The French Prose Apocalypse is an anonymous prose work of approximately 27,000 words, which contains two textual elements: a translation of the Latin Vulgate text of the Apocalypse (or Revelation) of St John, and a commentary – twice as long as the translation – which elucidates John’s mysterious text as a source of moral, theological, and doctrinal knowledge. The work survives in some thirty illustrated manuscripts, in which the Bible text is separated into short sections – ranging from a verse to a chapter – which are immediately followed by the relevant passage of commentary; these sections are often, but not always, introduced by a miniature, but there are substantial variations between the manuscripts in terms of where the breaks occur and whether images are included – and if they are, to which iconographical traditions they belong.
The earliest copy of the French Prose Apocalypse (Paris, BnF fr. 403) was produced around 1250, and it is generally thought that the text was written shortly before then, although attempts have recently been made to date it as early as c. 1220 (by the art historian John Lowden). The majority of the manuscripts, including the earliest copies (such as Paris, BnF fr. 403, Paris, BnF fr. 9574, London, Lambeth Palace 75, and Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 394) were produced in England, and so were copied in Anglo-Norman, the dialect of French which had thrived as a language of literature, law, commerce, and record since the introduction of the language to Britain through the Conquest of 1066. All of the manuscripts digitised for the Apocalypse in Oxford project are likewise of English origin and written in Anglo-Norman. Despite the prominence of Anglo-Norman in the text’s transmission, however, there is still considerable doubt regarding on which side of the Channel the Prose Apocalypse was originally composed: at present, the critical consensus seems to favour northern France, but philological arguments adduced are tenuous at best, and it is hoped that the larger programme of research on the transmission of the text to which the present project belongs will eventually allow a more carefully substantiated and decisive judgement on this question