To provide some context for this manuscript, we have asked Daniel Starza Smith to provide a brief introduction.
Canterbury MS U210/2/2
Canterbury Cathedral’s manuscript copy of Biathanatos (MS U210/2/2, henceforth Canterbury), John Donne’s lengthy prose treaty on suicide, is a curious artifact. Donne himself implied that very few copies of this unusual work were transcribed in his own lifetime, perhaps even just one. Donne famously desired that this work should not be printed, entrusting it to his friend Robert Ker with the injunction: "I forbid it only the Presse, and the Fire; publish it not, but yet burn it not; and between those, do what you will with it" (Donne, 22). The evidence about its circulation in manuscript points similarly to a restricted readership, since Donne himself implied that very few copies of this unusual work were transcribed in his own lifetime. Yet we know the text was eventually printed (posthumously) in quarto, by Humphrey Moseley in 1647, and that at least one other manuscript survives apart from Canterbury (Bodleian Library, MS è Musaeo 131, known as Herbert; see Smith, 227–40). Before the discovery of Canterbury by Peter Beal, it was assumed that Donne had kept the circulation of this controversial work particularly private. This manuscript allows us to amend that view slightly, since the author seems not to have been involved in its production, or at least not closely.
A small quarto volume (gathered 120, 2–716, 812, with quires of irregular size), Canterbury is a formal scribal product, written in a single unknown hand on pre-ruled pages in dark brown ink, in a single hand, with marginal references to Donne’s sources added afterwards in red ink; section headings are copied in the margins, probably to save space. Peter Beal dates the script of the Canterbury manuscript broadly to c.1600–40, adding that it has the appearance of "a purely professional copy, made for someone by a hired scribe … as a purely routine job without any specially careful attempt to check the accuracy of his transcript" (Beal, 40). At 245 pages, the last 35 of which are left blank, it is rather shorter than the "not … much lesse then 300 pages" he described to Sir Henry Goodere when picking up the first scribal copy in 1610 (Donne, 34; Smith, 227–8). Since it contains numerous uncorrected scribal errors, Donne was probably not involved in its production. In contrast, the other surviving manuscript of this work, the 285-page Herbert, contains corrections in Donne’s own hand.
The Canterbury MS has an unclear relation to other surviving witnesses of Biathanatos. Canterbury, Herbert and the 1647 quarto are all textually independent – none was copied from either of the others. However, despite Donne’s apparent supervision of Herbert, it is Canterbury and the quarto which contain the more complete text, including revisions and sidenotes not recorded in Herbert. Nevertheless, Canterbury and the quarto are by no means similar: Beal noted "several hundred substantive variants" (44) between them, concluding that either "three copyists or compositors are using Donne’s holograph, two of them misreading [portions of] his cursive script, while one of them reads it correctly; or, alternatively, Canterbury is using a different exemplar from that used by the other two" (46).
The manuscript was owned in the late eighteenth century by Rev. John Morris (d.1798) and in the early nineteenth century by Sir Robert Harry Inglis (d.1855). Before these owners, it appears to have been owned by William Capel, rector of Milton Bryan in Bedfordshire, right next to Woburn Abbey – the seventeenth-century seat of the Russells, Earls of Bedford. Beal speculates that the manuscript may have come into Capel’s possession from the library at Woburn, having been collected by a member of the Russell family. Lucy Harington Russell (d.1627), Countess of Bedford, was of course Donne’s pre-eminent patron for a number of years and would be the Woburn inhabitant most likely to have sought it out. Henry Goodere is known to have transmitted Donne’s texts to her in the first decade of the seventeenth century, and although the manuscript is not in his hand, he may therefore have played some part in its circulation.
Beal, Peter. In Praise of Scribes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Donne, John. Letters to Severall Persons of Honour. London: Richard Marriot, 1651.
Smith, Daniel Starza. John Donne and the Conway Papers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Daniel Starza Smith, Lincoln College, Oxford