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Leeds Studies in English 

New Series XXXVI 

Leeds Studies in English 
School of English 
University of Leeds 


Leeds Studies in English 

New Series XXXVI 

© Leeds Studies in English 2005 
School of English 
University of Leeds 
Leeds, England 

ISSN 0075-8566 

Leeds Studies in English 

New Series XXXVI 

Edited by 

Alfred Hiatt and Andrew Wawn 

Leeds Studies in English 
School of English 
University of Leeds 

Leeds Studies in English 

Leeds Studies in English is an annual publication from the School of English, 
University of Leeds, England. An international refereed journal, Leeds Studies in 
English publishes articles on Old and Middle English literature, Old Icelandic 
language and literature, and the historical study of the English language. 

Editorial Board: Catherine Batt 

Paul Hammond 
Alfred Hiatt, Co-Editor 
Ananya Jahanara Kabir 
Rory McTurk 
Oliver Pickering 
Mary Swan 
Clive Upton 

Andrew Wawn, Chairman and Co-Editor 

Notes for Contributors 

Contributors are requested to follow the Modern Humanities Research 
Association Style Guide (London: MHRA, 2002). The language of publication is 
English and translations should normally be supplied for quotations in languages 
other than English. Each contributor will receive twenty offprints. Please send 
all contributions for the attention of: The Editor, Leeds Studies in English, School 
of English, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, United Kingdom. 


Copies of books for review should be sent to the Editor at the above address. 


Bede's Civitas Domnoc and Dunwich, Suffolk 

Andrew Breeze, University of Navarre 1 

Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

Peter Orton, Queen Mary, University of London 5 

The Armour-Bearer in Abbo's Passio sancti Eadmundi 
and Anglo-Saxon England 

Paul Cavill, University of Nottingham 47 

The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

Carla Morini, University of Calabria 63 

Levels of Learning in Anglo-Saxon Worcester: The Evidence Re-assessed 

Christine Thijs, University of Leeds 105 

Revenge and Moderation: The Church and Vengeance in Medieval Iceland 

David Clark, Magdalene College, Oxford 133 

The Adaptation of Laxdcela Saga in Olafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta 

Elizabeth Ashman Rowe, Somerville, MA 157 

Polysemy in Middle English Embosen and the Hart of The 
Book of the Duchess 

David Scott-Macnab, University of Johannesburg 175 

Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

Catherine Batt, University of Leeds ; Denis Renevey, 

University of Lausanne ; Christiania Whitehead, 

University of Warwick 195 

An Eye-Witness Account or Literary Historicism? John Page's Siege of Rouen 

Tamar S. Drukker, University of Cambridge 251 

'Doctrye and studie': Female Learning and Religious Debate in Capgrave's 
Life of Katherine 

Sarah James, University of Cambridge 275 

'Wher ioye is ay lasting 1 : John Lydgate's Contemptus Mundi 
in British Library MS Harley 2255 

Joseph L. Grossi, Jr., Casinius College, NY 303 

Deconstructing Skelton: The Text of the English Poems 

A.S.G. Edwards, University of Glamorgan 335 

Reviews: 353 

Christina ofMarkyate: A Twelfth-Century Holy Woman, ed. by 
Samuel Fanous and Henrietta Leyser. London and New York: 

Routledge, 2005. 

[Mary Swan, University of Leeds) 

Turpines Story: A Middle English Translation of the Pseudo-Turpin 
Chronicle, ed. by Stephen H. A. Shepherd, EETS o.s. Oxford: 

Oxford University Press, 2004. 

[Raluca Radulescu, University of North Wales, Bangor ] 

Emily Steiner, Documentary Culture and the Making of Middle 
English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 

[Alfred Hiatt, University of Leeds] 

Medieval Virginities, ed. by Anke Bemau, Ruth Evans and Sarah Salih. 
Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003. 

[Marta Cobb, University of Leeds] 

Bede's Civitas Domnoc and Dunwich, Suffolk 

Andrew Breeze 

Bede's civitas Domnoc, where Felix of Burgundy established his see and converted 
the people of Suffolk, is a problem for both philologists and historians. Although 
many identify it as Dunwich (TM 4770), where the sea has washed away the 
medieval town, others prefer Walton Castle (TM 3235), a Saxon Shore fort (now 
also under water) near Felixstowe. If the location is uncertain, so is the form. Most 
read civitas Dommoc , but some argue for Domnoc. As for the meaning of Domnoc 
(or Dommoc), this is obscure as well. It must be Celtic, yet there is no agreement on 
whether it is from British or Irish, or on what it signifies. But no confidence is 
inspired by John Morris's astonishing suggestion of a link with St Dyfnog, son of 
Medraut, and hence perhaps grandnephew of King Arthur. 1 

Location, form, and etymology are thus all unclear. Nevertheless, a vital 
breakthrough has been made by Professor Richard Coates of the University of 
Sussex, who backs up earlier archaeological arguments with his own linguistic 
ones. 2 What follows differs from his conclusions in one point only, though that a 
significant one. Let us look at what he says. 

As regards early attestations the Moore Bede (Cambridge, University 
Library, MS Kk.v. 16) has ciuitas Domnoc, the St Petersburg Bede has ciuitas 
Dommoc. Flistorians claim the second is the better reading, and most authorities 
(though not the Ordnance Survey) identify it with varying degrees of assurance as 
Dunwich, not Walton Castle. 3 Yet Coates very reasonably rejects Dommoc on 
textual grounds, seeing Domnoc as the lectio difficilior. He also rightly doubts the 
traditional etymology 'deep (harbour)' from British dumno~ (cf. Welsh dwfn, 
'deep'), because u here should not appear as Old English o. He therefore argues 
for an Irish derivation, citing Old Irish domnach [church] from Late Latin 
dominicum [house of the Lord; church]. It is true that domnach is common in Irish 

Andrew Breeze 

toponyms, as with Donaghmore [great church], near Newry in Northern Ireland, or 
Donaghpatrick [church of Patrick], near Navan in Meath. But there are grave 
objections to Coates's derivation of Bede's -oc from Old Irish -acli. 

Even so, Coates is surely correct in seeing Domnoc as Irish. It would, 
however, surely not represent domnach [church], but the personal name Domnoc. 
This is well attested. It can be linked with Gaulish Dumnacus (the name of a 
Gaulish leader in Caesar's Gallic War), Welsh Dyfnog (already cited), and Middle 
Irish MAIL DOMNA[C] [servant of Domnac], the last on a tenth-century cross 
from Penally, Pembrokeshire. 4 Still more to the point is St Domnoc (known too in 
early Irish as Modomnoc [my Domnoc], a hypocoristic form), a pupil of the great 
St David (d. 601), who taught him bee-keeping. St Mo-Dhomhnog is associated 
with the monasteries of Tibberaghny (of which fragments survive) south of 
Kilkenny, and Bremore north of Dublin. He figures in the twelfth-century Latin 
life of David, but not the later Welsh one. 5 

Why should an Irish personal name occur on the coast of Suffolk, whether 
at Dunwich or Walton Castle? Bede himself provides the answer. He refers to 
Malmesbury in Wiltshire as urbs Maildubi. According to William of Malmesbury, 
Maeldub was an Irish monk who taught St Aldhelm. 6 Bede likewise mentions 
Dicuill (otherwise unknown), an Irish monk who established a religious community 
at Bosham, Sussex. Fursa's monastery at Burgh Castle near Lowestoft is well 
known. Maeldub, Dicuill, and Fursa all founded monasteries, all had Irish names, 
and were not the only Irish monks in England whose names come down to us. St 
Aidan (<Irish aed 'fire') is famous, but Bede mentions as well Foillan (who took 
over from Fursa at Burgh Castle), Goban, another Dicuill, and Ultan (a second 
Ultan figures in the ninth-century Anglo-Latin poem De Abbatibus). 1 

Given these Irish forms and the career of St Domnoc, there is reason to take 
civitas Domnoc as 'Domnoc's stronghold'. It would be called after an Irishman of 
this name just as the unlocated monastery of Tunnacaestir (which Bede also locates 
in a civitas ) was called after its abbot, Tunna. What Tunna did in Northumbria, 
Domnoc (of whom we have no other knowledge) did in Suffolk. He would have 
been an Irishman, presumbly a monk, who occupied a Roman fort later handed over 
to Felix. If he was a monk within Roman walls, he would resemble Bass at Reculver 

in Kent, Cedd at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex, and Ebba at Ebchester near Durham, all 


of whom established monasteries in Roman forts acquired as royal gifts. 

The above, then, appears to give a simple and cogent explanation of civitas 
Domnoc. Does it help decide whether this place was Dunwich or Walton Castle? It 
seems it does. There are three points. There is a strong circumstantial case for 


Bede's Civitas Domnoc and Dunwich, Suffolk 

Walton Castle, since Bede consistently uses civitas for Roman sites, whether cities 
or forts; Walton Castle was near a centre of royal power at Rendlesham; it had a 
chapel to St Felix (a rare dedication); and it is by modem Felixstowe. The case for 
Roman settlement at Dunwich is on the other hand weak, as is (despite Dorothy 
Whitelock's learning) that for linking it with Felix. 9 There are also great philological 
difficulties in deriving the first element of Dunwich from Domnoc. Finally, Coates 
in his paper offers an entirely English etymology for Dunwich , proposing a meaning 
'dune huts, sheds in sandhills'. That disposes of any need to link the toponym with 
Domnoc. Varied historical, linguistic, and archaeological evidence thus suggests we 
can say goodbye for ever to the association of Domnoc with Dunwich (hinted at in 
one twelfth-century manuscript of William of Malmesbury's Gesta Pontificum , and 
proposed by the Canterbury monk Thomas of Elmham in the early fifteenth 
century). Rigold's arguments for Walton Castle would hence be vindicated; so, too, 
would the Suffolk writer Bartholomew Cotton, whom Whitelock cites as 
identifying civitas Domnoc as Felixstowe in 1298. 

If the above conclusions are correct, their implications are fourfold. First, 
writers on the Anglo-Saxons, editions of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, and 
dictionaries of English place-names should henceforth read Domnoc and not 
Dommoc, which has no meaning and should be dropped. Second, we can feel sure 
that Felix for seventeen years conducted his mission and taught at the lost Saxon 
Shore fort of Walton Castle. Like Burgh Castle, this was easy to reach by water, but 
had stout walls against intruders (though they were in the end powerless to halt 
destruction from the sea). It was there, too, that he died (his bones being translated 
to Soham and then Ramsey): a missionary exiled for the love of God, with a name 
still commemorated by the booming Europort of Felixstowe. Third, we can believe 
his monastery was occupied previously by an Irishman called Domnoc, perhaps a 
monk. Even though this paper disputes his etymology, Coates would here be right 
in seeing rare Irish influence in Bede’s civitas Domnoc. Fourth, we can accept 
of Dunwich to the north that it was not a Roman settlement of importance, and that 
its name is English, not Celtic. 

Henry James wrote of Dunwich that it was 'not even the ghost of its dead 
self; almost all you can say of it is that it consists of the mere letters of its old 
name'. That 'old name' has long intrigued or vexed linguists and historians; but 
it seems the questions regarding it can now be taken as solved. 10 


Andrew Breeze 


1 John Morris, The Age of Arthur (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973), pp. 140, 562-3. 

2 S. E. Rigold, 'The Supposed See of Dunwich', Journal of the British Archaeological 
Association, 24 (1961), 55-9, and his 'Further Evidence About the Site of "Dommoc"’, Journal of 
the British Archaeological Association, 37 (1974), 97-102; Richard Coates and Andrew Breeze, 
Celtic Voices, English Places (Stamford: Shaun Tyas, 2000), pp. 234-40. The Cambridge 
Dictionary of English Place-Names, ed. by V. E. Watts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 
2004), p. 200, makes no reference to Coates's discussion. 

3 Map of Britain in the Dark Ages, 2nd edn (Southampton: Ordnance Survey, 1966); Peter 
Hunter Blair, The World of Bede (London: Seeker and Warburg, 1970), p. 108; F. M. Stenton, 
Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 116; Dorothy 
Whitelock, 'The Pre-Viking Age Church in East Anglia', Anglo-Saxon England, 1 (1972), 1-22 ( 
p. 4, n. 2); J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, Bede's 'Ecclesiastical History of the English People': A 
Historical Commentary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), pp. 78, 224. 

4 D. Ellis Evans, Gaulish Personal Names (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), pp. 85, 
196-7, 345. 

5 Charles Plummer, Miscellanea Hagiographica Hibernica (Brussels: Societe des 
Bollandistes, 1925), p. 217; Rhigyfarch's Life of St David, ed. by J. W. James (Cardiff: University 
of Wales Press, 1967), p. 18; Aubrey Gwynn and R. N. Hadcock, Medieval Religious Houses: 
Ireland (London: Longman, 1970), pp. 396, 407. 

6 Aldhelm, The Prose Works, trans. by Michael Lapidge and Michael Herren (Cambridge: 
Brewer, 1979), pp. 6-7, 181-2. 

7 Cf. Brian 6 Cuiv, Aspects of Irish Personal Names (Dublin: Dublin Institute for 
Advanced Studies, 1986). 

8 Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. by Bertram Colgrave and R. A. 
B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), p. 270 n. 2; Charles Thomas, The Early Christian 
Archaeology of North Britain (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 34. 

9 Norman Scarfe, Suffolk in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1986), pp. 7, 41. 

10 I here thank Count Tolstoy for many gifts of books over the years, including some 
quoted above. 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

Peter Orton 

This article will re-examine some of the information in Bede's Historia 
Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (hereafter HE), completed in AD 731,' on the 
conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the late sixth and seventh 
centuries. It will concentrate not on the positive promotion and reception of the 
Christian message, but on the related but (as I shall argue) distinct question of the 
Anglo-Saxons' detachment from the pagan religion that they had followed for 
centuries before the missionaries arrived. Bede himself was, of course, far more 
interested in the embrace of Christianity by the Anglo-Saxons, particularly their 
kings, than he was in any problems they faced in putting paganism behind them; 
and although commentators on HE are now less willing than they once were to 
align themselves with Bede's own moral and religious perspective on the 
conversion, 2 which clearly had much in common, ideologically speaking, with 
that of the missionaries whose work he describes, it is bound to be difficult to 
discover evidence of the counter-attractions of paganism in an ecclesiastical 
history written by a committed Christian. Bede's lack of interest in the interface 
between the two religions is not simply a consequence of his personal religious 
convictions; conversion is supposed, from an orthodox Christian point of view, to 
entail the recognition that all pagan beliefs and practices are fundamentally 
misguided. Christian conversion does not afford paganism even the dignity of a 
serious adversary; it simply reveals its folly. Nevertheless, the information Bede 
supplies shows that not all Anglo-Saxons saw the adoption of the new religion as 
automatically cutting off the line of retreat into paganism, or even as necessarily 
involving its abandonment. Furthermore, if we try to bypass Bede's perspective 
and look at the conversion, not as the simple enlightenment of benighted 
heathens, but as a process of social and intellectual interaction between the 

Peter Orton 

missionaries and their ’victims', 3 the suspicion soon arises that neither side 
understood the other's religious position at all well. Part of the reason for this, as 
we shall see later, is that paganism and Christianity represent two very different 
kinds of religion, making it difficult for adherents of either to appreciate the 
attractions of the other. In the final part of this article I shall use the Old English 
poem Beowulf to illustrate some of the difficulties the Anglo-Saxons faced in 
revising their conception of their own pagan past in the light of their newly- 
acquired Christian faith. 

Conversion and conversion narratives 

The recent development of theoretical models of religious conversion has helped 
to put the analysis of conversion narratives generally on a firm theoretical footing. 
Lewis R. Rambo's book on conversion draws together much recent work in 
missiology that has important consequences for current and future missionary 
activity around the world; 4 but its value for the study of the conversion of 
individuals and societies in the past is also considerable. We may begin, in fact, 
with Rambo's definition of conversion and his identification of its sub-varieties. 
What all conversions have in common is that they involve a more or less 
fundamental change in the spiritual orientation of the converted individual or 
group; but several types of conversion are distinguishable according to the 
condition of the convert before and after conversion. 5 The categories defined by 
Rambo that are most relevant to the present study are 'tradition transition', which 
involves the exchange of one religion for another, and 'apostasy' (or 'defection'), 
whereby a convert abandons a religion previously embraced. 6 It is now 
increasingly recognized that conversion is rarely a sudden transformation, but 
more often a protracted process, unpredictable enough in its development to 
postpone almost indefinitely any certainty about when it has advanced beyond the 
possibility of defection. 7 In the case of conversions of the tradition-transition type, 
with which Bede is mostly concerned, defection to the rejected religion is a 
potential danger for as long as it is remembered; so if we are to appreciate how, in 
any given case, one religion succeeded in supplanting another, or why it failed to 
do so in spite of vigorous missionary efforts, or what factors lay behind 
apostasies, we need to know as much as possible, not only about the attractions of 
the new religion for converts, but also about the abandoned one, and the level of 
conviction and determination with which it was consigned to the past. 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

The literary legacy of medieval Europe has left us several accounts of the 
conversion of individuals and groups. Most describe instances of tradition 
transition: Christianity is embraced in place of paganism. Although few modem 
readers are able to take such accounts, particularly those in which miracles play a 
decisive role, as entirely historical, there is no reason to doubt that they contain a 
kernel of fact. And yet the authors of conversion narratives often omit much 
information of a kind that the reader requires for a satisfactory sense of how 
conversion was achieved. For example, there is the problem of the inherently 
mysterious nature of conversion, and indeed of religious conviction generally: 
even modem accounts of conversion that concern themselves with this question 
often struggle to describe the experience with any precision, and their medieval 
predecessors rarely make the attempt to do so except in the most conventional 
terms. There are also generic and pragmatic features of conversion narratives that 
tend to exclude any detailed analysis of the factors that led to the decision to 
convert, or of the actual process of exchange. 8 Such narratives, typically written 
retrospectively by representatives of the adopted religion, are firmly cast as 
success-stories; 9 they are not to be expected to dwell on past misconceptions from 
which the convert has now been freed. Detailed attention, even of a critical kind, 
to the spiritual orientation that has been replaced is no longer felt to be necessary 
or appropriate when the time comes for such accounts to be written. 

A few of Bede's accounts of conversion are in this mould; but many of 
them reveal some interest in the circumstances of particular conversions, or even 
touch on difficulties encountered by the missionaries. According to HE, the 
mission to the Anglo-Saxons began (in 597) with the arrival in Kent of 
Augustine, sent by Pope Gregory the Great. 10 Augustine converted the Kentish 
king TEthelbcrht, and the following century saw the extension of the Roman 
missionary programme, supported by an independent initiative from Iona in the 
North, to the rest of Anglo-Saxon England. The Isle of Wight was probably the 
last kingdom to go Christian in about 686. 11 Bede's HE is by far our most detailed 
source of infonnation about this period of Anglo-Saxon history, and it contains, 
by my count, twenty-six descriptions of the conversion of individuals or groups. 12 
Prior to conversion, the Anglo-Saxons were pagan polytheists, so these twenty-six 
are all descriptions of tradition transition as defined earlier. But Bede does not 
shrink from recording the struggles of the Anglo-Saxon church to establish itself: 
in addition to his accounts of conversions, he describes several instances of 
reversion to paganism, and even a few examples of resistance to what Christianity 
had to offer. There is, understandably enough, no sign in HE of any intellectual or 


Peter Orton 

historical interest on Bede's part in paganism as a religion; 13 but we are given, in 
passing, a fair amount of information that contributes to a general idea of how 
paganism was envisaged by the missionaries. Bede also refers, though much less 
frequently, to prospective converts' conceptions of themselves as pagans, or to 
aspects of pagan practice or mentality which have some bearing on our 
understanding of the conversion process itself as he describes it. These references 
will be given due attention here, though what we most miss in interpreting them is 
independent evidence from other sources about Anglo-Saxon pagan beliefs and 
practices. The question of whether or not it is appropriate to use the comparative 
evidence of Germanic paganism on the continent to compensate for this 
deficiency in English sources has long been controversial, and it will have to be 
reopened here. 

Apostasies in HE 

We may begin with a survey of apostasies in HE. These illustrate die rejection of 
Christianity by people who originally adopted it, and may therefore be expected to 
give us some idea of the counterattractions of paganism, or the circumstances under 
which it was able to reassert itself. The instances of reversion described in HE vary 
according to the relative sincerity of the original conversion, or (when kingdoms are 
involved) of its extent. Some accounts of apostasy in Bede do little more than register 
its occurrence, without suggesting any explanation for it. Thus the East Angles 
remained 'in error' (in errore) for three years following the death of their convert-king 
Eorpwold, 14 but returned to the Christian fold under the influence of Sigeberht, their 
next Christian king. Earlier, Bede has described Eorpwold as accepting Christianity 
'together with his kingdom' (cum sua prouincia); 15 but he also refers to the extensive 
missionary work that Sigeberht found it necessary to initiate among his subjects when 
he succeeded, which indicates a high level of national apostasy following Eorpwold's 
death. We cannot tell if apostasy resulted here from tire loss of spiritual leadership 
invested in the king as an individual, or whether the king's death was itself taken as a 
symptom of the new God's inadequacies; but Eorpwold's death is clearly regarded by 
Bede as a significant factor. A second example comes from the north: when King 
Edwin of Northumbria, a convert, died, his successors, Osric and Eanfrith, ruled Deira 
and Bemicia respectively. Both had converted, but reverted to paganism when they 
succeeded. 1 b Bede offers no excuse, and does not say anything about whether their 
subjects followed suit, but his horror at this development is very clearly conveyed. 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

Bede is seldom explicit about the factors that provoked apostasies, but 
occasionally we are given a hint of an explanation. When the East Saxon convert- 
king Swithhelm died he was succeeded by Sigehere and Sebbi as joint kings. 17 
Both were Christian; but Sigehere, along with his subjects in the part of the 
kingdom he ruled, reverted to paganism, 'as if they could protect themselves by such 
means from the plague' 18 that was ravaging the kingdom at the time. Both king and 
kingdom were later reconverted at the instigation of King Wulfhere of Mercia. 

Another type of apostasy described by Bede involves the occurrence, 
following an 'official' conversion of a king and his kingdom, of increased or more 
open pagan activity by the people under the rule of a new, still-pagan king; and 
here the extent and depth of the original conversion and subsequent apostasy 
never emerge very clearly. Perhaps the best-known example is Essex under the 
successors of King Sasberht, a convert: when Sacberht died, the kingdom was 
taken over by his three sons, all still pagan, who then felt able to practise their 
religion more openly than they had when their father was still alive. 19 This is 
clearly not apostasy: the three brothers had only soft-pedalled their paganism for a 
time; they had not turned against it. When they succeeded, their subjects followed 
their example and chose paganism; and although we have been given to 
understand that the whole kingdom had previously converted under Sasberht, 20 the 
people continued to prefer paganism even after the three brother-kings had been 
killed in a war against the West Saxons, and Bishop Mellitus, who had converted 
the kingdom under Sasberht, returned to his London see. 21 Here we can only 
conclude that the original conversion of the East Saxons must have been a very 
superficial affair. A rather different case, in which Bede's version of the story 
explicitly indicates a somewhat watered-down species of apostasy on the part of 
the people, is Kent under Eadbald, still unconverted when he succeeded his 
Christian father yEthelberht: those of his subjects whose previous conversion had 
been more political than genuine took the opportunity to revert to their traditional 
practices when Eadbald came to the throne. 22 

There are several points of interest among these examples that are relevant 
to my theme. One is Bede's linking of apostasy to a national crisis in the case of 
Sigehere of Essex, who reverted to paganism in a time of plague: it is not difficult 
to understand how national afflictions of this sort might have been blamed on the 
abandonment of paganism and promoted its revival. The plague here represents 
one of various types of'crisis' that Rambo identifies as a trigger of any conversion 
(including apostasy), whether personal or collective. 23 We should also note Bede's 
recognition of insincere conversion, as in the case of the people of Kent under 


Peter Orton 

Eadbald: false converts would certainly have been particularly liable to apostatize, 
though of course having never properly converted in the first place they do not 
count as true apostates either. A third point may be made on the basis of Bede’s 
accounts of Essex under the three pagan brother-kings and Kent under Eadbald: 
the conversion of a king did not automatically lead to the conversion of his 
subjects and followers, even including members of his own immediate family. In 
Kent, the situation under Eadbald must be viewed in the light of Bede's comment, 
in his earlier account of the mission to his father Aithelberht, that Augustine had 
originally emphasised that conversion should be voluntary. 24 Later, however, 
Pope Gregory wrote to yEthelberht urging him to suppress paganism in his 
kingdom. The insincere converts who reverted under Eadbald may thus have been 
people put under pressure by /Ethelberht to abandon their preferred religion 
following a period during which they had been encouraged to believe they had a 
free choice in the matter. In both these cases, Bede's customary emphasis on the 
spiritual orientation of kings creates the impression that the general apostasy 
resulted from the new pagan kings' encouragement; but the lifting of the restraint 
on paganism exercised by the previous Christian king might have been an equally 
important factor. 

In addition to these records of apostasy or semi-apostasy, Bede includes the 
occasional snippet of information about actual opposition to the Christian faith. In 
Wessex, Cenwealh, pagan son of the Christian King Cynegisl, was offered 
conversion, probably on his accession, but refused it. 25 We are given no further 
details. I have already mentioned the case of the convert Swithhelm's successor 
Sigehere, joint ruler (with Sebbi) of the East Saxons, who apostatized, along with 
his subjects. Unusually, Bede here adds a brief account of the spiritual orientation 
of the king and most of his subjects: they 'loved this present life, seeking no other 
and not even believing in any future existence'. 26 This indicates very clearly that 
the original conversion of the East Saxons had been far from thorough. 

The Christian confrontation with paganism 

These examples of reversion and resistance to Christianity show, in their different 
ways, that paganism retained enough attraction for some to cause them to reject 
the Christian message, occasionally at the first point of contact but more 
commonly at a later stage. We are given no explanatory details except in the case 
of Essex under Sigehere; but the foundation of this resistance (though it is never 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

mentioned by Bede) was probably that Christianity did not constitute a 
satisfactory substitute for paganism. Religions fall into one of two general 
categories. Anglo-Saxon paganism was an example of a folk religion, Christianity 
(like Judaism, Buddhism and Islam) of a world religion. Folk religions generally 
are 'eclectic and open to outsiders'; 27 they tend to be polytheistic, worldly, 
agricultural in emphasis (at least in medieval Europe), and practically orientated. 
Their adherents use sacrifice or other rituals to influence natural or random 
processes in their favour, for example to control the weather to maximise crop- 
yields, or to elicit supernatural support in the pursuit of success in warfare, or 
wealth, or personal health and emotional fulfilment. Bede's comment on the 
priorities of King Sigehere and his followers in the East Saxon kingdom, quoted 
above, is a good illustration of the secular emphasis of folk religions generally. 
World religions, by contrast, are inclined to reject the fleshly and material 
concerns of this world and concentrate on the life of the spirit and the world to 
come. It has been suggested that communities following folk religions are 
especially vulnerable to missionary enterprises on behalf of world religions: folk 
religions tend to be strictly local concerns, regarded by the tribe as its business 
and no-one else's; and because they rarely involve any coherent or dogmatic 
ideology, they lack the kind of institutional and intellectual vigour needed to 
counter the missionaries' claims. 28 On the other hand, adherents of folk-religions, 
especially agriculturists, will not lightly abandon their cults, partly because they 
fear the material consequences of doing so (the crops could fail and they could 
starve, for example), but also because world religions do not necessarily offer 
anything to replace them.' As one scholar has put it in connection with the 
conversion of the Franks, the Christian God 'intervened at specific times in 
history', but is 'not a God of the annually recurrent seasons which made up the 
farmer's calendar'. 30 

These considerations help to explain both the resistance to Christianity and 
the various reversions to paganism that Bede describes, especially the apostasies 
of King Sigehere and his East Saxon subjects, and the indifference to the 
possibility of salvation that Bede attributes to them; but the case of Sigehere 
raises some difficult questions about the attitude of kings in particular to the 
prospect of conversion. It has been argued that Anglo-Saxon kings would have 
been especially receptive to the Christian message because of the enhanced 
prestige and power which the missionaries assured them would come with 
conversion: God was presented to them as the mightiest of political allies, willing 
and able to reward royal converts with assistance in the defeat of their enemies 


Peter Orton 

and the extension of their realms. 31 There were also social and political 
implications for kings in accepting baptism and establishing Christianity as the 
official religion of the kingdom. The succession of kings in the Bretwaldaship 
(Arthelberht of Kent, Rasdwald of the East Angles, Edwin of Northumbria) was 
probably bound up with the question of when and from whom a king who either 
was, or was in line to be, Bretwalda would accept conversion. Decisions may 
have been influenced by the need to assert power over one's predecessor in the 
position, or over rival kings, or (in Aithelberhfs case) by a desire to assert his 
political independence of the Franks. 32 Thus either conversion or the refusal to 
convert could be used as assertions of political, social and personal independence. 
The religious divisions identified earlier between members of the same royal 
families might also be explained partly on this basis. Perhaps the arrival of the 
missionaries posed special problems for kings and their families. 

Another feature which world-religions do not share with paganism is their 
exclusiveness: 33 to adopt Christianity is to repudiate all other gods who in the 
Christian view are not gods at all. They may be condemned as mere fantasies, or 
as demons, or (when, as always in Bede, idolatry is the target) as lifeless, inert 
blocks of wood or stone. Bede provides us with some evidence that the 
polytheistic nature of paganism presented the Christian missionaries with a 
particular difficulty: the Anglo-Saxons were probably predisposed to treat the 
Christian God as just another god to be added to the range of pagan gods whom 
they already venerated—a tendency which has been called 'adhesion'. 34 Bede 
describes how Rasdwald, king of the East Angles, fell into adhesion: after his 
conversion in Kent he returned to his kingdom where his wife and others 
corrupted his faith to the extent that he maintained both Christian and pagan altars 
in his temple. 35 Paganism, naturally pluralistic, 36 could accommodate any variety of 
gods; and as long as the singularity and the omnipotence of the Christian God were not 
too scrupulously regarded, it could find room for him. But as Bede makes perfectly 
clear in his account of Rasdwald's error, Christianity was not in a position to reach any 
kind of compromise with paganism; if kings or anyone else were to become true 
converts, they had to be persuaded to accept Christianity's exclusiveness. The case of 
Rasdwald shows more clearly even than the apostasies considered earlier that it was 
not enough for missionaries to describe, or even demonstrate, God's power and hope 
that the worship of other gods would be rejected and forgotten after baptism. A 
positive attack on the intellectual basis of paganism was necessary. 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

The Christian conception of paganism 

There are some examples in HE of reasoned argument against the worship of 
pagan gods. The target is invariably idolatry/ 7 An example of such arguments 
occurs in Bede's account of the Northumbrian King Oswiu's attempts to persuade 
Sigeberht of the East Saxons to convert. Oswiu tells him that 

deos esse no posse, qui hominum manibus facti essent; dei creandi 
materiam lignum uel lapidem esse non posse, quorum recisurae uel 
igni absumerentur uel in uasa quaelibet humani usus formarentur 
uel certe dispectui habita foras proicerentur et pedibus conculcata 
in terram uerterentur. 38 

[objects made by the hands of men could not be gods. Neither 
wood nor stone were materials from which gods could be created, 
the remnants of which were either burned in the fire or made into 
vessels for men's use or else cast out as refuse, trodden underfoot 
and reduced to dust.] 

God's home, on the other hand, is in heaven rather than in any worldly substance. 
This argument is an elaboration of Isaiah 44.15-20, 39 which dwells on the 
absurdity of worshipping a god made from a material, wood, that may also be 
burnt as fuel. Here, then, is an anti-pagan line to which a pagan king was 
exposed: idols are man-made; and like all man-made artefacts, they are made 
from perishable materials, so they cannot be gods. The fact that this argument is 
brought forward by a king rather than a missionary is noteworthy. So is the fact 
that Oswiu was a nephew of King Edwin of Northumbria, to whom a similar line 
was put in a letter from Pope Boniface, 40 written probably between 619 and 625, 41 
long before Edwin's conversion. This letter is worth looking at in some detail, for 
it incorporates most of the standard arguments against idolatry drawn from the 
Old Testament, as well as some more individual ones. 

Boniface is scathing about idols and their worship, alluding to, and 
sometimes quoting verbatim, most of the biblical passages that formed the 
foundation of the standard Christian case against idolatry. Edwin's gods, like the 
'gods of the nations' of the Psalms, are 'devils'; 4 ' but at the same time they are the 
inanimate, insensible idols of the Psalms, whose eyes, ears, noses, hands and feet 
imply none of the senses and capacities associated with these features in human 
beings. 43 Powerless to assist their worshippers, made as they are from corruptible 


Peter Orton 

materials by Edwin's subjects, 44 they achieve only the appearance of men; and 
'those who put their trust in them therefore become like them’. 45 Idols possess no 
independent power, and Boniface cannot understand how the Northumbrians can 
be so foolish as to worship them. 

There are two separate ideas of Edwin's gods here which actually conflict, 
though both have biblical authority. One animates them as demons capable of 
deceit; the other sees idols as lifeless replicas of men, in contrast with man 
himself who has received the breath of life from God. From the evangelical point 
of view, both these conceptualizations combine constructive with damaging 
implications. The identification of pagan gods as demons might have seemed a 
useful way of drawing pagans towards the Christian moral vision of the world as 
subject to the antagonistic forces of good and evil—a step forward, perhaps, 
along the road to conversion; but on the other hand it involves an acceptance of 
the reality of pagan gods as intelligent beings, and so opens the way for debate 
over the relative power of Christian and pagan gods—a debate which the 
missionaries would no doubt have been keen to avoid. The second, idol-based 
conception of pagan gods as inert, powerless material objects steers around this 
pitfall, but it projects an image of the gods which the pagans themselves might 
have found unfamiliar. There are, as we shall see later, probable discrepancies 
between the Christian conception of pagan gods as mere idols and the pagans' 
own notion of them. 

Certainly the idea of demons as the devil's agents is unlikely to have meant 
very much to a pagan like Edwin; but it is on the charges against idols in 
particular that Boniface bases his case. Edwin is directing religious feeling in an 
illogical direction along a chain of creation: downwards to his own, lifeless 
creations rather than upwards to the God to whom he owes life itself. Appeal is 
made to a hierarchy of God-like fonns constituted of God himself, man his 
creation and replica, made out of clay, and idols the creation of men. This is an 
argument that might have been calculated to appeal to royal self-esteem: Edwin, 
as a man, is superior to his idols in the hierarchy, just as he is superior, as a king, to 
his subjects, and just as God is superior to all men, whether they be kings or slaves. 

Boniface's argument against idols obviously depends heavily on the 
assumption that Edwin identifies (or can be persuaded to identify) his gods with 
their representations; but before considering the safety of this assumption, we are 
faced here with the even more fundamental question of whether the pagan Anglo- 
Saxons actually worshipped idols. Although it is difficult to know quite what to 
look for in the absence of contemporary descriptions, nothing definitely 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

identifiable as an image of a pagan deity has so far been revealed by excavation. 46 
There might be several possible reasons for this gap in the archaeological record. 
The church would naturally be eager to destroy idols; and if they were made of 
organic materials, such as wood, they would probably soon decay beyond 
recognition in the soil, even if they escaped deliberate destruction by fire. 
Nevertheless, the original existence of idols among the pagan Anglo-Saxons 
cannot be taken for granted. Bede's references to them in HE are not necessarily 
to be accepted at face value, because by the time of the Anglo-Saxon conversion 
there already existed within the church a traditional polemic against idolatry 
based entirely on the Old Testament. 47 Boniface's letter to Edwin, summarised 
above, is a good example of this set of standard arguments. Another is Gregory of 
Tours' Historia Francorum, one chapter of which consists of a very similar string 
of Biblical passages on the futility and absurdity of idol manufacture and worship, 
provoked by Gregory's reminiscences of paganism among the Franks prior to the 
conversion of Clovis near the beginning of the sixth century. 48 We know that 
Gregory's Historia was one of Bede's models for HE. W The availability of this 
tradition to Bede means that some of his references to idol-worship may reflect 
nothing more than a convenient general assumption on the part of missionaries 
and others involved in the conversion (popes, for instance, such as Gregory the 
Great, who had no first-hand knowledge of England) that all pagans worshipped 
idols. Perhaps the missionaries, no doubt as likely as anyone else to see what they 
fear to find, noticed objects among the paraphernalia of pagan religion which 
corresponded well enough to the traditional, Biblical conception of idols; but we 
possess no independent evidence of these things. 50 Thus although Bede's 
references to idols and idolatry in HE may reflect personal knowledge or 
information from trusted informants, we cannot be certain that he was not simply 
making use of this tradition of anti-pagan propaganda, one of the advantages of 
which was that it avoided any real confrontation with paganism as a religion. If, 
of course, the Anglo-Saxon pagans did not have idols of their gods, the 
missionary tactic that reduced all paganism to idolatry will have left the pagans 
with the impression that the missionaries did not appreciate the true nature of the 
religion that they were trying to persuade them to abandon. 51 

The earliest references in HE to idols and their worship are connected with 
the Roman mission of Augustine to King fEthelberht of Kent, referred to briefly 
above. Bede's account of Augustine's mission shows Pope Gregory, its instigator, 
urging first a progressively tougher line on paganism in response to English 
resistance to the faith, and then adopting what might seem to be a more 


Peter Orton 

conciliatory position. Bede's information was that in the early stages of 
Augustine's campaign /Ethelberht would not force Christianity on his subjects. 52 
Bede attributes the king's scruple on this point to the advice of Augustine and his 
followers, who had impressed upon him that 'the service of Christ was voluntary 
and ought not to be compulsory'. 53 Augustine came to Kent in 597. Four years 
later, in June 601, Gregory received news of his progress from messengers who 
came asking for more missionaries to be sent to England. A party of 
reinforcements left Rome for England in the same month, carrying letters from 
Gregory to Augustine, King /Ethelberht and others. 54 The two letters to Augustine 
suggest that he is thought to be making good progress: they contain a plan for the 
ecclesiastical organization of the whole of England, and a warning to Augustine 
to preserve humility in the midst of his spectacular achievements in conversion 
through miracles. 55 But the letter to /Ethelberht strikes a sterner note, 56 stressing 
the need for royal opposition to heathen practices and urging the suppression of 
idol-worship and the destruction of their shrines. 57 This contrasts sharply with the 
spirit of tolerance prevailing in the early days of the Kentish mission, and shows 
an awareness on Gregory's part of the need to oppose heathenism much more 
actively than before. But it also contrasts with the advice contained in a letter sent 
only a month later (in July 601) from Gregory to Mellitus, one of the party 
already en route for England, the contents of which are to be communicated to 
Augustine. 58 This letter paints a vivid picture of English refractoriness, of the 
'stubborn minds' ('duris mentibus') in which error was too deeply implanted to be 
removed at a stroke; and it effectively contradicts Gregory's earlier instruction to 
/Ethelberht to destroy pagan shrines, urging Augustine to consecrate them with 
holy water and put altars and relics in them. In this way, it is hoped, the temples 
will be converted to the service of God. The letter draws a new distinction 
between the shrines and the idols they contain: the shrines are to be preserved; 
only the idols must be destroyed. The sacrifice of animals may continue, though 
these sacrifices will not be the same sacrifices as before because now they will be 
offered to God on the anniversary of the new church's dedication, or on other 
feast days. Temporary wooden huts are to be constructed to house these feasts 
outside the buildings that have been converted into churches. 

The letter to Mellitus represents a striking volte-face when compared with 
the June letter to King /Ethelberht. The consideration that the two letters were 
sent to different people blunts the sense of inconsistency but does not remove it. 
The Kentish king, as a convert, would be unlikely to appreciate the nature of 
Augustine's practical problems as a missionary; and as someone who had himself 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges; Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

only recently put aside paganism, his reaction to the rather devious strategy 
Gregory proposes in the letter to Mellitus might have been difficult to predict. 
Perhaps Gregory thought that the most that could be expected of /Ethelberht at 
this stage was that he should bring all his political weight to bear in opposing 
paganism and promoting Christianity in its place. The letter to Mellitus, on the 
other hand, seems to imply a recognition that royal opposition to paganism was 
not enough to defeat it permanently. The theory that the inconsistency between 
these letters represents a deliberate, two-pronged attack on paganism is naturally 
attractive, 59 but the danger of a disintegration of the missionary enterprise is clear: 
Gregory sets Ethelberht to destroy pagan shrines, and very soon afterwards tells 
Augustine (via Mellitus) to preserve them—a recipe for confusion, if not conflict. 

A possible explanation for Gregory's change of mind is that he belatedly 
realized the danger of unintentionally encouraging adhesion - a danger that would 
always be present as long as places perceived as at once holy and non-Christian 
were tolerated. Perhaps Gregory finally saw the importance of the occupation of 
the sites of pagan worship in securing the pennanent conversion of the English. 
The destruction of the shrines alone was not enough, because they could be 
restored and the idols replaced. By minimising the disruption of existing patterns 
of pagan observance, it was hoped that damaging, open conflict between 
Christianity and paganism could be avoided, and that the former would absorb 
and eventually replace the latter. Gregory must have been confident that 
Christianity would emerge as the dominant strain in this hybridization; but his 
new policy seems calculated to lead to a syncretistic religion combining Christian 
and pagan elements, 60 and we must assume that he did not foresee the particular 
brand of adhesion that Rasdwald fell prey to, whereby facilities for honouring 
both Christian and pagan gods were made available in the same place. Any other 
policy, however, would leave pagan cults as an optional alternative or extra to 
Christianity on separate sites, and it is understandable if this was felt to be the 
worse evil. 61 In fact, the dangerous consequences of encouraging the mere 
abandonment of pagan holy places rather than their adaptation is illustrated by 
Bede's account of what happened among the East Saxons when Sigehere 
apostatized: he and his subjects 'began to restore the derelict temples and to 
worship images, as if they could protect themselves by such means from the 
plague'. 62 Evidently Gregory's advice was not heeded in Essex. 

The letter to Mellitus draws attention to idols as the hard core of paganism, 
the one cultic element that cannot, in Gregory's view, be assimilated to Christian 
worship. We have already looked at a sample of the arguments marshalled against 


Peter Orton 

idolatry by the missionaries; but there was also the more practical question of 
what should be done with idols. One obvious way of dealing with them was 
simple physical destruction, though there is, as we shall see below, reason to 
doubt whether this procedure was sufficiently comprehensive to put a stop to 
paganism. Although Gregory urges Aithelberht in his letter of June 601 to 
suppress idolatry, Bede's narrative implies that he did not do so as energetically as 
Eorcenberht, who ruled Kent from 640 to 664 and is identified as the first English 
king to insist on the destruction of idols throughout his kingdom. 63 No doubt the 
destruction of idols was seen as an important step on the road to permanent 
conversion. The demonstration of an idol's vulnerability might well have been 
instructive for those who venerated it; 64 but it is difficult to gauge the impact of 
such exercises without understanding what conceptions the pagans had of their 
idols. Would the destruction of an idol necessarily have put an end to the cult of 
the god it represented? It might have done if the pagan identified the idol with the 
god, in which case its destruction would lead to the conclusion either that the god 
had been killed, or that a god so easily destroyed could never have existed in the 
first place. If idol and god were not regarded as one and the same, of course, the 
idol's destruction would have been inconclusive; one image of a god might have 
been as good as another, as the case of Essex under Sigehere suggests. 65 

The pagans' conception of their gods 

The question therefore arises of what general conceptions the pagan Anglo- 
Saxons had of their gods. It is unfortunate that direct information on this point is 
so limited. Comparative evidence from continental Germanic sources has some 
value as a starting-point, though it does not present a consistent picture. Tacitus, 
writing in the first century AD, claimed that the Germanic peoples did not confine 
their gods within buildings nor made images of them, but envisaged them as 
spiritual presences in the groves and forests held sacred to them. 66 Later 
Scandinavian sources, however, contain a number of references to pagan idols 
and temples, including accounts of gods abandoning or being ejected from the 
object or idol in which they had taken up residence. 6 ' These accounts cannot be 
accepted without question as reliable evidence of pagan thinking about idols; but 
they show some consistency in conceiving of the idol as a fetish, a material 
representation or icon into which the deity may enter, sometimes even animating 
it as its body, but from which it may withdraw and go elsewhere. An example is a 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

story told in Gunnars pattr helmings , preserved in the fourteenth-century 
Icelandic manuscript known as Flateyjarbok : Gunnarr, a Norwegian adventurer 
travelling in Sweden, was attacked by an animated wooden effigy of the god 
Freyr. He wrestled with it and the god, admitting defeat, departed, leaving his 
wooden form behind for Gunnarr to destroy. 68 

Turning to English evidence, we find one of our fullest sources of 
information about Anglo-Saxon conceptions of pagan gods in Bede's account of 
the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria by the missionary Paulinus in 
627. 64 When Edwin, after lengthy deliberation, finally decided to convert, he 
asked for his counsellors' opinion of the new religion. Coifi, his chief priest, 70 was 
scornful of the gods whose worship he had presided over: no-one had served 
these gods as devotedly as he, yet others had received more from Edwin in 
benefits and honours. Coifi felt that he would have been more fortunate 'if the 
gods had any power'. 71 Here, then, is a notion of pagan gods as weak and 
ineffectual in an ordinary, human way; Coifi does not cast doubt on their very 
existence as gods. His down-to-earth materialism contrasts with the metaphysical 
reflections of a second, unnamed counsellor who invented the famous allegory of 
a sparrow flying in an instant through Edwin's hall during a storm in winter: 
unlike paganism, Christianity makes sense of man's life in time. Coifi asked 
Paulinus for more information about God. Convinced by what he heard of the 
worthlessness of their paganism, he then advised Edwin that their pagan altars 
and temples should be immediately abandoned and burnt. 77 Edwin formally and 
publicly declared his faith in Christ and renounced idolatry. 

Next, Edwin asked Coifi 'which of them should be the first to profane the 
altars and the shrines of the idols, together with their precincts'. 73 Coifi accepted 
the job himself, reasoning that his destruction of what he once worshipped would 
set a good example to everyone. In the event, however, this destruction is by no 
means as summary as Coifi's earlier advice to Edwin has led us to expect. First, a 
ritual violation of the shrines was performed. In the knowledge that 'a high priest 
of their religion was not allowed to carry arms or to ride except on a mare', 74 Coifi 
borrowed a sword, a spear and a stallion from Edwin, mounted up and rode off 
towards the shrines. The common people who witnessed this behaviour thought Coifi 
had gone mad. 75 When Coifi arrived at Goodmanham, where the shrine was, 'without 
any hesitation he profaned it by casting the spear he held into it'. 76 Then 'he ordered his 
companions to destroy and set fire to the shnne and all the enclosures'. 77 

Among several interesting aspects of this description is Edwin's continuing 
deference, after deciding for Christianity, to Coifi. 78 Neither Edwin nor Coifi 


Peter Orton 

were yet baptised; but by this stage Coifi was, according to one view of the 
situation, redundant as a pagan priest. One might expect Edwin to have consulted 
Paulinus, or even that Paulinus would step in and urge the destruction of the idols 
and their precincts, as indeed he does in Alcuin's later adaptation of Bede's 
account in Latin verse. 79 In Bede's version, however, Edwin turned to Coifi; and 
the fact that the priest still retained some of his authority in the king's eyes tells us 
something about Edwin's conception of the pagan gods he was turning his back 
on. There is no sign that he had lost faith in their existence. They still required 
dealing with, not from a Christian standpoint (which maintains that pagan gods 
are an illusion), but in their own terms. Coifi was best qualified for this; and in 
spite of his own explanation of his behaviour, Coifi's seems too elaborate a 
gesture to be interpreted simply as an expression of a new convert's wish to 
symbolize in violent action a clean break with past errors. Much suggests that the 
newly converted Northumbrians did not find it easy to think of these gods as 
nothing more than inert material objects which could simply be destroyed and 
forgotten. No doubt the idols were understood to have reverted to that basic 
condition by the time they were burnt; 80 but the fact that their ritual defeat had to 
come first is significant. 

In terms of conversion theory, Coifi's actions (including the actual burning 
of the shrine) are a relatively elaborate example of what has been called 'bridge- 
burning'—a decisive gesture, made at the 'commitment' stage in the conversion 
process, of disengagement from the religion which a convert has hitherto 
followed. 81 The detailed interpretation of his actions, however, involves several 
uncertainties. For example, what meaning did Coifi attach to his own behaviour? Did 
he see himself as destroying his old gods, or only as driving them away forever? His 
attack on them is ostensibly an act of war against an enemy who may, presumably, be 
killed—perhaps easily killed, if the gods are as weak as Coifi has earlier judged them 
to be. On the other hand, in the light of his status as a priest whose normal duties 
would have involved officiating at sacrifices, Coifi's actions might be interpreted less 
as an actual attack than as a symbolic act of defiance, designed to make it clear to the 
gods that they should expect nothing further from him in the way of sacrifices or 
appeals for support, and that there was therefore no point in their remaining. We 
should also note that the sword Coifi carried, unlike the spear, was not put to any 
practical use, suggesting that the taking up of weapons was itself just as significant as 
what he actually did with them. Edwin's stallion does, of course, have the practical 
function of transporting Coifi to the shrines, but Bede makes it clear that Coifi's mode 
of transport was just as significant symbolically as the weaponry he carried. 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

Coifi's activities here fall into two stages and also (though not so neatly) 
into two categories of behaviour. The first stage, the armed ritual assault on 
horseback, is distinguished from the second mainly by its explicitly pagan 
symbolism and perspective. It was probably calculated to affront the gods and so 
bring about their voluntary departure. As an armed attack, the first stage might 
alternatively be interpreted as the killing of the gods; but this seems less likely in 
the light of the second stage, in which the shrines are burnt. This act of 
destruction makes sense in terms of the first stage as a scorched-earth policy: it 
ensures that the gods' banishment will be permanent and final by preventing their 
possible return to their former habitations and embodiments. The second stage, 
however, is also open to a different interpretation. From a Christian viewpoint, 
this second stage alone would have sufficed to put an end to the gods and at the 
same time cut off the line of retreat into paganism—by destroying the idols that 
the Northumbrians had deluded themselves into treating as deities. 82 

To sum up: Coifi's bridge-burning may be taken as a comprehensive 
gesture of rejection which probably incorporates both pagan and Christian 
perspectives on paganism. The two stages into which it falls certainly suggest two 
distinct processes. The first stage symbolizes disengagement from paganism by 
the pointed inversion of acknowledged pagan taboos, while the second stage sets 
the seal on this disengagement by physical destruction of the gods' material 
manifestations and possessions. The second stage, however, may also be 
interpreted as a reflection of the simpler, Christian conception of paganism, 
according to which destruction of an idol amounts to destruction of the god it 
represents. The second stage is, perhaps, open to interpretation as an added 
insurance against the gods' return, a kind of topping-up of the ritual designed to 
satisfy Paulinus, to whom the first stage will probably have seemed superfluous to 
requirements. It is worth remarking that this distinctive and complex combination 
of action and symbolism is most unlikely to have been invented as a whole by 
Bede, though the second stage, along with some of Coifi's somewhat suspiciously 
orthodox and polished expressions of his new-found Christian convictions, probably 
owe something to Bede's shaping of his sources for the Northumbrian conversion. 

The character of Edwin's gods and comparative evidence 

It has been noted that the two priestly taboos violated by Coifi when he rides 
Edwin's stallion and carries his weapons have parallels in Tacitus's Germania and 


Peter Orton 

in later medieval Icelandic literature. 83 These parallels are close enough to 
encourage us to draw on them to help us identify the character of the gods that the 
Northumbrians are rejecting. As we shall see below, this latter question has some 
bearing on our understanding of the significance of Coifi's hurling of Edwin's 
spear into the Goodmanham shrines. In Norse pagan mythology, 06inn is head of 
the Aisir, the principal family of gods and goddesses. 84 Previously, in a remote 
period of the world's history, a war was believed to have been fought between the 
iEsir and a second divine family called the Vanir. A truce was called, peace was 
made, the 2Esir absorbed the Vanir, and in most of the surviving mythological 
stories we find the two families living together harmoniously in a single society. 
The chief members of the Vanir are Freyr, his sister Freyja and their father 
NjorQr. The more numerous Tisir have a complex range of interests and functions; the 
Vanir are more narrowly associated with peace, material prosperity and fertility. 85 

The taboos mentioned by Bede suggest the cult of a god or gods of Vanir- 
type at Edwin's court. Chapter 40 of Tacitus's Germania describes the veneration 
of a goddess called Nerthus by a confederacy of German tribes which includes the 
Anglii, the continental ancestors of the English Angles among whom Edwin and 
the Northumbrians are numbered. 86 Nerthus's membership of the Vanir family is 
suggested partly by the identity of her Latinized name with that of the 
Scandinavian god Njordr, Freyr's father, and partly by the character of her cult. 
According to Tacitus, Nerthus's priest would at certain times perceive the 
goddess's presence in an island grove regarded as sacred to her. He would then 
escort her in a special wagon drawn by oxen on a tour of the neighbouring 
communities where she was welcomed enthusiastically. On her arrival, the people 
would put aside the weapons and warfare which normally preoccupied them. 
Although Tacitus does not state that Nerthus's priest was forbidden to carry 
weapons, one would expect his own code of behaviour to match the respect 
shown to the goddess by the ordinary people who honoured her during her tour. 
The prohibition placed on Coifi against the bearing of weapons recalls this 
account of Nerthus in the Germania, and suggests the cult of some similar deity 
in pagan Northumbria. 

The prohibition against riding a stallion also points to the veneration of 
Vanir-type deities at Goodmanham, for it is strongly reminiscent of what we are 
told in later Scandinavian sources about the cult of Freyr. Evidence that the horse 
was an animal sacred to Freyr in the Scandinavian pagan world is plentiful, 87 two 
of the most important sources being Hrafnkels saga Freysgoda, written in Iceland 
in the thirteenth century but set in the tenth, and a story, probably of similar date, 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

in the Flateyjarbok version of Olafs saga Tryggvasonar, describing the 
desecration by Olafr of an idol of Freyr in Norway. 88 In the first of these texts, 
Hrafnkell, who bears the title Freysgodi ('priest of Freyr'), regards the god as half¬ 
owner of all his most valuable possessions, including a stallion called Freyfaxi 
('Freyr's maned one'). Twelve mares make up Freyfaxi's stud. FIrafnkell swears an 
oath to kill anyone who rides Freyfaxi without his permission (the restriction, just 
like the restriction on Coifi's horse-riding mentioned by Bede, explicitly excludes 
the mares), and so is honour-bound to kill Einarr, a shepherd he has hired, when 
he mounts Freyfaxi to search for some of the sheep in his care that have strayed. 
The dynamic of the prohibition is that anyone who breaks it offends against 
FIrafnkell rather than Freyr, the stallion's other part-owner; but it is noticeable that 
FIrafnkell does not himself ride Freyfaxi at any point in the saga, and it seems 
probable that the motif was inspired by the same taboo as the one consciously 
violated by Coifi in Bede. In the story from Olafs saga Ttyggvasonar, the king 
discovers a pocket of heathenism in Trondheim: some of the inhabitants still 
maintain an idol of Freyr. On his way to the temple which contains the idol, Olafr 
comes upon a stud of horses which are held sacred to Freyr. He mounts the 
stallion, his followers mount the mares, and all ride to the temple where Olafr 
topples various idols including Freyr's, which he carries away with him. 89 We do 
not hear of any actual prohibition on riding the horses in this story, but it seems 
clear from the context that the use to which Olafr and his men put Freyr's beasts is 
an affront to the god. Furthermore, the structural feature of the story which has 
the King mount the stallion and his followers the mares creates an impression that 
the riding of the stallion is the more significant insult. It must also be admitted 
that Olafr's role as an iconoclastic crusader against paganism strongly invites 
comparison with the story of Coifi in Bede. That the Icelandic author was actually 
influenced by Bede's story is not impossible, though whether the correspondences 
are specific enough to support a case for direct influence is a matter of opinion. 

Iceland was converted in or about the year 1000 AD. The lateness of both 
Hrafnkels saga Freysgoda and Olafs saga Tryggvasonar limits their reliability as 
sources of infonnation about Scandinavian paganism; but it can scarcely be 
denied that they provide a satisfactory explanatory background to the taboo on 
stallion-riding that Coifi violates, and that they also support the evidence drawn 
from Tacitus's account of Nerthus that points to Coifi presiding over the cult of 
fertility deities resembling the Scandinavian Vanir. But that is perhaps as far as 
we should go; it would be rash to suggest identifications of the particular 
continental pagan Germanic gods whose Anglo-Saxon counterparts Coifi has 


Peter Orton 

previously venerated. The Scandinavian parallels and the link with Nerthus in the 
Germania are detailed and specific; but our knowledge of individual Anglo- 
Saxon pagan deities is far too limited to enable us to discern specific Anglo- 
Saxon equivalents of Freyr or Nerthus in Bede's narrative. 

Similar constraints should probably apply to the interpretation of Coifi's 
throwing of a spear as a declaration of war against his old gods. This also has a 
parallel in Old Norse, though in pagan mythology rather than in accounts 
suggestive of pagan cults. Coifi's gesture has been interpreted (though with 
greater confidence than the evidence really warrants in my view) as pointing to 
the veneration in Northumbria of a particular English pagan god, Woden. 90 We 
know very little about the mythology of Woden in Anglo-Saxon England, 91 and 
we have no reliable information about how he was worshipped, or whether he 
was thought of as belonging to any particular family of gods. The case for Woden 
as the model for Coifi's spear-throwing depends heavily on the etymological 
identity of Woden's name with that of the Scandinavian Odinn. In Norse pagan 
mythology Odinn, head of the yEsir, owns a spear called Gungnir, made by 
dwarfs, which he will carry into battle at Ragnarok. 9 " Old Norse skaldic poets 
sometimes refer to Odinn as geirs drotinn [lord of the spear], or Gungnis vafadr 
[Gungnir's shaker]. 93 These expressions show that the spear was Odinn's special 
weapon; but what has convinced many scholars of a link between Coifi and 
Odinn (and through Odinn with the Anglo-Saxon god Woden) is the tenth- 
century Eddie poem Voluspa, strophe 24 of which describes the archetypal war 
between the 2Esir and the Vanir, referred to earlier: OSinn declares this war by 
throwing an (unnamed) spear into the Vanir army. 94 On the basis of this parallel, 
coupled with the accepted etymological link between Woden and OSinn, scholars 
have been attracted to the idea that in throwing Edwin's spear Coifi is acting as 
Woden's ritual representative; that Woden was therefore included among the gods 
worshipped in Edwin's Northumbria; and that Coifi was a priest dedicated to his 
cult. 35 The potential significance of the parallel with Voluspa 24 seems even 
greater when we note that the mythological context of Odinn’s original gesture 
was a war against the Vanir, for we have already found other evidence for the cult 
of Vanir-type deities in Edwin's Northumbria. 

There is, however, an awkward problem of consistency here. Odinn 
belongs to the 2Esir family in Scandinavian myth and behaves like a warrior in the 
Voluspa incident; but there are, as we have seen, rather more convincing reasons 
for thinking that Coifi presided over the cult of Vanir-type deities, associated with 
peace and fertility. Are we therefore to conclude that Coifi has changed sides and 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

become (briefly) the servant of a warrior-god in order to turn on his old fertility 
gods? This is an attractive solution in some ways, but it creates another difficulty 
arising from a point I made earlier: Coifi's ritual attack is clearly presented in HE 
as a 'bridge-burning' act in support of the Northumbrian conversion. Coifi has 
accepted the Christian message by the time he mounts Edwin's stallion and 
attacks the shrines with the king's weapons, and the whole pattern of his actions is 
obviously designed to put a formal end to the paganism he has previously adhered 
to. The problem is that the reactivation of a pagan myth in which a warrior-god— 
perhaps Woden—played a leading role would have done more to assert the 
existence and power of pagan gods than to contribute towards a general 
abandonment of paganism. 96 

One way out of this difficulty would be to assume that Coifi was acting out 
an adapted version of the spear-throwing myth in which Odinn (or Woden) as 
attacker is replaced by the Christian God as a destroyer of false gods. 97 Such an 
interpretation would have the advantage of forging a structural link between the 
disengagement from paganism and the adoption of Christianity in its place; but 
from other points of view it seems an unsatisfactory solution to the problem. At 
this stage, Coifi is not convincing as God’s ritual representative, in spite of his 
zeal when it comes to burning the shrines and enclosures. We must also 
remember that Paulinus stands aloof from the whole business; that Edwin relies 
on Coifi's judgement in devising a suitable bridge-burning ritual; and that Coifi's 
profanation of the Goodmanham shrines is achieved by breaking specific pagan 
religious taboos. All these considerations suggest that Coifi thought of himself as 
dealing directly with his old gods, and on their terms. 

The easiest solution to the problem is to abandon the assumption that in 
throwing Edwin's spear Coifi is reenacting, or adapting, any kind of divine myth. 
A conscious link with a myth of Woden in particular cannot be ruled out entirely, 
but the connection depends, as we have seen, on the assumption of a close match 
between Woden's and Odinn's mythology. The trouble with the Woden hypothesis 
is that the Anglo-Saxon 'Woden' is an almost empty, unstructured category, 
defenceless against substantiation with the mythology of the god's Scandinavian 
counterpart. This defencelessness does not inspire confidence in the validity of 
the link; but what is the alternative? Coifi assumes the role of a warrior, plainly an 
unfamiliar one from his own point of view, and an inappropriate one from the 
perspective of the common people used to seeing him in his traditional role as a 
pagan priest. 98 There seems to be no pressing reason to regard Coifi as anything 
more than a renegade pagan priest waging a symbolic war against his old gods. 


Peter Orton 

All his actions as described make sense in these terms: as a disillusioned priest of 
heathen fertility deities, he deliberately and publicly inverts his priestly functions 
as a way of showing his old gods that he will no longer seek their support in his 

The break with the pagan past 

One of the main conclusions to emerge from this study of the Anglo-Saxons' 
disengagement from paganism is that the missionaries, and the popes who backed 
up their efforts, did not, generally speaking, meet the challenge of paganism head- 
on. This was partly a consequence of their faith: they saw their task as the 
revelation of God's power to people still ignorant of it—a positive demonstration 
of what seemed to them unarguably true—rather than as any kind of debate with a 
rival system of beliefs. The evidence for this attitude is clear in the early stages of 
the mission to Kent, when Augustine imposed a policy of non-coercion in matters 
of religion: he saw no special need to defeat paganism, no doubt because he did 
not think of conversion in terms of a conflict of religions. A disregard for any 
difficulties potential converts might have had in abandoning paganism could be 
justified logically by appeal to the rejection of pagan polytheistic worship 
automatically entailed by conversion. This aspect of Christian ideology spared the 
missionaries from having to grapple with unfamiliar and alien ideas held by the 
pagan Anglo-Saxons, or to test their own metaphysics against any rival picture 
paganism might offer. Presumably this way of thinking lay behind Paulinus's 
willingness to leave the destruction of the Goodmanham sanctuary in the hands of 
his Northumbrian converts; and it would also help to explain why Gregory, in his 
letters to Kent, seems to regard the suppression of idolatry as the king's 
responsibility rather than Augustine's. But we have seen that this attitude had its 
drawbacks. It may well have contributed to the later difficulties in Kent, where 
the resilience of paganism seems to have been misjudged; and the several 
apostasies recorded by Bede might also be put down to a failure on the part of the 
church to attack the roots of heathenism with vigour. This failure is attributable, 
not to any lack of evangelical zeal on the missionaries’ part, but rather to their 
very limited idea of the pagans' conception of their gods, and of the power and 
practical usefulness with which their adherents had traditionally invested them. It 
is clear that the missionaries underestimated the opposition; they failed to see 
paganism as a serious challenge to full conversion. One of the things that the 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

story of Edwin's conversion reveals, however, is that potential converts 
recognized this challenge clearly enough. There are signs here that the adoption 
of Christianity and the rejection of paganism were understood by converts as 
distinct processes. 

Insofar as they perceived Anglo-Saxon paganism at all distinctly, the 
missionaries inevitably saw it from a Christian perspective rather than from that 
of its own devotees. When a confrontation was unavoidable, it was found 
strategically useful to define it in terms of Christian concepts and traditions. 
Pagan gods were identical with the idols of the Old Testament—lifeless, 
powerless, undeserving of worship. Alternatively, pagan gods might be 
condemned as devils. By thus casting the objects of pagan worship in a 
recognizable mould, the church converted them to forms that it could defeat. 
Perhaps it mattered little to the missionaries whether Anglo-Saxon pagans really 
did make idols, or whether they understood what a devil was, or even if, as 
candidates for baptism, they were confused by such conflicting conceptions of the 
gods they were being encouraged to reject. The new religion offered them these 
alternative identifications. By fully accepting either, converts would have been 
regarded as safe from future apostasy. 

The break with the past at the conceptual level was, naturally, the real key 
to a secure conversion. The missionary encourages his converts to look to the 
future. The past holds nothing but error: idolatry, the worship of false gods, which 
must be abandoned for ever. For the convert, however, things could not be so 
clear-cut. A newly converted society faces and must somehow surmount 
intellectual difficulties in relation to ideas of its own past. Its sense of identity 
depends on inherited notions of its own origins and history. Such traditions are 
irreplaceable and so not lightly abandoned. The missionaries expected their 
converts to make a clean break with the past in the matter of religion; but history 
(as always, no doubt, with changes of religion) complicated matters. Christianity 
brought its own tradition of world history into which the Anglo-Saxons would 
have had to fit themselves. Under paganism, different ideas will undoubtedly have 
been held about how the world and its contents came into existence. It is 
unfortunate that our sources offer no information about these ideas; but we do 
know that the Anglo-Saxons generally had an intense awareness of their ancestry 
and preserved stories deriving from the continental heroic age which they no 
doubt regarded as relevant to the history of their own race. One of the most 
interesting questions about the period is how the converted Anglo-Saxons 
reconciled the various strands of these native traditions deriving from pagan times 


Peter Orton 

with Christian world history. The medieval church did not, one imagines, concern 
itself much with this process. The missionaries, foreigners who were generally 
uninterested in the indigenous traditions of the peoples they converted, would 
have lacked the knowledge necessary to assist converts in their attempts to 
harmonize the two traditions. The converts will have been left to do it themselves, 
just as they were left (at least in Northumbria, and probably in Kent and 
elsewhere) to devise their own machinery for putting paganism behind them. 

Little direct information is available on how they went about it, but we can 
form some idea of the kind of adjustments that were involved. Royal genealogies 
and king-lists show how the Anglo-Saxons revised, or rather extended, their own 
history in such a way as to link it with Christian history: the lists are continued 
backwards by spurious additions via Woden to Adam. 100 Here two procedures are 
illustrated: the simple dovetailing of native traditions with the Christian historical 
continuum, and a closely-connected euhemerization of divinities from whom the 
Anglo-Saxon kings came to regard themselves as descended. But the continued 
transmission, under Christianity, of stories deriving from the continental heroic 
age presented special difficulties which may be illustrated from the Old English 
poem Beowulf. 

Christianity and Beowulf 

The inconsistencies of religious reference in Beowulf are under more or less 
constant discussion in critical literature on the poem. 101 They have been explained 
in various ways, with no one explanation winning general assent. The poem's 
story is set in the countries on or near the rim of the Baltic sea and all the main 
human characters—Danes, Geats and Swedes—are members of societies the 
historical bases of which were certainly pagan. The fact that supernatural 
creatures—the giant Grendel, his mother and a dragon—play important roles in 
the story means that the action stands to some extent outside time, though 
historical events in the late fifth and early sixth centuries have contributed to the 
poem's final fonn, for it contains references to the death, during Beowulfs 
lifetime, of the Geatish king Hygelac in a battle against the Franks. Hygelac is a 
historical figure whose fall is datable from other sources to the early years of the 
sixth century. 102 Beowulf cannot have existed in its present fonn any earlier than 
the late seventh century, for it contains evidence of being the product of a 
converted community. The date of the manuscript sets the latest possible date in 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

the early eleventh century. Scholars disagree widely within these limits over the 
date of composition. 103 

The poem's religious inconsistencies lie in the poet's presentation of the 
religion—pagan or Christian—followed by certain individuals and tribes 
mentioned in the poem, notably Beowulf the Geat, the hero of the poem, and 
Hrodgar, king of the Danes, whose royal hall Heorot is released by Beowulfs 
heroism from the persecution of Grendel and his mother. Although Beowulf is 
often called a Christian poem, it contains no references to God the Son, nor to 
doctrines connected with him in particular. On the other hand, the poet-narrator 
does often refer to God as having effective control over the fates of the pagan 
tribes of the poem and some of their individual members, and as actively 
intervening on occasion in the pattern of their fortunes. 104 Furthermore, we are 
sometimes told in indirect speech that a character or group thanked God for his 
mercy. 105 Grendel, whose family are descendants of the Biblical Cain, 106 is also 
spoken of as subject to God's rule, as God's hereditary enemy, and as feuding 
with him. 109 All the chief characters in the poem are thus presented by the poet as 
living in a world presided over by the one God and aware (though there is, 
perhaps, room for doubt in the case of Grendel and his mother) that they are 
doing so. The same characters (except the monsters, who do not speak) also 
demonstrate this awareness directly in their own speeches, especially Hrodgar and 
Beowulf, both of whom refer frequently to God as managing their affairs, or as 
having the power to do so. Hrodgar is particularly assiduous in acknowledging 
God's responsibility for any good fortune, in offering prayers of thanks to him for 
his mercy, and in praying for his blessings on behalf of others. 110 Beowulf often 
recognizes God's power to control events and sometimes his actual 
intervention, 111 though in general his relationship with God seems more distant 
than HroSgar's. 

But this stratum of monotheistic awareness on the part of the characters is 
inconsistent with an excursus in which the poet describes the Danes as resorting 
to pagan sacrifice in their search for protection against Grendel's attacks because 
they did not know God: 

Hwilum hie geheton set hsergtrafum 
wigweorfrunga, wordum baedon, 

Jraet him gastbona geoce gefremede 
wid [icodjrreaum. Swylc waes Jjeaw hyra, 
hasjrenra hyht; helle gemundon 


Peter Orton 

in modsefan, Metod hie ne cujron, 
daeda Deinend, ne wiston hie Drihten God, 
ne hie huru heofena Helm herian ne cujxm, 
wuldres Waldend. Wa bid [raem 6e sceal 
[>urh slidne nid sawle bescufan 
in fyres faejim, frofre ne wenan, 
wihte gewendan! Wei bid (asm ]je mot 
aefter deaddaege Drihten secean 

ond to Faeder fasfnnum freodo wilnian! (.Beowulf 11. 175-88) 
[Sometimes they promised honour to idols at heathen temples, 
asked that the slayer of souls might help them against these 
calamities. Such was their custom, the hope of heathens. They 
thought of Hell in their hearts, they did not know the Ordainer, 
the Judge of deeds, they knew not of the Lord God, nor indeed 
did they know how to worship the Protector of the Heavens, the 
Ruler of Glory. Woe to him who must, in dire distress, thrust his 
soul into the fire's embrace, not expect comfort or any 
amelioration! Fortunate is he who after his death-day may seek 
the Lord and ask for protection in the Father's embrace!] 

The poet's compassion here for the benighted Danes, unwittingly worshipping the 
Devil and condemning their souls to perdition, is remarkable; but the passage is 
very explicit, and I cannot see any way of reconciling these statements about the 
Danes' paganism and ignorance of God with the apparent Christian monotheism 
of the main characters elsewhere in the poem. The poet seems to contradict 
himself. The problem is widely recognized. Critics attempt to resolve it in two 
different ways. Some try to undermine the passage just quoted, either by 
condemning it as unoriginal to the poem or by interpreting it in such a way as to 
minimize the sense of inconsistency. Thus it has been suggested that all or part of 
lines 175-88 is interpolated, though no irregularities of versification or unusual 
features of grammar or style of the kind that might substantiate these suspicions 
have ever been adduced as far as I know. The poet describes the Danes' pagan 
practices as occasional (175 Hwilum [Sometimes]) but not unusual (178 Swylce 
wees peaw hyra [Such was their custom]); and the context makes it clear that they 
were provoked in this instance by the national crisis which Grendel’s attacks on 
Heorot represented. The situation here is in some ways reminiscent of Essex 
under Sigehere where, as Bede tells us, the ravages of plague provoked an 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

apostasy. But the conclusion reached by some critics that the passage indicates 
occasional lapses from a monotheistic religion is in my view unsustainable in the 
light of what is said about the Danes' ignorance of God in lines 180-3. The idea, 
sometimes advanced, that Hrodgar, as a monotheist, will have held aloof from 
these pagan practices is certainly baseless. It is true that he is not mentioned as 
personally involved in them; but we have been told slightly earlier (170) of his 
distress at Grendel's attacks, then of meetings of his counsellors to seek a remedy. 
Pagan sacrifice is a remedy they decide to try. There is no reason to think that this 
decision was reached and put into practice without the king's knowledge and 
agreement. 113 The second attempt to resolve the inconsistency belongs to Fred C. 
Robinson, who argues that terms for the deity in Beowulf are always ambiguous when 
used by the characters: a word like metod , when used by, or attributed to, a pagan 
character like Beowulf would be meant by him to refer to a pagan god such as Woden, 
but would be understood by tire audience as an unwitting reference to the true God on 
Beowulf s part. 114 Robinson presents a closely-argued case for this ingenious solution 
which, if accepted, removes the offending inconsistency very neatly. 115 

I prefer to accept the contradiction, however, partly because I find neither 
of these attempts to remove it wholly convincing, but mainly because the 
contradiction itself does not seem to me at all surprising against a background of 
Anglo-Saxon conversion and the reorganization of thinking about the past which 
conversion required. I find it easier to accept that Beowulf, quite possibly a 
product of this early post-conversion period, contains two mutually incompatible 
conceptions of a pre-Christian Gennanic past. The one represented by lines 175- 
88 presumably derives from contemporary knowledge of the paganism, past and 
present, of the Danes, no doubt reinforced by the Anglo-Saxon poet's awareness 
of his own people's pagan background. 116 This picture of the Danes as pagan and 
ignorant of God is, of course, the one which a modem historian would accept as 
true. The other conception results from a projection of Christian monotheism 
back into pre-Christian Danish and Geatish society. This is more difficult to 
explain. Perhaps the most coherent of existing theories is C. Donahue's, who sees 
Beowulf, Hrodgar and their followers as 'monotheists who have discovered God, 
as St. Paul said men could, through His creation'. 117 The notion that 'without any 
assistance from Judaeo-Christian revelation men can and do reach a knowledge of 
the true God by reasoning from creation to the Creator' is found in the Bible, in 
Paul's Epistle to the Romans. 118 Donahue finds references to natural law in early 
Irish law-texts and traces the importation of the idea into Ireland to the fifth century. 
From Ireland, he argues, it spread to Britain and reached the Beowulf poet. 


Peter Orton 

A theory depending more directly on the text of Beowulf itself may, 
however, be offered as an alternative to Donahue's relatively involved 
explanation. A key to a better understanding of the professed monotheism of the 
main characters in Beowulf may lie in a statement which the poem's narrator 
makes three times: 'SoQ is gecyjred, jjaet mihtig God manna cynnes weold 
wideferhQ' [it is well known that God has always ruled over the race of men];" 9 
'Metod eallum weold gumena cynnes, swa he nu git deQ' [the Ordainer ruled over 
all of mankind, just as he still does now]; 120 and 'wolde dom Godes dsedum raedan 
gumena gehwylcum, swa he nu gen deQ' [God's decree would control every man's 
deeds, just as it still does].' 21 These three utterances are not identical; but all make 
the same point that God has always controlled men's actions, and two of them add 
that he still does. The poet's repetitions might be explained by reference to the 
fact that, for a recently converted people, these are not obvious truths. The 
omnipotence of God is still, for the poet and his audience, a source of amazement. 
So is the fact that this power has always existed and been exercised even on the 
lives of individuals and communities who had yet to learn of his existence, like 
the Danes. The notion of a deity who was at once omnipotent and unworshipped 
would have been an unfamiliar one for the Anglo-Saxons, whose experience of 
paganism will presumably have led them to conceive of divine power as 
something released by ritual. It cannot have been easy for adherents of a 
polytheistic folk religion to take in the idea that every aspect of their lives and the 
lives of their ancestors had been governed, contrary to all contemporary 
assumptions, not by the gods to whom they had customarily offered sacrifices but 
by an invisible God who simply exists, whether he is recognized and worshipped 
or not. And so it seems to me that the anachronistic monotheism of the characters 
of Beowulf might be explained by supposing that the poet was unequal to the task 
of depicting a world presided over by a God who, though omnipotent and eternal, 
was also unworshipped and unknown. In lines 175-88, the poet asserts rather 
strenuously that the Danes did not know God. The positive implication of this is 
what is stated explicitly in the three passages I have just cited: God was 
nonetheless there all the time. In order to understand the difficulty faced by the 
poet, we have only to imagine the compassion and pathos of lines 175-88 
extended over the whole action of the poem. If the pagan characters of Beowulf 
were shown as ever subject to God's will but entirely ignorant of Him, they would 
lose any claim to dignity and nobility, appearing instead as puppets struggling in 
the dark against enemies and forces dimly perceived and improperly understood, 
and foolishly misinterpreting any manifestation of God's benevolent influence. 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

Some scholars, notably Tolkien, have interpreted the poem rather in this way; but 
this view of Beowulf seems to me to result from putting too much emphasis on 
lines 175-88 and not enough on all the other references to God as an ally and a 
stay to Geats and Danes alike. I suggest that what the poet found impossible to 
depict was a hidden but supportive power the manifestations of which could only 
be misinterpreted by those it sustained. The poet might, as Donahue thought, have 
known the Biblical argument of St. Paul that an awareness of God's existence and 
power has always been within the grasp of all men purely through reason; but 
whether or not he knew of this idea, the religious inconsistencies of Beowulf need 
not be interpreted as any kind of compromise. They are, 1 suggest, simply what 
they appear to be at first sight: a reflection of the distinction between two 
historical channels which merged at the moment of conversion but had not yet 
done so in the world of the poem. Conversion could not be made retroactive; but 
the qualities and achievements for which heroes were remembered had to be 
aligned somehow with the Christian moral framework if the positive values they 
represented were not to end up on the wrong side of the dividing line between 
good and evil. The narrower historical realities of Germanic ignorance and 
heathenism are faced up to in lines 175-88; but for the poet, the Christian 
mainstream had an irresistible claim to recognition. Once it was realized that God 
is all-powerful and has always existed everywhere, it was no longer possible to 
present Beowulfs fortunes as governed by forces beyond his sphere of 
influence. 12 


Peter Orton 


1 See Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. by B. Colgrave and R. A. B. 
Mynors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. xvii. Here I make reference (by book and 
chapter) to HE in this edition, and quote its modem English translation throughout. 

2 See, for example, J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, 'Bede and Plummer', in Famulus Christi: Essays 
in Commemoration of the Thirteenth Centenary of the Birth of the Venerable Bede , ed. by Gerald 
Bonner (London: SPCK, 1976), pp. 366-85; Patrick Wormald, 'Bede, “Beowulf’ and the 
Conversion of the Anglo-Saxon Aristocracy', in Bede and Anglo-Saxon England: Papers in 
honour of the 1300th anniversary of the birth of Bede, given at Cornell University in 1973 and 
1974, ed. by Robert T. Farrell (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1978), pp. 32-95; J. 
Davidse, 'Bede as Christian Historian', in Beda Venerabilis: Historian, Monk & 'Northumbrian, ed. 
by L. A. J. R. Houwen and A. A. MacDonald (Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 1996), pp. 1-15. 

3 See S. C. Neill, 'The History of Missions: An Academic Discipline', in The Mission of the 
Church and the Propagation of the Faith, ed. by G. J. Cuming (Cambridge: Cambridge University 
Press, 1970), pp. 149-70 (p. 160): 'Our Christian history has been written far too much from the 
side of the operators and far too little from that of the victims.' 

4 Lewis R. Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion (London: Yale University Press, 
1993). On some of the problems involved in the interpretation of earlier accounts of missions in 
various parts of the world, see Neill, 'The History of Missions'. 

5 Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion, pp. 12-14. 

6 The other categories are 'affiliation', which is the conversion of a person or group lacking 
any prior spiritual orientation; 'intensification', involving an increased commitment to a religion 
already followed; and 'institutional transition', whereby a member of some major religious tradition 
switches from one sub-group to another, as for example when a Christian exchanges Anglicanism 
for Roman Catholicism. Rambo's initial definition of apostasy ( Understanding Religious 
Conversion, p. 13) stresses its repudiative aspect, though later, when considering apostasy as one 
of various factors that lead to religious conversion, he states that 'all conversions implicitly require 
a leaving-behind or a reinterpretation of some past way of life and set of beliefs' (p. 53), which ties 
apostasy in with tradition transition. To avoid confusion, I shall reserve the terms 'apostasy' and 
'apostatize' here for reversions to paganism following a conversion to Christianity. 

7 See Alan R. Tippett, 'Conversion as a Dynamic Process in Christian Mission', Missiology, 
2(1977), 203-21 (pp. 217-20). 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

See, for example, Richard E. Sullivan, 'The Carolingian Missionary and the Pagan', 
Speculum, 28 (1953), 705-40 (p. 715): 'A lack of valid sources complicates any attempt to discuss 
the content of missionary preaching designed to win converts'. 

9 See note 4 above. 

10 HE 1.25. 

11 HE 4.16. 

12 Joel T. Rosenthal, 'Bede's Use of Miracles in “The Ecclesiastical History”', Traditio, 31 
(1975), 328-35 (p. 333), reaches a similar figure (twenty-four) but provides no list. In my list 
below, which excludes the Frisian conversions mentioned in HE 5.10 and 19, the convert or 
converts are named first, the converter second: King Tithelberht of Kent, preceded by some of his 
subjects and followed by many more, by Augustine (HE 1.26); King Saeberht of the East Saxons 
and his people, by Mellitus (HE 2.3); King Eadbaid of Kent, still pagan after the death of his father 
Tithelberht, but who banned idolatry in his kingdom following his own conversion by Archbishop 
Laurence (HE 2.6); eleven followers of King Edwin ofNorthumbria, baptized by Bishop Paulinus 
at the same time as Edwin's infant daughter Eanflaed (HE 2.9); King Edwin himself, his nobles and 
many of his subjects, by Paulinus at York (HE 2.14); Edwin's sons Osfrith and Eadffith, with 
many more Northumbrians, by Paulinus during the following six years (HE 2.14); King Eorpwold 
of the East Angles and his subjects, through King Edwin's persuasion (HE 2.15; the earlier, 
incomplete conversion of Eorpwold's father, King Rtedwald, is also described here); the East 
Angles under King Sigeberht, Eorpwold's brother, who had been converted in Gaul, with the help 
of Bishop Felix (HE 2.15); the kingdom of Lindsey by Paulinus (HE 2.16); many Northumbrians 
by James the Deacon at York (HE 2.20); King Oswald ofNorthumbria and his followers, by Irish 
clerics (HE 3.3); numerous Northumbrians under Oswald, by Bishop Aidan and other Irish monks 
(HE 3.3); the West Saxon King Cynegisl and his subjects by Birinus (HE 3.7); Peada, son of 
Penda and chief of the Middle Angles, with many of his followers, by Bishop Finan (HE 3.21); 
many of Peada's people by the four priests Cedd, Adda, Betti and Diuma (HE 3.21); many 
Mercians and Middle Angles by Bishop Diuma (HE 3.21); King Sigeberht of the East Saxons and 
his followers, by Finan at the instigation of King Oswiu ofNorthumbria (HE 3.22); more East 
Saxons, by Cedd and an unnamed priest, again through Oswiu's agency (HE 3.22); yet more East 
Saxons, by Cedd, now Bishop of the East Saxons, at Bradwell-on-Sea and Tilbury (HE 3.22); 
King Swithhelm of the East Angles, Sigeberht's successor, by Cedd at Rendlesham (HE 3.22); 
Mercia and neighbouring kingdoms following the death of Penda, by King Oswiu (HE 3.24); King 
Sigehere of the East Saxons and his people, reconverted by Bishop Jaruman (HE 3.30); the South 
Saxons, whose king Aithelwealh was already Christian, by Wilfrid (HE 4.13); the people of the 
Isle of Wight, converted on Wilfrid's initiative by Beomwine and Hiddila (HE 4.16); and 
numerous Northumbrians, reconverted by Cuthbert (HE 4.27). 


Peter Orton 

13 See J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People: A 
Historical Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. xxi: 'Speaking generally, the 
ecclesiastical historian conceived of the content of paganism [...] unseriously. There was no 
need to define its objectives, still less to distinguish its facets 1 . 

14 HE 2.15. 

15 HE 2.15. 

16 HE 3.1. 

17 HE 3.30. 

18 HE 3.30: 'quasi per haec possent a mortalitate defendi'. Bede also mentions later on {HE 
4.27) that Cuthbert reconverted many in the Northumbrian countryside who had reverted to 
paganism (see note 12 above). 

19 HE 2.5. 

20 HE 2.3: 'Vbi uero et haec prouincia uerbum ueritatis praedicante Mellito accepit 1 (After 
this race had accepted the word of truth through the preaching of Mellitus). 

21 HE 2.6. 

22 HE 2.5. 

23 See Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion, pp. 49-50. 

24 HE 1.26. On the conversion of Kent, see further below, pp. 15-18. 

25 HE 3.7. 

26 HE 3.30: ’Nam et ipse rex et plurimi de plebe siue optimatibus, diligentes hanc uitam et 
futuram non quaerentes, siue etiarn non esse credentes 1 . 

27 Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion , p. 34. 

28 See Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion, p. 47: 'The most “fertile” field of 
conversion in the missionary setting has tended to be among the so-called animists, such as the 
various tribal groups in Africa, South America, and India. Folk religion is less resilient in the face 
of the world religions—especially Christianity and Islam. Animists rarely have extensive 
organizations and ideologies that are linked with anyone beyond their village. Lacking these 
internal structures and external resources, they are more easily disconnected from indigenous 
modes of thought and action'. 

29 See C. E. Stancliffe, 'From Town to Country: The Christianisation of the Touraine 370- 
600', in The Church in Town and Countryside, ed. by Derek Baker (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979), pp. 
43-59 (pp. 52-3); and Sullivan, 'The Carolingian Missionary and the Pagan', p. 712. 

30 Stancliffe, 'From Town to Country', p. 53. See also David K. Jordan, 'The Glyphomancy 
Factor: Observations on Chinese Conversion', in Conversion to Christianity: Historical and 
Anthropological Perspectives on a Great Transformation, ed. by Robert W. Hefner (Berkeley: 
University of California Press, 1993), pp. 285-303 (p. 294):' there is almost certainly a continuum 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

in the extent to which converts do or do not abandon old beliefs, particularly if they are not seen as 
significantly competing with “equivalent” new ones'. 

31 James Campbell, 'Observations on the Conversion of England', Ampleforth Journal , 78 
(1973), 12-26; repr. in James Campbell, Essays in Anglo-Saxon History (London: Hambledon, 
1986), pp. 69-84. 

32 Henry Mayr-Harting, The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England (London: 
Batsford, 1972), pp. 63-7. 

33 Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion, pp. 34-5. 

34 On adhesion, see E. Nock, Conversion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), pp. 15- 
16, and J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, Early Germanic Kingship in England and on the Continent 
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 28, n. 33. Indirect evidence of Anglo-Saxon 
polytheism before Christianity is found in the letter written between 722 and 732 by Daniel, 
Bishop of Winchester, to the continental missionary Boniface (Wynfrith); see Die Briefe des 
heiligen Bonifatius und Lullus, ed. by M. Tangl, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epist. select., 1 
(Berlin, 1916), pp. 38-41 (no. 23), and English Historical Documents I: c. 500-1042, ed. and 
trans. by Dorothy Whitelock, 2nd edn (London: Eyre Methuen, 1979), pp. 795-7 (no. 167). The 
letter reads like the product of Daniel's personal experience in opposing heathenism among the 
Anglo-Saxons of his day, and contains frequent references to a plurality of pagan deities. 

35 HE 2.15. 

36 See Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit, Idolatry, trans. by Naomi Goldblum 
(London: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 8: 'Monotheism, in its war against polytheism, is an 
attempt to impose unity of opinions and beliefs by force, as a result of an uncompromising attitude 
towards the unity of God. Polytheism, by contrast, by its very nature includes an abundance of 
gods and modes of ritual worship, and so it has room for different viewpoints and beliefs and 
therefore is pluralistic. This pluralism is not just the product of compromise but is in fact an 
ontological pluralism that constitutes a deeper basis for tolerance 1 . 

37 Campbell, 'Observations on the Conversion of England', p. 74, identifies 'the inanities of 
idol-worship' as a missionary line in Bede. References to idols and idolatry in HE are listed in 
Venerabilis Baedae opera historica, 2 vols, ed. by C. Plummer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 
1896), II 59: in Kent, HE 1.30, 1.32, 2.6, 3.8; in Essex, 2.5, 3.22, 3.30; in Northumbria, 2.10, 2.11, 
2.13, 3.1; in East Anglia, 2.15; in Mercia, 2.20; in Sussex, 4.13, 5.19; and among the Anglo- 
Saxons generally, 2.1. 

38 HE 3.22. 

39 The Bible is cited here by book, chapter and verse from Biblia Sacra iuxta uulgatam 
uersionem, ed. by R. Weber et al., 2 vols., 4th edn (Stuttgart: Wtirttembergische Bibelanstalt, 
1994). The Psalms are cited in the Gallican version. 

40 HE 2.10. 


Peter Orton 

41 See Wallace-Hadrill, Commentary, p. 68. 

42 HE 2.10: 'Omnes dii gentium daemonia, Dominus autem caelos fecit' (All the gods of the 
nations are devils; but the Lord made the heavens). Cf. Ps. 95.5: 'Quoniam omnes dii gentium 
daemonia, at vero Dominus caelos fecit' (since all the gods of the nations are devils, but indeed the 
Lord made the heavens). 

43 HE 2.10: 'Oculos habent et non uident, aures habent et non audient, nares habent et non 
odorabunt, manus habent et non palpabunt, pedes habent et non ambulabunt' (eyes have they but 
they see not; they have ears but they hear not; noses have they but they smell not; they have hands 
but they handle not; feet have they but they walk not). Cf. Ps. 113.13-15: 'oculos habent et non 
videbunt, aures habent et non audient, nares habent et non odorabuntur, manus habent et non 
palpabunt, pedes habent et non ambulabunt' (they have eyes but they will not see, they have ears 
but they will not hear, they have noses but they will not smell, they have hands but they will not 
touch, they have feet but they will not walk). 

44 Cf. Ps. 113.12: 'simulacra gentium argentum et aururn, opera manuum hominum' (the 
idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of men's hands). 

45 HE 2.10: 'similes ergo efficiuntur his, qui spem suae confidentiae ponunt in eis' (and 
those who put their trust in them therefore become like them). Cf. Ps. 113.16: 'similes illis fiant qui 
faciunt ea et omnes qui confidunt in eis' (may those who make them and all who put their trust in 
them become like them). 

46 It has been suggested that some of the non-structural post-holes in building D2 at 
Yeavering in Northumbria may have held totemic idols. There is no definite evidence of this, 
though the presence of a pit within the building containing the bones and skulls of oxen suggests 
sacrificial activity, and there are signs of the posts' removal at about the time when the missionary 
Paulinus visited Yeavering after securing the conversion of King Edwin in 627: the removal of the 
posts may mark the conversion of the building for the purpose of Christian worship. See Brian 
Hope-Taylor, Yeavering: An Anglo-British Centre of Early Northumbria (London: HMSO, 1977), 
pp. 244-66,277-80; and David Wilson, Anglo-Saxon Paganism (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 45-8. 

