maldon"s codicological name) means it came from Cottons library, from the shelves under the bust of the emperor Otho, first shelf (A), twelfth manuscript, folios (pages) 57 (top, right or "meat" side of the hide) to 62 (bottom, left or "hair" side of the hide).
Unfortunately, a fire which started in the chimney of the cook's fireplace set fire to the roof, and flames soon destroyed the entire building. The librarians ran into the burning building and saved as many manuscripts as they could before rescue became impossible. Some manuscripts were so close to the fire that they emerged smoking and scorched. The Maldon MS was not among those saved, so our only scholarly source for the poets song of Byrtnoths warriors heroism comes from Hearnes printed edition and Elphinstons transcription. This is not an uncommon fate for ancient literaturesome of it is still being recovered from the bindings of later books where its calfskin was used to stiffen spines, and the most famous modern treasure trove of classical Greek manuscripts is an ancient garbage dump at Oxyrinchus in Egypt. Precious as the poets words were to Byrtnoths descendants, those chance survivals in manuscripts, early printed editions, and transcriptions, are perhaps even more valuable to us for preserving our languages past.
If you want to read a terrific fictional evocation of the death by fire of a great medieval library, set in a modern-designed murder mystery plot, read the medievalist Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1983, available in two copies at 856.5 E19JnBw and also in a not-too-shabby video staring Sean Connery as the Oxford-trained logician-detective, Brother William of Baskerville, and a very young, innocent-looking [!!] Christian Slater as Adso of Melik, the novice monk, at VC 791.437 N174).