47 Venerabilis Baedae opera historica, ed. by Plummer, II 59, takes the references in HE to 

notes the contrast with Tacitus's remark in the Germania, chapter 9, that the continental Germanic 
tribes did not make images of their gods. 

48 Book 2, chapter 10: see Gregorii Episcopi Turonensis Historia Francorum, ed. by W. 
Arndt, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, SS rer. Merov., 1 (Hanover, 1885), pp. 77-9. A modem 
English translation is Lewis Thorpe, Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks 
(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), pp. 125-7. The Biblical passages in question are Exodus 20.3-5, 
Deuteronomy 6.13, Exodus 32.4, Psalms 105.30, 95.5, 134.15, 134.18, 96.7, Habakkuk 2.18-20, 
Jeremiah 10.11, Isaiah 45.18, 42.8, Jeremiah 14.22, and Isaiah 44.6-20. 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

49 See HE, p. xxx. 

50 Literary evidence from later sources does not, generally speaking, contribute to a clearer 
idea of what an Anglo-Saxon pagan god was like or what an Anglo-Saxon idol might have looked 
like. In Anglo-Saxon sermons and laws of the late tenth century or later we find repeated 
condemnations of worship of (or at) certain natural features, namely stones, trees and wells, 
sometimes accompanied by, or combined with, prohibitions against idol-veneration. A few earlier 
examples of the same sort presumably indicate continuity of pagan observance from pre-Christian 
times. For references, see Venerabilis Baedae opera historica , ed. by Plummer, II 59-60; K. P. 
Wentersdorf, 'The Situation of the Narrator in the Old English Wife's Lament, Speculum , 56 
(1981), 492-516 (p. 505). Such prohibitions in later texts are open to interpretation as responses to 
a late Anglo-Saxon revival of paganism resulting either from the direct influence of pagan Viking 
settlers in England or from a willingness to try anything, even an appeal to pagan deities long 
discarded, to ward off Viking attacks. 

51 On the Biblical presentation of pagan idolatry, see Halbertal and Margalit, Idolatry, p. 39: 
'In their polemics the prophets taunt the idol worshipers with the idiocy of worshiping wood and 
stone; the image is not a sign or symbol of god, the prophets flatly state, it is god. This view of the 
function of the image as a fetish was clearly influenced by the biblical polemics that attempted to 
portray the idolaters as identifying their god with wood and stone.' For the alternative view that 
this identification of idol and god resulted from a genuine misunderstanding of paganism, see 
Halbertal and Margalit, p. 259, n. 6, referring to Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel: 
From its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile, trans. by Moshe Greenberg (Chicago: University of 
Chicago Press, 1960), pp. 7-20, 133-47. 

52 HE 1.26: 'rex perhibetur, ut nullum tamen cogeret ad Christianismum' (it is related that the king 
[. . .] compelled no one to accept Christianity). Wallace-Hadrill doubted the accuracy of Bede's 
information on this point: 'Certainly it was unusual that Germanic kings should exercise no compulsion to 
conversion [.. .] the passage sounds more in conformity with Bede's own thinking [. . .] than with what 
may actually have occurred' ( Commentary , p. 37); but the fact that Bede reports TEthelberht's attitude as 
something he has heard about rather than as established fact may suggest scholarly caution just as 
well as a surreptitious introduction of the author's own ideas into the narrative. 

53 HE 1.26: 'Didicerat [. . .] seruitium Christi uoluntarium, non coacticium esse debere'. 

54 The chronology of the letters to Augustine and /Ethelberht seems confused in Bede. I rely 
here on the reconstruction by R. A. Markus, 'Gregory the Great and a Papal Missionary Strategy', 
in The Mission of the Church and the Propagation of the Faith, ed. by Cuming, pp. 29-38. 

55 HE 1.29,31. 

56 HE 1.32. 

57 HE 1.32: 'idolorum cultus insequere; fanomm aedificia euerte' (suppress the worship of 
idols; overthrow their buildings and shrines). 


Peter Orton 

58 HE 1.30. 

59 See Venerabilis Baedae opera hislorica , ed. by Plummer, 11 58: 'Gregory might well urge 
on Ethelbert the desirability of destruction, and on Augustine the need for caution and 
compromise'; and C. Stancliffe, 'Kings and Conversion', Fruhmittelalterliche Studien, 14 (1980), 
59-94 (p. 61, n. 12): 'Gregory loved emphasizing the necessity of combining two apparently 
contradictory approaches [. . .] I see the Mellitus letter as an example of promoting Christianity by 
“coaxing”, whereas in the letter to Aethelberht the emphasis goes on “correcting”'. The references 
to coaxing and correcting are from the letter to /Ethelberht (HE 1.32). 

60 On the extent to which Anglo-Saxon Christianity was syncretistic, see James C. Russell, 
The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious 
Transformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994). 

61 Archaeological excavations at Yeavering have produced evidence that Gregory's 
suggestions in the letter to Mellitus were actually followed there under King Edwin. The D2 
building also provides evidence consistent with the relapse into paganism after Edwin's death 
recorded by Bede (HE 3.1); see Hope-Taylor, Yeavering, pp. 277-81. 

62 HE 3.30: 'coeperunt fana, quae derelicta erant, restaurare, et adorare simulacra, quasi per 
haec possent a mortalitate defendi'. 

63 HE 3.8. 

64 See Sullivan, 'The Carolingian Missionary and the Pagan', p. 721, for the use of similar 
tactics by Willibrord in Frisia. 

65 On the pagan conception of the relationship between god and idol or other representation, 
see Halbertal and Margalit, Idolatry , p. 40: Tlot mere transparent signs, icons have independent 
power; they heal and perform miracles and therefore are addressed and worshiped. Their unique 
power is due not to the identity between God and the material makeup of the icon, but to the 
special relationship between the two. The relationship is only partly based on the similarity 
between the symbol and the thing symbolized. The icon also shares some of the features of the 
thing it represents. This special relationship is described in a variety of forms. The idol is one of 
the manifestations of the god—sometimes his place of residence (like the soul in the body) and 
sometimes a direct concentration of his powers. Moreover, in certain ritual contexts there are 
special causal connections between the god and its icons. By means of these causal connections an 
act performed on the icon becomes an act upon the god itself. 

66 See Die Germania des Tacitus, ed, by Rudolf Much, rev. by Herbert Jankuhn and 
Wolfgang Lange (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1967), p. 171 (chapter 9). In chapter 40 of the 
Germania (p. 441), the goddess Nerthus is said to be returned to a temple ('templum') by her priest 
after her periodic tours of the tribes who venerated her (see E. O. G. Turville-Petre, Myth and 
Religion of the North (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964), p. 236); but in the context the 
word 'templum' need not be taken to imply an actual building. 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

67 See Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North, pp. 247-50. 

68 Flateyjarbok, ed. by C. R. Unger, 3 vols. (Oslo: Mailings, 1860-8), I 338/19-26: 'Freyr 
rseis {m or uagnninum ok takazst Joeir fangbrQgdum ok uerdr Gunnarr miog afluani. hann serr {)a at 
honum mun reigi sua buit duga. hugsar hann [ra med ser ef hann getr yfirkomit [senna fianda ok 
verdr honum audit at koma aftr til Noregs at hann skal huerfa aftr til rettra(r truar) ok saettazst vid 
Olaf konung ef hann uill uit honum taka, ok [regar eftir Jsessa hugsan tekr Freyr at hrata firir honum 
ok [mi naest fellr hann. hleypr [>a or likneskinu sa feande sem [>ar hafde leynzst ok uar J>a 
skrokkrinn asinn tomr eftir'. [Freyr then rose from the wagon and they wrestled and Gunnarr was 
very nearly overpowered. He then realized that there was nothing he could do in these 
circumstances. Then he thought to himself that if he managed to overcome this devil and it was 
granted to him to get back to Norway, he would return to the true faith and become reconciled with 
King Olafr if he was prepared to receive him. And immediately after he had this thought, Freyr 
started to stagger under pressure from him, and next he fell. Then the demon leapt out from the 
image where it had been hidden, and nothing but the shell remained], 

69 HE 2.13. 

70 Richard North, Heathen Gods in Old English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge 
University Press, 1997), p. 333, regards Coifi's status as a high priest as an invention of Bede's 
because there are no pagan priests mentioned elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon sources, apart from the 
Sussex magician who tries to work his power on Wilfrid in the Latin Vita. However, East Saxon 
pagan priests are also mentioned in HE 2.6: when Mellitus is recalled from Gaul to London by 
Eadbald of Kent, the people of London reject him, 'preferring to serve idolatrous high priests' 
(idolatris magis pontificibus seruire gaudentes). 

71 HE 2.13: 'Si autem dii aliquid ualerent'. 

72 HE 2.13: 'Vnde suggero, rex, ut templa et altaria, quae sine fructu utilitatis sacrauimus, 
ocius anathemati et igni contradamus' [therefore I advise your Majesty that we should promptly 
abandon and commit to the flames the temples and the altars which we have held sacred without 
reaping any benefit]. 

73 HE 2.13: 'quis aras et fana idolorum cum septis quibus erant circumdata primus 
profanare deberet'. 

74 HE 2.13: 'Non enim licuerat pontificem sacrorum uel arnra ferre uel praeter in equa 

75 HE 2.13: 'Quod aspiciens uulgus aestimabat eum insanire' [the common people who saw 
him thought he was mad]. 

76 HE 2.13: 'Nee distulit ille [. . .] profanare illud, iniecta in eo lancea quam tenebat'. 

77 HE 2.13: 'iussit sociis destruere ac succendere fanum cum omnibus septis suis'. 

78 See William A. Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition 
from Paganism to Christianity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1970), p. 63: 'The 


Peter Orton 

dominance of King Edwin at the seventh-century council which determined his kingdom's 
religious future and the advisory role of Coifi, on the contrary, suggest a priesthood subordinate to 
the monarch.’ Coifi's role is more instrumental than Chaney's 'advisory' might suggest. 

79 Alcuin, Versus de Patribus Regibus et Sanctis Euboricensis Ecclesiae, pp. 158-62; see 
The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York, ed. by P. Godman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p. 17. 
Godman places the poem's composition between 781/2 and 792/3 (p. xlvii). Another important 
difference of content is that whereas in Bede's version Coifi devises his own ritual for defiling 
the shrines, in Alcuin's version Edwin tells Coifi what he must do (see Godman, note to lines 
168ff, p. 19). These modifications serve to draw attention to the relative importance of Coifi's 
role in Bede's version. 

80 The fact that no reference is made to the burning of the idols in particular is probably not 

81 See Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion, pp. 116-17, and 128. The concept of 
bridge-burning derives from Virginia H. Hine, 'Bridge Burners; Commitment and Participation in 
a Religious Movement', Sociological Analysis , 31 (1970), 61-6, among whose examples is the 
ritual burning of Voodoo objects when Haitians convert to Pentecostalism (p. 65). 

82 HE 3.1. See also Russell, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity, p. 17: 
'missionaries in early medieval Europe often denigrated the indigenous gods, myths, and cultic 
practices of the Germanic peoples, sometimes characterizing them as satanic. Such an approach 
may result in the secret continued adherence by an indigenous population to their pre-Christian 

83 On these connections between Bede's account of Edwin's conversion, Tacitus's Germania 
and Old Icelandic saga literature, see North, Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, pp. 330-1. 

84 The chief source of the Old Norse myths alluded to here and below is the Prose Edda of 
the Icelander Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241); see Snorri Sturluson, Edda: Prologue and 
'Gylfaginning', ed. by Anthony Faulkes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 21 and 23-4, 
and for a modem English translation, Snorri Sturluson: Edda, trans. by Anthony Faulkes (London: 
Dent, 1987), pp. 21 and 23-4. 

85 See C. Scott Littleton, 'Introduction, Part I', in Georges Dumezil, Gods of the Ancient 
Northmen, ed. by Einar Haugen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), pp. ix-xviii. 

86 Die Germania des Tacitus, ed. by Much, p. 441. 

87 See Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North, pp. 167-8. 

88 For Hrafnkels saga, see Hrafnkels saga Freysgoda, ed. by Jon Johannesson 
(Reykjavik, 1950), 100-5; and for Olafs saga Tryggvasonar, see Flateyjarbok, ed. by Unger, I 

89 See Flateyjarbok, ed. by Unger, I 401/25-30: 'En er hann kom a land Jta sa hans menn 
stodhross nokkur vid ueginn er Jjeir sygdu at Freyr oetti. konungr stasig a bak hestinum ok let 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

taka rossin ok ridu {oeir nu tram til hofsins. konungr stasig af hestinum ok gek inn j hofit ok hio 
nidr godin af stQllunum. sidan tok hann Frey undir hond ser ok bar hann vt til hestz en byrgde 
sidan hofit' (And when he came to land his men saw some stud-horses by the wayside which 
they said Freyr owned. The king mounted the stallion and had the mares caught and they then 
rode on to the temple. The king alighted from the stallion, entered the temple, and struck down 
the gods from the pedestals. Then he took Freyr under his arm, carried him out to the stallion, 
and then closed up the temple). 

90 Evidence for Woden as the god of Coifi’s cult is assembled in Davidson, Gods and 
Myths of Northern Europe, pp. 50-4. Davidson regards the identification as 'likely'. Henry 
Mayr-Harting ( The Coining of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, p. 26) accepts it without 
qualification ('The action of the pagan priest Coifi in flinging his spear into the temple [. . .] is a 
small but highly significant pointer to the cult of Woden and the knowledge of his mythology at 
that time'). J. M. Wallace-Hadrill ( Commentary, p. 72) questions whether Bede would have 
seen the connection between Coifi's gesture and Woden. Davidson regards Coifi's burning of 
the shrines and idols as part of the total pattern of ritualistic behaviour, 06inn having a 
particular association with cremation in Norse sources. 

91 A brief allusion to a myth of Woden occurs in the Old English Nine Herbs Charm 
(. Metrical Charm 2) 31-3: Woden destroys a serpent by striking it with inscribed twigs: '6a 
genam Woden VIIII wuldortanas, sloh 6a t>a nasddran, [last heo on VIIII tofleah' [then Woden 
took nine glory-twigs and struck the snake, so that it flew into nine pieces]; see The Anglo- 
Saxon Minor Poems, ed. by E. V. K. Dobbie, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, 6 (New York, 
1946), p. 120. The ’glory-twigs' are understood by most scholars to refer to runically inscribed 
twigs used for magical purposes. The association of 06inn with runic expertise and magic is 
well established in Old Norse sources; see Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, 
trans. by Angela Hall (Cambridge: Brewer, 1993), pp. 268-9, s.v. Runes. 

92 See Edda: Prologue and 'Gylfaginning', ed. by Faulkes, p. 50 (trans. in Faulkes, 
Snorri Sturluson, Edda, p. 54); and Snorri Sturluson, Edda: Skaldskaparmal, 2 vols., ed. by 
Anthony Faulkes (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 1998), I 42 (trans. in 
Faulkes, Snorri Sturluson, Edda, pp. 96-7). 

93 See Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, p. 124, s.v. Gungnir. 

94 Voluspa, str. 24, 1-4: 'Fleyg6i 06inn / oc i folc um scaut,/ ]rat var enn folcvig / fyrst i 
heimi' (06inn cast his spear, hurled it into the host; this was still the war first in the world). 
Voluspa is cited from Edda: Die Lieder des Codex Regius nebst venvandten Denkmalern, ed. 
by G. Neckel, rev. by Hans Kuhn (Heidelberg: Winter, 1962), p. 6. The translation is Turville- 
Petre's ( Myth and Religion of the North, p. 158). This myth presumably underlies the ritual, to 
which reference is sometimes made in the sagas, whereby the warriors of an opposing army 


Peter Orton 

were dedicated to OSinn by throwing a spear over them; see Davidson, Gods and Myths of 
Northern Europe, p. 53. 

95 See Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, p. 50: 'It seems likely that Coifi 
the priest was the servant of the God of Battle, since his method of destroying and repudiating 
the temple of the gods was to hurl a spear at it and then to commit it to the flames.' 

90 We should also remember that in the Norse myth the outcome of the war between the 
iEsir and the Vanir was a truce resulting in the cohabitation of the two divine tribes—a 
development which would imply, in the context of conversion, a syncretistic combination of 
pagan and Christian religious elements. Paulinus would certainly have disapproved of these 
implications if he had known of them. 

97 Cf. Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: from Paganism to Christianity (New 
York: Henry Holt, 1997), p. 123, who describes Coifi as 'the classic case of the poacher turned 

98 HE 2.13. 

99 Cf. North, Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, pp. 330-40, who sees a very 
different set of historical realities underlying Bede's account of Edwin's conversion. Coifi is a 
shadow, Bede's invention (though see note 70 above). The name Coifi is derived (via i-umlaut) 
from Latin cofia, 'hood', and is a nickname conferred by the Northumbrians on Paulinus after 
they had seen him wearing a hood. It was thus Paulinus who attacked the Goodmanham shrines 
and burnt them; but both Edwin and his subjects have, by this point, already been confused by 
this same hood into identifying Paulinus with the god Woden. In support of this hypothesis, 
North cites the epithet 'Long-hood' ( Sidhottr ), used of 06inn in str. 48 of the Norse Eddie poem 
Grimnismal. See also the reviews of North's book by T. A. Shippey, Modern Language Review, 
95 (2000), 170-1, and J. Gerritsen, English Studies, 81 (2000), 143-4. 

100 See Kenneth Sisam, 'Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogies', Proceedings of the British 
Academy, 39 (1953), 287-348. One of Bishop Daniel's suggestions to the English missionary 
Boniface is that he should show pagans (by arguments based on their beliefs about procreation among 
their gods and goddesses) that their supposed deities must really have been men and women. 

101 For a recent review of the evidence, see Paul Cavill, 'Christianity and Theology in 
Beowulf, in The Christian Tradition in Anglo-Saxon England: Approaches to Current 
Scholarship and Teaching, ed. by Paul Cavill (Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2004), pp. 15- 
39. Beowulf is cited here from Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, ed. by Fr. Klaeber, 3rd edn 
(Boston: Heath, 1950). 

102 Beowulf, 11. 1202-14, 2354-66, 2501-8, 2912-19; and see pp. xxxix, 268. 

1,13 The question of the date of a poem which draws, as Beowulf almost certainly does, on 
oral traditions deriving from the settlement period, and may have gone through many 
redactions in either oral or written form (or both), is a difficult one to formulate in any very 


Burning Idols, Burning Bridges: Bede, Conversion and Beowulf 

useful or precise way. With only a single manuscript at our disposal, there seems to be no way 
of judging at what stage the poem assumed the general form it now has. Attempts to date 
Beowulf have too often ignored this theoretical difficulty; see The Dating of Beowulf, ed. by 
Colin Chase (London: University of Toronto Press, 1981; repr. 1997). The arguments ofH. M. 
Chadwick, The Heroic Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912), pp. 41-56 (chap. 
IV, 'The origins and history of the heroic poems') for a relatively early date (late seventh or 
eighth century) remain compelling. 

104 The terms for God employed in the poem are, in descending order of preference, 'God' 
[God], 'Dryhten' [Lord], 'Metod' [Ordainer], 'W(e)aldend' [Ruler], 'Alw(e)alda' [All-powerful 
one], and 'Fasder' [Father], in addition to about a dozen other words each used once or twice. 
There is no significant difference between the terms preferred by the narrator and those 
favoured by his characters. For a list of terms and line-references, see F. C. Robinson, 'Beowulf 
and the Appositive Style (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985), p. 94, n. 48. 
Robinson's list is complete and correct except in the following respects: 11. 227 and 625 'Gode', 
actually attributed respectively to the Geats and Wealhjseow by the poet (not by Beowulf or 
Hrodgar) via indirect speech, are both listed twice, each of them both correctly and incorrectly; 
1. 1397 'Gode' and 1. 1398 'Drihtne' (attributed by the poet to Hro6gar via indirect speech), and 
1. 2741 'Waldend' (used by Beowulf) are omitted from the list; and 1. 2330 'Dryhtne' is 
misidentified as in an indirect speech attributed by the poet to Hrodgar (it is in fact attributed to 

105 Beowulf 11. 227, 625, 1397, 1626. 

106 Beowulf 11. 107, 1261. 

107 Beowulf 11. 168-9, 705-7, 1056-7. 

108 Beowulf 11. 786, 1682: 'Godes andsaca(n)' [God's enemy]. 

109 Beowulf 1. 811: 'he [wees] fag wiS God' [he was in a feud with God], 

110 For example Beowulf 11. 381-4, 928-31,944-6, 955-6, 1778. 

111 For example Beowulf 11. 440-1,685-7, 967-8, 1658-64. 

112 See J. R. R. Tolkien, 'Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics', Proceedings of the 
British Academy, 22 (1936), 245-95, repr. in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, ed. by Lewis 
E. Nicholson (London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963), pp. 51-103, Appendix (c), 
'Lines 175-88'. Tolkien thought that lines 181-88 'have a ring and measure unlike their context, 
and indeed unlike that of the poem as a whole'; but cf. K. Sisam, The Structure of Beowulf 
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 73, n. 1: 'I see nothing in this passage (175 ff.) to 
establish the view that any part of it has been added to a text essentially the same as that which 
has come down to us'. 


Peter Orton 

113 Cf. Tolkien, 'Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics'; C. Donahue, 'Beowulf, Ireland and 
the Natural Good 1 , Traditio, 7 (1949-51), 263-77, at p. 275, n. 70; and 'Beowulf and Christian 
Tradition: a Reconsideration from a Celtic Stance', Traditio, 21 (1965), 55-116, at p. 76. 

114 Robinson, 'Beowulf and the Appositive Style, pp. 29-59. 

115 See Edward B. Irving Jr., 'Christian and Pagan Elements', in A Beowulf Handbook, ed. 
by Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1996), pp. 175-92 (pp. 
187-88), for a critical response to Robinson's theory. 

116 See Sisam, The Structure of Beowulf p. 72. 

117 Donahue, 'Beowulf and Christian Tradition’, pp. 60-71. 

118 Rom. 1.19-23. 

119 Beowulf 11. 700-2. 

120 Beowulf 11. 1057-8. 

121 Beowulf 11. 2858-9. 

122 This article has benefited from criticisms of an earlier version by Dr R. W. McTurk, Dr 
Felicity Rash and Mr R. M. Orton, and from comments on a later version by the LSE editors 
and two anonymous readers, though of course the author is alone responsible for the views it 
contains, and for any remaining errors. 

The Armour-Bearer in Abbo's Passio sancti Eadmundi and 
Anglo-Saxon England 

Paul Cavill 

There has been a good deal of interest expressed over recent decades in the 
historicity or otherwise of the martyrdom of Edmund of East Anglia. The 
early literary sources of the legend are from the end of the tenth century, 
Abbo of Fleury's Passio sancti Eadmundi of c. 987,' and vElfric's abbreviated 
version of this in his Old English Lives of Saints sometime later but before 
the end of the century. 2 The story of the martyrdom tells how a Viking army 
led by hi guar demand Edmund's submission and tribute; Edmund refuses, is 
captured by the Vikings, beaten, tied to a tree and shot at, then finally 
beheaded. In the dedicatory epistle which precedes the Passio proper, Abbo 
claims he had been told the story by Archbishop Dunstan who had heard it as a 
young man at the court of King dBthelstan from the lips of a very old armour- 
bearer of Edmund who had actually been present and seen it all happen. 

Dorothy Whitelock reviewed the sources and concluded that the 
account of the martyrdom of St Edmund was not entirely implausible. 3 She 
argued on the one hand that neither the Anglo-Saxon chronicler nor Asser, 
both closer in time to the death of Edmund, were 'interested or well-informed 
about East Anglia'; 4 and on the other that '[i]t is possible for two memories 
[that is, of the armour-bearer and Dunstan] to cover some 116 years', 5 Abbo's 
sources were impeccable, and this kind of behaviour by Vikings was 
paralleled in other sources, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle account of 
the martyrdom of St TElfheah. Whitelock's overall conclusion was followed 
and somewhat developed by Susan Ridyard, 6 who saw the armour-bearer of 
Abbo's account as a more reliable source than any others available. Ian 
McDougall examined the Scandinavian parallels for the atrocities committed 
by Inguar's men and agreed with Whitelock; and Thomas Head similarly 
saw both Ailfheah and Edmund as historical and distinctively English 
martyrs. 8 On the other side of the debate, Antonia Gransden has argued that 

Paul Cavill 

Abbo '[ajlmost certainly [. . .] knew virtually nothing about St Edmund's death 
and early cult', and probably borrowed the distinctive motifs from hagiographical 
sources known to him. 9 And I have argued that on closer examination, 
Scandinavian parallels for the shooting of arrows or similar missiles at a living 
victim are lacking, and that the story follows the conventional style of well- 
known Roman martyrdoms, especially that of St Sebastian. 10 

I would now like to return to one particular aspect of Whitelock's view 
of the reliability of Abbo's sources. She writes: 'Abbo could not drastically 
have altered what he claimed to have heard from Dunstan, to whom he sent 
this work. He could not have invented the armour-bearer. Nor is it likely that 
Dunstan should indulge in motiveless and flamboyant lying.' 11 This is an 
over-literal response to hagiography, a genre which the cynic might 
characterise as perhaps not motiveless, but certainly flamboyant, lying. 12 But 
the question I would like to ask here is, 'If he could not be invented, what in 
Anglo-Saxon England was an "armour-bearer", or "sword-bearer"?' The 
whole story of Edmund's martyrdom, despite the emphasis put on Dunstan's 
role as informant, depends on the eyewitness account of this man. 

Abbo's account of the transmission of the story in the dedicatory 
epistle to the Passio runs as follows: 

Audierant enim quod earn pluribus ignotam, a nemine 
scriptam, tua sanctitas ex antiquitatis memoria collectam 
historialiter me praesente retulisset domno Rofensis 
aecclesiae episcopo et abbati monasterii quod dicitur 
Mealmesbyri ac aliis circum assistentibus, sicut tuus mos 
est, fratribus quos pabulo diuini uerbi Latina et patria lingua 
pascere non desinis. Quibus fatebaris, oculos suffusus 
lacrimis, quod earn iunior didicisses a quodam sene 
decrepito, qui earn simpliciter et plena fide referebat 
gloriosissimo regi Anglorum Aethelstano, iureiurando 
asserens quod eadem die fuisset armiger beati uiri qua pro 
Christo martyr occubuit. 

Cuius assertioni quia in tantum fidem accommodasti ut 
promptuario memoriae uerba ex integro reconderes quae 
postmodum mmoribus mellito ore eructares, coeperunt 
fratres instantius meae pusillitati incumbere ut eorum 
feruenti desiderio satisfacerem ac pro uirium facultate 


The Armour-Bearer in Abbo's Passio sancti Eadmundi 

tantorum operum seriem perire non sinerem. ( Pref , 12-28) 
[They [sc. the monks of Ramsey] had heard, indeed, that the 
story of this Passion, which is unknown to most people, and 
has been committed to writing by none, had been related by 
your Holiness, as collected from ancient tradition, in my 
presence, to the Lord Bishop of Rochester, and to the Abbot 
of the monastery which is called Malmesbury, and to other 
brethren then assembled in accordance with your practice, 
whom you cease not to nourish with the food of God's word, 
alike in the Latin and in the mother tongue. To them you 
averred, while the tears ran from your eyes, that you had in 
your youth learned the history from a broken-down veteran, 
who in relating it, simply and in good faith, to the most 
glorious English king, Athelstan, declared on his oath that, 
on the very day on which the martyr laid down his life for 
Christ's sake, he had been armour-bearer to the saintly hero. 
In view of the great reliance which you placed on the old 
man's assertions, and which led you to store up his words in 
their entirety in the receptacle of your memory, to be uttered 
at a later date with honeyed accents to a younger generation, 
the brethren insisted strongly, notwithstanding my 
diffidence, that I would satisfy their earnest desire, and to 
the best of my ability preserve from utter oblivion so 
important a series of events.] ( Corolla , pp. 7-9) 

TElfric abbreviates this account as follows: 

ha wurdon hi aet sprasce ojrfraet Dunstan rehte be sancte 
Eadmunde, swa swa Eadmundes swurdbora hit rehte 
TEjrelstane cynincge Ipa jaa Dunstan iung man waes, and se 
swurdbora waes forealdod man. (4-7) 

[Then they [sc. Abbo and the archbishop] spoke together 
until Dunstan recounted the story of St Edmund just as 
Edmund's sword-bearer had related it to King Arthelstan 
when Dunstan was a young man and the sword-bearer was a 
very old man.] 


Paul Cavill 

The two terms used for the informant in these accounts are Latin armiger and 
Old English swurdbora, and these terms are now to be investigated. It is 
worth noting, however, that those quoted above are the only uses of the terms 
in the Passio and yElfric's Life-, they do not occur again in these sources. 


In order to find an Anglo-Saxon context for the 'armour-bearer', it may be 
simplest to start with /Elfric. 2Elfric translates Abbo's armiger as swurdbora 
'sword-bearer'. The word swurdbora and its variants are used fairly often in 
Old English, some eleven times excluding Ailfric's version of Abbo. 13 It 
appears in glosses to translate spatarius (twice), 14 gladiator, 15 and pugil, 16 
words meaning 'sword-fighter', 'fighter'. In the 'Alfredian' translation of 
Gregory's Dialogues and in vElfric's version of the story from Gregory, it is 
used five times of a man, Riggo, in the bodyguard of King Totila, the Gothic 
king who ruled Italy 541-52, and translates spatharius .' 7 The story of how 
Totila schemed to test the powers of St Benedict is recorded in both principal 
manuscripts of the Dialogues, and again by Ailfric: 

t>a wolde se wadhreowa fandian hwasber benedictus 
witegunge gast hsfde. and asende his swurdboran RIGGO 
gehaten. gescrydne mid his cynelicum gyrelum. mid his 
6egnum to dam mynstre. swilce he hit sylf wasre; 18 
[Then the bloodthirsty king wanted to test whether Benedict 
had a discerning spirit, and sent his sword-bearer, called 
Riggo, dressed in his royal garments, with his attendants, to 
the monastery as if he were the king himself.] 

Of course, Benedict sees through the deception. Later in the Alfredian text it 
is used of an unnamed man in Totila's retinue, another spatharius, who is 
exorcised by the red-faced Bishop Cassius. 19 And finally the word is also 
used of a Bulgarian spatharius of Narses, king of Italy in succession to 
Totila. Clearly this range of usage is specific: swurdbora in Old English 
was used to refer to a sword-fighter and bodyguard or attendant for kings, 
and the extant texts indicate that the term denotes a special office. But the 
usage is also rather sharply restricted: swurdbora is found only as a 


The Armour-Bearer in Abbo's Passio sancti Eadmundi 

translation of a Latin word. Apart from in 2Elfric's version of the St Edmund 
story, there is no native Anglo-Saxon swurdbora in extant Old English texts. 
There is, moreover, no other example than Adfric's of the translation armiger 
= swurdbora in Old English. 


It is difficult to pin down precisely how familiar the armiger would have 
been as a role in Anglo-Saxon England. fElfric uses armiger among the 
illustrations in his Grammar and translates it as wcepnbora 'bearer of 
weapons', a pattern which is also found in three separate glosses, 21 alongside 
two other Anglo-Saxon notes in Latin, Armiger armi portator and Colonum 
armiger 22 The Old English word wcepenbora also glosses pugil (twice) 23 and 
belliger , 24 The focus in these glosses, either in the lemma or the gloss itself, 
is on the idea, explicit in the surface meaning of the words, of carrying arms. 
In yElfric's Grammar the idea of 'bearing' something is a thread to the list, 
expressed in the second element of the Old English compound in each case: 
'lucifer leohtberend; signifer tacnberend; frugifer wasstmbaere; belliger 
wigbora; clauiger ctegbora; <corniger> hombsere; armiger waspnbora; 
<graniger> combsere'.' Similarly, one of the Corpus notes, armi portator 
'bearer of weapons', suggests that the role involves the carrying of weapons. 
Once again, though, the Old English usage of wcepnbora is sharply restricted: 
it is found only as a translation of Latin words. 

Perhaps the most important source for both Abbo and /Elfric, 
however, for the armiger would have been the Bible. Latin armiger is the 
word used of the armour-bearer in the Old Testament some twenty-three 
times. 26 The biblical context for the armour-bearer is that in most of the Old 
Testament stories, he is a young man chosen for his martial promise, who 
accompanies an important leader and serves him. It is twice noted that 
Jonathan, son of King Saul, has an armiger who is a young man: 'dixit autem 
Ionathan ad adulescentem armigerum suum' [And Jonathan said to the young 
man that bore his armour] (I Samuel 14. 6, and see also 14. 1). And David, 
fresh from the fields, is made Saul's armiger. 'et venit David ad Saul et stetit 
coram eo at ille dilexit eum nimis et factus est eius armiger' [And David 
came to Saul, and stood before him: and he loved him exceedingly, and made 
him his armourbearer] (I Samuel 16. 21). The biblical armiger differs, in 


Paul Cavill 

being young, from the experienced swordsmen, the spatarius, gladiator and 
pugil found in Latin texts translated into Old English. Bede in his 
commentary on I Samuel 14. 1 interprets the armiger as representing those 
'discipulos oboedienter arma non camalia sed Deo potentia gestantes quorum 
renouatur sicut aquilae iuuentus' [disciples willingly bearing weapons not of 
the flesh but by the power of God, whose youth is renewed as the eagle's], 
thus clearly reflecting the characteristic of youth and the military role of the 
armour-bearer. 27 

A clustering of references to an armiger is to be found in the story of 
Saul's death in I Samuel 31, and told a second time, almost verbatim, in I 
Chronicles 10. Saul is fighting the Philistines, and losing the battle. He asks 
his armiger to run him through with his sword so that the Philistines do not 
abuse and torture him. The armour-bearer is too frightened, so Saul falls on 
his own sword. In due course, the Philistines cut off his head and hang up the 
body as a trophy until it is rescued by survivors of Saul's army. The 
similarities between this and Abbo's Passio are obvious, if not necessarily 
very significant. As biblical scholars, though, both Abbo and dElfric might 
well have been pleased with the patterning of these ideas of an armiger, a 
beheading, faithful people caring for dead leaders and much more. The 
heinousness of the crime of decapitating 'the Lord's anointed’ is made much 
of in the Passio, and the contemporary theology of royal anointing also 
derives largely from the biblical stories of Saul and his successor David. 2S 
Old Testament stories were widely understood to foreshadow events of the 
era of God's grace, the days of the saints. 

Abbo, AElfric and Anglo-Saxon England 

Taken together, the evidence above strongly suggests that the role of armiger or 
swurdbora was not native to Anglo-Saxon England. While we cannot be sure we 
know all, or even most, of the roles that Anglo-Saxon society envisaged for 
people, there are many places where we would expect to find reference to 
'sword-bearers' or 'armour-bearers' if they existed in English society or fonned 
any part of Anglo-Saxon military institutions: in the laws, or the Chronicle, or 
charters, or the Institutes of Polity , or heroic verse, or the Maxims or other 
catalogue poems. Particularly telling is the fact that in his Historia ecclesiastica 
Bede uses none of the Latin words mentioned in this connection above, namely 


The Armour-Bearer in Abbo's Passio sancti Eadmundi 

armiger, spat(h)arius, gladiator or pugil , 29 when as we have seen he is evidently 
familiar with the role of armiger in his biblical commentaries. 

The Anglo-Saxons were much concerned with status and roles. Anglo- 
Saxon kings generally carried their own arms and fought their own battles: 
/Elfric had to explain why /Ethelred was too important to turn out on the 
battlefield, using the Old Testament example of David. J ° The status attaching 
to owning and using swords is too common a theme in Old English texts to 
need illustration. The only example of sweordberend, in the Old English 
Genesis, indicates that bearing a sword was what was typical of noblemen. 
When Cain built a city, 

liret wees under wolenum weallfaestenna 

aerest ealra jiara [>e aedelingas, 

sweordberende, settan hetton. (1058-60) 31 

[That was the first of all walled fortifications under the 

clouds that princes, bearers of swords, ordered to be 


King Alfred's laws make clear that anyone loaning a sword to another for the 
purpose of murder will have to bear legal responsibility and pay part of the 
compensation. But in the same section of the laws, we have mention of the 
man responsible for the appearance and quality of swords, the sweordhwita 

Gif sweordhwita odres monnes waspn to feormunge onfo, o35e 
smi3 monnes andweorc, hie hit gesund begen agifan, swa hit 
hwreSer hiora aer onfenge, buton hiora hwaeQer ser jungode, (raet 
he hit angylde healdan ne 5orfte. (Alfred 19, 3) 32 

Whitelock translates this as: 

If a sword-polisher receives another man's weapon to polish it, 
or a smith a man's tool, they both are to give it back unstained 
[without it having been used to commit a crime], just as either 
of them had received it; unless either of them had stipulated 
that he need not be liable to compensation for it. 3 ’ 


Paul Cavill 

Both Liebermann and Whitelock apparently rely on the earlier stipulation 
about the owner of the sword sharing responsibility for any crime committed 
with it, as well as the Quadripartitus version of the law, for their 
interpretation of gesund = quietus = 'unstained [without it having been used 
to commit a crime]’. But gesund normally means ’complete, sound’, and the 
law might be trying to ensure that craftsmen were not made liable for failing 
to repair irretrievably damaged weapons which might be destroyed in the 
attempt at repair. This is broadly the view adopted by Attenborough, who 
translates, '[...] the article shall be returned in as good condition as that in 
which it has been received, unless it has been stipulated that there shall be no 
liability on the part of the said furbisher for damage done to it'. 34 This 
accords rather better with the emphasis on the trade of the sweordhwita, and 
the ostensible purpose of the transfer of the weapon, to feormunge [for 
polishing]; but it takes away some of the heroic gloss that Whitelock and 
Liebermann attribute to the sweordhwita. The value of such a man's personal 
service to his lord, and incidentally the value of swords, is recognised in a 
will. 35 Possessing, being arrayed with, and disposing of rich arms was an 
aspect of power; but having a special officer to carry them into battle on 
behalf of their owners is not something that appears in Old English texts. 

When translating Abbo's armiger , Ailfric could have chosen from 
dozens of Old English words for warrior, or young man, or servant, and 
almost as many for retainers with high rank or important roles. 36 Instead he 
used the word swurdbora, which only occurs elsewhere as a translation for 
other Latin words. Swurdbora itself would have been understood by his 
audience; but in his Grammar, as has been seen, he chose the gloss 
wcepnbora for armiger, in line with glosses found elsewhere. Neither 
swurdbora nor wcepnbora, from their distribution, would appear to have 
related to contemporary and familiar Anglo-Saxon roles; but swurdbora 
might have had the more resonance, as it had been used before to denote the 
particular functions of sword-fighter and personal bodyguard to historical 
continental Germanic kings. 

Abbo was not much concerned about the armiger. Dunstan had heard 
the story of Edmund 'a quodam sene decrepito', in Hervey's translation 'from 
a broken-down veteran'. But this phrase could be slightly more idiomatically 
translated 'from some decrepit old man'. /Elfric might well have wondered 
what such a man might be doing in the presence of King Aithelstan and his 
bishops. By contrast with Abbo, Tilfric tells us 'se swurdbora waes forealdod 


The Armour-Bearer in Abbo's Passio sancti Eadmundi 

man' (the sword-bearer was a very old man), raising his status from an 
undistinguished and superannuated man who was a royal servant once, to an 
ancient sword-bearer, and simply contrasting his age with that of Dunstan 
who was 'iung man' [a young man] at the time. This suggests that /Elfric was 
concerned about the status of the eyewitness, and using the word swurdbora 
was a way of placing an old man more securely in the royal circle since the 
sword-bearers of literature and history were important royal retainers. But 
they were not otherwise familiar, and by resolving the difficulty in this way, 
TElfric detached the story of Edmund from the ordinary everyday world of 
his generation, and located it in a different world where things were done 
differently, where kings had sword-fighter bodyguards rather than retainers. 37 

In a context other than his Passio sancti Eadmundi , Abbo uses 
armiger as a synonym for spatharius. It is impossible to say whether the 
roles had merged in the Carolingian period or whether this was simply a 
linguistic convenience for Abbo, but in his theorising about ideal kingship 
and the military responsibilities it entailed, Abbo seems to be drawing on 
contemporary conditions in which the king might employ an armiger , 39 The 
armiger was a role that Abbo might conceivably have been familiar with as a 
Frank, either as an historical reality or a contemporary one. In the Passio, 
however, the biblical model of the armiger as a specifically young man 
would be particularly useful to him. It would help Abbo to solve the 
mathematical problem of a survivor from Edmund's reign lasting into 
TEthelstan's and then telling stories. As Whitelock outlines it, 

TEthelstan came to the throne in 924, and was crowned on 4 
September 925; Dunstan was bom about 909, and was 
commended to TEthelstan soon after his coronation. This 
was some 55 years after Edmund's death, but, if the armour- 
bearer were young at the time (and men took up arm[s] 
early), he need not have been more than in his seventies. 
Dunstan would be about 76 when Abbo heard him recount 
the story. 40 

The youth of the biblical type of armour-bearer might also go some way 
towards explaining why Edmund's armour-bearer did not do the honourable 
thing and defend or avenge his lord, and did not apparently suffer any serious 
repercussions for his dereliction of duty. Edmund's armour-bearer was not a 


Paul Cavill 

man like Riggo, who could pretend to be a powerful and bloodthirsty king; 
indeed, he was not even named by Abbo and had no role beyond observing 
and telling the story. But of course Abbo did not need to explain or confront 
this sort of practical, social or historical issue because he was writing 
hagiography: he could and did avoid the man having any responsibility by 
the simple expedient of keeping him concealed 'diuina prouidentia' [by God's 
providence] (11, 23; Corolla , p. 39). 

From the analysis above, I suggest that /Elfric presents the source of 
the legend of Edmund as a literary character rather than as someone an 
Anglo-Saxon audience might have known from their own society or even 
from their national history. Abbo could have been drawing on his own 
knowledge of Frankish military organisation for the armour-bearer, but it is 
more likely that the biblical and hagiographical sources for the idea were of 
greater significance, since the man does nothing but observe. It is not going 
too far to suggest that, for both writers, the armour-bearer was a literary 
expedient, a topos, a way of giving the story some credibility. 41 


There is, then, no clear evidence beyond that of Abbo that a role which 
would be termed armiger in Latin or swurdbora in Old English was known 
in Anglo-Saxon military society. The Old English words used to translate 
armiger, namely swurdbora and wcepnbora, are only used to translate Latin 
words in the extant record. The Old English words would be transparent in 
their general meaning to an Anglo-Saxon audience, but it would not be quite 
so clear to them, perhaps, what such roles might have meant in practice. 

It does not necessarily follow that because the office of swurdbora is 
otherwise unattested in Anglo-Saxon society, there was no such person to 
witness Edmund's martyrdom. Abbo might simply have been using his own 
familiar terminology for less familiar Anglo-Saxon roles. But if, as has 
been suggested, the substance of the Passio is a tissue of borrowings from 
hagiography and the bible, then the armiger would be in familiar literary 
company. The particular type of armiger that Abbo may have had in mind 
when he was writing the Passio was the literary biblical type, a young man. 
Abbo does not make the association that /Elfric makes, by means of his 
translation swurdbora, with an experienced leader and historical character 


The Armour-Bearer in Abbo's Passio sancti Eadmundi 

like Riggo; but he too is a literary type in Anglo-Saxon England. The 
suspicion that Abbo was writing literary fiction is somewhat strengthened by 
the parallels between the biblical story of Saul and Abbo's own story of 
Edmund. Abbo makes no direct reference to these parallels, but they plausibly 
show the kind of associations the idea of the armour-bearer had for him. 

In short, there are a good many reasons to doubt the existence of the 
eyewitness to Edmund's martyrdom. The mathematics of age is not the 
problem. Rather it is the literariness of the main features of the story, and the 
difficulty we find in locating basic persons, practices and even words in 
historical Anglo-Saxon society, whether these derive from the Latin story of 
Abbo or the Old English version of TElfric. At any rate, it cannot be asserted 
with confidence that Abbo 'could not have invented the armour-bearer': it is 
in fact perfectly possible that he did invent him, by analogy with continental 
military practice, historical or contemporary, or more likely by analogy with 
the Bible. Abbo was writing hagiography, not history, and the convenience 
of having a reliable witness for the story, with some reason to be present, 
could have outweighed (and in my view, did outweigh) any necessity for 
social or historical precision. 


Paul Cavill 


1 The various texts relating to St Edmund are gathered by Lord Francis Hervey, 
Corolla Sancti Eadmundi: The Garland of Saint Edmund King and Martyr (London: 
Murray, 1907). The Passio sancti Eadmundi regis et martyris by Abbo of Fleury is edited 
by Michael Winterbottom, Three Lives of English Saints (Toronto: Pontifical Institute for 
Mediaeval Studies, 1972). Further references are to the Latin from Winterbottom by 
chapter and line, and the translation from Hervey by page number. 

2 /Elfric's Lives of Saints: Being a Set of Sermons on Saints' Days Formerly 
Observed by the English Church, ed. by Walter W. Skeat, 2 vols, EETS o.s. 76, 82, 94 
and 114 (London: Oxford University Press, 1881-1900; repr. 1966), II 314-35. 
References are to line-numbers of this edition; translations of Old English and Latin are 
my own unless otherwise attributed. 

3 Dorothy Whitelock, 'Fact and Fiction in the Legend of St. Edmund', 
Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, 31 (1967-9), 217-33, repr. in 
Whitelock, From Bede to Alfred: Studies in Early Anglo-Saxon Literature and 
History (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1980). 

4 Fact and Fiction', p. 218. 

5 'Fact and Fiction', p. 219. 

6 Susan J. Ridyard, The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England: A Study of West 
Saxon and East Anglian Cults (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). 

7 Ian McDougall, 'Serious Entertainments: An Examination of a Peculiar Type of 
Scandinavian Atrocity', Anglo-Saxon England, 22 (1993), 201-26. 

8 Thomas Head, Hagiography and the Cult of Saints (Cambridge: Cambridge 
University Press, 1990), p. 243. 

9 Several important studies have recently come from the pen of Antonia Gransden: 
The Legends and Traditions Concerning the Origins of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds', English 
Historical Review, 394 (1985), 1-24 and 'Abbo of Fleury's "Passio Sancti Eadmundi'", Revue 
Benedictine, 105 (1995), 20-78, are the ones most pertinent to the matter of this article. 
The quotation is from 'Legends and Traditions', pp. 7-8. 

10 Paul Cavill, 'Analogy and Genre in the Legend of St Edmund', Nottingham 
Medieval Studies, 47 (2003), 21-45. 

11 'Fact and Fiction', p. 221. 

12 See my article (n. 10 above), where I discuss the rationale for pious fiction of 
this type. 

13 The Dictionary of Old English Corpus in Electronic Form, ed. by Angus 


The Armour-Bearer in Abbo's Passio sancti Eadmundi 

Cameron, Ashley Crandell Amos, Sharon Butler, Antonette diPaolo Healey (Toronto: 
Dictionary of Old English, 1981). For the items not discussed in detail, I use the 
abbreviated reference of the Corpus. 

14 G1 B 1.9.2: spatarius, swurdbora; AntGl 4 (Kindschi) D1.4: Spatarius, 

15 ProgGl 1 (Forst) C16.1: 'Gladiatorem se factum uiderit, dampnum fedum 
significat' (swurdboran hine gewordene gesihb hearm fullie getacnajr). 

16 C1G1 3 (Quinn) D8.3: Pugiles, sweordboran. 

17 2 (C) B9.5.4: swurdboran, sweordbora ; GD 2 (H) B9.5.10.2: swurdbora, 
swurdboran, for the TElfric reference, see next note. The Latin text of Gregory's 
Dialogorum libri quatuor is edited by J.-P. Migne, PL 66 and 77 (Paris: Gamier, 1896). 

18 JE\fric’s Catholic Homilies: The Second Series Text, ed. by Malcolm Godden, 
EETS s.s. 5 (London: Oxford University Press, 1979), at p. 99,11. 237^10. 

19 GDPref and 3 (C) B9.5.5: swurdboran. 

20 GDPref and 4 (C) B9.5.6: swurdbora. 

21 JEG\ B 1.9.2: armiger, waspnbora; PrudGl 4 (Meritt) C94.4: armigeris, 
waspnbasrum; AntGl 4 (Kindschi) D1.4: Armiger, waspenbora. 

22 CorpGl 2 (Hessels) D4.2. 

27 AldV 1 (Goossens) C31.1: 'pugiles s. nos gladium portantes gladiatores 1 (we 
wtepenboren & cempan); AldV 13.1 (Nap) C31.13.1: pugiles, 1 gladiators, 
waepenboren, cempan. 

24 H1G1 (Oliphant) D16.1: Belliger .1. miles bellator, waepenbora. 

25 JElfrics Grammatik und Glossar, ed. by Julius Zupitza (Berlin: Weidmannn, 1880), p. 27. 

26 All biblical quotations are from Biblia sacra: iuxta vulgatam versionem, ed. by 
Robertas Weber, 4th edn, rev. by B. Fischer et al. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 
1994), and the translation is from The Holy Bible: Douay Version (London, n.d.). 

27 In primam partem Samvhelis libri ////, ed. by D. Hurst, Corpus Christianorum 
series latina 119 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1962), p. 113. 

28 For example, 'caput sanctum, quod non impinguauerat peccatoris oleum sed certi 
misterii sacramentam' [the sacred head, which had been anointed not with the oil of 
sinners, but with the sacramental chrism of mystery] (cap. 11, 14—15, Corolla, p. 37). See 
further Marco Mostert, The Political Theology of Abbo of Fleuty: A Study of the Ideas 
about Society and Law of the Tenth-Century Monastic Reform Movement (Hilversum: 
Verloren, 1987), pp. 150-4. 

29 See Putnam Fennell Jones, A Concordance to the 'Historia Ecclesiastica’ of Bede 
(Cambridge, Mass: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1929). 

30 See Wyrdwriteras us seegad in Homilies of Mlfric: A Supplementary Collection, 


Paul Cavill 

ed. by John C. Pope, 2 vols, EETS o.s. 259 and 260 (London: Oxford University Press, 
1967-8), at II 725-33. 

31 Text from Genesis in The Junius Manuscript, ed. by George Philip Krapp, The 
Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931). 

32 Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen , ed. by F. Liebermann, 3 vols (Halle, 1898-1903), I 60. 

33 English Historical Documents I: c.500-1042, ed. and trans. by Dorothy 
Whitelock, 2nd edn (London: Eyre Methuen, 1979), pp. 376-7. 

34 The Laws of the Earliest English Kings, ed. and trans. by F. L. Attenborough 
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), p. 75. 

35 The will of Aitheling A-thelstan: 'ic geann AElfno6e minon sweordhwitan {rass 
sceardan malswurdes' [I grant to Ailfnoth my sword-polisher the notched(?) inlaid 
sword], in Anglo-Saxon Wills, ed. and trans. by Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge: 
Cambridge University Press, 1930), p. 60. AEtheling Aithelstan disposes of several 
swords in his will, including one formerly belonging to King Offa, and one made by 
Wulfric which he gives to St Peter's. This indicates that it is the value of the swords that 
is important here rather than the use to which they might be put, though of course if the 
sword granted to Ailfnoth was 'notched' or damaged, he would be in a fair position to 
repair it. In other words, the sword-polisher was a useful servant who merited 
appropriate reward. 

36 See A Thesaurus of Old English, ed. by Jane Roberts, Christian Kay with Lynne 
Grundy, 2 vols (London: Kings College London Centre for Late Antique and Medieval 
Studies, 1995), under items 'A person of rank, elder, great man'; 
'A follower', 'A servant, attendant'; 12.04.01: ’A fellow, companion, associate, 
comrade'; 'A man, warrior'; 'A commander, officer'; 'An armed man' (among others). The range of vocabulary is extensive. 

37 In my article 'Analogy and Genre', pp. 27-34, I have shown that this archaising 
or use of what can only be called a vocabulary of 'translationese' in Ailfric's Life of St 
Edmund is deliberate and extends to the methods and instruments used for the whole 
'package' of torture. 

38 M. Mostert, King Edmund of East Anglia (f 869): Chapters in Historical 
Criticism (unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Amsterdam, 1983), p. 98, 
notes the use of armiger in Abbo's Epitome de XCI romanorum pontificum vitis, ed. by 
J.-P. Migne, PL 139 (Paris: Gamier, 1880), cap. 76, col. 558B. The context makes it 
clear that the armiger is a spatharius: 'mandaverat suo spathario [. . .] Nam prredictus 
armiger'. In his Political Theology, p. 183, n. 29, Mostert cites another example of 
spatharius in the same source, cap. 90, col. 570A, but I cannot find this: col. 570 is cap. 
91, so there is perhaps some mistake. 


The Armour-Bearer in Abbo's Passio sancti Eadmundi 

39 Mostert, King Edmund , p. 98: 'The king has to defend his country with weapons 
against foreign foes; if necessary he is to die for his country, under no circumstances should 
he fly or desert his own army. His army, which seems to include a personal bodyguard and 
knows several specialist functions, has to be paid. Desertion is a case of lese majeste.' 

40 'Fact and Fiction', p. 221. 

41 The hagiographical convention of 'the authority of the reliable eyewitness' is 
concisely outlined by McDougall, p. 204. 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

Carla Morini 

The Historia Apollonii regis Tyrii (henceforth HA), a romance of travel, exile 
and love, has been handed down to us in various Latin and vernacular 
redactions. 1 There are basically two hypotheses as to its origin. According to 
the first of these the work was initially composed in Greek during the third 
century AD and then translated into Latin at the end of the fifth century; 2 
according to the second hypothesis the text was compiled in Latin at that same 
time, before being reworked from a Christian perspective at some point 
between the fifth or the sixth centuries. 3 The rich Latin textual tradition of this 
romance, which has been collected and studied by A. Riese and A. A. G. 
Kortekaas, 4 dates from the ninth century and can be classified in three 
recensions known as RA, RB and RC. This romance was not only considered 
worthy of preservation in Latin but also of being translated into different 
vernaculars from the tenth to the seventeenth centuries. 6 

The Old English translation of the HA, the first vernacular version of 
the text, has recently been the subject of renewed interest.' It is my intention 
in this article to investigate two related questions: why was a fragmentary 
copy of the Old English translation (henceforth OEHA ) preserved in a codex 
containing Wulfstan's laws and homilies (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, 
MS 20IB)? Who made the translation, and for what purpose? In addressing 
these questions I will analyse the translation with respect to its source, and 
investigate the evidence for its authorship, in relation to Wulfstan himself or to 
his entourage. Both the substance and style of the translation seem closely 
related to Wulfstan's writings and ideology. 

Carla Morini 

The OEHA and its manuscript 

Nothing is known about the arrival of the first Latin copy of the HA in Anglo- 
Saxon England. No Anglo-Latin manuscript of the HA has survived and the 
Latin tradition of the romance that did survive in England, part of the so-called 
redaction C, is more recent in origin than the Old English translation. 8 It has 
been suggested that probably the earliest copy of the Latin text of the HA was 
brought to Anglo-Saxon England, together with many other Latin texts, by 
Benedict Biscop, founder of the monasteries of Wearmouth (674) and Jarrow 
(681 ). 9 But it should also be borne in mind that Bishop Cynewald of 
Worcester (929-57) used to import books from various continental 
monasteries (Jumieges, Hombach, St Gall, Constance), as did his successor 
Oswald. 10 Moreover Wulfstan of York (fl023) brought from York to 
Worcester many Latin texts by several authors and encouraged the copying of 
many other continental writings. 11 

It is known that a text entitled Apollonium Anglice was preserved in the 
library of the abbey at Burton on Trent; this copy is now lost. 12 Thus the only 
Old English text of the HA to reach us is that preserved in the second part of 
Corpus Christi College MS 20IB, written by three scribes around the middle 
of the eleventh century. 13 The two parts of Corpus Christi College MS 201— 
Ker 49 (A, pp. 1-7, 161-7 + B, pp. 8-160, 167-76) and Ker 50—both written in 
insular minuscule, were put together at Canterbury in the second half of the 
eleventh century. 14 Corpus Christi College 201B is a miscellany that contains 
Wulfstan's homilies, laws, and ecclesiastical institutes, as well as a few texts 
of other genres. 15 While the second part of this manuscript (Ker 50) was 
undoubtedly written at Exeter, the place of origin of its first part (A + B) has 
not been definitively established; 16 in fact, it has been variously argued that it 
was written in York, 17 Winchester, 18 or Worcester. 19 

Corpus Christi College MS 20IB does not contain the entire translation 
of the HA into Old English, but just two fragments of it, respectively 
corresponding to chapters 1-22 (MS, pp. 131-40) and 48-51 (MS, pp. 141-5) 
of the Latin romance. It may be regarded as a copy from another exemplar, 
firstly because of copying mistakes, such as Apallinus or Apollianus for 
Apollonius', and, secondly, because both the end of p. 145, where the 
OEHA finishes, and the following page which concludes the quintemion, 
contain no text. The empty space suggests that the text which follows was 
copied before the OEHA, and that its lost archetypal form was either 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

similarly fragmentary, or that a decision was taken to copy only some of 
the available excerpta. The OEHA text, copied by the same early eleventh- 
century hand responsible for copying most of the texts in Corpus Christi 
College MS 20IB, 20 is not exempt from corruption, as can be observed by 
the modem editorial emendations made to the Latin. 21 Nothing in the 
language or orthography of the text has helped us to establish a more 
precise dating for the translation than the end of the tenth or the beginning 
of the eleventh century.' 2 

Was there a particular reason why the OEHA was preserved in this 
codex, located between Wulfstan's homilies and various legal texts? It has 
been suggested that the manuscript contains annotations or excerpts of 
juridical material that were personally utilised by Archbishop Wulfstan. 23 
Corpus Christi College MS 20IB is not a collection of a purely juridical 
nature, and Mary Richards has argued that there was a reason for placing 
instructional texts and items addressing matters of faith between law texts 
dealing with similar topics: all the pieces served to provide Anglo-Saxon 
people with useful instructional material. 24 She concludes that this careful 
arrangement of the entire codex 'was made under Wulfstan's supervision,' 25 
and that the OEHA has nothing to do with this plan, having been added later 
by others, because the romance, 'a marvellous narrative', belonged to a genre 
that Wulfstan avoided. 26 

As I have recently noted, 27 the fragments of Aethelred's Laws 
contained in Corpus Christi College MS 201 mention the juridical situation 
of the widow: 

Si relc wuduwe, {re hi silfe mid rihte healde, on Godes gride 7 
daes cynges. sitte aslc xii monad werleas; ceose siddan jxet heo 
sylf wille (V Atr 21-21.1, MS pp. 48-52; VI Atr, MS pp. 126- 
30) 28 

[Every widow who lives properly shall be protected by the 
Church and the king she shall live for one year without her 
husband and then can choose who she wants.] 

Moreover, The Institutes of Polity, Civil and Ecclesiastical (Corpus Christi 
College MS 201, pp. 40-3 and pp. 87-93) define the norms for regulating the 
social behaviour of laymen and religious people in marriage, as well as in 
bachelorhood and in widowhood: 


Carla Morini 

Laewedum men is sic wif forboden, buton hi rihtaewe (Book 
I, 75) 

[Laymen are not permitted to have women except as their 
legitimate wives] 

Be laswedum mannum. Riht is, J^aet gehadode men [ram 
laswedum wissian, hu hi heora aewe rihtlicost sculon healdan 
(Book II, 87) 

[On laymen. It is proper that consecrated men lead the laymen 
as to the most correct way they should behave in marriage] 

Bast bid rihtlic lif, dast cniht [mrhwunige on cnihthade, oddast 
he on rihtre maedenaswe gewifige, and hasbbe [>a siddan and 
naenige odre, da hwile Jte seo libbe. (Book II, 188) 

[It is the proper life that a young man should maintain himself 
in chastity until he takes a young woman in lawful 
matrimony, and let him afterwards have this woman and no 
other while she lives.] 

Gif hire [ronne fordsid getimige, [tonne is rihtast [>aet he 
jtanonford wuduwa Jturhwunige (Book II, 189) 

[If then it happens that she dies, then it is most appropriate 
that he should remain thereafter a widower] 

Ac da canonbec forbeodad [>a bletsunge [tarto, [>e to 
frumwifunge gesette syn (Book II, 191) 

[But the books of the canons forbid the blessing on it that was 
granted for the first marriage] 

And eac is gescrifen dasdbot swilcum mannum to donne 
(Book II, 192) 

[And also to such men is penance imposed] 

Be [>am man masg witan, jtaet hit eallunga riht nis, [raet wer 
wifige odde wif ceorlige oftor jsonne asne. (Book II, 194) 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

[Therefore it can be understood that it is not entirely proper 
that a man or a woman should marry more than once] 

And [iset bid eac micel syn, [oset gehwa his rihtaswe lifigende 
alsete and him on unriht odre geceose. (Book II, 195a) 

[And it is also a serious sin for a man to leave his lawfully 
wedded wife while she lives and to choose another one 
unlawfully] 29 

In the first fourteen chapters of the fourth book of The Handbook for the 
Confession (Corpus Christi College MS 201, pp. 115-21), the penance 
imposed on the transgressor of the marriage canon, and on anyone guilty of 
violence towards women, is described in detail: 

Gyf hwa mid his ofercrsefte wif o56e maeden neadinga nymd 
to unrihthaemede hire unwilles, beo he amansumod (200-1) 

[If someone commits adultery by fraud on a woman or on a 
girl against her will he is to be excommunicated] 

Gyf hwa wille wid wifman unrihtlice haeman, faeste XL daga 
on hlafe and on wastere (246-7) 

[If someone wishes to have illegitimate intercourse with a 
woman, he must fast for forty days on bread and water] 30 

The Handbook for the Confession and the canonical and political laws contained 
in the manuscript thus provided Anglo-Saxon England with regulations as to 
proper conduct in marriage and prohibitions against marital transgression, 
including violence, adultery and incest: all these elements are central to the plot of 
the Apollonius text. On the basis of this evidence, it is reasonable to argue that 
there could also be a relationship between some of the juridical and religious 
statements to be found in Corpus Christi College MS 20IB and the content of the 
fragments of the romance, which touches on issues of rape, incest, marriage, free 
consent, and widowhood. 


Carla Morini 

The Old English Apollonius and its Latin model 

It has been suggested that the Latin model used by the Anglo-Saxon translator 
of the HA can be found either in chapter 153 of the Gesta Romanorum , 31 or in a 
Latin exemplar preserved in Vienna, Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, MS 
226, 32 or in another copy of the HA from Tegemsee, now Munich, Bayerische 
Staatsbibliothek, CLM 19148.But the attention of scholars has mostly been 
drawn to Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 318 and Oxford, Bodleian 
Library, Laud MS 247, both of which belong to the C redaction, a mixed text 
originating from the other two redactions. Benjamin Thorpe provided his own 
edition of the OEHA with chapter 153 of the Gesta Romanorum, adding that a 
better text was the one given by Welser and reproduced from a manuscript 
belonging to St Ulrich and Afra Abbey, Wurzburg. 34 It was Julius Zupitza who 
first argued that the OEHA could have been translated from a Latin text very 
close to that extant in Coipus Christi College MS 318 (twelfth century), 35 a 
hypothesis affirmed by J. Raith. 36 Finally, the most recent edition of the OEHA, 
edited by P. Goolden (1958), contains a peculiar Latin text, 37 which, while also 
based on the Latin text preserved in Corpus Christi College MS 318, includes all 
the Latin variant readings convergent with the Anglo-Saxon translation, which 
are preserved in other manuscripts belonging to all three redactions. Goolden 
also includes the variant readings of a no longer extant Augsburg manuscript, of 
which we have one fourteenth-century transcription, and also other variants 

belonging to chapter 153 of the Gesta Romanorum. Therefore this Latin text has 


been described by Gneuss as 'artificial' and 'conflated'. 

The Old English translation 

With respect to the Latin text preserved in Corpus Christi College MS 318 and 
the redaction C, OEHA has some distinctive variant readings, which could be 
attributed to the translator himself or to the use of a different Latin exemplar. 
While the text translated in the OEHA appears to have been very close to that 
preserved in Corpus Christi College MS 318, it was not exactly the same. 
Misunderstandings in the Old English text that could be attributed to the 
corruption of the probable Latin model are rare, as (according to Raith) are 
translation mistakes: 10,3 ic eow aide for Lat. relevabo that was read as 
revelabo', 12,9 hwces mceg ic biddan for Lat. quam partem petam ; 13,24 and mid 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

gelceredre handa he swang pone top for Lat. ceroma effricuit eum tanta 
subtilitate', 13,26 on his cynesetle for Lat. in solio; 14,16 baton scrude for Lat. 
abiecto habitu ; 50,28 heo rcehte pa sodlice hire handa him to, and het hine 
gesundfaran for Lat. quern manumissum incolumem abire precepit . 40 Moreover, 
the different linguistic structure of Old English made it necessary for the 
translator to introduce some modifications to his Latin original: 22,4 in to dam 
bure par his dohtor inne wees for Lat ad filiam suam; 12,7 waelreownesse for 
Lat. haec; 13,15 mid his geferan for Lat. cum suis; 1,11 of slaepe awoc for Lat. 
vigilans', 21,23 ponne saende ic eow word for Lat. mittam ad vos. 

Without any further explanation, Goolden restricts himself to noting that 
only a few additions can be attributed to misinterpretation and, thus, to a poor 
translation of the Latin text; among these he mentions the explicit (though not 
the existence of an incipit ) without giving any interpretation. 41 But I would 
argue that the OEHA can hardly be defined as a pure translation. It is basically 
an impressive prose work which, operating at varying degrees of proximity to its 
model, creates a quite different atmosphere and a better text than are to be found 
in the source. The real novelty in this translation, which is not always a literal 
one, lies in the introduction or omission of particular words or clauses, and in 
the adaptation and highlighting of various scenes, a process which, I believe, 
points to the conscious creation of an exemplary text. Amplifications and 
omissions of words and clauses in the original Latin text are not only the result 
of an attempt to make a good translation, but also suggest that it was the 
adaptor's intention to make the Latin text more familiar to and relevant for 
Anglo-Saxon readers. 

Rape and incest 

The Old English translation begins, as does the Latin text, with the narration 
of the incest episode 42 concerning King Antiochus of Antioch who seduces 
and rapes his daughter. But the translation introduces some modifications, 
amplifying some details and omitting others: 43 

Sed dum pater deliberaret, cui potissimum filiam suam in 
matrimonium daret, cogente iniqua concupiscentia 
crudelitateque flamme, incidit in amorem filie sue, et cepit 
earn aliter diligere quam quod paterem opportebat. Qui 


Carla Morini 

<cum> diu luctatur cum furore pugne, cum dolore vincitur 
amore. Excidit illi pietas, oblitus est esse se patrem, induit 
coniugem. Sed dum sevi pectoris sui vulnus ferre non posset, 
quadam die prima luce vigilans irrupit cubiculum <filie>, 
famulos secedere longius iussit, quasi cum filia sua secretum 
colloquium habiturus, diuque repngnanti nodum virginitatis 
erupit; perfectoque scelere cupit celare secrete. (HA, ch. 1 ) 

Da gelamp hit sarlicum gelimpe, Jr a 6a se faeder [rohte hwam 
he hi mihte healicost forgifan, { 5 a gefeol his agen mod on hyre 
lufe mid unrihtre gewilnunge, to dam swi6e Joaet he forgeat ]ra 
federlican arfestnesse and gewilnode his agenre dohtor him 
to gemaeccan; and |ra gewilnunge naht lange ne ylde, ac sume 
daege on aeme mergen, fra he of slaspe awoc, he abraec into 
dam bure, frar heo inne laeg, and het his hyredmen ealle him 
aweg gan, swilce he wid his dohtor sume digle spaece sprecan 
wolde. Hwcet! he da on dare manfullan scilde abisgode and 
pa ongeanwinnendan fcemnan mid micelre strengde 
earfodlice ofercom, and fraet gefremede man gewilnode to 
bediglianne. ( OEHA , ch. 1) 

[Then it happened, through a painful mishap, that while the 
father was drinking to whom he might, in preference to odiers, 
give her, then his own mind fell on her with wrongful desire so 
greatly drat he forgot paternal piety, and desired his own 
daughter to himself for a mate: and that desire was not long 
delayed; but one day, in the morning, when he awoke from sleep, 
he broke into the chamber wherein she lay, and bade Iris servants 
all go away from him, as if he would speak in secret with his 
daughter. He then engaged in that sinful crime, and by great 
strength and with difficulty overcame the struggling damsel and 
sought to hide the committed crime.] 

Sed dum gutte sanguinis in pavimento cecidissent, subito 
nutrix introivit; et vidit puellam roseo rubore perfusam, 
asperso sanguine pavimento [. . .] (HA, ch. 2 ) 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

Da gewear5 hit |i£et Jaass masdenes fostormodor in to 8am bure 
eode, and geseah hi 5ar sittan on micelre gedrefednesse 
(OEHA, ch.2) 

[Then it happened that the maiden's foster-mother went into 
the chamber, and saw her sitting there in great affliction] 

Et ut semper impiis thoris filie frueretur, ad expellendos 
nuptiarum petitores questiones proponebat (HA, ch. 3) 

and to Sam [net he [re lengc brucan mihte his dohtor arleasan 
bridbeddes, and him fram adryfan pa de hyre girndon to 
rihtum gesynscipum , he asette 6a rasdels (OEHA, ch. 3 ) 

[and in order that he might the longer enjoy his daughter's 
impious bride-bed, and drive from him those who desired her 
in lawful marriage, he then posed a riddle] 

The additions were made in order to underline the serious impiety of the king, 
and above all the illegality of his crime, but there are also omissions relating to 
rape and violence. The reader is gradually informed about what is going to 
happen: initially we learn that 'gelamp hit sarlicum gelimpe' [a painful 
misfortune occurred], caused 'mid unrihtre gewilnunge' [by an illegal desire]; 
the introduction of unriht [illegal, improper] seems designed to offer a juridical 
judgment of the action. Another sentence introduced by the translator, 'Hwast, he 
8a on 3are manfullan scilde abisgode', expresses the transition from intention to 
action, to the violence perpetrated against a non-acquiescent individual, well 
expressed by the Latin repugnanti. The phrase is introduced by the 
untranslatable hwcet, a tenn with native poetic associations. The adjective 
manful [sinful] is added in order to define the nature of the father's action. 
Finally, the use of riht (ch. 3) [legal, juridical], introduced as positive modifier 
to the Latin noun nuptia, underlines here the legality of the future marriage of 
the princess which can be contracted with one of her suitors, as opposed to the 
illegitimate relationship with her father, defined by the translator, as we have 
noted, as unriht (ch. 2). It is worth remarking that this adjective, in its positive 
and negative forms, is characteristic of Wulfstan's lexis. 44 We may note in 
particular how the anonymous translator emphasises that the rape had been 
perpetrated against the will of the victim, introducing both the adverb earfodlice 


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[with difficulty] and the complement mid micelre strengde [literally 'with great 

The presence of such interpolations highlights the juridical and 
religious purpose of this translation. It should be noted that during the Middle 
Ages rape and incest 45 —condemned by the Christian Church and by civil 
law 46 —were related to a breach of the injunction not to marry one's closest 
relatives. Germanic law, as well as that of the Christian Church, considered 
marriage between descendants, ascendants and siblings to be illegal. 47 But 
with the conversion to Christianity intermarriage was forbidden within 
Germanic society and therefore, in due course, to the Anglo-Saxons. 48 Bede 
reported an Interrogatio Augustini to Gregory the Great about this topic: 49 

V. Interrogatio Augustini: Usque ad quotam generationem 
fideles debeant cum propinquis sibi coniugio copulari-, et 
novercis et cognatis si liceat copulari coniugio. 

Respondit Gregorius: Quaedam terrena lex in Romana 
republica permittit, ut sive frater et soror seu duorum fratrum 
germanorum vel duarum sororum filius et filia misceantur. 
Sed experimento didicimus ex tali coniugio sobolem non 
posse succrescere, et sacra lex prohibet cognationis 
turpitudinem revelare. Unde necesse est, ut iam tertia vel 
quanta generatio fidelium licenter sibi iungi debeat; nam 
secunda, quam praediximus, a se omnimodo debet abstinere. 

[. . .] Quia vero sunt multi in Anglorum gente qui, dum adhuc 
in infedilitate essent, huic nefando coniugio dicuntur admixti, 
ad fidem venientes admonendi sunt, ut se abstineant, et grave 
hoc esse peccatum cognoscant. Tremendum Dei iudicium 
timeant, ne pro camali dilectione tormenta aetemi cruciatus 
incurrant (Book I, ch. 27, V). 

[Augustine's fifth question. Within what degree may the 
faithful marry their kindred; and is it lawful to marry a 
stepmother or a sister-in-law? 

Gregory answered: A certain secular law in the Roman State 
allows that the son and the daughter of a brother and sister, or 
of two brothers or two sisters may be married. But we have 
learned from experience that the offspring of such marriages 
cannot thrive. Sacred law forbids a man to uncover the 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

nakedness of his kindred; hence it is necessary that the 
faithful should only marry relations three or four times 
removed, while those twice removed must not marry in any 
case, as we have said. [. . .] Now because there are many of 
the English race who, while they were unbelievers, are said to 
have contracted these unlawful marriages, when they accept 
the faith, they should be warned that they must abstain, 
because such marriages are a grave sin. Let them fear the 
heavy judgement of God, lest, for the gratification of their 
carnal desires, they incur the pains of eternal punishment.] 50 

From the eighth to the eleventh or twelfth centuries the Church forbade any 
marriage up to the seventh generation. 51 Through the introduction and the 
fixing of Canons of councils, which served to promote its stability and 
indissolubility, marriage was regulated and legitimized. 52 It is interesting to 
note that in 958 Archbishop Oda separated King Eadwig and his wife TElfgifu 
on the grounds of consanguinity, because they shared the same great-great 
grandfather King /Ethelwulf: 

Chronicles D, year 958 

Her on [lissum geare Oda arcebiscop totwaemde Eadwi cyning 
and TElgyfe, for jxem jie hi wseron to gesybbe. 5 ' 

[In that year Archbishop Oda divorced Eadwig and Ailgyfu 
because they were too closely related] 

The Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical laws on marriage were first introduced by 
Wulfstan for /Ethelred and Cnut, whom he assisted in drawing up legal 
statements. In particular LawVI Atr, 11.3-12.4 and Law I Cnut, 7.2, 7.3 fixed 
(by the same text also preserved in Corpus Christi College MS 201B, p. 127) 
the permissible limits of consanguinity to be observed before a marriage could 
proceed: 54 

[6.3] And seghwilc Cristen man eac for his Drihtenes ege 
unnhthaimed geome forbuge and godcunde lage rihtlice healde. 
[7] And we lasrad and we biddad and on Godes namam beodaQ, 
feet cenig Cristen man binnon six manna sibfcece on his agenum 
cynne cefre ne wifige, ne on his maeges leafe, jie swa neahsib 


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wasre, ne on 3ses wifes nydmagan, ]ie he silf aer hasfde, [7.1] ne 
on his gefaederan, ne on gehalgodre nunnan, ne on aslastan asnig 
Cristen man ne wifige aefre; [7.2] ne asnig forligeru ahwar ne 
begange; [7.3] ne na ma wifa haebbe fionne an; ac beo be [tare 
anre, [>a hwile ]ie heo libbe, se Joe wille Godes laga giman mid 
rihte and wi6 hellebryne beorgan his sawle. 55 
[Each Christian for the fear of God also despises greatly an 
illegitimate embrace and adheres properly to the divine laws. 

7. And we warn, ask and decree in the name of God that no 
Christian should marry within the sixth degree of relationship 
in his own family, neither with the woman left by his relative, 
who was of the same degree of relationship, nor with a 
relative of [his] former wife. 7.1. Nor should any Christian 
man marry his godmother, nor a holy nun, nor a separated 
woman, 7.2. Neither should he perform any type of immoral 
deed. 7.3. Nor should a man who wishes properly to preserve 
the law of God and to preserve his soul from the flames of 
hell have more than one woman, but should remain with the 
one as long as she lives,] 

This statement on permissible degrees of consanguinity was also reproduced 
by Wulfstan in his homilies, in which he offered instruction to the laity of all 
classes. The various Anglo-Saxon penitentials testify that, since the eighth 
century, 56 the promulgation of moral and social laws concerning marriage and 
violence was driven by necessity. 57 The penitentials contain a list of severe 
sanctions relating to a variety of matrimonial and sexual topics, as well as to 
possible infringements of the permissible degrees of consanguinity in 
marriage. They were also directed against other sins such as adultery, divorce, 
and sexual violence. 58 Incest was another issue addressed: 

De incestuosis. Si quis cum matre fomicaverit, xv annos 
poeniteat [. . .] Si cum filia vel sorore fomicaverit, similiter 
poeniteat. (Penitential of St. Theodor , Book V 13-14) 59 
[On the incestuous. He who fornicated with his mother shall 
do penance for fifteen years [. . .] If he fornicated with his 
daughter or sister, let him do the same penance.] 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

Qui cum matre fomicaverit xv. annos peniteat. Si cum filia vel 
sorore xii. annos poeniteat {Penitential of St. Egberth, Book IV). 60 
[He who fornicated with his own mother, shall do penance for 
fifteen years. If he fornicated with his daughter or with his 
sister he shall do penance for twelve years.] 

In the Sermo Lupi (Napier 59, 61 Horn U 48), considered by Whitelock and Jost to 
be authentic, 62 Wulfstan also deals with the permissible degrees of kinship, 
reproducing exactly the same clauses from the above-cited law: 

[. . .] and we l$ra6 and biddab and on godes naman beodab, 
[last asnig cristen man bynnan syx manna sibbfasce asfre ne 
gewifige on his agenum cynne ne on his masges lafe, pe swa 
neahsibb wcere, ne on his wifes nydmagan, Jie he sylf asr ahte 
ne on his gefasderan ne on gehalgodre nunnan: ne on aslastan 
asnig cristen man ne gewifige asfre ne na ma wifa, Jionne an, 
haebbe, ac beo be basre anre [>a hwile, Jie heo lybbe, se be 
wylle godes lage gyman mid rihte and wib hellebryne beorgan 
his sawle. (Napier 59, p. 308) 63 

[and we teach, ask and decree in the name of God that no 
Christian man should many his own kin within six degrees of 
kinship, nor the woman left by his relative, who were so 
closely related , nor a close relative of (his) fonner wife; nor 
his godmother, nor a holy (professed) nun, nor should any 
Christian man ever marry a separated (deserted) woman, nor 
have more than one wife, but who will observe the laws of 
God with right and preserve his soul from the flames of hell, 
shall remain with this one, as long as she lives.] 

The same statement is extant in another homily attributed mostly to Wulfstan's 
authorship. 64 In this work the duties of the various classes in society are 
discussed. Such is the skill with which the material in this homily has been 
assembled that it has been argued that only Wulfstan, or someone in his 
entourage, could have been the author. 65 It is worth remarking that a copy of this 
homily is also preserved in Corpus Christi College MS 20IB, at pp. 78-80. 

Finally, with regard to incest, even if earlier laws of King Alfred and 
King Guthrum ( AGu , a. 880-90, p. 130) made brief reference to the topic {and 


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cet siblegerum pa witan gerceddan, pact [. . ,] 66 [and concerning incest the 
councillors decreed that [. . .]]), only Wulfstan, in the law-codes drafted for 
King Cnut, set the penalty for this sin: 

Gif hwa sibleger gewyrce, gebete Jrast be sibbe masde, swa be 
were swa be wite swa be ealra ashte (II Cnut, 48, 5) 67 
[If somebody commits incest, let him amend it according to the 
level of relation (with the woman), by means of wergeld or fine 
(in money or food) or by means of his entire possessions] 

He also included it among a list of other infractions in the Sermo Lupi 
ad Anglos: 

ac weard Joes {reodscipe, swa hit Jryncan meeg, swyde 
forsingod [mrh maenigfealda synna and jrurh fela misdaeda: 
durh morddacda [. . .] durh lahbrycas and durh acswicas, durh 
maegraesas and [rnrh manslihtas, durh hadbrycas and Jrurh 
aewbrycas, fturh sibgelegeru and durh mistlice forlegeru. 
(Bethurum XX, C) 68 

[but this nation, so it seems, has become totally sinful through 
manifold sins and through many misdeeds: through deadly sins 
[. . .] through breaches of the law and through seditions, through 
attacks on kinsmen and through manslaughters, through injury 
done to those in holy orders and through adulteries, through 
incest and through various fornications.] 

On the basis of this evidence, from both legal and homiletic writings, it seems 
clear that the juridical content of the fragments of OEHA could explain each 
omission and amplification with respect to the Latin source, since they are 
concerned with sinful love, incest and rape. 

Free consent in marriage 

The Latin text of the HA contains another theme relating to marriage: that of 
the free choice of the maiden. The Old English text stresses that it is the 
princess, rather than her father, who chooses the husband: 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

'Immo gratulor, quod abundantia litteraram studiorum 
meorum percepta me volente cui animus tuus desiderat nube.' 
Puella ait: 'Magister, si amares, dolores. Hec dicens istante 
amoris audacia scripsit et signatos codicellos iuveni tradidit. 
Pertulit Apollonius in foro et tradidit regi. Scripti erant sic: 
‘Bone rex et pater optime, quoniam clementie tue indulgentia 
permittit mihi dicere: Ilium volo coniugem naufragum, a 
fortuna deceptum. ‘(HA, ch. 20) 

Apollonius cwted: 'Na, ac ic blissige swibor, bast }ru miht burh 
ba lare, jre Jju aet me underfenge, [ie sylf on gewrite gecyban 
hwilcne heora fu wide. Min willa is, feet fu de wer geceose 
(par du silf wille.' Bast masben ewasb: 'Eala lareow, gif bu me 
lufodest, fiu hit besorgodest.' Aifter [fisum wordum heo mid 
modes anrasdnesse awrat ober gewrit and [last geinseglode and 
sealde Apollonio: Apollonius hit Jia ut basr on ba straste and 
sealde [tarn cynge. Bast gewrit wass })us gewriten: Bu goda cyngc 
and min se leofesta faeder, nu [tin mildheortnesse me leafe sealde 
feet ic silf moste ceosan hwilcne wer ic wolde, ic seege be to 
soban [tone forlidenan man ic wille. (OEHA , ch. 20) 

[Apollonius said: 'No, but I shall much more rejoice that you, 
through the instruction which you received from me, can 
yourself show in writing which of them you will. My will is 
that you choose a husband whom you desire.' The maiden 
said: 'Alas, master! if you did love me, you would be sorry 
about this.' After these words, she, with firmness of mind, 
wrote another letter, sealed and gave it to Apollonius. 
Apollonius then carried it out into the street, and gave it to the 
king. The letter was written thus. 'Good king and my most 
beloved father, now that your tenderness has given me leave 
that I might choose what husband I would, 1 will say truly to 
you that I desire the shipwrecked man.'] 

Although the whole passage follows the HA closely, the translator adds some 
touches of colour here. We may note the repetition of the same word, puns, 
assonance, and the use of words with the same root but a different meaning, in 
a manner that strikingly amplifies the content of the Latin text. The translated 


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passage reflects the statement about free consent in marriage as established in 
Anglo-Saxon England during the tenth and eleventh centuries. The consent of 
the woman was not considered of great importance in Germanic law. Her 
power and patrimony passed from her father to her husband. 69 However, for 
the Christian Church from the ninth century onwards, consensus was the basis 
of marriage as maritalis affectio. 0 Thus, free agreement between the couple 
replaced the requirement for parental consent in Anglo-Saxon England. 71 The 
Be wifmannes beweddunge (970-1030), a private Anglo-Saxon matrimonial 
contract, testifies that free choice is confirmed for both the woman and her 
husband to have the morgengifu [the morning gift after the consummation of 
the marriage]. The bride as principal beneficiary could be the owner of her 
own patrimony (the dowry and the morgengifu): 

Donne sySSan cyjte se brydguma, hwass he hire geunge, wid 
pam Set heo his willan geceose and hwass he hire geunge, gif 
heo laeng sy Sonne he. 72 

[Then her husband says what he has to give, from the moment 
that she has chosen him of her free will, and what he would 
leave her if she were to survive him.] 

Wulfstan, providing the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of King Aethelred and of King 
Cnut with a special law concerning widows, decrees that they may choose for 
themselves whom they wish to marry: 

and sy sic wydewe, [)e hy sylfe mid rihte gehealde, on Godes 
griSe and on Jrass cynges and sitte aslc xii monaS werleas; 
ceose syddan pcet heo sylfe wille. (II Cnut, 74, p. 360) 73 
[and each widow, who behaves justly, shall be under the 
protection of God and the king and remain twelve months 
without a husband, then choose what she herself wishes.] 

and sytte ealc wuduwe werleas .xii. monad, ceose sy>ddan, pcet heo 
sylfe wylle. (/, VAtr. 21, 21.1, p. 242; VIAtr 26,26.1, p. 254) 74 
[and the widow remain twelve months without a husband, 
then choose what she herself wishes .] 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

The following passage also occurs in a homily published by Napier as 50 with 
the title Larspell (Horn U 40), a text, in Bethurum's opinion, made up of 
combinations of Wulfstan's phrases: 75 

and sy celc wydewe, J)e hig sylfe mid rihte gehealde, on godes 
gride and on J)a 2 s cynges; and sytte ealc werleas . xii. monad; 
ceose syddan, pcet heo sylfe wille. (Horn U 40, 18-20) 76 
[and each widow, who behaves justly, be under God's and 
king's protection and remain twelve months without a 
husband, then choose what she herself wishes ] 

A statement in King Cnut's Laws ( c. 1023) also attests to the importance of 
free agreement between the couple: 

Na nyde man naber ne wif ne masden to f>am Jre hyre sylfre 
mislicie ne wib sceatte ne sylle, butan he hwaet agenes bances 
gyfan wille. (II Cnut 73, p. 360) 77 

[No woman or maiden can be forced to marry a man who 
displeases her, nor sold for money, unless he wants to give 
something of his own will.] 

Thus it seems clear on the evidence of these juridical writings that by the end 
of the tenth century in Anglo-Saxon England the consent of both parties lay (at 
least in theory) at the heart of Christian marriage, and that this is in line with 
the emphasis given to the topic in the fragment of the OEHA. 

The reason for translating 

The motivating force behind the translation of the Old English Apollonius has 
been variously identified as an interest in the riddles included in the Latin 
romance; 78 the new interest in the East, as revealed by The Wonders of the 
East; 19 the presence of the theme of exile; 80 or the exemplary Christian figure 

of Apollonius, who has been seen as a model of virtue and patience, like Job 

• 82 

or the saints. 

It must be pointed put, however, that the OEHA does not express the 
complex narrative structure and content of the HA. Therefore it is 


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inappropriate to evaluate the OEHA using the same criteria as its model. The 
OEHA lacks riddles, tales, obstacles, vicissitudes, not to mention characters 
and episodes linked by the structure of a travel narrative. Thus, for example, 
the riddles, although fundamental to the development of the HA, do not 
constitute the essence of the OEHA, which contains only one such element. It 
also lacks any description of customs, clothes, ceremonies, buildings, or the 
legislation of eastern countries, thereby casting doubt on the translator's 
possible interest in oriental matters. Finally, it is worth considering that the 
motivation for translating the HA into Old English may relate to work's genre, 
which remains a subject of debate. The work has been regarded as: a) an 
historical romance; b) a romance of love and adventure (it has been seen as the 
first love story, written for entertainment four centuries before the emergence 
of romance as a genre); 83 c) an exemplary romance. 

In the light of what I have argued so far, it would seem reasonable to 
suppose that behind the translation there lay an exemplary intent, moral and 
(in particular) juridical, which related to Wulfstan's 'propaganda' on the 
subject of incest and marriage. The driving force behind Wulfstan's career was 
the moral regeneration of orthodox Christian witness in Anglo-Saxon England 
at a time when, as is well known, the northern part of the country faced 
invasion and subsequent colonization by the pagan Scandinavians. Wulfstan 
probably intended to resist any possible revival of pagan Germanic customs by 
supplying Anglo-Saxon England with a set of canons, laws and homilies 
whose purpose was to confirm and consolidate orthodox practice. I believe 
that the OEHA fragments could have served as exercepta from the complete 
Latin work in order to offer an exemplum of the 'right way to view marriage', 
as promoted by Wulfstan's laws and homilies. The behaviour of Antiochus and 
his daughter constitutes, in fact, a negative example, in contrast to that of King 
Arcestrates and his daughter which represents proper or legal behaviour, as the 
lexical amplifications of the translator underline. The behaviour of King 
Arcestrates is exemplary, both as a father and as king. 84 Princess Arcestrate 
speaks of and demonstrates her own will, unlike the other princess, the 
unlucky daughter of Antiochus, who suffers passively, a victim who submits 
to her father's will. Moreover, it must be observed that the changes relating to 
the matter of love which were introduced by the translator (the omission of 
many expressions of love and emotion relating to the princess, for example 
amore incensa, amoves suos, amoris audacia, mittens in amplexu eius), serve 
to underline the text's conformity to behavioural orthodoxy. 85 Moreover, 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

Antiochus is referred to by name only four times in the Latin text, which 
prefers to use rex or the personal pronoun. But in the OEHA the name of the 
king occurs fourteen times, followed or preceded by the noun cyningc [king] 
(ch. 1,1; 6,1; 7,7; 7,14; 7,23; 8,23; 9,5; 10,5; 12,4; 54,21). The Anglo-Saxon 
translator always defines Antiochus as a bad man, using adjectives such as 
arleasest ('se arleasesta cyngc Antiochus' [the perfidious King Antiochus], 
ch. 3.1) and wcelreow ('Antiochus se waslreowa cuningc' [Antiochus, the 
merciless king], ch. 4.1). Such evidence appears to confirm that the 
translator wished to emphasise the contrast between the evil King Antiochus, 
a familiar figure to learned Anglo-Saxons, and the worthy Apollonius, by 
adopting the same vocabulary used for Roman persecutors by TElfric in the 
Old English Lives of Saints. 

According to the juridical statements on marriage, the desire of King 
Arcestrates to respect the will of his daughter in the choice of her bridegroom 
appears to be perfectly in harmony with the ideology of marriage sanctioned 
by the Church and the king at the end of the tenth century. Therefore the 
romance could be said to promote exemplary behaviour of the kind maintained 
by Wulfstan in his promulgation of ecclesiastical and lay duties. 

Incipit-explicit, vocabulary and style 

In determining the authorship of OEHA one important element should be 
considered. The Old English text begins with an incipit, newly introduced by 
the translator: 

Her onginned seo gerecednes be Antioche ]iam ungesaelgan 
cingce and be Apollonige 86 

[Here begins the story of Antiochus, the miserable king, and 
of Apollonius] 

Why is only King Antiochus, one of the secondary characters of the romance 
together with King Arcestrates and Atenagora, named in the incipit ? I believe 
that one answer to this question lies in the fact that Antiochus was a familiar 
historical character well-known in the Anglo-Saxon world. The reference is 
presumably to Antiochus I, the Seleucid ruler (280-261 BC), whose name 
occurs in the Old English Orosius : 


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ba J)a Lucius Ualerius and Flaccus Marcus waeron consulas, 

|ra ongon Antiochus, Sira cyning, winnan wi5 Romanum 
(Book IV, xi, p. 108) 

[When Lucius Valerius and Flaccus Marcus were consuls, 
then Antiochus, King of Syria, began to fight against the 

ha Antiochus [aaet gehierde, [>a bred he Scipian frijres (IV, ix, 
p. 109) 87 

[When Antiochus heard that, then he asked Scipion to make 

Moreover, King Antiochus was often mentioned in Old English writings, 
notably The Old English Martyrology, The Psalms, and /Elfric's Lives of 

Antiochus, se oferhydiga cyning, nydde hi Jraet hi aeten swynen 
flaesc. bah waes Godes folce forboden on [tare ealdan a; (Das 
altenglische Martyrologiumf 8 

[Antiochus, the proud king, forced them to eat pig flesh. That 
was forbidden to God's folk in the old law] 

Machabeas hatad, joaet hy sceoldon [>aet ylce seofian, on hiora 


earfodum, under Antiochus, fam kynge. (Ps 87) 

[Maccabes were named who had to suffer the same, in their 
tortures, under King Antiochus.] 

An daera cyninga waes heora eallra forcudost, arleas and 
uppahafen, Antiochus gehaten, se feaht on aegypta lande. 
(ALLS xxv, 6-8) 

[One of these kings was the wickedest of them all, irreverent 
and proud, named Antiochus, who fought in Egypt] 

Hwaet da Antiochus se arleasa cynincg behet [ram anum 
cnapan [>e [>aer cucu waes J?a git mycele woruldaehta gif he 
wolde him abugan (MLS xxv, 168-170). 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

[Thereupon Antiochus, the impious king, promised the one 
boy who was still alive much worldly wealth, if he would 
submit to him] 

Efne ]m eode on heora eallra gesihbe an Iudeisc mann to )iam 
deofolgilde, and geoffrode his lac swa swa Antiochus het 
(AELS xxv, 221-3). 

[Therewith there came in sight of them all a Jewish man to 
the devil-image, and offered his offering, as Antiochus 

ba cwaed ludas to his geferum [>ast he 6a fylde wolde adon of 
|)am Godes temple, [>e se gramlica Antiochus [oaer arasran het 
on haedene wisan {AELS, xxv, 378-380). 

[Then Judas said to his comrades, that he would do away with 
the filth of the temple of God, which the wrathful Antiochus 
had ordered to be raised there, in the heathen manner.] 

Betwux [lysum ferde se foresasda Antiochus to Persiscre 
Jieode mid micclum [irymme {AYLS xxv, 530-1 ) 90 
[Meanwhile the aforesaid Antiochus went to the Persian 
people with a great force] 

Finally, the OEHA also contains an explicit : 

Her enda6 ge wea ge wela Apollonius [>aes tiriscan: raede se [>e 
wille. And gif hi hwa raede, ic bidde Juaet he [las awaendednesse 
ne taele, ac Jjaet he hele swa hwaet swa jiar on sy to tale. 

[Here finishes the misfortune and the happiness of Apollonius 
of Tyre: read who so wishes , and if anyone does read it, I ask 
that he should not blame this translation, but correct whatever 
there is in it to blame.] 

The content of this passage is comparable with King Alfred's Praefatio to De 
consolatione Philosophiae : 


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and nu bit and for Godes naman he halsad aelcne J)ara Joe J>as 
boc raedan lyste, Jtaet he for hine gebidde, and him ne wite gif 
he hit rihtlicor ongite Jionne he mihte 91 . 

[and now he prays and implores in the name of God everyone 
who wishes to read this book, to pray for him and not to 
blame him if he can interpret it in a more accurate way than 
he has been able to do.] 

From the linguistic and stylistic point of view it is also comparable with rcede, 
se pe will (Rid 59, 15, p. 210) 9 " or rcede peer se pe wide (Gen 49,1). 93 

The author of the translation also displays an excellent knowledge of 
Latin and Old English. He makes extensive use of stylistic and rhetorical 
devices, employing several kinds of repetition, sometimes in the same clause, 
and often making use of chiastic structures: 

1. Repetition of a word ( epanalepsis ), used in the same case and inflection; 
this often occurs in assonance and in alliteration with other words: 

na Jiaet an Jiaet we willad Jhnne fleam bediglian, ac eac swilce, gif J>e 
neod gebiraQ, we willad campian for 8inre haslo, ch.9, 19-21 [ non solum 
fugam tuam celabunt, sed si necesse fuerit pro salute tua dimicabunt ]; 
and Apollonius ana becom mid su nde to Pentapoli [tarn ciriniscan la nde 
and J)ar up eode on dam stra nde. ha stod he nacod on J>am stra nde, ch. 

12, 2-4 [ Apollonius solus tabule beneficio in Pentapolitanorum est 
littorepulsus, hoc est Cyrinorum. Stans in litore Apollonius nudus]. 94 

2. Repetition of the same word, used in a different case and inflection; this 
often occurs in assonance and in alliteration with other words: 

J)tet gehyrde Jiast he his willes gehyran nolde [ut audivit quod audire 
nolebat, ch. 4,9 Rex ut audivit quod audire nolebat]', heora Jm wille [. . .] 
[tone du silf wille [cui animus tuus desiderat nube [. . .]], hwilcne wer ic 
wolde, Jione forlidenan man ic wille [quoniam clementiae et indulgentia tue 
permittit mihi dicere: ilium volo coniugem naufragum], ch. 20, 17-19. 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

3. Repetition of the same root through the patterned repetition of words as 
simples or compounds (paregmenon ; polyptoton), but with a different 
semantic and morphologic value (noun-adjective; noun-verb), as, for example: 

gelamp [. . .] gelimp (there is no correspondence in the Latin text); 
gewilnunge [. . .] gewilnode [. . .] gewilnunge [. . .] gewilnode, ch.l [cepit 
earn aliter diligere quam quod paterem opportebat. Qui <cum> diu luctatur 
cum furore pugne, cum dolore vincitur amore. Excidit illi pietas, oblitus est 
esse se patrem, induit coniugem. Sed dum sevi pectoris sui vulnus ferre non 
posse [. . .] peifectoque scelere cupit celare secrete]; on micelre 
gedrefednesse [. . .] swa gedrefedes modes?, ch. 2, 2-3 [ et vidit puellam 
roseo rubore perfusam [...] Quid tibi (sic) vultus turbatus et animus)] 95 

Although the translator could have used OE stirung, which has the same 
semantic value, he repeats gewilnunge-, the parallelism gewilnunge / 
gewilnungan also occurs in /Elfnc, in the Psalms, and the Gospels 96 In ch. 16, 
sweg and swegecrcefte occur alternatively with a double parallelism and word 
play on swig and swigode. We may also note that while the repetitions willad / 
willad / wolde are very common in Old English writings ( WHom 20, CPHead, 
CP, GDPref), lande / strande is only used in Old English Charters (1095, 
1109, 1119, 1125, 1126, 1127 etc). It is also interesting to note the frequent 
deployment of rhetorical devices in chapters 19-21: awritad, gewrite, gewrita 
(five times in succession), awrat oder gewrit, gewrit, gewriten, awrat, gewrit, 
gewrit, gewrit. Although the gewrite / awrat word play is very common in Old 
English writings (see Adfric's CH and LS, GD, Horn U 35, 54, 6, and so on), 
gewerite / gewrita only occurs here. 

Other passages are marked by alliteration (usually used in combination 
with parallelism and word play, as previously noted): 

f)a gymde hyre maenig masre man micele mrer6a beodende; sume digle 
spaece sprecan (ch. 1, 13); and geseah hi 6ar sittan; brucan [. . .] his 
dohtor arleasan bridbeddes (ch. 3, 5-6); jm bejrence 6one rredels ariht 
(ch. 5, 6); ac he ne masg for scame in gan buton scrude. Da het se cyngc 
hine sona gescridan (ch. 14, 16-17); Du goda cyngc and earmra 
gemiltsigend, and jau cwen lare lufigend (ch. 17, 18). 


Carla Morini 

The translator also makes use of echoic repetition, puns, and assonance, 
involving similar simples or one element of compounds. In this text word 
play depends more on similarities in the sound (pun-like assonance) or 
semantic aspects of the words than on the introduction of obscure forms and 
meanings. If we consider ch. 12, 1-4. 'Apollonius ana becom mid s unde to 
Pentapoli jram ciriniscan \ande and {jar up eode on dam strande', it is worth 
remarking that mid sunde [by swimming] is a free translation of the Latin 
tabule beneficio in order to create a play on words. Thus, forms are deployed 
for rhetorical colour by the translator by virtue of their terminal assonance 
and alliteration, half-rhymes, or punning element. 

The translator's lexis is carefully chosen and, with some exceptions, 
very appropriate. Although for the most part he uses words which occur 
frequently in liturgical writings (notably from Psalms, Old English 
Ecclesiastical History, Benedictine Rule, TElfric's and Wulfstan's Homilies and 
Wulfstan's law-codes), he also adopts words rarely used in Anglo-Saxon texts: 

anccecenned (Hy and Ps); acuman 'sustain' (Gen and Num ); 1 
aerod(d)ian (Ps and GD); 2 bcedstede, begirdan, sirwan (PS); 
bereafigend, bridgifta AldGl; bocist (boccyst) armarium Aug Ench; 
dunlandum (LCh and Deut and /El); moddren 1 ArPrGl 1; 
forlidennes, hyredmenn (/E); flima , giftelic (CIGL 1); horu (El and 
Hy); rose, plega (/£ and GL); elcung (/E and BR); dirstig (Ch); 
tacenbora 'guide', hearpencegel, bcedstede (GL and Hy); top, rudu 
(GL and WN); plega (GL and ALGr); longeawinnan (LSc); 
fostermodor GD); fremdfulnen, sidfeaxe (BR); fcederlich (Hy; 
ungecnawe (Lk); waforlic (GINap and Ps); halierne (AldGl and Ex); 
herapian (Beow and HomS); sudwesterne (Ch). 

In the Latin model, where two subordinate words express a single idea, 
in the OEHA simple coordination is favoured: 

2,6 ait / andwirde and cwced; 4,3 locuples valde./ Swide welig and 
snotor; 4,7 quasi pius pater: swa swa to godum feeder and arfeestum; 
6,17 vestemque copiosam/ an mid mcenifealdum and genihtsumum 
reafum; 6,21 queritur: wees gesoht and geacsod; 6,22 meror ingens/ 
micel moremmg and ormcete wop; 6,25 tonsores cessarent/ eodon ealle 
unscorene and sid-feaxe; 7,6 in luetu/ on swa micclum heafe and wope; 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

11,13 ut illi lateret/ Jjaet he mihte par bediglad beon and par wunian; 
16,27 silenctio facto/ Da weard stilnes and swige geworden ; 49,21 
apollonius non credens. Da niste na apollonius ne ne gelifde\ 53,5 
quieta vita vixit/ he leofode on stilnesse and on blissed 1 

The translator omits words and short phrases as well as introducing 
forms new to the Latin original. % It is worth remarking that he introduces only 
a few hapax legomena 

brid-beddes [bridal bed] forLat. thoris (ch. 3,6) 
asmeagung [examination, consideration] for Lat. questiones 
solutiones (ch. 3,13) 

irlic [angry] for Lat. iratus (ch. 4,10; 5,3) 
eastnorderne (windas ) [north-east (winds)] for Lat. vends [. . .], 
hinc boreas (ch. 11,11) 

snelneasse [agility] for Lat. velocitas (ch. 13,19) 
cefestful [full of envy] for Lat. invidet (ch. 14,28) 

*mispyncan [to have mistaken ideas] for Lat. male suspicere 
(ch. 14,29) 

swegcrcefte [musician's art] for Lat. ars musicae (ch. 16,14; 
16,16; 16,20) 

gecneordnesse [study, diligence] for Lat. hesterna studia 
(ch. 18,6) 

*hearpestreng [harp-string] for Lat. cordis lyrae (ch. 16,28) 
*lcerlingmceden [female pupil] for Lat. discipula (ch. 19,19) 
*ofstcenan [to stone] for Lat. lapidare (ch. 50,24). 

Some of them occur in echoic pairs: asmeagunge [. . .] beheald\xxvge\ 
/rlicum [. . .] cyne licum; sefest ful [. . .] asfest igad, sweg [. . .] swegcrcefte 
swig ode swegcrcefte swig ende sweg crceft; hearp estreng [. . .] hearp encegl [. . .] 
heaipan; ofstcenan [. . .] o fslean. The translator also introduces hwcet twenty- 
one times and eala six times, both of which terms represent a distinctive 
homiletic useage. 

Although there is no definite evidence for the origin of the manuscript, 
there are some stylistic features of the text of the Old English Apollonius 
which, in my opinion, can be compared with Wulfstan's style or 
Wulfianisms. 100 It is well known that the 'most impressive of the devices of 


Carla Morini 

Wulfstan's style are alliteration, rhyme, the large number of intensifying 
adjectives and adverbs, a distinctive lexis, parallelism of words and clauses, 
exclamation and rhetorical quotations'. 101 Moreover, the effectiveness of his 
homilies derives particularly from the word play and pun-like assonances 
featured. Similar elements are discernible in the OEHA : 

1. The introduction of terms such as riht, ariht , unriht, mid rihte in a way that 
confirm's the translator's familiarity with the law-codes and language of 
Wulfstan; the introduction of the adjectives riht and unriht (once), the nouns 
ariht / areht (four times), and mid rihte (twice). The absence from the OEHA 
of other distinctive marks of the lexis, such as other intensifying adjectives 
and adverbs, may perhaps be accounted for in terms of the generic difference 
between this work and the laws and homilies. 102 

2. The use of intensifying adjectives and adverbs like swide (nine times) and 
sodlice (24 times). However, there is no occurrence of earne or geornlice, so 
often used by Wulfstan. 

3. The use of sophisticated rhetorical devices: 

a) duplication of clauses, which are often arranged in pairs, sometimes 
linked by alliteration or rhyme. 

b) patterned repetition of words and similar rhyming sounds, 103 a 
figurative technique used by Wulfstan probably under the influence of 
similar constructions in Latin rather than in Old English. 104 This device 
in Wulfstan's writings also involves hapax legomena. 105 

c) conscious and effective use of word play, sometimes involving forms 
with the same root but with different meanings. Thus: 

Ful earhlice laga and scandlice nydgild Jmrh Godes irre us 
sind gemaene, understande se jre cunne and fela ungelumpa 
gelumpd fiisse Jreode oft and gelome. ( Sermo Lupi ad 
Anglos) 106 

Da gelamp hit sarlicum gelimpe, fia 5a se feeder [lohte hwam 
he hi mihte healicost forgifan {OEHA, ch.l) 

4. The construction of very short clauses, linked by and. 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

It should also be noted that some sentences in the OEHA appear to be very 
similar to passages in Wulfstan's writings ( Polity, Law codes and homilies). 

Lexical elements and rhetorical devices used by Wulfstan and 
effectively deployed by the translator of the OEHA, do occur in earlier Old 
English writings. But although parallelism, repetition and alliteration are to be 
found in homilies (see, for example, the Vercelli Homily X) W1 and other Old 
English writings a quarter of a century before Wulfstan and the OEHA, they 
are not comparable with the artful and sophisticated instances to be found in 
the romance's fragments. Moreover, although word play occurs in some 
Riddles, in legal writings (laws, wills and charters) and in the homilies, it is 
very rare and involves no more that two or three terms. The repetitive use of 
hwcet (21 times) and eala (six times), so typical of the language of homilies, 
shows that whoever translated the text was familiar with them. 

As is well known, Wulfstan himself had many imitators. Thus, the same 
phrase is extant in anonymous homilies published by Napier and not 
considered genuine by Bethurum: 108 

and foet gewrit 

feet he awrat 

pis gewrit nces cet 

TEfter Jrisum wordum 

ne awrat 


gewrit and pis 

fruman awriten. 

heo mid modes 





{Horn U 5) titled 

anrasdnesse awrat o6er 



awrat\ and (ra 

Be pam 

gewrit and {raet 

Horn U 





geinseglode and sealde 






Apollonio: Apollonius 



folces lar)’ 11 

hit \>a ut basr on 5a 


(Napier XLIV, 

straste and sealde Jram 

diebus) 109 

Horn U 


cynge. Dast gewrit 

sspell)' 10 

wass Jtus gewriten 
(ch. 20). 


Carla Morini 


On the basis of the evidence set out above, the following conclusions may be 
drawn from the present analysis. By retelling the story of Apollonius in Old 
English the translator, or (better) the adaptor, created a different atmosphere, 
which would make sense to an Anglo-Saxon audience. He created a juridical 
emphasis, through the use of omission and amplification of words and phrases 
in his Latin source. Indeed, the Anglo-Saxon fragments of the HA give 
expression to a clear juridical position in line with that of the Church, 
emphasizing the ideology of marriage and the canon of free consent. The text 
could thus have provided the translator, or whoever authorized the translation 
(perhaps Wulfstan), with a positive model of morally appropriate behaviour 
for husbands, wives and fathers-in-law, and a negative model of the unlawful 
behaviour of an incestuous father. 

Accordingly, the transcription into Corpus Christi College MS 201B of 
the Anglo-Saxon translation of the HA, or rather of its fragments, covering 
such issues as incest, marriage and widowhood, could have been motivated by 
the wish to offer an illustration of a life lived in accordance with the laws 
preserved in the same manuscript. The presence in the manuscript of only two 
fragments corresponding to Cnut's law codes (completed about 1023-6) 
suggests that it was compiled before those dates but after 1018. In my view the 
presence of a copy of the OEHA in Corpus Christi College MS 201B seems to 
be neither random nor arbitrary, but reflects a plan that can be associated with 
Wulfstan himself. Wulfstan, the acknowledged planner of the manuscript, 
made use of two forms of communication for disseminating his beliefs: firstly, 
homilies delivered from the pulpit, that allowed all Christians to access 
directly the truths of the faith and, secondly, the written record of the law. On 
the evidence of the similarities of content and expression between the OEHA 
and Wulfstan’s laws and homilies, the presence of a text of the OEHA in a 
codex whose structure was so carefully planned by Wulfstan himself is 
certainly consistent with his programme. 

Finally, it seems reasonable to argue that whoever undertook the work 
was a well-read monk, one of pa de pcet leden cudon [those who know 
Latin]," 2 and who were familiar not only with Wulfstan's works, but also with 
other Old English texts. Moreover, he was capable of reproducing Wulfstan's 
distinctive style and adapting the content of his translation to the archbishop's 
statements. Although his elaborate and polished style recalls an earlier native 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

stylistic tradition, he was able to develop it to a new level of sophistication. 
We may therefore consider two possibilities: the first, that the author was a 
monk belonging to Wulfstan's circle, to whom Wulfstan assigned the task of 
translation, and who imitated the archibishop's style; the second, that the 
translator was Wulfstan himself. 


Carla Morini 


This article is an expanded version of a lecture delivered at the Department of English, 
University of Bern, in December 2003. 

1 The Latin redactions were collected for the first time by A. Riese, Historia 
Apollonii Regis Tyri, Bibliotheca Teubneriana (Leipzig: Teubner, 1893, repr. 1973); see 
more recently A. A. G. Kortekaas, Historia Apollonii Regis Tyri (Groningen: Bouma's 
Boekhuis, 1984). 

2 This hypothesis is based on the presence in the HA of references to certain places 
and events contained in the Ephesiaca of Senofonte or in Euripides' Alcmaeon. See E. 
Archibald, Apollonius of Tyre: Medieval and Renaissance Themes and Variations 
(Woodbridge: Boydell, 1991), p. 32; A. A. G. Kortekaas, Historia Apollonii Regis Tyri, pp. 
109-113, and A.H. Krappe, 'Euripides' Alcmaeon and the Apollonius Romance', Classical 
Quarterly, 18 (1924), 57-8. 

3 See E. Klebs, Die Erzahlung von 'Apollonius aas Tyrus'. Eine geschichtliche 
Untersuchung iiber ihre iateinische Urform und ihre spdteren Bearbeitungen (Berlin: 
Reimer, 1899), p. 216. 

4 See note 2 above. 

5 On this dating see M. Manitius, 'Handschriften antiker Autoren in mittelalterlichen 
Bibliothekskatalogen', Zentralblatt fur Bibliothekwesen, 67 (1935), 324-5 and Kortekaas, 
Historia Apollonii Regis Tyri, pp. 419-31. For a detailed and recent study on the textual 
relationships existing among the three extant redactions see Kortekaas, Historia Apollonii 
Regis Tyri , pp. 59-96. 

6 On its entire tradition of vernacular translation read the very useful work by 
Archibald, Apollonius of Tyre, pp. 182-216; 'Apollonius of Tyre in Vernacular Literature: 
Romance oder Exemplum?', GCN, 3 (1990), 123-37; 'Fathers and Kings in Apollonius of 
Tyre', in Images of Authority: Papers Presented to Joyce Reynolds on the Occasion of her 
Seventieth Birthday, ed. by M. M. Mackenzie and C. Rouche, Cambridge Philological 
Society, Supplementary volume 16, (1989), pp. 24-40; 'Apollonius of Tyre in the Middle 
Ages and Renaissance', in Latin Fiction: the Latin Novel in Context, ed. by H. Hofmann 
(London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 229-37. 

7 J. McGowan, 'Royal Titles in the Old English "Apollonius": Two Emendations', 
Studia Neophilologica, 61 (1989), 3-6; 'The Old English Apollonius of Tyre and the Latin 
Recensions', Proceedings of the Patristic, Medieval and Renaissance Conference, 1989 (for 
1987-88), 179-95; 'Apolloniana', Archiv (. ASNSL ), 227 (1990), 130-8; Id., 'The Old English 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

Apollonius of Tyre 19', Explicator, 49 (1991), 74-5; R. A. Riedinger, 'The Englishing of 
Arcestrate: Women in Apollonius of Tyre', in New Readings on Women in Old English 
Literature, ed, by H. D'Amico and A. Hennessy Olsen (Bloomington: Indiana University 
Press, 1990), pp. 292-306; H. Ogawa, 'Stylistic Feature of Old English Apollonius of Tyre', 
Poetica, 34 (1991), 57-74; R. I. Page, 'The Title of the Old English "Apollonius of Tyre'", 
ANQ , 4 (1991), 171-2; C. Morin i, 'La versione anglosassone del romanzo di Apollonio nel 
contesto del suo manoscritto', AION, sez. germ., n.s. 10 (2000), 13-26; 'Aspetti giuridici 
nella versione anglosassone della Historia Apollonii', in Vettori e percorsi tematici nel 
mediterraneo romanzo, ed. by F. Beggiato and S. Marinetti (Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino, 
2002), pp. 199-216; D. Townsend, 'The naked Truth of the King's Affection in the Old 
English Apollonius of Tyre', Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 34 (2004), 

8 The Latin tradition of the romance in England is represented by Cambridge, 
Corpus Christi College, MS 318, pp. 477-509, Vita Apollonii Tyrii, twelfth century; 
Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 451, fol. 88a-105b, Historia Apollonii, thirteenth 
century; Oxford, Bodleian Library, MSS Laud 247, fol. 204a-23a, Liber Apollonii, 
thirteenth century; Bodleian Library, MSS Rawlinson D 893 (105), chs 15-16, fol. 195 
(106), ch. 31, fourteenth century; Bodleian Library, MSS Rawlinson C 5010, fol. 260b 
(3 lb), fol. 270b (41b), fourteenth century. The first scholar to discover the existence of this 
version was Riese, Historia Apollonii Regis Tyri, pp. 125-73; see also Kortekaas, Historia 
Apollonii Regis Tyri, pp. 20-22; J. Raith, Die alt- und mittelenglischen Apollonius - 
Bruchstiicke (Munich: Huber, 1956), pp. 85-91. There are other exemplars belonging to the 
RC tradition: Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, MS Lat. 8503, fols. lr-7v: Ystoria Apollonii 
regis Tyrii et synodis et regis Anthiochi (thirteenth-century); Vatican City, Biblioteca 
Apostolica Vaticana, MS Reg. Lat. 718, fols. 206r-222r: Narratio vitae sive actuum 
Apollonii syri (twelfth-century); Vatican City, BAV, MS Reg. Lat. 1984, fols. 167r-84r: 
Historia Tyrii Apollonii (early twelfth-century); Innsbruck, Universitatsbibliothek, MS 60, 
fols. 211 r-222r: Historia Apollonii regis Tyri, a. 1471; Vienna, Osterreichische 
Nationalbibliothek, MS Lat. 266. fols. 107r-26v: Historia Apollonii (twelfth-century); 
Vienne, Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, MS Lat. 3129, fols. 41r-60v: Historia 
Apollonii (fifteenth-century). 

9 For more details on this hypothesis see Kortekaas, Historia Apollonii Regis 
Tyri, p. 29. 'Benedict Biscop was making journeys to Rome regularly and as soon as 
the monastery was founded he brought back books from Rome and probably from Gaul 
in large quantities': Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. by B. 
Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), p. xxv. 


Carla Morini 

10 On Cynewald and Oswald and their importation of manuscripts from the Continent 
see The Homilies of Wulfstan, ed. by D. Bethurum, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 
1957, repr. 1971), p. 60. 

11 Bethurum, The Homilies of Wulfstan , p. 62, quoted the following authors: Gregory, 
Augustine, Alcuin, Adso, Jesse of Amiens, Theodulf of Orleans, Amalarius of Metz, 
Rabanus Maurus, Abbo of St. Germain, Isidore, Caesarius of Arles, Atto of Vercelli, 
Eligius of Noyon, Pirrnin of Reichenau, TJlfric of Eynsham and Bede. On Wulfstan, his 
life and his works, see H. Sauer, 'Wulfstan von Worcester und York 1 , Lexikon des 
Mittelalters, 9 (1998), 347-8; Whitelock, 'Archbishop Wulfstan, Homilist and Statesman', 
Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 24 (1942), 25-45; Bethurum, The Homilies of 
Wulfstan, pp. 69-81. Unfortunately no catalogue remains of the library of Worcester before 
the Conquest. On the previous manuscripts belonging to this library see K. Keller, Die 
literarischen Bestrebungen von Worcester in angelsdchsischer Zeit (Strassburg: Trubner, 
1900); C. H. Turner, Early Worcester Manuscripts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1916); N. R. 
Ker, Medieval Libraries of Great Britain. A List of Surviving Books (London: Offices of the 
Royal Historical Society, 1962; repr. 1964), pp, 205-15. 

12 This title is recorded in a catalogue of the Abbey’s library, see British Library, 
Additional MS 23944, fol. 157, at no. 75. 

13 See for more details N. R. Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon 
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957, repr. 1990), p. 90. 

14 Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon, no. 50, p. 91; L. 
Whitbread, 'MS. C.C.C.C. 201: A Note on its Character and Provenance', Philological 
Quarterly, 38 (1959), 106-12 (p. 100). For a detailed description of Corpus Christi College 
MS 201 see also M. R. James, A Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of the Corpus 
Christi College Cambridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912), I 485-486; 
Turner, Early Worcester Manuscripts, p. !vi; B. Fehr, Die Hirtenbriefe /Elfrics in 
altenglischer und lateinischer Facing (Hamburg: Grand, 1914; repr. Darmstadt: 
Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1966), pp. xiv-xvi; supplement to the introduction by 
P. Clemoes, pp. cxxvii-cxxix; Ker, Catalogue, pp. 82-90; Whitbread, 'MS. C.C.C.C. 201', 
pp. 107-108; R. Fowler, Wulfstan's Canons of Edgar, EETS o.s. 266 (London: Oxford 
University Press, 1972), pp. xi-xiii; Raith, Die alt- und mittelenglischen Apollonius- 
Bruchstiicke, pp. 4-8; Morini, 'La versione anglosassone del romanzo di Apollonio', pp. 15- 
17. The dating is that upheld by Ker, but other scholars such as Bethurum, The Homilies of 
Wulfstan, p. 2, attribute it to the end of the eleventh century. 

15 Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon, nos. 49 and 50, and for 
other details see Whitbread, 'MS. C.C.C.C. 201'. 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

16 According to Fowler, Wulfsian’s Canons of Edgard, p. xxv: 'We cannot locate the 
manuscript precisely on the evidence provided by present linguistic knowledge, ce points 
vaguely to a southern as opposed to northern origin, despite the presence of NPL (i.e. 
Nordhymbrepreosta logu) in the manuscript'. 

17 Whitelock, Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (Exeter: University of Exeter, 1976, rev. ed.), p. 
25 in relation to the extant Northumbrian Priests Laws , a work originating in and 
concerning the province of York. Bethurum first claimed Wulfstan's authorship for these 
laws, see 'Six Anonymous Old English Codes', JEGP, 49 (1950), 449-63. Recently P. 
Wormald, 'Archbishop Wulfstan and the Holiness of Society', Anglo-Saxon History: Basic 
Readings, ed. by D. A. E. Pelteret (New York: Garland, 2000), pp. 191-224 (pp. 211-13), 
argues that this text was probably a work later than Wulfstan, written by another 
archbishop, one of his two immediate successors or someone in his entourage. 

18 H. Gneuss, 'A preliminary list of manuscripts written or owned in England up to 
1100', Anglo-Saxon England , 9 (1981), 1-60 (p. 5). 

19 It seems probable that the MS did not originate at Worcester, but was only 
assembled there, see Whitbread, 'MS. C.C.C.C. 201', pp. 109-10. In the opinion of P. 
Clemoes, this manuscript does not contain the standard form of writing which characterized 
this scriptorium, i.e. the peculiar spelling of its main hand was unknown in Worcester 
manuscripts (ce instead of West-Saxon a for the nasal, while the custom in Worcester was 
e). He suggested that it has been introduced, as well as other spellings, to Worcester by 
Wulfstan himself or by his secretaries: see Fehr, Die Hirtenbriefe /Elfrics in altenglischer 
und lateinischer Facing, p. cxxix. 

20 Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon, no. 49B, p. 90. On 
different hands pp. 151-160 ( Genesis ) and pp. 170-6 (Latin rites for the confession), see 
Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon, no. 49B, art. 56 and 58. It has 
been argued that the scribe was a Saxon (from Essex) who introduced dialect forms into a 
West-Saxon copy: see P. Goolden, The Old English 'Apollonius of Tyre' (Oxford: Oxford 
University Press, 1958), p. xxxi; Raith argues that it is not possible to define the dialect of 
the scribe: Die alt- und mittelenglischen Apollonius-Bruchstiicke, p. 15. 

21 Of these the most evident is the one contained in chapter 20, where the coming of 
Apollonius into the princess's rooms is described by a meaningless sentence ( Hlcefdige, nces 
git yfel wif). No help is afforded by the Latin versions: see A. F. Pottle, 'nces git yfel wif in 
the Old English Apollonius', JEGP, 30 (1931), 21-5 (p. 25); McGowan, 'The Old English 
Apollonius of Tyre and the Latin Recension', 184-7. The occurrence of hlaford geong (ch. 
13) was probably a mistake for cynig, see McGowan, ’Royal Titles in the Old English 
"Apollonius'", p. 4. 


Carla Morini 

22 Raith, Die alt- und mittelenglischen Apollonius-Bruchstiicke, p. 8; Goolden, The 
Old English 'Apollonius of Tyre', p. xxxvii. 

23 D. Whitelock, 'Wulfstan and the Laws of Cnut', HER, 63 (1948), 433-52 (p. 449). 

24 M. P. Richards, 'The Manuscript Contexts of the Old English Laws: Tradition and 
Innovation', in Studies in Earlier Old English Prose, ed. by P. E. Szarmach (New York: 
State University of New York Press, 1986),pp. 171-92 (p. 178). 

25 Richards, 'The Manuscript Contexts of the Old English Laws', pp. 180-1. 

26 Richards, 'The Manuscript Contexts of the Old English Laws', p. 182. But 
Bethurum, The Homilies of Wulfstan, p. 2, argued that this manuscript was arranged by 
Wulfstan himself. 

27 Morini, 'La versione anglosassone del romanzo di Apollonio', p. 16. 

28 These passages are quoted by F. Liebermann, Die Gesetie der Angelsachsen 
(Halle: Niemeyer, 1903-16, repr. Aalen, I960), pp. 243 and 254. Anglo-Saxon queens or 
princesses, widows or single women used to live in the monastery as abbesses, or in their 
usual residence close to the monastery, but the law protected them. Again, the behaviour 
and therefore the choice made by princess Archestrate could be considered totally 
exemplary. In fact, she does not get married, but retires to a temple, living in chastity and 
enjoying the same dignity as the Anglo-Saxon abbesses: 'Heo waes sodlice Jrearle wlitig and 
for [rare micclan lufe [tare claennesse, hi saedon ealle {taet j>ar naere nan Dianan swa 
gecweme, swa heo' (OEHA, ch. 48) [She really was very beautiful, and because of her great 
love of chastity, everybody said that there was nobody as pleasing to Diana as she was]. 

29 All the passages are quoted by K. Jost, Die 'Institute of Polity, Civil and 
Ecclesiastical': Ein Werk Erzbischof Wulfstan of York (Bern: Francke, 1959), pp. 113, 130, 
131, 133. 

30 The Old English text is quoted by Fowler, Wulfstan's Canons of Edgar, pp. 23-4. 
The work comes from Pseudo Ecberth's Penitential, datable to the ninth/tenth centuries: see 
Raith, Die altenglische Version des Halitgar'schen Bufibuches (Hamburg: Grand, 1933; 
repr. Darmstadt: Wisenschaftliche Buchgeselischaft, 1964). 

31 B. Thorpe, The Anglo-Saxon Version of the Story of Apollonius of Tyre (London: 
Arch, 1834), pp. 51-52; A. H. Smyth, Shakespeare's Pericles and Apollonius of Tyre: A 
Study of Comparative Literature (Philadelphia: MacCalia, 1898), pp. 93-112. The 
collection of the tales known as the Gesta Romanorum was compiled in the fourteenth 
century and its first edition dates back to 1480; the hypothesis that the Anglo-Saxon 
translation derives from this text appears, therefore, erroneous. The convergences can be 
explained only if a lost common Latin source for both texts is hypothesized. See the edition 
of the work published by H. Oesterly, Berlin 1872, repr. 1963, and a discussion on ch. 153 
in Archibald, Apollonius of Tyre, pp. 190-1. 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

32 J. Meyer, 'Uber den lateinischen Text der Geschichte des Apollonius von Tyros', 
Sitzungsberichte der philos-philol-und historischen Kl. der K. Bayerischen Akademie, 2 
(1872), 1-28. 

33 T. Mommsen, Pericles, Prince of Tyre. A novel by George Wilkins printed in 1608 
and found upon Shakespeare's Play (Oldenburg: Stalling, 1857), p. xviii-xx. 

34 Thorpe, The Anglo-Saxon Version of the Story of Apollonius of Tyre. 

33 J. Zupitza, 'Die altenglische Bearbeitung der Erzahlung von Apollonius von Tyrus', 
Archiv ( ASNSL ), 97 (1896), 17-34; Riese, Historia Apollonii Regis Tyri, p. vi; Raith, Die 
alt- und mittelenglischen Apollonius-Bruchstucke, p. 39. 

36 Raith, Die alt- und mittelenglischen Apollonius-Bruchstucke. 

37 Goolden, 'The Old English "Apollonius of Tyre'". 

38 'Uber den Wert eines solches conflated Text kann man verschiedener Meinung 
sein; hier jedenfalls bietet er alles, was zum Verstandnis des ae. Textes wesentlich ist, 
wahrend ein lat. Text, der ausschlieBlich einer Hs. folgt, fur die meisten Benutzer, des 
Buches kaum von Vorteil ware [....] Der jeweils gegeniiber abgedruckte lat. Text ist 
"conflated"; er (Goolden) stellt den Versuch dar, die verlorene lat. Vorlage der ae. 
Ubersetzung zu rekonstruieren. Dabei ist die lat. Textform aus Hs. CCC 318 zugrunde 
gelegt, die von den zahlreichen erhaltene Hss. Dieser Vorlage am nachsten stehen diirfen. 
Anderungen, Zusatze und Auslassungen sind durch den ae. Text und andere lat. Hss. 
gesichert und hier selbstverstandlich gekennzeichnet', Gneuss, review of P. Goolden, The 
Old English 'Apollonius of Tyre', in Anglia, 78 (1960), 364-6 (p. 366). 

39 For example Lat. granago could be an errata lectio for grandi sago (see Gesta 
Romanorumy, for other mistakes see McGowan, 'The Old English Apollonius of Tyre and 
the Latin Recension', pp. 182-190. 

40 Raith, Die alt- und mittelenglischen Apollonius-Bruchstucke, p. 46. 

41 'Deviations between the Old English text and its source are, apart from this small 
point, entirely the casual results of a not too meticulous process of translation 1 , Goolden, 
The Old English 'Apollonius of Tyre', p. xx. 

42 On this topic see Archibald, Incest and Medieval Imagination (Oxford: Clarendon 
Press, 2001). 

43 The Latin text from Corpus Christi College MS 318 and the Anglo-Saxon text are 
both quoted from Raith's edition. 

44 On this topic see further the conclusion to this article. 

45 The juridical and moral problem concerning incest finds its source directly in the 
Bible (see for example Lev. 18.6-18. 18). 

46 D. A. Brundage, 'Rape and Marriage in the Medieval Canon law', in Sex, Law and 
Marriage in the Middle Ages (Aldershot: Variorum, 1993), pp. 63-4. Before the 


Carla Morini 

establishment of a well-organized ecclesiastical juridical system ( The Decretum of Gratian, 
a. 1140), the Church in any case penalized such crimes during the early Middle Ages; see 
Brundage, p. 64. 

47 F. Merzbacher, Ehe, in Handbuch zur deutschen Rechtsgeschichte, ed. by A. Erler 
et al. (Berlin: Schmidt, 1971), I 824. According to Brundage, 'Rape and Marriage in the 
Medieval Canon law', pp. 63-4, rape in Roman law, which was considered the most serious 
sexual offence, merited harsher punishment than other sexual crimes. 

48 W. Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England (Manchester: 
Manchester University Press, 1970), pp. 26-7. 

49 On the authenticity of the texts contained in this famous letter ( Libellus 
responsionum , in Gregorii I papae Regislrum epistolarum, ed. by P. Ewald and L. 
Hartmann, MGH Epp 2, xi. 56a (Berlin: Weidmann, 1891-1899; repr. 1957), pp. 342-3), 
see P. Meyvaert, 'Bede's text of the Libellum Responsionum of Gregory the Great', in 
England before the Conquest: Studies in Primary Sources Presented to D. Whitelock, ed. 
by P. Clemoes and K. Hughes (London: Cambridge University Press, 1971), pp. 15-33; G. 
Picasso, 'I fondamenti del matrimonio nelle collezioni canoniche', Settimane di studio del 
Centro di Studi sull'Alto Medioevo, 24 (1977), 190-231 (p. 217); J. Dauvillier, Le manage 
dans le droit classique de Teglise depuis le decret de Gratien jusqu'a la mort de Clement V 
(1314) (Paris: Recuil Sirey, 1933), pp. 146-52; S. Hollis, Anglo-Saxon Women and the 
Church (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1998), pp. 15-16. 

50 Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 1.27.5, pp. 84-5. 

51 The Councils of Tours (a. 1060, G. D. Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et 
amplissima collectio (Florentiae: Expensis Antonii Zatta, 1759-98; repr. Graz: 
Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 1960-2), t. xix, ch. 928) and Rouen (a. 1072, Mansi, 
Sacrorum conciliorum collectio, t. xx, ch. 14 and 38-9) established the prohibition of 
marriage within the seventh degree, in order to prevent the major noble families from 
maintaining joint ownership; see P. Fournier and G. Le Bras, Histoire des Collections 
canoniques en Occident depuis les Fausses Decretales jusqu'au Decret de Gratien, vol. 1 
(Paris: Sirey, 1931-2). On the topic of consanguinity and its development on the Continent 
see C. B. Buchard, 'Consanguinity and Noble Marriages in the Tenth and Eleventh 
Centuries', Speculum 56 (1981), 268-87. 

52 Thus, for example, Canon viii. Council of Trosly (a. 909) affirmed the principle of 
the indissolubility of marriage: Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum collectio, t. xviii, ch. 286- 
288. Canon Law was compiled from large collections of material derived from patristic 
works, papal letters, conciliar canons, biblical passages: the so-called Vetus Gallica 
(seventh to eighth centuries) which contains rare canons on marriage entitled 'De incestis et 
adulteris et qui uxores suas demittunt'; the Vetus Hibernensis, where the canon is entitled 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

'De ratione matrimonio'; the Ps. Isidorian (ninth century); the Collectio Canonum Anselmo 
dedicate (ninth century.), where it is decided that only an ecclesiastical judge might 
intervene in marriage questions; the Liber de synodalibus causis of Reginon von Prum 
(tenth century); the Decretum Burcardii , whose VII, 1-30 is concerned with incest 
(eleventh century), see Picasso, 'll fondamento', pp. 200-31. On Canon Law, see A. G. 
Fransen, Les Collections canoniques (Tumhout: Brepols, 1973). Canon Law becomes, 
anyway, a well-organized legal system only after the promulgation of the Concordia 
discordantium Canonum or Decretum of Gratian (c. 1140), which established the 
recognition of only previous authentic canons in order to obtain a universal juridical 
ecclesiastical law. See for a brief introduction on this work S. Kuttner, Harmony from 
Dissonance: An Intrepretation of Medieval Canon Law (Latrobe: Archabbey, 1960) and II 
matrimonio nella societa altomedievale, Settimane di Studio del Centro di Studi sull'Alto 
Medioevo, 24 (1977); G. Duby, Medieval Marriage. Two models from twelfth-century 
France , trans. by Elborg Forster (Baltimore; Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978). 

53 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, A Collaborative Edition, 6. MS D: a semi-diplomatic 
Edition with Introduction and Indices, ed. by G. P. Cubbin (Oxford; Brewer, 1996), p. 45. 

54 According to Whitelock, the juridical fragments preserved in MS 201B, Ker art. 
51, and corresponding to II Cnut, are to be considered excerpts or extracts from the 
previous law codes of king Edgar and VI Ethelred, prepared and used by Wulfstan in order 
to provide a complete new statement, planned for his meeting with king Cnut and the Danes 
at Oxford in 1008: Whitelock, 'Wulfstan's Authorship of Cnut' Laws', HER 69 (1955), 72- 
85. On the same subject see also P. Stafford, 'The Laws of Cnut and the History of Anglo- 
Saxon royal Promises', Anglo-Saxon England 10 (1981), 175-190 and A. G. Kennedy, 
'Cnufs law Code of 1018', Anglo-Saxon England 11 (1982), 57-81. 

55 The text is quoted from MS 201, fol. 127, as it is published by F. Liebermann, 
Gesetze der Angelsachsen, pp. 290-1; recently it was published also by A. G. Kennedy, 
'Cnufs law Code of 1018', pp. 57-81 ( p. 75). 

56 On the Discipulus Umbrensium or Poenitentiale Theodori (seventh-eighth 
centuries), the Poenitentiale Ps. Theodori (aa. 830-47), the Confessionale Ps. Ecberti 
(eighth century), the Poenitentiale Ecberti (aa. 732-66), and the Poenitentiale Ps. Ecberti 
(aa. 950-1000) see F. W. H. Wasserschleben, Die Buflordnungen der abendlandischen 
Kirche (Halle: Graeger, 1851, repr. Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 1958); C. 
Vogel, Les 'Libri Poenitentiales' (Tumhout: Brepols, 1978); A. Frantzen, The Literature of 
Penance in Anglo-Saxon England (Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1983); L. 
Komtgen, Studien zu den Quellen der friihmittelalterlicher Bufibucher (Sigmaringen: J. 
Thorbecke, 1993). 


Carla Morini 

57 C. Vogel, Le pecheur et la penitence dans I'Eglise ancienne (Paris 1966); Vogel, 
Lepecher et la penitence au Moyen Age (Paris: editions du Cerf, 1969); P. J. Payer, Sex and 
the Penitentials (Toronto: Toronto University Press 1984), p. 8 argues that the penitential 
was not compiled for confessional use but as a list to be memorised of sanctions relating to 
a variety of sins. For a detailed study see also R. Manselli, 'll matrimonio nei Penitenziali', 
in II matrimonio nella societa Altomedievale, pp. 287-315 (pp. 289-302); D. A. Brundage, 
'Better to Marry than to bum? The Case of the Vanishing Dichotomy', in Sex, Law and 
Marriage , III 198-9; L. Bieler, The Irish Penitentials ; Their Religious and Social 
Background, in Studia Patristica, 7 (1966), 329-39; see the edition by L. Bieler, The Irish 
Penitentials (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1963). 

58 It is worth noting that the sanctions referring to sexual and matrimonial topics were 
the most numerous. For a detailed study on this topic see A. Davies, 'Sexual Behaviour in 
Later Anglo-Saxon England', in This Noble Craft , ed. by E. Cooper (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 
1991), pp. 83-105 (at 83-4); D. A. Brundage, Law, Sex and Christian Society in Medieval 
Europe (Chicago: Chicago University Press 1987), pp. 57-123. In Ecbert's Penitential, for 
example, the list concerning sexual sins constitutes 45%, see Payer, Sex and the 
Penitentials, p. 52. 

59 The Poenitentiale Ps. Theodori, V 13-14; text quoted by Wasserschleben, Die 
Bufiordnungen der abendlandischen Kirche, p. 584. 

60 The Poenitentiale Egberti, IV, Wasserschleben, Die Bufiordnungen der 
abendlandischen Kirche, p. 234. 

61 The text is quoted by Wulfstan Homilies, Sammlung der ihm zugeschriebenen 
Homilien, ed. by A. Napier (Berlin: Weidmann, 1834), Homily 59, pp. 307-9 (p. 308). This 
homily was not included by Bethurum in her edition, because she did not consider it to be a 

62 Homilies of Wulfstan, ed. by Bethurum, pp. 25, 38. See also Whitelock, Sermo 
Lupi ad Anglos, p. 20; K, Jost, Wulfstanstudien (Bern: Francke, 1950), pp. 219-20. 

63 Text quoted by Napier, Wulftsan Homilies, Homily 59, pp. 307-9 (p. 308). 

64 Homilies of Wulfstan, ed. by Bethurum, p. 25. 

65 Homilies of Wulfstan, ed. by Bethurum, pp. 39-40. According to Jost, 
Wulfstanstudien, pp. 249-61, it is a work compiled later than Wulfstan. 

66 Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen,l, /Elfred und Guthrum,pp. 128-31 (p. 130). 

67 Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, I, II Cnut, 48. 51, pp. 346-7. 

68 Homilies of Wulfstan, ed. by Bethurum, pp. 261-266 (pp. 264-5, 4-13). 

69 On this subject see Merzbacher, Ehe, pp. 813-14. 

70 Merzbacher, Ehe, pp. 811-14; see also D. Herlihy, Medieval Households 
(Cambridge: Harward University Press, 1985), pp. 63-4. 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

71 See the very important letter written by Pope Nicolas I to the Bulgars: Nicolai I 
papae Epistolae, ed. by E. Perels, MGH, Epistolae Aevi Karolini 4 (Munich: Monumenta 
Germaniae Historica, 1978), pp. 568-600. 

72 Text quoted by Liebermann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen. 

73 Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen , 1, II Cnut, 74, p. 360. It is to be remarked that this 
law is also preserved in Corpus Christi College MS 201, pp. 126-30. 

74 Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, I, V Atr., 21, 21.1, p. 242; VI Atr 26, 26.1, p. 254. 

75 Homilies of Wulfstan, ed. by Bethurum, p. 39. 

76 Napier, Wulftsan Homilies, pp. 266-74 (pp. 271, 18-20). 

77 Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, I, II Cnut. 73, p. 360. 

78 Archibald, Apollonius of Tyre, pp. 25-6 and 184. 

79 C. L. Wrenn, A Study of Old English Literature (London: Harrap, 1967), p. 253. 

80 Archibald, Apollonius of Tyre, p. 184. 

81 T. E. Pickford, ’Apollonius of Tyre as Greek Myth and Christian Mystery', 
Neophilologus 59 (1975), 599-609; Raith, Die alt- und mittelenglischen Apollonius- 
Bruchstiicke, pp. 49-50. 

82 Raith, Die all- und mittelenglischen Apollonius-Bruchstiicke, pp. 49-50; 
Archibald, Apollonius of Tyre, p. 184. 

83 'Es war der erste Versuch, einen unterhaltenden Prosaroman zu schreiben, eine 
Liebesgeschichte zu erzahlen [. . .] Der Monch, der Anfang des 11. Jahrhunderts den 
Apollonius in engl. Prosa brachte, war damit allerdings seiner Zeit um vierhundert aus 
voraus [. . .] der engl. Prosaroman beginnt im 15. Jahrhundert [. . .]': Raith, Die alt- und 
mittelenglischen Apollonius-Bruchstiicke, p. 48. 

84 On this topic see Archibald, 'Fathers and Kings'. 

85 My article on this subject has been published in SELIM XVI (2005). 

86 The emendation tiriscan ealdormen [prince of Tyre], first proposed by Thorpe and 
then by Raith, derives from the same reading in ch. 10; Zupitza and Goolden add just 
tiriscan. Page has recently argued that the erasure space in the manuscript after /> am could 
only have accommodated one word, tiriscan or ealdormen. He favours the latter option: see 
'The Title', p. 172. 

87 The Old English Orosius, ed. by J. Batley, EETS s.s 6 (London: Oxford University 
Press, 1980), see also Indices, V 4; V 4, 17 and 20. 

88 Das altenglische Martyrologium, ed. by G. Kotzor (Munich: Beck, 1986), II 5, 165. 

89 Old English Psalms: 1-50, Libri psalmorum versio antiqua Latina cum 
paraphraphrasi Anglo-Saxonica, ed. by B. Thorpe (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1835), 
Ps. 43, p. 105. 


Carla Morini 

90 Mlfric's Lives of Saints, ed. by W. W. Skeat, EETS o.s. 76, 82, 94, 114 (Oxford: 
Oxford University Press, 1881-1900): Book of Maccabees. 

91 The text is quoted from King Alfred's Old English Version of Boethius 'De 
Consolatione philosophiae', ed. by W. J. Sedgefield (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899, repr. 
Darmstadt: Wissenschaflliche Buchgessellschafl, 1968), p. 3. 

92 The Exeter Book, ed. by G. P. Krapp and E. V. K. Dobbie, ASPR VI (New York: 
Columbia University Press, 1936), p. 210. 

93 Genesis, 49 (BL, MS Cotton Claudius B. IV): The Old English Version of the 
Heptateuch, AElfric's Treatise on the Old and New Testament and his Preface to Genesis, 
ed. by S. J. Crawford, EETS o.s. 160 (London: Oxford University Press, 1922, repr. with 
additional material by Ker, London, 1969), p. 20. 

94 Other occurrences of this device are: Da agan se cyncg plegan [. . .] and 
Apollonius hine gemasgnde, swa swa godes wolde, on 6$s cyninges plegan and [. . .] to 
dam plegendan cynge, ch. 13, 14-17 / Subito Archestrates rex totius illius regionis cum 
turba famulorum ingressu, dum cum suis ad pile lusum exerceretur, volente deo miscuit se 
Apollonius regi; et dum currenti sustulit pilam, substuli velocitate percussam ludenti regi 
remisi. Se forlidena man is cume [. . .] ac he ne mreg for scame in gan buton scrude. Da het 
se cyngc hine sona g escridan mid wurdfullan scrude, ch. 14, 16-17 ['Naufragus adest, sed 
abiecto abitu introire confunditur 1 : Statim rex iussit eum dignis vestibus indui et ingredi ad 
cenam]; raede se fie wille [. . .] hwa raede (at explicit). 

95 Other occurrences of this device are: Swa man swa hwylc minne rccdels riht a rcede 
.[. . .] and se de hine mis reed, ch. 3, 7-9 [5/ quis vestrum questionis mee solutionionem 
invenerit [. . .] qui autem non inveneril ]; fjone rcedels understodon to a rcedenne; and Jrnne 
rcedels understodon to arcedenne [. . .] (rone rcedels ariht rcedde, ch. 3, 14-15 [[. . .] sed quis 
prudentia litterarum questionis solutionem invenisset, quasi qui nichil dixisset 
decollabatur]; Antiochus se wcelreowa cyningc on {?ysse wcelreownesse {jurhwunode, ch. 4, 
1-2 [et cum hanc crudelitatem rex Antiochus exerceret]; snotor [. . .] on his snotornesse, 
ch. 4, 3-4 [fidens in habundantia litterarum [. . .]]; Jaeet Apollonius [rone rcedels swa rihte 
a rcedde, ch. 5, 1-2 / rex ut audivit iuvenem questionis sue solutionem invenisse', Apollonius 
ariht a rcedde mynne rcedels. Astih nu reedliee, ch. 6, 4 [Apollonius Tyrius invenit questionis 
mee solutionem. Ascende enim confestim navem [. . .]]; Jru eart wcelreowra {ronne Antiochus 
[. . .] Jias wcelreownesse Joast ic (mrh de gewurde wredla [. . .] and Jraet se wcelreowesta, ch. 
12, 5-8 [O Neptune, fraudator hominum, deceptor innocentium, Antiocho rege crudelior, 
propter me hec reservasti ut egenum et inopem me dimitteres. Facilius rex Antiochus 
crudelissimus persequeretur]; [. . .] and sona swa heo hearpian ongan, heo mid winsumum 
sange gemaegnde [lare hearpan sweg. Da ongunnon ealle Jra men hi herian on hyre 
swegcrcefte, and Apollonius ana swigode. Da ewaed se cyningc [. . .] ealle men heriad mine 


The Old English Apollonius and Wulfstan of York 

dohtor on hyre swegcrcefte, and fm ana hi swigende taeltst. Apollonius cwasS [. . .] ic secge 
Jjaet ic ongite fleet sodlice f>in dohtor gefeol on swegcraeft, ch. 16, 13-18 [Omnes laudare 
ceperunt et dicere: Non potest melius, non potest dulcius did. Inter quos Apollonius solus 
tacebat. Ad quem rex ait: [. . .] Omnes filiam meam in arte musica laudant;[. . .] Filiam 
tuam in artem musicam incidit, nam non didicit. Denique iube mihi Iradi liram, et scies 
quod nescis. [ . . .] Et iussit eum trahi liram. [ . . .] Et accipiens liram [. . .] a tque 
silentio facto arripuit plectrum animumque accomodat arti. Miscetur vox cantu modulata 
cum cordis]; [. . .] heora fm wille. Min willa; /Efter fiisum wordum heo mid modes 
anreednesse a wrat o6er g ewrit and fleet geinseglode and sealde Apollonio: Beet gswrit wees 
fius gervriten, ch, 20, 31-34 [Haec dicens istante amoris audacia scripsit et signatos 
codicellos iuveni tradidit [. . .] Scripti erant sic: ilium volo coniugem naufragum [. . .] quod 
pudica virgo tam impudenter scripserimf; fleet he fias aweendednesse ne teele, ac Jiaet he hele 
swa hwast swa fiar on sy to tale (explicit). 

96 Mlfric's Lives of Saints , Saint Apollinaris, XXII 112-115: Min God Drihten 
Heelend, fie minum lareowe Petre forgeafe his gewilnunga swa hweet swa he gewylnode eet 
6e, araer nu Sis meeden of 5ysum reSunt deaoe, forSan fie heo is f>in gesceaft, and nis nan 
God buton 3u'; ( PsGIC) 'and gewilnodon gewilnunga on westynne & costodon god on 
druwunge' [Et concupierunt concupiscentias in deserto et temptauerunt deum in siccitate]; 
Lk ( WSCp) 'and fia tima wees he sect and his twelfe apostolas mid him, & he saede him, of 
gewilnunge ic gewilnude etan mid eow fias Eastron aer ic for6fare'. 

97 Raith, Die alt- und mittelenglischen Apollonius-Bruchstucke, p. 43. 

98 Raith, Die alt- und mittelenglischen Apollonius-Bruchstucke, pp. 42-43. 

99 * signals the hapax legomena listed by Raith, Die alt- und mittelenglischen 
Apollonius-Bruchstucke, pp. 36-37. 

100 On Wulfstan's stylistic features see A. Orchard, 'Crying wolf: oral style and the 
Sermones Lupi', Anglo-Saxon England 21 (1992), 239-64. 

101 Homilies of Wulfstan, ed. by Bethurum, p. 28. 

11,2 Moreover, Wulfstan in his homilies and laws used particular lexical items, like 
beorgan instead of anan, lac instead of onssgdnes, and gescelig not eadig. In the Old 
English Apollonius we find beorgan, and both gescelig and eadig. 

103 About 200 echoic pairs occur in Wulfstan's homelies, see D. W. Chapman, 
'Motivations for producing and analyzing compounds in Wulfstan's Sermons', in Advances 
in English Historical Linguistics, ed. by J. Fisiak and M. Krygier (Berlin: De Gruyter, 
1998), pp. 15-21. 

104 See Chapman, 'Germanic Tradition and Latin Learning in Wulfstan's Echoic 
Compounds', JEGP, 101 (2002), 1-20 (p. 18). 


Carla Morini 

105 In Wulfstan's homilies there are 27 hapax legomena occurring in echoic pairs, see 
Chapman, 'Germanic Tradition and Latin Learning in Wulfstan's Echoic Compounds', pp. 

106 See Homilies ofWulfstan, ed. by Bethurum, p. 264. 

107 I am endebted to Donald Scragg for drawing my attention to the Vercelli Homily X, 
where the repetition involves only one word mostly twice; very rarely does it involve 
compounds. See also, for examples of repetition, D. Scragg, 'An Old English homilist of 
Archbishop Dunstan's day', in Words, Texts and Manuscripts: Studies in Anglo-Saxon 
Culture presented to Helmut Gneuss on the Occasion of his Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. by M. 
Kohrhammer (Cambridge: Brewer, 1992), pp. 181-92 (p. 185). 

108 Homilies ofWulfstan, ed. by Bethurum, p. 38. 

109 Napier, Wulftsan Homilies , pp. 215-26 (p. 217, 15 and 20; p. 221,4). 

110 Napier, Wulftsan Homilies, pp. 291-299 (p. 292, 19-20). 

111 Napier, ’English Literature 1: An Old English Homily on the Observance of 
Sunday 1 , in An English Miscellany Presented to Dr Furnivall, ed. by W. P. Ker and A. S. 
Napier (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901), pp. 355-62 (pp. 357-62). 

112 /Elfric's Catholic Homilies. The First Series. Text, ed. by P. Clemoes, EETS s.s. 17 
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 175. 


Levels of Learning in Anglo-Saxon Worcester: 
the Evidence Re-assessed 1 

Christine Thijs 

A large number of surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are associated with 
Worcester Cathedral, 2 which is generally considered one of the most important 
monastic foundations of the period. King Alfred recruited seven scholars, of 
which no fewer than four were active in Worcester and surrounding areas in 
south-west Mercia, to assist him in his programme of translating books that he 
considered '9a [. . .] nidbedyrfesta [. . .] eallum monnum to witanne' [most 
necessary for all men to know]. 3 In spite of Simon Keynes's and Michael 
Lapidge's claim that there was only a 'meagre [. . .] record of intellectual 
achievement during an otherwise barren century', 4 it is reasonable to surmise, 
inter alia from Alfred's recruitment of the Worcester scholars, that the centre had 
already reached respectable levels of scholarship in the latter half of the ninth 
century. Since Wolfgang Keller's and Ivor Atkins's sizable studies, 5 a number of 
publications have appeared on issues pertaining to the literary activity at 
Worcester at various times. This article presents an overview of the evidence as well 
as some justifiable deductions and extrapolations in order to arrive at a more fiilly 
informed picture of Worcester's intellectual development in general, and particularly 
of the calibre of scholarly expertise at the time of Alfred's educational reform. 

The evidence for learning levels in the Worcester area is quite limited for 
the period prior to the end of the ninth century. Alfred’s complaint about the 
virtually general ignorance of Latin may have been, as some have suggested, 
dressed in rhetorical exaggeration. 6 

Swa ciaene hio wtes odfeallenu on Angelkynne daette swi9e feawe 
waeron behionan Humbre [re hiora 9enunga cu9en understandan 
on Englisc, o99e furdum an aerendgewrit of Lasdene on Englisc 

Christine Thijs 

areccan; & ic wene 6ante nauht monige begeondan Humbre 
nasren. Swa feawe hiora waeron 6aette ic furSum anne anlepne ne 
masg gedencean besudan Temese 6a 6a ic to rice feng. 7 
[It (i.e. learning) had declined so utterly among the English that 
there were very few on this side of the Humber who could 
understand their divine service in English, or who could even 
translate a letter from Latin into English; and I know that there 
were not many on the other side of the Humber. There were so 
few of them that I could not even think of a single one south of 
the Thames at the time when I acceeded to the kingship.] 

It does, however, clearly indicate that scholastic centres in general had suffered at 
least a significant recession. Ralph Davis seems to imply that Alfred was simply 
contradicting himself: 

Provided that we interpret the word 'few' loosely, it need not 
contain any specific untruth, but it hardly prepares us for the fact 
that of the seven of Alfred's literary advisers whose names are 
known, four came from Mercia. There is every reason to believe 
that in that part of England a vigorous literary tradition had 
survived, but in this statement Alfred ignored it, with the result 
that the magnitude of the educational achievement of his own 
reign was enhanced. 8 

However, one can deduce that Alfred did not consider Mercia (the territory of the 
Hwicce, the Angles, the Mercians, and the Magonsaetan) part of his own 'entire 
country'; although it fell within Alfred's sphere of influence, 9 it was at that stage 
still a separate kingdom. His turning to south-west Mercia to engage Weerferth as 
learned assistant, then, like his recruitment of three other scholars from Wales, 
Saxony and Flanders, 10 indicates that Alfred expected to find in these places the 
presence of teachers and books, and thus of scribes and the makings of a library 
whose calibre was not available in his own country. 

Worcester's proximity to several Roman roads provided connections with 
Wessex and the east," the Malvern Hills offered protection from the West, and 
the river Severn allowed access to the sea, while the inhospitable coasts of the 
Bristol Channel precluded Viking attacks. 12 All these factors contributed to the 
flourishing of Worcester and its development of an economic base. Numerous 


Levels of Learning in Anglo-Saxon Worcester 

royal grants of land testify that the episcopal see and the monasteries in the 
immediate vicinity received the patronage of the Mercian kings in the eighth 
century. 1 ’ Such donations inevitably resulted in a thoroughly Mercian political 
and economic orientation and they generated an enhanced material affluence, 
which was a prerequisite for the development of a library, as is clear from the 
high prices paid for manuscripts.' 4 Of course, if manuscripts were bought, it is 
plausible to infer that there would have been people able to read them, to use their 
contents for teaching, and to copy them. This in itself was likely to instigate and 
inspire the production of more literature. 

A considerable number of charters, dating from throughout the ninth 
century, present bishops of Worcester and monasteries in the immediate vicinity 
as parties to transactions or donations of land, or in agreements or disputes, 
indicating a stable economical environment throughout the period of the Viking 
attacks, 15 during which most of Mercia was ravaged together with the rest of the 
country. While other monasteries lost their riches and valuable manuscripts, and 
had to start building up a collection all over again (if they had the means and 
commitment), Worcester, and perhaps other centres in south-west Mercia, may 
have suffered no significant interruption to their intellectual development since 
the seventh century, when Irish teachers were in England. 16 This would explain 
why Alfred turned to south-west Mercia to find Latinists well versed in theology. 
It is conceivable that more were engaged than the four mentioned by Asser, and it 
is certain that others would have continued studying, teaching and writing in 
Worcester, and possibly in other centres about which no information has survived. 

Alfred's military successes against the Danes had firmly established respect 
for his power and authority in the rest of 'England'. The Worcester area, which 
was never involved in military operations, was to be approached in a different 
way. While there is not much clear documentary evidence that previous kings of 
Wessex invested in Worcester as a manifestation of political power, Alfred was 
clearly interested both in the standards of learning possessed by the Worcester 
monasteries and in expanding his network of influence into this very affluent 
boundary region, thereby opening up the possibility of annexing the rest of 
Mercia. Such political aims also seem to underlie Alfred's giving his daughter 
/Ethelflaed in marriage to /Ethelred Ealdorman of Mercia. The recruitment of four 
(probably south-west) Mercian scholars may have been a strategic move 
containing a political statement of power, possibly inspired by Charlemagne's 
example of inviting advisors and scholars from many areas (such as Alcuin of 


Christine Thijs 

York, a prominent figure well-known in England). Asser emphasises the scholars' 
Mercian origins: 

At tunc Deus [. . .] transmisit Werfrithum [. . .] Wigemensis 
ecclesiae episcopum [. . .] deinde Plegmundum, Mercium genere, 
Dorobemensis ecclesiae archiepiscopum, venerabilem scilicet 
virum, sapientia praeditum; Aithelstan quoque et Werwulfum, 
sacerdotes et capellanos, Mercios genere, eruditos. Quos quatuor 
[sic] Ailfred rex de Mercia ad se advocaverat [...]. 

[But then God [. . .] sent Wserferth, [. . .] bishop of the church of 
Worcester [. . .] and subsequently Plegmund, a Mercian by race, 
archbishop of the church of Canterbury, an obviously venerable 
man, considerably gifted with wisdom; and also yEthelstan and 
Wervvulf, erudite priests and chaplains and Mercians by race. 
King Alfred summoned these four from Mercia.] 17 

Interestingly, all but one of the scholars (Wasrferth) are explicitly said to belong 
to the Mercian race ('Mercius genere'). Therefore the distinct impression arises 
that Asser meant to present the cathedral of Worcester as part of Mercia, as well 
as drawing attention to the four clerics' learning. Given Worcester's undisturbed 
development, it is a reasonable assumption that they all originated from, or at 
least were trained in, the Worcester area, but Asser refers to them non-specifically 
as 'four men from Mercia' ('Quos quatuor [. . .] de Mercia’). Thus he evokes a 
sense of unity between the old kingdom of Mercia as a whole and Alfred's 
Wessex, and simultaneously expresses appreciation for their contribution to the 
success of Alfred's cultural development of his whole territory, which he so 
strikingly called 'Angelcynn' in spite of his own Saxon descent. 18 The Anglo- 
Saxon Chronicle , charters, and ninth-century coinage, as demonstrated by 
Keynes, 19 equally provide evidence that from the early 880s onwards, Alfred was 
incorporating Mercia into his 'kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons' (consisting of 
'English' Mercia, Wessex, Kent and Sussex). These efforts support the suggestion 
that at the time he wrote the prefatory letter to the Pastoral Care south-west 
Mercia was not effectively a province of his own realm yet. 


Levels of Learning in Anglo-Saxon Worcester 

Literary Activity in Pre-Alfredian Worcester 
Oftfor's Time 

The evidence of learning and the presence of books in early Worcester is, again, 
sparse. As Patrick Sims-Williams remarks, 'biblical study was the ground and 
apex of all other studies'. In the early medieval context, however, as he goes on 
to say, this presupposes the availability of a text of the Bible, or, as was more 
usually the case, of individual books or groups of books of the Bible, which 
would be in Latin and would thus require a grammar and commentaries, and a 
teacher to instruct in both Latin and theology. Bede's account of Oftfor's studies, 
travels, and consecration as bishop (691-693/4) 21 is the first recorded and only 
pre-Alfredian document illustrating education in Worcester: 

[Oftfor] [. . .] cum in utroque Hildae abbatissae monasterio 
lectioni et obseruationi scripturarum operam dedisset, tandem 
perfectiora desiderans uenit Cantiam ad archiepiscopum beatae 
recordationis Theodorum. Vbi postquam aliquandiu lectionibus 
sacris uacauit, etiam Romani adire curauit, quod eo tempore 
magnae uirtutis aestimabatur; et inde cum rediens Brittaniam 
adisset, diuertit ad prouinciam Huicciorum, cui tunc rex Osric 
praefuit, ibique uerburn fidei praedicans [. . .] multo tempore 
mansit. [. . .] [OJmnium iudicio [. . .] in episcopatum [. . .] electus 
ac [. . .] per Uilfridum [. . .] antistitem [. . .] ordinatus est [...]. 

[After he had devoted himself, in Abbess Hild's double monastery, 
to the reading and observing of the Scriptures, Oftfor eventually 
came to Canterbury, to Archbishop Theodore of blessed memory, 
desiring further perfection. Then, after he had dedicated himself 
for some time to holy readings, he even troubled himself to go to 
Rome, which at that time was deemed to be of great virtue. When 
he, on his return journey from there, reached Britain, he made a 
detour to the province of the Hwicci, which was then ruled by 
King Osric, and there [. . .] he stayed for a long time, [. . .] 

preaching the word of faith. [. . .] With a unanimous vote he was 


elected bishop and [. . .] ordained by priest Wilfrid [. . .]]. 


Christine Thijs 

Bede states here that Oftfor studied at both of Hild's monasteries, Streoneshealh 
and Hartlepool, highly valued for their emphasis on the study of Scripture. 
Subsequently, he is said to have attended Archbishop Theodore's school in 
Canterbury, renowned for its unique reputation in biblical study in the Antiochene 
tradition, which categorically rejected the allegorical approach to biblical 
interpretation promoted by the earlier Alexandrine school, in favour of a very 
literal method of exegesis, exemplified in Theodore's commentaries. 23 It is 
perhaps a large step to take, but it is tempting to speculate that this literal 
approach to exegesis and biblical commentary may have been an influential 
element contributing to the literal style of translation practised by a Mercian 
school to which Wserferth and the translator of the Old English Ecclesiastical 
History could have been connected. Oftfor would certainly have been well placed 
to exert this influence, especially, as Bede explicitly states, since he spent a long 
time in the 'Provincia Hwicciorum' and was ordained bishop there. 

Because Oftfor, as his name suggests (it may be interpreted as 'often 
fared'), 24 and as Bede's account confirms, spent some time travelling as a pilgrim 
within England and to Rome, he probably undertook some transportation of relics 
or manuscripts, for this was customary, as the example of Benedict Biscop 
testifies and as is reported by Bede and vEthilwald (one of Aldhelm's students). 25 
Three surviving charters indicate that once he was ordained bishop of the Hwicce, 
the Church was granted several portions of land by the Mercian King /Ethelred, 26 
conceivably, as happened regularly, 27 in exchange for manuscripts. Oftfor 
probably brought several books from his travels to Worcester, but there remains 
only one speculative indication that he may have provided a connection between 
the monastery of Streoneshealh and Worcester in the fonn of the lost source used 
by the anonymous Streoneshealh author and which is likely to have been 
available to Wrerferth when he was translating the Dialogic* The anonymous Life 
of Gregory, written at Streoneshealh, possibly by a nun, 29 contains two unusual 
details which reappear exclusively in Worcester texts: Gregory's epithet 'os 
aureum' ('golden mouth') occurs twice in Wasrferth's Old English version of 
Gregory's Dialogi , 30 and the anecdote of Gregory breaking the lamp on Siricius' 
tomb to avenge Jerome can be found only in John of Worcester's early twelfth- 
century marginalia in the Worcester copy of William of Malmesbury's recension 
of the Liber Pontificalis: 31 


Christine Thijs 

obscurari lampadem. Nec inmerito; quia in eo lectionis quoque 
divine lampas hoc lucissime agendum dilucidavit. 33 
[His (i.e. Gregory's) celestial soul perceived something similar, 
that is horrible to tell, regarding that particular Pope (i.e. Siricius). 
This Pope, as much as was within his power, extinguished God's 
lamp, lit by Him with a singularly bright light, by forcing the light 
of Saint Jerome, the lampstand not only of the Romans but also of 
the whole world, in Rome (which is the head of cities and the 
mistress of the world), to emigrate from this city on account of his 
(i.e. Siricius') dreadful infidelity of judgement. He therefore justly 
deserved that his own lamp be extinguished by Saint Gregory, 
and not undeservedly, for the lamp of divine judgement in him 
(i.e. in Gregory) illuminated most clearly that this had to be 

John of Worcester passage (CUL Kk.4.6) 

Erat Rome mos antiquitus institutus, ut ad apostolicorum virorum 
sepulcra die noctuque lumen arderet. Nec immerito : nam iuxta 
evangelicam auctoritatem illi lux sunt mundi [. . .] Lucema ardens 
et lucens, beatissimus videlicet Gregorius, dum paparet, dum 
ecclesiam Dei apostolico iure gubemaret, aut legit vel audivit a 
narrantibus, quid [s/c] ohm temporis vir apostolicus Siricius in 
beatum gesserat Ieronimum. Factum est in una dierum, lustratis 
Urbis interioribus, sanctus Gregorius ad tumulos virorum 
apostolicorum luminibus sacris ardentia lumina cemens et ad 
predicti papae tumbam perveniens, substitit, exclamat, indignans 
protinus infit: 'Tumba tegit papam, qui mundi lumen ab Urbe 
expulerat dudum, quod replefvit] dogmate mundum. Hinc vere 
indignum et iniustum est ardere lumen ad sepulcrum illius'. Dixit, 
vas fregit baculo fuditque liquorem. Et sic in Siricium vindicat 

[In Rome the ancient custom had been established that at the 
graves of popes ('apostolic men') a light should bum night and 
day. Not unrightly so, for according to the authority of the Gospel 
those men are the light of the world [. . .] A lamp burning and 
bright, namely the most blessed Gregory, while he was pope, and 
while he was ruling the Church of God with apostolic right, either 


Levels of Learning in Anglo-Saxon Worcester 

read or heard from informers what, once upon a time, Pope 
Siricius had done against the blessed Jerome. On one of the days, 
when the inner parts of the city were lit, it happened that Saint 
Gregory was observing with his holy eyes the burning lights at 
the graves of the popes and when he arrived at the grave of the 
aforementioned pope he stopped and cried out. Indignant he 
immediately started to speak: 'This grave covers the pope who, a 
while ago, expelled from the City the world's light, which filled 
the world with the Learning. Hence it is truly shameful and unjust 
for a light to bum at his grave.' So he spoke, and broke the lamp 
with his stick and spilled the liquid. And thus he avenged Jerome 
upon Siricius.] 

The fact that Wacrferth refers to Gregory's epithet not only in Old English and in 
Latin, but also in Greek, possibly suggests, based on the evidence of glosses and 
biblical commentaries, that there may have been knowledge of Greek (as 
mentioned earlier) and Hebrew in early ninth-century Mercia, which necessarily 
would have been supported by a culture of erudition. 35 

Mainly on the basis that only one, ninth-century continental, manuscript 
survives, it has generally been held that the Streoneshealh vita had only a very 
limited circulation in Anglo-Saxon England. 36 Precisely on the basis of the 'os 
aureum' and 'gyldenmujf epithets, which the vita and Wasrferth’s Dialogues have 
in common, it is worth considering the possibility that a copy of the Streoneshealh 
vita either was at Worcester shortly before or during Wasrferth's time, 37 or at least 
that he had direct or indirect access to it. Sims-Williams mentions that both 
authors could have drawn on another (lost) source. 38 The fact that both Waerferth's 
and John of Worcester's additions are more elaborate than the Streoneshealh vita 
supports this suggestion, yet it does not preclude the possibility that the 
Streoneshealh text was also available to them. We know that Oftfor studied at 
Streoneshealh and suspect that he travelled and transported manuscripts. It is 
therefore conceivable that he was responsible either for taking to Worcester a 
copy of the lost Latin source of the Streoneshealh vita, or for having leamt the 
two details and having passed them on in some form in Worcester so that they 
reached Wrerferth and John of Worcester, or indeed that he may have taken a 
copy of the vita itself to Worcester. In any event, this confirms the interest in 
Gregory at both Streoneshealh and Worcester, and moreover indicates that some 


Christine Thijs 

exchange of learning (in the form of manuscripts or teaching, but most likely 
both) was taking place between Worcester and other monastic centres. 

Evidence of Books at Worcester 

Worcester doubtlessly acquired the necessary liturgical books immediately after 
its foundation as a bishopric in 680. In about 780 King Offa is alleged to have 
donated a bible to the church, as a charter in his name testifies: '[. . .] Insuper dedi 
ad praedictam ecclesiam (i.e. 'ad episcopalem sedem Wigorcestrensis ascclesiae') 
bibliothecam optimam cum duabus armillis' [In addition I have granted to the 
aforementioned church (that is to the Episcopal see of the Church of Worcester) 
an excellent bible with two golden bands]. 39 Cuthbert Turner, Ivor Atkins and 
Neil R. Ker established that the following three fragments could come from this 
bible, which was identified in the eleventh century with Offa's bible: London, 
British Library, MSS Additional 37777, Additional 45025 and Loan 81. 40 Three 
leaves of Gospel fragments from the second half of the eighth century, three 
bifolia from biblical commentaries (two seventh- and one eighth-century), and a 
single leaf from a copy of Isidore's Sententiae are preserved in Worcester 
Cathedral Library, 41 but it cannot be proven that they were already there during 
the second half of the ninth century. 

During 1622-3, when Patrick Young compiled his catalogue, the library of 
Worcester contained only three manuscripts of tire eighth or ninth centuries, which 
included an eighth-century copy of the Rule of Benedict (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS 
Hatton 48) and an eighth- or ninth- century book on the office of mass 'charactere 
Saxonico' (MS Hatton 93) 42 The age and useful nature of these books hint that they 
may have been copied at Worcester or that they may have been there shortly after their 
production, but of course they could have arrived at any time between the reigns of 
Alfred and King James. A third surviving eighth-century book is London, British 
Library, MS Royal 2 A. XX, written in Mercia in the 950s. 43 

There is no real evidence for the presence of books in pre-Alfredian 
Worcester, as no account by contemporary witnesses has survived. In the tenth 
and eleventh century the copying of manuscripts and the production of new 
literary works is more fully documented. Richard Gameson has identified fifty- 
nine manuscripts connected with Worcester, datable between the end of the ninth 
and the end of the eleventh century, and Rodney Thomson lists some fifty 
surviving books originating in twelfth-century Worcester. 44 The presence in 
Worcester of some of these is confirmed by three surviving Worcester booklists. 


Levels of Learning in Anglo-Saxon Worcester 

The oldest one, contained in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 367 (s. xi med ) 
lists eight titles, three of which refer to two copies: 45 

Deo englissce passionale 
7 .ii. engliscce dialogas 
7 Oddan boc 

7 jre englisca martirlogium 
7 .ii. englisce salteras 
7 .ii. pastorales englisce 
7 {oe englisca regol 
7 Barontus 

[The English passional, and two English Dialogues, and Odda's 
book, and the English Martyrology , and two English Psalters, and 
two English Pastoral Care books, and the English Rule (i.e. of St 
Benedict), and the Visio Baronti] 

The two Dialogues have been convincingly identified by Christine Franzen 
as British Library, MS Cotton Otho C. I part 2 (s. xi' n -xii med ) and Bodleian 
Library, MS Hatton 76 (s. xi 1 ). Franzen argues that the two Pastoral Care 
volumes are probably Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 12 (s. x 2 ) and 
Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 20 (s. xi ex ). 46 The second booklist on the last leaf of 
a Latin copy of Gregory's Dialogi, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Tanner 3 (s. xi ex ) 
contains sixty titles mainly consisting of liturgical and teaching material and is not, 
with any certainty, identifiable as originating in Worcester. 47 The third list is located 
on fol. 149 of Cotton Otho C. I part 2 (s. xiii). 48 Due to fire damage only five titles 
are discemable, and the entry 'vita et m[. . .]' can probably not be identified: 

Liber dialogorum gre[. . .] 

Vitas patrum 
Beda de gestis anglorum 
vita et m[. . .] 
synonima ysydori 
Boecius De consola[. . .] 

[A book of Gregory's] Dialogues, the Lives of the Fathers, 
Bede's Ecclesiastical History, the Life and m[iracles?. . .], 
Isidore's Synonyms, Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy]] 


Christine Thijs 

The copy of the Dialogues is obviously identifiable with the manuscript 
containing this list, and Franzen suggested, based on its glosses by the Tremulous 
Hand, that 'Beda de gestis anglorum' refers to the Old English Ecclesiastical 
History, Cambridge, University Library, MS Kk 3.18 (s. xi 2 ). 49 None of the other 
titles have been connected with surviving manuscripts. 50 

It finally needs to be noted in this context that in addition to preserving Old 
English manuscripts, twelfth-century Worcester also imported a significant 
quantity of Anglo-Saxon and especially Old English material. Mary Swan has 
recently adduced evidence about pre-conquest books being taken to Worcester 
and being re-collated. 51 

Possible Literaty Achievements of Ninth-Century Worcester? 

As to the context of Wasrferth's translation of Gregory's Dialogi, modem scholars 
have propounded a wide range of views over the last hundred years. Peter Hunter- 
Blair does not include the Old English Dialogues or the Old English 
Ecclesiastical History in his list of accepted Mercian literary works and Keller 
simply states that Worcester enters the history of literature with Wasrferth's 
translation. 52 By contrast, in his first Critical History of Old English Literature 
Stanley Greenfield presents, without evidence, the long reign of the 'anti- 
ecclesiastical and tyrannical king TEthelbald' (716-57) as an element which would 
have favoured the development of a vernacular Mercian prose tradition. 
However, his characterisation of this king seems doubtful when we consider that 
of the twenty-four charters preserved from his reign, twenty regard land, 
privileges, and tax exemptions that he granted to various abbeys, monasteries, 
churches and bishops in his kingdom, including Worcester. 54 In their New Critical 
History of Old English Literature , Greenfield and Donald Calder more 
successfully involve Alfred's recruitment of Mercian scholars in the argument for 
the pre-existence of a Mercian school of vernacular prose translation, referring 
also to the Martyrology and the Life of St Chad as likely candidates to have 
originated in the same context. 55 

It has furthermore been suggested that ninth-century Mercian originals may 
form the basis of the Old England prose Guthlac , the Blickling Homilies , the 
Leechbook, and the prose texts in the Beowulf manuscript. 56 The language of the 
Blickling homilies leads Donald Scragg to believe that their origin was Mercian, 
as does the texts' close affinity with Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 198, 


Levels of Learning in Anglo-Saxon Worcester 

and a Worcester origin cannot be excluded, especially in the light of the links 
with the Worcester manuscripts Bodleian Library, MS Junius 121 and MSS 
Hatton 113 and 114. 57 Around the same time, in his Study of Old English 
Literature, Charles Wrenn describes the Anglo-Saxons' first steps in the craft of 
translation, emphasising their use of interlinear glossing: at first, in the eighth 
century, only 'hard words' were glossed, and then, by the ninth century 'we find 
evidence of interlinear glossing so completely word for word as to amount almost 
to literal rendering of the Latin', of which the first example happens to be the 
Vespasian Psalter Gloss, 'copied about the beginning of Alfred's reign from a 
Mercian text into a [. . .] Latin Psalter and Canticles'. 58 Furthermore, Wrenn 
briefly mentions the possibility that the Life of St Chad 'seems to look back on an 
already existing Mercian homiletic tradition', a possibility which he supports 
mainly by reference to the fact that Mercia was also the place of origin of Alfred's 
four English assistants. 59 

Almost twenty years later, and cautious about assuming a flourishing 
vernacular tradition without any hard evidence, Keynes and Lapidge suppose that 
Mercia had 'at least some (albeit meagre) record of intellectual achievement 
during an otherwise barren century', 60 although they offer no particular evidence 
for this barrenness either. It seems reasonable to assume that the pre-existence of 
a scholarly tradition is a condition precedent for the production of various ninth- 
century vernacular writings in Mercia: the poetry of Cynewulf, 61 a Life of St Chad, 
the Old English Martyrology, the Dialogues, and the Old English Ecclesiastical 
History. However, the dating and provenance of these works is more problematic 
than this brief assertion suggests. 62 

With regard to Cynewulfs poems, Kenneth Sisam established a dating 
between the first half of the ninth century and the middle of the tenth, based on 
orthographical features as they are recorded in the Exeter and Vercelli Books, 
where the poems are preserved. 63 Because of accurate copying practices in the 
tenth century, however, it is impossible to determine with certainty whether the 
compilations were made at that time—or indeed in that place—or whether they 
are just very faithful copies of an earlier collection. For the terminus post quem 
the main argument is the spelling of the first element of the author's name as 
cyne- or cyni-, which renders the question of dating inextricable from that of the 
poems' original language. This language is regarded as being either Mercian or 
Northumbrian, but Sisam argues that 'the case for Mercia seems to be 
overwhelming’, not only on the grounds that the dialect and spellings match those 
of the so-called ’Northumbrian Genealogies' in London, British Library, MS 


Christine Thijs 

Cotton Vespasian B. VI, but also, and more convincingly, because of the fact that 
the only bishops list that was updated was that of Lichfield, the ecclesiastical 
centre of the old Mercian kingdom, while for the northern sees the lists remain 
almost as they were first written. 64 

The contents of the poems allow the dating to be refined to the ninth 
century. Cynewulfs Ascension (Christ II) was demonstrated by Dietrich in 1853 
to draw upon Gregory's Homilies 29 (closely) and 10 (more freely paraphrased). 65 
This seems to support Sisam's opinion that the poem is a product of the time when 
the demand for direct biblical material in the vernacular had passed its greatest 
urgency and the most popular themes were devotional and martyrological. 66 This 
is in agreement with both the Anglo-Saxon interest in Gregory's Dialogi and 
Homiliae, and with the themes covered by the three other vernacular works which 
are generally considered to be of Mercian origin: the Martyrology>, the Old 
English Ecclesiastical History, and the Life of St Chad. This content-based 
argument is further supported by the more hypothetical results of linguistic and 
metrical tests. 67 It needs to be emphasised, however, that there is no compelling 
evidence allowing Cynewulf to be dated in more precise or more confident terms 
than 'probably ninth century', nor to be located with any certainty in Mercia. 

The Old English version of Bede's Ecclesiastical History is generally 
accepted to be of Mercian origin and merits association with the same stage in the 
development of ecclesiastical interests as the Old English Martyrology. Although 
presented as a historical work, the translator's distinct orientation towards saintly 
deeds and miracles is clear from the fact that, while the work omits substantial 
parts of Bede's Latin original, all but one of the miracle stories have been 
faithfully translated. The same argument can be used to demonstrate the 
translator's interest in Gregory the Great, which the Old English Ecclesiastical 
History has in common with other early Mercian works. Furthermore, Dorothy 
Whitelock argues on the grounds of language, style and content that it was most 
probably produced around the end of the ninth century and by a Mercian educated 
in a school 'similar to that which trained Bishop Waerferth'. 68 Whitelock indeed 
also cautiously states that although 'certain words used in the Old English Bede 
occur only in Mercian texts [. . .] it must be remembered that there are no 
comparable Northumbrian texts until nearly a century later'. 69 

Another work whose Mercian origin has been generally accepted is the Life 
of St Chad. An important connection between this homily and Mercia is that Chad 
was most venerated in the Lichfield diocese, as is deducible from the great 
number of church dedications. Rudolf Vleeskruyer demonstrates in detail the 


Levels of Learning in Anglo-Saxon Worcester 

dialectal and stylistic similarity between this text and Waerferth's Dialogues. He 
theorises that there was already a 'vigorous tradition of Mercian vernacular 
writing' preceding, and to a large extent facilitating, Alfred's revival of learning. 70 
However, he does not present any external textual or historical evidence, but 
extrapolates this from the very existence of these two literary texts, the exact 
dates of composition and provenance of which remain uncertain. To a limited 
extent such an extrapolation is of course valid: scholarship and literary 
production are necessarily preceded by the collection and copying of literary 
works from elsewhere, for the purpose of education, training and inspiration. 
Yet Vleeskruyer also asserts that Mercian was the first English dialect in which 
vernacular writings were produced. 71 Although plausible, there is no evidence 
for this other than the few texts discussed, and the absence of texts in other 
dialects is only negative evidence. 

The translation technique apparent in the Old English Ecclesiastical 
History , and to a greater extent that of the Dialogues , can be characterised by the 
use of doublets and by a striking closeness to the source, often approaching 
literalness. This caused Vleeskruyer to propound that the translators were 
probably working from interlinear glosses. This has never been corroborated, but, 
if correct, suggests that these works may perhaps have originated at a stage when 
vernacular writing had not yet advanced far enough to have more independence 
from the structure of the Latin original. Their clearly similar technique could, 
however, as Whitelock suggested, point to a particular tradition; perhaps the 
translators had been trained in the same centre, or possibly there was already an 
existing tradition, or school, producing vernacular translations. 77 Given the image 
Alfred sketches of the lack of learning elsewhere, it seems tempting to imagine 
that this school was actually based in Worcester, or at least somewhere in south¬ 
west Mercia, but one cannot exclude the possibility that the translators were 
originally trained in another region altogether. 

Vleeskruyer also confidently includes the Old English Martyrology in the 
group. At about the same time, Celia Sisam's more cautious article offers two 
plausible, but nevertheless hypothetical, explanations for the Mercian elements in 
the Martyrology. that the text may originate in Mercia and have been mainly 
transmitted in Wessex, or that its author may have been one of Alfred’s Mercian 
assistants. 73 Almost thirty years later Gunther Kotzor convincingly dealt with the 
matter, establishing a terminus post quern of around 871, supported by 
palaeographical evidence which allows 'eine zeitgenossige Datierung' with 
Alfred's version of the Cura Pastoralis. 74 This seems to preclude the possibility of 


Christine Thijs 

the Old English Martyrology belonging to an earlier ninth-century Mercian 
vernacular tradition, if such ever existed. 

Several modem scholars have felt the strong inclination to trace 

Worcester's post-Alfredian cultural importance back into its unknown earlier 

history. In fact only a very limited amount of conjecture can be justified: if 

Wierferth translated the Dialogi, he must have had a reasonably good Latin 

education first and this may or may not have taken place in Worcester or 

elsewhere in south-west Mercia. As is true of many Anglo-Saxon scholars and 

indeed throughout the Middle Ages, Wasrferth might have studied in several 

places, but it is inevitable that at least his long connection with Worcester as 

bishop (872-915) led to a significant mutual influence between himself and the 

learned circle in Worcester and, probably to a lesser extent, the surrounding 

(south-west Mercian) area. There is insufficient evidence to establish whether an 

actual 'School of Worcester' existed in Waerferth's time, in the sense of a tradition 

of translation, but the charters confirm the existence of a Worcester monastery 

('monasterium Uuigomense') from 716/717 onwards. 75 In addition there were 

numerous other monasteries in the diocese, 76 with the bishop and the cathedral 

almost certainly having a familial It is therefore unlikely that only Waerferth was 

interested in religious literature. He would probably have contributed to the 

learning of this community with his knowledge, and possibly even with such 

written material as he may have gathered or produced himself while studying 

elsewhere. At the very least he must have had access to a copy of the Latin text of 

Gregory's Dialogi, but it cannot be the copy the Tremulous Hand used four 


centuries later, Cambridge, Clare College, MS 30, as this is dated to s.xi or 
xi 3/4 . 78 Irrespective of the physical place where Wasrferth wrote his translation— 
in his bishopric or at King Alfred's court—the work either directly or indirectly 
originated in Worcester. 

Worcester as Intellectual Centre from the Tenth Century Onwards 

During the tenth and eleventh centuries Worcester was one of the principal 
centres of the Benedictine Reform and it is most likely that this well-known 
prestigious stature was a culmination of a successful tradition developed during 
the previous period. This level of learning strongly suggests the presence of a 
library (though, as said before, explicit evidence is not available). There would at 
least have been a respectable standard of learning prior to the tenth century, upon 


Levels of Learning in Anglo-Saxon Worcester 

which further scholarly activity could be grafted. Admittedly some reform 

monasteries were newly founded during the Benedictine Reform, but these could 

only operate with support (in the fonn of books and teachers) from pre-existing 

leading intellectual centres such as that in Worcester. Moreover, the monastery 

survived as the longest lasting substantial bastion of Anglo-Saxon scholarship 

throughout the twelfth century, a fact often attributed to the longevity of its last 

Anglo-Saxon bishop, Wulfstan II. The speed of its library's recovery as well as 

the high standard to which St Wulfstan (1062-95) managed to restore it after the 


destruction (brought about as punishment for rebellion by Harthacnut in 1041), 
further support the claim that it was an extensive collection, studied and enhanced 
by a circle of active scribes and scholars. Even in the early thirteenth century, 
although probably on a relatively small scale, Worcester may be regarded as one 
of the last strongholds of Anglo-Saxon religious literature. 81 Such is indicated by 
the work of the anonymous 'Tremulous Hand', who worked at (or near) Worcester 
and who appears to have had an antiquarian interest in homiletic, devotional, 
penitential and medical Old English texts. Eighteen manuscripts survive which 
the Tremulous Hand supplied with Latin (and a few with early Middle English) 
glosses, probably for his own use and conceivably also for the convenience of 
other readers, at a time when Old English was no longer easily understood. 82 This 
once more confirms the idea of how deep-rooted the interest in Anglo-Saxon 
scholarship was at Worcester, and of how well-stocked with Old English books 
its library still was. Some additional evidence that there was an ongoing interest 
in pre-Conquest vernacular writing in the Worcester area is provided by London, 
Lambeth Palace, MS 487, the contents of which presuppose that its compiler had 
access to a number of pre-Conquest texts including material by Wulfstan and 
TElfric. 83 


It is difficult to reach firm conclusions about the levels of learning in south-west 
Mercia before Alfred's time. From the existence and the cautious dating of the 
other Mercian texts that are preserved, it is possible to deduce that Alfred's four 
Mercian scholars, Waerferth, Plegmund, Werwulf and vEthelstan, may have been 
able to draw on a tradition of scholarship with a predominant interest in Gregory 
the Great, saints' lives and miracles. 84 There was at least some vernacular literary 
activity based on Latin sources before Alfred's cultural renaissance, even if it only 


Christine Thijs 

constituted a 'meagre record of intellectual activity'. 85 The similarities in style and 
translation technique between the Old English Ecclesiastical History , the Life of 
St Chad , and the Old English Dialogues , probably suggest that, if they did not 
originate in the same centre, they were all produced by authors with a similar 
education, which may or may not have taken place at Worcester. The possibility 
cannot be excluded that Wrerferth's translation of the Dialogi originated as a 
Mercian and pre-Alfredian idea and that it was only associated with Alfred and 
his programme post factum. Alternatively Wasrferth may have produced this text 
at Alfred's request but given the work's consistent methodology and rationale, it 
seems unlikely that it was written entirely independently of any pre-existing 
tradition of vernacular translation. 


Levels of Learning in Anglo-Saxon Worcester 


1 I am grateful to Eric Stanley, David Levene, Alfred Hiatt, and Iain Kerr for useful 
comments on earlier drafts of this paper. 

2 Rodney M. Thomson, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval Manuscripts in 
Worcester Cathedral Library (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2001). 

3 King Alfred's West Saxon Version of Gregory's Pastoral Care , ed. by Henry Sweet, 
EETS o.s. 45, 50 (London: N. Trtibner, 1871-2), p. 6. All translations are my own unless 
otherwise stated. 

4 Alfred the Great. Asser's 'Life of King Alfred' and Other Contemporary Sources, trans. 
by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), p. 259, n. 167. 

5 Wolfgang Keller, Die litterarischen Bestrebungen von Worcester in angelsachsischer 
Zeit , Quellen und Forschungen zur Sprach-und Kulturgeschichte der germanischen Volker, 84 
(Strasbourg: K. J. Triibner, 1900); Ivor Atkins, The Church of Worcester from the 8th to the 
12th Century', Antiquaries Journal, 20 (1940), 1-48 (Part I), 203-29 (Part II). 

6 Ralph H. C. Davis, 'Alfred the Great: Propaganda and Truth', History: The Journal of 
the Historical Association, 56 (1971), 169-82; Jennifer Morrish, 'King Alfred’s Letter as a 
Source on Learning', in Studies in Earlier Old English Prose. Sixteen Original Contributions, 
ed. by Paul E. Szarmach (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), pp. 87-107. 
Stenton, on the other hand, accords Alfred and his cultural achievements much more credit: 
Frank M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford History of England, 3rd edn (Oxford: 
Clarendon Press, 1971), pp. 269-72. The 'maere mynster' also apparently escaped the Vikings; 
according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Wilfrid had it built at Ripon and it stood until 948, 
when King Eadred had it burnt down: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition. 
Vol. 6, MS. D, ed. by G. P. Cubbin (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1996), sub anno 948. 

7 Pastoral Care, ed. by Sweet, p. 2. 

8 Davis, 'Alfred the Great: Propaganda and Truth', p. 175. 

9 The close relationship between Mercia and Wessex especially during Alfred’s reign is 
thoroughly discussed in Simon Keynes, 'King Alfred and the Mercians', in Kings, Currency and 
Alliances. History and Coinage of Southern England in the Ninth Century, ed. by Mark A. S. 
Blackburn and David N. Dumville (Rochester: Boydell Press, 1998), pp. 1-45. 

10 Asser's Life of King Alfred, ed. by William Henry Stevenson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 
1904), repr. with an article on 'Recent Work on Asser's Life of Alfred', by Dorothy Whitelock 
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), chapters 78-9. 

11 See Thomas Codrington, Roman Roads in Britain (London: SPCK, 1903), maps pp. 
273 and 331, and Peter Salway, Roman Britain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), map VI. 


Christine Thijs 

12 The Vikings did venture into the Bristol Channel, and camped on a few islands (Lundy, 
Flatholme and Steepholme), but the coast was too inaccessible, offering few natural harbours, 
and it was too far from other main areas of refuge for them to carry out systematic large-scale 
raids. They never managed to sail far enough up the Severn to reach Worcester. 

13 Cartularium saxonicum: A Collection of Charters Relating to Anglo-Saxon History , ed. 
by Walter de Gray Birch, 3 vols (London: Whiting, 1885-93), I-II, and Peter H. Sawyer, Anglo- 
Saxon Charters. An Annotated List and Bibliography (London: Royal Historical Society, 1968). 

14 Patrick Sims-Williams, Religion and Literature in Western England, 600-800, 
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 192-7. 

15 Cartularium saxonicum, ed. by Birch, I-II and Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters. Keynes 
discusses how in 877, when the Vikings conquered eastern Mercia, the western part remained under 
Ceolwulfs control, evidence for which can be found in the Mercian regnal list in London, British 
Library, MS Cotton Tiberius A. XIII, fol. 114v; Keynes, 'King Alfred and the Mercians', p. 12. 

16 Peter Hunter-Blair, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England , 2nd edn (Cambridge: 
Cambridge University Press, 1977), pp. 313 and 351. See also Ivor Atkins, 'The Church of 
Worcester from the 8th to the 12th Century 1 , Antiquaries Journal, 20 (1940), 1-48 (Part I), 203- 
29 (Part II). 

17 Asser, ed. by Stevenson, chapter 77, lines 1-18. 

18 Pastoral Care, ed. by Sweet, pp. 2-5. The use of the term as a significant indication of 
Alfred's ideology is discussed by Sarah Foot, 'The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity before 
the Norman Conquest', Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, ser. 6, 6 (1996), p. 29, n. 25, 
and pp. 41-2. Keynes suggests that Asser’s emphasis on 'Saxon' language and literature (chapters 
23, 75, 76) can probably be explained as 'a Welshman's idiom for what [Alfred] would have called 
"English'"; Keynes, 'King Alfred and the Mercians', p. 25, n. 112 and p. 43. 

19 Keynes, 'King Alfred and the Mercians', pp. 1-45. This article also includes a 
discussion of the Mercian element in Alfred's court culture. 

20 Sims-Williams, Religion and Literature, p. 186. 

21 All that can be said with certainty is that he acceded in 691 and died after August 693. 
No independently recorded date is available for his successor Ecgwine (died 30 Dec 717): 
Handbook of British Chronology, ed. by Fryde et al., p. 223. 

22 Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. by Bertram Colgrave and 
Roger A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), pp. 408-10, IV.23 (emphasis added). 

23 The Greek patristic authorities which underlie the Antiochene school, and thus also 
these commentaries, were not normally accessible to scholars in the medieval west. Medieval 
exegesis (for example Gregory and Bede) was therefore almost universally allegorical in its 
orientation: Biblical Commentaries from the Canterbury School of Theodore and Hadrian, ed. 


Levels of Learning in Anglo-Saxon Worcester 

by Bernhard Bischoff and Michael Lapidge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 
pp. 243-74, esp. pp. 244 and 247; Sims-Williams, Religion and Literature , pp. 102 and 184. 

24 See Sims-Williams, Religion and Literature , p. 188. Hecht was the first to notice this 
similarity: Hans Hecht, Bischof Wcerferths von Worcester Ubersetzung der 'Dialoge' Gregors 
des Grossen: Einleitung, 2 vols (Hamburg: Wigand, 1907), II 37. 

25 For Benedict Biscop's acquisition of books ample evidence is provided in Bede's Lives 
of Abbots , in Venerabilis Baedae Opera Historica, ed. by Charles Plummer, 2 vols (Oxford: 
Clarendon Press, 1896), I 367 (chapter 4): '[. . .] tertiam [. . .] Romam iter [. . .] solita 
prosperitate conpleuit librosque ornnis diuinae eruditionis non paucos uel placito praetio 
emptos, uel amicorum dono largitos retulit' [He (Benedict Biscop) completed his third trip to 
Rome with his usual success and brought back a considerable number of books regarding all 
sorts of sacred erudition, some of which he had acquired for a favourable price and some of 
which friends had given him as a gift.]; I 368-9 (chapter 6): '[. . .] Romanis e finibus [. . .] 
innumerabilem librorum ornnis generis copiam adportauif [from Rome [. . .] he (Benedict 
Biscop) imported an inestimable abundance of books of all kinds]; I 373 (chapter 9): '[. . .] 
quinta vice [. . .] Romam adcurrens, innumeris sicut semper aecclesiasticorum donis 
commodorum locupletatus rediit; magna quidem copia uoluminum sacrorum' [He (Benedict 
Biscop) went to Rome for the fifth time, and returned as always laden with uncountable gifts of 
ecclesiastical commodities; there was indeed a great abundance of sacred volumes]. See also 
the anonymous Historia Abbatum , also included in the collection Venerabilis Baedae Opera 
Historica, ed. by Plummer, I 395 (chapter 20) 'et bibliothecam, quam de Roma uel ipse, uel 
Benedictus adtulerat, nobiliter ampliauit' [He (St Ceolftith) made generous additions to the 
library which he and Benedict had accumulated from Rome], ftithilwald describes in a short 
poem how many books by divinely inspired prophets and apostles were brought back from 
Rome to England (Aldhelmi Opera, ed. by Rudolph Ehwald, MGH Auctores antiquissimi, 15 
(Berlin: Weidmann, 1919), p. 531). Bede also indicates that pilgrims travelling to Rome were 
expected to bring back books or relics; Bedae Venerabilis Opera, pars 2 Opera exegetica: 3 in 
Lucae evangelium expositio; in Marci evangelium expositio, ed. by David Hurst, Corpus 
Christianorum Series Latina, 120 (Tumhout: Brepols, 1960), p. 93 (1.13). See also Sims- 
Williams, Religion and Literature, pp. 187-94. 

" 6 Cartularium saxonicum, ed. by Birch, I, no. 75: Grant by Aithelred, King of the 
Mercians, to Oftfor, Bishop of Worcester, of land at Heanbury, co. Worcester etc. AD 691-2; 
no. 76: Grant by ftithelred, King of the Mercians, to Oftfor, Bishop of Worcester, of land at 
Fledanburg, or Fladbury, co. Worcester etc. AD 691-2; no. 77. Grant by TEthelred, King of the 
Mercians, to Worcester Cathedral, of land at Wichbold, co. Worcester, in reversion AD 691-2 
(respectively Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters, nos. 77, 76, 75). In the last charter Oftfor is not 


Christine Thijs 

explicitly named, but as it originates during his episcopate his influence is likely to have played 
a role. 

27 Bede reports in his Historia abbatum , ch. 15, that Ceolfrith, Abbot of Wearmouth and 
Jarrow, sold a high status manuscript for eight hides to King Aldfrith: '[D]ato quoque 
Cosmographiorum codice mirandi operis, quern Romae Benedictus emerat, terram octo 
familiarum iuxta fluuium Fresca ab Alfrido rege in scripturis doctissimo in possessionem 
monasterii beati Pauli apostoli comparauit' [From Alfred, a king very learned in the Scripture, 
he also received an admirably crafted codex of the Cosmographers, which Benedictus had 
purchased in Rome. In exchange he acquired for the monastery of St Paul eight hides of land 
adjacent to the river Fresca.]; Venerabilis Baedae Opera Historica, ed. by Plummer, I 380 
(emphasis added). 

28 Sims-Williams, Religion and Literature, p. 188. 

29 Given that the leadership of double monasteries was almost always in the hands of 
abbesses rather than abbots, Brooks's suggestion that the author may well have been a nun 
should be granted more prominence: Nicholas Brooks, 'Bede and the English', Jarrow Lecture 
1999 (Jarrow: [s.n.], 2000), p. 19. In the debate on the precise location of Streoneshealh— 
whether it be Whitby or Strensall near York—Fell, Cramp, and Blair are of the opinion that the 
linguistic arguments in favour of identifying Streoneshealh with Strensall do not weigh up 
against the archaeological evidence discovered at Whitby, which amply demonstrates that there 
was a literate community: Christine Fell, 'Hild, Abbess of Streonreshalch', in Hagiography and 
Medieval Literature. A Symposium , ed. by Hans Bekker-Nelsen et al. (Odense: Odense 
University Press, 1981), pp. 76-99 (pp. 84-5); Rosemary Cramp, 'A Reconsideration of the 
Monastic Site of Whitby', in The Age of Migrating Ideas: Early Medieval Art in Northern 
Britain and Ireland , ed. by R. M. Spearman and John Higgitt (Edinburgh: National Museums 
of Scotland; Stroud: Sutton, 1993), pp. 64-73 (p. 64); John Blair, 'Whitby', in The Blackwell 
Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England , ed. by Michael Lapidge et al. (Oxford: Blackwell, 
1999), pp. 472-3 (p. 472). However, Karkov appears less certain, stating that '[i]t is unclear 
whether the site identified by Bede and his contemporaries as Streanaeshalch is the site now 
called Whitby, although no satisfactory alternatives have been suggested': Catherine E. Karkov, 
'Whitby, Jarrow and the Commemoration of Death in Northumbria’, in Northumbria's Golden 
Age, ed. by Jane Hawkes and Susan Mills (Stroud: Sutton, 1999), pp. 126-35 (p. 126). Since no 
firm conclusion has been reached regarding the precise location of Streoneshealh, I refer to this 
text as 'the Streoneshealh vita'. 

30 The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great, ed. by Bertram Colgrave, rev. edn (Cambridge: 
University Press, 1985), pp. 116-18; Bischofs Watrferth von Worcester Ubersetzung der 
Dialoge Gregors des grossen, ed. by Hans Hecht, 2 vols (Leipzig: Wigand, 1900-7), I 94. 


Levels of Learning in Anglo-Saxon Worcester 

31 The John of Worcester marginalia (Cambridge, University Library, MS Kk. 4. 6, 233r 
and 244v) are printed and discussed by W. Levison, 'Aus englischen Bibliotheken II: Englische 
Handschriften des Liber Pontificalis', Neues Archiv der Gesellschaft fur dltere deutsche 
Geschichtskunde, 35 (1910), 333-431 (p. 426), and summarized by The Earliest Life, ed. by 
Colgrave, p. 159, n. 120. Sims-Williams suggests that Whitelock (Dorothy Whitelock, 'The 
Prose of Alfred's Reign', in Continuations and Beginnings: Studies in Old English Literature, 
ed. by Eric G. Stanley (London: Nelson, 1966), pp. 67-103, p. 72) was mistaken in dating the 
marginalia as late twelfth-century; Religion and Literature, p. 188, n. 52. The hand was 
attributed to William of Malmesbury by Montague R. James, Two Ancient English Scholars: St. 
Aldhelm and William of Malmesbury (Glasgow: Jackson, Wylie, 1931), p. 21, but has 
subsequently been ascribed to John of Worcester. See Neil R. Ker, Books, Collectors and 
Libraries: Studies in the Medieval Heritage, ed. by Andrew G. Watson (London: Hambledon, 
1985), pp. 65-6; Rodney M. Thomson, William of Malmesbury (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1987), pp. 
75, 122 and 172; and Martin Brett, 'John of Worcester and his Contemporaries', in The Writing of 
History in the Middle Ages: Essays Presented to Richard William Southern, ed. by Ralph H. C. 
Davis and John M. Wallace-Hadrill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), pp. 101-26 (p. 105, n. 2). 

32 The emendations are taken from readings offered by London, British Library, MS Cotton 
Otho C. I part 2, as printed in Hecht's critical apparatus. The superiority of the Cotton Otho text 
over the Cambridge version has been cogently argued by Pieter N. U. Harting, 'The Text of the 
Old English Translation of Gregory's Dialogues', Neophilologus , 22 (1937), 281-302. 

33 In a forthcoming article I will discuss my emendation 'lucerna<m>' and other textual 
problems of this passage. I am grateful to David Levene for his advice in this matter. 

34 The emendation 'replefvit]’ (from 'replete' as printed by Levison in his 'Aus englischen 
Bibliotheken II', p. 426) is my own and its reasons are discussed in a forthcoming article. 

35 Michael Lapidge, 'The Study of Greek at the School of Canterbury in the Seventh 
Century', in The Sacred Nectar of the Greeks: The Study of Greek in the West in the Early 
Middle Ages, ed. by Michael W. Herren (London: King's College, 1988), pp. 169-94. 

36 Sims-Williams, Religion and Literature, p. 187. 

37 Mechthild Gretsch, TElfric and Gregory the Great', in /Elfric’s Lives of Canonised 
Popes, ed. by Donald Scragg (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001), pp. 20-1, 40 
and 51. 

38 Sims-Williams, Religion and Literature, p. 188. 

39 Cartularium saxonicum, ed. by Birch, I, no. 235 (Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters, no. 
118). For a more detailed discussion regarding the authenticity of this charter, see Sims- 
Williams, Religion and Literature, pp. 182-3. 

40 For an extremely useful introduction to the current understanding of Worcester 
Cathedral library, see Thomson, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval Manuscripts in 


Christine Thijs 

Worcester (p. xx); Cuthbert H. Turner, Early Worcester MSS (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1916), 
pp. xli-xlii; Catalogus Librorum Manuscriptorum Bibliothecae Wigomiensis, made in 1622- 
1623 by Patrick Young, Librarian to King James I, ed. by Ivor Atkins and Neil R. Ker 
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1944), pp. 77-9. 

41 The fragments are respectively Worcester, Cathedral Library, MSS Additional 1, 2, 4 
and 5. See Turner, Early Worcester MSS, pp. vii-viii, x-xviii, and xxiv-xxvii; and Codices 
Latini Antiquiores: A Palaeographical Guide to Latin MSS Prior to the Ninth Centuiy , ed. by 
Elias Avery Lowe, 12 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1934-72), Suppl. no. 1 111. 

42 Young incorrectly describes Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 76 as 'Dialogi 
Gregorii translati ab AElfredo in linguam saxonicam' (Gregory's Dialogues translated by Alfred 
into the Saxon language): Catalogus Librorum Manuscriptorum Bibliothecae Wigorniensis [. . .] 
by Patrick Young , ed. by Atkins and Ker, p. 57 (emphasis added). 

43 Alicia Correa, 'The Liturgical Manuscripts of Oswald's Houses', in St Oswald of 
Worcester: Life and Influence, ed. by Nicholas Brooks and Catherine Cubitt (London: Leicester 
University Press, 1996), pp. 285-324 (pp. 288-92). 

44 Richard Gameson, 'Book Production and Decoration at Worcester in the Tenth and 
Eleventh Centuries', in St Oswald of Worcester, ed. by Brooks and Cubitt, pp. 194-243 and 
Thomson, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval Manuscripts, p. xxii. 

45 Michael Lapidge, 'Surviving Booklists from Anglo-Saxon England', in Learning and 
Literature in Anglo-Saxon England: Studies presented to Peter Clemoes , ed. by Michael Lapidge 
and Helmut Gneuss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1985), pp. 33-89 (pp. 62-4). 

46 Christine Franzen, The Tremulous Hand of Worcester. A Study of Old English in the 
Thirteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), pp. 75 and 77. 

47 Lapidge, 'Surviving Booklists from Anglo-Saxon England', pp. 69-73. 

48 Franzen, The Tremulous Hand of Worcester, p. 78. The list was first printed in 
Kenneth Sisam, 'An Old English Translation of a Letter from Wynfrith to Eadburga (A.D. 7 lb- 
17) in Cotton MS. Otho C. i', in Studies in the History of Old English Literature (Oxford: 
Clarendon Press, 1953), pp. 199-224 (pp. 201-2), p. 204, n. 2. See also Neil R. Ker, A 
Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), p. 237. 

49 Franzen, The Tremulous Hand of Worcester, p. 78. 

50 The 'synonyma ysydori', which refers to Isidore of Seville's Synonyma de lamentatione 
animae peccatricis was referred to by Ker in the citation of glosses in three manuscripts: Ker, A 
Catalogue of Manuscripts, nos. 210, 228 and 400. 

5 Mary Swan, 'Mobile Libraries: Old English manuscript production in Worcester and 
the West Midlands, 1090-1215', paper due to be published in the proceedings of the 
conference 'Manuscripts of the West Midlands' (held at Westmerc, University of 
Birmingham, 4th-6th April 2003). 


Levels of Learning in Anglo-Saxon Worcester 

52 Hunter-Blair, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England , p. 304. Keller, Die 
litterarischen Bestrebungen von Worcester, p. 4. 

53 Stanley B. Greenfield, A Critical History of Old English Literature (New York: New 
York University Press, 1965), p. 26. 

54 Cartularium saxonicum , ed. by Birch, I; and Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters. 

55 Stanley B. Greenfield and Daniel G. Calder, 'The Alfredian Translations and Related 
Ninth-Century Texts', in A New Critical History of Old English Literature (New York: New 
York University Press, 1986), pp. 38-67 (p. 62). 

56 Greenfield and Calder, A New Critical Histoiy of Old English Literature , p. 63. 

57 From the differences in language and textual tradition between the Blickling Homilies 
and those of the Vercelli book, Scragg deduces that '[i]t is probably safe to conclude that [the 
former are] not of south-eastern origin’: Donald G. Scragg, 'The Homilies of the Blickling 
Manuscript', in Learning and Literature, ed. by Lapidge and Gneuss, pp. 299-316 (p. 315). For 
a detailed discussion of the dialect used in the Blickling homilies, see Robert J. Menner, 'The 
Anglian Vocabulary of the Blickling Homilies', in Philologica: the Malone Anniversary Studies, 
ed. by Thomas A. Kirby and Henry B. Woolf (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1949), pp. 56- 
64; The Life of St Chad: An Old English Homily, ed. by Rudolf Vleeskruyer (Amsterdam: 
North-Holland, 1953), esp. pp. 39-71; and Otto Funke, 'Studien zur alliterierenden und 
rhythmisierenden Prosa in der alteren altenglischen Homiletik’, Anglia, 53 (1962), 9-36. For 
some reservations about Vleeskruyer's Mercian and early dating enthusiasm, see Celia Sisam, 
'Review of: The Life of St. Chad, ed. Rudolf Vleeskruyer (Amsterdam, 1953)', Review of 
English Studies, 6 (1955), 302-3. 

58 Charles L. Wrenn, A Study of Old English Literature (London: Harrap, 1967), p. 200. 
The Vespasian Psalter gloss has been dated to the mid-ninth century. 

59 Wrenn, A Study of Old English Literature, p. 222. 

60 Alfred the Great, trans. by Keynes and Lapidge, p. 259, n. 167. 

61 Kenneth Sisam, 'Cynewulf and his Poetry', Proceedings of the British Academy, 18 
(1933), repr. in Studies in the History of Old English Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 
1953), pp. 1-28. 

62 This is discussed in detail by Janet M. Bately, 'Old English Prose Before and During 
the Reign of Alfred', Anglo-Saxon England, 17 (1988), 93-138, esp. pp. 104-14. 

63 Sisam, 'Cynewulf and his Poetry', pp. 1-2. 

64 Sisam, 'Cynewulf and his Poetry 1 , pp. 5-6. 

65 Exeter book fol. 34 line 18 to fol. 48 corresponds to Gregory the Great, Homiliae in 
Evangeliam, PL 76, 29.9-11 (col. 1218); Dietrich, ’Cynevulfs Christ 1 , Zeitschrift fur deutsches 
Altertum, 9 (1853), 193-214 (pp. 204 and 212). 

66 Sisam,’Cynewulf and his Poetry’, p. 13. 


Christine Thijs 

67 Sisam, 'Cynewulf and his Poetry', pp. 6-7. 

68 Dorothy Whitelock, 'The Old English Bede', Proceedings of the British Academy, 48 
(1962), p. 76. 

69 Whitelock, 'The Old English Bede 1 , p. 76 and n. 6, p. 249. 

70 The Life of St Chad, ed. by Vleeskruyer, pp. 19 and 41, and more explicitly p. 61: 'The 
number of texts that can with varying certainty be referred to an independent, and probably in 
the main pre-Alffedian, tradition of English prose-writing is thus significantly large’. 

71 The Life of St Chad , ed. by Vleeskruyer, esp. pp. 48-50. 

72 Whitelock, The Old English Bede', p. 76. 

73 Celia Sisam, ’An Early Fragment of the Old English Martyrologf, Review of English 
Studies, n.s. 4 (1953), 209-20. She names Plegmund as the possible translator (p. 217). 

74 Martyrologium Anglo-Saxonicum, ed. by Gunter Kotzor, 2 vols (Munich: Verlag der 
Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1981), I 53-4. 

75 Cartularium saxonicum, ed. by Birch, I, no. 137 (716 x 717), no. 204 (770), no. 226 
(775 x 778), no. 233 (779), no. 283 (781 x 798) (respectively Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters, 
nos. 102,60, 145, 126, 1413). 

7tl Cartularium saxonicum, ed. by Birch, 1-11 and Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters. 

77 Royal grants of land and privileges to the Cathedral and the See of Worcester are 
attested in the charters; Cartularium saxonicum, ed. by Birch, I, no. 123 (704 x 709), no. 216 
(774), no. 220 (757 x 775), no. 231 (778 x 779), no. 234 (730 for 780), no. 235 (783), no. 239 
(781), no. 240 (781) (respectively Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters, nos. 64, 104, 1411, 147, 117, 
118, 120, 121). 

78 Helmut Gneuss, Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: A List of Manuscripts and 
Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100 (Tempe: Arizona Center for 
Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2001), p. 30. 

79 Anne Dawtry, 'The Benedictine Revival in the North: the Last Bulwark of Anglo- 
Saxon Monasticism?', in Religion and National Identity, ed. by Stuart Mews (Oxford: 
Blackwell, 1982), pp. 87-98 (pp. 88 and 98). Old English manuscripts also continued to be 
produced in Rochester throughout the twelfth century but a smaller quantity survives than from 
Worcester. See Mary P. Richards, 'Texts and Their Traditions in the Medieval Library of 
Rochester Cathedral Priory', Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 78 (1988), i- 
ix, 1-129 (see pp. 9 and 19 for the continuation of interest in works by Gregory the Great and p. 
90 for Rochester's interest in Old English homilies, especially by /Elfric) and Susan Irvine, 'The 
Compilation and Use of Manuscripts Containing Old English in the Twelfth Century', in 
Rewriting Old English in the Twelfth Century, ed. by Mary Swan and Elaine M. Trehame, 
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 41-61. 


Levels of Learning in Anglo-Saxon Worcester 

80 For the state of the library during Wulfstan's episcopate see Emma Mason, St Wulfstan 
of Worcester c. 1008-1095 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), pp. 1-28. The destruction of Worcester 
monastery at the command of lTarthacnut, which could reasonably be assumed to imply 
extensive damage to the library, is reported in the ASC for the year 1041: 'Her let Hardacnut 
hergian eall Wihracestrescire for his twegra huscarla Jungon, 5e Jaaet strange gyld budon. f>a 
sloh [tast folc hi binnan port innan dam mynstre.' [In this year Harthacnut had all of 
Worcestershire harried because of his two housecarls who had been collecting heavy taxes. The 
people had slain them then in the town, inside the cathedral]: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A 
Collaborative Edition. Vol. 5, MS. C, ed. by Katherine O’Brien O'Keeffe (Cambridge: D.S. 
Brewer, 2001). This passage also occurs in the related Chronicle manuscript D: The Anglo- 
Saxon Chronicle: Vol. 6, MS. D, ed. by G. P. Cubbin. 

81 Of course other cultural centres took an interest in the Anglo-Saxon past. Crick 
discusses how the monks of St Albans forged charters in the name of Offa and how those of 
Westminster studied other archives in order to remedy the gaps in their records of Anglo-Saxon 
history: Julia Crick, 'St. Albans, Westminster and Some Twelfth-century Views of the Anglo- 
Saxon Past', in Anglo-Norman Studies, XXV: Proceedings of the Battle Conference, 2002, ed. 
by John Gillingham (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2003), pp. 65-83. For an overview of current 
research on post-Conquest interest in the Anglo-Saxon past and specifically Old English 
literary material, see Rewriting Old English in the Twelfth Century, ed. by Swan and Trehame. 

82 For a detailed study of this scribe's methods and rationale, and for the phases in his 
work, see Franzen, The Tremulous Hand of Worcester. 

83 For a description of MS Lambeth 487 see Wulfstan Texts and Other Homiletic 
Materials, ed. by Jonathan Wilcox (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance 
Studies, 2000), pp. 72-8 (pp. 72 and 75-6). 

84 Mason points out that this was still the case in the eleventh century under the bishopric 
of Wulfstan; Mason, St Wulfstan of Worcester, p. 159. 

85 Alfred the Great, trans. by Keynes and Lapidge, p. 259, n. 167. 


Revenge and Moderation: 

The Church and Vengeance in Medieval Iceland 1 

David Clark 


Although the New Testament clearly prohibits Christians from taking personal 
revenge, Christian societies—whether in first-century Palestine, medieval Europe, 
or contemporary North America—have always found this a difficult prohibition to 
observe, and, indeed, individuals and institutions have often cited other parts of 
the Bible to legitimise vengeful acts. This article considers the changing attitudes 
to clerical and secular vengeance in medieval Iceland. It adduces evidence from a 
range of legal, political, and ecclesiastical documents to contextualise a study of 
the representation of revenge in family and contemporary sagas in the light of 
ecclesiastical precepts. The analysis points to a growing perception that secular 
revenge must be tempered with moderation, and that clerics should not involve 
themselves in acts of vengeance. Within the sagas, religious figures are employed 
variously as the voice of the Church, and as those implicated in the turmoil of the 
Sturlunga old. 

Revenge and Reconciliation: A Context 

T. M. Andersson concludes his landmark study 'The Displacement of the Heroic 
Ideal in the Family Sagas' by stating that: 

What gives a consistency to the ethical temper of these sagas is 
precisely a sense of proportion and moderation. They are written 
against excess [. . .] or they are written in praise of moderation [. . .] 
Most other sagas [. ..] conform to the same ideal." 

David Clark 

A more nuanced approach is that of Uecker, who also sees in the saga corpus, 
however, a tendency toward moderation and reconciliation (MaJSvollen, 
Angemessenen, Versohnung ). 3 In the course of his discussion of his four groups of 
sagas, Uecker speaks of those, like Porsteins saga hvita , which deal with 
magnanimity, forgiveness, and a will to reconciliation. Vapnfirdinga saga also, in 
his view, validates the impulse toward reconciliation, not the ethic of revenge: 

Die Versohnung triumphiert, nicht die Rache, der Wille zum 
Ausgleich ist starker als der Drang zur gewaltsamen 
Auseinandersetzung. (84) 

[Reconciliation, not vengeance, triumphs; the will toward 
equilibrium is stronger than the urge toward violent 

Although Uecker traces similar themes of reconciliation through texts such as 
Porsteins pattr stangarhQggs, Droplaugarsonar saga, Gunnars pattr 
Pidrandabana, Bjarnar saga Hitdcelakappa, Eyrbyggja saga, Reykdcela saga, and 
Valla-Ljots saga, he does not attempt to homogenise these disparate texts like 
Andersson, rather recognising that, though reconciliation and das rechte Mafi play 
a significant role in all such sagas, the themes do not always carry the same 
weight, and there are different motives for reconciliation such as pragmatic 
political reasons (86-7). His conclusion does not come to a decision about where 
this theme comes from—he suggests that it could stem from Christian values, or 
represent a critique of the contemporary chieftains of the thirteenth century, or 
even 'eine literarisch fixierte Gegenposition zur Heldendichtung 1 (87) [a position 
fixed in literature in opposition to the heroic poetry]. 

Political, Legal, and Religious Attitudes to Revenge 

There is, in fact, a tendency in some critical saga studies to speak of texts such as 
Brennu-Njals saga as depicting the change from the old, pagan ethic of revenge to 
the new, Christian ethic of forgiveness and grace. 4 However, this conception 
cannot always be supported by the texts themselves, as is shown below. First, 
however, this article addresses some of the evidence for contemporary society's 
attitudes to revenge, as seen in the arenas of politics, law, and religion. This 
material both supports and complicates the above interpretation of the revenge 


The Church and Vengeance in Medieval Iceland 

ethic in the sagas, and paves the way for the analysis of individual saga texts 
which follows. 

Christian Revenge? 

One might expect the Icelandic Church's attitude to revenge to follow that of the 
Bible, perhaps based on such passages as in Romans 12:19, where the Apostle 
Paul (quoting Deuteronomy 32:35) says: 

Revenge not yourselves, my dearly beloved; but give place unto 
wrath, for it is written: Revenge is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord. 5 

Indeed, this seems to be the attitude in parts of the Homiliubok: 

Dominus let eige hefna sin ne veria sic )pa es hann vas hondlajm. 
oc bundeN af gyjnngom. heldr grodde hann eyra Israels eiNs er 
petrus hafjre af hogvet... hverso megom ver ver^a lij)er crists. ef 
ver georom oss afrra goto en hann geek fyrer. 6 
[The Lord did not let himself be avenged nor defended when he 
was seized and bound by the Jews. Rather he healed the ear of a 
certain slave which Peter had cut off [. . .] How can we become 
Christ's followers, if we take a different path h orn the one he took?] 

Here, Christ's behaviour serves as an exemplum for Christians, and forgiveness 
and kindness, not revenge, is what is expected of the Christian. However, the 
picture is inevitably much more complicated than this in medieval Iceland and 
Scandinavia. That revenge will be exercised to some degree is taken for granted in 
secular Norse texts. 

Revenge in the Konungs skuggsja 

The authoritative 'Father' of the mid-thirteenth-century Konungs skuggsja 
recognises that revenge is in certain circumstances inevitable, and is most 
concerned that it should achieve its aims efficiently: 


David Clark 

En |}o at navzynligar sacar {ireyngve Jtec til uspectar \> a . gersc |du 
eigi braSr ihemdom fyrr en [ui ser at uel uer6i framgengt ok jiar 
come ni6r sem maklect er.' 

[But though necessary causes press you to strife, do not take 
revenge hastily before you see that it will succeed well and come 
down where it is deserved.] 

However, later on, in the context of advice on wisdom, Father urges 

tef jraer sannaz oc koemr til jfin haefnder firir at vinna Ipa haefn 
maedr hofi oc sannsyni en aeigi mas6r illgiamligri akefS. 8 
[if [rumours of slander] prove true and it comes to you to avenge 
it, then take revenge with moderation and equity, but not with ill- 
willed vehemence.] 

A fuller study of revenge in the whole of the Konungs skuggsja reveals that 
revenge is considered to be unacceptable if taken by justly exiled subjects against 
their lord (p. 53), including Lucifer and the fallen angels (p. 80), or by foolish 
kinsmen who are aggrieved at not getting as much compensation for a greedy or 
quarrelsome relative as for a kinsman who was both wise and peaceful (p. 54). 9 

Vengeance is, however, approved if it is carried out by God—for instance, 
against the rebellious angels (p. 85), the greedy and unjust (p. 102), or those who 
die in a state of sin, as Hezekiah fears he may (p. 91)—or a representative 
sanctioned by Him, such as a king. Father justifies this by arguing that fear of 
punishment is an effective deterrent (p. 107). The king, however, cannot act with 
impunity—King David takes revenge ( hcefnd) on the slayers of Ishbosheth, saying 
they have committed nidings vcerc, ’a vile deed', in slaying their lord, and his 
punishment is implicitly commended (§62, p. 107). However, his predecessor 
Saul's rejection occurs because he carries out the vengeance he is charged to 
wreak upon the Amalekites in a way not sanctioned by God (§63, p. 109f.). David 
twice refuses to harm the rejected Saul, saying first that he has no (implicitly 
justifiable) revenge to take for kinsmen ('fa5ur [. . .] ne broe6ra ne sengaRa annaRra 
[. . .] fraenda', §63, p. 113), and that it is God's place to deprive Saul of the 
kingship, and not David in 'avaricious boldness' (agirndligri dirfd, p. 113). The 
second statement is even more revealing in its implications: 


The Church and Vengeance in Medieval Iceland 

[iar sasm ec a hvarki at minnaz til haemnda vi6 hann storra rana ne 
frasnda latz nema [teiRa aeinna at hann haefir reinsat land maeS 
rettre rasfsing. oc er jiat hvarki mitt oc aenskis annars rett vaerk at 
haefna fiaess. (p. 114) 

[since I do not have to remember to avenge upon him either great 
plundering or loss of kinsmen, except those [things] alone when 
he cleansed the land with just punishment—and it is neither my 
nor any other's just work to avenge that.] 

Thus, one may conclude that revenge under certain circumstances for loss of land, 
possessions, or kinsmen, is conceivable. A king's revenge against ambitious rivals is 
likewise implicitly sanctioned (as Solomon's against Adonijah, p. 119), but if the 
king takes the law into his own hands and kills out of hatred, it is considered 
mandrap as with anyone else, and he is liable to svara [. . .] firi gudi, 'answer [. . .] 
before God' (p. 124). 

Since much of this seems particularly relevant to Christian kings, we may 
return finally to the second passage quoted in this section, where circumspection is 
advised in the taking of revenge. Immediately previous to this statement, the 
Father says 

Ef [iu ert seinum hvterium reibr firir noccors konar fiandskap e5a 
sakar [la rannzaka vandliga ihugjwcca [linum fyRr en )m leitir 
haefnda hvserso mykel soc er e5a hvaersu mikillar haefndar su soc 
er vaerS. (p. 66) 

[If you are angry with any individual for some kind of enmity or 
lawsuit, then carefully search your disposition before you seek 
vengeance [as to] how great a matter it is, or how great a revenge 
this offence is worth.] 

It is therefore clear that though the authoritative speaker of the Konungs skuggsja, 
at least, sees revenge as inevitable and indeed commendable in certain 
circumstances of individual injury, he nonetheless urges caution and moderation. 10 
However, it remains to be seen whether this attitude can be reconciled with the 
picture given by the extant law-codes of the period. 


David Clark 

Revenge in the Law-codes 

Since a complete study of vengeance in the Norse law-codes is impracticable here, 
I seek briefly to survey the contexts of the terms hefna (alt. hemna, hcemna), and 
hefnd (alt. hcemd) as used in the collection Norges gamle love. 11 These codes come 
from various periods and places, and any full study would have to examine in 
detail the evidence for Icelandic legal attitudes to vengeance. 12 However, it is 
evident that, as with any system of laws, the texts are influenced by, and often 
copy closely, the precedent and wording of those legal texts already extant, and it 
thus seems permissible to take the corpus as a whole as representative of 
prevailing legal attitudes to revenge, in a way not possible with other types of text. 
It should be remembered that law-codes are frequently not just prescriptive but 
also idealistic, rather than representing the actual historical situation, or describing 
accurately what was done in response to crimes. 

The use of hefna / hefnd falls into only a few main groups. One can dismiss 
first the instances where they are employed merely as a synonym for punishment, 
as in kononglige hemd, 'kingly revenge'. 13 The second group of instances concern 
the avenging of certain criminals, which is universally condemned. Gulathing 
§178 states ’{mt er oc nidings vig ef madr hefnir [nova. syni nred settar eidi' [It is 
also a base killing if a man avenges a thief—let him deny it with a sixfold oath]. 14 
The penalty is exile as an outlaw with no rights, and one may compare to this 
statute Gulathingslov §32, which lists criminals suffering permanent outlawry and 
forfeiture of all rights to property and peace, including 

'Jieir er hemnast [lessara ubota manna, asda heimta giolld efter ef 
vitni veit [rat'. [Those who avenge these irredeemable criminals, 
or claim compensation for them, if witnesses know it.] 15 

Conversely, those who defend themselves, their property or their kinswomen 
against these men are fridhelger, 'inviolable, protected by law', and need pay no 
compensation if they wound or kill the outlaws— Frostathing V, §45, repeats 
these statements. 

Bjarkd-Ret §162 (and likewise Frostathing X, §35) reveals the great 
importance and power of words, providing a detailed list of payments to be 
made to men of various ranks if they are compared vid berendi, 'to a female 
animal'. Calling a man sannsordinn, 'buggered' demands full atonement 


The Church and Vengeance in Medieval Iceland 

(fullretti ), but comparison to a male animal necessitates only half atonement 
(halfretti ), and the statute ends: 

En ef menn maelast ilia vi5 e3a geyast. [>a skal ord ords hefna. 
(NGL I 333) 

[But if men speak ill of each other or abuse each other, then shall 
word avenge word.] 

The Gulathing code speaks of two occasions when it is 'good' for someone to be 
avenged. The first statute (§152) states 'ef madr er i flocke viginn. ]aa er vel ef 
hemt verdr' (NGL I 60) [If a man is slain in a crowd, then it is well that he be 
avenged]. It goes on to specify what should happen if the killer gets away—none 
must hinder his pursuit and capture, and if anyone does and is killed, then the 
fallen man is to be considered an outlaw, that is, he himself cannot be avenged 
because he obstructed vengeance for another. The second statute (§171) states: 

Ef madr vigr annan a skipi. [>a er vel ef hans er hemt. aeda 
utanbordz rundit mannzbana. ( NGL I 65) 

[If a man kills another on a ship, then it is well if he is avenged, or 
the man-slayer made to run overboard.] 

The crew is permitted to take the killer to the shore, but no further, upon penalty 
of a fine. If they take him out to sea with them, they are outlawed with him, and 
anyone who refuses to row while he is on board cannot be punished if they report 
the situation to the first people they meet. These statutes presumably attempt to 
combat lawlessness in situations (in crowds, on board ship) which were difficult 
for authorities to control directly. 

The introduction to the Frostathing code clarifies in detail the procedure in 
situations that were evidently proving complicated, sometimes through the abuse 
of legal loopholes. Section 6 of the introduction states that if a man wounds 
without reason, or an injury necessitates full atonement, but revenge is taken by 
the victim or his kinsmen before the offender can offer atonement, then the 
offender is still considered to be an outlaw, even if he is killed, because he fyrri 
braut fridin, 'broke the peace first', unless his is judged a special case. However, 
once he has offered full atonement, then anyone who kills him is punished with 
outlawry. Provision is made, however, for those who trust to their wealth or 
kinsmen to allow them to injure an innocent man a second time, and the victim 


David Clark 

need only accept atonement if he wishes, and remains in the king's peace 'jro at 
hann hemni sin. hvart sem hinn daur eda lifnar' (NGL I 122) [Though he avenges 
himself, whether the other lives or dies]. 

Similarly, section 8 of the introduction addresses a problem that had arisen, 
whereby a slain man's kinsmen would kill in revenge not the offender himself, but 
that member of the offender's family er beztr er, 'who is best, foremost', 
presumably because this would cause the family more hann and weaken its power 
base. Consequently, the offender was not punished for his crime, an innocent man 
suffered, and the country lost some of its beztu pegna, 'best thanes': 

oc fyrir Jnvi leggium ver vi6 jaetta ubota soc oc aleigumal hverium 
Jreim sem hefnir a odrum en [reim er drepa eda raedr. (NGL I 123) 

[And therefore we designate this an irredeemable offence and an 
entire property case for the one who takes revenge on another 
than the one who kills or plans (the killing).] 

This is comparable to the Nyere By-Lov, §3, which states 'bat er oc nidings vaerk 
ef madr haefnizt a odrum en Jraeim er gerer eda raedr' (NGL II 212). [It is also a vile 
action if a man takes revenge on anyone other than the one who acts or plots.] 
Finally, section 5 of the introduction provides for the situation where a man 
outlawed for killing abuses the king's pardon by refusing to pay the remaining 
price of atonement after being pennitted to remain in the land: 

}oa megu fraendr hins dauda hefna a honum. Jro at hann se sattr vid 
konung. sva at jreir verdi eigi utlaegir ]r6 at {reir drepi hann. (NGL 
I 122) 

[Then the kinsmen of the dead man may take revenge on him 
although he is reconciled with the king, such that they will not 
become outlaws though they kill him.] 

Similarly, the law already allowed a man to kill another who had unlawful sex 
with a woman of his immediate family, thus dishonouring him. In section 7 of the 
introduction, however, the Frostathing law further states that, if the offender 
refuses to defend himself against any legal action 'jm verdr hvargi utlagr ])6 at hinn 
hefniz {reirrar scammar' (ibid.) [Then there will be no outlawry, though that one 
(the offended man) avenges himself for the disgrace]. 


The Church and Vengeance in Medieval Iceland 

This might seem to indicate an attitude more of tolerance than enthusiasm 
for legal compensation, with the default feeling being that, if compensation or the 
law is not providing satisfaction, revenge is there to turn to—possibly borne out 
by Gulathing §186, which warns 'Nu a engi ma6r rett a ser oftarr en Jjrysvar. 
hvarke karl. ne kona. ef hann hemnisc eigi a milli' ( NGL I 68) [No one has a claim 
to redress more often than three times, neither man nor woman, if he does not 
avenge himself in between]. Monetary compensation was becoming increasingly 
more acceptable as the wergeld system developed, but revenge was evidently still 
an ever-present thought in some minds. 

The growing complexity of this situation, where recourse was sometimes 
had to revenge, sometimes to compensation, is epitomised by a long passage in 
King Magnus Hakonsson's Nyere Landslov, paralleled almost word for word in 
Jonshok chapter 21 and the Nyere By-Lov §21, and shows clearly an attempt to 
bring the alternation of offence and revenge under due legal process and the 
control of the king's officials. 16 Careful provision is made against official neglect, 
or corruption, and a pragmatic view is taken of the taking of personal revenge if 
legal justice is not brought about. There is a very clear sense that an offence 
requires the appropriate retribution, preferably a legally controlled and reasoned 
fine, but, if that should not be forthcoming, then an equal act of revenge. This 
sense is the same as that in Hertug Haakon Magnussons store Retterbod for 
Hedemarken og Thoten §6, which states that, if revenge is taken by innocent 
victims, 'ok vaerdter hasmden asi maeiri en hin hafde til gort a6r. \>& skal sa vera 
saklaus er haemdizst sin' ( NGL III 21) [And no more revenge occurs than that one 
had done before, then that one shall be guiltless who avenges himself]. 

Finally, in this survey of these secular law-codes, a statement in King 
Magnus Hakonsson's Hirdskra (Hirdskraa ) provides a close parallel to one of 
those quoted from the Konungs skuggsia, stating: 

To at [rer misliki [nokor lutr ]ra ver [aeighi braQr haelld(r) forseall 
huat haefnd [er Jtu at aS vasita e6a huerium oc at seigi vaerde 
ofhasfnt [eda a uverdugum. ( NGL II 418, §28) 

[Though some thing displeases you then be not hasty, rather 
prudent (as to) what revenge you have to inflict, or on whom, and 
(such) that it is not excessively avenged or undeservedly.] 

Again, the greatest importance is placed on moderation and a sense of justice 
based on equality of crime and punishment. We see in these examples of 


David Clark 

sanctioned and unjustified revenge in both political and secular legal texts the 
various distinctions that medieval Christianised Scandinavians were able to draw 
with regard to this subject. These texts, however, refer primarily to individual, 
secular revenge—it is a different matter when it comes to the involvement of 
clerics in vengeance and litigation. 

Revenge in the Church 

Orri Vesteinsson's recent detailed study The Christianization of Iceland makes 
very clear how the early period in the Icelandic Church saw the gradual 
disentanglement of ecclesiastical and secular power. 17 At the beginning of the 
period, clerics were heavily involved in legal prosecutions and the overseeing of 
fighting, or even participated in fighting themselves. Orri details the legal dealings 
of Bishop Klaengr borsteinsson (1152-76), who, in 1160, was asked to arbitrate 
between Sturla bordarson in Hvammur and Einarr borgilsson in Stadarholl. 
Bishop Klaengr took the part of Einarr, his second cousin, with whose sister he had 
had an affair. However, when in 1170 the enmity was still unabated, Bishop 
Brandr stepped in to arbitrate, this time taking the part of Sturla, his first cousin 
once removed. Brandr was heavily involved in politics and arbitration. In 1190, he 
had seized control of a church-farm because the owner died and he deemed the 
sons incapable of taking over. By 1200, the sons felt they were old enough to take 
charge, but Brandr refused to relinquish control, and they asked Chieftain 
Ogmundr sneis to help them occupy the farmstead and prepare for battle. Bishop 
Brandr assembled a force, which marched on the church-farm under the command 
of his grandson Kolbeinn Amorsson and Hafr Brandsson (possibly his illegitimate 
son). The fighting was averted, but this does indicate the way that bishops were 
functioning much like chieftains at this period. Reform began under Archbishop 
Eysteinn Erlendsson (1161-88), although it was only at the very end of the twelfth 
century that the offices of chieftain and priest began fully to separate. 18 

Eysteinn's archiepiscopal letter of circa 1173 clearly and specifically 
attempts to remove clerics from the field of legal prosecution, and even retributive 
violence. He states: 

Nu kenne menn aller. Jieir sem menn hafa drepit. {ia fyribyd ek 

jieim Guds jiionostv giord. fra hinne fystu uigslu til ennar efstu. 

og framleidis fyribyd ek ollum ken[n]e monnum soknar mal. aa 


The Church and Vengeance in Medieval Iceland 

hendur sier at taka nema orvQssum fraendvm sinvm. eda bQmvm. 
fQdvr lausvm. eda konum vemdarlausum. og [>o felausvm. og fyri 
gudz saker. 19 

[Now (with regard to) all clerics, those who have killed men, I 
forbid them God's services, from the first consecration to the last, 
and further I forbid all clerics to prosecute lawsuits (lit. take into 
their own hands) except on behalf of their aged kinsmen, or 
children, orphans, or defenceless women, and even then (they 
must do it) without money, and for God's sake.] 

However, immediately following this, the archbishop makes it clear that violence 
against clerics by laymen will not be tolerated, such acts not being susceptible to 
absolution except by intervention of the Pope or archbishop. 

hverr er sa j gudz banne og papans er misjryrmer kenne manni med 
heiptugri hendi. og ma hvergi lavsn taka vm drap. eda afhQg[g] 
ken[n]e manz eda mungs. nema jrar sem pap inn er. (D1 i 222) 

[each one is under the interdict of God and of the Pope who 
maltreats clerics with a vengeful hand, and none may take 
absolution for the killing or striking of a cleric or monk, except 
where the Pope is concerned.] 

Nevertheless, it is apparent that these reforms took time to have an impact, if 
indeed they were ever wholly successful. Both Orri Vesteinsson and Jon 
Johannesson are sceptical about the effectiveness of the refonns, and this is borne 
out by the later archiepiscopal letters. Around 1179, Archbishop Eysteinn had to 
write again, this time to support Bishop borlakr's institutions, which apparently 
were being disregarded because of the fact that they were new laws (helldur til 
nymcelis, p. 259). Then, around 1180, Eysteinn writes not only to the bishops, but 
also to the chieftains Jon Loptsson and Gizurr Hallsson, making it clear that 
clerics should not bear arms, but that the chieftains should be supporting the 
discipline of the bishops (DI i, pp. 262-4). 

Change had still not occurred by 1189, when Archbishop Eirikr Ivarsson 
(1189-1205) felt he had to repeat his predecessor's instructions. He writes to 
Bishops borlakr and Brandr that 'Kenne menn bere eigi vopn. og skulv vera 
fridsamer vit olaerda menn' (DI i 288f.) [Clerics should not bear weapons, and 
should be peaceful toward laymen]. He also re-emphasises that clerics should not 


David Clark 

litigate on behalf of anyone other than defenceless relatives. His following letter 
also repeats directions about clerical immunity, and forbids ecclesiastical 
involvement in violence and litigation (DI i, pp. 290-1). 

Orri Vesteinsson suggests that these archiepiscopal letters of the late twelfth 
century only began to have their effect in the thirteenth century, when it gradually 
came to be perceived that clerics were 'benevolent and trustworthy', and 
increasingly involved in reconciliation. -0 However, in this context one must also 
take account of the work of Gudrun Asa Grimsdottir and Sverrir Jakobsson. The 
former shows that canon law and the Nidaros diocese were bringing to bear strong 
influence on the Icelandic church in this period, and that canon law instigated 
certain changes injudicial matters such as the legal protection of individuals being 
taken over by official institutions. 21 The latter places the archiepiscopal directives 
in the context of the European Pax Dei movement of the tenth and eleventh 
century, encouraging physical immunity for those who did not carry arms. 22 

The implication of the evidence just surveyed, therefore, is that clerics up 
until this period were heavily involved in all kinds of violence and litigation. 
When we turn to the sagas, whether Islendinga sogur or samtidar sogur , a fuller 
picture emerges of what kind of situation the archbishops may have been 
addressing. One must of course always remember that the balance between 
historicity and fictionality within both kinds of saga texts is very variable, and it is 
not in fact my intention to claim a direct relation to actuality for the discussion 
which follows. Rather it will serve as a window onto the world-view of certain 
Icelandic saga authors, focussing particularly on their perceptions of the 
interaction of ecclesiastical and secular authorities in the matter of revenge. 

Clerics and Revenge in the Family Sagas 

In chapter 49 of Laxdcela saga , Kjartan throws down his weapons so that Bolli can 
slay him, in a gesture sometimes compared to those of medieval Christian martyrs: 
'Sidan kastaSi Kjartan vapnum ok vildi j>a eigi verja sik, en Jio var hann litt sarr, 
en akafliga vigmodr' [Then Kjartan cast down his weapons and would not defend 
himself, and yet he was little wounded, but terribly weary from fighting]. -3 
Richard North points out, however, that the action can be seen in a very different 
light: 'Kjartan taunts Bolli to attack him, so he can watch Bolli incur the nid [. . .] 
It is to cause the ultimate injury, not to forgive, that Kjartan throws down his 
sword'. 24 


The Church and Vengeance in Medieval Iceland 

The author of Njals saga, too, is sometimes seen as validating the new 
Christian way of peace in contradistinction to the old heathen way of vengeance 
(famously exemplified by the conduct of Hallr of Si'Sa, who, in the interests of 
peace, waives both revenge and compensation for his son's killing). Lars 
Lonnroth, for instance, argues that the author of Njals saga had grown up with the 
older law-code Gragas, but was influenced by the later Jarnslda. According to 
Lonnroth, the narrator quotes the old law, but makes the ones who respect it either 
Christians or noble heathens 'acting in the spirit of the new law by taking revenge 
only when they were prompted by justice, atoning for their sins like any good 
Catholic, sometimes even abstaining from seeking legal compensation when 


higher interests were at stake'. 

However, one must place this against Njals saga chapter 129, where Njall 
refuses to leave his burning farmstead at least in part because he can neither 
avenge his sons nor live in shame, however martyrlike other aspects of his death 
may seem. He says: 

'Eigi vil ek ut ganga, jjvi at ek em ma5r gamall ok litt til buinn at 
hefna sona minna, en ek vil eigi lifa vib skdmm'. 

[I do not wish to go out, for I am an old man and little equipped to 
avenge my sons, and I do not wish to live in shame.] 26 

Further, in the same saga, Amundi inn blindi, 'the blind', is miraculously awarded 
his sight for just long enough to avenge his father with an axe in the head of his 
slayer. Lytingr has refused to pay him compensation, and Amundi says that if he 
could see, he would have 'annathvart fyrir fodur minn febcetr e6a mannhefndir, 
enda skipti gu5 med okkr!' (ch. 106, p. 273) [Either compensation or blood- 
revenge for my father, and so may God judge between us!] Immediately, his eyes 
open, and he cries 'Lofadr se gud, drottinn minn! Ser nu, hvat hann vill' [Praised 
be God, my Lord! It can now be seen what he wishes]. After Amundi has killed 
Lytingr, his eyes close once more, 'ok var hann all aevi blindr sidan' [and he was 
blind all his life afterwards]. It could be argued that, in choosing to take revenge 
rather than the other option he mentions, compensation, Amundi has 
misinterpreted God's will and his subsequent blindness is a punishment of his 
vengeance. However, it is equally possible that the quick succession of events— 
prayer, miracle, revenge, then blindness once more—implies that divine 
intervention was necessary to restore the 'correct' state of affairs, and that 
blindness is merely Amundi's normal state, not a judgement upon him—he 


David Clark 

certainly is not represented as complaining about his lot, only as celebrating his 
chance to restore equity. 

Hildigunnr's inciting of Flosi in Njdls saga chapter 116, mentioned above, 
further complicates the matter. She tells him: 

Skyt ek ]ivi til guSs ok goSra manna, at ek soeri juk fyrir alia 
krapta Krists Jnns ok fyrir manndom ok karlmennsku Jhna, at Jru 
hefnir allra sara [ieira, er hann hafbi a ser daubum, e8a heit hvers 
manns nibingr ella. (p. 291) 

[I call God and all good men to witness that I adjure you with all 
the powers of your Christ and your manhood and manliness, that 
you avenge all those wounds which (HQskuldr) had upon him 
when dead, or else be called every man's nidingr .] 

Flosi’s oft-quoted retort eru kQld kvenna rad, ’cold are the counsels of women 1 
(p. 292), and the insistent personal deixis in Hildigunnr's speech ( Krists pins-, 
karlmennsku pina) foreground gender in this episode, and it is clear that 
Hildigunnr is enlisting the authority of the male, Christian God in her quest for 
vengeance. 27 

Although it might seem that she represents the 'old way of vengeance', kept 
alive by women, she equally evidently does not associate the Christian God with 
an ethic of forgiveness. This is a point in the saga, nonetheless, where the 
relationship between Christianity, vengeance and gender is less than clear, abetted 
by the traditional external focalisation of the saga narrative—the author avoiding 
explicit intrusion which might guide the reader's judgement. 

A full analysis of Christianity and revenge in Njdls saga would demand a 
book in itself. In Njala, however, it does seem that God may not always be averse 
to individuals taking vengeance. Certainly there is no clear denunciation of 'just' 
revenge, and, in fact, the family sagas often present a similarly mixed attitude to 
revenge in a Christian context. 

In Porvalds pattr vldfgrla , borvaldr kills two men who have composed 
an obscene poem about him and the bishop, implying that they have had sexual 
relations and the bishop has borne borvaldr's children. However, when 
borvaldr tells the bishop about the killing, the latter rebukes him. borvaldr 
gives as his excuse that he '[Dolda eigi, at J^eir kollubu okkr raga' [Could not 
endure that they called us queer].' 8 However, the bishop replies that he should 


The Church and Vengeance in Medieval Iceland 

have taken the words as meaning merely that the bishop had carried Eorvaldr's 
children around, saying: 

Eigi skyldi kristinn ma3r leita at hefna sin sjalfr, Jro at hann vasri 
sma5r hatrliga, heldr at })ola fyrir gu6s sakir brigzli ok meingdrdir 
vandra manna. 

[A Christian man should not seek to avenge himself, though he 
might be reviled hatefully—rather suffer for God's sake the 
reproach and offences of wicked men.] 

Later, He6inn—a man who spoke out effectively against the bishop's preaching, 
leading to the utterance of the slanderous poem already mentioned—puts into the 
same harbour as borvaldr, and the latter takes a slave into the forest where they 
know He3inn to be, ordering the slave to kill HeSinn. When the bishop is told, he 
informs borvaldr that they must part: 'frvi at jiu vilt seint lata af manndrapum' (ibid., 
p. 300) [Because you will be slow to leave off man-slaying]. Bishop Fri6rekr goes to 
Saxony, and we are told that he dies there with heilagleik ('holiness')—an implicit 
commendation of his rigid line on vengeance and killing. 29 

On the other hand, in Knytlinga saga chapter 96, Archbishop Qzurr 
addresses Eirikr's troops before the impending battle: 'Nu er su skript min, at ek 
by5 y5r i gu3s nafni, at [rer gangi3 fram karlmannliga ok berizk djarfliga' [Now 
this is my penance, that I command you in God's name that you go forth in manly 
fashion and bear yourselves boldly]. 30 Eirikr immediately follows the archbishop's 
speech with an exhortation of his men, ending: 'Ma oss hugkvaemt vera, hvers at 
hefna er' [We must be mindful of what there is to avenge]. 31 The implication is, 
thus, that the archbishop is underwriting this revenge—and, indeed, (/ gud.s nafni) 
bestowing God's blessing upon it, although admittedly soldiers taking revenge is 
different from a cleric doing so himself. 

Still another attitude is shown in Ljosvetninga saga chapter 20, where 
Eorvaldr HQskuldsson wants to avenge his brother upon hearing of his death on 
his way back from Rome, borvaldr has presumably been on a pilgrimage, and 
declares: 'Ok ver5i nu sem Petr postoli vill. /Etla ek j)6, at betra vasri, at ek kcema 
eigi ut aptr' [And let it now happen as the Apostle Peter wishes. I think, though, 
that it would be better that I did not come back to Iceland]. 32 He suddenly 
develops severe eye pain, dies, and is thus prevented from taking a revenge which 
is implicitly both desired, but also perceived as sinful. 


David Clark 

These passages—just a few of those which might be cited in this 
connexion—serve to highlight the far from consistent attitudes to the 
involvement of Christians and clerics in revenge evinced in the family sagas and 
associated pcettir. 

Clerics and Revenge in the Contemporary Sagas 

The Sturlunga saga compilation as a whole, by the use of theme and the process 
of compilation itself, foregrounds the necessity of moderation and mediation, lest 
the violence of the Age of the Sturlungs bring Iceland to ruin. 33 Within this 
broader context, however, it is possible to draw out separate strands of narrative 
that create a picture of the complex of attitudes which must have prevailed 
according to individuals' different understandings of the place of vengeance in 
Christian society, reflected by their differing educational, theological and spiritual 
experience. 34 And if in the islendinga sogur revenge is often condoned or 
exercised by Christians, in the samtidar sogur contained in the Sturlunga saga 
compilation one finds numerous examples of priests and clergy taking part in 
revenge attacks, or killing opponents. The beginning of Porgils saga ok Haflidi 
features a notable heir to the violently irascible bangbrandr in the vengeful priest 
Mar Gudmundsson, who steals from and finally kills Olafr Hildisson, although his 
conduct is frowned upon. 35 One of the more notable unions of at least nominal 
Christianity and revenge, however, is found in chapter 44 of Islendinga saga, in a 
verse attributed to Gudmundr skald : 

Storlatr hefir Sturla, 

— stendr hrafn a na jafnan, 

Kristr raedr tir ok trausti —, 

Tuma hefndir vel efndar. 

[Proud-minded Sturla has—the raven always stands on the 
corpse: Christ rules over glory and protection—fulfilled 
vengeance well for Tumi.] 36 

As Peter Hallberg comments: 'The Prince of Peace has been assigned a place in 
the ideology of the blood-feud, and has been made to take over the old war-god 
Odinn's bird, the black guardian spirit of the battlefield.' 37 We may note that 
immediately before this Bishop Gudmundr bad gud hefna sin, 'asked God to 


The Church and Vengeance in Medieval Iceland 

avenge him' ( Islendinga saga, p. 293)—that is, both parties are invoking God on 
their side, expecting divine aid in battle. 

A more nuanced approach to revenge can be seen in Porgils saga skarda. In 
chapter 17, when borgils asks Sturla for quarter, Hrafn interjects, saying that 
Sturla cannot give it, and will rather give him the same degree of quarter he 
intended to give his kinsman Sturla. s The narrator tells that Olafr bordarson then 
told Hrafn, Sturla and the rest that he intended to avenge the shame done to him 
and the church, continuing: 'Skal ek [less biftja almattkan gu6 ok inn helga 
Nicholaum biskup, er stadinn a, at hann hefni y6r sinni misgerda...' (p. 130f.) [I 
shall pray to Almighty God and the holy Bishop Nikulaus, who holds the place, 
that he avenge upon you your misdeeds]. Here, God is being invoked in a feud 
between kinsmen, and not just on one side. 

Later in the same chapter, borgils muses: 

'Ek hugsa Joat [. . .] hve illt mer Joykkir, ef engi skal saga ganga fra 
mer, adr en jirytr Iff mitt, sva at ek geta ekki a hefnileid roit um 
svivirding jta, er mer er nu ger'. (p. 132) 

[I was thinking f. . .] how ill it will seem to me, if no saga shall be 
current about me before my life runs out, such that 1 cannot set 
out upon the way of vengeance for that dishonour which is now 
done to me.] 

That is, he wishes to take vengeance lest, in not doing so, his life be unworthy of 
posthumous fame. However, bordr replies: 

'Ger eigi Jtat i hug jrer. Ger jta sem f>er synist, ef ]ru |riggr Iff, en ef Jru 
skalt nu deyja, ]oa er jier {jvi betra, sem Jdu att fserum abyrgdum at svara.' 

[Do not have that in your mind. Do what you think fit if you receive 
your life, but if you must die now, then it will be the better for you, the 
less responsibility you have to answer for.] 

There is a consciousness that present actions of revenge, however satisfying, may 
have eternal consequences—even thinking about revenge or wishing one could 
take it is a dangerous indulgence when one is about to die. Nevertheless, the 
implication of bordr's advice is that, if borgils in fact does not die, he can then 
resume thoughts of revenge, and even carry them out, presumably with the 
intention of repenting later, a pragmatic approach to religion. 


David Clark 

That Icelandic religious leaders were not supposed to take revenge seems to 
be implied in chapter 44 of Porgils saga, where horgils is planning to help 
horvardr attack Hrafn and Eyjolfr, and asking Abbot Brandr's advice as to how he 
should proceed. He at once makes it clear that: 'mer er Jrat bannat at eiga nokkum 
hlut i mannraSum e6a nokkurs kyns ofridi' (p. 174) [It is forbidden for me to have 
any part in plots against men's lives or any kind of hostilities]. 39 

Nonetheless, it is very evident how hard he finds it to obey the church's 
constraints on clergy, both in his careful omitting to command horgils not to act, 
and in his demeanour as he leaves the scene: 

Spratt aboti jra upp ok bad, at verSa skyldi guds vili. Masltu Jra 
sumir menn, at honum hlypi kapp i kinn,—]wi at hann dreyrraudr 
a at sja ok maslti |ietta, er hann gekk i brottu: 'Hart er Joat, at ver 
skulim bera fraendr vara gofga botalausa fyrir bondasonum, ok 
sva myndi jjykkja Orrni, brodur minurn, ef hann lifdi.’ (. Porgils 
saga skarda, p. 175) 

[The abbot then sprang up and bade that God's will should be 
done. Some men said then that zeal overcame him (lit. leapt into 
his cheek, i.e. flooded his face)—for he was blood-red to look at 
and said this, when he walked away: 'It is hard that we must bear 
our noble kinsmen (being) without compensation before the sons 
of farmers, and so it would seem to Ormr, my brother, if he 

This seems to indicate at least in some areas a policy whereby clerics themselves 
were not supposed to countenance or become involved in violent feuds and 
revenge, but had a certain amount of leeway to turn a blind eye to the actions of 
laymen. 40 Nevertheless, zealous churchmen (such as Bishop Fridrekr in Porvalds 
pattr vidfQrla) might still take a hard line even on revenge by laymen—perhaps 
citing Christ's non-violent stance of forgiveness in support of their exhortations, as 
in Homiliubok. 

Finally, the office of priest has a double implication in chapter 18 of 
Gudmundar saga dyra, where Snorri Snorrason and horsteinn, his brother and a 
priest, are about to be executed. They are both ready to die, but Snorri asks to be 
killed before horsteinn: '[. . .] [ovi at ek treystumst honum betr, at hann muni 
fyrirgefa y6r, [rott hann sjai mik af lifi tekinn' [For I trust to him better that he will 
forgive you, even if he sees me put to death]. 41 The implication is evidently that, 


The Church and Vengeance in Medieval Iceland 

because borsteinn is a priest, he will forgive even the person he sees slay his own 
brother. Snorri, on the other hand, might not be able to endure this sight, and, 
presumably, wishes to die with a clean conscience and not with a thwarted desire 
for vengeance.The saga audience is then told that Hamundr Onundarson kills 
Snorri, but that his brother Vigfuss Onundarson did not want to kill borsteinn er 
hann var prestr, 'because he was a priest': in the end Starkabr inn seki, 'the outlaw', 
kills him. Thus, the office of priest at this time is such that only an already 
marginal and ostracised criminal is willing to shoulder the responsibility for 
killing one. Significantly, in the same chapter, borgrimr prevents the killing of a 
woman and her male child ( sveinbarn ), saying: 'Hvarki skal her vinna a bomum ne 
konum, Jiott sja sveinn verbi oss ollum at bana' (p. 199) [Neither women nor 
children shall be hanned here, even if this boy should become the slayer of us all]. 

Revenge is portrayed here as somewhat unpalatable, the avengers owning to 
scruples, and the threat of future vengeance or a feud is not a sufficient incentive 
to kill children. Although space forbids it here, the progressive entrenchment of 
religious attitudes, and the shift from a shame to a guilt culture, would repay close 
scrutiny in the historically transitional narratives of Sturlunga saga. 


It is, of course, impossible to say exactly what did happen with regard to the 
taking of revenge by the historical clergy of Iceland. None of the written sources 
we have provides unadulterated historical evidence: the family sagas are primarily 
literary works based on historical events, and the contemporary sagas also betray 
literary shaping and ideological bias. Sources such as the laws, homilies, and 
archiepiscopal letters deal with the subject only sporadically, and they are 
predominantly normative, rather than descriptive. Moreover, the texts come from 
different geographical and temporal spheres, and the historical practices are likely 
to have varied according to place and time. The main consideration, however, is 
that practice (as opposed to intention, or duty) most certainly will have varied 
from individual to individual, according to the degree of religious zeal, socio¬ 
political ambition, and personal circumstance. Thus, from the material adduced 
above, it is clear that, in historical matters as well as literary ones, it is imperative 
that one proceed only with caution from individual analyses of texts to general 
statements about society or a body of literature, since both are made up of 
individuals with differing ideological and literary concerns, and diverse 


David Clark 

understandings of their society, its history and the ways in which they wish they 
were different. 

It seems fair, nevertheless, to see a general perception in the sagas that, even 
in secular revenge, moderation is necessary, and that it is inappropriate for clerics 
to engage in violence and litigation. This corresponds with the evidence of the 
historical sources, which suggests a progression towards greater consistency in the 
Church's attitude to revenge: urging moderation in laymen and forgiveness and a 
degree of religious separation from secular affairs in clerics. Saga characters 
complying with this Christianising trend are depicted favourably, whereas those 
who do not, in general terms, are seen as a threat to society. 

The sagas are not a homogenous body of texts, and generalisations about 
attitudes to revenge, such as those of Andersson quoted at the beginning of this 
article, seem less than satisfactory. Nevertheless, the analysis above suggests a 
general validation of a moderate approach to revenge in several different contexts, 
where the figure of the cleric in both family and contemporary sagas can feature 
not only as perpetrating or encouraging of revenge in clear contravention of 
ecclesiastical policy, but also as a voice exhorting Christian forgiveness. 


The Church and Vengeance in Medieval Iceland 


1 I would like to express my thanks to the following people who read this article in 
earlier forms: Heather O'Donoghue, Carl Phelpstead, Armann Jakobsson, Sian Gronlie, 
Carolyne Larrington, Judy Quinn. 

2 T. M. Andersson, 'The Displacement of the Heroic Ideal in the Family Sagas', 
Speculum 45 (1970), 575-93 (p. 588). 

3 H. Uecker, 'Islandersaga contra Heldensage’, skandinavistik 10 (1980), 81-8 (p. 83). 

4 Studies which fit this formulation either explicitly or implicitly include Lars Lonnroth, 
’The Noble Heathen: A Theme in the Sagas', Scandinavian Studies 41 (1969), 1-29, and 
Andersson, 'Displacement of the Heroic Ideal'. 

5 Romans 12:19, quoted from The Holy Bible: Douay Version, translated from the Latin 
Vulgate (Douay, A.D. 1609: Rheims, A.D. 1582) (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1956); cf. 
Hebrews 10:30. 

6 Homiliu-bok , ed. by T. Wisen (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1872), p. 67 (italics omitted). 

7 Konungs skuggsia, ed. by Ludwig Holm-Olsen, 2nd ed. Norrone tekster, 1 (Oslo: Norsk 
Historisk Kjeldeskrift-lnstitut, 1983), p. 6.1 have on occasions silently normalised the text. 

R ibid., p. 66; see Lars Lonnroth, 'The Noble Heathen', p. 26. 

9 See further, Sverre Bagge, The Political Thought of The King's Mirror. Mediaeval 
Scandinavia Supplements, 3 (Odense: Odense University Press, 1987), pp. 71-84. 

10 See Bagge, Political Thought , pp. 83-4. 

11 Norges gamle Love indtil 1387 , ed. by R. Keyser, P. A. Munch, et al. 5 vols 
(Christiania: Grondahl, 1846-1895) (hereafter NCL). The (un-normalised) Norse texts of the 
laws are cited from NGL by page and section number unless otherwise stated; translations are 
my own. 

12 Particularly important would be the evidence of Landnamabok and Islendingabok , and 
the ways in which legal provisions here differ from those in Gragas. See Islendingabok: 
Landnamabok , ed. by Jakob Benediktsson, 2 vols, Islenzk fomrit 1 (Reykjavik: Hi3 islenzka 
fomritafelag, 1968); and (for Konungsbok) Gragas [. . .] efter del kongelige Bibliotheks 
Haandskrift, ed. by Vilhjalmur Finsen. Nordiske Oldskrifter, 11, 17, 21, 22, 32 (Kjobenhavn: 
Bradrene Berlings Bogtrykkeri, 1852), §§ 86, 89, 90, 111; also (for the additions in 
Stadarholsbok) Gragas: efter del Arnamagnceanske Haandskrift Nr. 334 fol. i Stadarholsbok, 
ed. Kommissionen for det Amamagnasanske Legat [i.e. Finsen] (Kjobenhavn: Gyldendalske 
Boghandel, 1879), §§ 265, 271,293, 366-67. 

13 Compare NGL III 143, §60; also, p. 189, §100; IV 382, §13. 

14 NGL I 66; cf. §133, p. 56; also II 50, §3; 11 212, §3. 


David Clark 

15 NGL I 19; cf. II 288, §X; II 52, §4. 

16 NGL II 66f., §20; Jonsbok: Kong Magnus Hakonssons Lovbog for Island vedtaget paa 
Altinget 1281 og Rettarbcetr de for Island givne Retterboder af 1294, 1305 og 1314, ed. by 
Olafur Halldorsson (Odense: Odense Universitetsforlag, 1970), pp. 60-1; NGL II 222f.; cf. also 
the excerpt in NGL IV 153. 

17 Orri Vesteinsson, The Christianization of Iceland: Priests, Power, and Social Change 
1000-1300 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). 

18 See Jon Johannesson, Islendinga saga (orig. pub. Reykjavik: Almenna bokafelagid, 
1956); trans. Haraldur Bessason: A History of the Old Icelandic Commonwealth, University of 
Manitoba Icelandic Studies, 2 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 1974), pp. 186-90. Although 
archiepiscopal orders seem not to have been made law in Iceland, nevertheless 'there is no 
evidence of the assuming of priestly orders by a temporal chieftain after 1190', p. 190. 

19 Diplomatarium Islandicum (hereafter DI), i, ed. by Jon Sigurdsson (Kaupmannahofn: 
S. L. Moller, 1857), p. 222. I have on occasion minimally normalised some of the texts. 

20 Orri Vesteinsson, Christianization of Iceland, p. 234. 

21 GuSrun Asa Grimsdottir, 'Um afskipti erkibiskupa af islenzkum malefnum a 12. og 13. 
old', Saga 20 (1982), 28-62. 

22 Sverrir Jakobsson, 'Fridarvidleitni kirkjunnar a 13. old', Saga 36 (1998), 7-46, passim. 
Violent clerics were clearly a concern in late Anglo-Saxon England-see Wulfstan's Canon Law 
Collection, ed. by J. E. Cross and Andrew Hamer, Anglo-Saxon Texts, 1 (Cambridge: Brewer, 
1999), §§ 75, 79, 83, 102, 159, 164-7. 

23 Laxdcela saga, ed. by Einar Ol. Sveinsson. Islenzk fomrit V (Reykjavik: HiS islenzka 
fomritafelag, 1934), p. 154. The comparison is made despite the fact that a more conventional 
martyr, such as Edmund in Ail fric's Life of St Edmund, refuses to fight from the beginning. See 
AElfric: Lives of Three English Saints, ed. by G. I. Needham (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 
1976), p. 48f. 

24 Richard North, Pagan Words and Christian Meanings (Rodopi: Amsterdam, 1991), p. 
163f. North construes the nid as 'the attacking and then killing of a foster-brother and cousin' (p. 
163), but the cowardice of attacking a defenceless man surely also enters into the disgrace 
Kjartan intends for Bolli. 

25 Lars Lonnroth, Njdls saga: A Critical Introduction (Berkeley: University of California 
Press, 1976), p. 147. 

26 Brennu-Njdls saga, ed. by Einar Ol. Sveinsson, Islenzk fomrit XII (Reykjavik: Hid 
islenzka fomritafelag, 1954), p. 330. 

27 On the proverb, see Sarah M. Anderson's introduction to Cold Counsel: Women in Old 
Norse Literature and Mythology, ed. by Sarah M. Anderson, with Karen Swenson (New York: 
Routledge, 2002), pp. xi-xvi; see also Carol J. Clover, 'Hildigunnr's lament,' in Structure and 


The Church and Vengeance in Medieval Iceland 

Meaning in Old Norse Literature: New Approaches to Textual Analysis and Literary Criticism, 
ed. by John Lindow et al (Odense: Odense University Press, 1986), pp. 141-83 (p. 145, n. 8). 

28 Porvalds pattr vidfgrla, in Flateyjarbok, ed. by Sigurdur Nordal. 4 vols ([Reykjavik], 
Flateyjanitgafan, 1944-1945), I 299. 

29 This is in stark contrast to the attitude of the notorious Bishop bangbrandr, not 
considered in detail here for reasons of space. The episode has been compared to a similar one 
in Gregory of Tours (IV. 39) by Joaquin Martinez Pizarro: 'On Nid against Bishops', Mediaeval 
Scandinavia 11 (1978-9), 149-53. The interesting thing here is that Gregory represents God as 
taking the revenge ('Gregory talks of divina ultio and not poena', p. 152, n. 13), as opposed to 
the pattr which implicitly sets God against vengeance. 

30 Knytlinga saga in Danakonunga sggur, ed. by Bjami Gudnason. Islenzk fomrit XXXV 
(Reykjavik: Hid islenzka fomritafelag, 1982), p. 260. 

31 Indeed, this is a male whetting, since 'Hann eggjadi mjQk lidit'. I have written elsewhere 
on female whetting, but the concept of male incitement to revenge would repay further study; 
see 'Undermining and en-gendering vengeance: distancing and anti-feminism in the Poetic 
Edda', Scandinavian Studies 77 (2005), 1-28. 

32 Ljosvetninga saga, ed. by Bjorn Sigfusson. Islenzk fornrit X (Reykjavik: Hid islenzka 
fomritafelag, 1940, p. 103). 

33 See Stephen N. Tranter, Sturlunga Saga: The role of the Creative Compiler (Frankfurt 
am Main: Peter Lang, 1987), p. 221; Ulfar Bragason, 'In the Scriptorium of Sturlunga' s 
Compiler', in International Scandinavian and Medieval Studies in Memory of Gerd Wolfgang 
Weber , ed. by M. Dallapiazza et al., Hesperides, 12 (Trieste: Edizioni Pamaso, 2000), pp. 471 - 
482 (pp. 472 and 481). 

34 It is of course possible that the saga authors are misrepresenting to some extent the 
behaviour of their subjects according to their own biases. 

35 Chapters 4-6: Mar is introduced as 'unpopular and ill-natured' (ch. 1), and his actions 
depicted unsympathetically, and criticised by Haflidi (ch. 6). 

36 Islendinga saga, in Sturlunga saga, cd. by Jon Johannesson, Magnus Finnbogason and 
Kristjan Eldjam, 2 vols (Reykjavik: Sturlunguutgafan. 1946), I 293. 

37 Peter Hallberg, The Icelandic Saga, trans. Paul Schach (Lincoln: University of 
Nebraska Press, 1962), p. 113. 

38 Porgils saga skarda, in Sturlunga saga, II 130. 

39 Compare ^Elfric's Life of St Edmund, where it is said that canon law (pa halgan 
canones) forbids clerics’ involvement in judgements which lead to executions, but the source of 
the rule is again not cited (1. 182, p. 55). 

40 See, however, Marlene Ciklamini's article 'The Christian Champion in Islendinga saga: 
Eyjolfr Karsson and Aron Hjorleifsson', Euphorion 82 (1988), 226-37. Here she argues: 'In 


David Clark 

describing the life of Eyjolfr Karsson and the youth of Aron Hjorleifsson, Islendinga saga has 
set the champion into a Christian context. The narrative exemplified the lawlessness, pride, and 
vengefulness to which champions inclined and which disrupted community life. Nevertheless, by 
the mercy of God and with the aid of his vicar, the two champions were tamed to serve a purpose 
higher than that dicatated by selfishness or pride [. . .] The end of their roles in Islendinga saga 
thus coincides with their attainment of spiritual magnanimity or insight', (p. 237). 

41 Gudmundar saga dyra, in Sturlunga saga,] 198. 


The Adaptation of Laxdcela Saga 
in Oldfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta 

Elizabeth Ashman Rowe 

In the Middle Ages, there were some central texts, such as the Bible, that needed 
to be copied as accurately as possible. Other important works, such as Boethius's 
De Consolatione Philosophiae, were treated quite differently. These became what 
Tim William Machan calls living textual traditions, in that writers freely created 
their own versions by selecting from, modifying and adding to earlier copies, 
translations and commentaries.' The composite texts that resulted were in turn 
available for the use of later writers. Although the modem reflex is to categorize 
some of the writers participating in this tradition as authors or translators and the 
rest as (mere) scribes, the difference between 'authorial' work and 'scribal' work 
was a quantitative one, not a qualitative one, for scribes often took on the role of 
editor as well as copyist. In Iceland the sagas of Kmg Olafr Tryggvason and St 
Olafr appear to be just such living textual traditions. Shortly after 1300, one 
editor-scribe created the so-called 'Longest Saga' of Olafr Tryggvason (Oldfs saga 
Tryggvasonar en mesta) by taking Snorri Sturluson's Oldfs saga Tryggvasonar 
from Heimskringla and expanding it with loans from Snorri's Oldfs saga helga, 
the Oldfs saga Tryggvasonar written by the monk Oddr Snorrason, material on 
the kings of Denmark, material on the settlement of Iceland, material on 
Greenland (from Eirlks saga rauda, Landnamabok and Heimskringla) and 
excerpts and summaries relating to the events told in Orkneyinga saga and 
Laxdcela saga , 2 The latter is the subject of the present study, which examines how 
the interpretation of the story of Kjartan Olafsson's stay at Olafr's court is 
substantially modified by the changes made to fit it into its new context. 

In addition to the expansions described above, the editor-scribe of Oldfs 
saga Tryggvasonar en mesta also interpolated three entire sagas (Fcereyinga saga, 
Hallfredar saga vandrcedaskdlds and Jomsvikinga saga) and eleven short 
narratives ( Eindrida pattr ilbreids, Gauts pattr, Kristni pattr, Ogmundar pdttr 

Elizabeth Ashman Rowe 

dytts ok Gunnars helmings, Rognvalds pdttr ok Rauds, Svada pdttr ok Amors 
kerlinganefs, Sveins pdttr ok Finns, Pidranda pdttr ok Porhalls, Porhalls pdttr 
knapps, Porvalds pdttr tasalda and Porvalds pdttr vldforla). This list of 
interpolations is taken from the redaction in AM 61 fol because its copy of this 
version of Oldfs saga Tryggvasonar is relatively complete. However, this 
redaction was not the only one made. For example, between 1370 and 1380, 
another compiler created the redaction in AM 62 fol by taking some form of the 
early version and abridging Fcereyinga saga, Hallfredar saga, Jomsvikinga saga 
and the material from Landnamabdk. This compiler also added Helga pdttr 
Porissonar and Norna-Gests pdttr and expanded some of the sections about the 
adoption of Christianity with material from the monk Gunnlaugr Leifsson's Latin 
account of Olafr Tryggvason's missionary activities. 3 Yet another redaction was 
made in 1389, when Jon bordarson, the editor-scribe of the first part of 
Flateyjarbok (GKS 1005 fol), created yet another—and yet larger—version of 
Oldfs saga by taking a text related to the AM 62 fol. version and interpolating 
into it six more pcettir and also substituting the entire texts of Orkneyinga saga, 
Fcereyinga saga, Hallfredar saga vandrcedaskdlds and Jomsvikinga saga in the 
place of the abridgements in his exemplar. 

All three redactions create a rich mixture of history, hagiography and 
heroism. First there is the story of Olafr Tryggvason himself, who as a young 
viking of royal descent has a vision of a marvelous stone pillar floating in the air. 
Steps are carved into the pillar, and in the vision he mounts these steps and comes 
to a place where he can see the inhabitants of paradise. A voice tells him to go to 
Byzantium to be baptized and then return to Norway to be its king. Olafr does so, 
and after a series of battles he succeeds in winning the throne. He begins the work 
of converting the Norwegians to Christianity, and his missionaries contribute to 
the decision of the Icelanders to adopt the new faith as the religion of their 
country, but the Norwegians are stubborn and Olafr must often use threats and 
force when preaching and persuasion fail. His political enemies regroup and 
defeat him at the sea-battle of Svoldr. Olafr's body is never found, and some 
believe that he was killed, but others believe that he escaped to the Floly Land and 
spent the rest of his life as a hermit. Elaborating this main narrative thread are the 
stories of the Icelanders who came to Olafr's court and were willing to accept 
Christianity in order to gain the high honour of royal favour. Further narrative 
complexity is provided by the miscellaneous texts that the compilers found 
interesting, such as the report from an unknown Latin source about how the sons 
of the legendary Danish king Ragnarr lodbrok were with a Scandinavian army 


Adaptation of Laxdacla Saga in Olafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta 

pillaging Germany. When confronted with the emperor's superior force they 
surrendered and agreed to become Christians, only to renounce their faith and 
resume plundering as soon as the emperor's army had moved off. This capacious 
saga thus offered something for everyone: for the pious, a salutory history of the 
overthrow of paganism; for the bored, entertaining accounts of haughty queens, 
fearsome monsters and stupendous battles; for the ambitious, stories illustrating 
how to behave at court; and for the patriotic, narratives of how one Icelander after 
another is acknowledged by the king for his noble blood, outstanding character, 
physical prowess or ability to compose poetry. 

The following material from Laxdcela saga was interpolated into Olafs 
saga Tryggvasonar : 

• Ch. 123 of Olafs saga tells how Dala-Kollr marries borgerSr and has three 
children: Hoskuldr, Groa and borkatla. 4 Hoskuldr's grandson is Bolli, who 
marries Gudnin Osvifrsdottir. Hoskuldr buys a slave named Melkorka who is the 
daughter of Myrkjartan, king of the Irish. Their son is Olafr pa, who marries 
borgerdr, the daughter of Egill Skallagrimsson. Among their sons is Kjartan, who 
marries Hrefna Asgeirsdottir. Their sons are Asgeirr and Skumr. 

This chapter summarizes the genealogical information pertaining to Bolli and 
Kjartan conveyed in chs. 5, 9, 13, 23, 25, 28, 29, 30 and 47 of Laxdcela saga. 
However, ch. 9 of Laxdcela saga gives Hoskuldr's wife's name as Jorunn, not 
Hallfridr, and it says nothing about Kjartan and Hrefna having a second son. 

• Ch. 157 of Olafs saga reintroduces Olafr pa, his wife and his son Kjartan and 
tells how the latter grows up at home with his father. 5 Kjartan is the most 
handsome man of his time who was bom in Iceland. A description of him is given 
that brings in his descent from the sons of Skallagrimr. The chapter also describes 
Kjartan's warm relationship with his fosterbrother and relative Bolli, who was 
brought up with him. A description of Bolli is included. 

The beginning of this chapter summarizes information from Laxdcela saga about 
Bolli and Kjartan in their youth, and the middle section closely parallels ch. 28 of 
Laxdcela saga. Sometimes the details are in a different order; sometimes they are 
expanded a little. For example, the description of Bolli in ch. 28 of Laxdcela saga 
is not as detailed as that in this chapter of Olafs saga. 

• Ch. 158 of Olafs saga (or the equivalent text, as it is not always a new 
chapter) introduces Osvifr Helgason and his daughter Gu3riin. 6 The chapter 
describes her and her marriage to borvaldr Halldorsson, as well as their divorce 
and Guorun's marriage to hordr Glumsson, who drowns. They have a son, t>or8r, 


Elizabeth Ashman Rowe 

whom Snorri go6i fosters. The chapter then tells of the friendship between Osvi'fr 
and Olafr pa; Kjartan meets with GuSrun at the hot-spring baths, but his father 
warns him that it will come to no good and affect their luck. Kjartan says that he 
will not go against his father's wishes, although he thinks nothing bad will 
happen. Kjartan continues his visits to the baths as before, and Bolli always goes 
with him. 

This chapter summarizes chs. 32, 34, 35 and 37 of Laxdcela saga. The last part of 
this chapter is drawn from the end of ch. 39 of Laxdcela saga. 

• Ch. 159 of Olafs saga describes Asgeirr asSikollr and his daughter Hrefna the 
beautiful. 7 

This information is from the beginning of ch. 40 of Laxdcela saga. It gives 
Hrefna's genealogy, including some information not in Laxdcela saga , such as the 
descent of AuQun skokull from Ragnarr lodbrok's daughter Olof and AuSun's 
daughter's being the ancestor of St Olafr's mother. 

• Ch. 160 of Olafs saga (or the equivalent text, as it is not always a new 
chapter) describes Kjartan and Bolli's visit to Kjartan's uncle borsteinn Egilsson at 
Borg. 8 While there, Kjartan says that his most important reason for visiting is to 
buy a half-share in a ship at Gaseyri owned by Kalfr Asgeirsson and to travel 
abroad, borsteinn encourages him, and Kjartan makes the purchase. Kjartan goes 
home and informs his father and Gu5run of his plan. Both say that this is rather 
sudden. Gu5run says she wants to go with him, but Kjartan will not hear of it. 
Kjartan and Bolli leave Iceland as planned and arrive in Norway north of 
Trondheim, where they learn that jarl Hakon is dead and Olafr Tryggvason has 
arrived in Norway, and everyone is accepting him as king. Also, King Olafr is 
preaching a change of faith, which is not accepted everywhere. Kjartan and his 
companions head for NiSaros, where there happen to be three merchant ships 
owned by Icelanders. They give Kjartan a good welcome, especially Brandr the 
generous. The Icelanders in Nidaros had discussed the conversion and had 
decided to decline to change their religion, and now they bring it up again with 
Kjartan and ask his opinion. He thinks little of it and says he will agree to 
whatever they think most advisable. 

The infonnation in this chapter is also from ch. 40 of Laxdcela saga. The phrases 
are rearranged somewhat, but overall the borrowing is very close. In some places 
Olafs saga has dialogue where Laxdcela saga has a summary of the conversation, 
but in other places it is Laxdcela saga that has the dialogue and Olafs saga the 
summary. There are other changes as well: Olafs saga has Kjartan specify that 
GuQrun is to wait for three years and not get married, whereas Laxdcela saga only 


Adaptation o/Laxdasla Saga in Olafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta 

has him ask her to wait for three years. The passage at the end in which the 
Icelanders ask Kjartan about converting is not in Laxdcela saga (nor is it in 
Hallfredar saga, another interpolation in Olafs saga that deals with an Icelander 
and Christianity). 

• Ch. 161 of Olafs saga relates the famed swimming match between Kjartan 
and King Olafr. 9 This is a key moment, for the king's holding Kjartan underwater 
prefigures Kjartan's later baptism. 10 Kjartan accepts the gift of a cloak from the 
king, which the other Icelanders dislike because it will put him in the king's debt. 
(The gift of a cloak prefigures the king's later gift of a baptismal robe.) The 
weather turns bad, and the heathens explain that the gods are angry. 

The beginning of this chapter, about King Olafr's urban development in Nidaros, 
is not in Laxdcela saga-, borrowing from that saga begins with the swimming 
match, which is drawn from ch. 40 of Laxdcela saga. The material here has been 
revised to integrate the interpolation of Hallfredar saga, for in Olafs saga Kjartan 
asks HallfreSr if he wants to compete against the good swimmer from town; when 
he declines, he then asks Bolli the same thing. In Laxdcela saga, Hallfrefir is of 
course not present and Kjartan asks only Bolli. Olafs saga also places the detail of 
Kjartan's red kirtle before the swimming match, whereas Laxdcela saga places it 
afterwards. Olafs saga underscores the outstanding characteristics of the king and 
Kjartan in a number of ways: it includes a remark giving Kjartan's favourable 
impression of the townsman (who turns out to be the king); it has the king praise 
Kjartan for being a fine and lucky-lookmg man; and it adds that the cloak was the 
best of gifts. None of this is found in Laxdcela saga. The end of the Olafs saga 
chapter is rather jumbled in its treatment of the material from Laxdcela saga, but 
overall the content is very similar. 

• Ch. 162 of Olafs saga presents Kjartan and Bolli's discussion about whether 
to convert to Christianity. 11 The next day the king summons the Icelanders to a 
meeting with him. He tells them to convert, and Kjartan says he will accept the 
new faith to the extent of ceasing to believe so much in borr when he goes home. 
The king smiles and says that it is clear that what Kjartan really believes in is his 
own strength, not borr or Odinn. Later the king's companions urge him to compel 
the Icelanders to accept Christianity, but the king says he will not do that. The 
autumn progresses, and the king leams that the heathens of Trondheim plan on 
holding a great sacrifice at the beginning of winter. 

This chapter follows the material from ch. 40 of Laxdcela saga about Olafr's first 
efforts to convert Kjartan. The beginning of the Olafs saga chapter, about the 
king's assembly at Eyrir, is not particularly close to the parallel material in 


Elizabeth Ashman Rowe 

Laxdcela saga. The Olafs saga passage about the king's spies watching the 
Icelanders is more detailed than in Laxdcela saga. In general, Olafs saga is more 
expansive here than Laxdcela saga , but apart from the additions, the borrowed 
content is not greatly changed. The mention of the sacrifice is not in Laxdcela 

• Ch. 164 of Olafs saga continues the account of Kjartan's conversion. 12 On the 
first day of Yule, Kjartan suggests that the Icelanders go and see how the 
Christians are worshipping their god in the new church of St Clement. Impressed 
by the singing and incense, they stay until after high mass. Then they argue about 
whether to accept Christianity. Kjartan argues for it, and Bolli tells Kjartan to 
decide for both of them. All these conversations are reported to the king. 

This chapter too is drawn from ch. 40 of Laxdcela saga, but the latter does not 
include the details about the king's building and Christmas plans that are at the 
beginning of the Olafs saga chapter. As before, there is more detail in Olafs saga 
than in Laxdcela saga, such as the Olafs saga references to the singing and 
incense, and Kjartan's much longer speech. Interestingly, Olafs saga does not 
borrow the Laxdcela saga description of the king's sermon, but the beginning of 
the chapter does mention the presence of the bishop, which Laxdcela saga does 

• Ch. 165 of Olafs saga recounts how King Olafr summons Kjartan the next 
day and commands him to accept baptism. 13 Kjartan agrees, on the condition that 
the king's friendship will accompany it. The king agrees, and Kjartan and Bolli 
and their crew are baptized. The chapter reports that most men say that on the day 
that Kjartan and Bolli stopped wearing their baptismal robes, Kjartan became the 
king's retainer. 

This chapter continues the adaptation of material from ch. 40 of Laxdcela saga, 
although many of the details are different. The most significant difference is that 
in Laxdcela saga the king meets Kjartan on the way to church and Kjartan 
volunteers his desire to be baptized, whereas in Olafs saga the king commands 
Kjartan to accept Christianity. Olafs saga also moves the king's comment that 
holy days bring the best luck to this part of the narrative; in Laxdcela saga the 
king uttered this on the previous night. 

• Ch. 167 of Olafs saga describes how, after Christmas, King Olafr goes into 
the district of Trondheim with his men. 14 Kjartan, Bolli, HallfreQr and many 
Icelanders were with him. At an assembly, Olafr disputes with a prominent pagan 
named Jamskeggi. 


Adaptation of Laxdaela Saga in Olafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta 

This material is not in Laxdcela saga , and we may assume that it is the invention 
of the compiler of Olafs saga, made to integrate the interpolated narrative threads 
more closely into the main narrative. 

• Ch. 170 of Olafs saga tells how King Olafr has a great longship named the 
Crane built that same winter. 13 Kjartan and Bolli have been with the king ever 
since they were baptized. Olafr values Kjartan above all the other Icelanders 
because of his family and accomplishments. The chapter also reports that it was 
commonly said that Kjartan was so popular that he had no ill-wishers among the 
king's retinue and that virtually no-one like Kjartan had come from Iceland. His 
kinsman Bolli is also considered a very valiant man. 

As with ch. 167, this material is not in Laxdcela saga, and we may again assume 
that it is the invention of the compiler of Olafs saga, in this case made to enhance 
Kjartan's reputation with praise from King Olafr and the Norwegian populace. 
This in turn reflects well on Kjartan's native land. 

• Ch. 175 of Olafs saga explains that the winter that Gunnar helmingr was in 
Sweden, Kjartan and Bolli and Hallfredr were with King Olafr, as was previously 
mentioned. 11 ’ But as the winter passes and traders prepare for their spring voyages, 
Kalfr Asgeirsson asks Kjartan about his plans for the summer. Kjartan is thinking 
of a trading voyage to England, but when he discusses this with the king, Olafr 
tells him that he should go back to Iceland and bring its inhabitants to 
Christianity, whether by force or persuasion. But if Kjartan thinks this too 
difficult, then Olafr will not let him go to England, because it is better to serve 
noble men than to be a merchant. Kjartan replies that he would rather stay in 
Norway with the king than get into a conflict with his family, but probably his 
family will not go against the king's will when they know that he is treated so 
well by the king. Olafr approves and gives him a suit of clothes that he had had 
made for himself. The chapter reports that people say that Kjartan and the king 
were of the same height. Kalfr goes to England with Kjartan's wares. 

This chapter follows the very end of ch. 40 of Laxdcela saga and continues with 
material from ch. 41 of that saga. This material is almost unchanged from its 
source, except that the final information about Kalfr's voyage is brought forward 
from ch. 43 of Laxdcela saga. 

• Ch. 218 of Olafs saga recounts how the missionary bangbrandr returns from 
Iceland and reports that the chieftains there are very much against Christianity. 17 
The king becomes very angry and wants to have every pagan Icelander in Nibaros 
killed or maimed. The Christian Icelanders, including Kjartan, protest. Hjalti and 
Gizurr give a speech, and Gizurr concludes by inviting bangbrandr to stay with 


Elizabeth Ashman Rowe 

him and promising to help him convert his countrymen. The king agrees to let the 
Icelanders go free except the four noblest—Kjartan, Halldorr, Kolbeinn and 
Sverting—who will stay as hostages. They are well treated during the winter. 

This material is derived from Kristni saga's account of the conversion of Iceland, 
and it is quite different from that in ch. 41 of Laxdcela saga, where there is no 
mention of the king's threats against the Icelanders in Nidaros. Oldfs saga also 
omits the account in this part of Laxdcela saga of Bolli’s conversation with 
Kjartan about the latter's friendship with the king's sister. 

• Ch. 224 of Oldfs saga describes how King Olafr and Queen hyri spend the 
winter after the conversion of Halogaland in Nidaros. 18 Their infant son dies, 
which is considered a great shame. Many Icelanders are with the king, as is 
Olafr's sister Ingibjorg. She has treated all the Icelanders well, but Kjartan is the 
one best known to her, as he has been with the king longest. The chapter reports 
that Kjartan enjoys speaking with her often. 

None of this material is in Laxdcela saga, and we may assume that it is the 
compiler's way of acknowledging the relationship between Kjartan and Ingibjorg, 
which the audience of Olafs saga would have been familiar with and might have 
expected to be addressed. 

• Ch. 233 of Olafs saga describes how King Olafr has his ship the Long 
Serpent readied, and all the heroes who serve him prepare for battle. 19 That 
summer, a ship arrives from Iceland with the news that Christianity has been 
accepted in Iceland and everyone there has been baptized. The king is very 
pleased at this and grants all the hostages their freedom. Kjartan is the first to 
answer; he thanks the king and declares his intent to set out for Iceland. The king 
reiterates his high esteem and friendship for him and says that he does not want 
him to be eager to go to Iceland, despite his noble kin there, because he will get 
great honour and treatment in Norway that Iceland cannot offer. Kjartan asks God 
to reward the king for all the honour he has shown him, but he says that he 
expects that he has no less permission to go to Iceland than the others. The king 
acquiesces but says that it would be difficult to find a man with no rank or title 
who is Kjartan's equal. Kalfr has returned from England, and he and Kjartan get 
ready to leave. Kjartan takes his leave of Ingibjorg, who gives him rich gifts, 
including a splendid headdress for Gudrun. The king gives him a sword and says 
that he does not expect Kjartan to die from weapon-wounds if he carries this 
sword. Kjartan arrives in Iceland, and the chapter summarizes the tragic events 
that follow. The chapter concludes with the king's evaluation that Kjartan and 


Adaptation of Laxdasla Saga in Olafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta 

some of his kinsmen have been allotted a dire fate and that great hann will result 
if their fate cannot be altered. 

Laxdcela saga says nothing about the king's preparations for war, and this chapter 
of Olafs saga begins its adaptation of material from Laxdcela saga with the 
mention of the arrival of the ship from Iceland, which occurs in the middle of ch. 
43 of that saga. That chapter also supplies Olafs saga with the conversations 
between Kjartan and the king and between Kjartan and Ingibjorg, as well as with 
the closing evaluation. 

The preceding survey shows that the material about Kjartan in Olafs saga 
Tryggvasonar en mesta is not a word-for-word copy of its source in Laxdcela 
saga. There are numerous kinds of changes, including genealogical (e.g. the 
number of Kjartan and Hrefna's sons), the addition of detail (e.g. the description 
of Bolli) and the substitution of dialogue for summarized conversation. Possibly 
the compiler of Olafs saga was using an expanded version of Laxdcela saga that is 
no longer extant, but many of the additions and changes could well be of his own 
composition, as they reinforce the impression of Kjartan's superiority and 
introduce didactic material. An example of the former is found after the 
swimming match. In understated family-saga style, Laxdcela saga has: 'ha tekr 
konungr af her&um ser skikkju goda ok gaf Kjartani; kva5 hann eigi skikkjulausan 
skyldu ganga til sinna manna' [Then the king takes a good cloak from his own 
shoulders and gave it to Kjartan; he said that he must not go back to his men 
cloakless], whereas in Olafs saga the king says: 

Eigi skaltu yfir hafnar lauss ganga til [jinna felaga. sva sasmiligr madr 
ok hamingiv samligr sem Jau ert. ok vil ek gefa [>er skickiv j^essa. Vil ek 
ok at [)u takir [iat sem vit hofurn vid aatz i dag sem ek man gera fyrir 
gledi ok gaman. [>viat ek vaenti at fair menu kalli [)er at rninni mennt i 
sund forum. {30 at ek gangi [>ar vm til iafns vi5 jrik. 

[I want to give you this cloak, for such a fine and lucky-looking man as 
you shall not go back to your companions without an over-mantle. I also 
want you to take our competition today as I will, as fun and amusement, 
because I expect that few people would call you less skilled in 
swimming (than I), though I am your equal in it.] -0 

An example of the latter occurs when Kjartan finally decides to accept 
Christianity. In Laxdcela saga he says: 


Elizabeth Ashman Rowe 

Sva Ieizk mer vel a konung it fyrsta sinn, er ek sa hann, at ek fekk [rat 
[>egar skilt, at hann var inn mesti agastismadr, ok J^at hefir haldizk jafnan 
sifian, er ek hefi hann a mannfundum set; en miklu bezt Ieizk mer jo 6 i 
dag a hann, ok oil tetla ek oss [>ar vid liggja var malskipti, at ver tniim 
[rann vera sannan gu6, sem konungr bydr, ok fyrir engan mun ma 
konungi nu tidara til vera, at ek taka vid tninni, en mer er at lata sklrask, 
ok |oat eina dvelr, er ek geng nu eigi jregar a konungs fund, er framordit 
er dags, [m at nu mun konungr yfir bordum vera, en sa dagr mun 
dveljask, er ver sveitungar latum allir skirask. 

[The king seemed so fine to me the first time I saw him that I 
understood immediately that he was the greatest of excellent men, and 
this impression has held steady ever since, when I have seen him 
meeting with people. But yet he seems by far the best to me today, and I 
expect that all our dealings depend on our believing that the god whom 
the king preaches is the true one. The king must be no more eager for 
me to take this faith than I to let myself be baptized, and this alone 
delays me from now going immediately to meet with the king, when the 
day is so far gone, because the king will be at the table now, and that 
day will be a long one when we companions all let ourselves be 
baptized.] 21 

In Olafs saga, however, he says: 

}mt berr storum huersu mer [x)cknaz vel Jteira at haefi. ]m helldr sem 
mer kynniz meirr. ok iafnan hefir mer litiz merkiliga aa konunginn. En 
nv i dag syndiz mer hans yfir bragd fra [wi aagiastligt sem fyrr. sva at ek 
astla f>a betr hafa er honum hlydnaz ok veita goduiliada Juonosto. Ok er 
[>at sannaz at segia at ek astla Jrar vid liggia dll vor malskipti ok 
hamingiv at ver truim aa Jtann gu[> sem hann bodar. Nv duelr mik engi 
lutr er ek geng eigi [tegar til konungs at bidia skimarinnar. vtan sa einn 
at hann mun nu til borda genginn. ok ]rat at ek vil eigi vnada konung edr 
kristna kenni menn aa {ressvm degi er Joeir kalla mikla hofud hatid guds 
sins, [mat mer er van at [>at se starfi mikill at veita oss skipverium 
ollum [>at embastti. ok tetla ek [>ann dag dueliaz er ver latvm allir skiraz. 
En med engu mothi ma Olafi konungi vera annara til at Jretta uerdi 
framgengt en mer. Er [oat ok eigi stadfastligt at lata sva aa kafliga at ein 
huerium lut at eigi fylgi hof ok stilling. 


Adaptation of Laxdsela Saga in Olafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta 

[It matters a good deal how well these things seem fitting to me, the 
more so as more becomes known to me, and the king has always looked 
to me like a man of note. But now, today, his appearance seems to me 
more excellent than before, so that I think it better to obey him and give 
him willing service. And it is most true to say that I think all our 
dealings and luck depend on us believing in this god that he preaches. 
Now nothing prevents me from going at once to the king to ask for 
baptism except this alone, that he will have gone to table now. And also 
that I do not want to disturb the king or Christian clerics on this day, 
which they call the great chief holy day of their god, because I expect 
that it would be a big job to grant all us companions this favour, and I 
expect that that day will be a long one when we all let ourselves be 
baptized. But notwithstanding. King Olafr cannot be more eager for this 
to take place than me. It is also rash to act so impetuously and not be 
moderate and temperate in every respect.] 22 

The additional material here shows the compiler using this speech as an 
opportunity to instruct his audience on such points as the moral basis of lordship, 
the significance of Christmas and proper behaviour. 

The details of the textual relationship between Laxdcela saga and Olafs 
saga Tryggvasonar en mesta remain to be clarified, but it is safe to say that 
Laxdcela saga probably used Heimskringla or Oddr Snorrason's saga about Olafr 
Tryggvason for information about King Olafr, and then the compiler of Olafs 
saga used Laxdcela saga to elaborate Olafr's story with information about Kjartan. 
In addition, the compiler expanded the Laxdcela saga material with information 
from Landnamabok, such as the genealogical link between Hrefna and Ragnarr 
lodbrok, and added material that was most likely of his own composition. 

The first kinds of expansion could have resulted from the simple desire for 
a more detailed account, but the last kind of expansion suggests that the compiler 
of Olafs saga had some further purpose in mind for this part of his narrative. 
What was that puipose, and how does it compare with its original purpose in 
Laxdcela saga ? These questions may be answered based on what the Olafs saga 
compiler left out as well as what he included. An example of the former is the 
elimination of Laxdcela saga's focus on its female characters. Olafs saga is silent 
about Unnr djiipudga, the powerful matriarch who successfully finds a place for 
her family in Iceland despite their not being among the first settlers. And for all 
its concern with the conversion of the Icelanders, Olafs saga is also silent about 


Elizabeth Ashman Rowe 

Gudnin's becoming the first nun in Iceland. A reduced attention to the romantic— 
which may be related to the loss of interest in the female characters—results from 
Olafs saga' s omission of Laxdcela saga's hint of the possibility of marriage 
between Kjartan and Ingibjorg. 

These shifts away from women and romance move the focus of the 
narrative to the male characters, their relationships, and their concern with power 
both secular and religious. The relationship between King Olafr and the 
Icelanders who visited him took different forms in the different redactions of 
Olafs saga , and the treatment of Kjartan (and indeed of Hallfredr vandrasdaskald, 
whose story is intertwined with those of Olafr and Kjartan) contrasts with the 
treatment of equivalent characters in the pcettir interpolated by the compiler of the 
Flateyjarbok redaction of Olafs saga. This later redaction presents the Icelanders 
at Olafr's court as his spiritual sons, in that they have lost their biological fathers 
but have gained a spiritual father in the king, who converts them to Christianity 
and accepts them into his bodyguard, where they serve him faithfully, to the point 
of giving their lives for him at the Battle of Svoldr. 23 Although Kjartan and 
Hallfredr do find salvation through Olafr, they do not give their lives for him, 
instead leaving Norway and pursuing their own destinies, whether tragic (as with 
Kjartan) or religious (as with Hallfredr). And although Hallfredr's troubled 
relationship with his biological father does yield to a filial relationship with King 
Olafr, as Marianne Kalinke has argued, Kjartan's case is quite different. 24 His 
father is alive, well and on good tenns with his son when he leaves, and Kjartan 
never develops any inclination to spend the rest of his life with Olafr. Indeed, 
both Laxdcela saga and Olafs saga take the opposite tack and strongly imply that 
Kjartan is the king's equal. Their statements that Kjartan is the king's equal in size 
are what first suggests this, but Olafs saga continues in this vein with Olafr's 
remark about their equal competence in swimming. Furthermore, Kjartan's desire 
to return to his own country at the first opportunity shows the preferability of life 
in Iceland to life at court. 

Rory McTurk argues that Laxdcela saga emphasizes Kjartan's royal descent 
and royal characteristics, with the implication that he—and Gudrun—would have 
been the ideal couple to rule Iceland, so the compiler of Olafs saga could very 
well have thought of Kjartan as the Icelandic parallel of Olafr Tryggvason." 5 
What is curious about this supposition as regards Olafs saga is that it ignores the 
obvious point of difference between King Olafr and Kjartan, namely that Olafr is 
fiercely dedicated to promoting Christianity, whereas Kjartan is notably reluctant 
to undertake a missionary effort in Iceland. Is this just a contradiction, an 


Adaptation o/Laxdasla Saga in Olafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta 

unintended result of compilation, like Olafs saga's contradictory depictions of the 
sons of Ragnarr lodbrok? Is the compiler of Olafs saga ultimately unconcerned 
with the importance of Christianity per se (unlike the compiler of the Flateyjarbok 
Olafs saga, who is explicitly worried about the spiritual effect of reading about 
pagan heroes)? 26 Or perhaps the compiler of Olafs saga is unconcerned with the 
importance of the conversion of Iceland. After all, by the time he was working on 
this saga early in the fourteenth century, Iceland had been Christian for 300 years, 
and with none of the backsliding that had occurred in Norway, which necessitated 
a second missionary effort by St Olafr. In retrospect, Iceland's conversion might 
have been seen as inevitable and unproblematic. Perhaps, just as Kjartan was so 
outstanding a young man, so much a potential king, so too his potential realm of 
Iceland was superior to Norway in not needing its ruler to be a missionary as well 
as a king. 

These factors result in a significant change in the depiction of Kjartan as a 
Christian. In Laxdcela saga, the religious dynamics are complex. Kjartan's meek, 
Christ-like death is paralleled by Gudrun's devoutness in her old age, and the 
Christian elements in turn are balanced by the pagan heroic subtext, in which 
Kjartan plays the role of the innocent SigurSr Fafnisbani and Gudrun is the 
vengeful Brynhildr. These parallels in turn suggest an interpretatio Christiana of 
the Sigurdr legend. In Olafs saga, the legendary subtext has been stripped away, 
as has Gudrun's spiritual equality with Kjartan, and instead two 'martyrdoms' are 
juxtaposed—Kjartan accepts death at Bolli's hands, and King Olafr is killed by 
his pagan enemies. 

These manipulations lead to another question, namely, the nature of the 
'original' tradition about King Olafr's treatment of the pagan Icelanders in 
Nidaros, for in Olafs saga, the king is considerably harsher than he is in Laxdcela 
saga. Which, if any, is more accurate? Possibly neither account is very reliable, 
for most likely both were written in service of the various programmes of their 
authors. That of the Laxdcela saga author seems to have been political. This saga 
was composed before Iceland became subject to Norway, and it accordingly 
makes certain assumptions about the relationship between conversion and rule. 
According to readings of St Paul—'Ubi autem spiritus Domini, ibi libertas' [And 
where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty] (2 Cor. 3:17)—the Christian's 
freedom from the devil's bonds of sin meant that he was also not subject to 
political conquest. Conversely, those who had to be forced to accept Christianity 
lost their claims to political sovereignty and could be subjugated by their 
converters. 27 Giles of Rome, whose treatise on kingship, De regimine, was 


Elizabeth Ashman Rowe 

translated into Swedish in the mid-fourteenth century, possibly for the instruction 
of Hakon Magnusson (later king of Norway) and his brother Erik (later king of 
Sweden), elaborates on this very point. Giles argues that the right to rule could be 
obtained only through the working of divine grace, which became operational 
above all through baptism. This gave rise to the thesis that 'infidels could have 
neither legitimate property nor legitimate authority: what they had, they had 
unjustly and through usurpation. Governance or lordship could not be obtained by 
a mere inheritance (a merely carnal generatio) or by conquest, but solely by the 
efficacy of divine grace through regeneration, through re-birth in baptism. Power 
over infidels therefore belong to the Christians, and above all to the pope.' 28 
Icelanders had long been conscious of this reasoning, and in the thirteenth century 
they developed a historical 'myth of freedom' as a means of resisting Norwegian 
efforts to annexe their country. 29 The topoi constituting this myth are found in 
several genres of Old Norse literature and employ both political and religious 
doctrine. The Icelandic historical myth situates itself within the Christian tradition 
and accepts that the forces of Christianity and Norwegian imperialism were 
joined in the person of the king of Norway, beginning with Olafr Tryggvason and 
continuing through Magnus godi. However, it insists that the country chose to 
accept Christianity of its own free will at the Aljnngi of 1000 A.D., thus 
countering both the Norwegian claim that Olafr Tryggvason had converted 
Iceland forcibly and the concomitant claim to sovereignty over Iceland in the 
political sphere as well. 30 This controls the depiction of Kjartan's conversion, for 
he refuses to be pressured into changing his religion but later of his own free will 
accepts baptism at the hands of King Olafr. 31 This may be the reason that earlier 
accounts of Olafr's harsh treatment of the pagan Icelanders were softened in 
Laxdcela saga to make Iceland's acceptance of Christianity seem more a free 
choice. This kind of account would better support Iceland's claims to 
independence. 3 " In Olafs saga, written after Iceland's loss of independence, there 
is no longer any point in maintaining Laxdcela saga's version of these events. 
Indeed, a return to the earlier version is preferable, for Olafr's willingness to 
murder and maim pagan foreigners emphasizes the strength of character of the 
Icelander who stands up to him. 

We should not forget that the adaptation of the story of Kjartan did not 
begin with the compilation of Olafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta; in fact the 
author of Laxdcela saga itself had already adapted one element for his own 
purposes. This is the depiction of the ancestress of both Kjartan and GuSrun, 
named Unnr in Laxdcela saga but Audr in Landnamabok. In Landnamabok, Au5r 


Adaptation of Laxdada Saga in Olafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta 

djupuSga is said to be a Christian. The description of her Christian interment is 
replaced in Laxdcela saga by an account of a pagan burial, in which the wealthy 
matriarch departs from the world of the living with extensive feasting, abundant 
grave goods, and a picturesque ship-grave. This change allows the saga writer to 
reserve the prestige of introducing Christianity for the later character Kjartan. In 
medieval Iceland, at least as much if not more effort was put into revising extant 
sagas than into composing new ones, and although this is not the place to go into 
the medieval Icelandic debates about the best ways to determine historical facts 
and preserve accurate accounts, the example of the story of Kjartan shows that the 
changes wrought by editor-scribes were far more likely to be the result of 
deliberation than accident or incompetence. 33 

Not surprisingly, the willingness to go to the great cost and effort required 
to create a new saga or redaction was motivated by concerns that encompassed far 
more than an abstract antiquarianism. The depiction of Icelanders at the 
Norwegian court, for instance, turns out to be a mirror of contemporary 
Icelanders' hopes and fears about their relationship to their fatherland. While 
Iceland retained its independence, the story of Kjartan in Laxdcela saga shows an 
Icelander who is implied to be the equal of the king of Norway and a suitable 
match for the king's sister. In another three-quarters of a century, less than fifty 
years after the loss of Icelandic independence, the stories of Kjartan and Hallfredr 
in the earliest redaction of Olafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta multiply the 
examples of Icelanders who are free to choose and pursue their own destinies. 
Indeed, Olafs saga strengthens the likeness between Kjartan and the king through 
its additional comparisons and the omissions that emphasize the similarities in the 
manner of their deaths. Given the current political situation, with Icelanders 
having accepted Norwegian rule, Norwegian laws, and Norwegian 
monopolization of their trade and even their ability to cross the ocean, this 
characterization of Kjartan seems a little pathetic, the result of wishful thinking or 
a futile desire to rewrite history. With the passage of time, however, Icelanders 
seem to have accepted the new relationship with Nomay. The stories of horsteinn 
Ox-foot and Hallsteinn Hromundarson in the late-fourteenth-century Flateyjarbok 
redaction of Olafs saga depict Icelanders who recognize that not only their 
personal loyalty but the very salvation of their souls are owed to the king of 
Norway. This picture of profound dependence may have been exaggerated in 
order to suggest that such devotion deserved some suitable reward, but in any 
case it—and Laxdcela saga and the earlier redactions of Olafs saga —tells us far 
more about their compilers than about the people they were writing about. 


Elizabeth Ashman Rowe 


1 Tim William Machan, 'Scribal Role, Authorial Intention, and Chaucer's Boece', 
Chaucer Review 24 (1989), pp. 150-62. 

2 In ch. 233 the compiler of Olafs saga Tryggvasonar refers to Laxdcela saga (written 
ca. 1245) as one of his sources. See Olafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta , ed. by Olafur 
Halldorsson, Editiones Amamagnaeanas A2 (Kobenhavn: Ejnar Munksgaard, 1961), p. 212. For 
the date of Olafs saga, see Olafur Halldorsson, 'Olafs saga Tryggvasonar', in Medieval 
Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia, ed. by Phillip Pulsiano et al. (New York: Garland, 1993), pp. 

3 Olafur Halldorsson, 'Ur sogu skinnboka', Skirnir 137 (1963), pp. 83-97, The Great 
Sagas of Olaf Ttyggvason and Olaf the Saint: AM 61 fol., ed. by Olafur Halldorsson, Early 
Icelandic Manuscripts in Facsimile 14 (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1982), p. 30 and 
Olafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta, ed. by Olafur Halldorsson, Editiones Amamagnaeanas A3 
(Kobenhavn: C. A. Reitzel, 2000), pp. ciii-cxii and cccx-cccxviii. 

4 Olafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta, ed. by Olafur Halldorsson, Editiones 
Amamagnatanas Al (Kobenhavn: Ejnar Munksgaard, 1958) pp. 273-5. 

5 Olafur Halldorsson (1958), pp. 351-2. 

6 Olafur Halldorsson (1958), pp. 352-4. 

7 Olafur Halldorsson (1958), pp. 355-6. 

8 Olafur Halldorsson (1958), pp. 356-9. 

9 Olafur Halldorsson (1958), pp. 359-62. 

10 Gerd Wolfgang Weber, 'Irreligiositat und Heldenzeitalter. Zum Mythencharakter der 
altislandischen Literatur', in Specvlvm Norroenvm: Norse Studies in Memory of Gabriel 
Turville-Petre, ed. by Ursula Dronke, Gudrun P. Helgasdottir, Gerd Wolfgang Weber and Hans 
Bekker-Nielsen (Odense: Odense University Press, 1981), p. 502. 

11 Olafur Halldorsson (1958), pp, 362-7. 

12 Ch. 163 of Olafs saga interrupts this thread of the narrative; it describes Olaff's speech 
at the Frosti assembly. Ch. 163 is published in Olafur Halldorsson (1958), pp. 367-9, and ch. 
164 is found on pp. 369-71. 

13 Olafur Halldorsson (1958), pp. 371-2. 

14 Ch. 166 of Olafs saga interrupts this thread of the narrative to describe how King Olaff 
meets the Icelandic poet Hallffebr vandras3askald. Ch. 166 is published in Olafur Halldorsson 
(1958), pp. 372-6, and ch. 167 is found on pp. 376-8. 

15 Chs 168 and 169 of Olafs saga interrupt this thread of the narrative to return to the 
main plot, which tells how Jamskeggi is killed, the local people agree to be baptized, the king 


Adaptation of Laxdtela Saga in Olafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta 

agrees to marry Jamskeggi's daughter, and she tries to kill him on their wedding night. Chs 166 
and 169 are published in Olafur Halldorsson (1958), pp. 378-86, and eh. 170 is found on pp. 

16 Chs 171-174 of Olafs saga interrupt this thread of the narrative. The first two of these 
chapters continue the material from Hallfredar saga, and the second two chapters contain 
Ogmundar pattr dytts ok Gunnars helmings. Chs 171-4 are published in Olafur Halldorsson 
(1958), pp. 387-400, and Olafur Halldorsson (1961), pp. 1-18, and ch. 175 is found in the latter 
volume on pp. 18-20. 

17 Olafur Halldorsson (1961), pp. 163-6. 

18 Olafur Halldorsson (1961), pp. 175-7. 

19 Olafur Halldorsson (1961), pp. 205-12. 

20 Laxdcela saga, ed. by Einar Ol. Sveinsson, Islenzk fomrit 5 (Reykjavik: Hi6 islenzka 
fomritafelag, 1934), p. 118, and Olafur Halldorsson (1958), p. 361. 

21 Einar Ol. Sveinsson (1934), p. 122. 

22 Olafur Halldorsson (1958), pp. 370-1. 

23 In the case of one of these pcettir, the Flateyjarbok compiler emphasizes the filial 
relationship between Olafr and his Icelandic retainer by juxtaposing Hrdmundar pattr halta 
with the chapter of Olafs saga that describes the death of the king's own son, almost as if to 
suggest that the loss of the biological child is compensated for by the acquisition of a spiritual 

24 Marianne Kalinke, ’Steeri ek brag: Protest and Subordination in Hallfredar saga', 
Skaldskaparmal 4 (1997), pp. 50-68. 

25 Rory McTurk, Chaucer and the Norse and Celtic Worlds (Ashgate: Aldershot, 2005), 
pp. 106-47. 

26 Flateyjarbok; En Samling af norske Konge-Sagaer med indskudte mindre Fortcellinger 
om Begivenheder i og udenfor Norge saint Annaler, ed. by Gu6brandur Vigfusson and C. R 
Unger (Christiania: P. T. Mailing, 1860), I 35-6. 

27 Weber (1981), pp. 499-505 and Gerd Wolfgang Weber, ’Intellegere historiam. 
Typological perspectives of Nordic prehistory (in Snorri, Saxo, Widukind and others) 1 , in 
Tradition og historieskrivning: Kilderne til Nordens celdste historic, ed. by Kirsten Hastrup and 
Preben Meulengracht Sorensen, Acta Jutlandica 63:2, Humanistik Serie 61 (Arhus: Aarhus 
Universitetsforlag, 1987), pp. 125-7. 

28 Walter Ullmann, Medieval Political Thought, rev. ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 
1970), p. 125; see also Joseph Canning, A History of Medieval Political Thought 300-1450 
(London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 133-4. 

29 Weber (1981), p. 500. 


Elizabeth Ashman Rowe 

30 Olafr Tryggvason's threats against Iceland and his keeping Icelandic hostages at court 
could be interpreted as equivalent to the use of force and punishment by which he converted 
Norway; see Weber (1981), p. 500. 

31 Weber (1981), pp. 502-3, and (1987), pp. 125-7. 

32 Oddr Snorrason’s Saga of Olafr Tryggvason gives this as Olafr's response to 
frangbrandr's report of the failed mission: 'The king became very angry when he heard this and 
had the Icelanders seized. Some he plundered, some he killed, and some he maimed' (The Saga 
of Olaf Tryggvason [(by) Oddr Snorrason], trans. by Theodore M. Andersson, Islandica 52 
[Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003], p. 90). In Snorri Sturlason's version, the king is angry 
but calms down after hearing from the Icelanders at court: 'Olafr konungr var6 sva o6r ok reidr, 
at hann let blasa ollum islenzkum monnum saman, Jreim er [>ar varu i boenum, ok mrelti sidan, 
at alia skyldi drepa. En Kjartan ok Gizurr ok Hjalti ok adrir Jjeir, er [sa hofdu vid kristni tekit, 
gengu til konungs ok masltu, "Eigi muntu, konungr, vilja ganga a bak ordum Jnnum, jrvi at ]tu 
maelir sva, at engi madr skal sva mikit hafa gort til reidi [tinnar, at eigi viltu [tat upp gefa Jteim, 
er skirask vilja ok lata af heidni..." Tok \>i konungr at hlyda a slikar rcedur' [King Olafr became 
so furious and angry that he had all the Icelandic men summoned together, those who were 
there in town, and then he said that they should all be killed. But Kjartan and Gizurr and Hjalti 
and those others who had converted to Christianity went to the king and said, ’Your majesty, 
you will not want to go back on your word, because you say that no man who wants to be 
baptized and refrain from heathendom will give you such great cause for anger that you will not 
pardon him...' Then the king began to listen to such counsels] (Heimskringla, ed. by Bjami 
Adalbjamarson, Islenzk fomrit 26.1 [Reykjavik: Hid islenzka fomritafelag, 1979], pp. 332-3). 

33 For discussion of some of these debates, see Sverrir Tomasson, Formalar tslenskra 
sagnaritara a midoldum: Rannsokn bokmenntahefdar, Stofnun Ama Magnussonar a Islandi, 
Rit 33 (Reykjavik: Stofnun Ama Magnussonar, 1988), pp. 194-208 and 410, and Sverre Bagge, 
Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (Berkeley: University of California 
Press, 1991), p. 29. 


Polysemy in Middle English entbosen and 
the Hart of The Book of the Duchess 

David Scott-Macnab 

Many scholars have drawn attention to those narrative features in Chaucer's Book 
of the Duchess —particularly at the start and close of the dream sequence—that 
seem intended to evoke the fluidity, the strange transitions and the uncertainties 
of an authentic dream experience . 1 These are now widely accepted as important 
characteristics of the poem, yet dream-like fluidity is not the same as vagueness, 
either of purpose or of style, and imprecision of that sort is assuredly not a quality 
of The Book of the Duchess. In one area, in particular, we may be confident that 
Chaucer could not possibly afford any hint of laxity or imprecision to affect his 
narrative: namely, in his use of specialised hunting terms to introduce and 
describe the action of Octovyen's hunt. In a poem intended for a cynegetically 
knowledgeable court audience, and with a nobleman, John of Gaunt, appearing 
(thinly disguised) as a major character, it is unthinkable that the young poet would 
have chosen his words from the hunting lexicon with anything less than a clear 
sense of their contemporary currency, and an equally clear sense of their 
relevance to his overall purpose. To do otherwise would surely have been to risk 
losing credibility, both for himself and his poem, among the very people he most 
needed to impress. 

It therefore makes sense to strive for accuracy in our understanding of 
Chaucer's hunting terminology, not only for what it reveals about events 
themselves, but also for its possible structural, thematic or metaphorical 
implications in the poem as a whole. I have explored such ideas in an earlier 
article focussing on the main events of Octovyen's hunt;- in this study I wish to 
examine a hunting expression that was overlooked in my earlier article, but which 
continues to give rise to confusion. 

David Scott-Macnab 

When the mournful narrator of The Book of the Duchess 'wakes' in his dream, he 
lies for a while in bed marvelling in turn at the melodious sounds of birdsong and 
the magnificently glazed windows and painted walls of his chamber, which 
depict, among other things, 'al the story of Troye' and 'the Romaunce of the Rose' 
(11. 291-334). 3 Finally he becomes aware of the splendour of the day without, 
before suddenly hearing a group of hunters busily preparing for a day's sport and 
discussing it in such detail that he gives up trying to recall everything they said: 

And as I lay thus, wonder lowde 
Me thoght I herde an hunte blowe 
T'assay hys horn and for to knowe 
Whether hyt were clere or hors of soun. 

And I herde goynge bothe up and doun 
Men, hors, houndes, and other thyng; 

And al men speken of huntyng. 

How they wolde slee the hert with strengthe. 

And how the hert had upon lengthe 

So moche embosed—y not now what. (11. 344-53) 

The arrival of the hunters quickens the narrator's consciousness, drawing him 
away from his drowsy contemplations of literary lovers and into a world of 
purposeful masculine action. With a renewed blitheness, he grabs his horse and 
joins the hunters, who he learns are servants of the emperor Octovyen (11. 354- 
68). The action moves on with extraordinary swiftness, enhanced by a terseness 
of style that seems intended to evoke the 'fot-hot' nature of the chase itself; and 
then, all too soon, the hunt is over, or at least suspended for the time being when 
the hart manages to escape from its pursuers (11. 370-86). 

To return to the beginning, however, what is it that the narrator first leams 
from the hunters' animated chatter outside his chamber window, and how is it 
relevant to the unfolding events of the narrative? In fact, only two salient details 
emerge, both couched in the specialised language of the hunt: first, that the 
hunters intend to 'slee the hert with strengthe' and, secondly, that 'the hert had 
upon lengthe / So moche embosed' (11. 351-3). The first of these is not 
problematic; described most simply, the hunt with strength—from French a force, 
sometimes par force de chiens —was a hunt conducted with horse and hounds. 4 
Not nearly so straightforward is Chaucer's disclosure that the hart (a male red deer 
aged six years or more) 'had [. . .] embosed'; this apparently simple statement has 


Polysemy in Middle English embosen and the Hart of The Book of the Duchess 

been the subject of considerable disagreement and continues to be glossed in a 
way that, as I shall show, misses Chaucer’s point entirely. 

Commentators and editors have generally adopted one of two rival 
interpretations. On the one hand are those, such as Walter Skeat, Norman Davis 
and J. H. Fisher, who believe that the hunters are saying that the stag has secluded 
itself deeply in a wood; 5 on the other are equally influential voices, such as those 
of O. F. Emerson and F. N. Robinson, who claim that tire statement reveals instead 
that the hart has been exhausted and is foaming at the mouth as a consequence of hard 
running. 6 To complicate matters further, there is divergence between the two most 
authoritative sources on English language, with the first reading being endorsed by 
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED , s.v. emboss, v. 2 1), and the second by the 
Middle English Dictionary {MED, s.v. embosen, v.). 7 Regrettably, there is no 
authoritative verdict to be found in The Riverside Chaucer, which merely 
reiterates both interpretations, though apparently favouring the MED , 8 This is 
unfortunate, since the first reading—that the stag is sequestered in the depths of 
the forest—is in all respects the better of the two, as A. C. Baugh has 
convincingly shown. 9 The present study attempts to settle the dispute finally in 
favour of the OED by offering corroborating evidence that has not previously been 
considered. But it also goes further, in reconsidering the overall treatment of 
emboss by both the MED and the OED, and then suggesting a fresh explanation for 
the development of the various senses associated with this word. 

First, however, it is necessary to dismiss the ingenious, but maverick, 
interpretation of E. T. Donaldson, who paraphrases the lines 'how the hert had 
upon lengthe / So rnoche embosed' as meaning 'how much in length [the stag's] 
antlers had grown'. 10 Although Donaldson supplies no supportive etymology, it 
seems most likely that he has read Chaucer's verb as a form of ME embocen (var. 
embossen < OF embocer ), which is glossed by the MED as meaning 'to bulge or 
be bloated', 'to cause to bulge', even 'to be hunchbacked'. 11 Donaldson's 
paraphrase implicitly postulates an unattested transferred sense of the word, 
which goes beyond the main notions of bulging, swelling or protruding, to signify 
the considerable growth that takes place in a red deer's antlers. But this is to 
stretch the meaning of the word beyond anything that the available evidence will 
support. Although it is just conceivable that ME embocen could describe the 
budding of a new set of antlers, no citation in the MED shows that it was ever 
used that way, let alone for the burgeoning of a head of ten or more tines ('points') 
such as a 'chaseable' hart was expected to possess. 12 


David Scott-Macnab 

Equally problematic, for other reasons, is O. F. Emerson's proposal that 
Octovyen's hunters are discussing a previous day's hunt in which a stag was 
hunted to exhaustion and therefore foaming at the mouth. According to Emerson's 
paraphrase, the hunters are saying that'[. . .] the hart had, after a long run [upon 
lengthe ], so much exhausted himself [50 moche embosed] [. . .] that he had at last 
succumbed to their long continued efforts'. 13 The suggestion may seem appealing 
and plausible, were it not for the fact that it casts the hunters' animated 
conversation as boastful reminiscence, which is totally out of place here. 
According to Chaucer's account, the narrator hears the hunters talking about 'How 
they wolde slee the hert with strengthe' (11. 350-1): that is, anticipating the hunt to 
come. Emerson's notion that they should then immediately start talking about 
another hart, which had been successfully slain on a previous occasion, subverts 
the logic both of Chaucer's syntax and of the situation he describes. For it is 
important to see that everything in Chaucer's account at this point revolves around 
the hart-hunt that is about to take place, with the narrative moving inexorably, and 
with ever-intensifying concentration, towards that event. 

Middle English embosen and Early Modern English emboss; 
origins and evolution 

Turning to the MED, we find the verb embosen defined as follows: 'Of game: to 
become exhausted from being hunted'. An enigmatic etymological note posits a 
derivation from OF bos, bois 'woods, chace' without any indication of how this 
could have produced the specified sense. No other grammatical information is 
supplied, nor any subdivisions of senses or uses to which the verb was put. Only 
two examples are cited for the one definition: The Book of the Duchess 1. 353 and 
a passage from the fifteenth-century verse romance Generydes, which tells of the 
magical appearance of a stag before Auferius, the king of India, as he stands in 
the bed-chamber of a beautiful seductress (the faery Sereyne). The event is 
narrated thus: 

Anone vppon as she these wordis saide, 

Ther come an hert in att the chaunber dore 
All embosed; the kyng was sore dismayede, 

Semyng to hym, as it passid in the flore, 

It was the same he chased in the more [. . .] (11. 78-82) 14 


Polysemy in Middle English embosen and the Hart of The Book of the Duchess 

Here it is clear that the main distinguishing feature of the stag is that it is 
'embosed' (1. 80), which dismays the king and prompts him to think that this must 
be the same stag he had hunted earlier that day. The narrative point is that 
Auferius now realises that the stag has somehow been responsible for leading him 
to his current predicament; for our purposes, the passage reveals a sequence of 
ideas that makes the poet's intended meaning easy to construe: the king recognises 
the stag by certain characteristics, and chiefly by the fact that the animal is 'all 
embosed', which identifies it as having been involved in a lengthy chase. 

If to be 'embosed' is to show the signs of a long chase, the stag would be 
panting heavily, rolling its eyes, sweating freely and foaming at the mouth, some 
of which we leam from the verse Poke of Huntyng (Rawlinson text), when it 
describes how, 'whan |ie hert negh is dede / Then castes he Joe froth al blode 
rede'. 15 This is confirmed by a somewhat later source—George Gascoigne's 
treatise, The Noble Arte of Venerie or Hunting (1575)—which states, 'When he 
[the hart] is foamy at the mouth, we saye he is embost'. ,6 But is Gascoigne's sense 
what is intended in Generydes ? Is Auferius' hart one that is generally harried and 
exhausted? Or is it, more specifically, one that has reached the extremity of 
exhaustion and is therefore foaming at the mouth (and perhaps casting flecks of 
that foam as it runs)? Unfortunately, we cannot be absolutely sure in this context, 
yet the distinction is important as it concerns our understanding of the several 
meanings that attach to this word, and the chronology of their development. 

In spite of this uncertainty, we can nevertheless accept that the way in 
which embosed is used in Generydes fits reasonably well with the gloss supplied 
by the MED, even if the supposed origins of the word in OF bois remain 
obscure. 17 We now need to ask if the same can be said of the relevant passage in 
The Book of the Duchess, which differs from Generydes in two important 
respects. In the first place, the stag in Generydes is one that has already been 
chased for much of the day, whereas in The Book of the Duchess the hunt has not 
yet started. Secondly, the grammatical characteristics of embosed diverge in the 
two texts. In Generydes, the word is an adjectival past participle (that is, a past 
participle in form, an adjective in function) describing the condition of the stag 
('an hert [. . .] all embosed'), whereas in The Book of the Duchess it is an active, 
intransitive verb indicating something that the stag has accomplished itself (the 
hunters discuss 'how the hert had [. . .] so moche embosed'). This distinction is 
vital because it marks two very different senses of the word, both of which relate 
to hunting, but whose relation to each other is less than clear. 


David Scott-Macnab 

Before analysing the evidence further, we may reflect that one of the main 
difficulties with our current understanding of ME embosen (var. enbosen ) is that 
it has so few recorded occurrences. Only The Book of the Duchess and Generydes 
are cited by the MED, and in both of these the word's meaning has to be teased 
from the context. Furthermore, unlike many other ME hunting terms, embosen is 
not recorded in any English hunting treatise of the period, which means that we 
lack the considerable clarifying potential of such texts, and are forced to rely on 
the evidence of later witnesses to make sense of the word in earlier ones. Another 
thorny matter is that the Chaucerian usage—where the verb is active and 
intransitive—appears to be exceedingly rare, with no other attestation in the OED 
until the late seventeenth century. 18 

Unlike the MED, the OED distinguishes Chaucer's use of emboss from the 
sense discernible in Generydes, defining it as the original and principal 
signification of the verb (s.v. emboss, v. 2 ): 

fl. intransitive]. Of a hunted animal: To take shelter in, plunge into, a 
wood or thicket. Obs[olete ]. 

Here at last is a definition that can be reconciled with borrowing from OF bois 
(specifically, em (= en) + bois), making sense of the unexplained etymology in 
the MED. The word's other main meanings—literal, figurative and 
transferred—relating to, and deriving from, the exhausting or exhaustion of a 
hunted animal are set out by the OED as follows: 

f 2. To drive (a hunted animal) to extremity. Obs[olete\. 
f 3. In pass[ive] of a hunted animal: To be exhausted by running; hence, to 
foam at the mouth (as a result of exhaustion in running). Also transferred] 
of persons: ( a ) To be exhausted, at the last extremity of fatigue; ( b ) to foam 
at the mouth (from rage, etc.). Obs[olete], 

4. trans[itive]. To cover with foam (the mouth, the body of an animal). 

Summarising the evidence, we find that examples of emboss are rare in Middle 
English, but numerous in the Early Modem period; indeed, from the early 
sixteenth century onwards, there is no shortage of witnesses for a cluster of 
related senses to do with exhaustion—being exhausted, or being made 
exhausted—and only two (from Milton and Samuel Butler) exemplifying the 


Polysemy in Middle English embosen and the Hart of The Book of the Duchess 

original, Chaucerian sense of the word. 19 Without duplicating the precise 
semantic divisions made by the OED , we can see from these later witnesses that 
emboss can indicate: (i) the action of hunting an animal hard so as to exhaust it; 
(ii) the condition of being harried, frenzied or exhausted by being so hunted, or by 
the act of hunting itself; or (iii) the foaming at the mouth caused by the frenzy or 
exhaustion brought about by the chase. In transferred or figurative uses, 
exhaustion of any kind can be intended, and the foaming or frenzy can come from 
rage, distemper or any other violent emotion. The word was clearly popular and 
widely used in richly varied contexts, even if all its senses are now considered 
obsolete or archaic. 

For our purposes, what is significant is that the senses relating to 
exhaustion and its consequences (specifically, foaming at the mouth) appear at an 
early stage and very quickly predominate—at least as far as surviving evidence 
shows. And although these several senses all indicate a genesis in the hunt, even 
early examples may be divorced from hunting contexts. Indeed, as early as 1523, 
Skelton uses emboss without any reference to the hunt. In his poem Howe the 
Douty Duke of Albany, Skelton rails against Henry VIII's detractors in the 
following terms: 'Than ye be a knappishe sorte /[...] With your enbosed jawes / 
To rayle on hym lyke dawes'. 20 From the context, we may deduce that persons 
with 'enbosed' jaws are frothing at the mouth from some cause other than by 
being hunted or chased: in this case, a condition of lunacy or idiocy is implied. 
Such an early use of this transferred sense of the verb, with no reference to the 
hunting field, is particularly noteworthy. 21 

In another poem, also from 1523, Skelton uses the past participial form of 
emboss more conventionally to denote the frenzy of an animal pursued by 
hounds. In the Garlande or Chapelet of Laurell, Skelton depicts himself'[. . .] in 
the frytthy forest of Galtres, /[...] Where hartis belluyng, embosyd with distres, / 
Ran on the raunge so longe, that I suppose / Few men can tell where the hynde 
calfe gose'. 22 Skelton's 'embosyd' is here traditionally glossed as meaning 
'exhausted with running', in spite of the awkwardness that this imposes on the line; 
'frenzied' or 'maddened' (by being pursued) would suit both the context and the 
syntax far better. 23 And that is precisely how the word is used when Shakespeare's 
Cleopatra calls out, 'Help me, my women! O, he's more mad / Than Telamon for his 
shield; the boar of Thessaly / Was never so emboss'd' (i.e. frenzied). 24 

Yet it is important to see that both quotations from Skelton exemplify 
shifts away from the supposed prototypical senses derived from venery, 'to be 
exhausted through being hunted', and 'to exhaust in pursuit'. Ironically, in order to 


David Scott-Macnab 

find incontrovertible examples of these senses, we need to look later in time (by 
at least half a century), not earlier. The notion of being exhausted through being 
hunted is expressed by emboss unambiguously for the first time in Gascoigne's 
Noble Arte of Venery (1575), where the author explains how a huntsman needs to 
judge any deer that runs past him, in case it is being mistakenly pursued by 
hounds that have gone astray: 

and if peraduenture it happen that the pricker on horsebacke 
being at his relaye, should see an Hart of tenne passe by him, and 
yet heare not the other huntsmen, nor their homes, then let him 
looke wel whether the Hart be embost or not, and what houndes 
they were that came with him. And if he perceiue that they were 
choyse hounds and such as will not hunt chaunge [the wrong 
quarry], then ought he to blowe as loude as he can for other 
hounds, and to call in helpe. 25 

As in Generydes, Gascoigne's embost must mean that the hart is showing 
signs of having been pursued for a long time, which would distinguish it from an 
animal that has been mistakenly taken up by some of the less reliable hounds. 
And Gascoigne's use of the adjectival past participle is also noteworthy because 
this is the form in which the word is cast in the great majority of recorded cases. 

Likewise, the active, transitive form of the verb (meaning 'to exhaust in 
pursuit') is not recorded until 1602-3, when Shakespeare has a conspiratorial 
Frenchman say of his intended victim, 'But we have almost emboss'd him, you 
shall see his / fall to-night; for indeed, he is not for your lordship's / respect'. 26 

Further, peripheral developments will not be discussed here, such as the 
emergence of the variant forms imbost and imbosted, and the parallel formation 
imbosk (< Italian imboscare), during the late sixteenth century. It remains only to 
observe that the brief survey sketched out above agrees broadly with the OED in 
most respects, but differs over certain details of interpretation, and especially 
over shades of meaning that are not acknowledged by that dictionary: most 
especially, my suggestion that embossed can mean 'harried', 'stressed', 'hard- 
pressed' or 'frenzied', as well as 'exhausted'. And another point that the OED 
fails to make is that embossed was not restricted to the quarry of a chase, but 
could apply to the pursuers as well, as we learn from an unnamed lord in The 
Taming of the Shrew, who commands his huntsman to 'tender well my hounds. / 


Polysemy in Middle English embosen and the Hart of The Book of the Duchess 

Breathe [Folio: Brack] Merriman, the poor cur is emboss'd, / And couple 
Clowder with the deep-mouth'd brach'. 27 

Yet one fundamental issue remains, namely, how emboss came to develop 
its several senses pertaining to exhaustion and foaming at the mouth, when its 
roots clearly relate to the action of entering a forest (en + bois). 28 The OED 
admits to considerable uncertainty over this matter, observing in its general 
prefatory comments, 'The development of senses [. . .] is strange, but appears to 
be in accordance with the existing evidence'. Under sense 2, 'To drive (a hunted 
animal) to extremity', we find the further admission, 'The sense "drive to a 
thicket", required by the etymology above suggested, is not clearly evidenced'; 
and sense 3 (b), 'to foam at the mouth', is accompanied by the comment, 'The 
sense "to foam at the mouth" is prob. influenced by EMBOSS v. 1 , as if an 
"embossed stag" were one "studded" with bubbles of foam.' 29 This final 
suggestion must be admired for its ingenuity but it seems unsatisfactory, 
desperate even, with not so much as a hint of support from the available evidence. 
Even so, there may well be a kernel of truth in the idea that emboss v. 1 influenced 
the development of polysemy in emboss v. 2 . 

The principal meanings of emboss v. 1 , evident as early as the fifteenth 
century, are 'to bulge, swell' or 'to cause to bulge', as in Lydgate's advice to a 
youth concerning table-manners: 'To enboce thy Iowis withe mete is nat diewe'. 30 
And from the mid-sixteenth century we find that verb is used figuratively, to 
indicate the inflating of oneself or one's demeanour; hence, pomposity, tumidity 
of style. 31 Could it be that such general notions of swelling or inflating could 
have been carried over to emboss v. 2 , when applied to an animal that was seen to 
be panting, hyperventilating, sweating, lolling out its tongue, rolling its eyes and 
frothing at the mouth? There is no recorded evidence that makes such an 
association explicit, but it seems rather more plausible than thinking of a stag as 
being 'studded' with bubbles of foam. 

Leaving the realms of speculation, there is other, more concrete evidence 
that does indeed show why an exhausted stag might be called 'embossed'. Once 
again, the sources are not medieval, but what they describe is just as relevant to 
the medieval hunt as to their own period, namely, the appearance and behaviour 
of a stag when it is nearing the end of its strength. First, from Michael Drayton's 
Legend of Matilda (1594), comes an extended simile which reveals that a weary 
deer starts looking for places to hide itself: 


David Scott-Macnab 

When, like a Deere, before the Hounds imbost, 

When him his strength beginneth to forsake, 

Leaves the smooth Launds to which he trusted most, 

And to the Covert doth himselfe betake 
Doubling, and creepes from Brake againe to Brake, 

Thus still I shift me from the Princes Face, 

Who had me then continually in Chace. 32 

The verisimilitude of this image is confirmed by Gervase Markham, who observes 
that,'[. . .] when a Stagge is wearie [. . .] he will tappish oft, that is, hee wil euer and 
anon be lying downe and lurking in darke holes and comers [. . ,]'. 33 And a very 
similar description occurs in William Warner's allegorical hunt of Cupid: 

Sweet Cynthea, rate the eger Curre, and so my foe preuent, 

For, loe, a farre, my chased Heart imboste and almost spent. 

Thankes, gentle Goddesse, now the Lad pursues a booties chace: 

My Heart recouers Couerte wheare the Hound cannot hold pace. 

Now tappas closely, silly Heart, vnrowse not and so liue. 34 

In other words, an exhausted stag will try to hide from pursuing hounds by re¬ 
entering covert, which is precisely the action denoted by the component parts of 
emboss : 'into + woods'. We may plausibly infer that a deer came to be described 
as 'embossed' ('exhausted') when it had reached such a level of fatigue that it 
would start looking for a woodland refuge—a brake, thicket or other area of dense 
undergrowth—in which to hide from its tormentors or, in the last resort, to 
confront them by turning and standing 'at (a) bay'. 35 

Chaucer's hart reconsidered 

So much for embossed in its widely attested denotations of exhaustion or 
exhausting (through hunting or being hunted), and the attendant physical 
manifestations of that condition. Returning to the hart that 'had upon lengthe / So 
moche embosed' in The Book of the Duchess, we can see more clearly how 
different is Chaucer's verb from those examples discussed above, and 
consequently how inappropriate is the MED' s gloss of this passage. In The Book 
of the Duchess, the agent of the action is the hart itself, which must indicate that 


Polysemy in Middle English embosen and the Hart of The Book of the Duchess 

the animal cannot be 'embossed' in the same way as one that has been pursued by 
hounds. Furthermore, as I have already observed, the hunt is an event that has yet 
to occur in the poem, so it makes little sense that the hunters should be discussing 
how the animal had been driven to exhaustion. If that had occurred, the hart 
would almost certainly be dead, not reappearing to be hunted another day. 

Given the context in which it occurs, there is every reason to suppose that 
Chaucer's embosed is a technical hunting term that in some way derives from 
French, though it is not borrowed from any immediate source of The Book of the 
Duchess itself. For Joseph Mersand, it is simply one of '[. . .] several words 
pertaining to the chase and to hunting that probably were used too frequently in 
the conversation of the polite society of the time to have necessitated borrowing 
from a French original'. 36 Middle English forms of the word— embosed , enbosed, 
enbosid —all indicate a derivation from OF bois, resulting in a term cognate with 
OF embuschier (var. embo(s)chier, embuissier, embuiser), which had a variety of 
meanings, among them, 'to ambush', 'to send into a forest' (as with pigs for the 
purpose of feeding), and '(of game) to withdraw into covert'. 37 The last of these is 
a specifically hunting sense, which usually, though not always, requires the verb 
to be used reflexively. In the thirteenth-century instructional poem La chace dou 
cerf for example, the huntsman, accompanied by his tracking hound, or limer, is 
advised to be extremely cautious when stalking the hart to its lair—literally, the 
place where it is 'enbochiez' ('embossed'): 

Et quant tu ceras aprochies 
De lou li cers ert enbochiez, 

Fai tenir ton chien et descent, 

Et puis si sui tot belement. 

[And when you have drawn near / to the place where the hart is 
embossed, / let your hound be held and dismount, / and then 
follow very carefully.] 38 

The prose manual Les livres du roy Modus et de la royne Ratio (c. 1354-76) gives 
much the same advice to hunters setting out on their morning quest for a suitable 
quarry: 'Et les veneurs doivent aler entour le buisson atout leurs limiers et prendre 
garde se il s'enboche [var. s'embusche , s'embosque ] gueres de bestes u buisson de 
la nuit' [And the hunters should go around the thicket with their limers and take 
note whether any animals are (still) embossed in the thicket from the night 
(before)]. 39 Likewise in the Livre de chasse (1387-c. 1391) by Gaston Phebus, 


Polysemy in Middle English embosen and the Hart of The Book of the Duchess 

the animal cannot be 'embossed' in the same way as one that has been pursued by 
hounds. Furthermore, as I have already observed, the hunt is an event that has yet 
to occur in the poem, so it makes little sense that the hunters should be discussing 
how the animal had been driven to exhaustion. If that had occurred, the hart 
would almost certainly be dead, not reappearing to be hunted another day. 

Given the context in which it occurs, there is every reason to suppose that 
Chaucer's embosed is a technical hunting term that in some way derives from 
French, though it is not borrowed from any immediate source of The Book of the 
Duchess itself. For Joseph Mersand, it is simply one of '[. . .] several words 
pertaining to the chase and to hunting that probably were used too frequently in 
the conversation of the polite society of the time to have necessitated borrowing 
from a French original'. 36 Middle English forms of the word— embosed, enbosed, 
enbosid —all indicate a derivation from OF bois, resulting in a term cognate with 
OF embuschier (var. embo(s)chier, embuissier, embuiser), which had a variety of 
meanings, among them, 'to ambush', 'to send into a forest' (as with pigs for the 
purpose of feeding), and '(of game) to withdraw into covert'. 37 The last of these is 
a specifically hunting sense, which usually, though not always, requires the verb 
to be used reflexively. In the thirteenth-century instructional poem La chace dou 
cerf for example, the huntsman, accompanied by his tracking hound, or limer, is 
advised to be extremely cautious when stalking the hart to its lair—literally, the 
place where it is 'enbochiez' ('embossed'): 

Et quant tu ceras aprochies 
De lou li cers ert enbochiez, 

Fai tenir ton chien et descent, 

Et puis si sui tot belement. 

[And when you have drawn near / to the place where the hart is 
embossed, / let your hound be held and dismount, / and then 
follow very carefully.] 38 

The prose manual Les livres du roy Modus et de la royne Ratio (c. 1354-76) gives 
much the same advice to hunters setting out on their morning quest for a suitable 
quarry: 'Et les veneurs doivent aler entour le buisson atout leurs limiers et prendre 
garde se il s'enboche [var. s'embusche , s'embosque] gueres de bestes u buisson de 
la nuit' [And the hunters should go around the thicket with their limers and take 
note whether any animals are (still) embossed in the thicket from the night 
(before)]. 39 Likewise in the Livre de chasse (1387-c. 1391) by Gaston Phebus, 


David Scott-Macnab 

Comte de Foix: 'Et, si il voit cerf chassable, si regarde quel part il s'enbuschera ne 
entrera la ou il ne le puisse plus veoir, si aille fere une brisee' [And if he (the 
tracker) sees a huntable stag, let him note where he embossed himself, and not enter 
where he cannot see him any more, but rather let him break a twig (as a marker)]. 40 

In Old French and Anglo-Norman there is also the related noun 
embuschement ( emboschement , embouschement), which denotes 'an ambush' or 'a 
hiding-place' (usually in a forest); in hunting contexts, it also indicates the place 
where an animal (often a deer, commonly a hart) enters the woods to seclude 
itself in its lair, to hide or rest after feeding. 41 In Modus et Ratio, for example, the 
huntsman who sets out to track the hart in the morning is advised: 'Trai donques 
tout l'embouchement entre les champs et le bois, et met ton limier devant toi' 
[Then investigate the whole 'embushment' between the fields and the wood, and 
let your limer go ahead of you]. 42 And Gaston Phebus has similar counsel for a 
tracker looking for a potential quarry in woodlands with tall trees ('hauz boys'): 
'Et, quant il en encontrera aux champs de chose qui li plaise, il doit trere 
l'embuschement pour le mettre au fort entre les champs et le bois' [And when he 
(the tracker) finds anything encouraging in the fields (indicating a huntable stag), 
he should investigate the 'embushment' between the fields and the wood in order 
to follow (the stag) to its thicket]. 42 

The circumstances in which embuschier and embuschement occur in 
French hunting texts are highly informative and fit the Chaucerian context well. 
They reveal that a well-secluded hart was precisely what one would expect to 
find, and to hear discussed, before the start of a hunt with strength. These texts 
also show that a hart known to be so sequestered in its lair (its giste or fort) 44 
would be one that had been properly 'harboured' by a limerer (a tracker) early in 
the morning, which seems to be precisely what Chaucer's narrator hears being 
recounted. 45 Some background information may be useful here. 

Harbouring involved the selection of a suitable quarry for a day's sport, and 
was an operation of vital significance to the hunt with strength. It was the first 
stage in the elaborate ritual of choosing, separating, and pursuing a specific hart, 
which is how the hunt with strength was conducted. Edward Plantagenet 
describes the finer details of harbouring the quarry in ten chapters of his hunting 
treatise. The Master of Game (c. 1406-13), emphasising throughout what care the 
harbourer must take to ensure that he knows precisely which is the best stag, and 
where that animal has hidden itself in the woods (caps 23-32). 46 Having made his 
observations, the harbourer has to return to the 'assembly', where his master is 
waiting, report his findings, and offer such evidence as he has been able to gather, 


Polysemy in Middle English embosen and the Hart of The Book of the Duchess 

including, for example, some of the stag's 'fumes' (its droppings; Master of Game, 
caps 26, 33). There are many passages that could be usefully quoted, but one is 
conspicuously relevant. Closely following his source, the Livre de chasse, Edward 
describes the often lengthy process required for discovering the hart's lair, allowing it 
to settle there, and ensuring that it stays put. The harbourer, says Edward: 

shuld also clymbe vp on tree bi cause J?at Jre hert shuld wynde no 
{ring of hym [. . .] And if he se an hert stondyng stably he must 
loke wel what contre he shal goo to his leire [Gaston: quel part il 
s'enbuschera]', [. . .] but he must abide a grete while for sumtyme 
an hert wil stalle and loke about a greet while or he wil go to his 
leire, [. . .] or ellis sumtyme he come{) out agayn for to loke about 
and for to herken, [. . .] and {^erfore he shal abide longe {rat he 
affray hym not. 47 

Even then the harbourer could not make his report: he still had to make a circuit 
of the covert to confirm that the hart had not left from the opposite side. 48 

It is clear, then, that a successful harbouring could take a long time, and that it 
was most confidently reported when the hart was securely sequestered in its 
lair; two conditions that usefully explain Chaucer's adverbial phrases 'upon 
lengthe' and 'so moche'. Emerson, who took these phrases as sure indicators of 
a lengthy pursuit, paraphrased them as saying, 'the hart had, after a long run, 
so much exhausted itself', 49 but in fact they make much better sense if 
understood in the context of a harbourer's report. As The Master of Game 
reveals, a hart might take a considerable time to settle securely in its lair (cf. upon 
lengthe), and the deeper it secluded itself in the wood (cf. so moche embosed) the 
more likely it was to remain there. Such facts are precisely what a harbourer 
would want to establish and report before the start of a hunt. They would indicate 
that the hart was safely secluded deep in the woods, from where it was unlikely to 
move, and that its position was exactly known: details that would certainly merit 
animated discussion amongst expectant huntsmen. 

This interpretation also helps to explain a novel aspect of Octovyen's hunt 
in The Book of the Duchess, which is that it begins with a mayster-hunte blowing 
three motes ('blasts') on his hunting horn, at which the running hounds are 
released at the stag ( The Book of the Duchess, 11. 372-7). This is noteworthy 
because it was more usual in the hunt with strength for the chosen hart to be first 


David Scott-Macnab 

'unharboured'—i.e. driven from its lair—by the limerer who had discovered it 
there, and only then for the running dogs to be released, or 'uncoupled', after it. It 
is clear, however, that the formal unharbouring of a stag did not always occur. 
Edward Plantagenet explains, for example, that hunters were sometimes too 
impatient (a situation he deplores), the quarry too restless, or the day too far 
advanced to risk further delays: 

this trewly no skylful hunter owejr to do but if [. . .] Jre deer be 
steryng in {re quarter and ha{r not abyde jre meving of the lymer, 
or ellis {rat it be so fer forfr daies {rat {re sonne ha{r dryed vp {re 
fues, and {rat {rei haue lytel day inowe to renne to hym and hunt 
hym wi{r strength. 50 

We may also infer that the unharbouring was unnecessary in certain situations: for 
example, if no specific, individual stag was being sought, or if a specific stag's 
position was so well known and so isolated that the running hounds (specifically 
the 'finders') could be released directly at it. 51 

There is a tradition that Edward III was the first English monarch to forgo 
the unharbouring, which raises the interesting possibility that Chaucer is 
deliberately alluding to the contemporary practices of the English court. 52 But it is 
also evident that the hunters' discussion about how the hart had 'so moche 
embosed'—in the sense 'gone deep into the forest'—would provide excellent 
grounds for waiving the unharbouring. For if the hart was known to be deeply 
secluded in a location that had been clearly marked by the habourer, 53 it could 
quite feasibly be 'run to' without being first unharboured. In other words, the 
omission of the unharbouring and the detail that the hart had 'moche embosed' 
support and infonn one another. In so doing, they lend further support to the view 
that the hunters, whose garbled chatter the newly awakened narrator first hears, 
are not boasting about a hart already hunted to exhaustion, but are planning, in the 
meticulous way appropriate to the hunt with strength, the pursuit of a particular 
hart—-indeed, we must assume, the very one that later 'yfounde ys’ (The Book of 
the Duchess, 1. 378). 

In conclusion, there are many good reasons for construing the 'embossed' 
hart of The Book of the Duchess as one that has secluded itself deep in the woods. 
Not only does this reading of Chaucer’s verb make the best possible sense in the 
context, it also helps to explain an unusual aspect of the hunt that ensues, and it 
matches Chaucer's usage with analogous French expressions which, in several 


Polysemy in Middle English embosen and the Hart of The Book of the Duchess 

respects, readily show the most likely origin and meaning of Chaucer's locution. 
If Mersand is right, Chaucer may not have actually coined emboss as an 
intransitive English verb, though his is certainly the first recorded use of it. We 
may speculate that if emboss had contemporary currency in Chaucer's England on 
the model of OF embuschier, it too would have been generally reflexive, which 
would mean that Chaucer is using the verb in an 'absolute' way—i.e. omitting the 
expected reflexive pronoun. 

Finally, to close the case with one further observation, this reading makes 
sense thematically too, for it draws attention to an important premonitory image. 
Even before the hunt begins, Chaucer's reference to the hart that has hidden 
(embossed) itself in a remote recess of the forest can be seen to anticipate the 
Man in Black whom the narrator presently discovers grieving in his own secluded 
covert—or, to borrow the appropriate term from Old French, 'embuschemenf— 
into which he has withdrawn, beset by cares, to meditate on his recent 
bereavement. 54 We may also then contrast the violent dislodging of the hart by 
Octovyen's hunters with the narrator's naively gentle inquisition of the Man in 
Black, leading to his eventual, cathartic disclosure of the matter bearing down on 
his heart: 'She ys ded [. . .] be my trouthe!’ (1. 1309). But such ideas lie beyond the 
scope of this enquiry. 


David Scott-Macnab 


1 See, for example, Georgia R. Crampton, 'Transitions and meaning in The Book of the 
Duchess', JEGP , 62 (1963), 486-500 (p. 492); James Winny, Chaucer’s Dream-Poems 
(London: Chatto and Windus, 1973), p. 55; Donald R. Howard, Chaucer: His Life, His Works, 
His World (New York: Dutton, 1987), pp. 153-4; Derek Brewer, A New Introduction to 
Chaucer , 2nd edn (London: Longman, 1998), p. 84. 

2 'A re-examination of Octovyen's hunt in The Book of the Duchess', Medium Asvum, 56 
(1987), 183-99. 

3 All references to the works of Chaucer are to The Riverside Chaucer, ed. by Larry D. 
Benson, 3rd edn (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987). 

4 The hunt with strength is described in detail by John Cummins, The Hound and the 
Hawk (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988), pp. 32-46; also Marcelle Thiebaux, 'The 
medieval chase', Speculum, 42 (1967), 265-74. 

5 The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. by W. W. Skeat, 2nd edn, 6 vols 
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894-1900), I 472; Norman Davis et al., A Chaucer Glossary 
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), s.v. embosed; The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey 
Chaucer, ed. by J. H. Fisher (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977), p. 549, n. 353. 

Oliver Farrar Emerson, 'Chaucer and medieval hunting', in Chaucer: Essays and 
Studies (Cleveland: Western Reserve University Press, 1929), pp. 320-77 (esp. pp. 323-30); 
The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. by F. N. Robinson, 2nd edn (London: Oxford University 
Press, 1957), Glossary, s.v. embosed. 

I The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn, prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. 
Weiner, 20 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989); Middle English Dictionary, ed. by Hans 
Kurath, S. M. Kuhn et al. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1954-2001). All citations 
have been checked against the current online editions of both dictionaries. 

8 Riverside Chaucer, p. 969, n. 353. The editors' citation of the OED is erroneous at this 
point; there is no headword enboss in that dictionary. 

9 A. C. Baugh, 'Two Middle English lexical notes'. Language, 37 (1961), 539-43 (pp. 

10 Chaucer's Poetry: An Anthology for the Modern Reader, ed. by E. T. Donaldson, 2nd 
edn (New York: Ronald Press, 1975), p. 595, n. 352-3. 

II MED, s.v. embocen v. 1; see also OED, s.v. emboss v. 1 1. 

12 For the sake of analogy, see MED for the related noun boce, sense 3: 'a bulge, swelling' 
etc. (cf. OED, s.v. boss sb. 1 La). The term 'chaseable' is used by Edward Plantagenet in his 
treatise The Master of Game: '(re vi yere [he is] an hert of x. And ]ran [. . .] is he schaceable for 


Polysemy in Middle English embosen and the Hart o/The Book of the Duchess 

alway bifore he shal be called but rascayle or foly'. The Master of Game by Edward of Norwich, 
Second Duke of York, ed. by W. A. and F. Baillie-Grohman (London: Ballantyne, Hanson, 
1904), p. 18 (punctuation mine). 

13 Emerson, 'Chaucer and medieval hunting 1 , p. 324 (interpolations in italics mine). 

14 Generydes: A Romance in Seven-Line Stanzas, ed. by W. A. Wright, EETS o.s. 55 and 
70 (London: Trubner, 1878). 

15 Rachel Hands, English Hawking and Hunting in 'The Boke of St. Albans' (London: 
Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 184,11. 539-40. 

16 Facsimile edition published as Turbervile's Booke of Hunting 1576 [s/c] (Oxford: 
Clarendon Press, 1908), p. 244. See also Gervase Markham, Countrey Contentments (1615; 
facsimile edn, Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1973), I 31 (sig. E4r): ’To know when a 
Stagge is wearie, you shall see him irnbost, that is, foaming and slauering about the mouth with 
a thicke white froth, his haire will looke blacke, shining and fowle with sweat [. . .]'. 

17 The MED’s gloss for Generydes would be improved if it read, . .] to be, or to 
become, exhausted from being hunted’ (emphasis mine). 

18 The OED cites the satiric poem, ’The Elephant in the Moon 1 , by Samuel Butler (d. 
1680): ’An Elephant from one of those / Two mighty Armies is broke loose, /[...] Look 
quickly, lest the Sight of us / Should cause the startled Beast t 1 imboss 1 : The Genuine Remains in 
Prose and Verse of Mr. Samuel Butler [. . .] with Notes by R. Thyer, 2 vols (London, 1759), I 8 
(11. 125-30). 

19 Unlike Butler (see preceding note), Milton uses the word as an adjectival (past) 
participle: ’Like that self-begott'n bird / In the Arabian woods embost': Samson Agonistes 
(1671), 11. 1699-1700, in The Riverside Milton, ed. by Roy Flannagan (Boston: Houghton 
Mifflin, 1998). Flannagan's note (p. 843, n. 315) is erroneous in claiming that 'the OED does 
not record Milton's usage'; see OED, emboss, v. 2 1. b. 

20 John Skelton, The Complete English Poems, ed. by John Scattergood (New Haven: 
Yale University Press, 1983), p. 370,11. 475-8. 

21 Compare Thomas Elyot, The Book Named The Governor (1531), facsimile edn, ed. by 
R. C. Alston (Menston: Scolar Press, 1970), II. vi: 'For who, beholdynge a man in estimation of 
nobilitie and wisedome, by furie chaunged in to an horrible figure, his face infarced with 
rancour, his mouthe foule and imbosed [. . .] wyll nat haue suche a passion in extreme 
detestation? 1 (punctuation mine). 

22 Ed. by Scattergood, p. 312,11. 22-6. 

23 See ibid.. Glossary, p. 537, s.v. embosyd\ OED, s.v. emboss, v. 2 3; 'exhausted with 
distress' does not make sense, whereas 'frenzied with distress' does. 


David Scott-Macnab 

24 Antony and Cleopatra, IV. xiii. 1-3. Except where otherwise indicated, all references 
to the works of Shakespeare are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. by G. Blakemore Evans et 
al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). 

25 Noble Arte of Venery, pp. 103-4; see also p. 118, where Gascoigne explains why a hart 
hates running into northerly or southerly winds: 'And if he should runne into any of those two 
windes, it would quickly enter his throte when he is embost and beginneth to be spent, and 
would drie his throte and his tongue sore [. . .]' (emphasis mine). 

26 All's Well that Ends Well, III. vi. 99-101. The French lord is speaking to Count 
Bertram about the parasitical Parolles. The OED (s.v. emboss v. 2 2) cites Spenser, The Faerie 
Queene, III. i. 22-3 as an earlier example: 'Like dastard Curres, that hauing at a bay / The 
saluage beast embost in wearie chace [. . .]'; ed. by A. C. Hamilton (London: Longman, 1977). 
But it is questionable whether the verb emboss is transitive in this instance; it makes better 
sense to read the required transitive verb as have ('hauing'), rather than 'hauing [. . .] embost'; 
i.e. the dogs are described as having (the beast) at bay, with the adjectival phrase 'embost in 
wearie chase' supplying supplementary, parenthetical information about the 'saluage beast'. 

27 Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, ed. by Brian Morris, The Arden Shakespeare 
(London: Methuen, 1981), Ind. i. 14-16. 

28 There is no connection with the modem American expressions 'to bush’ and 'to be 
bushed', meaning 'to (be) exhaust(ed)', which are first recorded as slang expressions in 1862 
and 1870: Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, ed. by J. E. Lighter (New 
York: Random House, 1994-). 

29 OED, s.v. emboss, v. 2 , 2-3. 

30 Stanspuer ad mensam, 1. 31, in The Babees Book etc., ed. by F. J. Fumivall, EETS o.s. 
32 (London: Trtibner, 1868, repr. 1997), p. 28. See also MED, s.v. embocen v. 

31 See, for example, Shakespeare, l Henry IV, III. iii. 156-7, when Prince Hal reprimands 
Falstaff for accusing Mistress Quickly of picking his pocket: 'Why, thou whoreson, impudent, 
emboss'd rascall [. . .]'. This postdates the OED' s earliest citation, which is from 1564: s.v. 
emboss v. 1 l.b; see also embossed, ppl. a. 1 4. 

32 The Legend of Matilda, 11. 386-92, in The Works of Michael Drayton, ed. by J. William 
Hebei, 5 vols (Oxford: Blackwell, 1961), II 422. 

33 Markham, Countrey Contentments (1615), p. 31 (sig. E4r). 

34 William Warner, Albions England (London, 1602), STC 25083, p. 175. 

35 See the quotation from Spenser already cited: 'Like dastard Curres, that hauing at a bay 
/ The saluage beast embost in wearie chase, / Dare not aduenture on the stubbome pray [. . .]' 
( Faerie Queene, III. i. 22). 

36 Joseph Mersand, Chaucer's Romance Vocabulary (New York: Comet Press, 1937), p. 
63 (see also p. 64). 


Polysemy in Middle English embosen and the Hart of The Book of the Duchess 

37 F. Godefroy, Dictionnaire de I'ancienne langue Frangaise de IXe au XVe siecle, 10 
vols (Paris: Vieweg, 1881-1902), III, IX, s.v. embuschier, verbe. Tobler-Lommatzsch, 
Altfranzosisches Worterbuch (Berlin: Weidmannsche, 1925-), s.v. embuschier, embuissier \ b., 
esp. col. 80: 'Jagd: vom Wild: sich in den Busch schlagen'. It is clear that ME embosen cannot, 
for phonological reasons, have descended directly from OF embuschier, it must be a parallel 
formation, either independently coined from bois, or perhaps modelled on Late Latin 
*inboscare (unattested) from which also derives Italian imboscare, whence, in turn, EMnE 
imbosk (see OED, s.v. imbosk, v.). 

38 La chace dou cerf, ed. by Gunnar Tilander, Cynegetica 7 (Stockholm: Offset-Lito, 
1960), 11. 205-8; all translations mine. Cf. II. 130-1, where a slightly different expression is 
used: 'li sers [. . .] va ramboschier' (lit. 'the hart [. . .] goes to re-emboss'—i.e., it 'returns to 

39 Les livres du roy Modus et de la royne Ratio , ed. by Gunnar Tilander, 2 vols (Paris: 
Societe des Anciens Textes Fran?ais, 1932), I, cap. 60. 60-2; see also cap. 60. 74-85. 

40 Gaston Phebus, Livre de chasse, ed. by Gunnar Tilander, Cynegetica 18 (Karlshamn: 
Johanssons, 1971), cap. 31. 7. 

41 See Tobler-Lommatzsch, s.v. embuschement, embuissement s. m., esp. col. 77: 'Jagd: 
Ort, wo das Wild nach dem Asen auf den Feldern in den Wald zuriickkehrt'. Anglo-Norman 
Dictionary, ed. by William Rothwell, Louise W. Stone et al. (London: Anglo-Norman Text 
Society, 1992), s.v. embuschement. 

42 Modus et Ratio, I, cap. 14. 70-71. Cf. ibid., 11. 75-6, 'et se il encontre de 1'embouchier, 
c'est comme il entre ou bois, gete une brisiee [. . .]' [and if he (the tracker) sees (signs of) 
'embushing', that is, going into the wood, let him make a marker]; and see also Livre de chasse, 
cap. 1.91. 

43 Livre de chasse, cap. 35. 15. Middle English had no cognate noun, as can be seen from 
Edward Plantagenet's choice of words when translating this passage: 'And whan he shal mete in 
[>e feeldis eny [tinge [tat hym likejt he shal drawe hym to his couert [/' embuschement], for to 
make hym drawe the sonner to his strength [au fort]'-. Master of Game, p. 90 (here, as 
elsewhere, I have expanded printed jf to fat). 

44 See Livre de chasse, caps 31.8; 33. 2; 34. 5; 35. 15, 24-5. 

45 Credit must go to A. C. Baugh for first suggesting that the narrator overhears a general 
discussion of a harbourer's report: 'Two lexical notes', pp. 540-41. 

46 Of these ten chapters, nine are largely translations of Gaston de Foix's Livre de chasse, 
while one (cap. 26) is Edward's own work; cf. Livre de chasse, caps 28-36. 

47 Master of Game, p. 86; cf. Livre de chasse, cap. 31. 7. 

48 Master of Game, pp. 83-4, 86. 


David Scott-Macnab 

49 'Chaucer and medieval hunting', p. 324; but the idea that a hart fleeing from hunters 
should be said to 'exhaust itself seems incongruous. 

50 Master of Game, p. 95 (punctuation mine); see also p. 18: 'An olde deer [. . .] is 
vncoupled to, as fie lymer menef) [r. meue|r] hym or ojrere houndes fynden hym wijsout limere 

51 See also Master of Game, p, 92, which describes how the unharbouring is not 
advisable when stags are in rut. Cf. The Tretyse off Huntyng, ed. by Anne Rooney (Brussels: 
Omirel, 1987), which devotes an entire section to hunting the hart with strength without having 
it first unharboured (11. 72-117). 

52 See G. K. Whitehead, Hunting and Stalking Deer in Britain through the Ages 
(London: Batsford, 1980), p. 16. 

53 Described in Master of Game, p. 86 ff. 

54 For embuschement as a 'hideaway', 'den' or 'refuge', see Guillaume de Palerne, ed. by 
Alexandre Micha (Geneva: Droz, 1990), 11. 3249, 3293, 6105. 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 


Catherine Batt and Christiania Whitehead 

The Christian soul is a castle that must be fortified against the attacks of the 
devil. It has long been acknowledged that the architectural metaphor of the 
soul as a besieged castle plays a key role in the literary construction of 
devotional identity in religious literature of the Middle Ages and the 
Renaissance, from Tertullian to Edmund Spenser. 1 Until recently, however, 
this authoritative focus on 'defensive' constructions of the self has been at the 
expense of the investigation of alternative spatializations, specifically, the 
construction of religious interiority as a domestic or household space. That 
neglect is now beginning to be redressed, in parallel with a growing interest 
in the political, economic and material dimensions of the medieval 
household." This tripartite article contributes to this process of redress; it has 
its origins in a conversation in which the three of us were intrigued at how 
the thirteenth- to fifteenth-century vernacular texts we were studying 
independently all in some way called on (sometimes startling) domestic imagery 
and reference for devotional purposes; and yet, in different contexts, local 
similarities might also make for rather different general effects, as the texts engage 
contrastingly as well as complementarily with metaphors of domestic space. 

Barbara Hanawalt and Michal Kobialka, introducing a collection of 
essays on Medieval Practices of Space , remind us that 'space' itself is by no 
means a given, but is shaped and re-shaped, both historically and 
experientially, and in the process of our attempt to conceptualize it and to 
understand how others perceive it: '[t]he practice of space in the Middle Ages 

Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

was never homogeneous, but always in flux .' 3 Hanawalt and Kobialka draw 
attention to the work of Henri Lefebvre, whose formulation of how we 
inhabit and perceive space is valuable to our investigations—at least in 
general terms—for the way in which it acknowledges and incorporates the 
interrelation of experience and conceptualization. Lefebvre writes of 
overlapping and fluid categories of 'spatial practice', 'representations of 
space', and 'representational spaces', which he understands on the level of 
social practice as, respectively, space 'perceived', 'conceptualized', and 'lived'. 
Representations of space alert us to the interconnectedness of produced 
spaces and to the codes one uses to understand them, while representational 
spaces open up the world of art, in which the realm of the imagination 'makes 
symbolic use’ of physical space . 4 Most interesting for our purposes is 
Lefebvre's definition of 'representational spaces' as sites of social and artistic 
interaction. If one might want to take issue with aspects of the detail of his 
categorisation (and also interrogate the broad distinction he makes, elsewhere 
in his work, between medieval 'feudal', and post-medieval 'capitalist' spaces), 
his method nonetheless illuminates the importance of social relations to 
constructions of space, an emphasis central to the argument in the first 
section of our tripartite article. In all our texts, social constructions of space and 
its perception are integral to the presentation and analysis of tropes of siege and 
of household, and the ways in which they draw on literary technique and lived 
experience is intrinsic to their dynamic as devotional writings. 

The Christian soul-or heart—is, then, a castle, and it can also be a 
household space. The following linked considerations examine some of the 
most extended and detailed developments of this figure to survive in texts of 
medieval English provenance. Focussing on texts united by their religious 
dedication, but otherwise very different from ■ one another, these 
considerations seek to elucidate the ways in which the trope of the household 
of the soul is moulded by time, genre and didactic purpose, as well as 
indicating how several of these texts prove amenable to later environments of 
reception distinctly different from those for which they were first conceived. 
Opening with a study of the evocation of figurative and physical household 
spaces in the early thirteenth-century Middle English Ancrene Wisse and 
Latin De doctrina cordis (with subsidiary reference to Sawles Warde ), in a 
way that especially draws attention to the importance of social relations to 
spatial practice, Denis Renevey will explore the ways in which these spaces 
signify within texts premised upon anchoritic and conventual enclosure, 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

together with the means by which they interact with their envisaged primary 
audiences of female religious. Catherine Batt's subsequent essay will contrast 
these clerical and institutional evocations of the moral household with an 
equivalent figurative episode in the mid-fourteenth-century Livre de Seyntz 
Medicines of Henry, duke of Lancaster, and comment on the different 
emphases that emerge as a result of Henry's gender, aristocratic and secular 
social circumstances, and of his relatively more 'personal' motivations in 
writing. Finally, Christiania Whitehead will focus upon an extended allegory 
of domestic management in St Bridget of Sweden's mid-fourteenth-century 
Liber celestis (in its fifteenth-century Middle English translation), and will 
examine the changes that occur when the 'household imaginary ' 5 transfers from 
its initial application to institutional women readers, to become reanimated by 
an aristocratic female prophet as an object of divine revelation. 

In addition to paying attention to the chronological evolution of this 
trope, and to its reformulation in response to the variables of textual genre, 
authorial circumstance and intention, and envisaged primary audience, we 
shall also locate our analyses with reference to recent debates upon the 
gendered character of medieval religious writing, enquiring whether the 
domestic and menial configuration of religious identity in texts initially 
designed for women religious is intrinsically disempowering , 6 or whether 
there is evidence that enables the construction of more nuanced models of 
reception. We shall also address some further implications of the domestic 
trope as a tool for shaping religious identity: the interaction between menial 
activity and contemplative passivity; the assumption of unruly psychological 
subordinates that require control or policing, and the presence of a degree of 
tension between material asceticism and spiritual acquisition and hoarding. 

Traditional discussions of the social uses of space have tended to take 
at face value medieval religious writers' insistence that there obtains a stark 
division between 'close' and 'commune' space (in modem terms, the private 
and public spheres); between the spaces of religious enclosure and open 
social commerce (taken to its greatest extreme in anchoritic literature), and 
between the domestic spaces of the convent and the aristocratic or gentry 
household. In every instance, our case studies reveal evidence that questions 
these traditional assumptions. They uncover patterns of permeability and 
interactivity in and around the anchorhold and the convent, and reveal 
significant areas of overlap between aristocratic and conventual household 
practice, and between aristocratic and sacred space. They also demonstrate 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

that, rather than remaining confined within fixed reading constituencies, 
many religious texts offering a domestic model of interiority were 
appropriated in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by mixed audiences of 
male and female enclosed, religious, and lay readers. Moreover, the various 
deployment of similar domestic imagery across different texts alerts us to the 
theological and spiritual strategies particular to each work. In addition to 
offering insight into the rich hybridity of late-medieval devotional reading 
communities, examination of domestic imagery also supports the important 
idea that, despite appearances, apparently 'feminized' systems of metaphor 
and models of selfhood quickly proved adaptable to different reading 
situations and varied audiences, and became credible for use by men as well 
as women, by lay Christians as well as enclosed. 

Figuring Household Space in Ancrene Wisse and The Doctrine of the Hert 7 

Denis Renevey 


At various moments in The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer situates his pilgrims' 
narratives both in a specific time scheme and in a detailed representational 
space, the latter marked by the reference to a pilgrimage journey from 
Southwark to Canterbury. Following the Knight's and Miller's Tales, Harry 
Bailey, mastermind of the tale competition that supposedly unfolds on the 
way to Canterbury, invites the Reeve to press on with his own story, with the 
mention of Deptford as the location on the Southwark-Canterbury axis, 
which has been reached by the company at round the liturgical hour of prime. 
Space plays an integral part in the development of the larger narrative 
which gives coherence to the deployment of the more specific spatial 
dimensions inherent in each of the Tales. The movement of the pilgrim- 
characters in the space configured by the Southwark-Canterbury journey is 
teleologically configured by the sacred dimension of the pilgrimage, 
whatever the specific intentions and degree of seriousness the characters 
may have had about their journey. Such a cosmic apprehension of space, 
inteipreted with a broad exegetical palette by the secular Chaucer, 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

nevertheless shows how the sacralization of space looms large in medieval 
culture and its literature. 

Although, as stated in the introduction, Lefebvre considers the 
capitalist period for his investigation of space in The Production of Space, 
his concept of space as revealing of social practice is useful to the analysis of 
the textual production of physical and mental spaces for the practice of 
religious activities. My analysis of the representation of secular space as 
social practice in two devotional works of the thirteenth century, Ancrene 
Wisse and The Doctrine of the Hert, shows a reversal in the process of the 
use of the cosmic dimension as defining space in Chaucer; in those works, 
the reader is invited to consider her/his own role in the cosmic order through 
the decoding of a mainly secular space, that of the medieval household, 
which is delineated by a multiplicity of social practices. 

Broader contextual approaches to anchoritism, with a study of the 
possible influences of, or parallels with, the continental feminine religious 
tradition, as well as the recent interest in the similarities between Ancrene Wisse 
and Latin continental preaching, invite a horizon of reading which suggests the 
co-existence of an insular tradition dating back to the Anglo-Saxon period, with 
the continental literature of confession and sermon literature which developed as 
a result of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) decisions on pastoral reform. 8 Both 
traditions need to be taken into account in order to discuss the features of the 
early Middle English text. According to Bella Millett, it is not impossible that 
Paris-trained preachers contributed to the revival of vernacular religious 
literature in the West Midlands, with the introduction of continental preaching 
practices fused with repackaged insular native preaching resources. 9 

Such new directions make possible a comparative study of the use of 
space in Ancrene Wisse, a South-West Midland text which belonged to the 
revival of vernacular literature mentioned by Millett, and De doctrina cordis, a 
Latin continental devotional tract attributed to the Dominican cardinal Hugh of 
St Cher (c. 1200-63) and translated into Middle English in the fifteenth 
century. De doctrina cordis addresses a community of sisters and is, like 
Ancrene Wisse, influenced by sennon preaching practices and the new 
literature of confession. This relatively understudied text was a medieval 
devotional best-seller, with more than two hundred manuscripts held in all 
major medieval European libraries, and translations in French, Italian, Spanish, 
English, German and Dutch. 10 As its title suggests, the treatise offers guidance 
about how to prepare one's heart for union with God. 11 As an overall study of 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

the uses of preaching and confessional techniques within those two works goes 
beyond the limits of this essay, I would like to confine my analysis to one of 
the recurring tropes of confessional literature, that of the household, considered 
here as representational space. The activity of cleaning, dusting, and sweeping 
makes ample use of the household space, as evidenced in Ancrene Wisse in a 
few instances and, more systematically, in The Doctrine of the Hert, and 
Henry's Livre de Seyntz Medicines , which will all be discussed later. 

But as the two texts I am concerned with in this first part belong to 
specific but parallel traditions, I would like to consider, first, the anchoritic 
one, by pointing out textual evidence which helps construct an anchoritic 
paradigm marked by the politics and the discourse of enclosure in Ancrene 
Wisse. The essay then deconstructs this idealised but overly confined image 
of the recluse by looking at passages dealing with the representation of space 
and topography of the household, highlighting how social networks marked 
the life of the anchoresses for whom Ancrene Wisse was written. 12 Textual 
imagery implying the larger Christian community also contributes to 
representing the anchoress in a central role, where she is compared to saints 
and virgin martyrs, the Virgin Mary or even Christ. But below this surface 
discourse which the author is keen to maintain throughout the text, other 
traces show that routine daily activities in the anchorhold depend on a set of 
social practices which require close surveillance and regulation if the 
attainment of a condition as close as possible to being dead-to-the-world is to 
be reached. However, the solitary life in Ancrene Wisse is not depicted in 
terms of complete physical isolation. Instead, significant social practices and 
networks permeate the life of the anchoresses, which are described, to use 
Lefebvre's terminology, in the 'lived' space of the anchorhold, the latter 
extending in fact beyond the confines of its architectural boundaries. It may be 
that this fonn of spiritual solitude contributed to broadening the readership of 
the text, to both men and women, religious or lay, who were familiar with 
Latin or one of the vernacular languages spoken in medieval England. 

The Politics and Discourse of Enclosure 

The large number of manuscripts (17 extant) in which Ancrene Wisse 
circulated testifies to the surprising popularity of such an apparently 
specialized religious piece. Changes made to the original version suggest the 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

existence of a reading public whose way of life and gender did not 
necessarily match those inscribed in the original. For example, it seems that a 
male, non-anchoritic public might have been attracted to this text, without 
any sense of incongruity in digesting passages specifically addressed to 
female virgins. The evidence provided by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne on the 
Anglo-Norman version of Ancrene IVisse, integrated into a large compilation 
called the Compileison, provides a great deal of information about the ways 
in which Ancrene IVisse was adapted for an audience which may well have 
included monks, canons, friars of whatever kind, nuns, recluses, and men or 
women of religion. Wogan-Browne also stresses how the Anglo-Norman 
compiler did not see the need to change the highly gendered passages dealing 
with enclosure in particular. Wogan-Browne's paper makes a strong case for 
the un-enclosing of Ancrene Wisse by a consideration of its adaptability 
outside specifically anchoritic channels. 13 I would like to pursue this argument 
about the permeability of enclosure by looking first at internal textual evidence 
that specifically addresses enclosure; then at the description of the anchoritic 
household as representation of 'lived' space, in order to argue that this concept 
serves the construction of a representational space marked by circulation, 
exchanges, social practice and networks. However much the author of Ancrene 
IVisse deploys anchoritic culture as part of his overall textual strategy, more 
careful attention to space as an historical category allows for evidence showing 
how anchoritic culture is based on systems of networks in which anchoresses 
are shown interacting with the world at large. 4 

Although I concur with Christopher Cannon on the shaping influence 
of Ancrene Wisse as material book and the ways in which it determines how 
the anchoritic body is conceptualized in its rapport with spatial categories— 
according to the Russian dolls principle- I also contend that emphasis on 
interchange between those spatial containers which are the Christian 
community at large, the parish, the village, the anchorhold, the cell and the 
anchoress's body, reveals awareness on the part of the author about the 
necessity of permeability within anchoritic culture. 1 ' Also, one should point 
out that Guido l's Consuetudines and the solitary model of the Carthusian 
which it constructs, which had a strong impact on the construction of the 
concept of solitariness in Ancrene Wisse, is based on the concepts of an order 
which considered itself semi-eremitical, with relative importance given to 
social networks and practice. 16 Given the Carthusian influence and the 
evidence of Ancrene Wisse itself, it is worthwhile paying additional attention 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

to the question of permeability. Our desire for a past that is foreign, exotic, 
other, and therefore appealing, may have had too great an impact on the way 
we represent anchoritic culture in general, and the space that it produces. It 
may account for too rigid an interpretation of some of the information found 
in liturgical manuals and manuscript illustrations, where notions of 
impermeability, enclosure and containment are treated formally and ideally. 
For instance, without wanting to deny the psychological importance of the 
recitation of the Mass of the Dead which marked the ceremony of enclosure, 
as is attested by liturgical manuals, we may have been blinded by the fact 
that, despite this psychological death, the anchoress had to interact with the 
world in several specific ways for her own physical survival. 

Recent attention to the subject of female monastic and anchoritic 
enclosure shows that enclosure as a concept needs to be complemented by 
those of permeability and networks. The work of Mary Erler on ownership 
and transmission of manuscripts among female religious communities points 
to important relationships between nuns and their religious and blood 
families . 17 The convent gate becomes a site from which exchange becomes 
possible. Evidence of book ownership among anchoresses is probably even 
scantier than that for nuns; nonetheless, one may suspect that blood families 
also played an important role in the purveyance of goods and commodities 
for solitary recluses or small communities of anchoresses. IS The defensive, 
guarded, tone of Ancrene Wisse and other anchoritic works towards the 
outside world occludes in part the necessary contacts which practical aspects 
of the anchoritic mode of life inevitably forced upon anchoresses. In fact, 
most passages dealing with enclosure, if read from the other side of the lens, 
can be used as evidence in support of a space that is permeable and which 
therefore allows intense networking for those who inhabit it: 

Vt Jmrh jre chirche Jsurl ne halde 3 e tale wid namon, ah beo 
red jrer to wurdmunt for {re hali sacrement j^at 30 seod 
jDerfmrh. Ant neomed oderhwile to ower wummen }re huses 
Jrurl, to oJ)re J?e parlur. Speoken ne ahe 3 e bute ed tes twa 
juries. Silence eauer ed te mete. 3 ef odre religiuse as 3 e 
witen dod hit, 3 e ahen ouer alle. 3 ef ei haued deore geast, do 
hire meidnes as in hire stude to gleadien hire feire. ant heo 
schal habbe leaue forte unsperren hire Jrurl eanes oder twien. 
ant makie sines toward hire of a glead chere. Summes 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

curteisie is itumt hire to uuel. Vnder semblant of god is ofte 
ihulet sunne. Ancre ant huses leafdi ah muchel to beon 
bitweonen. (pp. 37-8, fol. 17a/l 8-17b/3) 

[Do not talk to anyone through the church window, but hold 
it in honor because of the holy sacrament that you see through 
it. And use the house window for talking sometimes with 
your women; for others, the parlor window. You should not 
speak except at these two windows. 

Always keep silence at meals; since other religious do this, 
as you know, you above all ought to do it. If anyone has a 
loved guest, let her have her maid entertain her fairly as 
though in her place—and she will have leave to open her 
window once or twice and make signs toward her with a 
cheerful face. The courtesy of some has turned to their harm. 
Under the appearance of good sin often lies hidden. There 
should be a great difference between an anchoress and the 
lady of a house.] (A IV, p. 74) 

There is indeed a difference between an anchoress and the lady of a house, 
even if the comparison drawn by the author indicates that similarities can be 
found as well. In fact, the text's content makes clear that the author is 
addressing a primary audience familiar with noble or gentry household 
practices. As Chris Woolgar observes, every decent household would 
demonstrate its wealth by displaying a strong sense of hospitality, 
entertaining and feeding guests in the best possible fashion, with as much 
courtesy as demonstrated, for instance, in the fourteenth-century romance, 
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , 19 It is quite clear, therefore, that 
hospitality, an essential Christian value, needs readjusting in the space of the 
anchorhold and that the textual strategy of Ancrene Wisse consists mainly in 
attuning the noble ladies to a material space for which a new code of conduct 
is now required. 20 Yet the architectural space of the anchorhold, despite 
obvious differences, creates another household for which practical 
regulations and networks need to be implemented. The acquisition and 
assimilation of those new paradigms by the anchoresses are a great concern 

of the author. They are shaped with reference to secular household 




Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

The Anchorhold as Household 

Although the anxiety-driven anchoritic background of Ancrene Wisse does 
not allow for profuse and systematic use of household imagery, this imagery, 
when it occurs, holds several distinct functions. For instance, the last part of 
Ancrene Wisse, 'The Outer Rule', contributes to the shaping of anchorhold 
activities, to the anchorhold as 'lived' space, by making repeated gestures 
towards secular household practices: 

Ne limped nawt to ancre of of)er monnes ealmesse to makien 
hire large. Nalde me lahhen a beggere lude to bismere. Joe 
leadede men to feaste? Marie ant Marthe ba weren sustren. ah 
hare lif sundrede. 3 e ancren beod inumen ow to Marie dale. 

Jre ure lauerd seolf herede. Maria optimam partem elegit. 
Marthe marthe qd he }ru art muche baret. Marie haued icore 
bet. ant ne schal hire na [ring reauin hire dale. Husewifschipe 
is marthe dale. Marie dale is stilnesse ant reste of alle worldes 
noise. Jrat na Jring ne lette hire to heren godes steuene. Ant 
lokid hwet godd seid. |iat na {ring ne schal ow reauin jris dale. 
Marie haued hire meoster. leoted hire iwurden. 3 e sitten wid 
Marie stan stille ed godes fet ant hercnid him ane. Marthe 
meoster is to feden poure ant schruden as hus leafdi. Marie ne 
ah nawt to entremeatin {rrof. 3 ef ei blamed hire, godd seolf 
ihwer wered hire, as hali writ witned. Contra Symonem, duo 
debitores et cetera. Contra Martham Maria optimam par. et 
cetera. Contra apostolos murmurantes. Vt quid perditio hec? 
Bonum inquit opus et cetera. On oder half nan ancre ne ah to 
neomen bute meadfulliche jrat hire to neoded. hwer of [renne 
mei ha makien hire large? ha schal libben bi ealmesse ase 
meadfulliche as ha eauer mei. ant nawt gederin forte 3 eouen. 
ha nis nawt husewif, ah is a chirch ancre. 3 ef ha mei spearien 
eani poure schraden, sende ham al deamliche ut of hire 
wanes. Vnder semblant of god, is ofte ihulet sunne. Ant hu 
schulen {reose chirch ancres jre tilied oder habbed rentes 
isette. don to poure nehburs deamliche hare ealmesse? Ne 
wilni ha nawt to habbe word of a large ancre. ne forte 3 eouen 
rnuchel, ne beo nan jre gnedure. forte habben mare. For hwon 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

{3e gredinesse beo rote of {re gederunge. of hire bittemesse. al 
beo3 [>e bohes bittre Jre of hire spruted. Bidden hit forte 
3 eouen hit, his nawt ancre rihte. Of ancre curteisie. of ancre 
largesce, is icumen ofte sunne ant scheome on ende. 
Wummen. ant children, ant nomeliche ancre meidnes {re 
cume5 iswenchet for ow. {rah ;$e spearien hit on ow, o6er 
borhin o5er bidden hit, makied ham to eotene wi3 chearitable 
chere. ant leadied to herbarhin. (pp. 211-22, fols lllb/28- 

[It is not appropriate for an anchoress to be generous with 
someone else's alms. Would one not laugh a beggar loudly to 
scorn who invited people to a feast? Mary and Martha were 
both sisters, but their lives were quite different. You 
anchoresses have committed yourselves to Mary's share, 
which our Lord himself praised: Maria optimam partem 
elegit (Luke 10. 42)—'Martha, Martha!' he said, 'you are 
much troubled. Mary has chosen better, and nothing will 
deprive her of her share.' Being a housewife is Martha's 
share; Mary's is stillness and rest from all the world's noise, 
so that nothing may prevent her from hearing God's voice. 
And see what God said, that 'nothing will deprive' you of this 
share. Martha has her office; leave it to her. You sit with 
Mary stone-still at God's feet and listen to him alone. 
Martha's office is to feed the poor and clothe them, like a lady 
of the house. Mary ought not to meddle in this. If anyone 
blames her, God himself always protects her, as Holy Writ 
witnesses: Contra Symonem, duo debitores, et cetera; contra 
Martham, Maria optimam partem, et cetera; contra apostolos 
murmurantes, ut quid perdito hec? Bonum inquit opus et 
cetera [In answer to Symon (the Pharisee): 'If a man has two 
debtors', etc.; in answer to Martha: 'Mary has chosen the best 
part' etc.; in answer to the apostles complaining 'What is the 
purpose of this waste?' he replied 'She has done me a good 
service'] (Luke 7. 36-50; 10. 38-42; Matthew 26. 8-10) 

Likewise, no anchoress ought to take more than moderately 
what she needs. How then can she be generous? She has to 
live by alms, as moderately as she can, and not accumulate 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

things in order to give them away. She is not a housewife but 
a church-anchoress; if she can spare any poor scraps, let her 
send them quite secretly out of her house. Under the 
semblance of good, sin is often hidden. And how can those 
rich anchoresses who cultivate land or have fixed incomes 
give their alms to poor neighbours secretly? Let her not wish to 
have a reputation as a generous anchoress, nor become greedier 
to have more so as to give much away: for when greediness is at 
the root of such accumulation, because of bitterness all the 
boughs which sprout from her are bitter. To ask for something in 
order to give it away is not right for an anchoress. From an 
anchoress's graciousness, from an anchoress' generosity, sin and 
shame have often come in the end. 

To women and children, and especially to the anchoress' 
maidens who come and work for you, give food to eat with 
cheerful charity, even if you must deprive yourself or borrow or 
beg for it; and invite them to stay with you.] (A W, pp. 200-1) 

The passage seems to have as reference a pious noblewoman who, by 
organising feasts for her guests and distributing generously to the poor, may 
be spiritually following the model of Martha, but whose behaviour is marked 
nevertheless by typical secular noble household activities. However 
praiseworthy the spiritual dimension of this activity may be, the anchoress is 
asked to follow an altogether different, contemplative model: that of Mary, 
completely devoted to the contemplation of spiritual matters. Some of the 
comments above, the author states, do not address the original recipients, the 
three sisters the author knew as their possible confessor and/or spiritual 
guide. If, according to the Ancrene Wisse author, the behaviour of these 
sisters is exemplary, one cannot infer that their way of life is typical of other 
anchoresses' behaviour. For example, following the well-known passage of 
the cat, the author continues with advice to anchoresses who keep animals 
other than cats: 

ladlich Joing is hit wat crist hwen me maked i tune man of 
ancre ahte. Nu Jtenne 3 ef eani mot nedlunge habben hit, loki 
Jaat hit namon ne eili ne ne hearmi. ne Jtat hire Jtoht ne beo 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

navviht [iron ifestnet. ancre ne ah to habben na ]oing Joat 
utward drahe hire heorte. (p. 213, fol.l 13a/3-8) 

[It is a hateful thing, Christ knows, when people in town 
complain about an anchoress' animals. Now then, if anyone 
has to have one, see that it does not bother or harm anyone, and 
that her thought is in no way fastened on it. An anchoress ought 
to have nothing which draws her heart outward.] (A W, p. 201) 

Servants, guests, and here, animals, make preservation of physical enclosure 
impossible. Anchoresses do have other animals than cats, people complain 
about them, and the author here seems to provide evidence of knowledge of 
an anchoritic way of life in England which not only speaks against the 
feasibility of applying physical enclosure, but shows in addition that 
anchoresses' contact with the outside world is sometimes subject to criticism. 
Hence, the use of household imagery in Ancrene Wisse is a complex one. It is 
used, firstly, perhaps not so much to warn anchoresses against improper 
behaviour, but rather, to help them adapt—at least for some of them—pre¬ 
enclosure gentry behaviour which they used to perform themselves in the 
past, or which they used as a model while they were still living in the world. 
However, the same 'household imaginary' (in Smith's phrase) serves also in 
the construction of a representation of a system of communities and 
networks, social and spiritual, in which the anchoress plays an essential 
role. 22 Unlike the first use of the household, which is not without slight 
negative connotations, the anchoress is provided with tools that help her 
situate herself precisely in a nexus shaped by the representational space of an 
abstract household characterized by exchange and interaction. 

Confession, Introspection and the Household 

A third use of household space in Ancrene Wisse appears in the delineation 
of the inner feelings in the context of confession: 

Schrift schal beon ihal. ]iat is. iseid al to a mon ut of child 
hade. J?e poure widewe hwen ha wule hire hus cleansin, ha 
gedered al ]ie greaste on an heap on alre earst, ant schuued hit 
ut Jienne. brefter kimed eft a 3 ein ant heaped eft to gederes ]?at 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

wes ear ileauet ant schuueQ hit ut efter. hrefter o J>e smeale 
dust. 3 ef hit dusted swide, ha flasked weater ant swoped ut 
efter al Jiet oder. Alswa schal [>e schriued him efter J>e greater 
schuuen ut te smealre. 3 ef dust of lihte Jiohtes winded to 
swide up, flaski teares on ham. ne schulen ha nawt jienne 
ablende Joe heorte ehnen. (pp. 161-2. fol. 85b/8-18) 

[Confession must be whole: that is, sins from childhood on 
must all be spoken to one person. When the poor widow 
wants to clear her house, she first of all gathers all the dust in 
a heap, and then sweeps it out. Then she comes back and 
heaps what has been left together again, and sweeps it out 
after. After that, if it is very dusty, she sprinkles water on the 
fine dust and sweeps it out after all the rest. In the same way, 
one who confesses must push out the small sins after the great 
ones. If the dust of light thought blows up too much, sprinkle 
tears on them; then they will not blind the eyes of the heart.] 
(AW, pp. 163-4) 

As shown by the quotation above, Ancrene Wisse’s adaptability at using 
concepts and images—elaborated from Alan of Lille's Distinctiones — 
according to the genre which it incorporates for the fashioning of its eight 
parts, is well demonstrated in the way in which household space serves in the 
confessional part to describe the recipient's inner self. 23 Linda Georgianna, 
followed by Milled and Cate Gunn, has given ample evidence of Ancrene 
Wisse’s debt to penitential literature, a genre for which the Friars became the 
strongest advocates and to whose composition and propagation they 
contributed in important ways. 24 

The Doctrine of the Hert is a work that similarly shows the influence 
of the increase in interest in self-introspection that marked the penitential 
literature which flourished after the 1215 Canon 21 decision of the Fourth 
Lateran Council imposing annual confession on all Christians. Unlike 
Ancrene Wisse, The Doctrine of the Hert, studied here in its fifteenth-century 
Middle English translation—and in this sense a reflection of one of Ancrene 
Wisse's French versions, the confessional and penitential Compileison — 
explores domestic imagery at far greater length. 2 ' Specifically, it participates 
in the construction of what I wish to call the devotional household, a concept 
that becomes fashionable all over Europe in the late medieval period, 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

involving the development of a sophisticated allegorization of the heart or 
the conscience as a household in need of minute attention.’ 0 

Household space conceived as a mental image in The Doctrine serves 
then exclusively as a means of configuring the believer's consciousness. The 
degree to which mental images in this treatise are developed bespeak a strong 
conviction concerning the pedagogical potential of such imagery, to be used 
as part of an inner preparation for the exercise of confession: 

Of oo fling beware, fiou mayst neuer 3 eve trew rekenyng in 
confession but jif fiou remembre fie long afor as a lordis 
catour t^e whiche schal 3 eve a rekenyng to his lord. First he 
rekenet by hym self. Ri 3 t so schuldist fiou do er fian fiou 
come to confession and reken fie defautes by fiiself, how fiou 
hast dispendid fii lordis gode j?e whiche He hafi lent to fie, {tat 
is, Joe giftes of nature, fie giftes of fortune, and Joe giftes of 
grace. Also b ou wost wele if a catour schuld 3 eue trew 
rekenyng he writeth both fie daies and fie causes in his boke 
how fiat he haf> dispendid his lordis gode. So most fiou do; 
rekene wele fie circumstances of f>i synnes wher and how and 
by what cause fiou hast synned and fian go to confession and 
3 eue f>i rekenyng to fii lordis auditor, fiat is, f>i confessour 
sittyng fier in fii lordis name. ( The Doctrine, p. 8) 

As a mental spatial representation, the house of your heart ('fie hous of Join 
hert'; The Doctrine, p. 9) becomes a dominant image of the treatise, one that 
enables a careful delineation of consciousness, and which makes possible the 
further exposition of basic Christian concepts. 

The metaphor of the household for the representation of consciousness 
elaborates the more general concept of the space of daily experience which 
'represents the inner side of a person's life and the inner circle of activities of 
persons in groups, the estate, the "house", or the "room"'. 27 According to 
Harald Kleinschmidt, that space of daily experience can be represented by a 
private household.' 8 In the case of The Doctrine, the household is used solely 
to conceptualize the interiority of a person's life. It is an outstanding example 
of an extensive development of household space for the configuration of the 
inner feelings that developed in parallel to, or within, the confessional 
context. Household space is exploited in minute details, with a stress on the 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

significance of private, enclosed locations. So the house is easily 
appropriated as the figuration of the heart, the seat of consciousness, which 
does not stand as an abstract entity in the medieval period, but is corporeal. 
The force of the figuration can only be stronger when the household imagery 
is applied to interiority as physical habitation, the physical organ of the 
heart. 29 The use of the household as a space of exchange and busy 
negotiation for the interior life marks the latter as a site of bustling mental 
activity. Hence, the representational space of the household, understood as 
site of social exchanges, helps shape a mode of contemplation which feeds 
on an active engagement with household activities. In fact, interactivity is at 
the heart of the process of defining the self according to Christian paradigms 
regulated by circulation and exchange. The author of The Doctrine of the 
Hert therefore depicts household space as a site of social negotiations applied 
to the paradigm of the self, which must be kept under intense surveillance. 
Ways of cleaning the house are closely associated with confessional practice; 
that trope appears also in Ancrene Wisse and Catherine Batt (below) 
demonstrates also its subtle use in Henry's treatise. In the Doctrine, the 
household space is furnished with a bed, an eating table, a stool and a 
candlestick, associated, respectively, with inner peace, penance, judgement 
and self-knowledge. As Christiania Whitehead notes in Castles of the Mind, 
the confessional context invites expansion of this familiar trope. 30 In the 
Doctrine, the devotional household becomes a site in which regulation of 
circulation is possible. Thus it is an enclosed space, with the primary 
enclosure of the garden ('close gardyn’, The Doctrine, p. 12) as a first barrier 
against unwelcome guests. The dichotomy 'close'/'commune' ( The Doctrine, 
p. 13) which here addresses the garden imagery, is an overriding structural 
paradigm of the treatise. It addresses the notions of private and public spaces 
and assumes particular, antinomic roles for the characters acceding to those 
specific spaces. Hence, the self inhabiting the space of the household, unlike 
the common garden or the common market-place ( The Doctrine, p. 28), has a 
way of controlling the circulation of allegorical characters within this 
particular precinct. If the evidence provided by the treatise, prescriptive by 
nature, suggests firmly how that space should be filled, it nevertheless leaves 
the last word to the reader, who has to engage actively with her own self and 
decide on its own configuration. Unsurprisingly, control of one’s own senses is 
paramount in both Ancrene Wisse and The Doctrine', the household participates 
in the presentation of the inner feelings, hi the former, the reclusorium as 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

physical household in which the anchoress is enveloped—which echoes the way 
in which the textual structure of Ancrene Wisse functions according to a similar 
pattern of envelopes—significantly affects the manner by which household space 
as imagery is used within the treatise. The Doctrine, less focused on the 
representation of physical space, makes more systematic and rigorous use of the 
representation of the moral household, so much so that it is possible to explore 
household performances at great length, especially those taking place in the 
kitchen. 31 So, while Ancrene Wisse resorts to a multiplicity of images (with the 
pelican, the nictycorax and the sparrow as the principal ones) to create a 
discussion about the inner feelings and how they should be guarded, the 
Doctrine proceeds differently, making use of household imagery by discussing 
the need to keep the gates (the five senses) of the household shut to unwelcome 
visitors (the seven deadly sins): 

Thow, (ii hous, Sister, be Jms yclensed and araied, 3 it 3 if Our 
Lord schalle dwelle Jierin, J>e 3 ates Jierof most be kept. The 
3 ates J>at schuld be kept ben Jni fyue wittes, J>at is, tastyng, 
touchyng, seyng, hiryng, and smellyng. By J>es fyue 3 ates J>e 
soule goth out to outward fiingis and outward Jiingis cometh 
into Jie soule. The kepyng of J>es 3 atis is noting ellis but 
puttyng away of delectacions of J>e fyue wittes. The soule 
goth outward by J>e 3 ates whan sche putteth hir to outward 
besynes Jrat longith to actif lif J>e whiche schuld ben vsed 
with gret sadnes and grete drede. {The Doctrine, p. 23) 

In the second chapter, keeping a vigilant eye out for the enemy's attacks is 
expressed in an even more defensive light. Household imagery is extended to 
encompass a besieged castle, with emphasis on the activities of those 
engaged in the defence of the castle: 

Lo, Sistir, se and beholde what aduersary Jjou hast. Kepe 
Jierfor Joe castelle of Join hert fro suche an enmy Joat so haj> 
besegid Joe. Considere also and behold how sobirly alle }ro J?e 
whiche ben besegid in a castelle lyuen, how litel Joei slepe and 
how selde, and with what drede and with how moche scleythe 
Joei gon out of Joe castelle whan Joei haue nede, and how sone 
Jiei come a 3 en, how oft and how besily Joei serche Joe wardis 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

of {>e castelle, with what noyse and with what besynes eche of 
hem exciten ojier to bataiSe, and 3 it allebeit {>at {ei ben {>us 
sorowful and dredful {>ei syngen o{ter whiles on hye vppon Jte 
castelle walles by cause f>at her enemys schuld be aferde. 
Thus schuldist jtou do, Sistir, 3 if Jtou wilt kepe wel {re castelle 
of {>in hert. ( The Doctrine, p. 78) 

However, unlike Ancrene Wisse and Grosseteste's Chateau d'amour, in 
which the besieged castle as architecture represents the inviolability of the 
anchoritic body in the former, and describes the invulnerability of the Virgin 
in the latter, this metaphor of the aristocratic household, which 1 perceive in 
the Doctrine as a refined variation of the household one, also emphasises space 
as a social construction, a place of exchange and interaction, rather than as the 
static and firm conceptualization of a physical object. 32 The Doctrine's besieged 
castle is a place of interaction, full of men, women and children: 

But oo {ling {iou schalt wele know, a castelle may not be long 
kept 3 if it faile men for to defende it & kepe it. Ri 3 t so {>ou 
maist not long kepe Jiin hert in trew rest fro }ie fende but 3 if 
{i {ou 3 tes ben my 3 ty ant strong for to withstand hym. Thou 
wost wele 3 if wommen or children be in a castelle ]iat is 
besegid {iei ben sone sent out for {iei mow li 3 tly discomfort 
hem {iat ben within and also for cowardise and fayntise of 
hert bryng in with somme sotilte preuely her ennemys. ( The 
Doctrine, p. 83) 

The easy transfer from household to castle space initially supports the 
ideology of (household) containment as typically female and used by male 
clerical culture to occlude notions of oppression by those of sacrifice. 33 In 
addition, Karen Fresco’s statement that 'the ultimate instance of female space 
imbedded in the closed world of the court is the woman herself corroborates 
containment ideology. 34 If, indeed, the moral household participates in the 
representation of such ideology in both Ancrene Wisse and The Doctrine, one 
needs to be aware that later medieval adaptations of Ancrene Wisse and 
vernacular translations of De doctrina cordis, of which our version is an 
example, were also made for a male readership for whom the feminisation of 
devotional practices enabled a deeper understanding of their inner feelings." 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

In addition. The Doctrine is a good example of the complexity involved in 
the use of domestic space and its activities. The transition from household to 
castle space leads to a reference to the male world of armoury and 
horsemanship. Further on, being shaved by the barber serves as image to 
instruct male and female readers in the principle of obedience to a superior, 
thus showing that containment ideology is not necessarily perceived in as 
gendered a manner by the medieval imagination as by the modem one: 

It schuld fare by a cloisterer J^at is vndir obedience as it doth 
with a man Jjat is schaue vndir a barbouris rasoure. hou wost 
wele, he j^at sitteth vndir a rasoure, he suffret Jte harbour to 
tome his hede now to Jaat one side, and now to J>at o}ter side, 
and now he suffreth hym to open his mouth and now for to 
lift vp his chyn and alle fhs he suffreth lest he be hurte of Jae 
rasoure 3 if he struglid. Ri 3 t so schuld a cloisterere do. As 
long as Jtou art vndir Jre gouemaunce of jai souereyne in 
religion so longe [aou art vndir Jae handis of a barbour for to 
schaue away jh synnes. ( The Doctrine , p. 134) 

In this example, a male character is being checked in his movement by the 
barber. This image again deploys the containment ideology implicit within 
the household space of the treatise. It insists on subjection, obedience and 
sacrifice, without making too forceful a use of gender difference to convey 
its doctrine. 


Space, more particularly household space, is an important element in the 
configuration of the self in late medieval writings. It is also undeniable that 
the deployment of spatial imagery as a means of containment in writings 
initially addressed to female recipients is overwhelming. In Ancrene IVisse, 
the ambitious project of delineating both a physical and spiritual horizon 
makes heavy demands on the way with which household space has to be 
dealt. Although we have seen that the politics of enclosure and containment 
loom large in the authorial project, its practical application rather reveals 
permeability and exchange. On the other hand, Ancrene IVisse' s use of 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

household and domestic imagery for the figuration of the inner state stresses 
containment ideology. A more systematic development of this politics is to 
be found in Sawles Warde, one of the Katherine Group texts associated to 
Ancrene Wisse. Here, household space is used for the development of ideas 
of subjection and obedience applied to the soul: 

Nv is Wil, [>et husewif, al stille jret er wes so willesful, al 
ituht efter Wittes wissunge, jiet is husebonde; ant al Jret hird 
halt him stille, Joet wes iwunet to beon fulitohen ant don efter 
Wil, hare lefdi, ant nawt efter Wit. 

[Now Will the housewife, who was formerly so wilful, is 
entirely subdued, completely directed by the guidance of 
Reason, who is master of the house; and all the household 
remain at peace, who were so accustomed to be undisciplined 
and follow the lead of Will, their lady, instead of Reason.] 
(Sawles Warde, pp. 106-7) 

Since Ancrene Wisse is a multi-function text, serving, among others, 
as an anchoritic rule of conduct, a liturgical treatise, a confessional manual, a 
spiritual treatise, a practical guide and an intimate epistolary text, it has to 
negotiate ways of applying the imagery of the household space to each of its 
specific parts. That is one of the reasons why it cannot configure as steadily 
as does The Doctrine an interior landscape by means of the household. The 
devotional household becomes a central paradigm in The Doctrine, one 
whose space is more extensively explored than any other figuration in this 
Middle English version. 

The study of imagined and represented household space that this essay 
attempts relies upon a perception of space as an active element shaping social 
practice. It infers therefore that imagined and represented household space 
hinges on the understanding that space has social significance, that it changes 
with time and that it is gendered. But what are the relationships between 
imagined household space and concrete architecture, and the ways in which 
the real gendered household affects the representation of the devotional one? 
Although this essay does not offer clear answers, it nevertheless suggests, by 
its close application of space as an historical category to two religious texts, 
new lines of enquiry in the study of late medieval religious literature. 36 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

Domestic and Devotional in Henry, Duke of Lancaster's Book of Holy 

Catherine Batt 

Denis Renevey's investigations raise important questions about how material 
and imagined spaces interrelate in early devotional literature, and in the 
circumstances of its writing. Especially intriguing is the issue of how, in this 
context, internal and internalised spaces might be marked as 'feminine', and 
how such spaces, deployed figuratively, might be understood in the reception 
of texts such as the Ancrene Wisse and the Doctrine , originally produced for 
audiences of select female religious, but disseminated to a much broader 
devotional constituency. Henry, duke of Lancaster (c. 1310-61), is a likely 
consumer of a text such as the Franciscan Compileison Renevey mentions, 
which is one of the channels by which the Ancrene Wisse —in the 
Compileison , in synthesis with other devotional material concerning, for 
example, vices and virtues, penance and purgatory—reaches a wider mixed 
readership in the later Middle Ages. 37 Henry's own colourful contribution to 
devotional literature, the Anglo-Norman treatise the Livre de Seyntz 
Medicines (Book of Holy Medicines), written in 1354, is most well-known 
(especially among cultural historians) for its extended metaphors of physical 
wounds as evidence of loss of spiritual integrity and, as the title suggests, of 
salvation through the medicine Christ offers, in his role as master physician 
to the abject soul. (The Ancrene author also on occasion invokes this ancient 
trope, for example, in the prayer that the wounds of the Passion might heal 
the soul wounded by sin [p. 23, fol. 7a.15-19; AW, p. 57]: or in discussion of 
the healing of body and of soul [p. 189. fol. 100a.25-100b. 15; AW, p. 184]). 
Henry concentrates on how, while the penitent's wounds figure his spiritual 
lack, Christ's wounds are themselves salvific, so the imagery exploits this 
element of Christian paradox. 

Other imagery, however, also crowds Henry's fascinating text, in a 
way that suggests its author is quite at home with the taxonomic 
methodologies and quasi-encyclopaedic, magpie-like accumulation, and 
range, of imagery common to popular Latin and vernacular devotional 
literature on virtues and vices and penitential practice, of which the earlier 
and later thirteenth-century Guilelmus Peraldus's thirteenth-century Summa, 
and Laurent d'Orleans' Somme le Roi, are examples. A third of the way into 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

the treatise, amid a cluster of intensely detailed figurations of the spiritually 
troubled penitential self (a self variously represented as a whirlpool, as a 
fox's hole, and as a market place, which imagery suggests acquaintance with 
Franciscan homiletic material 38 ), the narrator explains the pragmatic 
difficulties of confession, by way of an amplified anecdote about the 
problems of housekeeping.' 9 The anecdote, which develops into a figuring of 
the body as a household to be defended, marks the culmination of a brief 
section within the treatise (pp. 95-103), which is signalled as a digression, 
and devoted to meditation during the last three days of Holy Week, from 
Good Friday to Easter Sunday, when—in conformity with the Fourth Lateran 
Council's prescriptions for the laity to make Easter confession and 
communion 40 —the narrator receives Christ 'en mon vil corps' [into my vile 
body] (p. 98). The detailed account of domestic cleanliness Henry offers 
imaginatively elaborates on the manner of the abject sinner's reception of the 
body of Christ. In respect of linking cleansing with the confessional, and 
representing the sinful soul as abject, there are similarities with the 
procedures of both the De doctrina and the Ancrene Wisse (as Renevey 
describes them above), as with other homiletic and instructional literature. 
By 'claiming 1 these writings as part of a reconstruction of possible cultural 
and devotional contexts for Henry's work, and through them considering this 
example of domestic imagery, one can begin to appreciate the Livre's literary 
debts and to assess the extent and nature of its originality. 

When, the narrator says, a great lord visits the house of a humble 
subject, he sends along everything he needs beforehand, and it remains for 
the poor host only to make sure that at least the place is clean for his lord's 
coming, and to make the place as clean as possible: 'come d'un bone balaise 
bien baler et nettement getter hors toute l'ordure de la meson, et puis laver 
del eawe chaude pur tuer les puses et faire tout net' [by giving it a good 
sweeping with a stout broom and completely cleaning out all the house's 
filth, and then washing it down with hot water to kill the fleas and make 
everything clean] (pp. 99-100). If the would-be host turns out to be hapless, 
too weak—'fiebles de soi meismes' (p. 100)—to do this work on his own 
account, then the lord might send someone in advance to help carry out the 
necessary tasks. 

Certes il lui covendra avoir eide des ascuns qe le seignur 

envoie devant pur eider l'oste de appariller l'ostel a poynt 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

contre lui. Alas a poynt! A poynt ne poet estre, car poynt n'ad 
de qoi il puisse a ceo poynt ordener a poynt. (p. 100) 

[Indeed, (the host) will need to get help from those whom the 
lord sends ahead to help the host prepare the lodging and 
make it fit for his arrival. Fit? Alas, unfit! Fit it cannot be, for 
in no fit time is there anything fit for him to make fit.] 

The over-worked pun conveys, through its simultaneous awkwardness and 
inventiveness, the speaker's urgent awareness of his dependence on God's 
help to remedy his own spiritual lack. 41 Henry compares himself to the 
wicked and inadequate host, and the ugly and wretched home is his soul, 
opened up to Christ, although it is not worthy to receive Him. He contrasts 
his own evil with his guest's goodness and, continuing the household 
metaphor, expresses the hope that his evils have been ousted, at least for a 
time, just as, in anticipation of a great lord's visit, one clears a house of 
unnecessary furniture. A thoughtless return to old routines, however, has 
unfortunate consequences: 

quant le signur s'en va, les ostiementz sont rernys ariere en son 
lieu come ils estoient et sovent de pire aray q'ils devant ne 
feurent, et plus encombrent l'ostiel; et si revient le chat, et set la 
ou le seignur sist, qi s'en estoit fuy hors de poour. Tresdouz 
Sires, les ostiementz sont les maveis peches qe sont en moy 
comme les oustielemens de la pour meson qe sont ore remuez, 
jeo espoir, par vostre grace, un poy hors de moi [....] (p. 101) 
[And when the lord leaves, the furniture is put back in its 
place, as it was, and often in worse order than it was before, 
and it clutters up the home more; and then the cat—who had 
fled outside in fright—returns, and sits there where the lord 
sat. Most sweet Lord, the furniture is the wicked sins that are 
within me, like the furniture of the poor house, which are 
cleared away a little now, I hope, by your grace [. . . .]] 

Henry begs God, whose grace displaces the movable goods that are his sins, 
to put his mark at all the entrances to the house, so that the furniture should 
not be returned, and so that the cat, by which we must understand the devil, 
should not again take his place. 42 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

Henry provides a confirmatory and somewhat repetitive gloss for his 
text. The sweeping of the house represents the discipline with which he must 
clean his body, soul and heart for God. That is, one must constrain and 
chastise the flesh by means of penance, as if with a rod. The scalding water 
of regretful tears, meanwhile, expels the 'fleas' that are sins and devils. The 
mark that will protect the doors are the instruments of the Passion, and so the 
body's orifices (and senses), imagined as the 'doors' of the body, will 
meditate on the events and nature of Christ's sacrifice, and thus attune 
themselves to His suffering, and make penitential restitution. The ears will 
hear and remember the account of the Passion, and the eye too will look 
upon the image of Christ crucified. The nose will abandon the pleasures 
afforded by the sweet perfumes of this world, in order to smell instead the 
filth of the mud that was thrown in Christ's face at the crucifixion. 
Meanwhile, the tongue will rehearse the events of the Passion, just as the 
hands will strike the penitent's breast in acknowledgement of his sins, and 
also join together to ask for mercy. His feet too will go on pilgrimage and ask 
for mercy on account of the Passion. In sum, says Henry, kneeling in 
devotion before the cross, he will learn to love God completely and with all 
his heart. Indeed, the narrator insists, the heart, as the central entrance to the 
house that harbours the soul, is that which has most need to be signed and 
marked with the arms of the Lord, as all the traffic for the soul passes 
through it. Mindfulness of the Passion will keep the heart pure, and the devil 
will not dare to step into the place again. Henry concludes with an aside on 
the poor design and troublesome inconvenience of a house with so many 
entrances, so difficult to protect (p. 103). 

As with much of Henry's treatise, it is difficult to trace an exact 
parallel for the working-through of this image, though of course cleansing is 
everywhere a recognised image of spiritual renewal, from the Old and New 
Testaments, to its reworking in modem poetry (of which Jean Binta Breeze's 
'Spring Cleaning', which draws on Psalm 22 (23), is just one example 43 ). The 
figuring of the body as architecture (in this section, elaborated from the 
housecleaning motif), is a recurrent feature of Henry's text and, previous to 
this passage, he has already presented the recalcitrant spiritual self as a 
fortress subject not only to potential attack from outside, but also to the 
tyranny of a disorderly household. In this earlier episode, Lady Sloth, the 
most fully realised of the text's personifications of sin, appears initially as a 
reluctantly received guest, who has managed to appropriate for herself the 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

role of unruly hostess in the castle of the self. Blocking the path of Sin—'Ja 
ne vous hastietz tant, car une altre foi 3 e vous vendra il meultz a poynt; et 
alons nous dormir et manger et boire' [Don't be in such a hurry, for another 
time you will be better prepared, so let's go sleep and eat and drink] (p. 59)— 
she plies him with drink, and prevents his expulsion through the mouth by way 
of confession, because in his drunkenness he is incapable of finding the door. 

Renevey notes above how the earlier Sawles Warde's, treatment of the 
body as household emphasises the need for obedience and subjection. The 
casting of Reason as husband and Will as recalcitrant wife in this earlier 
psychomachia deploys conventionally approved male-female social relations 
as a model of spiritual order and self-regulation. That Henry casts his Will as 
male, and enamoured of Lady Sloth, arguably complicates this presentation 
of internal strife. And where the immensely popular De doctrina cordis (and 
its Middle English translation. The Doctrine of the Hert) glosses as the 
sinner's 'weak thoughts' (p. 83) the image of women released from a besieged 
castle for fear they might somehow draw in the enemy, Henry's own image 
of his spiritual self as a castle besieged by sin stoutly identifies his masculine 
military 'self as source of treachery and self-betrayal (pp. 65-6). While the 
Livre can certainly be fully conventional in respect of 'male/female' 
imagery—for example, the narrator characterises his flesh as the 'mother' of 
his sins (p. 88)—Henry perhaps refocuses the traditional associations of male 
with order (as opposed to female and disorder) in these instances so as to 
align his examples more closely with the abject, sin-wounded, male body 
that serves as his principal image. 

In the same vein, Henry's deployment of housekeeping imagery casts 
him as maladroit host turned cleaner. The Dominican Laurent d'Orleans' La 
Somme le Roi also figures the heart as a house, an image its earlier- 
fourteenth-century Middle English translation, the Ayenbite of Inwit, 
reproduces, in an account of the weeping repentance of King David (as a 
figure of the penitent Christian sinner) that elaborates on the imagery of the 
Psalms. If the Ancrene fVisse image Renevey discusses, of confession as 
assiduous house-sweeping, offers precedent for Henry's image, it is perhaps 
the Somme, in one of its versions, that has provided Henry with the image of 
a domestic animal as index of changes to household order: 44 

Tex larmes chacent le deable fors dou cuers aussi comme 

liaue chaude chace le chien de la cuisine. Apres la repentance 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

doit venir la confession. Cest la bone chamberiere qui netoie 
lostel & giete toute lordure hors au balai de la langue si 
coniine parole Dauid ou sautier. 45 

zueche tyeares driueji Jiane dyeuel uram Joe herte: ase Joet hote 
weter cachejo Jiane hond out of Joe kechene. Efter Joe 
uorjoenchinge ssel come Joe ssrifte Joet is Joe guode chomberier 
Joet clenzejo Joet hous and kest out al Joe ueljoe mid Joe besme of 
Joe tonge. huerof spekjo dauid ine Joe sautere. & meditatus sum 
cum corde meo & excercebar & scopebam .syoiritum meum. A< ‘ 
[such tears drive the devil from the heart, as hot water chases 
a dog out of the kitchen. After repentance comes confession, 
which is the good chamberer that cleans the house and throws 
out all the filth with the broom of the tongue, about which 
David says in the Psalter: 'and I meditated with my own heart 
and I was exercised, and I swept my spirit.'] 

The sweeping metaphor also features in the De doctrina / Doctrine, which I 
want to concentrate on in preference to the Summae, because of the ways in 
which Henry's text resembles it, in method if not in structure, although it is 
written primarily for a female religious community. A work such as the De 
doctrina helps explain the allusive, on occasion apparently random, train of 
Henry's argument. The Doctrine, like Henry's text, makes reference to 
internal and external domestic architecture familiar to gentry and aristocratic 
households, as also to castle imagery, as has been noted briefly above. 47 In 
each text, pious selfhood is figured and meditated upon by means of 
architectural imagery, of communities imagined interacting within those 
spaces, and of an intriguing fragmentation and anatomization of the body. 

Henry's book, which he presents as having been written in short 
episodes, when he could snatch the time—at one point he mentions the slow 
progress he is making (p. 98)—falls into two main sections. The first 
enumerates the wounds / sins of his body (this part introduces both the figure 
of the body as a castle, its entrances breached by sin, and also the image of 
the dirty household), and the second phase describes the remedies for his sin, 
provided by the Virgin Mary, the nurse par excellence, and Christ her Son, 
the doctor whose own wounds supply healing medicine. The image Henry 
constructs throughout is that of an abject sinner, his body a corrupt and 
failing receptacle for his fallen soul. The seven chapters of the De doctrina / 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

Doctrine 48 describe the preparation of the heart for God, and, in its minute 
attention to aspects of household maintenance, this latter text startlingly and 
elaborately figures the devout heart as flesh to be cooked in preparation for 
Christ the guest—suffering the 'fire' of obedience to one's institutional rules, 
and being 'larded' with charity, that Christ might receive it. The heart's 
cooking is an appropriate response to Christ's own sacrifice, his 'rost(ing) 
vppon Jie spite of Jie eras' (pp. 36-8). Denis Renevey discusses the culinary 
detail of this account in terms of an emergent language of interiority for 
female religious. 49 

While Henry also demonstrates an interest in cooking, in his treatise 
the culinary emphasis is on Christ, whose incarnation, and melting and 
burning Passion, constitute the chicken soup of holy love that is the medicine 
for the convalescent soul that turns to God after the ravages of the devil. 
Henry glosses the enclosing of the chicken in the earthenware pot in the 
making of soup as a metaphor of the incarnation, and the releasing of its 
nutritious juices, to Christ's Agony at Gethsemane, testimony of his 
overwhelming love of humankind: 

lequel douz suour et goutes, tresdouce Sires, jeo vous requer 
[. . .] qe jeo en puisse avoir ore a man grande bosoigne, pur 
moy revigourer et faire fort pur receivre toutes les autres 
medicines qe eider me poent. [. . .] (p. 195) 

[which sweet drops and perspiration, most sweet Lord, I 
entreat you [. . .] I may now have in my great need, to restore 
me to health and strengthen me to take all the other medicines 
that can help me. [. . .]] 

D. Vance Smith claims that it is specifically the medieval male body that is 
'caught between production and representation', and that: '[m]an not only 
provides a tablet onto which a significant world can be inscribed but also 
produces a world that becomes significant'. 50 The language of such as the 
De doctrina / Doctrine, however, suggests that female religious selfhood is 
no less supple and various in conceptualization, in the way it can construct 
both body and external world as objects for devotional meditation. 
Moreover, the rigour with which this earlier text works through its imagery 
of the penitential self exposes both Henry's debt to this kind of literature, 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

and the distance between it and his own, arguably more 'curtailed', 
penitential discourse. 

The Doctrine 's deployment of the image of the cleansed house is 
slightly different from, and perhaps more focused than, Henry's; the 
household image takes on incremental power in the treatise, and also has an 
introductory role for the extended description of the soul's reception of 
Christ, which culminates in an account, in Chapter Seven, of what it calls the 
'ecstatic' love between Christ and the Soul (pp. 143-56). 51 The author also 
(and unlike Henry) supplies specific narrative and scriptural contexts for the 
housekeeping image and its development (as Denis Renevey and Christiania 
Whitehead show). The honoured guest is defined as Christ the warrior (the 
Middle English retains the citation in Latin of the image of the bloodied man 
from Isaiah 63. 1) who must be made welcome after his struggle to save 
humankind. The nun is urged to 'make clene {fin house of {fin herf (p. 6) for 
this guest. She must sweep the house of her soul and her heart with the 
broom of 'Fear of the Lord', as both Solomon and Augustine teach. 
Afterwards, like David, searching her conscience, she sweeps the 'filth of the 
house' away with the broom of her tongue through confession, washing her 
soul/house with the water of contrition ( Doctrine , p. 7). The domestic image 
is further developed by analogy with the story of the Good Woman who makes 
ready a room for the prophet Elijah. As Renevey's analysis has already 
mentioned, the guest-room contains a bed, a dining-table and a stool, and a 
candlestick (already in use): the bed figures peace; the table, penance; the stool 
the conscience's self-judgement, and the candle, one's own spiritual awareness. 
As with Henry's text, the coda to this image is the need to make the house of 
the soul secure by constant vigilance at the gates of the five senses. 

Each text, the Livre and the Doctrine, uses the room as an illustrative 
tableau to fonn part of a rhetoric of instruction. As Christiania Whitehead 
has noted in her investigation of devotional evocations of the household, 
these authors are 'revitalizing the taxonomies’ of piety for the devout. 52 (For 
devotion in effect comes down to meditation on a series of lists; the seven 
deadly sins; enumeration of the virtues necessary to counter these vices; the 
redemptive force of Christ's Passion considered through the number of his 
wounds; the joys of the Virgin Mary, and so on.) At the same time, the de 
Doctrina appears to be more attuned to the specifics (and consequences) of 
household organization than is Henry's account. The section just outlined, for 
example, also mentions the nun's confessor as having the role of a spiritual 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

accountant. As Christiania Whitehead has also pointed out, the idea that the 
'stool' in that allegorical room stands for the practice of self-criticism, is 
illuminated by knowledge of 'chapter-house tribunals where the convent's 
official visitor passes judgement on the sisters' misdemeanours'. In the 
Doctrine, moreover, imagery of the household and of military service 
(another scriptural trope on which the author expounds), run together in the 
later declaration of our obligations to Christ (p. 66), to whom we are bound 
in the same way as household servants and soldiers are bound to their lord. 
The investigation of interior space as devotional mnemonic and as rhetorical 
stratagem, a piece of memory work, reminds us of the dangers of literal¬ 
mindedness. It is perhaps too easy to assume that domestic imagery is 
targeted uniquely at female religious, especially when one considers the ratio 
of men to women employed in household service in the thirteenth and 
fourteenth centuries. 54 Past commentators on Henry's work seem eager to 
account for his knowledge of (for example) wounds and their medical 
treatment, or his insight into castles under siege, from his long war-service, 
but do not suggest that mention of floor-sweeping confirms that one of the 
most powerful men in mid fourteenth-century England had to do his own 
dusting. 55 There is, however, a certain temptation to view the differences 
between the Doctrine and the Livre accounts in terms of gender (whether of 
author or apparent intended audience). Henry's declared attitude to housework 
is that evident inadequacy in face of the task will lead to someone else taking 
pity and completing the work themselves; the Good Lord himself comes to the 
aid of the weak and feeble penitent. The Doctrine, meanwhile, distinguishes 
sharply between the servant who cleans properly and the servant who throws 
new rushes down in a hopeful way, in an attempt to disguise the lack of 
attention to the task (p. 8). It might be amusing to interpret Henry's version as a 
timeless anecdote about masculine aversion to housework, but the differences 
between the two texts' use and development of the image also articulate a 
difference at the level of devotional engagement. 

The Doctrine outlines the whole process of confession in preparation 
for the soul's deep knowledge of Christ. Conventionally in doctrinal texts the 
remedies for sins are virtues, and the soul is instructed in charity. The plan of 
the Livre, however, locks Henry's narrative persona into an abject relation 
with Christ and with Mary that, while not ignoring the importance of the 
penitent sinner's volition, and his responsibility to try to do good in future, 
nonetheless emphasises dependence on higher powers. While there is room 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

for Henry to deplore his sins and express his regret for them, in dwelling 
primarily on the remedies of divine grace, the treatise offers little imaginative 
space for individual self-willed spiritual improvement, for all its stress on 
human responsibility. If, as Renevey suggests above, the Ancrene Wisse and 
the Doctrine, by means of the 'feminisation of devotional practices' that they 
represent as religious texts, offer the potential, to a male lay readership, of a 
'deeper understanding of. . .inner feelings', there may also be the potential to 
use such imagery to register a certain spiritual recalcitrance. Henry deploys 
this imagery in such a way as to 'regulate' his soul and his devotions, but in 
context the imagery also works to circumscribe and delimit the nature of that 
devotional experience, to mark the reach of Henry's spiritual understanding 
or, at least, the reach of the experience he is willing to make public. 56 

Although governed by its primary conceit of the 'wounded sinner', 
Henry's text contains, as mentioned above, a wide range of imagery. 
Renevey usefully draws attention to how the Ancrene Wisse, as a 'multi¬ 
function text 1 , figures its household imagery more variously, and less 
consistently, than does the Doctrine, and he suggests that, in its complex 
negotiation of spiritual and physical spaces, a certain ’permeability 1 inheres in 
its central idea of enclosure. Henry's text, while not so obviously 
’multifunctional', partakes in an analogous (although not identical) 
'permeability' with respect to its overlaps of—rather than any specific 
distinctions between—religious and material spaces and practices, and gains 
its special appeal (especially for cultural historians) in its highly realised 
engagement with historical detail. Such overlaps speak to other mergers, for 
example, those between religious and aristocratic, and between male and 
female, communities. Even within historical religious communities, one's 
domestic arrangements might be complicated, in that one might in effect 
belong to more than one household. Isabella, sister to Henry, was first a nun, 
and then prioress, at Amesbury, yet she appears to lead the life of an 
aristocrat as much as of a nun. R. B. Pugh extrapolates from a brief record of 
her personal household accounts, recovered for some months of 1333-4, 
when she was (notionally at least) at Amesbury, that she leads a life 'hardly 
distinguishable from that of a lay person'. 37 The life of Isabella as it emerges 
here accords with what Jocelyn Wogan-Browne has construed, on both 
historical and literary evidence, for life at Wilton in the fifteenth century: 'in 
a prestigious nunnery institutional life was routinely a version of upper-class 
household and family living—including over-generous hospitality', and it is 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

not unusual to find 'great ladies modifying institutional culture to their family 
values and styles'. 58 In this fourteenth-century documentary example, 
Isabella employs men to do her accounts and to look after business for her; 
she buys ginger and spices, pays for New Year and Christmas 
entertainments, makes generous gifts of clothes to friends, and gives to the 
poor and to lepers. (Disappointingly, the accounts do not record any book- 
purchases, although other documentation notes that Edward III bought 'a 
book of romance' from her, in 1335 59 ). She keeps greyhounds, and shares 
hunting interests with Sir Hugh de Audley of the local gentry. Pugh seems 
rather shocked at how many days’ absence Isabella takes from her convent to 
visit family and friends. 60 

A particularly intriguing aspect of Isabella's lifestyle, however, is the 
implicit perception of the boundaries of permissible behaviour. By virtue of 
birth she runs a separate aristocratic household within her convent as a matter 
of course, but when she does live as a nun, she evidently sees herself as 
bound by convent rules. Record exists of the papal grant to Henry (in 
August, 1344) of his petition 'that religious of either sex and seculars may eat 
flesh meat at the table of his sister Isabella'. 61 That Henry goes to the trouble 
of seeking permission on this count suggests that there exists a sense of 
demarcation and of decorum on the part of aristocratic religious and of their 
families. Institutional life and the life made possible by an independent 
income and extra-conventual family networks co-exist by means of mutual 
respect for rule and custom. I stress Isabella's 'dual' lifestyle because I want 
to suggest both that there are intersecting audiences for religious writings, 
and that to live with such arrangements might accustom one to view 
apparently 'realist' textual details as themselves pragmatic fictions. 62 

To return to this image of the household operative in these devotional 
texts: Christiania Whitehead makes a valuable point when she notes that 
male writers tend to invoke scriptural authority for their use of household 
imagery and domestic parable for literature often written for women, 
whereas women writers tend to use domestic allegories that are detached 
from specific biblical reference, because they are authorized by the women's 
visionary status. 63 This observation helps to locate the anomalousness of 
Henry's own text, between the ordered exposition of the writer for religious 
communities, and the inspired narratives of mystics. Henry, while his 
imagery might recall scriptural precedent (as when the broom sweeping one 
clean of sin puts one in mind of Psalm 76 [77]), rarely 'authorizes' his Livre 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

with biblical or other references (and the extant manuscripts, with only some 
Latin marginal noting of passages on the deadly sins, and some index-marks, 
themselves contain no explanatory marginal glosses or references). Instead, 
Henry seems pragmatically to borrow from homiletic, devotional, and 
encyclopaedic materials, which may, to greater and lesser degree, be 
supplemented by further details from personal experience, to which he gives 
a spiritual commentary, laying claim not to any visionary (or even explicit 
didactic) status, but offering a rueful exposition of his own sinfulness. 

In terms of material evidence for Henry's religious practices that 
extended beyond visits to immediate relatives, there is record of a 1349 papal 
permission for him to visit the Minoresses at their Aldgate convent in 
London, in the 'company of [ten] honest persons'. 64 In the following century, 
the convent's Abbess, Christine St Nicholas, will bequeath a copy of the 
early fifteenth-century Doctrine of the Heri to the women of this 
community. 65 I have yet to trace any contemporaneous copy of the De 
doctrina to those institutions with which Henry is most readily associated—• 
for example, Amesbury, the Franciscan foundation at Aldgate, or the 
Newarke Hospital and College (which survives as Trinity Hospital, 
Leicester), which his father endowed and which he extended in the 1350s. 66 
At the end of his book, Henry identifies what looks like a reading circle for 
what he has just written; motivated by the desire to make a general 
confession of his wickedness, 'to God and all the world’ (p. 240), Henry says 
he is also responding to the urging of 'some of my good friends', to write a 
treatise which in effect becomes a modest part of their own devotions; those 
who finish the book are asked to say three Our Fathers and Three Hail Marys 
for him. The textual and material evidence together suggest that certain (if 
highly privileged) fourteenth-century secular groups may avail themselves of 
various forms of pious interaction and constitute themselves, whether 
informally or institutionally, and for different periods of time, as devotional 
communities. There is increasing interest in documenting and examining the 
interaction of lay and religious female spirituality, especially for the later- 
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. 67 The example of Henry, duke of 
Lancaster, suggests that mixed aristocratic circles adapt and rework modes of 
learning and devotional practice more commonly associated with female 
religious (even if, as I have argued, Henry does not fully develop the spiritual 
capital of such literature). Certainly, as Teresa Tavormina's excellent 
introduction to Henry's work demonstrates in its collation of the 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

documentary evidence, his own text seems to have been available to men and 
women, monastic and aristocratic secular, alike .' 6i 

Henry's work finds currency after his lifetime and in other contexts. 69 
Chaucer's Summoner's Tale may well be paying homage to Henry's anecdote 
of the cat-as-the-devil in an ill-ordered household; in Chaucer's account, the 
grasping friar, visiting the housebound parishioner Thomas, settles himself 
down to enjoy hospitality: 

'Thomas,' quod he, 'God yelde yow! Ful ofte 
Have I upon this bench faren ful weel; 

Heere have I eten many a myrie meek' 

And fro the bench he droof awey the cat, 

And leyde adoun his potente (stick) and his hat, 

And eek his scrippe, and sette hym softe adoun. /0 

If Chaucer here assumes specific knowledge of Henry's deployment of the 
cat, he is adding an enriching dimension to the familiar domestic space of 
fabliau, in order to figure the Friar as worse than the devil. This intertextual 
reference reminds us that reading and writing in general do not respect 
religious or secular situations as 'boundaries', but find inspiration and 
continuity in their constant recontextualisation. 

Accumulating Domestic Stores in the Middle English Translation of St 
Birgitta's Liber celestis 

Christiania Whitehead 

The organisational metaphor of the household community appears within a 
number of thirteenth-century and fourteenth-century Latin, Middle English, 
and Anglo-Norman devotional treatises, most notably, as discussed above, 
the Early Middle English Sawles Warde and the Ancrene Wisse, 71 the De 
doctrina cordis, a sizeable Latin treatise of French provenance, directed to an 
audience of nuns, 72 and Henry of Lancaster's Anglo-Nonnan Livre de Seyntz 
Medicines. The metaphor of the household is the topic under investigation 
here. However, it is worth noting that at the same time that the Sawles Warde 
focuses upon tensions within the household community—the frictions 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

between husband and wife, the intractability of the household servants— 
danger from without is never very far away. The four daughters of God 
descend to help guard the treasure of the household and exhort vigilance 
against an external enemy. Similarly, while the Ancrene Wisse may be 
excavated to reveal evidence of an anchoritic household, as Denis Renevey 
shows above, nonetheless, the majority of the architectural metaphors of the 
text remain those of fortification and ensiegement. The soul is a recalcitrant 
lady housed in an earthem castle. The anchoress should not raise her head 
above the battlements of her house, lest she be struck in the eye by the 
arrows of the devil. 73 In its first chapter, the De doctrina cordis offers its 
readers a vivid, extended allegory of the household as a device for 
structuring the Christian consciousness. 74 Nonetheless, later chapters 
continue to reanimate, albeit in far briefer ways, commonplace emblems of 
the soul as an ensieged castle, encircled by cohorts of the devil, and 
dependent on its spiritual champion, Christ. 75 As Catherine Batt has shown, 
Henry of Lancaster's mid-fourteenth-century Livre de Seyntz Medicines pairs 
the figure of the body as a castle whose defences are threatened by sin with 
the image of the disordered household, within its first section. 

In other words, all these texts maintain a simultaneous awareness of 
the ancient allegorical commonplace of spiritual fortification. At times they 
make use of this commonplace to supply the more unparalleled architectural 
metaphor of the household with a recognisable frame of reference. At times, 
their brief inserts are simply concessions to devotional spatial conventions. 
Nonetheless, since they do demonstrate this awareness, their decision to 
focus upon the allegory of the household needs to be viewed as an informed 
and deliberate one, consciously differentiated from the commonplace motif 
of psychological fortification. It is also a relatively innovative choice, in that 
the trope of the household seems not to have been used in any extended way 
much before the early 1200s. 76 In what else does this choice consist? In the 
case of Sawles Warde, it would appear to consist in a decision to picture the 
soul as the site of fraught, contending psychological impulses—of domestic 
tension—as against the old, unitary image of the soul pitted against external 
opposition; a possible acknowledgement of the new faculty psychology 
gathering momentum in Paris. In the case of the De doctrina cordis and its 
Middle English derivative, it would appear to consist in a decision to give 
increased attention to the self-cleansing and self-preparatory activities of the 
soul in the purgative phase of its spiritual evolution. The soul scrubs itself 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

out and amasses the requisite furnitures to receive Christ. It prepares a meal 
in the 'kitchen' of its conscience for Christ, comprised from its own spiritual 
motions of penitence and self-mortification. Both images can be explained as 
vivid and ingenious ways of propagating the self-scrutinizing penitential 
apparatus enjoined by the fourth Lateran Council, and rehearsed in numerous 
thirteenth-century penitential manuals. 77 

There are obviously more examples. What it seems that the majority 
share in common is a revised appreciation of the soul, tending away from 
vigilance and from passive anticipation of the spiritual champion, Christ, 
toward a model that is notably more proactive and self-reliant. Vices, like 
germs, are controllable through various self-operated practices of cleaning. 
When Christ comes, in the Doctrina, it is to benefit from the spiritual 
furnitures we have prepared, and from the meal of penitential mortification 
we can set before him. Henry of Lancaster, of course, hopes that God will be 
good enough to send emissaries of grace to help organize his unworthy 
household. Perhaps this new intervention anticipates theological 
developments in the latter part of the fourteenth century, placing greater 
weight upon the human need for God's grace. 78 Nevertheless, Henry fully 
acknowledges the extent to which the expulsion of sinful dirt and fleas must 
depend upon the self-enjoined disciplines of penance and tearful contrition. 
In other words, the emphasis in these devotional allegories of the household 
remains firmly premised upon self-cleansing, self-acquisition, self¬ 
rehabilitation. 79 Christ's final residence is troped as the arrival of a prized 
guest, as an occasion for festivity and feasting, in which we are able to bring 
to bear luxurious, even aristocratic hospitality. It is not envisaged as a release 
from captivity. The emphasis has changed. Castle warfare has given way to 
an allegorical culture of conspicuous welcome. 

Domestic allegories such as Sawles Warde, Ancrene Wisse and De 
doctrina cordis take an essentially didactic tack, instructing the anchoresses, 
nuns, and beguines, who constitute their primary reading audiences. 80 The 
domestic trope is enrolled as a homiletic tool, facilitating the formation of a 
Christian identity. As such, this trope tends to be founded upon a scriptural 
verse or parable, such as the parabolic sayings of Christ, urging the 
advisability of sweeping a house against evil spirits, or of guarding 
household valuables against burglars, or the Old Testament story of the old 
woman who readied her home to receive Elijah the prophet in the first Book 
of Kings. 8 " Henry of Lancaster's Livre de Seyntz Medicines acts as a 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

contrasting case. Positioned anomalously, as Catherine Batt notes above, 
'between the ordered exposition of the writer for religious communities, and 
the inspired narratives of the mystics', it makes only occasional attempts to 
link its moral figurations to scriptural precedents, perhaps as a consequence 
of the lay and aristocratic circumstances of its composition. 

But what happens when the domestic trope is passed over into a 
different kind of discourse? When it is removed from clerical or devout lay 
composition and passed into the domain of female prophecy? 83 When gender 
and circumstance reverses, and the figurative household is commandeered, 
not by a cleric or a male aristocrat, but by a married woman? Not to give 
homiletic instruction to a select readership of variously enclosed females, but 
to relay the words of God to a potentially universal Christian public? 
Obviously, it becomes incontestable. As such, it may no longer require the 
authority provided by scriptural precedent, since it is directly validated by 
God. Rather than acting to shape the consciousness of the late medieval 
female reader, and to proclaim it domestic, menial, hospitable, culinary, it is 
claimed directly by a woman to assist her in her act of self-construction. 84 
Rather than offering its readers a model of domestic community that 
presupposes some kind of active engagement—participation in a mixed 
routine for those living in the world, a more active and charitable 
monasticism—but which still assumes a basically coterie audience with the 
individual dedication to pursue such extended visualizations, it redirects 
itself to carry a potentially universal application, inset within a prophetic 
discourse addressed to popes, prelates, religious, and the kings and magnates 
of secular Christian society. 

In order to add flesh to these bones, and to go some way towards 
substantiating these general claims, I would like to direct the remainder of 
this discussion towards a specific, yet largely overlooked, prophetic allegory 
of domesticity: the extended allegory of domestic stores spread over four 
chapters in the second book of the Liber celestis of St Bridget of Sweden. 85 
My intention will be to suggest that this allegory acts to revise existing 
images of the domestic in accordance with its 'author’s' female gender and 
marital status; 86 also, that it can be excavated to reveal tension and 
confrontation; tension, in relation to the thread of self-reproval and 
castigation running through the saint's revelations, and confrontation, vis-a- 
vis the allegorical stratagems and norms of the Swedish clerical 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

To enter into greater detail, as is well-known, Bridget's opus of 
revelations consists largely of an exhaustive number of brief allegorical 
visions, shown to her by Christ or by Mary, and no sooner shown than 
explained. Many of these allegories purport to offer a divine perspective 
upon contemporary issues—the pope's residency in Avignon, the war 
between England and France, the matter of the Swedish crusades to Russia in 
the late 1340s. Many more comment upon the Christian duties and 
shortcomings of various estates in society, in particular, the knightly class, 
Bridget's own class. Still more deliver ominous pictures of the moral 
dereliction of the contemporary church and demand urgent reform. Many of 
these allegorical visions utilize and revise relatively standard allegorical 
exempla culled from the preaching repertoire. 87 To return for a moment to 
the discussion that opens this essay, many visions comment upon 
contemporary crises and weaknesses within the church by utilizing the 
familiar tropes of the assailed castle or the figurative temple. In view of this 
continuity, it seems fair to describe Bridget's literary method in many 
instances as a method of translation, in which allegorical figures coined by 
preachers and utilized within manuals of religious instruction are reassessed 
as divine allegories, embellishing an incontestable narrative dictated by God 
to direct and admonish mankind. 

On many occasions Bridget appropriates commonplace preaching 
tropes and exempla to serve her visionary purpose. Yet, on other occasions, 
she is equally prepared to voice her prophetic message by reference to 
seemingly artless, or 'non-scholastic' domestic scenes. To reutilize two brief 
examples that Bridget Morris alludes to in passing in her recent biographical 
monograph upon the saint—on one occasion Bridget describes how Christ 
likens her soul to a cheese that requires cleansing within the cheese-vat of 
her body: 'J>i saule [. . .] is to me swete and delitabill as a chese', 88 while on 
another, St Agnes appears in a vision and tells how God is a washerwoman: 

bat puttes a clothe Jrat is no3t clene in swilke place of J>e 
water whare, thrugh inouinge of J)e water, it mai be clenner 
and whitter, and 3ete sho takes heede [oat Jre watir drowne 
no3t Joe clothe. So God suffirs Jraim Joat he loues in Jois werld 
be in disese of tribulacion and pouert, Joat Joai be clenner and 
more abill to blisse. And 3it he kepis J)aime, Joat nowjrir to 
grete disese ne heuenes fordo J>aime. S9 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

It is worth noting, as an addendum, that, whereas the clerical author of the 
Doctrina provides his female reader with the menial tasks of sweeping and 
scrubbing the chamber of her heart to receive a knightly guest, the female 
author of the Liber transposes the chore to a heavenly household and 
envisages God's purification of the soul as an act of female domestic labour. 

It has proved tempting to wish to relate examples such as these to the 
local circumstances of Bridget's own domestic experience and oversight. To 
summarise some well-known biographical details—bom into the aristocracy 
near Uppsala, and married at thirteen to a leading member of the council of 
state, much of Bridget's early life was spent carrying out the traditional 
functions of a chatelaine: mothering children, supervising brewing, baking 
and dairy labour, and overseeing the management of her husband's rural 
estate. 90 However, I would like to hold to the phrase 'seemingly artless and 
experiential', in that, in our more extended domestic example, I think we will 
need to recognise the way in which apparently artless local detail can be 
unpackaged to reveal more sophisticated stratagems of construction. 

The domestic example in question is located in the second book of the 
Liber, and in all probability dates from the period succeeding Bridget's 
widowing and consequent transfer to the Cistercian house of Alvastra; the 
period in which she also received the visionary call bidding her identify 
herself as a bride of Christ. 91 In this book, in the course of an extended 
vision, Christ appears and describes three houses that he desires to share with 
his spouse. The first must contain food: bread, not of the eucharist, but of a 
'gude will'; the water of the forethought of worship; and the salt of godly 
wisdom, which has nothing in common with academic wisdom: 

For Jtare is som so simpill Jiat Jrai can no3t on right maner sai 
one Pater noster, and anojtir hase grete conninge and mikill 
litterature. Is jnis Goddes wisdome? Forsothe nai! For devine 
wisdome is noght alloneli in litterature, bot it is in a clene hert 
and gude life. 93 

The second house must contain textiles: linen signifying peaceableness 
towards God and mankind; wool, signifying deeds of mercy, and silk, drawn 
from worms, that signifies the abstinence that springs from the memory of 
sin. Interestingly enough, this instruction is preceded by a short digression in 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

which the Virgin quotes from St Lawrence's meditation upon the passion: 'f>e 
lorde Iesu Crist was naked and scorned. Howe semis it me f>an to were 
precious and delicate clothinge?' 94 The third house must contain vats, tools 
and farm animals. The first vat for storing sweet liquids such as oil, water, 
and wine signifies morally profitable thoughts; while the second, for storing 
bitter liquids such as mustard and meal, represents the evil thoughts through 
which one becomes aware of one's own moral frailty. These vats are stored 
alongside a plough of reason, and an axe of discretion, with which Christians 
need to examine their daily intentions and to cut away arrogant accretions. 
The third house must also contain agricultural beasts of confession that bear 
the soul towards God and invigorate its good works. 

Once these houses have been designated and filled with goods, they 
need to be protected by sturdy doors and locks so that spiritual enemies 
cannot enter the premises and cause mayhem. Consequently, Christ instructs 
his spouse to install a door of hope, swinging between hinges of despair 
and presumption, a lock of charity, strengthened by wards of dread, 
fervour, and diligence, and a key for this lock, consisting in a heartfelt 
desire to be with God. 

J>e kei of swilke a desire closes God in fre saule and f>e saule 
in God. he husband and f>e wife—J^at menes God and J>e 
saule—alloneli sail haue f>is kei, J?at God mai haue fre entre 
to delite himselfe in fie vertuse of fie saule, and fie saule to 
com to God when it likes. 95 

There are several main points I would like to make in response to this 
revelatory allegory. First, by contrast with earlier domestic allegories and, I 
would suggest, as a consequence of her gender and married status, Bridget 
significantly shifts the parameters of devotional domesticity. Directing 
themselves towards anchoritic and monastic audiences, Sawles Warde and 
the Doctrina depict scenes of marital friction, or of hospitality and culinary 
process, that are essentially communal and monastic in implication. Marriage 
is presented as a tense and turbulent process one might do well to avoid, or it 
remains without presence. In his Livre de Seyntz Medicines, Henry laments 
his vice-ridden, disreputable interior household, but there is no suggestion 
that lordly marriage acts either as the source or the solution to his difficulties. 
Instead, as the treatise advances, the dominant figurative language becomes 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

one of spiritual healing; the tarnished household is reimagined as the moral 
illness of the soul. Bridget reinscribes a positive picture of marriage—the 
marriage between Christ and his bride, Bridget—into the centre of figurative 
domestic life. Obviously, this has to do with her wish to work on her own 
new identity—to probe deeper into the figurative daily realities of what it 
might mean to be a bride of Christ. It is also apparent that it contains some 
refraction of her own background of marriage to Ulf Gudmarsson, and the 
stocking, ordering and oversight of their country estate in the Narke 
province. As such, since Bridget writes of the condition of spiritual brideship 
in terms so akin to those of physical married existence among the 
landowning aristocracy, physical marriage and the virginity traditionally 
associated with spiritual brideship implicitly coalesce, a conclusion that 
accords well with Bridget's general desire to rehabilitate marriage from its 
traditional position at the base of the triad of sexual conditions. 96 

Bridget's allegory, picturing God and the soul taking delight with one 
another in the three houses they have stocked with goods, gives a homely 
slant to the condition of mystic marriage, and rehabilitates the potential for 
perfection in physical marriage. As such, the text and its meditation upon 
Christian interiority, using material space and domestic circumstance, is 
implicitly made available to a more mixed Christian public than earlier 
domestic allegories presupposing readerly adherence to anchoritic regimes. 
And, as has been well-charted, vernacular versions of Bridget's revelations 
were read far beyond the confines of Bridgettine monasteries in fifteenth- 
century Europe, in particular, in England. 

Bridget inscribes marriage into the figurative domestic sphere. But she 
also recrafts marriage, and the marital household. Whereas earlier, 
predominantly monastic writers upon spiritual marriage tend to elaborate the 
sensual and erotic aspects of the mystic marriage between God and the soul, 
describing, as it were, the honeymoon part of things, and never really moving 
beyond that, 9X Bridget, the mother of eight children, and busy chatelaine of a 
Swedish country estate for the twenty-eight year duration of her marriage, 
fascinatingly recrafts marriage as a sphere of material acquisition, of 
conspicuous preservation and consumption, in which the married couple take 
their pleasure, not by gaining entry into some allegorical depiction of the 
bedchamber, but by unlocking the door of hope into larders, cellars, linen 
closets, and stable buildings, and contemplating, perhaps even enumerating, 
their abundant material stores. The contrast with the equally aristocratic 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

Henry of Lancaster, who views furniture as sinful clutter and sees a virtue in 
emptying rather than in hoarding, is pronounced. 

'Bourgeois' would be an inappropriate word to use in this context, as 
would 'mercantile'. Bridget was a member of traditional landed aristocracy. 
Nonetheless, there seems to be something extraordinarily forward-looking, 
something anticipatory of social shifts to come, in Bridget's decision to 
configure aristocratic marriage, not by reference to courtly and chivalric 
systems of manners, but by reference to reams of wool and linen, and vats of 
oil, and grain, and wine. In many ways, the episode anticipates the neat 
domestic interiors, with their chests and dressers and reams of cloth, that 
frame religious subject matters in urban, fifteenth-century Flemish art." 

Bridget constructs marriage as a site of material acquisition, in 
which satisfaction resides in the contemplation of adequately stocked 
storehouses. She constructs an image of the spouse, in which it is suggested 
that it is her zealous preservation of household wealth and conscientious 
oversight that is best designed to gain her the approval of her divine 
husband. Aristocratic marriage in the early years of the fourteenth century 
frequently contained similar emphases. Bridget’s own marriage, aged 
thirteen, was an arranged one, politically expedient to her family—a 
worldly and a practical arrangement. Morris relates how, in many places in 
her revelations, Bridget maintained this awareness of the realistic character 
of marriage—advising a betrothed woman on how to obtain as much as 
possible for her dowry; elsewhere naming material property and a male 
heir as the true fruits of a good marriage. 100 

Nonetheless, there is a tension; there is a conflict. We should recall the 
Virgin's passing reference to St Lawrence, who scorned 'precious and 
delicate clothinge', in the midst of an allegorical validation of hoarding silk 
and wool. Elsewhere in her revelations, Bridget presents herself as having 
provoked God by her weakness for fine food and clothing. 101 During her 
marriage, we are told how, having had a luxurious bed made up for her, she 
was reproached for her vanity by Christ, and took to sleeping on straw and 
bearskins instead. 102 And after her husband's death, we are told how she 
receives a vision in which she is instructed to distribute his household goods 
amongst the poor, since the pleasure he had taken in those objects had caused 
him to sm. 

Whereas menial domesticity—sweeping, scrubbing and roasting 
chickens—provides a set of uncontroversial signifiers in treatises such as De 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

doctrina cordis', the allegory of domestic abundance, of conspicuous 
hoarding, is laced with more unstable and uncomfortable subtexts, opposing 
asceticism to abundance, material derision to material satisfaction. In one 
way, these sub-indicators of asceticism serve as a reminder of the ultimately 
immaterial, or figurative character of the vision described. Yet, in another 
way, they destabilize the authority of the allegory, suggesting awkwardly that 
Bridget's vision of the 'gostly' husband and wife in amongst their silks and 
their wine flagons may simply pander to the aristocratic status quo. In other 
words, rather than acting to reinforce itself, as is the case with many of 
Bridget's other visions, ascetic subtexts within and beyond this allegory of 
domestic circumstance succeed unusually in detracting from its divine authority. 

In addition to destabilizing its divine sources of authority, Bridget's 
allegory of the three houses also succeeds in questioning some more 
gendered and institutional loci of authority. In many ways, many of the 
details of the allegory are scrupulously orthodox. Confession and the 
confessor duly make their appearance. However, two small deviations from 
standard significations—-Christ insists that the bread to which he refers is not 
'Jie brede on [ie awter', but the bread of good will which is wholly unrelated, 
and that the salt of divine wisdom is not to be confused with the wisdom of 
those who enjoy 'grete conninge and mikill litterature’—additionally betray a 
very palpable dissatisfaction on the part of the saint with a clerical 
hermeneutics in which bread is always eucharistic, and wisdom, Latinate and 
book-bound—in which, in effect, everything always refers back to a 
sacramental practice or to an exegetical interpretation. 

This process of interpretative fine tuning, whereby Bridget evokes, but 
then backs away from, accepted allegorical significations, can be glimpsed 
on several instances within her visionary corpus. On one occasion, for 
example, during a visionary conversation with the Virgin, Bridget makes the 
eminently forgivable mistake of comparing the Virgin to Solomon's 
temple—a homiletic and exegetical commonplace. 104 However, having then 
gone on to elaborate upon this comparison in considerable detail—the 
pavement represents Mary's stability of conduct, the walls, her 
imperviousness to reproof—she is finally brought up short by the Virgin, 
who demands testily: 'whi likkens j}ou me to Jie tempill of Salamon?' 5 and 
goes on to suggest that a parallel with the mother of the temple's sovereign 
priest would be a far more fitting comparison. The Virgin's interjection is 
brief, but its implication is far-reaching. Essentially, it suggests, in exactly 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

the same way as Christ's modification regarding the bread and the salt, that 
the stock similitudes employed in sermons and in commentary may be 
flawed and fallible. It suggests, in effect, that standard ecclesiastic 
hermeneutics fall short of mystical revelation, and need to be subjected to a 
process of divine fine-tuning that can only be accessed through God's 
chosen visionaries. 106 

The bread in the storehouse is not Christ's body on the altar. The salt 
in the sack has nothing in common with academic wisdom, with 'grete 
conninge and mikill litterature'. As such, imbued with such scepticism 
regarding book knowledge and, by extension, clerical intellectualism, ought 
we not to view Bridget's detailed construction of affluent rural domestic 
circumstance in the second book of her revelations, as a conscious attempt to 
formulate a domestic language of spirituality, an innovative finding of Christ 
in the home, untouched by the 'bookish' and more ecclesiastically-oriented 
formulae of the Christian allegorical tradition? 

The image of domesticity comes in a number of guises in Latin and 
vernacular devotional literature, emphasizing by turns the relational, 
hospitable, communal, and acquisitional. When it is voiced by a woman who 
purports to derive her authority directly from the divine, I would suggest that 
it is voiced rather differently to its articulation in more homiletic texts. When 
it is voiced by a married woman, I would suggest that it configures marriage, 
and domestic property within marriage, very differently to its voicing in 
treatises geared towards coterie readerships in the female religious life. 
Nonetheless, what all these allegories and devotional episodes share in 
common is perhaps finally more important than what divides them. In their 
different ways, they testify to the idea that domestic, everyday space can be 
sacred space; that, troped with different kinds of virtue and penitential 
intention, it can be the place where one encounters Christ, as guest, as 
husband, as lover. As such, they add an important additional strand of 
evidence to established, but still ongoing, researches into the devotional shift 
from exclusively cloistered to lay and mixed forms of spirituality, and into 
the character and textual stratagems of the books of guidance that form and 
nurture that spirituality. 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 


Christiania Whitehead 

In a late series of interviews and talks, Michel Foucault lists four major 
'technologies' by which human beings develop knowledge about themselves, 
and enumerates his increasing preoccupation with the fourth: 

[The] technologies of the self, which permit individuals to 
effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain 
number of operations on their own bodies and souls, 
thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform 
themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, 
purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality. 107 

Following these three essays, considering the trope of the soul or heart 
as a household in a variety of pre-modem textual locations, it may prove 
fruitful, finally, to evaluate this trope in the light of Foucault's crystalline 
definition. The configuration of the heart as a household, alternately an 
object for serene satisfaction or rueful despair, arguably constitutes an 
overlooked 'technology of the self, specific to medieval Christian culture, in 
which the self, modified in a certain direction by author and reader working 
in tandem, is constructed as a private yet social place, prone to moral dirt and 
external contamination, and in need of constant surveillance and cleansing. 
An appropriate degree of figurative domestic oversight—the policing of the 
senses and psychological self-disciplining, allied with stringent moral 
hygiene—creates the right conditions for transformation (significantly 
located as external rather than internal in Christian ideology—the soul is the 
recipient, not the agent) in the form of the arrival and residency of Christ, 
enabling communion with the divine. 

After offering initial comments on what a 'technology of the self 
might entail, Foucault goes on to trace an evolution in the ways in which we 
think about our self, from Greco-Roman philosophy to early Christian 
monasticism. Having sketched the Hellenistic recommendation to 'care' for 
the self by, for example, retreat, regular self-examination, and 
autobiographical letter-writing, Foucault suggests that Christian monastic 
culture innovates a far more disjunctive and inherently contradictory 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

'technology of the self, in which the self must continually be confessed 
(that is, verbalized, to God or to a confessor) as a pre-condition of 
necessary self-renunciation. 10h The self is articulated, on an ongoing basis, 
in order to be put aside. 

Now, obviously, Foucault's overarching theorizations need to be 
subjected to considerable historical fine-tuning (not least, by tracing the 
respective trajectories of the history of confessional practice and of self- 
abnegation); nonetheless, once again, they initially appear very illuminating 
for the devotional trope in question. The interior domestic space of the self 
must be swept out, emptied of sinful clutter, by the act of confession. The old 
detritus of compromised thought and action must be expelled -new green 
rushes must be strewn—the self must be reconstituted afresh. In these 
didactic and devotional texts, the act of confession would indeed appear to be 
an act of self-rejection or ejection, communicated through the trope of 
spring-cleaning and house-emptying. 

But is this the whole story? Foucault proposes the disjunctive, 
ongoing renunciation of the self as a central monastic paradigm, and 
identifies as an (initially) eighteenth-century phenomenon—and a clear 
rupture with earlier practice—the articulation of a 'disclosure of the self that 
does not involve self-renunciation. 109 1 would suggest that, on closer 
inspection, the domestic trope of interiority actually unfolds to reveal 
readings of the devotional self that give due place to stability, permanence 
and continuity. The Livre de Seyntz Medicines and the Doctrine of the Hert 
require the periodic expulsion of dirt through confession, to be sure. But after 
everything has been swept out and confessed, the household of the self is still 
there, not gone. It is simply sweeter, fresher and better operated than before 
(or in Henry's case, there is the rueful realization that the dirt and domestic 
beasts are likely to re-establish themselves soon!) In the same section that the 
Doctrine writes about expelling dirt through the medium of sweeping, it also 
speaks of acquiring basic domestic furnitures—a bed, a food-table, a 
candlestick, and a stool. Putting out the self, via speech, is conjoined with 
determined self-construction, within the same allegorical linguistic field. 
Bridget (still engaged obliquely with confession in that she relates her 
visions to her confessors) only acquires and does not expel. Her model of the 
self, received unarguably via vision, is one of scrupulous, laudable 
acquisition—a domestic and contemporary reinterpretation of the parabolic 
treasure laid up in heaven. But, as we have seen, Bridget often proposes to 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

correct or re-nuance the homiletic commonplaces that she receives. Here, she 
dispenses with the penitential convention of self-rejection or ejection 
(sweeping out the soul with the broom of the tongue), and instead stresses the 
cumulative stocking and securing of the self in terms of household goods and 
virtues. Bridget 'confesses' an interiority that is built up and equipped to a 
point of repletion for the enjoyment of the divine spouse rather than an 
interiority that has, perennially, to be renounced. 

Moving then from monastic and anchoritic instruction, through lay 
devotional writing, to female vision, it would seem that the complementary 
yet distinct allegories of domestic devotional selfhood within these texts can 
fruitfully be examined as 'technologies': allegories that present their 
recipients with a prescriptive imagination of the form of their inner, Christian 
selves. Nonetheless, a close investigation of these tropes arguably reveals a 
more stable and continuous reading of the 'confessing' self than Foucault is 
prepared to allow, qualifying the violent rejection of the self (the broom of 
the tongue) by insetting it within a broader discourse of domesticity in which 
the inner space of the self is identified as the 'home'—always improvable, yet 
equally, always the same—in which cleaning gives way to a psychological 
culture of acquisition, drawing in a profusion of the moral furnitures and 
utensils necessary for salvation. 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 


1 For two recent studies of the architectural metaphor in religious and other 
medieval literatures, see David Cowling, Building the Text: Architecture as Metaphor in 
Late Medieval and Early Modern France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); 
Christiania Whitehead, Castles of the Mind: A Study of Medieval Architectural Allegory 
(Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003). 

2 See C. M. Woolgar, The Great Household in Late Medieval England (New 
Haven: Yale University Press, 1999); The Medieval Household in Christian Europe 
c.850 - c.1550: Managing Power, Wealth and the Body, ed. by Cordelia Beattie, Anna 
Maslakovic and Simon Rees Jones (Turnhout: Brepols, 2003). 

3 Medieval Practices of Space, ed. by Barbara A. Hanawalt and Michal Kobialka, 
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. x. 

4 Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: 
Blackwell, 1991), pp. 29-40. 

5 The phrase derives from the title of D. Vance Smith's recent monograph, The 
Medieval Household Imaginary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003). 

6 Quoting Max Horkheimer, Felicity Riddy draws the conclusion that such texts: 
'encourage the female reader to internalize "the necessity to curtail her freedom in a life of 
domesticity" [. . .] and "to call this curtailment sacrifice rather than oppression"'. 'Preface', 
in Medieval Household , ed. by Beattie et ah, pp. 129-35 (p. 133). 

7 My contribution to this joint article forms another triptych, with two of my own 
essays: 'Early Middle English Writings for Women: Ancrene Wisse', in Readings in 
Medieval Texts: Interpreting Old and Middle English Literature, ed. by David Johnson 
and Elaine Trehame (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 198-212, explores that 
text's notions of communities and social networks; 'Household Chores in The Doctrine of 
the Here. Affective Spirituality and Subjectivity', in The Medieval Household, ed. by 
Beattie et ah, pp. 167-86, addresses household, and in particular kitchen, imagery, in The 
Doctrine of the Hert. (See also: 'L'imagerie des travaux menagers dans The Doctrine of 
the Hert : Spiritualite affective et subjectivite'. In II Cuore. The Heart. Micrologus 11, ed. 
by A. Paravicini Bagliani (Florence: Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2003), 519-53. References to 
the primary literature (in brackets following quotations) are to the following editions: 
Ancrene Wisse, edited from MS. Corpus Christi College Cambridge 402, ed. by J. R. R. 
Tolkien, EETS, o.s. 249 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962); Anchoritic Spirituality: 
Ancrene Wisse and Associated Works, trans. by Anne Savage and Nicholas Watson (New 
York: Paulist Press, 1991) (referenced in the body of the text as AW); Mary Patrick 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

Candon, 'The Doctrine of the Hert, edited from the Manuscripts with Introduction and 
Notes' (unpublished doctoral dissertation, Fordham University, 1963,1; Sawles Warde, in 
Medieval English Prose for Women: Selections from the Katherine Group and Ancrene 
Wisse, ed. by Bella Millett and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 
pp. 86-109. 

8 E. J. Dobson, The Origins of Ancrene Wisse (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976); 
among her numerous contributions to Ancrene Wisse studies, see Bella Millett, 'Women in 
No Man's Land: English recluses and the development of vernacular literature in the 
twelfth and thirteenth centuries’, in Women and Literature in Britain, 1150-1500, ed. by 
Carol M. Meale, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 86-103; 
see also Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Analytical Survey 5: "'Reading is Good Prayer": Recent 
Research on Female Reading Communities', New Medieval Literatures, 5 (2002), 229-97; 
Elizabeth Robertson, Early English Devotional Prose and the Female Audience 
(Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990). 

9 Bella Millett, 'The Ancrene Wisse Group', in A Companion to Middle English 
Prose, ed. by A. S. G. Edwards (Cambridge: Brewer, 2004), pp. 1-17. Of the seventeen 
manuscripts in which versions of, or extracts from, Ancrene Wisse are found, Cambridge, 
Corpus Christi College, MS 402 (the manuscript Tolkien edits), probably written no 
earlier than the 1230s, and definitely not before 1224, in the West-Midland area, serves as 
my primary evidence. 

10 G. Hendrix, Hugo de Sancto Caro's Traktaat De Doctrina Cordis: 
Handschriften, Receplie, Tekstgeschiedenis en Authenticiteitskritiek, 2 vols (Louvain: 
Bibliotheque de la Faculte de Theologie, 1995), I xxviii. 

11 Renevey, 'Household Chores', esp. pp. 167-8. 

12 I treat this aspect at greater length in Renevey, 'Early Middle English Writings'. 

13 I here draw on Jocelyn Wogan-Browne's talk, 'Unenclosing Ancrene Wisse', 
given at the 'Anchorites, Wombs and Tombs' Conference, Gregynog Hall, Newtown, 5-7 
July 2002, and thank her for generously making her paper available to me. Some of that 
material appears in an essay written with Nicholas Watson, 'The French of England: the 
Compileison, Ancrene Wisse, and the idea of Anglo-Norman', in a special issue, on 
'Cultural Traffic in the Medieval Romance World' edited by Simon Gaunt and Julian 
Weiss, of the Journal of Romance Studies, 4 (2004), 35-59. 

14 See Alexandra Barratt, 'Anchoritic Aspects of Ancrene Wisse', Medium Atvum, 
49 (1980), 32-56. Lefebvre speaks, for instance, of a farm as a space implying social 
networks. The farm houses a family from a particular country, region. This farm is 
inserted into a particular landscape. Whether beautiful or poor, it is an undertaking as well 
as a product, which corresponds of course to a certain type. But the farm is nevertheless 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

also part of nature. It is, Lefebvre writes, an intermediary object between undertaking and 
product, nature and work, the symbolic and the meaningful. Does the farm give birth to a 
space? Yes. Is this space natural or cultural, immediate or mediated (by whom? for 
what?), given or fictitious? Both. See The Production of Space, pp. 82-4. This simple 
example shows the complexity of discerning all the connections such an object 
immediately implies. The same questions can be asked of the anchorhold, resulting in a 
similarly complex set of answers. 

15 Christopher Cannon, 'The form of the self: Ancrene Wisse and romance', Medium 
/Evum, 70 (2001), 47-65. See also Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Saints' Lives and Women's 
Literary Culture: Virginity and its Authorizations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 
2001); Mary C. Erler, Women, Reading, and Piety in Late Medieval England (Cambridge: 
Cambridge University Press, 2002). 

16 Barratt, 'Anchoritic Aspects', pp. 37-8. 

17 Erler, Women, Reading, and Piety, p. 27. 

18 In addition to Erler, see David N. Bell, What Nuns Read: Books and Libraries in 
Medieval English Nunneries (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1995); see also Vincent 
Gillespie, 'The Book and the Brotherhood: Reflections on the Lost Library of Syon 
Abbey 1 , in The English Medieval Book: Studies in Memory of Jeremy Griffiths , ed. by A. 
S. G. Edwards, Vincent Gillespie and Ralph Hanna (London: The British Library, 2000), 
pp. 185-208; see also the introduction to Corpus of British Medieval Catalogues 9. Syon 
Abbey , ed. by Vincent Gillespie, with The Libraries of the Carthusians , ed. by A. I. Doyle 
(London: The British Library, 2001), pp. xxix-lxv. 

19 For more information on the medieval household from a historical perspective, 
see Woolgar, The Great Household. On hospitality, see especially pp. 21-29; on food and 
drink, see pp. 111-35. 

20 On the medieval household, see Woolgar, The Great Household ; see also D. 
Vance Smith, Arts of Possession. 

21 In addition to hospitality, food and drink, other interesting parallels can be drawn 
between the anchoritic household and the great medieval household. Dietary concerns, 
relationships with servants and animals, the specific function of particular rooms, all 
provide interesting evidence. See Woolgar, The Great Household. 

22 On the importance of communities in Ancrene Wisse, see Renevey, 'Early Middle 
English Writings'. 

23 Savage and Watson, Anchoritic Spirituality, p. 389. 

24 Linda Georgianna, The Solitary Self: Individuality in the Ancrene Wisse 
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981); Bella Millett, 'Ancrene Wisse and the 


Catherine Bait, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

Conditions of Confession 1 , English Studies, 80 (1999), 193-215; Cate Gunn, 'Ancrene Wisse: A 
Modem Lay Person's Guide to a Medieval Religious Text', Magistra, 8 (2002), 3-25. 

25 This confessional and penitential version is found in Cambridge, Trinity College, 
MS 883 (R. 14.7), and dates from the late-thirteenth/early-fourteenth century. For a 
description of the manuscript, see Ancrene Wisse, ed. by Robert Hasenfratz, TEAMS 
(Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, 2000), p. 32. 

26 Eric Jager, The Book of the Heart (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 
pp. 120-56. 

27 Harald Kleinschmidt, Understanding the Middle Ages: The Transformation of 
Ideas and Altitudes in the Medieval World (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2000), p. 34. 

28 Kleinschmidt, Understanding the Middle Ages, p. 34. 

29 Riddy,'Preface', pp. 129-33. 

30 Whitehead, Castles of the Mind, pp. 122-8. 

31 Renevey,'Household Chores', pp. 176-7. 

32 Christiania Whitehead, 'A Fortress and a Shield: The Representation of the 
Virgin in the Chateau d’amour of Robert Grosseteste', in Writing Religious Women: 
Female Spiritual and Textual Practices in Late Medieval England, ed. by Denis Renevey 
and Christiania Whitehead (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000), pp. 109-32, esp. 
pp. 113-17. 

33 Felicity Riddy,'Preface', p. 133. 

34 Karen L. Fresco, 'Gendered Household Spaces in Christine de Pizan's Livre des 
trois vertus', in The Medieval Household, ed. by Beattie et al., pp. 187-98, esp. p. 194. 

35 On late-medieval adaptations of Ancrene Wisse, for instance, see Nicholas 
Watson, 'Ancrene Wisse, Religious Reform and the Late Middle Ages', in A Companion to 
Ancrene Wisse, ed. by Yoko Wada (Cambridge: Brewer, 2003), pp. 197-226. 

36 See also Cordelia Beattie and Anna Maslakovic, 'Introduction', in The Medieval 
Household, ed. by Beattie et ah, pp. 1-8. 

37 See Watson and Wogan-Browne, 'The French of England', for a synopsis of the 
Compileison, together with an account of its potential audiences. They note the text 
survives in full in two fourteenth-century manuscripts (p. 42). 

38 See similar imagery in Fasciculus Morum: A Fourteenth-Century Preacher's 
Handbook, ed. and trans. by Siegfried Wenzel (University Park: Pennsylvania State 
University Press, 1989). 

39 Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines: The Unpublished Devotional Treatise of Henry of 
Lancaster, ed. by E. J. Amould, Anglo-Norman Text Society, 2 (Oxford: Blackwell, 
1940), pp. 99-103. Subsequent references are given in the text, by page-number. 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

40 Norman P. Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2 vols (London: Sheed 
and Ward, 1990) I 245. 

41 See also, my '"De celle mordure vient la mort dure": Perspectives on Puns and 
their Translation in Henry, duke of Lancaster's Le Livre de Seynt: Medicines', 
forthcoming in The Medieval Translator 10, ed. by Jacqueline Jenkins and Olivier 
Bertrand (Tumhout: Brepols) 

42 Douglas Gray notes the equation of cat and devil here as both 'something of a 
shock' in terms of the passage's 'literary "realism'", and as 'appropriate' to a cat's destructive 
nature: see his 'Notes on Some Medieval Mystical, Magical and Moral Cats', in Langland, 
the Mystics and the Medieval English Religious Tradition: Essays in Honour of S. S. Hussey, 
ed. by Helen Phillips (Cambridge: Brewer, 1990) pp. 185-202 (pp. 197-8). 

43 Jean Binta Breeze, Spring Cleaning: Poems (London: Virago, 1992) 

44 Other mentions of the 'cleansed' soul carry their own allegorised elaborations; an 
Anglo-Norman meditation on the Passion in the later thirteenth-century MS Dublin, 
Trinity College 374 (apparently composed for a religious audience), fols 58va-67ra, 
imagines the newly washed 'house' of the confessed soul being adorned with the 'flowers' 
of virtue (fols 65vb-66vc). (Tony Hunt is preparing an edition of this poem). The poem 
Robin F. Jones edits as 'An Anglo-Norman Rhymed Sermon for Ash Wednesday', 
Speculum, 54 (1979), 71-84, from MS Dublin, Trinity College 312, specifies the 
necessary removal of spiders and a toad; these represent the seven deadly sins, with the 
toad as pride, pp. 79-80. 

45 British Library, MS Additional 28162, fol. 94ra. 

46 The Ayenbite of Inwyt, ed. by Pamela Gradon, 2 vols, EETS, o.s. 23 (London: 
Oxford University Press, 1866, reissued 1965), I 171-2. 

47 See also Renevey, 'Figuring Household Space', above, and Renevey, 'Household 
Chores', ed. by Beattie et al. 

48 For reasons of accessibility, I shall refer to the Middle English translation of the 
Latin text, The Doctrine of the Hert, ed. by Candon. All future references to this text are 
by page-number in the body of the essay. 

49 Renevey,'Household Chores', pp. 176-9. 

50 D. Vance Smith, 'Body Doubles: Producing the Masculine Corpus', in Becoming 
Male in the Middle Ages, ed. by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler (New York: 
Garland, 2000), pp. 3-19 (p. 15). 

51 Barry Windeatt presents an abbreviated edition of this section in his anthology, 
English Mystics of the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 

52 Whitehead, Castles of the Mind, p. 119. 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

53 Whitehead, Castles of the Mind, p. 124. 

54 See C. M. Woolgar, The Great Household, p. 34 and passim, on the 
predominance of male servants at this time. 

55 Kenneth Fowler, The King's Lieutenant: Henry of Grosmont, First Duke of 
Lancaster 1310-1361 (London: Elek, 1969), for example, considers that knowledge of the 
dressing of wounds must come from 'his personal experiences 1 (p. 193), as must details 
about the administration of market-places, jousts, tournaments, sieges and hunting (p. 
195). In this Fowler echoes E. J. Amould, Etude sur le 'Livre des Saintes Medecines' du 
due Henri de Lancastre (Paris: Marcel Didier, 1948), pp. xcvii-cviii. For sieges, see 
Winthrop Wetherbee, 'Chivalry under Siege in Ricardian romance', in The Medieval City 
Under Siege, ed. by Ivy A. Corfis and Michael Wolfe (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1995), pp. 
207-23 (p. 209). R. M. T. Hill, however, in 'A Soldier's devotions', Studies in Church 
History, 17 (1981), 77-84 (pp. 80-1), suggests that the household preparations might 
indeed be a childhood memory of a great household on the move. 

56 Andrew Taylor offers a slightly different reading of the evidence in identifying a 
spiritual 'pigheadedness' in Henry, in his 'attach(ment) to his own sinful body'. See his 
'Reading the Body in Le Livre de Seyntz Medecines', Essays in Medieval Studies, 11 
(1994), 103-18 (p. 115). 

57 R. B. Pugh, 'Fragment of an Account of Isabel of Lancaster, Nun of Amesbury, 
1333-4', in Festschrift zur Feier des zweihundertjahrigen Bestandes des Haus-, Hof- und 
Staatsarchives, ed. by L. Santifaller, 2 vols (Vienna: Druck und Kommissions-verlag der 
Osterreichischen Staatsdruckerei, 1949-51), I (1949) 487-98 (p.489). 

58 Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, 'Outdoing the Daughters of Syon? Edith of Wilton and 
the Representation of Female Community in Fifteenth-Century England', in Medieval 
Women: Texts and Contexts in Late Medieval Britain: Essays for Felicity Riddy, ed. by 
Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Rosalynn Voaden, Arlyn Diamond, Ann Hutchison, Carol M. 
Meale, Lesley Johnson (Tumhout: Brepols, 2000), pp. 393-409 (pp. 406, 408). 

59 Juliet Vale, Edward III and Chivalry (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1982), p. 51. 

60 Pugh, 'Fragment', p. 490: 'Isabel . . . held her episcopally enjoined claustration 
not worth an oyster'. 

61 Calendar of Entries in the Papal Registers relating to Great Britain and Ireland, 
Petitions to the Pope, Vol. I, A.D. 1342-1419, ed. by W. H. Bliss (London: Eyre and 
Spottiswoode, 1896), p. 78. 

62 For an example of a medieval acceptance of 'realist' detail that also has to 
undergo some accommodation, however, see C. M. Woolgar's discussion of a manuscript 
portrayal of the female gatekeeper (which would have been extraordinary in a medieval 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

household) in the account of Ish-bosheth's death in 2 Samuel 4. 5-7: The Great 
Household, pp. 34-5. 

63 Whitehead, Castles of the Mind, p. 118. 

64 Calendar of Entries in the PapaI Registers, p. 166. In 1359, Henry, who already 
has papal licence to enter houses of religious men 'with a suite of twelve', now asks for an 
extension of the same for 'houses of religious women', and this is granted on 6 June; see 
Calendar of Entries, p. 341. 

65 Now Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B. 14.15. See Erler, Women, Reading, and 
Piety, p. 19. 

66 For an account of the Newarke hospital, see A. H. Thompson, The History of the 
Hospital and the New College of the Annunciation of St. Maiy in the Newarke, Leicester 
(Leicester: Leicestershire Archaeological Society, 1937). 

67 See Felicity Riddy, "'Women talking about the things of God": a late medieval 
sub-culture', in Women and Literature in Britain, ed. by Meale, pp. 104-27; Erler, Women, 
Reading, and Piety, passim; Wogan-Browne, 'Recent Research on Female Reading 
Communities’, pp. 229-97. 

68 M. Teresa Tavormina, introduction to her translation of an extract from 'Henry of 
Lancaster: The Book of Holy Medicines (Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines)', in Cultures of 
Piety: Medieval English Devotional Literature in translation, ed. by Anne Clark Bartlett 
and Thomas H. Bestul (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), pp. 19-26 (p. 21). 

69 For suggestions about Middle English literature's—namely, Sir Gawain and the 
Green Knight's —knowingness about, and invocation of, Henry's book, see M. Thiebaux, 
'Sir Gawain, the Fox Hunt, and Henry of Lancaster', Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 71 
(1970), 469-79; W. G. Cooke, D'A. J. D. Boulton, 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A 
Poem for Henry of Grosmont?', Medium Aevum, 68 (1999), 42-54; Francis Ingledew's 
book-length study is forthcoming. 

70 The Riverside Chaucer, ed. by Larry D. Benson (Oxford: Oxford University 
Press, 1988), p. 130, 11. 1772-77. Gray also draws attention to the cat's role in the 
Summoner's Tale, 'Notes on Some Medieval . . . Cats', p. 202. 

71 The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle, ed. by Mabel Day, EETS, o.s. 225 
(London: Oxford University Press, 1952). 

72 For a facsimile of the Latin text of De doctrina, see Le manuscrit Leyde 
Bibliotheque de L'Universite BPL 2579, temoin principal des phases de redaction du 
traite De doctrina cordis, a attribuer au dominicain francais Hugues de Saint-Cher 
(pseudo-Gerard de Liege), ed. by G. Hendrix (Gent: [n.p.], 1980). For an edition of the 
early fifteenth-century Middle English translation of this text, see Mary Patrick Candon. 
The Doctrine of the Hert. Since, for the allegory in question, the Middle English version 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

of the treatise follows the Latin very closely, subsequent quotations will be taken from 
this edition, giving chapter and page number. 

73 The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle: Ancrene Wisse, ed. by Tolkien, pp.198- 
200. Ancrene Riwle , ed. by Day, pp. 26-7. 

74 Doctrine , 1. 6-25. 

75 See, for example. Doctrine , 2. 77-80. 

76 Although the allegory of the household is not developed extensively before the 
1200s, I have tentatively enumerated similarities between the image of the household in 
Sawles Warde and a short passage in Gregory the Great's Moralia in Job, in which the 
husband and wife, and sons and maids within a household are identified as the various 
psychological faculties constituting the human mind. Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, 
ed. by M. Adriaen, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 143, 143A, 143B (Tumhout: 
Brepols, 1979-85), I 30, 32, 35. See Whitehead, Castles, p. 121. 

77 See Robert N. Swanson, Religion and Devotion in Europe, C.1215-C.1515 (Cambridge: 
Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp, 26-33. 

78 See, for example, the emphasis placed upon God's grace in the parable of the 
vineyard in Pearl. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, ed. by J. 
J. Anderson (London: Everyman, 1996, repr. 2002). Pearl, IX-X1I. 

7<) See my more detailed discussion of household imagery in the Doclrina, in 
Whitehead, Castles, pp. 122-8. 

80 For an innovative discussion of the Doctrina' s possible address to communities 
of beguines, see Renevey, 'Household Chores'. 

81 Luke 11.24-26; 12. 33; 12. 39. 

82 1 Kings 17. 

83 For a comprehensive discussion of the female prophetic voice in the late Middle 
Ages, see R. Voaden, God's Words, Women's Voices: The Discernment of Spirits in the 
Writing of Late-Medieval Women Visionaries (York: York Medieval Press, 1999). 

84 For a discussion of the shaping of the 'feminine' in male-authored late-medieval 
religious texts, see Anne Clark Bartlett, Male Authors, Female Readers: Representation 
and Subjectivity in Middle English Devotional Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University 
Press, 1995). 

85 Throughout this discussion, I shall refer to the fifteenth-century Middle English 
translation of Bridget's revelations, The Liber celestis of St Bridget of Sweden, ed. by R. 
Ellis, EETS, o.s. 291 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), which follows the earlier 
Latin text closely in the passages under discussion. In all instances, I shall cite book and 
chapter, page and line numbers. A discussion of the influence of this translation upon 
fifteenth-century English devotional practices can be found in R. Ellis, "'Flores ad 


Domesticity and Medieval Devotional Literature 

Fabricandam . . . Coronam": an investigation into the uses of the Revelations of St Bridget 
of Sweden in fifteenth-century England', Medium Aevum, 51 (1982), 163-86. The most 
important recent book on St Bridget is Bridget Morris, St Birgitta of Sweden 
(Woodbridge: Boydell, 1999). 

86 The indeterminate character of St Bridget's authorship arises from the extensive 
early editing of her visions by her confessor, Alphonso of Jaen. 

87 Morris, Birgitta, p. 72. 

88 Bridget, Liber, 1. 33, 60/14. 

89 Bridget, Liber, 3. 30, 244/9-15. 

90 Morris, Birgitta , ch. 2. 

91 Morris, Birgitta, ch. 3. 

92 Bridget, Liber, 2. 24-27. 

93 Bridget, Liber, 2. 25, 182/19-23. 

94 Bridget, Liber, 2. 26, 183/30-32. 

95 Bridget, Liber, 2. 27, 189/9-33. 

96 Morris, Birgitta, pp. 42-3. 

97 See discussions of readership and influence in; Ellis, "'Flores ad Fabricandam'"; 
F. R. Johnson, 'The English Cult of St Bridget of Sweden', Analecta Bollandia, 103 
(1985), 75-93; Prophets Abroad: The Reception of Continental Holy Women in Late- 
Medieval England, ed. by Rosalynn Voaden (Cambridge: Brewer, 1996). 

98 St Bernard of Clairvaux's sermons upon the Song of Songs are easily the best- 
known example of this brand of spiritual sensualism. 

99 Good examples of this new artistic emphasis upon urban, middle-class interiors, 
often allied with religious subject matter, include Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Marriage, 
National Gallery, London; Robert Campin, Heinrich von Werl Triptych, Museo del Prado, 
Madrid, and Merode Altarpiece, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Rogier van der 
Weyden, The Annunciation, Louvre, Paris; Petrus Christus, St Eligius in his Workshop, 
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

100 Morris, Birgitta, pp. 43-4. 

101 Morris, Birgitta, p. 45. 

102 Morris, Birgitta, p. 53. 

103 Morris, Birgitta, p. 61. 

104 Bridget, Liber, 3. 29. An example of the homiletic use made of this similitude 
can be found in Alan of Lille, Sermones octo. Sermo IT. In Annuntiatione Beatae Mariae, 
PL 210, col. 202A-D. 

105 Bridget, Liber, 3. 29, 241/30-1. 

106 For a more extended discussion of this point, see Whitehead, Castles, pp. 130-1. 


Catherine Batt, Denis Renevey, Christiania Whitehead 

107 Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault , ed. by Luther H. 
Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton (Amherst: University of Massachusetts 
Press, 1988), p. 18. 

108 Technologies , pp. 40-9. 

109 Technologies, p. 49. 


An Eye-Witness Account or Literary Historicism? 
John Page's Siege of Rouen 

Tamar S. Drukker 

With King Henry V in France was a certain John Page who, according to his 
own testimony, had witnessed the siege of Rouen (1418-9), its devastating 
effects on the citizens, the negotiations between the two camps, and finally 
Henry V's victorious entry into Rouen on 20 January 1419. There are no 
traces of the notes that Page wrote while in France, '[a] lie in raffe and not in 
ryme / By-cause of space he hadde no tyme 1 (11. 1307-8), but a structured 
poem of 1314 lines in four-stress rhyming couplets survives complete in a 
single manuscript and, in part, incorporated into the fifteenth-century 
continuations of at least ten manuscripts of the Middle English prose Brut 
chronicle. 1 John Page's poem The Siege of Rouen initially appears in the Brut 
written as prose embedded within the text with only minor alterations. 2 
However, in the middle of the description of the French citizens' attempt to 
receive an interview with the English king, the compilers of the Brut 
abandon the prose and copy the poem verbatim, giving up the attempt to 
disguise its original form. The shift is clearly apparent in the mise-en-page of 
many Brut manuscripts, for the scribes not only reproduce the original text 
faithfully, they also reproduce it in the layout commonly used for poetry, 
with short verse lines and demarcation of the rhymes. 2 This change does not 
occur at a significant moment in the poem and seems to reflect the compilers' 
willingness to include the poem within the framework of the chronicle, not 
merely for its historical or informative value, but for something we may call 
its poetic quality as well. 

The Brut has for its models the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, Geoffrey of 
Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae, the historical books of the Bible, 
classical historiography, and monastic chronicles from which the compilers 
derive both their information and their manner of presentation. The earlier 
part of the Brut relies heavily on earlier chronicles and annals. For the later 

Tamar S. Drukker 

chapters, however, and especially for the continuations composed originally 
in Middle English and not long after the events they record, other sources 
were used. Among them were songs and ballads composed close to the time 
of the events, most of which are now lost. Their existence can be detected in 
the few surviving citations we do have, but also in the shift of tone of the 
prose narrative itself which assumes 'a certain poetical style.' 4 And yet, this 
use of poetic source material occurs within a tradition of prose 
historiography, which developed beside a tradition of Anglo-Norman and 
Middle English chronicles in verse. While Latin metrical verse had been the 
dominant medium for composing any work deemed important from classical 
times onwards, from the twelfth century and more persistently in the 
following centuries there is an awareness of the limitations of verse as a 
medium for writing history. 5 Nonetheless, short poems appear in chapters 
168, 188, and 213 of the Brut . 6 These are anonymous compositions, possibly 
songs, for they are rich in pattern of rhyme and sound, and reported to have 
been said or sung by soldiers on both camps during the Anglo-Scottish wars. 7 
These verse lines form part of the historical narrative as records of 
contemporary 'voice'. Unlike the chronicle as a whole, they are products of 
their time, the 'primary sources' a historian uses when composing a coherent 
narrative. The chroniclers' use of songs reflects an attempt to get as close as 
possible to the reality described, as if these lines are a form of an oral 
eyewitness account. The same can be said of John Page's poem The Siege of 
Rouen, and it is perhaps as a report of an eyewitness that the poem is 
principally valued in the Brut. The poet bases the authoritative status he 
claims for his poem on his own presence at the scene, equating eyewitness 
report with veracity: 

And I shalle telle you how hyt was. 

And the better telle I may 

Ffor with my lege there-at I lay 

And there-to I toke a-vyse, 

Lyke as my wyt wolde suffyce. (11. 20-4) 

Page can coerce the historical details to fit the literary form he has chosen to 
use and still claim it is a true and faithful account of the siege because he was 
there to see and experience the events. Valued already by ancient historians 
as valid, and considered by Isidore of Seville (d. 636) to be the ultimate 
guarantee of accuracy, eyewitness report was highly esteemed in legal cases 


John Page's Siege of Rouen 

and in written accounts of all kinds. 8 The first-person report by someone 
present at the time was not only considered true, but also authoritative, and 
yet Page's story is not, and cannot be, objective documentation. Not only the 
demands of the verse form, but historical and literary models also shape the 
way in which Page sees, understands, and describes the siege of Rouen. It is 
not a historical document, such as the soldiers' songs composed on both sides 
of the Scottish border and included in the Brut, but a conscious reworking of 
historical data into a literary form which, while establishing its truthfulness, 
also marks the distinction between lived experience and its written 
transformation. 9 

In the opening lines of the poem, Page equates the siege of Rouen 
with other famous sieges whose significance lies not solely in their role 
within world history but also in the many narratives written about them. 
Henry V's campaign to take Rouen, the capital of Normandy, is presented 
with patriotic exaggeration as the most important military and symbolic 
taking of a city '[s]yn Jerusalem and Troy was gette' (1. 16). The sieges of 
Jerusalem and of Troy serve as models to the poet writing about a siege 
rather than to the king or his generals who conduct it. These examples from 
history shed light on the way a siege may be presented in writing, not the 
way it is to be mounted and won. These two sieges, or rather the written reports 
of them, had come to represent two different approaches to history and to an 
understanding of the unfolding of events. Troy, it was traditionally believed, fell 
as a result of pride as well as by a capricious decision of the gods, and was 
understood throughout the Middle Ages to be a model for a Boethian 
interpretation of history as the work of Fortune. Cities, kings, and empires rise 
and fall with the passage of time, as a natural phenomenon. The fall of 
Jerusalem, on the other hand, was presented in Christian exegesis as a deliberate 
act of revenge by God and as an essential part in the divine scheme of history. 
Thus the siege of Jerusalem neatly represented the Augustinian understanding of 
history as the unfolding of an inspired enactment of God's will. 10 

For the English, who traced their origins to a Trojan hero who was 
forced to leave his home because of the war, the tragic destruction of Troy 
was a fortunate fall. The opening chapters of the Brut are not concerned with 
the fate of those who stayed in the city or who were killed while defending it; 
they follow the adventures of the Trojan descendant Brutus who, 
metaphorically, has taken the city with him only to rebuild it on the banks of 
the Thames as 'newe Troye' (Brie I, chapter 5, p. 12). Though the detailed 
history of this war is not included in the chronicle, the tale of Troy both in 


Tamar S. Drukker 

history (or rather pseudo-history) and in epic serves as the starting point as well 
as the historical and literary context for the Brut as a national historical narrative. 
British history stems from Trojan history, while the tradition of written history in 
English depends on the accounts of that siege and its aftermath. 

Indirectly, the siege of Jerusalem also forms part of English history in 
so far as it becomes integrated into Christian history, and in so far as the 
Holy Land is tightly linked with England. There were several sieges of 
Jerusalem, two of which ended with the destruction of the temple, the 
burning of the city, and the exile of its population. In both cases, the city 
suffered months of siege before finally surrendering to the enemy. A short 
summary of the first siege, set by the Babylonians headed by 
Nebuchadnezzar, ending in 586 BCE, is found in II Kings 25, and again in 
the second book of Chronicles 36. 11-21. The prophets also describe this 
siege and the destruction of Jerusalem as a warning before the actual event as 
well as afterwards in lamentations. The report in the book of Kings is short 
and almost laconic, presenting the siege as a punishment set by God on his 
people for their misconduct, and therefore their suffering is justly deserved. 
The siege lasts three years, resulting in severe famine which eventually 
brings down the city's defence: 

and a famine prevailed in the city, and there was no bread for the 
people of the land. And a breach was made into the city: and all 
the men of war fled in the night. [. . .] came Nabuzardan 
commander of the army, a servant of the king of Babylon, into 
Jerusalem. And he burnt the house of the Lord, and the king's 
house, and the houses of Jerusalem, and every house he burnt 
with fire. 11 

The text here does not describe life in the besieged city during the long 
months preceding its fall. The prophets dwell more than the biblical 
chroniclers on the suffering and horror of siege and destruction, mostly in a 
futile attempt to bring their hearers to repent for their sins and thus relieve 
themselves from such calamities brought about by God's wrath. 

The second siege of Jerusalem, which received elaborate attention 
from contemporary historians, as it has from chroniclers ever since, is the 
one set by the Romans culminating in the destruction of the second temple in 
70 CE. The most detailed report of the siege and its outcomes is found in The 
Jewish War by the contemporary Jewish chronicler Josephus Flavius (37- 


John Page's Siege of Rouen 

95?), known in medieval Western Europe in a Latin translation by 
Hegessipus. Josephus had spent the greater part of the period of the Jewish 
struggle for independence from the Empire among Roman troops, and he was 
present at the scene of most of the battles he records in his book. While the 
first-century histories of Dares and Dictys were thought to be accurate 
eyewitness accounts of the Trojan War, and as such reliable authorities, 12 
Josephus really was a contemporary, writing his chronicle during and 
between battles. The destruction of Jerusalem received in Christian thought 
and history a profound significance as part of the narrative of the life of 
Christ. There are many medieval narratives of this siege which make a 
conscious link between the events of the late 60s in Galilee and in Jerusalem, 
as told by Josephus and known from other accounts, and the historical 
narratives of the New Testament. 13 

By evoking the memory of Troy and Jerusalem in the opening lines of 
his poem, John Page presents Henry V's campaign as a symbolic moment in 
history, and his own verse as stemming from a tradition associated with the 
great eyewitness narratives that underlie western civilisation and chronicling. 
The theme of the poem and its central figure also place it within a tradition of 
the chansons de geste and the great romances of battle. It is an effective, and 
at times a moving poem, but its uncompromising admiration for Henry, as 
well as its literary imperfections explain its relative obscurity. And yet, its 
inclusion within the Brut , one of the most widely read and diffused 
vernacular works in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England, ensured for it 
a reading audience, eager for a story of heroism and chivalry set in their 
lifetime but echoing great moments from a heroic epoch. 

Siege was a common feature of medieval warfare, with a practical as 
well as symbolically loaded significance. To those writing on warfare, the 
siege offers an intensive experience of battle, confined to one place and 
focused on one goal: defending the city from within or breaking that defence 
from without. Narratives of sieges, both historical and fictional, devote 
attention to the practical art of mounting a siege, the technical apparatus 
used, and the strategic considerations on either side. Treatises on warfare 
circulating in the Middle Ages combined the theoretical knowledge derived 
from classical military manuals with the accounts of recent wars, notably of 
the Crusades. The late antique treatise De re militari by Flavius Renatus 
Vegetius (late fourth-fifth century CE) was widely read in the Middle Ages, 
both in Latin and in translations into the vernacular. 14 Vegetius' description 
of the Roman army and its warfare was archaic already in the time of 


Tamar S. Drukker 

composition, but continued to be read and consulted until at least the late 
fifteenth century. Among the central themes found in Vegetius, and in other 
manuals based on this model, are an interest in the commander of the siege, 
the arrangement of the army, and the weapons and tools used for combat. 

John Page does not miss the opportunity to produce a versified report 
of war and battle, though his main concerns are with the character of the king 
leading the siege and the political and symbolic significance of his campaign. 
The story of the siege begins, like many others, with a message from the king 
to the city, calling on it to surrender peacefully. The offer is rejected, and 
Page moves on to describe the city, focusing on its wall, gates, and moat, all 
designed to protect the city and secure it from foreign invasion. The stronger 
the city, the greater is Henry V's achievement in overtaking it. The detailed 
description serves the poet's puipose of praising the king and of placing this 
battle at the same level with the siege of Troy, a noble and strong city, the 
centre of culture and prosperity, brought down by change of fortune and 
human pride. 

The initial splendour of Rouen also emphasises the extreme suffering 
and ruin brought on it and its inhabitants during the months of the siege. The 
great trench around the city 'brode and depe, / And fewe [men] myght fro 
many hyt kepe' (11. 105-6), which was meant to secure, becomes the setting 
for the most painful and humiliating of deaths. It is in this ditch that the 
hungry children, women, and old men of Rouen must remain, exposed to the 
winter cold, on top of severe famine. In an attempt to diminish the suffering 
within the city, the leaders of the besieged city send the weakest citizens 
outside the city walls, with the hope that they will live a better life elsewhere. 
However, the English soldiers do not allow them to cross their line and they 
remain between the besieging anny and the starving city, now beyond the reach 
of these banished citizens of Rouen. Page remarks, with a keen imagining of the 
comforts they lack, that 'many one there dyde for colde / That warmythe of 
howese sauyd [haue] wolde' (11. 555-6). The ditch, not the walls, becomes the 
emblem of Rouen, in a painful reversal of a fundamental medieval image of the 
city as reproduced on countless coins and seals. 

When Rouen is brought down and its citizens are desperate, they turn 
to diplomatic meetings with the hope of reaching an agreement and bringing 
an end to their suffering. The negotiations between the two camps are 
another opportunity for Page to elaborate the contrasts between the victorious 
camp and the miserable Frenchmen. The poet describes the 'tentys' (1. 952; 
Brie II 413) built by King Henry for the French and the English delegates. 


John Page's Siege of Rouen 

The tents stand in a ditch, but despite the rain, they are dry, offering those 
inside them warmth and protection. The poet, as an eyewitness, well- 
informed and eager to expand on the glory of the English camp, lists the 
names and titles of all the army leaders, describing their banners and 
extravagant military outfits, 

in cotys of dyversyte 
As lordys berys in hyr degre. 

Gayly with golde they were be-gon, 

Ryght as the son for-sothe hyt schone. 

(11. 979-82; Brie II 414) 

The scene of these clean and neat soldiers brightens up the cold January day, 
and stands in a pathetic contrast to the 

pore pepylle there were put owte 
That ne had vnnethe a clowte. 

But the clothys in there backe 
To kepe them from rayne and racke. 

(11. 985-8; Brie II 414) 

An artistic, rather than a documentary, impulse underlies Page's description 
of the heralds in contrast with the wretchedness of the French populace. This 
image is so powerful and telling, that it can still be found in the description 
of the siege by modem historians. 15 While the compilers of the Brut accepted 
John Page's poem as a historical narrative, it is only because they themselves 
were writing a history rich with literary parallels, images, and metaphors. 
While the Brut had ceased to be read as 'serious history' already in the late 
sixteenth century, some powerful images in the poem are still considered 
'authentic' by historians today. 

As a first-hand report by a member of Henry V's company, the poem 
shows surprisingly little interest in the machines of war or the weapons used 
by either camp. 16 Though we know nothing about John Page, we can be 
almost certain that he was not a combatant. Most of the second half of the 
poem is comprised of direct speech, presenting diplomacy as the crucial 
aspect behind the hostility and its final resolution in the essentially static 
context of the siege. Page offers a description of the war of words exchanged 
between the French and the English, not a description of actual fighting, 


Tamar S. Drukker 

ending around the negotiation table rather than in the battlefield. Henry's 
victory, therefore, does not depend on his military superiority, but emerges 
from some other kind of higher position, which is expressed in language. 
We see Henry engaged in two sorts of verbal communication: he prays to 
God and he negotiates with the French. Whereas in hearing mass Henry 
exhibits his piety, his treatment of his enemy and his interviews with them 
highlight the chivalric ethos guiding his actions as a military leader 
displaying charity. Page adds to his description of the allowances the king 
makes towards the French when trying to reach an agreement, that he acted 
upon 'a poynt of cheualrye' (1. 1145; Brie II 418). The French are defeated 
because they sin (a word used throughout in the poem) both against God 
and against the ethical code of chivalry. Their sinning adds a further 
justification for Henry V's claim to the city. He has the right to govern 
Rouen not only because of the historical connection linking the English 
throne with Normandy, but also because of his moral and religious stature 
that would grant him lordship over other Christian peoples. 

The hero of The Siege of Rouen is King Henry V, and if the poem 
aspires to the status of a new national epic, Henry is its chivalric 
protagonist. 17 The poet is clearly interested in praising the king as part of his 
overall plan in composing the poem; through the history of the siege emerges 
the image of the besieger. Though respectful of the citizens of Rouen and 
sensitive to their suffering, the tone of the poem reflects the poet's partisan 
stance, siding with Henry and the English cause throughout. 1R The 
chroniclers of the Brut , John Page, and presumably their intended readers, all 
see in Henry one of the great leaders of their nation, and accept without 
question his claims for lordship over a great part of France and the necessity 
for the ensuing battles. 19 The chroniclers report how all the king's men 
support him in his properly legalistic demand 'of his title fiat he had to 
Normaundy, Gascoyne and Gyan, which was his enheritaunce of righte' (Brie 
II 552). John Page suggests that King Henry is the legitimate and rightful 
ruler of Rouen, who after the long siege enters the city not as a victorious 
conqueror but as one receiving what is his by right. Page has the French 
citizens welcome the king into the city in this spirit: 

Alle the pepylle of that cytte, 

They sayde, 'Welcome, oure lege so fre, 


John Page's Siege of Rouen 

Welcome in-to youre oune ryght, 

As hyt ys the wylle of God all-myght.' 

(11. 1275-8; Brie II 421-2) 

They accept the English claim over Normandy, and can only blame the 
French lords and warmongers for resisting Henry and thus subjecting the city 
to the horrors of the siege. -0 Earlier in the poem, Page uses the encounter 
between the English king and representatives from the city to further praise 
Henry. Though the English king does not heed their requests, they still come 
away from their interview full of admiration and respect for his might. 

They sayde, 'He ys, to oure a-vyse, 

Of alle erthely prycys pryce, 

Takyng rewarde ofhyschere 
And to hys coun- tenaunce so clere, 

To hys person in propyrte, 

To hys fetowrys and hys bevte, 

And to hys depe dyscrecyon, 

That he hathe in possessyon, 

And to hys passyng prynce-hode, 

And to hys mykylle man-hode; 

And he ys mar- cyfulle in myght 
And askysse nothyng but hys ryght. 

Thes vertuys ys a grete thynge 
To be with-yn an erdely kynge. 

Howe shulde he but wyn honowre? 

Howe shulde he be but conquerowre? 

Welle we wote with-owtyn wene: 

God hym louys, and that ys sene.' 

(11. 929-46; Brie II 412-3) 

Page need not glorify the king, when those of the enemy camp seem to do it 
for him. Their speech is made up of the repetitive structure 'to hys x' in a long 
list of the king's favourable attributes. These parallel statements, heightened 
by the strong alliterative pattern, add to the rhetorical effect of these lines, 
and reflect the poet's careful use of rhymes and sound patterns. To make this 
praise even more valuable, Page makes a conscious note of describing the 
Rouenners in the most positive terms. Rouen, before the siege, is a noble and 


Tamar S. Drukker 

worthy city, like Troy or Jerusalem, with churches and great houses whose 
inhabitants, '[a ij] thowsande, or ellys thre, / Rychely a-rayde at the beste' 
(11. 374-5). The king is honoured by the dignity, strength, and pomp of his 
enemy. And yet, not even the most loyal of subjects can ignore the suffering 
inflicted by the king, in besieging the city, on those trapped inside it. 

Since Henry V could not take over Rouen by force, he was determined 
to starve its inhabitants into submission. Hunger, not military weakness or 
wrong strategy, brings down the city. Much of the character of the poem's 
narrative flows from this static situation with no combat but a wealth of 
emblematic gestures, appeals, and denials. As Page notes, in one of his 
occasional flights of imagery, 'hunger brekythe the stone walle’ (1. 602), as 
if echoing the juxtaposition of lack of bread with the city walls being forced 
open in the biblical description of the fall of Jerusalem in II Kings 25. 3-4 
cited above. 21 Much of the Siege of Rouen is devoted to describing the 
misery of famine, within the city and outside the city walls. Pathetic scenes 
of hunger occupy many narratives of siege, and Page's description of the 
famine is something of a set piece. The food shortage results in numerous 
deaths, too many to allow the living to bury the dead, and those still alive are 
forced to eat what is not considered fit for human consumption, and are then 
driven into acts of cruelty and desperate, inhuman behaviour. 

Page begins by offering an informed report concerning the state of 
affairs within the city. The number of the dead is high, but still the supply of 
food is becoming scarce, as he recounts in an almost grimly zestful passage: 

They ete doggys, they ete cattys, 

They ete mysse, horse, and rattys. 

An hors quarter, lene or fatte, 

Acs. hyt was atte; 

A horsse-hedde at halfe a pound, 

A dogge for jre same mony round. 

Ffor xxx d. went a ratte. 

Ffor ij noblys went a catte. 

Forvjd. went a mous [. ..] (11.471-9) 

When the people lack food they resort to eating whatever they can find, and the 
economy of famine sets a high price on each of those items. This is not tire first 
time the Brut includes a description of famine, and in the previous occasion too 
the description includes the unappetising substitutes the hungry people must eat 


John Page's Siege of Rouen 

together with the precise sum these things can fetch. Chapter 189, devoted to the 
months following the second siege of Berwick, concludes with this paragraph: 

And Joat same tyme bifelle meny meschyues in Engeland; for 
Joe pore peple deide in Engeland for hunger; and so miche and 
so faste folc deaden, {rat vnnejies men might ham bury; for a 
quarter of whete was worfie xls., and ij 3ere and an halfe a 
quarter of whete was worjic ij mar3; and ofte-tymes |re pore 
peple stale childem and ete ham, and ete also alle Jre houndes 
Joat Jrai might take, and ek Horse & cattes [. . .] 

(Brie I 209-10) 

Among the possible sources of meat, the Brut lists, in passing, children, 
which the poor hungry Englishmen steal and eat. Page does not describe any 
cases of cannibalism among the hungry citizens of Rouen, but he does 
mention mothers depriving their children of the little food they possess and 
other moving examples of what is perhaps one of his principal themes in the 
poem, the power of want when 'hunger passyth kynde and loue' (1. 521). 

The horrific image of being driven by hunger to eat children can be found 
already in the Bible and afterwards in other namatives of siege. It is perhaps one 
of the most recurrent images of human beings in extremity. One of the most 
shocking of biblical passages concerns a siege on Samaria by the Syrian king 
Benadad. The nanative of the siege is short, and focuses on a single episode: 

And there was a great famine in Samaria: and so long did the 
siege continue, till the head of an ass was sold for fourscore 
pieces of silver, and the fourth part of a cabe of pigeons' dung, 
for five pieces of silver. And as the king of Israel was passing by 
the wall, a certain woman cried out to him, saying: Save me, my 
lord O king. And he said: If the Lord doth not save thee, how 
can I save thee? out of the barn-floor, or out of the wine-press? 
And the king said to her: What aileth thee? And she answered: 
This woman said to me: Give thy son, that we may eat him to¬ 
day, and we will eat my son to-morrow. So we boiled my son, 
and ate him. And I said to her on the next day: Give thy son that 
we may eat him. And she hath hid her son. When the king heard 
this, he rent his garments, and passed by upon the wall. 

(11 Kings 6. 25-30) 


Tamar S. Drukker 

Once again the narrator describes the famine in terms of the market price that 
determines the cost of victuals. But the interest shifts quickly from the prices 
of unacceptable meat to the exchange arranged between two hungry women 
in the city. The abominable tale of filicide and cannibalism is set within an 
economic discourse of agreed contract and fair exchange. The grieving 
woman does not wail her son's death, nor her hunger, but the breach of 
promise made to her by another mother. 

Such a scene, of parents driven by hunger to killing and devouring 
their own children, appears earlier in the Bible as a warning and the ultimate 
consequences of sin. If the people of Israel were not to follow God's 
instructions, they would be made to suffer and act in precisely this way. 22 In 
the passage quoted above, there is no condemnation of any of those present 
and responsible for the tragedy; neither the Syrian king, nor the helpless 
King of Israel is blamed for the extreme famine; nor is the mother guilty of 
killing and boiling her own son. The unnatural death of the child is shocking 
and grievous, but is not viewed as a crime. If there is a guilty party, it is the 
second mother who shares the meat of the slaughtered infant but would not 
sacrifice her own son in return. Can she really be the villain of this tale? 
Read in the light of the conditions set by God in his commandments, those 
participating in this drama are living through the punishment assigned to 
them by God for sins committed earlier. They must act in this way, driven by 
hunger and by providence, so that the murderous mother and the deceiving 
mother both fulfil their part in the realisation of God's threat. 23 

This reading of the biblical narrative establishes a figure of much 
importance to Page, the image of the guiltless besieger, the instrument of 
God's justice. The enemy besieging Samaria—and the same is true of the 
Babylonians and the Romans who destroy Jerusalem—partake in God's plan 
as executors of divine justice. If an analogy were to be drawn between the 
pagan rulers attacking Israel and Henry V in Rouen, the English king, like 
Nebuchadnezzar and Titus, acts according to God's will. He must be there to 
inflict on Rouen the punishment it deserves for rejecting the English rule and 
for the one sin Page alludes to in referring to 'that proude cytte' (1. 59)—its 
pride. This cardinal sin is the source of the Rouenners' objection to Henry's 
demands for lordship over them. It is the months of siege and hunger that 
change the people's constitution so that they become 'so meke' (1. 678; Brie II 
405), eventually humble enough to agree to the terms set by the English to 
end the siege. 


John Page's Siege of Rouen 

But the poem does not so easily efface the question of guilt. When the 
French leaders of the city send out the starving children, women, the sick, 
and the old, they assume that the English king will not consider these 
helpless citizens a threat and will allow them to pass through his lines and 
seek their fortunes elsewhere. However, Henry understands the laws of war 
in a different way and prevents the wretched refugees from getting beyond 
the English camp. They remain, without food or shelter, outside the city wall, 
between the two warring armies, because '[t]he cytte wolde not lete them 
yn' (1. 553). Now it is the Rouenners' turn to make a savage judgement to 
protect their interests. Those left outside the city walls beg the English for 
some bread, but do not blame Henry's men for the misery they are in but 
rather 'cursyd hyr owne nacyon' (1. 552). Henry will not take responsibility 
for their condition, addressing the city delegates who wish to arouse the 
king's pity on their behalf: 'hoo put them there, / To the dyche of that cytte?' 
(11. 838-9; Brie II 410). The interview between the Rouenners and King 
Henry is legalistic, concerning loyalties, duties, and one's judicial 
responsibility for one's actions, as befits a king whose claim to the French 
throne is essentially a matter of law, not vaingloriousness or pugnacity. 
Henry insists on his right to the city and blames the French for bringing their 
suffering upon themselves. 

The severe conditions caused by the siege do not only lead to the 
eventual surrender of Rouen; they also allow King Henry to bestow his 
kindness and exhibit his mercy, acting beyond the line of strict justice. The 
portrait of the king which emerges from the poem is of a just, responsible, 
and above all a pious monarch, who displays the medieval commander's 
customary acceptance that non-combatants must suffer because they are part 
of a conflict. His piety is stressed in repeated mentions of his hearing mass 
(notably when the French delegates come to see him, 11. 793-6; Brie II 409), 
and by feeding the hungry on Christmas Day, granting his soldiers 
permission to share their food with the starving Rouenners. Henry's 
behaviour seems to indicate that there are different modes of pity and charity. 
It would have been a sign of weakness were he to show kindness to those 
starving people turned out of the city, for he would be driven to do so by the 
circumstances created by his French opponents. However, using the Feast 
Day to extend his Christian charity to those who are suffering, Henry's action 
derives from his obligations to God, not to the French.' 4 Christmas is 
traditionally a time of charity and an opportunity for Henry to act as a 
generous Christian: 


Tamar S. Drukker 

That seson of Crystysmasse, 

I shalle you telle a fayre grace, 

And a mekenys of oure kynge, 

Of goodenys a grete tokenynge. 

He sent a-pon Crystysmasse daye 
Hys herrowdys of armys in ryche a-raye, 

And sayde, by-cause of that hyghe feste, 

Bothe to moste and [to] leste, 

With-yn the cytte and with-owte 
That were stores and vytaylys with-owte. 

They shulde have mete and drynke inowe 
And saue condyte to come there-too. (11.557-68) 

The king offers food to all those in and outside the city wall, underwritten by 
the 'saue condyte 1 that it is his right, as king, to grant. By accomplishing this 
act of grace (an adjective often used by Page when describing King Henry, 
here with a strong theological nuance) to all French citizens, the English king 
indirectly criticises the French for their treatment of their own people. He 
does not discriminate between the rich and the poor, the useful and the 
needy, thus pointing to the internal tension between the strong and the weak 
within the French city. It is their maltreatment by the French that leads the 
starving crowds to turn against their own leaders, to accuse them of resisting 
the English rule only because of their 'pompe and [...] grete pryde,’ (1. 1078; 
Brie II 416). 25 Pride leads the wealthy French to subject their own people to 
starvation instead of saving them and their city by accepting Henry's 
conditions for surrender. 

On January 19, 1419, the citizens of Rouen surrendered and King 
Henry V received the keys of the city. The following day he entered the gates 
in a ceremonial procession. His walk through the city, accompanied by his 
army generals as well as bishops and men of religion and in the sight of the 
people of the town made an impression on his new subjects and on the poet. 
Page describes it in detail, sketching the king's route from the city gate to the 
Cathedral where he heard mass, the splendour of Henry's dress, and the 
reaction of those present. 

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw many kings and queens 
publicly entering a city, encouraging what quickly became a highly-stylised 
display presented by the citizens of these cities in honour of the ruling 


John Page's Siege of Rouen 

monarch. The Brut describes some of these processions, for they were 
historical events of significance in the lives of the rulers as well as carrying 
immediate consequences for the cities and their people. By the fifteenth 
century, the occasion of a monarch's visit to a city, whether after a war, 
before a coronation, for a wedding, or any other event, was celebrated by an 
elaborate staging of 'many dyvers showes and sightis' (Brie II 426) as in the 
reception of Henry V and his French wife Katherine in London in 1420. 
Unlike the examples from London where the city receives its own monarch, 
the citizens of Rouen have until the end of the siege been loyal to the king of 
France and considered Henry as an enemy and an intruder. By describing the 
Rouenners' reception of the king in terms that echo those of the English royal 
entries, Page may be suggesting that the French citizens do not simply accept 
Henry because he has defeated them in battle, but also accept his historic 
claim to overlordship; they now willingly consider themselves his subjects. 
Henry, too, is conscious of his acquired title and his responsibility for his new 
subjects who are still in dire need of food and protection. The poem ends with 
two entries into the city: the first is that of the Duke of Exeter in preparation for 
the king's entry tire following day. On both occasions, the people of Rouen 
welcome the English official with cheers, but while Exeter stages a pompous 
entry, '[tjroppettys blewe there bemys of bras, / Pypys and claryons botlie 
there was' (11. 1213-14; Brie II 420), King Henry is more decorous and solemn in 
his conduct. Page points out this difference, remarking, 

[Henry] passyde yn with-owte any pryde, 

With-owtyn pype or claryons blaste 
Prynce devoutely yn he paste, 

As a conqueroure in hys ryght, 

Thankyng euer God almyght. (11. 1270-4; Brie II 421) 

In the very manner by which Henry enters Rouen he again, according to 
Page's report, exhibits the central characteristics that make this conquest 
justified and right. He is a responsible ruler and a pious Christian, who duly 
recognises the need for humility, even in his hour of triumph. Unlike the 
Duke of Exeter, he will not overlook the fact that among those cheering his 
entry are people whom Page describes with a keen eye: 

Mykelle of the folke that were there-yn, 

They were but bonys and bare skyn, 


Tamar S. Drukker 

With holowe yeen and vysage sharpe, 

Vnnethethey myght brethe or carpe, 

With wan color as the lede 
Not lyke to lyue but vnto dede. 

(11. 1227-32; Brie II 420) 

These images of horror are used by Page in contrast to the splendour 
exhibited by the Duke of Exeter and his company, and the poet will not dwell 
long on this sight, as he concludes, '[o]ff them y wylle no more spelle' (1. 
1243; Brie II 421). The king, however, unlike the Duke of Exeter and almost 
against Page's wish to overlook the painful scenes still visible in Rouen after 
its surrender, first thanks God, and then turns to tend to the city, '[i]ncresyd 
of mete, drynke of the beste. / Thorough the grace of God; oure lege' (11. 
1302-3; Brie II 422). Feeding the hungry is only one of the ways by which 
King Henry 'sette [the town] yn rewle and gouemawnce' (Brie II 391). 26 By 
bringing peace, prosperity, and good governance, Henry justifies the siege 
and adds his own humility and piety to the reasons for his right over 

The ceremony in Rouen, unlike similar occasions in England, begins 
with the symbolic presentation of the keys of the city to the king. The Brut 
lists other battles, sieges, and victories of Henry V in France, which end with 
him receiving the keys of Calais (Brie II 300-1), Harfleur (Brie II 377), and 
Caen (Brie II 384), to name just a few precedents. The capture of Rouen, 
though the capital of Normandy and an important city on the Seine, is not the 
most important battle Henry V fights, but it acquires prominence in the Brut 
because of the chance existence of a poetic report of the scene to which the 
compilers had access. Those manuscripts that contain a part of Page's poem 
highlight the story of Rouen simply by this inclusion, eventually drawing 
attention to the shift in medium of narration, the use of verse, and the first- 
person narrative and direct speech. Other versions of the chronicle also single 
out this event by describing it in more detail than the other French battles and 
using it to focus on a portrayal of King Henry. There are different reasons for 
this. The victory in Rouen is won without a battle, and with minimal 
casualties on the English side. The story of Rouen also fits best the image of 
the king which the chronicle promotes and can most readily be associated 
with the great sieges of history. The compilers of the Brut share Page's 
admiration for Henry. Accumulated details in the unfolding of the events 
concerning the siege of Rouen help to promote the image of the king as 


John Page's Siege of Rouen 

warrior whose engagement in conflict only highlights his piety and charity 
that are the true sources of his right to rule. The possibly accidental time of the 
fall of the city, near Christmas, adds to the symbolic overtones that those writing 
about the siege do not ignore: the timing allows Henry to act mercifully on 
Christmas Day and to enter victoriously into the city very soon thereafter. 

Rouen is more like Troy and Jerusalem than any of the other French 
cities conquered by an English monarch, because of its splendour, its long 
endurance, and hence the great suffering of its citizens. Without cancelling 
the historicity of the siege—and Page's detailed and informed account 
establishes the historicity of the event—Henry V's taking of Rouen also 
becomes a symbol and an archetypal case of siege warfare. The tale of 
justified war and ultimate suffering is used by the poet and the compilers of 
the Brut to exhibit the forces and considerations underlying all tales of siege. 
The citizens trapped inside the city are punished for their aspirations and 
success, their defiance of God, and their selfishness. The city, often 
presented as an enclosed fortress, is the seat of pride and conceit, almost a 
second tower of Babel, which is punished, and in the case of Rouen given the 
opportunity to revive once the citizens not only surrender but accept the 
governance of their new king. Unlike the classical and biblical precedents, 
the siege of Rouen does not end with destruction, but with Henry's entry and 
his establishment of order in the city. Since according to the English 
chroniclers Rouen should have been under English rule all along, the citizens 
of the city are not considered as enemies, but as rebellious subjects, who, 
once they accept Henry V as their lord, need not be exiled from their home, 
and Rouen itself can remain intact and be fortified. Symbolically, by 
bringing 'rewle and gouemawnce' to Rouen, Henry equates himself with the 
great figures of British history, such as Brutus and Arthur, the founding 
figures who build, or rebuild, cities, and establish in them a stable polity. 

The compilers of the Brut allow for the inclusion of a distinctively 
different literary genre in the chronicle in their section devoted to Henry V 
because John Page's poem assists them in presenting the king as an 
outstanding figure in English history. While Page presents his poem as a 
contemporary eyewitness report, the transition from experience to highly- 
crafted written verse has made his poem into a literary work rather than a 
historical document. Its descriptions are guided by an aesthetic preference for 
opposites, and the unfolding of the events follows a literary tradition with 
classical, biblical and symbolic allusions. Much of the poem is devoted to 
speeches that are clearly in Page's voice and not exact rendering of the oral 


Tamar S. Drukker 

exchanges between the English and the French. Unlike the soldiers' song 
cited in the Brut , 'The Siege of Rouen' is not a primary source, but a work of 
written historiography, with its own agenda and bias, just like the Brut 
chronicle in which it appears. The inclusion of verse in the prose chronicle 
exemplifies the compilers' willingness to incorporate into the Brut varying 
sources and written accounts, in an attempt to make this work into a 
complete and all-encompassing narrative of early British and contemporary 
English history. The compilers of the Brut recognise the artistry behind John 
Page's poem but do not dismiss it as a-historical. Their compilation, too, is an 
attempt to compose the history of England which is itself based on literary 
models and conventions, and guided by political and aesthetic inclinations. 


John Page's Siege of Rouen 


1 Quotations from the complete Siege of Rouen surviving in a single fifteenth- 
century manuscript, British Library, Egerton MS 1995, fols 87r-109v with corrections 
from four other manuscripts are from John Page's Siege of Rouen , ed. by Herbert Huscher 
(Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1927). An earlier edition by James Gairdner was published for the 
Camden Society under the title The Historical Collections of A Citizen of London in the 
Fifteenth Century, Camden Society n.s. 17 (Westminster: Nichols, 1876), pp. 1-46. The 
poem is number 979 in Carleton Brown and Rossell Hope Robbins, The Index of Middle 
English Verse (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943), and number 297 for the 
fragment as it appears in the Brut; see also Robbins and John L. Cutler, Supplement to the 
Index of Middle English Verse (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965), p. 114. It 
is described under section 6, 'Historical Ballads and Poems in Chronicles' of A Manual of 
the Writings in Middle English 1050-1500, general editor A. E. Hartung (New Haven: 
Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1989) vol. 5, pp. 1427-8. F. W. D. Brie prints 
the poem from British Library, Cotton MS Galba E. VIII collated with BL, Harley MSS 
266 and 2256 under section D—'Continuation of the Brut from A.D. 1418 to 1430, 
including John Page's Poem of the siege of Rouen'—in the second volume of The Brut or 
The Chronicles of England, EETS o. s. 131, 136 (London: Kegan Paul, 1906, 1908), pp. 
405-422. When quoting sections of the poem which are included in Brie's edition, page 
references to this edition follow the line reference to the poem as edited by Huscher. On 
other Brut manuscripts containing the poem see Lister Matheson, The Prose Brut: The 
Development of a Middle English Chronicle (Tempe: Medieval and Renaissance Texts 
and Studies, 1998), pp. 133-56 and A. S. G. Edwards, 'The Siege of Rouen: A 
Bibliographical Note', Notes and Queries, n.s. 43 (1996), 403-4, as a correction to the list 
of manuscripts in the Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050-1500, V 1665. 

2 See p. xv of Gairdner's introduction, and Frederic Madden's introduction to his 
edition of the poem taken from Brut manuscripts and published as 'Old English Poem on 
the Siege ofRouen, A. D. 1418', Archaeologia, 22 (1829), 350-84. An incomplete version 
of the poem, from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS E. Mus. 124, was published by J. J. 
Conybeare as 'Poem, entitled the "Siege of Rouen": written in the Reign of Henry the 
Fifth', Archaeologia, 21 (1827), 43-78. 

Usually, the poem is written out as verse. There are some manuscripts where the 
poem appears in long prose lines with punctuation used to mark the division between 
verse lines. Those are Holkham Hall MS 670; BL, Harley MSS 266, 753; Lambeth Palace 
Library MS 331; and University of Illinois MS 116. See Julia Boffey and A. S. G. 
Edwards, 'Middle English Verse in Chronicles’, in New Perspectives on Middle English 


Tamar S. Drukker 

Texts: A Festschrift for R. A. Waldron (Woodbridge: Brewer, 2000), pp. 119-28, with a 
discussion of Page's poem in the Brut on p. 122. 

4 Charles Lethbridge Kingsford, English Historical Literature in the Fifteenth 
Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1913), p. 116. On the Brut' s reliance on oral traditions, 
songs, and ballads see also V. J. Scattergood, Politics and Poetry in the Fifteenth Century 
(London: Blandford, 1971), p. 29; and R. M. Wilson, Lost Literature of Medieval England 
(London: Methuen, 1952), p. 198. 

5 Gabrielle M. Spiegel writes in Romancing the Past: The Rise of Vernacular 
Prose Historiography in Thirteenth-Century France (Berkeley: University of California 
Press, 1993) that by the thirteenth century 'Old French prose had become a privileged 
instrument for the communication of morally and socially valuable knowledge [. . .]' (p. 
56). The Brut, originally in Anglo-Norman, depends on these categorical assumptions 
regarding written compositions from the thirteenth century onwards. On the same theme 
see Peter Damian-Grint, The New Historians of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance: 
Inventing Vernacular Authority (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1999), chapter 6. For a general 
description of the Middle English prose Brut see Robert Albano, Middle English 
Historiography (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), pp. 37-40; Antonia Gransden, Historical 
Writing in England, 2 vols (London: Routledge, 1982), II 73-6, 220-6; Edward Donald 
Kennedy, 'Chronicles and Other Historical Writings', volume 8 of A Manual of the 
Writings in Middle English 1050-1500 (New Haven: The Connecticut Academy of Arts 
and Sciences, 1989), pp. 2629-37, 2818-33; Lister Matheson, 'Historical Prose’ in Middle 
English Prose: A Critical Guide to Major Authors and Genres, ed. by A. S. G. Edwards 
(New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1984), pp. 209-14; and John Taylor, English 
Historical Literature in the Fourteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), pp. 110-32. 

6 Another example which might help to establish the status of rhyme within prose 
historiography comes from the second Middle English translation of the Anglo-Norman 
Brut ascribed to John Mandeville. This translation, surviving in two manuscripts, includes 
a short poem on the battle of Halidon Hill (1333), rendered in prose in all other surviving 
prose Brut versions. The poem appears as Appendix A in the first volume of Brie's 
modem edition of the Brut, pp. 287-9, IMEV 3539. Continuations of the Brut into the late 
fifteenth century include also an English mocking song against the Flemings, IMEV 2657 
and 4034. See Brie's edition, II 582-4, 600-1. For a critical discussion of this poem and its 
historical and political significance see James A. Doig, 'Propaganda, Public Opinion and 
the Siege of Calais in 1436', in Crown, Government and People in the Fifteenth Century, 
ed. by Rowena E. Archer (Stroud: Sutton, 1995), pp. 79-106, esp. pp. 98-9, and 
Scattergood, Politics and Poetry in the Fifteenth Century, p. 23. 

7 Items 841, 2039.3, and 1934 in The Index of Middle English Verse. See Boffey 
and Edwards, 'Middle English Verse in Chronicles', p. 123. 


John Page's Siege of Rouen 

See Jeanette Mary Ayres Beer, Narrative Conventions of Truth in the Middle 
Ages (Geneva: Droz, 1981), p. 23; Frank Brandsma, 'The Eyewitness Narrator in 
Vernacular Prose Chronicles and Prose Romances', in Text and Intertext in Medieval 
Arthurian Literature , ed. by Norris J. Lacy (New York: Garland, 1996), pp. 57-69; and 
Damian-Grint, The New Historians of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance, chapter 3. 

9 The Brut relies on written authoritative accounts of the past. When those are 
lacking, as in the case of BL, Egerton MS 650, the responsible scribe ends the chronicle with 
the siege of Rouen, with the following comment: 'Here is no more of the sege of Rone and 
[tat is because we wanted Jje trewe copy J)erof bot who so euer owys Jtis boke may wryte it 
oute in Jre henderend of Jais boke or in Jae forjaer end of it whene he gettes Jae trewe copy 
when it is wryttyn wryte in [aeis iij voyde lyns where it may be foundyn.' (fol. 11 lr) 

10 For the Augustinian view of history and Augustine's own definition of 'secular 
history' as opposed to 'sacred history' see R. A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in 
the Theology of St Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 17 and 
passim. On these two philosophical approaches and their manifestation in the stories of these 
two sieges see Malcolm Hebron, The Medieval Siege: Theme and Image in Middle English 
Romance (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997), chapters 4 and 5, especially pp. 92-7, 112-19. 

11 II Kings 25. 3-4, 8-9. Biblical quotations are from The Holy Bible translated from 
the Latin Vulgate, 4 vols. (Douai: English College, 1609, reprinted 1750). 

12 C. David Benson, The History> of Troy in Middle English Literature 
(Woodbridge: Brewer, 1980), pp. 3-5, and Hebron, The Medieval Siege , pp. 95-6. 

13 Such is the late fourteenth-century Middle English verse Siege of Jerusalem 
which combines the story of the siege with the legend of Veronica. See The Siege of 
Jerusalem , ed. by Ralph Hanna and David Lawton, EETS o.s. 320 (Oxford: Oxford 
University Press, 2003). The poem is closely related to the metrical romance 'Titus and 
Vespasian' of which the prose Siege of Jerusalem is an abridged re-rendering. See Auvo 
Kurvinen's introduction to his edition of The Siege of Jerusalem in Prose (Helsinki: 
Societe Neophilologique, 1969), pp. 19-20,27-31. 

14 A Middle English translation was made in 1408 for Lord Thomas Berkeley. A 
later fifteenth-century verse translation was edited by R. Dyboski and Z. M. Arend and 
published as Knyghthode and Bataile: A XVth Century Verse Paraphrase of Flavius 
Vegetius Reatus's Treatise 'De Re MilitarV , EETS o.s. 201 (London: Oxford University 
Press, 1935). See the editors' introduction for a brief discussion of the manuscript and 
its source. For more on Vegetius in the Middle Ages, see Hebron, The Medieval Siege, 
pp. 11-15. 

15 As in Desmond Seward's description of the famine and of Henry's entry into the 
city in Henry V as Warlord (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1987), pp. 117, 119; or 


Tamar S. Drukker 

Kingsford's narrative of the siege in Henry V: The Typical Mediaeval Hero (London: 
Putman, L901), chapter 15, especially p. 255. 

16 Hebron, in his study of representations of medieval sieges in the romances, 
convincingly shows how the detailed knowledge of siegecraft and battle machines is often 
informed by literature rather than lived experience, with archaic modes of warfare often 
ascribed to late medieval sieges. See The Medieval Siege, especially chapters 2-3. 

17 Henry, as presented in the poem, combines the qualities of piety and mercy with 
the practicality, seriousness, and responsibility required of a worldly leader. On Henry V 
in Page's poem see Lee Patterson, 'Making Identities in Fifteenth-Century England: Henry 
V and John Lydgate', in New Historical Literary Study: Essays on Reproducing Texts, 
Representing History , ed. by Jeffrey N. Cox and Larry J. Reynolds (Princeton: Princeton 
University Press, 1993), pp. 69-107 (p. 86). 

18 It is interesting to note that Page does not profess anti-French sentiments as such, 
a tone that distinguishes his work from the popular soldiers' songs. Of Page's pity and 
respect to the citizens of Rouen, see Scattergood, Politics and Poetry in the Fifteenth 
Century, pp. 66-7, and Seward, Henry V as Warlord, p. 117 

19 BL, Cotton MS Claudius A. VII contains only the section of the Brut devoted to 
Henry V, attesting to contemporary interest in this section in particular. 

20 See Scattergood, Politics and Poetry’ in the Fifteenth Century, p. 65, on the 
attitude of the people of Rouen towards King Henry. 

21 The axiom of hunger breaking down the city walls can also be found in Vegetius 
who, in a fifteenth-century Middle English translation, describes the danger of famine: 
'Honger within, and enmytee abowte, / A warse foo withinn is then withoute' ( Knyghthode 
and Bataile, p.42,11. 1130-1). 

22 See Leviticus 26. 29 and Deuteronomy 28. 53-7. 

23 A similar story is related by Josephus Flavius concerning a certain woman, Mary, 
from Jerusalem, who overcome with hunger, kills and roasts her baby, eating half of it and 
concealing the rest. The smell of roasted meat, however, attracts to her house people who 
wish to share her food. She offers them the remains of her child, admitting her crime and 
urging them to share in the meal, and the responsibility, with her. Horrified by what they 
hear, the people leave without touching the meat, and the mother and her action become a 
source of great sadness, rather than provoking strong moral objections. See The Jewish 
War, Books IV-VII, trans. by H. St. J. Thackeray (London: Heineman, 1928, repr. 1968), 
6. 201-13, pp. 434-7. In the Middle English retelling of the Siege of Jerusalem this scene 
is used to emphasise the brutality of the Jews in Jerusalem and is presented as the final 
reason for their tragic loss. See Elisa Narin van Court, 'The Siege of Jerusalem and 
Augustinian Historians: Writing about Jews in Fourteenth-Century England', The Chaucer 
Review, 29 (1995), 227-48. 

John Page's Siege of Rouen 

24 Christopher Allmand, Henry V (London: Methuen, 1992), p. 125. 

25 It is the danger of human pride and the transience of human aspiration that 
becomes the central theme in the tales of the fall of Troy. See Hebron, The Medieval 
Siege, pp. 105-9. 

26 The last line of at least half of the Brut chronicles that end in 1419. See 
Matheson, The Prose Brut, pp. 106-34. 


'Doctryne and studie': Female Learning and Religious Debate 
in Capgrave's Life of St Katharine 

Sarah James 

In his article studying the effects of Archbishop Thomas Arundel's Constitutions 
on the production of vernacular theology, Nicholas Watson examines a range of 
religious writings in English in order to support his contention that fifteenth- 
century examples of this tradition were theologically conservative and 
intellectually limited . 1 Although he explores a variety of texts, from different 
genres, he refers only very briefly to hagiography, and then only to exclude it 
from consideration as 'somewhat marginal': 

For writers of English theological works whose names we 
know—apart from Pecock, hagiographic poets such as 
Capgrave, Bokenham, and Lydgate (who are somewhat 
marginal to my discussion here), and, of course, Margery 
Kempe—we have to wait until the early sixteenth century . 2 

Watson gives no real indication of the reasons for this casual dismissal; however, 
he does note that his article will emphasize 'the more intellectually challenging 
texts', suggesting that his decision arises from a value judgement based on the 
perceived lack of complexity or intellectual worth of saints' lives . 3 If this is the 
case, he is certainly not alone in his opinion, at least as far as Capgrave's work is 
concerned; in his study of the author, M. C. Seymour unapologetically condemns 
both the Life of St Katharine and the Life of St Norbert: 

He translated a Latin vita (of uncertain pedigree) and produced 
a scholarly life of miracles neatly ordered and suitable for 
piously uncritical literates. Neither life has anything to 

Sarah James 

recommend it to another audience and neither rises above the 
general mediocrity of the genre. 4 

Seymour's assumption that the hagiographic genre is blighted by 'general 
mediocrity' predisposes him to condemn Capgrave's endeavours in this area; the 
parenthetical sneer at the 'uncertain pedigree' of Capgrave's source material 
suggests that hagiography can have little to offer to 'serious' scholarship. I wish to 
argue otherwise, at least in the case of Capgrave's St Katharine, suggesting that it 
is a work of considerable theological subtlety and intellectual sophistication. In 
particular, I shall argue that Capgrave uses this work to undertake a sensitive and 
meticulous exploration of the disputed theological ground between orthodox 
Christianity and Lollardy. 

John Capgrave's Life of St Katharine of Alexandria, composed in the mid- 
1440s, is extant in four manuscripts, none of which, unusually, can be directly 
associated with the author himself, although all are East Anglian. 5 Also unusual 
for Capgrave is the lack of a specific dedicatee; he simply says that he has written 
the work in order 'that more openly it shade / Be knowe a-bovte of woman and of 
man' (Prologue, 45-6). Given the text's length and complexity, it seems likely that 
it was intended for a relatively prosperous and well-educated readership, perhaps 
including women whose own standard of education might make them especially 
interested in the saint. The English gild returns of 1391 reveal that there was a 
Gild of St Katharine in Lynn at that date, and that membership was open to both 
men and women; the ordinances provide for 'foure dayes of spekyngges tokedere 
for here comune profyte' every year. 6 Assuming that the gild was still in existence 
in the 1440s, it is at least possible that Capgrave's Katharine was produced for the 
gild or one of its members, and it may even have been intended for reading during 
these four days. Even if we cannot be certain of this, it is clear that East Anglia in 
the middle decades of the fifteenth century had a wealthy, educated and 
sophisticated population; such an audience might well have found the Katherine 
to its taste. 7 

This poem of 8624 lines is arranged in rhyme royal stanzas, and is divided 
into a Prologue and five books. Unlike earlier versions of the Katharine legend, 
Capgrave's poem gives extensive coverage to the saint's childhood, education and 
mystical marriage, before providing a lengthy account of her passio. Such 
attention to the vita is, as Katherine Lewis suggests, a particular characteristic of 
fifteenth-century versions of the legend, and Capgrave's alterations to and 
elaborations of some aspects of the earlier form of the legend are, in the context 


Female Learning and Religious Debate in Capgrave's Life of St Katharine 


of contemporary religious tensions, highly suggestive. Perhaps the most striking 
of these is Katharine's leamedness, and it is to this that I first turn. 

The Problem of the Learned Woman in Fifteenth-Century England 

The amount of textual space which Capgrave devotes to describing Katharine's 
education is significant, since it is her comprehensive scholarship which enables 
the saint to assume the controversial role of female teacher and preacher, both 
within her own household and in the pagan court of Maxentius. Katharine's 
erudition is not Capgrave's own invention, of course, but his is certainly the most 
extensive account of her education in the seven liberal arts. 9 The success of her 
education is put to the test when, in Book 1, three hundred and ten scholars are 
summoned to Alexandria to question her, an examination she passes with ease. 10 
Such extraordinary intellectual precocity is, of course, a commonplace of 
hagiographic convention: St Eugenia, for example, 'omnibus liberalibus artibus et 
litteris erat perfecta' (was accomplished in all the liberal arts and letters), while 
many saints are described as displaying extreme devotion even as infants." 
However, in Capgrave's version this youthful display of intellect is not merely a 
conventional flourish, but establishes a scholarly stature which remains central to 
his representation of Katharine throughout the text. 

After the death of her father Katharine is again tested, this time by the great 
men of the realm as they try to persuade her to marry, and it is at this point that 
her commitment to scholarship is first clearly expressed. The Speaker of the 
Parliament petitions her in the name of the whole realm to marry, a request which 
is accompanied by the injunction 'Ye must now leue your stody and your bookes' 
(2, 1. 125). He has, perhaps unwittingly, struck directly at the heart of the matter: 
marriage is incompatible with the pursuit of serious studies. 12 Katharine is well 
aware of this: 'Now must I leue my stody and myn desyre,/ My rnodir, my kyn, 
my peple if I wil plese' (1, 11. 184-5). Indeed it is not just the marital relationship 
which is jeopardized by scholarship: all familial ties, as well as the relationship 
between a prince and his people, are under threat. Katharine's commitment to 
learning requires that she reject the roles assigned to her by virtue of her gender 
and birth: the roles of wife, kinswoman and ruler, or consort of a ruler. This is 
precisely the effect identified by Labalme in her discussion of female learning 
from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century: 


Sarah James 

Many learned women eschewed marriage, with its burdens of 
childbearing and household management. This was to defy 
normality, to interrupt, horizontally, that system of marital and 
dynastic connection so crucial to the power structure of past 
societies, and vertically, the continuity of the clan. 13 

Katharine's refusal to take a husband results in the breaking up of the parliament, 
the disappointed lords leaving her to the studies to which she is devoted: 

Thus wyth woo, meche care and grutchynge 
Thei parte a-sondre, iche man to his horn 
Thei goo or ryde or sayle as here lykynge; 
ffor wyth the queen wroth thei are iche oon. 

She is now left for hem to dwelle allon; 

She may stody, reede, reherce and write. (2,11. 1485-90) 

In spite of this early commitment to study, when Katharine is called to debate 
with the pagan philosophers after her conversion to Christianity, she dramatically 
rejects her classical learning: 

I haue lefte alle myn auctoris olde, 

I fond noo frute in hem but eloquens; [. . .] 

Be-helde ye, maistres, alle these mennes werkes 
haue I stodyed and lemed ful besyly; 

Thei were red me of ful sotil clerkes. 

There lyue noon better at this day, hardyly: 

And in these bookes noon other thyng fond I 
But vanyte or thyng that shal not leste. 

(4,11. 1324-5, 1345-50) 

This rejection notwithstanding, Katharine continues to employ the fruits of her 
study in the ensuing contest: her study of rhetoric and dialectic allows her to meet 
and defeat her adversaries in debate, while her knowledge of astronomy, for 
example, informs her arguments about the planets as mere created bodies. The 
comparison between Katharine and the Golden Legend's presentation of the 
learned female saint Eugenia, who also rejects classical learning in favour of 
Christian truth, is instructive: 


Female Learning and Religious Debate in Capgrave’s Life of St Katharine 

Philosophorum sillogismos scrupuloso studio transegimus, 
aristotelica argumenta et Platonis ideas et Socratis monita; et 
breuiter quicquid cantat poeta, quicquid orator et quicquid 
philosophus excogitat hac sententia excluduntur. Dominam me 
uerbis usurpata potestas, sororem uero sapientia fecit; simus 
ergo fratres et Christum sequamur. 14 

[We worked our way with meticulous attention through the 
philosophers' syllogisms, Aristotle’s arguments and Plato's 
ideas, the precepts of Socrates, and, to be brief, whatever the 
poets sang, whatever the orators or the philosophers thought; 
but all that is wiped out by this one sentence. A usurped 
authority has used words to make me your mistress, but 
wisdom makes me your sister. Let us then be brothers, and 
follow Christ!] 

Although expressed in more general terms, Eugenia's rejection of pagan 
authorities is similar to Katharine's own. The difference, however, becomes clear 
as the legend unfolds; from this point of rejection onwards, Eugenia ceases to 
give any sign of her previous learning. Her early leamedness has no lasting part to 
play in her legend, and there is no sense in which scholarly concerns influence her 
later behaviour. By contrast, Katharine's learning permeates her entire life, before 
and after her conversion. Her rejection of classical authorities in favour of 
Christianity does not signal an end of her studiousness, but instead a development 
of it, as she moves from contemplation of the mysteries of philosophy to those of 
the Christian God. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, it is her 
scholarship which places her in the powerful position of preacher to, and 
converter of, numerous pagan opponents, most of whom are men. 

In the context of fifteenth-century England, Katharine's scholarly 
credentials, and specifically her role as a female teacher or preacher of Christian 
doctrine, are problematic. The Lollard emphasis on the reading of Scripture in the 
vernacular raised the possibility that those outside the circle of Latinate clerics 
could study, and potentially teach, religious doctrine. This naturally included not 
merely lower-class men, but also women of all social classes. Thus any woman 
displaying knowledge beyond a bare minimum was likely to come under 
suspicion of heresy. 15 Contemporary poets were quick to draw such conclusions: 
the orthodox Friar Daw's Reply ( c . 1419-20) to the Lollard tract Jack Upland 


Sarah James 

makes the point, with the added emphasis that such female learning is 
incompatible with matrimonial happiness: 

Who marrijr more matrimony, 3 c or |re freris? 

Wi{? wrenchis & wiles wynnen mennes wyues 
And maken hem scolers of })e newe scole . 16 

Hoccleve, too, inveighed against learned women in his anti-Lollard poem of 1415 
addressed to Sir John Oldcastle: 

Somme wommen eek, thogh hir wit be thynne, 

Wole argumentes make in holy writ. 

Lewed calates, sittith down and spynne 
And kakele of sumwhat elles, for your wit 
Is al to feeble to despute of it .' 7 

The fifteenth-century mystic Margery Kempe was a frequent quoter of Scripture and 
accordingly found herself accused of Lollardy on several occasions, while in the 1428 
heresy trial of Margery Baxter at Norwich, we find the following testimony: 

Dixit eciam ista iurata quod dicta Margeria rogavit istam 
iuratam quod ipsa et prefata Johanna, famula sua, venirent 
secrete in cameram dicte Margerie noctanter et ibidem ipsa 
audiret maritum suuin legere legem Christi eisdem, que lex fuit 
scripta in uno libro quern dictus maritus solebat legere eidem 
Margerie noctanter, et dixit quod maritus suus est optimus 
doctor Christianitatis . 18 

[Also this witness said that the said Margery proposed to this 
witness that she herself and the aforesaid Johanna, her servant, 
came secretly to the chamber of the said Margery nightly, and 
in that same place heard her husband read the law of Christ to 
them, which law was written in a book which her said husband 
was accustomed to read to the said Margery nightly, and said 
that her husband is the best teacher of Christianity.] 

While it is not claimed that Margery read this book herself, nevertheless her 
access to its contents, albeit mediated by her husband, enabled her to debate 


Female Learning and Religious Debate in Capgrave's Life of St Katharine 

matters of doctrine with her neighbour Johanna Clyfland, who subsequently 
testified against her. Thus Johanna tells of one occasion when Margery debated 
doctrine with her 'sedens et suens cum ista iurata in camera eiusdem iuxta 
camenum' (sitting and sewing with this witness in the chamber of the same, near 
the fire-place). 

Learned women in fifteenth-century England were not necessarily condemned to 
be viewed as heretics, however; an intriguing counter-example is presented by the 
case of the noblewoman Eleanor Hull, who produced a translation from Old 
French of a commentary on the penitential psalms some time before the middle of 
the century. A manuscript colophon explicitly credits her with authorship: 'Here 
endeth the vij psalmus the wheche Dame Alyanore Hulle transelated out of 
Frensche in-to Englesche'. 20 Hull's noble status may have legitimized her learning 
in a fashion impossible for women of more modest social origins; both her father 
and husband were intimately associated with the Lancastrian regime, and Hull 
herself had been an attendant of Joan of Navarre, the widow of Henry IV. 21 As 
the daughter of a king, Katharine's learning, like Hull's, may be authorized by her 
noble status, yet it remains the case that her scholarly credentials could be 
regarded as ambiguous. It is all the more curious that it is only in fifteenth- 
century texts that her education is so heavily emphasized, and, given that among 
these Capgrave's coverage of her education is by far the most comprehensive, this 
surely demands some explanation. He cannot have been ignorant of the issue; 
friars of all orders found themselves involved in the prosecution of heretics, being 
called as expert theological witnesses to examine alleged Lollards. 22 1 have found 
no evidence to suggest that Capgrave himself ever appeared as a witness at a 
heresy trial, although his scholarly reputation demonstrates that he was qualified 
to do so. There is also no evidence that he was resident at Lynn when the heresy 
trials, including that of Margery Baxter, took place in Norwich, between 
September 1428 and March 1431, but he can hardly have been unaware of them, 
if only from some later date. 23 Thus it seems certain that Capgrave would have 
recognized the perceived links between female scholarship and heresy; why then 
would he go to so much trouble to expand upon the traditional version of 
Katharine's life, to include this controversial representation? 

As a highly educated Augustinian friar, Capgrave clearly felt a particular 
affinity with a saint so closely associated with scholarship, as he makes clear in 
the Prologue to Book III: “ 4 


Sarah James 

Be-cause Jiou wer so lemed & swech a clerk, 

Clerkes must loue Joe, reson for-sothe it is! 

Who wyll oute leme, trost to me, 1-wys, 
he dothe mech Joe bettyr if he trost in Jois may. 

J>us 1 be-leue, & haue do many a day. (3,11. 38-42) 

Yet he can hardly have been unaware of the potential implications of his choice; 
that he was not is, I believe, revealed by a moment in the Prologue, when 
Capgrave discusses the relationship between Katharine and St Athanasius: 

There was a clerke with Jois same kataryne, 

Whos name we clepe in latyn Athanas; 
he tavghte hir the revles, as he covde dyuyne, 

Of god of heuene, of ioye and of gras, 

And she hym also, for be hir he was 

I-tumed on-to cryst and on-to oure feyth; 

he was hir ledere, as the story seyth. (Prologue, 11. 127-33) 

This is a very curious stanza, which manages to obscure rather than explain the 
association between the two saints. The initial statement that Athanasius taught 
Katharine appears quite clear, although the phrase 'as he covde dyuyne’ may 
suggest the teacher was not entirely confident about the information he was 
imparting. Nevertheless, he is presented as Katharine's instructor in faith. 
However, Capgrave immediately undercuts this assertion, explaining that the 
reverse situation is the case; Katharine is now the teacher, while Athanasius is the 
student being converted to Christ and Christianity. Thus both are presented as 
teacher, and both as student. It may be that we can resolve this apparent paradox 
by differentiating Athanasius, teaching about God in heaven, from Katharine, 
who concentrates upon Christ: each might then be teaching a specific area of faith 
to the other, Athanasius concentrating on the Old Testament and Katharine on the 
New. Yet if Athanasius also teaches Katharine about ’ioye’ and 'gras', this surely 
moves beyond the Old Testament law of the just God in heaven, towards the New 
Testament grace of Christ. Both, then, teach the same thing to each other, and so 
the position remains confused. This confusion, I suggest, betrays Capgrave’s 
anxiety in explaining Katharine's teaching role. It is significant that the syntax in 
this stanza does not juxtapose Katharine with the act of teaching at all: instead, 
the reader is required to supply the verb to make sense of 'And she hym also', 


Female Learning and Religious Debate in Capgrave's Life of St Katharine 

carrying it forward from an earlier clause, where Athanasius is directly connected 
with teaching. Capgrave concludes by taking pains to note that Athanasius was 


Katharine's 'ledere', although he does not elaborate on what this might mean, 
and then completes the fudging of the issue with a lame 'as the story seyth'. In this 
single stanza, using a combination of ambiguous diction and strained syntax, 
Capgrave succeeds in partially obscuring his contentious subject-matter; yet the 
very process of obfuscation draws attention to the controversy he seeks to 
suppress, and reveals his anxieties about it. However, such anxieties do not 
prevent him from attempting to negotiate a path through the difficulties, albeit 
inconclusively; this willingness to engage with problematic material belies 
Watson's claim for the marginality of saints' lives to his discussion of fifteenth- 
century vernacular theology. 

The Power of Debate 

Whatever ambiguities arise from Katharine's well-emphasized leamedness, the 
extensive use of dialogue in Capgrave's text does offer the saint clear 
opportunities to display her rhetorical and intellectual powers. Her dispute with 
the philosophers in Book 4 is paralleled in the text's structure by Book 2, 
containing the discussions in the marriage parliament: taken together they account 
for over two-fifths of the poem. The allocation of such a significant proportion of 
the text to dialogue is striking, suggesting as it does a commitment at the 
structural level to the processes of argument, including listening to all sides to a 
dispute and seeking out the means by which resolution may be brought about. It 
may also be a self-conscious decision on the part of the author to imply a lack of 
direct narratorial involvement; by presenting arguments in this form, Capgrave is 
speaking in the persons of others, and hence, theoretically at least, relieving 
himself of personal responsibility for the views expressed.' 

The use of debate as a device for exploring ideas was standard practice in 
medieval academic circles, and could be deployed with great subtlety, enabling 
difficult or contentious questions to be explored without any sense of final 
commitment to a particular polemical stance. 27 Furthermore, by offering 
controversial views through the mediation of a created persona, the author is 
protected from being too closely identified with those views, allowing him to 
remain (or appear to remain) uncommitted. This may help to explain Capgrave's 
strategy; by using the dialogue form he enjoys a high degree of freedom to 


Sarah James 

explore contentious and potentially dangerous questions. However, the issues 
debated by Katharine and the pagans are interestingly restricted; during her 
examinations by the emperor and the philosophers, Katharine is questioned on 
several points of faith, among them the Trinity, the virgin birth, Christ's dual 
nature and the Resurrection. While these doctrines are vigorously (if ultimately 
unsuccessfully) challenged by her pagan antagonists, contemporary readers would 
have found nothing controversial in the discussions. However, two subjects are 
raised which have the potential to be much more contentious: baptism and images. 

The fonner can be dealt with quite briefly. When the pagan philosophers 
convert to Christianity they are condemned to be burned as heretics. They accept this 
willingly, but their leader, Aryot, begs for baptism before tire sentence is carried out: 

In this world, as for me, I wil no more, 

But that we shulde be baptised or we deye: 

Than were we redy to walke th[at] goodly weye. (5,11. 208-10) 

Aryot continues his plea for more than forty lines in a lengthy assertion of the 
need for and power of baptism. Although no one is available to perform the 
ceremony before the philosophers are executed, Katharine teaches them the 
doctrine of baptism by blood, and they die duly comforted. Katharine herself has 
already undergone this sacrament; during her visit to the Heavenly City in Book 
3, Christ orders that she be baptized by her priest, Adrian, and explicitly rehearses 
the orthodox position on baptism: 

Myn aungellis wyll I noght occupye wyth Jiis dede, 

It longyth to mankynd, wyth-outen drede: 

And 3 et jtowj we myght of our hye power 
Graunte on-to aungellis j)is specialtee 
Jrat Jaei schuld bapt^e men in erde here, 

3 et wyll we noght Joat Jiei occupyed schuld bee 

Wyth swych-maner offyce as to humanyte 

longyth, & schal longe, as for most ryght. (3,11. 1056-63) 

There is no room here for Lollard objections to baptism, and thus a potentially 
contentious issue is rendered harmless. On the subject of images, however, 
Capgrave does employ genuine debate in order to present a much more complex 
series of views, which I shall examine in the following section. 


Female Learning and Religious Debate in Capgrave's Life of St Katharine 

The Images Controversy 

During her first examination by Maxentius, Katharine roundly condemns the 
pagan idols in the temple: 

These maumentis I mene, jrei can not sitte ne ryse; 

Thei ete not, [jrei] drynke not in no maner of wise; 

Mouth wyth-oute speche, foot that may not goo, 

Handes eke haue thei and may noo werk doo. (4,11. 592-5) 

Maxentius is unable to offer any response to this criticism, but when the fifty 
philosophers are assembled the question is raised again. Katharine 
differentiates between her God and the gods of the pagans, since her God is 
the creator of all things, whereas the pagan images, which are themselves 
created, can do nothing: 

Spryng of all Jhnge Jrat euere be-gynnyng hadde 
Soo is he called; in whom alle Jung is eke, 

Of whom all good Jung, and no thyng badde, 

Procedeth [. . .] 

Make no comparyson be-twyx 3 our god and myn! 
ffor my god hath made al Jring of nought, 

Eke your goddis am not soo goode as swyn - 
Thei can no 3 t grunten whan hem eyleth ought. 

(4,11. 1471-4, 1478-81) 

One of the philosophers identifies what he believes is Katharine's true objection 
to the pagan idols—that 'her ymages whiche we worship heere / May no 3 t feele 
ne haue noon poweere' (4, 11. 1497-8). A sophisticated dialectician, he 
acknowledges the justice of such an objection but rejects it on the basis that it is 
founded upon an error of understanding: 

This wote I weel, thei ben but figures, 

Representynge other-maner thyng, 

Liche to these fayre riche sepultures 
Whiche be-tokene in her representing 


Sarah James 

That there is beryed duke or ellis kyng - 
Soo am these [ymages] tooknes of goddis oure. 

(4,11. 1499-1504) 

Images, he explains, are merely reminders of other things (in this case the pagan 
gods), and are not considered to be gods in themselves. This justification of 
images as reminders or memorials is, of course, a standard argument of Christian 
orthodoxy in favour of images; Archbishop Arundel, for example, is reported by 
the Lollard William Thorpe as using precisely this explanation: 

For, lo, erjoeli kyngis and ojier lordis, which vsen to senden her 
lettris enselid wi[> her armes or wi|} her priuy sygnetis to men 
Jrat ben wiji hem, ben worschipid of [>ese men; [for whanne 
[iese men] resceyuen her lordis lettris [...] in worschip of her 
lordis [iei don of her cappis or her hoodis to her lettris. Whi not 
[>anne, si[) in ymagis maad wi[> mannes hond we moun rede and 
knowe manye dyuerse doingis of God and hise seintis, schulen 
we not worschipen her ymagis? 28 

The use of a Christian orthodox argument by a pagan philosopher is surprising 
and unsettling, and serves to give the philosopher something of an advantage over 
his saintly antagonist. Katharine, he suggests, has misunderstood the nature of 
pagan worship, failing to recognize the representative nature of the images; such a 
failure might be regarded as indicative of a lack of both orthodoxy and 
theological sophistication. Katharine's response to this position is to denounce the 
pagan deities thus represented, pointing out their moral failings: 'Alle to vices set 
was her laboure' (4, 1. 1547). Another philosopher takes up the challenge, 
reproaching Katharine for emphasizing the bad and ignoring the good. He 
suggests that she has failed to understand because she is not versed in the secret 
language with which the pagans obscure their loftiest concepts: 29 

We haue in this mater ful mysty intelligens, 

Whiche may nojt be comon to euery man; 

But to you, lady, soo now as I can, 

Wil I [)at comon, right for this entent, 

Be-cause youre-selue of wit sotil bee. (4,11. 1566-70) 


Female Learning and Religious Debate in Capgrave's Life of St Katharine 

Acknowledging that Katharine's intellect qualifies her to be party to information 
usually reserved for a select few, he imparts the 'ful mysty intelligens' that the 
pagan gods are allegorical, representing eternal natures such as time, fire and air, 
which are considered divinities among the pagans: 30 

Thus are oure goddis in maner of Allegorye, 

Resemble to natures whiche that be eteme. 

Than is oure feyth grounded on noo lye, 

But on swhiche thyng whiche is sempiteme. (4,11. 1583-6) 

This argument has two advantages for the pagans: it demonstrates the eternal 
nature of their deities, thus placing them on an equal footing with the Christian 
God, while also serving to add another hermeneutic layer between the image and 
what it represents. No longer is it simply the image of what is worshipped; it has 
become the image of an allegory of what is worshipped. Thus image and deity are 
forced further apart, thereby reducing the possibility that the image will be 
worshipped for its own sake. 31 Katharine remains unmoved by the force of this 
argument, which she regards as hiding behind 'figures and colouris' to conceal a 
fatal flaw in pagan reasoning: 

Arn not these planetes knowen wonder wyde? 

May we not seen hem whan thei shyne soo clere? 

The sonne, the mone, whiche shyne on vs here, 

This wote we weel that these been noo men. 

Why am thei grauen thus of stoon and of tree? 

This errour is ful esy for to keen 

That men am thei no 3 t, ne neuere-[more] shal bee. 

(4,11. 1608-14) 

Katharine argues that the images depict something they are not; the 
representation of the planets as though they were men, when everyone knows this 
is not so, is an error likely to mislead worshippers, and thus such carving 'of stoon 
and of tree' cannot be justified. This objection appears to echo the wider Lollard 
complaint that richly decorated images mislead Christians: 

And siji ]pes ymagis ben bokis of lewid men to sture jiem on Jie 
mynde of Cristis passion, and techen by her peyntur, veyn 


Sarah James 

glorie [>at is hangid on hem [is] an opyn errour ajenus Cristis 
gospel, bei ben wor[(i to be brent or exilid [. . .] And so of 
ymagis of pore apostlis of Crist, and ojrer seyntis [iat lyueden in 
pouert and gret penaunse, and dispiseden in worde and in dede 
[>e foul pride and vanyte of J>is karful lif, for [>ei ben peyntid as 
[soghe Joei hadde lyued in weljre of Jris world and lustus of Jreire 
fleyshe as large as euere dide erjrely man. 32 

If we move beyond the debate with the philosophers in Book 4, we find Katharine 
once more condemning images, this time in response to the emperor himself. 
Maxentius has promised to create an image of Katharine, fashioned 'of stoon' and 
'of clene metal' (5, 11. 406-7). The statue will be erected in a public place and all 
who see it will be required to honour it, on pain of punishment. But anyone who 
flies to the statue for protection, 'what-maner offens that he hath doo 1 , shall be 
forgiven 'for reuerens of yow, mayde' (5, 11. 413-14). Katharine's reply continues 
in the same vein as previously: 

[The statue] shal be insensible, 

Stonde liche a ston, and byrdes flye rounde aboute, 

As I suppose it shal be right possible 

That [iei shal come sometyme a ful grete route, 

her on-clene dunge shul thei there putte oute 

And lete it falle right on the ymagis face. (5,11. 470-5) 

The implication is that such a fate is, in fact, fitting for a statue which is 
'insensible', unable to see, hear or walk, even after the greatest efforts of the 
workmen who create it. Moreover, the transient nature of such an image reveals it 
as mere 'fonned veynglorye' (5,11. 482), of no profit to Katharine's soul, or indeed 
to anyone else's. 

The remarkable nature of this debate cannot be over-emphasized. The 
pagan philosophers have made use of orthodox Christian defensive strategies to 
uphold their position, while Katharine the Christian saint has made use of 
language and arguments which appear to support an iconomachal, and finally 
iconoclastic, position—and which, moreover, could be regarded in fifteenth- 
century England as bearing a specifically Lollard stamp. This represents an 
astonishing divergence from the conventional roles we might expect to see played 
out in hagiography; a pagan might be more usually represented as genuinely 

Female Learning and Religious Debate in Capgrave's Life of St Katharine 

believing that the images of his gods are indeed the gods themselves, and contain 
within them something of the gods' powers. 33 Similarly, if hagiography is indeed 
an entirely conventional genre we would expect the saintly heroine to be depicted 
rehearsing the orthodox position of Christianity, rather than proclaiming heretical 
doctrine in a spirited and convincing performance. 

The position is not quite as simple as this, however, for the images that 
Katharine condemns are not Christian icons but pagan idols, and as such there can 
be no real objection to her call for their destruction, since they are false gods. Any 
statue of herself created by Maxentius will be a secular memorial which he 
proposes to treat as a religious icon, and should therefore be shunned. Thus the 
question of images is problematized further: the reader must maintain a 
simultaneous awareness of the conflicting claims of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, of 
paganism and Christianity, and of the sacred and secular. By presenting the 
images debate in this many-faceted fashion, Capgrave achieves the effect of 
destabilizing the viewpoint of his readers; we believe that we should agree with 
the heroine, yet her position cannot be reconciled entirely with orthodoxy. For 
Capgrave's orthodox contemporaries this would have been a startling 
development, forcing them to admit at least the possibility of agreeing not with 
the saint but with declared pagans. 34 

The centrality of the images debate may be particularly appropriate to the 
life of St Katharine since, as a highly popular late-medieval saint, images of her 
would have been widely circulated. Indeed, she appears to have become 
something of a focus for argument, a test-case for orthodox or heterodox views on 
this issue, as two chronicle entries suggest. Henry Knighton recounts the tale of 
two heretics who chop up a statue of the saint to make firewood, with the cynical 
comment that 'per securim et ignem nouum pacientur martirium' [by axe and fire 
she will undergo a new martyrdom]. 35 Rather less well-known is a short entry 
from Walsingham's Chronicon Angliae : 

[E]t inter omnes major fatuus, Johannes Mountagu, qui in 
tantam lapsus est vesaniam, ut cunctas imagines, quas apud 
manerium de Shenlee antecessores sui erexerant in capella sua, 
deponi faceret et in locis abditis collocari. Unum solummodo 
[privilegium adepta est] imago Sanctae Katerinae, quam in 
pistrinum suum deferri permisit, quia plures afficiebantur 
eidem.' 6 


Sarah James 

[And more foolish than the others was John Montagu, who 
slipped into such madness that all the images, which his 
ancestors had erected in his chapel at the manor of Shenley, he 
caused to be got rid of and stored in a secret place. One image 
alone, of Saint Katherine, received individual treatment, being 
permitted to be brought into his flour-mill, because many were 
well-disposed towards the same.] 

Katharine's, it appears, is a special case; the 'privilegium' her image enjoys 
may be beneficial, in that a Lollard sympathizer such as Montagu stops short of 
destroying it, or it may be detrimental, as in the case of Knighton's heretics, 
whose burning of the statue acts as a bench-mark demonstrating the depth of their 
sin. Thus real images of Katharine are subject to a similar range of fates to those 
envisaged by Maxentius and the saint herself for her proposed statue. 

The Desire for Religious Unity 

Capgrave's unexpected distribution of arguments in the image debate, giving them 
to the 'wrong' people and hence unsettling the reader, is unusual and suggestive; 
nevertheless, it should not lead us to overlook the significance of the fact that the 
debate takes place at all. Given that images had been the subject of religious 
controversy for centuries, and taking account of their particular relevance to the 
problem of Lollardy, it is surely remarkable that Capgrave is prepared to devote 
considerable space within his text to this matter. Contrary to Watson's assessment 
of fifteenth-century vernacular theology, far from seeking to eliminate debate and 
dissent Capgrave appears to have embraced it. The reason for this strategy is 
revealed most clearly by turning briefly to his other writings, most notably the 
Life of St Norbert. 

At the beginning of the Norbert , Capgrave explicitly calls for 
brotherhood and understanding between different religious orders, praying to 
God for unity: 'O lord Ihesu, of alle religious men / Abbot and maystir, bryng us 
to vnyte'. 37 Later in the same work he debates the problem of the varied 
interpretations of the Rule of St Augustine: 

Felawis, drede not j)is dyuersite. 

Alle Goddis weyis are grounded, witjouten ly, 


Female Learning and Religious Debate in Capgrave's Life of St Katharine 

Vpon his treuth and upon his mercy. 

A 1 [)ou 3 |rese reules be in dyuers manere, 

3 et are [rei not contrarie in no wyse; 

Thou 3 jrese customes whech are vsed here, 

Be othir men be set in othir assyse 
In othir place as hem lest deuyse, 

3 et are J>ei grounded alle on o charite, 

Whech is loue of god & neybour here by the. (11. 1307-16) 

In the final line quoted above Capgrave is referring directly to the opening 
sentence of the traditional medieval Regula Augustini: 'Ante omnia, fratres 
carissimi, diligatur deus, deinde proximus' [Before everything, dearest brothers, 
let God be loved, then your neighbour]. 38 The orders of Austin friars (Capgrave's 
own order) and canons, among them the Premonstratensians founded by Norbert, 
were based upon this Rule, although with some variations in its practical 
application. That there was a need to emphasize the fundamental unity of the 
orders is clear. As early as 1327 rivalry had erupted between the Austin canons 
and Austin friars throughout Europe, when Pope John XXII granted custody of 
the body of St Augustine to the friars, thereby supplanting the canons, its previous 
custodians. 39 Relations deteriorated further in England when Geoffrey Hardeby, 
an Austin friar and Master Regent at Oxford, produced his treatise De Vita 
Angelica in 1357. In this treatise Hardeby examined the problems of whether St 
Augustine had personally founded the orders of friars and canons which bore his 
name, and whether Augustine himself had been a friar or a canon. 40 In 1380 
William Flete, an Austin friar living as a hermit in Italy, wrote to the English 
Prior Provincial of his order: 

The friars are to preach peace and concord to the whole 
kingdom. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. [. . .] 

Let them preach charity to all—to bishops, priests, friars, 
monks, canons, and all men: that the whole English Church 
may be one spirit in God. 'Physician, cure thyself.' Many 
religious are deceived. They keep the external observances of 
religious life—silence, attendance at the chapter-house and in 
the refectory, and so forth—but they have not charity. They are 
envious, they criticize, they murmur, they blacken one another's 
character, they form parties in the community, setting one order 


Sarah James 

against another, or brother against brother in a single order, 
according to their state and degree. 41 

It is at least possible that Capgrave saw a copy of this letter, since it was copied 
by an Austin friar named Adam Stocton who spent time at the friary at Lynn, as 
well as at Cambridge and Bedford. 4 ' Although Capgrave was, of course, writing 
somewhat later, the rivalry had not diminished by the fifteenth century. Around 
the year 1442 Capgrave wrote a work, now unfortunately lost, which was 
dedicated to '[>e abbot of Seynt lames at Norhampton [. . .] whech boke I named 
Concordia, be-cause it is mad to reforme charite be-twix Seynt Augustines 
heremites and his chanones.' 43 Equally important was the Latin sermon which 
Capgrave gave at Cambridge in 1422, concerning the various orders under the 
Rule of St Augustine; in 1451 he translated the sermon into English, revised it 
and dedicated it to Nicholas Reysby of the Gilbertine canons. In this revised 
version he makes explicit reference to the issue at the heart of the rivalry between 
friars and canons: 

[Concerning the Canons Regular] If [>ese men be-gunne with 
Augustin in his cherch in {re same degre as Jtei stand now, sum 
men haue doute: but I wyl not stryue. I be-leue wel [rat Jrere had 
[>ei her beginnyng [...]. I wel be-leue Jrat her first fundacion 
cam fro Augustin, (pp. 146,11. 29-31, and 147,1. 2) 

Capgrave is prepared to concede that the claim of the canons to have been 
established by Augustine is justified, unlike 'sum men'—presumably from his 
own order of friars—who continue to doubt. This is an important concession 
from a man who, within two years of producing this revised version of his 
treatise, would become Prior Provincial and hence in a position to exert 
considerable influence over his order. It is significant that the 
Premonstratensians and the Gilbertines, both recipients of Capgrave's 
hagiographical endeavours, were orders of canons rather than friars; perhaps his 
lives of Norbert and Gilbert of Sempringham were produced as a specific 
response to Flete's earlier injunction to 'preach peace and concord'. 

Capgrave appears to make a further reference to this need for unity 
between the orders in the Katharine itself. In Book 3 he introduces the hermit, 
Adrian, who will be Katharine's guide in heaven, and concludes his description 
with a very curious passage: 


Female Learning and Religious Debate in Capgrave's Life of St Katharine 

Alle blyssydly in abstinens & prayer 
{hs lyffe led he, fhs ermyte or Jiis frere - 
ffor frere was name J?an to all crysten men 
Comon, I rede, & ermytys wer Jrei called 
jiat dwelt fro town, mylys sex or ten, 

Wer |jei growen, wer J)ei bar or balled; 

Be-cause jrei wer eke all soole I-walled, 

Sume men called hem inunkys, wyth-owte drede - 

ffor Jjeis wordes, munke & soole, ar on, as we rede. (3,11. 83-91) 

Friars, hermits and monks are simply different words for what are essentially the 
same things, Capgrave seems to suggest. Yet alongside this concern for unity, and 
inextricably mingled with it, runs a recognition of diversity and the need to 
remain intellectually open to alternatives. The injunction in Norbert to 'drede not 
j}is dyuersite' (1. 1307) is followed later by a striking incident in which the devil 
teaches unlearned men to read (11. 1898-1911). Unsure of how to respond, Norbert 
consults an 'eldeman' who counsels patience: 

'Suffir now, maystir, {hs Joing for a while. 

It schal be wist ful weel and openly 
Wheithir it comth fro |ie fendis gile 
Or elles it comth be reuelacioun fro hy.’ (11. 1926-9) 

The Norbert was completed in 1440 and its reference to the teaching of unlearned 
men may well reflect continued concerns over Lollard literacy; the fact that it is 
the devil doing the teaching surely strengthens this probability. Yet there is no 
outright condemnation either of the men or the devil, but rather an acceptance that 
only time can prove where right lies. Elsewhere Norbert is portrayed as a 
peacemaker, striving to resolve a variety of disputes between princes, citizens and even 
rival workmen in a series of episodes which seem to suggest that even the bitterest of 
contention can, if dealt with properly, result in an enhanced unity. 44 Similarly, in his 
Life of St Gilbert ofSempringham Capgrave again takes up this theme: 

Thus he [Gilbert] sette hem lawes medeled with swech 
attemperauns (rat ammongis dyuers kyndes, dyuers habites, 
dyuers degrees, he exorted hem in our Lord j)ei all schuld haue 
but o soule and on hert fixid in God. (p. 67,11. 25-8) 


Sarah Janies 

Viewed in this context, the Katharine's exploration of controversial issues can be 
seen as consistent with a larger project of seeking unity through a recognition of 
diversity. Capgrave himself was by no means a Lollard sympathizer, famously 
describing Wyclifs followers as 'erroneous doggis', yet this did not prevent him 
acknowledging the value of engaging in a dialogue with their ideas. 45 

The subtle and questioning approach which Capgrave brings to the 
Katharine does not accord with Watson's view of fifteenth-century vernacular 
theology; far from cowering away from contentious topics of religious debate, 
Capgrave was prepared to continue to engage with them, albeit not always 
entirely openly. His example demonstrates that he was committed to maintaining 
some form of dialogue with heretical positions, and even to gesture towards 
oblique approval of some of those positions. With its emphasis on female 
learning, teaching and preaching, the Katharine is a text which serves to draw 
attention to a number of issues with contentious implications for fifteenth-century 
religious orthodoxy; it also provides a dazzlingly complex matrix of views on 
images, combining the orthodox and heterodox with the sacred and secular, in a 
discussion in which a Christian saint seems to champion iconoclasm. The images 
debate in particular introduces an uncomfortable degree of instability regarding 
what actually constitutes orthodoxy, and would surely have given its original 
audience pause for thought. 

There is no evidence to suggest that the ecclesiastical authorities were 
concerned about the Katharine's possible heterodoxy, or about its use of English 
for the discussion of what is sometimes highly controversial material. Capgrave’s 
fraternal status may have provided him with some level of protection from 
criticism. As a friar he enjoyed exemption from many of the restrictions imposed 
upon parish clergy, and the ability of the episcopal and archiepiscopal hierarchies 
to intervene in fraternal matters was severely restricted. 4<> More importantly, the 
death of Archbishop Chichele in 1443 changed the nature of the response to 
heresy within the province of Canterbury. Chichele had been an indefatigable 
prosecutor of heretics, as his impressive legislative record demonstrates. 47 By 
contrast, his successor, John Stafford, showed little desire to pursue a similar 
course; indeed, Thomson demonstrates that no major heresy prosecutions took 
place in the Canterbury province during Stafford's incumbency. 48 The loss of the 
architect of much of England's anti-Lollard legislation may well have reduced the 
pressure on the episcopate to seek out and destroy Lollardy, and in such a climate 
the expression of heterodox views was unlikely to represent a significant risk. 


Female Learning and Religious Debate in Capgrave's Life of St Katharine 

Perhaps the most important factor in explaining the nature of Capgrave's 
Katharine, however, is its likely audience. The population of East Anglia at this 
time was, as I have pointed out, sophisticated and well-educated, with a 
reputation for an unusual degree of religious toleration, and it would have 
provided Capgrave with an audience very capable of engaging with the 
theological complexities of his work to arrive at its own reasoned conclusions. 
Located within such a milieu, the challenges posed by reading the Life of St 
Katharine become more explicable. Confident of a sympathetic and receptive 
audience able to engage with his ideas, Capgrave was free to explore the 
sometimes contradictory implications of female learning, the images debate and 
his twin commitments to unity and diversity. This freedom to explore did not 
result in firm conclusions, and indeed Capgrave sometimes appears distinctly 
uncomfortable with the direction of his own work, as is suggested by his evasive 
approach to Katharine's relationship with St Athanasius. But significantly this 
does not lead to an attempt to impose false resolutions, or to adduce explanations 
to render problematic issues doctrinally more acceptable. The contradictions and 
difficulties are revealed and explored, but remain unresolved. 


Sarah James 


1 Nicholas Watson, 'Censorship and Cultural Change in Late-Medieval England: 
Vernacular Theology, the Oxford Translation Debate, and Arundel's Constitutions of 1409', 
Speculum, 70 (1995), 823-64 (p. 823). The definition of'vernacular theology' is discussed in 
detail on p. 823, n. 4. 

2 Watson, 'Censorship and Cultural Change', p. 833. 

3 Watson, 'Censorship and Cultural Change', p. 824, n. 4. 

4 M. C. Seymour, John Capgrave (Aldershot: Variorum, 1996), p. 21. 

5 Peter J. Lucas, From Author to Audience: John Capgrave and Medieval Publication 
(Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 1997), pp. 13-14. The manuscripts are listed in 
Seymour, John Capgrave, p. 53. The work can be dated quite closely as a result of Bokenham's 
reference to it in his own version of the life of Katharine: Osbem Bokenham, Legendys of 
Hooly Wummen, ed. by Mary S. Serjeantson, EETS o.s. 206 (London: Oxford University Press, 
1938), p. 173, 11. 6354-60. Much of Capgrave's literary output has been lost, but of that which 
remains most of the manuscripts are either in Capgrave's autograph, or have been amended by 
his hand, or are otherwise closely associated with the house of friars at Lynn, suggesting that he 
exercised considerable control over the production and dissemination of his works. Capgrave's 
care in this regard has made his manuscripts invaluable to dialectologists. See John Capgrave's 
Abbreuiacion of Cronicles, ed. by Peter J. Lucas, EETS o.s. 285 (Oxford: Oxford University 
Press, 1983), where the editor makes the following observation: 'From the historical linguist's 
point of view autograph or holograph manuscripts that can be precisely dated and localized, and 
some facts about whose author are known, represent an ideal [. . .]. Such ideal texts are 
provided by the autograph and holograph manuscripts of vernacular works by Capgrave [. . .]. 
The Capgrave material probably constitutes the single most important corpus of linguistic 
evidence for the W. Norfolk area in the fifteenth century' (p. xliv). See also the references to 
Norfolk manuscripts in Angus McIntosh, M. L. Samuels and Michael Benskin, A Linguistic 
Allas of Late Mediaeval English, 4 vols (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1986); entries 
relating to Capgrave's manuscripts appear in I 67, 102, 105, 108, 146, 218 and 223, and III 320- 
21,328 and 333-4. 

6 English Gilds, ed. by Toulmin Smith, intro, by Lucy Toulmin Smith, EETS o.s. 40 
(London: Trubner, 1870), pp. 67-8 (p. 67). 

7 For discussions of the population of fifteenth-century East Anglia, see Richard Beadle, 
'Prolegomena to a Literary Geography of Later Medieval Norfolk', in Regionalism in Late 
Medieval Manuscripts and Texts: Essays Celebrating the Publication of 'A Linguistic Atlas of 
Late Mediaeval English', ed. by Felicity Riddy, (Cambridge: Brewer, 1991), pp. 89-108; Gail 


Female Learning and Religious Debate in Capgrave's Life of St Katharine 

McMuiray Gibson, The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late 
Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 19-46; Emma Lipton, 
'Performing Reform: Lay Piety and the Marriage of Mary and Joseph in the N-Town Cycle', 
Studies in the Age of Chaucer, 23 (2001), 407-35 (pp. 420, 434); and Norman P. Tanner, The 
Church in Late Medieval Norwich 1370-1532 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval 
Studies, 1984). The gild returns of 1389 reveal that Lynn had a greater number of gilds (51) 
than any other recorded town: H. F. Westlake, The Parish Gilds of Mediaeval England 
(London: SPCK, 1919), p. 38. 

8 Katherine J. Lewis, The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Late Medieval 
England (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2000), p. 14. Other fifteenth-century versions of the legend 
include the prose life in Harvard University, MS Richardson 44, edited by Henry Hucks 
Gibbs as The Life and Martyrdom of Saint Katherine of Alexandria, Virgin and Martyr 
(London: Nichols, 1884); a shorter and later version of the prose life from Southwell Minster 
MS 7, printed as St Katherine of Alexandria: The Late Middle English Prose Legend in 
Southwell Minster MS 7, ed. by Saara Nevanlinna and Irma Taavitsainen (Cambridge: 
Brewer, 1993); and Caxton's version, The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints as Englished 
by William Caxton, ed. by F. S. Ellis, 7 vols (London: Dent, 1900), VII 1-30. The version in 
MS Richardson 44 has also been published in a modem English translation: Chaste 
Passions: Medieval English Virgin Martyr Legends, ed. and trans. by Karen A. Winstead 
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), pp. 115-63 and Appendix B. In addition Katharine's 
story appears in numerous legendaries and sermon collections. The best study of Capgrave's 
sources is still Auvo Kurvinen, 'The Source of Capgrave's Life of St Katharine of 
Alexandria ', Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 61 (1960), 268-324. 

9 Great powers of scholarship are a traditional attribute of the saint and may have been 
derived from the assimilation of details from the life of the pagan philosopher Hypatia into the 
Katharine legend. Indeed, it is possible that the Katharine legend owes its very existence to 
Hypatia, a renowned female scholar living in Alexandria, who was put to death by the Christian 
authorities c. 415. See Maria Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria, trans. by F. Lyra (Cambridge, Mass.: 
Harvard University Press, 1995), for a discussion of Hypatia's history and her subsequent connection 
with the Katharine legend. For an analysis of the historical evidence for the existence of St Katharine, 
see Jennifer Relvyn Bray, 'The Legend of St Katherine in Later Middle English Literature' 
(unpublished doctoral thesis, Birkbeck College London, 1984), pp. 6-17. 

10 John Capgrave, The Life of St Katharine of Alexandria, ed. by Carl Horstmann, EETS 
o.s. 100 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trtibner, 1893), I, 11. 400-27. All subsequent references 
will be by book and line number in the text. A modem English edition is also available: The 
Life of Saint Katherine, ed. by Karen A. Winstead (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute 
Publications, 1999). 


Sarah James 

11 For St Eugenia see Iacopo da Varazze, Legenda Aurea, ed. by Giovanni Paolo 
Maggioni, 2nd edn, 2 vols (Florence: Galluzo, 1998), II 925-6. The translation is from The 
Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. by William Granger Ryan, 2 vols (Princeton: 
Princeton University Press, 1993), II 165, slightly emended. All future Latin quotations will be 
from Legenda Aurea, with translations (amended where necessary) from Golden Legend, trans. 
by Ryan. For infant saints see Golden Legend, I 21 and 102; II 303. For English saints see S. 
Baring-Gould, Lives of the English Saints (Lampeter: Llanerch, 1990), particularly St 
Ethelburga, p. 75; St Aldhelm, p. 13, was academically precocious. 

12 Such a view had been commonplace for centuries, though usually in the context of 
male scholarship being disrupted by wives. Perhaps the most famous (and vitriolic) expression 
of this idea came from St Jerome: 'Primum enim impediri studia Philosophiae; nec posse 
quemquam libris et uxori pariter inservire. [. . .] Si doctissimus praeceptor in qualibet urbium 
fuerit, nec uxorem relinquere, nec cum sarcina ire possumus' [Indeed, first the study of 
Philosophy is hindered; no one can serve books and a wife at the same time.[. . .] If the most 
learned teacher is in any of the towns, we can neither leave our wife behind, nor go with the 
burden]: Adversus Jovinianum, in PL 23, cols. 276-7. Fascinatingly, Heloise employed the 
same argument, effectively against herself, when resisting Abelard’s proposal of marriage: 
'Quae enim conventio scholarium ad pedissequas, scriptoriorum ad cunabula, librorum sive 
tabularum ad colos, stylorum sive calamorum ad fusos? Quis denique sacris vel philosophicis 
meditationibus intentus pueriles vagitus, nutricum, quae hos mitigant, naenias, tumultuosam 
familiae tam in viris quam in feminis turbam sustinere poterit? Quis etiam inhonestas illas 
parvulorum sordes assiduas tolerare valebit?' [What agreement is there of scholars with 
waiting-women, of writing desks with cradles, of books or writing-tablets with distaffs, of 
styluses and pens with spindles? Who, indeed, in his contemplations of sacred or philosophical 
purposes, will have been able to bear infants crying, the lullabies of the nurses soothing them, 
and the confused hubbub of men and women of the household? Who, indeed, will be able to 
tolerate the unremitting and unseemly squalor of the little ones?]: Abelard, 'Epistola I, seu 
Historia Calamitatum', in PL 178 col. 131. It should be noted, as Blamires makes clear, that 
these words are in fact Abelard's; he is reporting the view of Heloise in a letter to a third party: 
Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts, ed. by Alcuin 
Blamires with Karen Pratt and C. W. Marx (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), pp. 87-8. 

13 Beyond Their Sex: Learned Women of the European Past , ed. by Patricia H. Labalme 
(New York: New York University Press, 1980), p. 5. 

14 Legenda Aurea, II 925-6; Golden Legend, trans. by Ryan, II 165. 

15 For a detailed consideration of female learning and its association with Lollardy, see 
Margaret Aston, Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion 
(London: Hambledon Press, 1984), chapter 2. See also Claire Cross, "'Great Reasoners in 


Female Learning and Religious Debate in Capgrave's Life of St Katharine 

Scripture": The Activities of Women Lollards', in Medieval Women, ed. by Derek Baker 
(Oxford: Blackwell, 1978), pp. 359-80; Anne Hudson, The Premature Reformation: Wycliffite 
Texts and Lollard History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), pp. 137, 165 and 188-9; and 
Shannon McSheffrey, Gender and Heresy: Women and Men in Lollard Communities, 1420- 
1530 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), pp. 47-72. 

16 Jack Upland, Friar Daw's Reply and Upland's Rejoinder, ed. by P. L. Heyworth 
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), Friar Daw, 11. 99-101. 

17 Thomas Hoccleve, 'The Remonstrance Against Oldcastle', in Selections from 
Hoccleve, ed. by M. C. Seymour (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), 11. 145-9. Not all 
contemporary poets took such a jaundiced view, however; see Nicholas Orme, Education and 
Society in Medieval and Renaissance England (London: Hambledon Press, 1989), pp. 221-42, 
for Chaucerian references to maternal advice and education. 

18 For the accusations against Margery see The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. by Barry 
Windeatt (Harlow: Longman, 2000), for example pp. 95-6, 229 and 252. Margery Baxter's trial 
is recorded in Heresy Trials in the Diocese of Norwich, 1428-31, ed. by Norman P. Tanner 
(London: Royal Historical Society, 1977), pp. 47-8. 

19 Johanna Clyfland's testimony appears in Heresy Trials, ed. by Tanner, pp. 43-9 (p. 44). 

20 Hull’s translation is extant in a single manuscript, Cambridge University Library, MS 
Kk. 1.6. It has been edited by Alexandra Barratt in The Seven Psalms: A Commentary on the 
Penitential Psalms translated from French into English by Dame Eleanor Hull, EETS o.s. 307 
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); the colophon quoted appears on p. 202. For the dating 
of the manuscript, see Barratt's introduction, p. xxii. 

21 For Hull's biography see Seven Psalms, pp. xxiii-xxxiii; see also Alexandra Barratt, 
'Dame Eleanor Hull: A Fifteenth-Century Translator', in The Medieval Translator: The Theory 
and Practice of Translation in the Middle Ages, ed. by Roger Ellis, Jocelyn Price, Stephen 
Medcalf and Peter Meredith (Cambridge: Brewer, 1989), pp. 87-101. For studies of female 
literacy and book ownership in late medieval England, see the chapters by Felicity Riddy, Carol 
Meale and Julia Boffey in Women and Literature in Britain, 1150-1500, ed. by Carol M. 
Meale, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). 

22 For fraternal involvement with heresy trials, see for example John Foxe, Acts and 
Monuments, intro, by John Stoughton, ed. by Josiah Pratt, 4th edn, 8 vols (London: Religious 
Tract Society, 1877), III 107-8 (trial of William Swinderby, 1389), 235-6 (trial of John Badby, 
1409) and 583 (trial of William Taylor, 1422). While Foxe may not be an objective and 
dispassionate witness, Hudson suggests that he is 'trustworthy to a fairly high degree': 
Premature Reformation, p. 40. 

23 The trials must have attracted a good deal of notice; William White, Hugh Pye and 
John Waddon were burnt for heresy in Norwich in 1428: Heresy Trials, ed. by Tanner, p. 8. 


Sarah James 

Nicholas Drye from Lynn was tried in August 1430 and sentenced to do penance; a fellow- 
citizen of Lynn acted as surety to guarantee that he performed his penance and remained free 
from heresy: pp. 25 and 173-4. 

24 Bray also makes this point: 'The Legend of St Katherine in Later Middle English 
Literature', pp. 174-75. Eleanor Hull, too, recognized an affinity with this most learned of 
saints; in her will of 1460, she leaves 'vijiL in worship of Seynt Kateryn'. See Seven Psalms, 
Appendix, p. 203. Such an interpretation may be further supported by Capgrave's decision to 
write a life of St Gilbert of Sempringham; from the earliest days of the foundation of the 
Gilbertine order in the twelfth century, it had made education available to girls as well as boys. 
Significantly the libraries in the Gilbertine double houses were administered by a nun—a 
precentrix -—rather than a canon. See Brian Golding, Gilbert of Sempringham and the 
Gilbertine Order c. 1130-c. 1300 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp. 170-87. 

25 The MED cites five broad definitions of'ledere 1 , two of which may be relevant. The 
first, 1(a), is 'ruler, lord, king', and is probably not what is required here, although the emphasis 
on social and political authority may be worth noting. More likely is definition 2(a), 'one who 
leads the way', or, if understood figuratively, 2(b), 'guardian on a journey, chaperon'. 

26 See Alastair Minnis, Magisler Amoris: The 'Roman de la Rose' and Vernacular 
Hermeneutics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 219-34. Capgrave may have sought 
to provide himself with a further degree of protection by stressing that his work is a translation: 
Prologue, 11. 232-3. 

27 The dialogue form has a long and distinguished history, its most famous early 
incarnation being in the Socratic elenchus reported in Plato's dialogues, and medieval university 
education relied heavily on dialectic and techniques of disputation. See Martin Grabmann, Die 
Geschichte der Scholastischen Methode, 2 vols (Freiburg: Herdersche Verlagshandlung, 1909 
and 1911); for academic use of the dialogue form, see especially p. 98 (Greek writers), pp. 193- 
4 (Alcuin), pp. 222-4 (Berengar of Tours and his Eucharistic heresy), p. 264 and pp. 317-22 
(Anselm). Also useful is M.-D. Chenu, La Theologie Comme Science au XUIe Siecle (Paris: 
Vrin, 1957), chapters 1 and 5. See also Janet Coleman, 'The Science of Politics and Late 
Medieval Academic Debate', in Criticism and Dissent in the Middle Ages, ed. by Rita Copeland 
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 181-214 (esp. p. 193). 

28 Two Wycliffite Texts, ed. by Anne Hudson, EETS o.s. 301 (Oxford: Oxford University 
Press, 1993), p. 57, 11. 1086-94. The concept of the image as a reminder owes a good deal to 
Augustine's discussion of signs in De Doctrina Christiana, which starts from the premise that 
'signum est enim res praeter speciem, quam ingerit sensibus, aliud aliquid ex se faciens in 
cogitationem uenire' [a sign is a thing beyond its appearance, which thrusts itself onto the 
senses, making something different from itself come to mind]: De Doctrina Christiana, in 
Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, 176 vols (Paris: Brepols, 1954-65), vol. 32, book II, i (1). 


Female Learning and Religious Debate in Capgrave's Life of St Katharine 

See also Margaret Aston, 'Wyclif and the Vernacular 1 , in From Ockham to Wyclif, ed. by Anne 
Hudson and Michael Wilks (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), pp. 281-330 (p. 288, n. 19), for the 
theological idea of the signa recordativa. 

29 In an illuminating discussion of Evrart de Conty's Eschez amoureux, Alastair Minnis 
cites Evrart's explanation of ways in which fiction may be employed: Minnis, Magister Amoris, 
pp. 282-92. One of these is in order to speak more secretly: 'Here the commentator defends 
deliberate obscurity on the grounds that on occasion meaning should be withheld from the 
unworthy' (p. 288). 

30 Again this argument appears to be foreshadowed by Evrart de Conty: 'there is no good 
thing imaginable to a reasonable man that the ancient poets, who were wise and great 
philosophers, have not meant to express by various gods and goddesses—neither maintaining 
nor believing that they were real deities (!)'. Minnis, Magister Amoris, p. 285. 

31 The argument given by Capgrave to the pagans here is identical to one dismissed by 
Augustine, who equates it with spiritually-unaware Gentiles. 'Et si quando aliqui eorum ilia 
tamquam signa interpretari conabantur, ad creaturam colendam uenerandamque referebant. 
Quid enim mihi prodest simulacrum uerbi gratia Neptuni non ipsum habendum deum, sed eo 
significari uniuersum mare uel etiam ornnes aquas ceteras, quae fontibus proruunt? [. . .] Quid 
ergo mihi prodest, quod Neptuni simulacrum ad illam significationem referetur, nisi forte ut 
neutrum colam? tarn enim mihi statua quaelibet, quam mare uniuersum, non est deus' [And if 
ever any of them attempted to interpret these statues as signs, they related them to the 
worshipping and venerating of a created thing. For what good is it to me that an image of 
Neptune, for example, does not contain a god in itself, but by it is to be signified the whole sea 
or indeed all other waters that rush forth from springs? [. . .] Therefore what good is it to me 
that an image of Neptune is assigned this significance, except perhaps that I might worship 
neither? As far as I am concerned, a statue is no more God than the whole sea is]: De Doctrina 
Christiana, Book III, vii (11). 

32 Selections from English Wycliffite Writings, ed. by Anne Hudson (Toronto: University 
of Toronto Press, 1997), pp. 83-4. 

33 For example, in the legend of St Sebastian the prefect's slaves are afraid to lay hands on 
their idols and destroy them, for fear of divine retribution: Golden Legend, trans. by Ryan, I 99. 

34 See also James Simpson, Reform and Cultural Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University 
Press, 2002), pp. 420-9. 

35 Knighton's Chronicle, 1337-1396, ed. and trans. by G. H. Martin (Oxford: Clarendon 
Press, 1995), pp. 296 and 297. For an excellent examination of the important connections 
between St Katharine and the images debate, see Sarah Stanbury, 'The Vivacity of Images: St 
Katherine, Knighton's Lollards, and the Breaking of Idols', in Images, Idolatry, and Iconoclasm 


Sarah James 

in Late Medieval England: Textuality and the Visual Image, ed. by Jeremy Dimmick, James 
Simpson and Nicolette Zeeman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 131-50. 

36 Thomas Walsingham, Chronicon Angliae 1328-1388, ed. by Edward Maunde 
Thompson, Rolls Series 64 (London: HMSO, 1874; reprinted New York: Kraus, 1965), p. 377. 

37 John Capgrave, The Life of St Norbert, ed. by Cyril Lawrence Smetana (Toronto: 
Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1977), 11. 64-5. 

38 Aubrey Gwynn, The English Austin Friars in the Time of Wyclif (Oxford: Oxford 
University Press, 1940), p. 4. 

39 Gwynn, English Austin Friars, p. 43. 

40 For an account of the treatise and its exacerbation of the rivalry between Austin friars 
and canons, see Gwynn, English Austin Friars, pp. 90-5. The Austin friars also argued among 
themselves (pp. 90-1). 

41 Trinity College, Dublin, MS A.5.3., quoted and translated by Gwynn, English Austin 
Friars, p. 207. 

42 The Trinity College manuscript belonged to Stocton and was copied in his own hand in 
the 1370s and 1380s: Gwynn, English Austin Friars, pp. 236-9. 

43 John Capgrave, Lives of St Augustine and St Gilbert of Sempringham, and a Sermon, 
ed. by J. J. Munro, EETS o.s. 140 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Triibner, 1910), p. 146,11. 5-7. 
St James's abbey in Northampton was home to the Canons Regular: Lucas, From Author to 
Audience, p. 10. 

44 See, for example, Norbert, 11. 554-609, 631-7, 1751-64 and 2304-10. 

45 John Capgrave, Abbreuiacion of Cronicles, p. 197. 

46 During FitzRalph's dispute with the friars, 1356-57, it was alleged that fraternal 
exemptions interfered with the duties of the ordinary clergy; however, in 1359 Innocent VI 
issued a bull confirming these privileges: Gwynn, English Austin Friars, pp. 80-89. For 
Arundel's order specifically exempting friars from the licensing requirements of the 
Constitutions, see Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae, ed. by David Wilkins, 4 vols 
(London, 1737), III 324. For Chichele's objections to exemptions, see E. F. Jacob, Henry 
Chichele and the Ecclesiastical Politics of His Age (London: Athlone, 1952), pp. 8-12, and 
chapter 6, pp. 230-1. 

47 See, for example, Wilkins, Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae, III 358-65, 378, 
393, 433, 438-59 and 493. 

48 John A.F. Thomson, The Later Lollards 1414-1520 (London: Oxford University Press, 
1965), pp. 237-8. 


'Wher ioye is ay lastyng': 

John Lydgate’s Contemptus Mundi in British Library MS 

Harley 2255 1 

Joseph L. Grossi, Jr. 

Scholars of Middle English verse are acknowledging with ever-increasing 
frequency the significance of John Lydgate, Benedictine monk and sometime 
resident of the great abbey at Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. 2 While not a 
repository of his ’major’ works such as The Fall of Princes or the Troy Book, 
London, British Library, MS Harley 2255 is nevertheless an important 
fifteenth-century 'anthology' of some 45 mostly moralistic and didactic 
shorter poems. 1 Its contents are as follows: 4 

fols l r -3 r 
fols 3 V -5 V 
fols 6 r -7 r 
fols 7 V -H V 
fols 12 r -l4 r 
fols 14 r -17 r 
fols 17 r -21 r 
fols 21 r -24 r 
fols 24 r -32 v 
fols 32 v -39 v 
fols 40 r -43 v 
fols 43 v -45 v 
fols 45 v -47 r 
fols 47 r -66 v 
fols 66 v -69 v 
fols 70 r -71 v 
fols 72 r -88 r 
fols 88 r -93 v 
fols 93 v -95 v 

1. 'Consulo quisquis eris' 

2. 'Asa Mydsomer Rose' 

3. 'Homs Away' 

4. 'Look in thy merour, and deeme noon othir wight' 

5. 'A Song of Vertu' 

6. 'A Pageant of Knowledge, another version of the last part' 

7. 'Misericordias Domini in eternum cantabo' 

8. 'A Praise of Peace' 5 

9. 'The Legend of St Austin at Compton' 

10. 'An Exposition of the Pater Noster' 

11. 'On De profundis' 

12. 'Te Deum laudamus' 

13. 'The Letter to Gloucester' 

14. The Testament of Dan John Lydgate 

15. 'Quis dabit meo capitifontem lacrimarum?' 

16. 'Prayers to Ten Saints' 

17. 'Fabula duorum mercatorum' 

18. 'The Fifteen Joys and Sorrows of Mary' 

19. Stanzas from The Fall of Princes, books V and VI 

Joseph L. Grossi, Jr. 

fols 95 v -103 r 

20. 'The Legend of Seynt Gyle' 

fols 103 r -103 v 

21. 'Stella celi extirpauit (I)' 

fols 104 r -l 10 v 

22. 'The Fifteen Ooes of Christ' 





23. 'A Prayer upon the Cross' 

fols 11 l v -l 13 r 

24. 'To Mary, the Queen of Heaven' 

fols 113 v -l 14 r 

25. 'On Verbum caro factum est' (part III) 

fol. 114 r -115 r 

26. 'A Prayer to St Leonard' 

fols 115 r -115 V 

27. 'To St Katherine, St Margaret, and St Mary 

fol. 116 r 

28. 'To St Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins' 

fol. 116 V 

29. 'To St Ositha' 

fols 117 r -118 V 

30. 'The fiffteene toknys a fom the doom' 

fols 118 V -119 v 

31. 'They That No While Endure (First Version)' 

fols 120 r -126 r 

32. 'Letabundus' 

fols 126 v -128 v 

33. 'The World Is Variable' 

fols 128 v -131 r 

34. 'Timor mortis conturbat me' 

fols 131 v -135 r 

35. 'The cok hath lowe shoone' 

fols 135 r -139 v 

36. 'Gloriosa dicta sunt de Te' 

fols 140 r -141 v 

37. 'Ave, Jesse virgulaV 

fols 142 r -143 r 

38. 'Benedictus Deus in donis suis' 

fols 143 v -146 v 

39. 'Mesure is Tresour' 

fols 146 v -148 r 

40. 'Deus in nomine tuo saluum mefac' 

fols 148 r -150 r 

41. 'God is myn helpere' 

fols 150 v -151 v 

42. 'Undir a park full prudently pyght' 

fols 152 r -l53 r 

43. 'To St Edmund' (incomplete; 11. 25-96 only, 1. 96 
marking the end of the poem) 

fols 153 v -156 v 

44. 'The Hood of Green' 

fol. 157 r 

45. 'Against Millers and Bakers' 

Reflecting a growing tendency among fifteenth-century manuscripts to gather 
together the works of a single author, Harley 2255 is one of 'a number of 
substantial collections of [Lydgate's] shorter poems which take his authorship 
as an organising principle'. 6 Lydgate's authorship is even taken for granted in 
some cases: although 'The Hood of Green' (fols 153 V -6 V ), 7 for example, has 
come under suspicion, it is nevertheless ascribed to Lydgate in this codex. An 
only slightly less obvious 'organising principle' than Lydgate's presumed 
authorship is his religious didacticism: the Monk of Bury wrote in many genres 
and for many kinds of reader, but students of Harley 2255 might well agree 


John Lydgate's Contemptus Mundi in British Library, MS Harley 2255 

with Derek Pearsall's observation that 'The contents, even allowing for the 
inclusion of a satirical poem like Horns Away [fols 6 r -7 r ], are selected for their 
appropriateness to the cloister'. s Eleanor Hammond was the first to suggest that 
Harley 2255 was produced in c. 1430-50 at the abbey of Bury, perhaps as a gift 
for William Curteys, Lydgate's abbot from 1429-46; and most subsequent 
scholars, like Pearsall, have concurred with this supposition. 9 

In a forthcoming article, however, Stephen Reimer and Pamela 
Farvolden challenge the traditional dating and circumstances of the 
manuscript's composition. 10 Although they agree that Harley 2255 is of Bury 
provenance, they persuasively argue that it was compiled sometime after 
1460 and suggest (without being dogmatic, it should be noted) that it may be 
the work of Kathleen Scott's 'Edmund-Fremund Scribe', the copyist of, inter 
alia, Lydgate's Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund in British Library, MS 
Yates Thompson 47 and in the Arundel Castle manuscript. 11 In the present 
essay I accept Farvolden's and Reimer's conclusions, though to avoid 
poaching on their territory—they describe the script, ordinatio and 
decoration of the manuscript in great depth—I confine myself here largely to 
some consideration of the contents of Harley 2255 which, to the best of my 
knowledge, have attracted little sustained interest since the early nineteenth 
century. 12 The purpose of the present study, then, is mainly to shed light both 
on the manuscript's dominant 'theme'—that Christian transcendence confers 
higher, eternal power on those who aspire to it—and on the persona who 
articulates it, a world-weary Lydgate who renounces the active life of a 
courtly writer in favour of the contemplative retirement of the Benedictine 
cloister. Rather than as the 'poet-propagandist to the Lancastrian dynasty', in 
Derek Pearsall's well-known phrase, 13 Lydgate emerges from Harley 2255 
primarily in the role of a monkish moralist who rejects courtly life and literature. 
Harley 2255 places in the foreground Lydgate's very orthodox monastic piety; 
yet far from being bland and abstract, that piety abjures the mutable world by 
equating its mutability with the pagan heroic glories celebrated in classical 
literature. By implication the manuscript casts off the same courtly career 
which had brought Lydgate into sustained contact with that literature. 

It is true that Lydgate is sceptical of the Greco-Roman pagan heritage 
throughout his works. Whether or not his long 'courtly' Troy Book, Siege of 
Thebes and Fall of Princes betray 'humanist' leanings, 14 they do reveal the 
Black Monk's ability to question the achievements of ancient Greece and 
Rome while simultaneously enjoying or aspiring to Lancastrian patronage. 15 
Harley 2255 reveals his doubts more consistently, however. If The Fall of 


Joseph L. Grossi, Jr. 

Princes, for example, implicitly embraces a literary tradition stretching from 
Homer to Ovid to Chaucer and 'skips across the tradition the Vernon 
Manuscript preserves', 16 Harley 2255 barely concedes the prestige of 
classical auctores. Instead, it deploys hagiography and monastic didacticism 
to align its intended audience with the devotional temperament of fifteenth- 
century England and, if we accept the manuscript's traditionally accepted 
provenance, of East Anglia especially. 17 While it is by no means clear that 
Harley 2255 represents a conscious effort by its scribe to 'decommission 1 the 
poetic influence of Chaucer himself, 18 it does gesture beyond the authority of 
secular poets and their patrons to grasp at a holiness which strives to efface 
its own socio-political contexts. The overarching theme of Christian 
transcendence frames individual poems like 'Misericordias Domini in 
eternum cantabo' (fols 17 r -21 r ), 'A Praise of Peace' (fols 21 r -4 r ), 'They That 
No While Endure (First Version)' (fols 118 v -119 v ), 'Gloriosa dicta sunt de 
Te' (fols 135 r -9 v ) and 'Mesure is Tresour' (fols 143 V -6 V ), to cite but a few. As 
conventional as these poems may be in voicing Lydgate's contemptus mundi, 
they also show the Monk of Bury renouncing the prestige of Greece, Rome, 
Troy and Thebes, whose epic stories he had formerly rendered into English 
for his Lancastrian patrons. 19 Lydgate here pursues, and evidently wishes his 
reader to pursue, salvation in the Eternal Jerusalem, where, according to the 
phrasing of a version of'A Pageant of Knowledge' preserved in Harley 2255, 
alone is to be found the one 'lyf wher ioye is ay lastyng' (fol. 17 r , 1. 144). This 
manuscript confirms how thoroughly adaptable Lydgate's verse was to 
prevailing fifteenth-century tastes in devotional manuscripts. 20 Moreover, it 
also shows how thorough a compiler could be if he sought, as I claim he did, 
to de-politicise the Monk of Bury, to present the poet primarily as a monastic 
moraliser who infers lessons about humility from the Crucifixion and the 
lives of the saints, rather than as a historian keen to derive universal lessons 
on statecraft from the downfalls of potentates and of whole civilisations. 

The religious quality of this codex extends, by the way, to its 
charitable perspective on Lydgate's patrons. While secular life and, 1 believe, 
secular courts come under its textual scrutiny, the manuscript subjects none 
of the poet's patrons to overt criticism. On the contrary, in ’Prayers to Ten 
Saints' (fols 70 r -l v ) Lydgate asks St George to pray for Henry VI and 'al this 
regioun' for victory over specifically worldly rather than spiritual enemies. 
The 'Letter to Gloucester', present in Harley 2255 (fols 45 v -7 r ) and in other 
manuscripts, and exceipts from Lydgate's long Fall of Princes (fols 93 v -5 v ) 
likewise link the poet explicitly to Lancastrian patronage. The 'Letter' and the 


John Lydgate’s Contemptus Mundi in British Library, MS Harley 2255 

stanzas from the Fall , however, depict power and patronage in an ambivalent 
light, 21 while the concern shown on Henry Vi's behalf in 'Prayers to Ten 
Saints' takes up but a single line of verse out of the many hundreds in the 
manuscript. It is Christ rather than the Lancastrian monarch who establishes 
the true model of kingship; and Lydgate's praise of the former rings out in 
poems like the 'The Fifteen Ooes' (fols 104 r -10 v ), which describes the Lord 
as 'Above all kyngis kyng of most puissaunce' (fol. 107 v , 1. 170) despite His 
'meek passioun' (fol. 106 v , 1. 144). Even if Lydgate's version of the 'Fifteen 
Ooes' resembles other fifteenth-century versions of this poem in rendering 
Christ as a more passive Saviour than He had been in earlier versions," it 
still acknowledges the Lord alone as supreme king. This notion would hardly 
have shocked anyone at the time, whether Lancastrian king or Yorkist 
usurper; but it is precisely this use of Christian transcendence which enables 
the scribe to elide, almost completely, the social and historical conditions 
both of his own labours and of Lydgate's Lancastrian commissions, the latter 
merely hinted at in 'The Letter to Gloucester' and the excerpts from the Fall. 

The first item in Harley 2255, 'Consulo quisquis eris' (fols l r -3 r ) translates 
and expands a Latin couplet which the scribe has included as a prefacing rubric: 
'Consulo quisquis eris, qui pads federa queris, consonus esto lupis, cum quibus 
esse cupis' [I counsel whoever you may be who seek treaties of peace to be 
agreeable towards wolves, with whom you desire to be]. Commentators disagree 
on the poem's merits: one finds its message 'pestilent' while another attacks its 
'pointless absurdity'. 23 What they do agree on is that in its proverbial wisdom it 
approximates to 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do' 24 and, at least on the 
surface, offers deeply contradictory advice. The first eight stanzas counsel 
readers to conform themselves to prevailing morality, or rather to the lack 
thereof; the second half of the poem, also comprising eight stanzas, implicitly 
repudiates this specious advice by appealing to higher, absolute standards of 
conduct. Recalling the theme of Chaucer's lyric 'Truth' 25 though with an even 
more explicitly religious thrust, the second part of 'Consulo' urges love of God 
above all else, though there is nothing in the opening lines of the poem which 
prepares the reader for the speaker’s later abrupt volte-face: 

I conseyl what so euyr thou be 
Off policye forsight and prudence: 

Yiff thou wilt lyve in pees and vnite 
Conforme thy sylff and thynk on this sentence: 

Wher so evere thou hoold residence, 


Joseph L. Grossi, Jr. 

Among woluys be woluyssh of corage, 

Leoun with leouns, a lamb for innocence. 

Lyke the audience, so vttir thy language. 

The vnycom is cauht with maydenys song 

By dispocicioun, record of scripture; 

With cormerawntys make thy nekke long; 

In pondys deepe thy prayes to recure; 

Among ffoxis be ffoxissh of nature; 

Mong ravynours thynk for avauntage. 

With empty hand men may noon haukys lure; 

And lyke the audience, so vttir thy language, (fol. l r , 11. 1-16) 

The first letter of the poem, T, incorporates a heraldic emblem, 'azure three 
crowns or (arms of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds)’, 26 which thus trumpets 
monastic authority as a prelude to the text it announces. For this reason the 
'Consulo' seems a decidedly baffling poem, at least in its first stanzas. The 
opening text of a manuscript whose contents were, it has been said, 'selected 
for their appropriateness to the cloister’ counsels not transcendent piety but 
opportunism: 'Mong ravynours thynk for avauntage. / With empty hand men 
may noon haukys lure’. The advice ’Conforme thy sylff better befits life 
outside the cloister, indeed life at court; 27 and Alexandra Gillespie has argued 
that ’[t]his sort of instability may be linked to anxiety about the definition of 
the court itself, its boundaries disrupted by the verbal, rather than real 
"felaship" ([fol. l v ] I. 29] between a king and his flattering courtiers, its 
hierarchies overturned by the difficulty of maintaining a consistent rhetoric 
of authority, given the insistent relativity of language’. 28 Gillespie further 
argues that the poem's speaker resolves this apparent 'verbal anarchy' by 
suggesting that princes ought to practice the virtue counselled by 
philosophical advisers. 29 Strictly speaking, Gillespie is concerned primarily 
to shed light on the relationship between the poem as it appears in Wynkyn 
de Worde's c. 1510 quarto edition of The prouerbes of Lydgate and the 
climate surrounding the accession of Henry VIII, an event which presented 
new opportunities for would-be courtiers. Even so, her argument usefully 
illuminates the unstable vicissitudes of courtly life at any time, vicissitudes 
obscured by 'Consulo' in the fifteenth-century manuscript context of Harley 
2255 as well as in de Worde's early printed edition. 


John Lydgate's Contemptus Mundi in British Library, MS Harley 2255 

The topical elusiveness of this poem seems to have been a matter of 
conscious choice on Lydgate's part. In the first half of the text, the speaker 
indirectly warns of the Placebos who plague the world at all times, not only 
in his own lifetime; and, in the second half, he aspires to equal universality 
when he advises all spiritual pilgrims in this world to reflect on the lasting 
order of God's transcendence. While conceding the real purpose of Lydgate's 
generalities, however, I share Gillespie's assumption that political and 
historicist readings of 'Consulo' can serve to amplify the implicit critique of 
court life which those generalities tactically muffle. Not only in de Worde's 
imprint but also in Harley 2255 'Consulo' may well address life at court as well 
as life in the world. If this is the case, then the sharp contrast in tone between 
the first and second halves of the poem suggests, as we shall see, that there can 
be no middle way between life in time and life in eternity, or, to be somewhat 
less abstract, between self-compromise at the royal court and self-fulfillment 
through prayer within the monastic cloister. A former life needs to be rejected 
if a new one is to be fully embraced, and it is possible that the former life 
hinted at here is Lydgate's own career as a Lancastrian court poet. 

As commentators on 'Consulo' have pointed out, the second half of the 
poem clarifies its real meaning, urging the kind of complete loyalty to God 
and His directives which the speaker of the poem judges to be nobler than 
advancement in this world. Mere conformism in ethical matters diminishes 
one's humanity. What distinguishes the first from the second half of 'Consulo' 
is that the former indirectly warns us that should we mindlessly adopt the 
world's standards we shall reap the whirlwind, while the latter explicitly 
exhorts us not to make that choice. Immediately before the section in which 
the speaker declares his own view of the matter in his role as translator of the 
proverb, he illustrates the dangers of adhering to convention; at this point, 
mock prescription (e.g. 'Among woluys be woluyssh of corage') is left behind 
in favour of earnest if exasperated description: 

This litel ditee concludith in menyng: 

Who that cast hym this rewle for to kepe. 

Mot conforme hym lyke in euery thyng, 

Wher he shal byde, vnto the felashipe; 

With wachmen wake; with sloggy folkes sleepe; 

With woodmen wood; with frentyk folk savage; 

Renne with beestys; with wilde wormys creepe; 

And like the audience, vttir thy language, (fol. 2 r , 11. 49-56) 


Joseph L. Grossi, Jr. 

In lines 50-1, Lydgate no longer gives advice but rather asserts that private 
decisions will lead to public consequences ('Who that cast hym...Mot 
conforme hym...'): unlike St Benedict's own Regula, which was intended to 
restrain appetites and to lead monks heavenward, the rewle of ethical 
accommodation to the world endangers the spiritual integrity which ensures 
one's humanity. Pearsall finds the imagery ineffective and argues that the 
poem is 'awkward and fumbling', 30 but it is precisely those people who reject 
God whom Lydgate wants to depict as awkward and fumbling: the breathless 
pace of lines 53-5 suggests the poet's bewilderment at the inchoate condition 
into which those without principles hurl themselves. Such persons, in living 
like 'beestys' and 'wilde wormys’, become hybrids of human will and bestial 
behaviour, more inwardly corrupt than even the prostitute of 'The Hood of 
Green' (fols 153 V -6 V ) whose skin alone is likened to that of'an howndfyssh or 
of an hake' (fol. 154 v , 1. 58). Although the first part of 'Consulo' conjures up a 
world in which human beings in effect must imitate wild animals if they 
would thrive in a climate hostile to ethical principle, the second part, 
prefaced with the rubric 'verba translatoris' (fol. 2 r ), hints that this translator 
will have the last word by appealing to transcendent absolutes, in effect 
translating the 'conseyl' to a higher plane. Even the first stanza's laudable 
goal of 'pees and vnite' is qualified in the poem's second half by the 
exhortation 'In cheef love god, and with thy love ha dreed, / And be feerful 
ageyn hym to trespace' (fol. 2 r , 11. 59-60). Here is an early announcement of 
that theme of transcendence which pervades the entire anthology and calls to 
order the seemingly wayward 'counsels' of the first part of 'Consulo'. 

It is worth dwelling for a few moments on Lydgate's critical 
recontextualisation, in this poem and elsewhere in the manuscript, of 
otherwise perfectly sensible secular values which appear in his longer works 
in a more flattering light. '[Pjolicye forsight and prudence', counselled in the 
poem's second line, are not necessarily bad in themselves: indeed, Lydgate 
elsewhere remarks on them neutrally or even extols them, as he does in The 
Fall of Princes and The Siege of Thebes . 3i Nevertheless, practicing these 
same virtues to seek merely temporal ends may jeopardise one's soul, at least 
according to the logic of the 'Consulo', because doing so enables one to 
thrive amidst the rapacious. Even 'pees and vnite' (fol. l r , 1. 3) can lead to 
moral decay if they result in one's self-accommodation to surrounding 
evils. Justified elsewhere as part of a Lancastrian effort towards dynastic 
self-legitimation,' 1 ' and defended even in 'A Praise of Peace’ (fols 21 r -4 r ), 33 
which will be discussed in a moment, earthly peace and unity finally matter 


John Lydgate's Contemptus Mundi in British Library, MS Harley 2255 

less to the Black Monk than salvation in Heaven. To pursue this, one must, 
in the wording of the aforementioned poem, 'Live in quyete fro sclaundre 
and diffame; / Our Lord Ihesus he muste love and drede' (fol. 22 r , 11. 58-9). 
Although 'A Praise of Peace' can be described as a pro-Lancastrian poem 
in that it defends Henry V ('The ffifte herry preevyd a good knyht [. . .]' 
(fol. 24 v , 1. 177)), even it indicates that the work needed to bring about 
lasting concord must always be a work-in-progress. Rather than ending 
with the realisation of earthly goals by earthly kings, sincere efforts at 
peace must begin with an otherworldly, spiritual impulse unburdened by 
political aspirations. 'Consulo' expresses a similar idea in somewhat 
different terms: while it offers no explicit praise for the ruling dynasty, it 
makes essentially the same point that 'A Praise of Peace' does, that 
supernatural rewards outweigh temporal successes because the former 
prove more substantial than the latter. This theme recurs in the poem 'The 
World is Variable' (fols 126 V -8 V ), a fourteen-stanza poem apparently 
unique to Harley 2255 and very loosely organised around the theme of 
the untrustworthiness of earthly conditions. Warning in an Aesopian vein 
that antagonists in the animal kingdom neither get on well with one 
another nor observe treaties of peace (fol. 127 r , 11. 41-8), the poem 
suggests that there is such a thing as specious concord, 'Colowryd trety' 
(fol. 127 r , 1. 47), the result of dishonest arrangements which harm 
everyone. The speaker of'The World Is Variable' never criticises specific 
kings or policies; he merely complains that those who are 'contrarye' to 
order in the state 'destroyeth the body political' (fol. 128 r , 1. 79). 'Consulo' 
and 'A Praise of Peace' are similarly general in implying that the bonds of 
society are but an evanescent afterglow of an enduring, higher power. 

This generalised emphasis on disembodied sanctity appears in many 
poems in the manuscript, but 'A Praise of Peace' (fols 21 r -4 r ) merits further 
consideration because its ostensible subject is secular rather than sacred 
hannony, and because it appears to lavish praise on a temporal ruler, Henry 
V. As we have already seen, while this poem concedes that 

The ffifte herry preevyd a good knyht 

By his prowesse and noble chivalrye, 

Sparyd nat to pursue his riht, 

His title of Fraunce and ofNormandye (fol. 24 v , 11. 177-80), 


Joseph L. Grossi, Jr. 

it also points out that the same king 'Deyed in his conquest, and we shall alle 
dye' (fol. 24 v , 1. 181). Supernatural concord is needed. Indeed Lydgate prays 
that 'God [will] graunt vs alle now aftir his discees / To sende vs grace', 
which will allow France and England 'to live in parfiht pees' (fols 24 v -4 r (sic 
in the manuscript; the proper numbering should be fol. 25 r ), 11. 183-5). By 
contrast, however, 'Criste cam with pees at his Natiuite' (fol. 24 r (for 25 r ), 1. 
185): although Lydgate is silent on the matter, the pairing of these figures 
impresses upon one the difference between king and Saviour. Christ ushered 
peace into the world immediately He entered it, while lasting peace would 
elude Henry V and, from the poem's perspective, continues to elude the two 
realms of France and England. All Lydgate can do is to pray that after we 
have ended our lives, we too shall 'come to evir lastyng pees' (fol. 24 r (i.e. 
25 r ), 1. 192). Familiar enough with politics, Lydgate understood why the late 
Henry V had sought the throne of France; but in 'A Praise of Peace’ he 
aspires, and asks his readers to aspire, to a transcendent peace that passeth 
understanding. Again we find a theme which has been anticipated in 
'Consulo': although that poem's monastic author warns us that we shall have 
to assume extremes of guises to conform to and succeed by the world's 
standards, he also prays that Christ will 'goveme our wordly pilgrymage', 
preserve the distinction 'Tween vice and vertu' from the tendency to confuse 
them, and speak through human beings: 'to vttren our language’ (fol. 3 r , 11. 
118-19). Lydgate evidently hopes that what his readers 'utter' as a result of 
Christ's grace will be more coherent than what they hear around them. 

While 'Consulo' anticipates connections with texts which are distant 
from it within Harley 2255, it admits of more suggestive links with its near 
neighbours. The second poem in the manuscript, entitled by MacCracken 'As 
a Mydsomer Rose' (fols 3'-5 v ) 5 shares with 'Consulo' a scepticism about 
purely human ability while praising Christ as the source of all higher 
virtues—'Counsayl, confort, discrecioun, and prudence,/ Prouisioun, forsight, 
and providence' (fol. 3 V , 11. 4-5). That the last four can be read as synonyms 
for one another reflects either Lydgate's trademark rhetorical redundancy or 
his desire to drive home his point so that none will fail to grasp it. The first 
virtue in this list being 'Counsayl', the scribe of Harley 2255 echoes the 
declamatory first line of the preceding poem. The verbal link must have been 
exploited consciously, for the truly transcendent counsel of the second half of 
'Consulo' finds an immediate parallel in 'As a Mydsomer Rose'. Having 
evoked animal behaviour purposefully in the first poem, Lydgate imagines 
an Aesopian parliament in the second in order to underscore folly in the 


John Lydgate's Contemptus Mundi in British Library, MS Harley 2255 

world of politics (fols 3 v -4 r , 11. 25-39). Lee Patterson has argued that in The 
Siege of Thebes Lydgate tacitly admits 'that poetry and power can never be 
brought to a perfect identity of purpose', 34 and it is a point which 'Rose' 
makes with abundant clarity in its refrain 'A1 stant on chaung, lyk a 
mydsomer roose' (fob 4 r , 1. 40 and passim). Neither the illustrious personages 
of biblical Israel nor the heroic figures of antiquity can withstand the 
mutability of time, especially when they enjoy power or privilege in this life. 
The former comprise David, Solomon, Absalom and Jonathan (fol. 4 V , 11. 65- 
72); while the Greco-Roman tradition is represented by Julius Caesar, 
Pyrrhus, Alexander the Great, Cicero, Homer and Seneca (fob 5 r , 11. 73-88). 
Recalling Lydgate's longer productions, the references to 'Troian knyhtis, 
grettest of alliaunce' (fob 5 r , 1. 93) and 'The Theban legioun, example of 
cheularye' (fob 5 V , 1. 99) are especially important. All of these pale in 
comparison to Christ the eternal Rose: 

It was the Roose of the bloody feeld, 

Roose of Iericho that greuh in Beedlem: 

The five Roosys portrayed in the sheeld, 

Splayned in the baneer at Ierusalem. 

The sonne was clips and dirk in euery rem 
Whan Crist Ihesu five wellys lyst vncloose 
Toward Paradys, callyd the rede strem, 

Off whos five woundys prent in your hert a Roose. 

(fob 5 V , 11. 113-20) 

The turn to Christ decisively abandons the pagan heroism of the pre- 
Christian past and signals a major preoccupation of Harley 2255 as a 
whole: Lydgate's self-distancing, or the scribe's distancing of Lydgate, 
from the subjects of his Lancastrian commissions. In the poet's view, the 
glory of Christ's wounds outlasts that of the heroes who suffered at Troy, 
Thebes and elsewhere, partly because of the redemptive power of the 
Crucifixion in se, and partly because of the role worshippers are expected 
to play in perpetually remembering that redemptive event. The 
importance of recalling the significance of Christ's blood is 
acknowledged in this poem and in others in the codex, e.g. in 'The Fifteen 
Ooes of Christ' (fols 104 r -10 v ): 


Joseph L. Grossi, Jr. 

Fro thy ffive woundis so large a flood 
Thoruh al the world the streemys did spreede 
To wassh our surfetis with thy precious blood. 

(fol. 109 r , 11. 246-8) 

Although not especially 'mystical' poems, 'The Fifteen Ooes of Christ' and 
'As a Mydsomer Rose' ably capture the increasing emphasis on the 
physicality of Christ which had come to characterise lay devotion in 
fifteenth-century East Anglia and throughout England. 35 In this manuscript, 
that piety becomes a vehicle which enables the Lydgatean speaker to 
renounce courtly aspirations. 

His moralisation always reveals Lydgate to be a teacher or spiritual 
adviser, but the nature and meaning of that moralisation in part depend on its 
manuscript contexts. Seth Lerer intriguingly claims that the verse collected in 
Huntington Library MS 140, for example, 'becomes progressively less 
exemplary and more explicitly pedagogic' as the reader proceeds from 
Lydgate's Life of St Alton and St Amphibalus and Chaucer's Clerk's Tale to 
several Lydgatean lyrics found also in Harley 2255, like 'As a Mydsomer 
Rose', 'A Song of Vertu’ (fols 12 r -14 r ), 'A Prayer upon the Cross' (fols 111 r - 
lll v ), and the verse Testament (fols 47 r -66 v ). 36 According to Lerer, 
Huntington MS 140 constructs Lydgate's own paternal literary authority at 
the expense of its readers' autonomy: 'As its tone becomes more pedagogic, 
its audience becomes, in effect, more childish: more in need of direct 
instruction, but also more pointedly inscribed through the child-figures of the 
texts'. 37 Might not a poem like 'As a Mydsomer Rose’ or 'Consulo' have 
affected or been intended to affect its readers in a similar way in Harley 
2255? To some extent the latter codex does presuppose its readers' 
willingness to become children again, but insofar as it envisions a Gospel 
model for that return to childlike innocence, which I think it does (compare, 
for example, Luke 9. 46-8, 10. 21; 18. 15-17), Harley 2255 finally has 
different aims from those of Huntington MS 140. The latter, according to 
Lerer, 'codifies a kind of literary servitude to the example of Lydgatean 
authority with which it had begun and to which each of its poems has done 
homage'. 38 Instead, the Harley codex removes Lydgate from an exclusively 
'literary' environment (if by 'literary' is meant something like 'relating to a 
secular poetic tradition inaugurated or reified by the master Chaucer') and 
restores him to the cloister. We might not suppose these two Lydgatean 
roles—courtly and cloistered—to be mutually exclusive, but medieval 


John Lydgate's Contemptus Mundi in British Library, MS Harley 2255 

scribes may have had their own reasons to keep them distinct from each 
other. More needs to be said about the intended audience of Harley 2255 
than is possible in the present essay; whether they were monks (as I 
suspect) 39 or members of a lay confraternity associated with St Edmunds 
Abbey, the readers of this codex were intended to submit (willingly) to 
catechesis rather than to undergo 'infantilisation'. 40 Recalling the humane 
and self-critical protagonist of The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man, the 
monkish narrator of the poems of Harley 2255 receives as well as imparts 
counsel, accrues authority even as he confesses his occasional blunders in 
life, and seeks to soar above the plane of either royal or literary politics. 
Just as the Christian dispensation eclipsed the glories of Thebes and Troy, 
so too Lydgate's strategic meditation on Christ and the Eternal Jerusalem at 
the very end of 'As a Mydsomer Rose' suppresses the naming of those 
earlier mighty cities and indeed his own earlier contribution to their 
afterlives. The last lines of that poem, quoted above, reflect the tone of 
much of the manuscript as a whole. 

The devotional tenor of Harley 2255 drowns out the pomp and 
circumstance of Troy, Thebes and other epic matters wherever they appear 
in the codex. Individual poems which specifically recall those storied cities 
do so merely to announce their irrelevance save as cautionary tales; the 
short poems only hint at their histories rather than enlarging upon them in 
the manner of the longer 'courtly' works. 'Mesure Is Tresour' (fols 143 v - 
6 V ), for example, recommends moderation and virtue to a wide range of 
contemporary social classes from popes and prelates (fol. 143 v , 1. 11) all 
the way down to plowmen and ditch-diggers (fol. 145 v , 11. 105-6); the 
classical past is evoked, but only because its illustrious pagan 
civilisations yield a wealth of grim object lessons. The excesses of 
Alexander the Great had cost him dearly in the end, 'For which, ye lordys, 
lefft vp your eyen blynde' (fol. 144 r , 1. 37), but indeed all the heroic 
achievements of Greece and Rome are swept away by Lydgate's 
categorical denunciation: 

Knyghthood in Grece and Troye the Cite 
Took hys principlys and next in Rome toun, 

And in Cartage, a famous greet cuntre, 

Recoord of Hanybal and wourthy Scipioun. 

The greete debaatys and the devisioun 
Among these kyngdammys by marcial labour, 


Joseph L. Grossi, Jr. 

Fynal cause of ther destruccioun. 

Was fawte of vertu and lakkyng of mesure. 

(fol. 144 r , 11.41-8) 

'Mesure Is Tresour' and other short poems in Harley 2255 undermine the 
prestige of the ancient world more decisively than do Lydgate's longer 
translations such as The Siege of Thebes, the Troy Book and The Fall of 
Princes , which, while condemning certain of its aspects, also implicitly pay 
tribute to it in the course of their lavishly detailed and amplified sprawl. The 
tone of the short poems considered here is more straightforwardly anti- 
classical. Even so, it should be conceded that the impression made by any 
one of these texts depends in part on the company it keeps, as I have 
suggested above. Read in isolation, 'As a Mydsomer Rose' or 'Mesure Is 
Tresour' might not seem especially critical of classical Greece, Rome and 
Troy; but when read as a constituent pail of a manuscript like Harley 2255, 
each one intimates a theme which can be seen to govern the book as a whole. 

Another poem in this manuscript, 'A Song of Vertu' (fols 12 r -14 r ), may 
be read either as a commentary on secular poetic apprenticeship or as an 
expression of monastic piety, depending, perhaps, on the kind of codex in 
which the text appears. Lerer sees it in the former light: in his view, its 
presence in Huntington MS 140 'reaffirms the relationship of virtuous 
practice and ethical instruction'; and Lerer infers lay 'ethical instruction' from 
the poet's command to 'Reede in bookys of antiquyte, / Of oold stooryes 
beglad good thyng to heere'. 41 I suspect that, regardless of the manuscript 
context of this particular poem, the phrase 'bookys of antiquyte' refers to the 
Benedictine lectio divina. The scribe who compiled Huntington MS 140 may 
well have had an agenda of his own and heard in 'A Song of Vertu' Lydgate's 
praise of profane as well as sacred literature. As a component text of Harley 
2255, however, the poem clearly connects the reading of old books to 
monastic or perhaps lay religious 'virtuous practice'. This topic is not 
broached right away: rather, the poem first considers knights, merchants, 
mariners and messengers as instances of vocations which, like so many 
others, function in ways appropriate to their natures (fol. 13 r , 11. 57-62). 
In general terms, the undifferentiated, unspecified audience is counselled 
to 'Love hooly chirche' (fol. 13 r , 1. 65), 'no pooreman oppresse' (fol. 13 r , 1. 
68), and 'In aduersite be pacient with meeknesse' (fol. 13 r , 1. 71). In the 
tenth stanza, however, Lydgate finally addresses readers who lead a 


John Lydgate's Contemptus Mundi in British Library, MS Harley 2255 

specific kind of life well known to him, a life best enhanced by the 
reading of edifying books: 

Touchyng also thyn occupacioun, 

Departe thy tyme prudently on thre: 

First in prayer and in orisoun. 

Trauayl among is profitable to the. 

Reede in bookys of antiquyte: 

Of oold stooryes beglad good thyng to heere, 

And it shal toume to gret comodite. 

Sewe aftir vertu and vertu thu shalt leere. (fol. 13 v , 11. 73-80) 

These are highly evocative verses. Dividing his readers' day into times for 
'prayer and [. . .] orisoun', 'Trauayl' and the reading of 'bookys of antiquyte' 
for the sake of hearing 'good thyng’, Lydgate echoes St Benedict's 
exhortations to 'holy reading', 'prayer' and 'manual labour'. 42 The 'bookys of 
antiquyte' or 'oold stooryes' recommended as part of this regimen are more 
likely to have been sacred than profane. If Lydgate had anything specific in 
mind, it could have been Scripture, John Cassian's Conferences or Institutes, 
Athanasius' Life of St Antony, or even the Benedictine Rule itself. 43 Whether 
cloistered or lay, the audience that Lydgate imagines are being asked to 
conform their lives to a monastic model. This seems to be the form of life 
commended in 'A Praise of Peace 1 as well, in which Lydgate moves from a 
consideration of the philosophical serenity in poverty shown by Diogenes (fol. 
2 l v , 11. 25-32) to a reflection upon the life of the Benedictine monk and priest: 

Ther is also a pees contemplatif 
Of parfiht men in ther professioun 
As som that leede a solitary lif 
In fastyng, prayng and devout orisoun, 

Visite the poore and, of compassioun, 

Nakyd and needy and hungry, socourlees 

And poore in spirit, which shal haue ther guerdoun 

With Crist to regne in his eternal pees. (fol. 21 v , 11. 33-40) 

The lines praising solitude, fasting, praying and the singing of the divine 
office call to mind the monastic life proper, while the verses on ministering 


Joseph L. Grossi, Jr. 

to the needy remind us that long before Lydgate's time it had become 
common for Benedictine monks to be ordained as priests. 44 

In 'A Song of Vertu', the stress in the line 'Touchyng also thyn 
occupacioun' (1. 73) should be laid, I think, on the possessive adjective thyn , 
for placed there the emphasis would serve to draw readers' attention away 
from the various kinds of vita activa mentioned earlier and to remind them of 
their own form of vita contemplativa. The moralistic speaker in the eleventh 
stanza urges one to 'Be no sluggard, fie from ydilness' (fol. 13 v , 1. 81), the 
Benedictine's bugbear, and 'With vertuous lyff [to] take heed of this mateere' 
(fol. 13 v , 1. 86). This counsel is explained in the next stanza when Lydgate 
encourages his reader, 'wrouht to be celestial’ (fol. 13 v , 1. 89), to rein in 
lustful desire ('flesshly and bestial' [fol. 13 v , 1. 91]) as well as vanity (fol. 13 v , 
1. 92). Finally, the thirteenth stanza concludes the poem by urging the 
audience to recall their sins and show the 'contricioun' which makes possible 
'Shrifft, and hosyl and hooly repentaunce' (fol. 14 r , 11. 98-9). In its use of 
these specific words, 'A Song of Vertu' anticipates the ending of the next 
poem in the manuscript, 'A Pageant of Knowledge' (fols 14 r -17 r ), even as it 
harks back to the final stanza of the earlier 'As a Mydsomer Rose 1 by 
exhorting penitents to confess their sins 

With a cleer mynde of crystes passioun, 

His.V.wonndys and blood that raileth doun; 

Vpon the cros he bouht the so deere, 

Cleyme of his mercy to haue possessioun. 

With hym to dwelle above the sterrys cleere. 

(fol. 14 r , 11. 100-4) 

In light of the poem's gesture beyond the physical world towards unification 
with Christ in Heaven, it seems even more likely that the 'bookys of 
antiquyte' earlier thrust upon the reader (fol. 13 v , 1. 77) are intended not to 
praise the classical tradition but to bury it. For their part, readers who heed 
Lydgate will 'Sewe aftir vertu' (fol. 13 v , 1. 80, and passim) until they have left 
Greece and Rome behind and arrived at the place where time itself no longer 
has meaning. 

Transcendence is a clear leitmotif of Harley 2255, and one which the 
scribe sought to keep in his readers' minds by grouping together poems with 
similar topics and diction. Frequently remarked upon in the manuscript, the 
inadequacies of all that is 'chaungable' occupy Lydgate in the poem 


John Lydgate's Contemptus Mundi in British Library, MS Harley 2255 

immediately following 'A Song of Vertu' in the anthology, which 
MacCracken described as a variant of 'A Pageant of Knowledge 1 (fols 14 r - 
17 r ). Contrasting 'The world so wyd' to 'The celyman so litel of stature' (fol. 
14 r , 11. 1-2), this poem dwells on the merely 'mutable' (fol. 14 r , 1. 3) nature of 
the earth itself. If readers but study closely their always changing 
surroundings, they will correctly judge 'this lyff a pilgrimage / In which ther 
is no stedfast abydyng' (fol. 16 v , 11. 135-6). Having disabused them of any 
exaggerated reckonings of the world's value, Lydgate then commands his 
audience to turn their gaze heavenward to pray to an utterly transcendent God, 

the lord which is Eternal 
That sitt so ferre above the sterrys sevene 
In his Paleys moost Imperyal[.] (fol. 17 r , 11. 138-40) 

For a moment the poem's readers may find themselves poised awkwardly 
between two worlds, one fickle but solid and just beneath their feet, the other 
eternal but 'ferre above' not only their grasp but also the celestial spheres 
themselves. Lydgate is there to bridge the abyss between creation and 
Creator. Echoing the end of'A Song of Vertu' and sounding a theme suffused 
throughout the codex, this poem directs the faithful to ask God specifically 
for the grace which will enable 'Contricioun, shrift, [and] hoosyl’ and carry 
them 'Toward that lyf wher ioye is ay lastyng' (fol. 17 r , 11. 142, 144). 

As if to furnish the reader with additional means of arriving at 'that 
lyf, the seventh poem in the manuscript, 'Misericordias Domini in eternum 
cantabo' (fols 17 r -21 r ), 45 specifically praises divine mercy and mortal 
humility as sources of power in the monk's own struggles against pride. 
Bearing in mind Derek Pearsall's sensible caution against inferring Lydgate's 
personal feelings from his highly conventional expressions of piety, 46 we 
should still note that 'Misericordias' urges a form of renunciation appropriate 
to this particular poet's courtly career. Lydgate acknowledges his awareness 
of 'songis' which celebrate heroic feats in the temporal realm, but he also 
indicates that he has abandoned them: 

Ther be Canticulis of Conquest and victorye 
That be songe at feestis marcial, 

And ther be songis of palmys transitorye [i.e. 'transitory 


With corious meetrys that be poetical; 


Joseph L. Grossi, Jr. 

Laureat tryvmphes, proud and Imperial 
With boosty blowe in charys cleer shynyng. 

A1 this left off with voys memoryal, 

Eternally thy Mercies I shal syng. (fol. 17 v , 11. 33-40) 

The Black Monk implicitly renounces the 'Laureat tryvmphes' which had 
long occupied him. The 'Bildyng of Ylioun in many stoory told' and the 
'Getyng of Troye by the brasen hors' (fol. 18 r , 11. 58-9) interest him little now: 
of this achievement 'Gret boost is maad but as for me no fors' (fol. 18 r , 1. 
57). Similar apathy is now aroused by 'Thebes the Cite [which] was reysed 
and maad strong' (fol. 18 v , 1. 75). From Statius and other classical poets 
who commemorated antique civilisations Lydgate takes pains to distance 
himself, asserting that 

what so evir they wroot in ther feynyng, 

Our lord Ihesu to preise and magneffye 
Eternally his Mercies I shal syng. (fol. 18 v , 11. 78-80) 

Among the great poets of history, Chaucer too is evoked: Lydgate's line 'A1 
this left off with voys memoryal' (fol. 17 v , 1. 39) echoes the famous appeal to 
Polyhymnia 'Singest with vois memorial in the shade' in Anelida and Arcite 
(1. 18). It is unclear, however, whether by this intertextual link the Monk of 
Bury is genuinely paying tribute to his literary forebear or implicitly casting 
him off as well in order to turn completely to God. That Lydgate lifts the line 
from a Chaucerian poem partly indebted to Statius's Thebaid and places it in 
a poem renouncing Thebes, Statius and other classical auctores makes the 
latter interpretation plausible. At the end of the poem Lydgate enumerates 
the various categories of the blessed 'in the heuenly cristal toures / Wher 
evir is ioye and brihtnesse ay lastyng' (fol. 20 v , 11. 181-2, italics mine; note 
the echo in 1. 182 of 'A Pageant of Knowledge', fol. 17 r , 1. 144). He 
furthermore prays that Jesus may grant all of his readers the power to sing 
His mercies 'out of al mortal shoures' (fol. 20 v , 1. 183), that is, beyond 
temporality itself. While the classical literary tradition doubtless mattered 
to Lydgate at all stages of his long career, Harley 2255 represents his 
attachment to the glories of ancient Greek and Roman culture as but a 
'phase', as something that he has evolved beyond. 

This 'evolution' is fully evident where Lydgate abandons the 'Bildyng 
of Ylioun' and the ’reys[ing]' of Thebes to turn instead to 'Patriarkys and 


John Lydgate's Contemptus Mundi in British Library, MS Harley 2255 

prophetis alle, / Apostlys, Martirs, bisshopis, confessoures' (fol. 20 v , 
'Misericordias Domini', 11. 177-78). Depending on their own places in 
biblical and Church history, these figures either typologically or literally 
praised Jesus. The sentiment is repeated later in the manuscript, in Lydgate's 
Englishing of 'Gloriosa dicta sunt de Te' (fols 135 r -9 v ). 47 Mary is the poem's 
subject; David typologically sang her splendours and figured her as the holiest 
city of all, easily eclipsing literal cities commemorated by poets of old: 

Auctors sumtyme gaf a prys to Troye, 

Laude and honour and comendacioun 
In Remembraunce of hire old Ioye 
That sumtyme was vsyd in that toun; 

And eeke of Rome for domynacioun, 

Citees that tyme of mooste souereynte. 

But al hire boost may now be leyd a doun; 

So gloryous thinges be songe and seid of the. 

(fol. 135 v , 11. 25-32) 

Praise of Troy and Rome should be 'leyd a doun' as if it were a book, like the 
heroic canticles, poems, songs and 'Laureat tryvmphes' which will be 'left off 
by the monk who vows Misericordias Domini in eternum cantabo (fol. 17 v , 
11. 33-40). Are we meant to recall the Siege of Thebes, Troy Book and Fall 
of Princes, through which Lydgate had perpetuated the 'boost' of pagan 
cultures even while tracing their demises? Recalling the wording of 
'Misericordias Domini' (fol. 20 v , 11. 177-78), Lydgate in the 'Gloriosa dicta 
sunt' writes that Mary is 

Of Patryarkys the honour and the glorye, 

And of prophetys chief fundacioun. 

To the apostelys laude of ther victorye, 

And to martirs her laureat Renoun, 

Of confessours the consolacioun. (fol. 139 v , 11. 217-21) 

These poems and others, such as 'A Praise of Peace' (esp. fol. 24'-24 v , 11. 153- 
68) and 'Mesure is Tresour' (fol. 144 r , 11. 41-8, discussed above), represent 
the supersession of Judeo-Christian over pagan themes as linear historical 
progress, even as the scribe of Harley 2255, in organising materials under the 
seal of St Edmund's Abbey, figures it as a spatial displacement. That is to 


Joseph L. Grossi, Jr. 

say, certain of the poems and the coat of arms on fol. l r of Harley 2255 
relegate the court to the background of Lydgate's career while evoking the 
monastery as an immediately present physical place, one where a monk can 
retire to the contemplative life after enduring trials and tribulations in the 
world. Monastic life is hinted at or explicitly described in 'A Praise of Peace', 
'A Song of Vertu', The Testament of Dan John Lydgate, 'The Legend of 
Seynt Gyle', and 'To St Edmund'; and within this textual space, the matters of 
Troy, Thebes and Rome cease to matter at all. 'Laureat tryvmphes' yield 
pride of place to the 'laureat Renoun' of Mary (' Gloriosa dicta sunt', fol. 139 v , 
1. 220) and to the enduring example of the saintly East Anglian monarch 
himself, the 'laureat marter stable as a stoon wall' ('To St Edmund', fol. 152 v , 
1. 63). Lydgate may have come gradually to renounce courtly life and courtly 
tastes and to favour the use of the term 'laureate' in hagiographical rather than 
purely secular poetic contexts. This is the impression given by Harley 2255, 
despite the conventionality of the Testament, 'Deus in nomine tuo sahium me 
fac' (fols 146 v -8 r ), 'God is myn helpere' (fols 148 r -150 r ) and other poems 
cited already. 48 

A natural objection to my hypothesis here is that Lydgate's authorial 
roles cannot be so neatly divided into worldly courtier and retiring monk, and 
the objection is well taken, for these roles overlap in the poet's work. 
Moreover, although Harley 2255 extols Christlike humility, it bears the sign 
of power. If the codex is connected with the Benedictine abbey of Bury St 
Edmunds, 'one of the half-dozen richest abbeys in England', 49 then its orbit 
around the prestige and largesse associated with Lancastrian royal favour 
does matter. Arresting the reader's attention on the very first page of the 
manuscript, St Edmund's coat of arms proclaims monastic privilege even as 
it emblematises monastic transcendence. As Gail McMurray Gibson has 
observed, however, 'if the cloister wall came less and less to stand for the 
physical reality of contemplative withdrawal in the busy world of a monastic 
center like Bury St. Edmunds, it still remained a cogent and powerful symbol 
of the mental aspiration toward heaven that defined the ideal spiritual life'. 50 
Bury's accommodation to worldly power diminished neither Lydgate's 
earnestness in calling for the renunciation of that power, nor the sincerity 
with which this textual appeal was copied in Harley 2255. The scribe, 
consciously or otherwise, has elevated Lydgate above the trend of what 
Christopher Cannon has tactfully described as the later medieval 'variation' 
from St Benedict's own early ideals. 51 In doing so, he has selected texts 
which amplify Lydgate's concern for the spiritual welfare of his audience. 


John Lydgate's Contemptus Mundi in British Library, MS Harley 2255 

Poems like 'The Letter to Gloucester' (fols 45 v -7 r ), The Testament of Dan 
John Lydgate (fols 47 r -66 v ), the lengthened version of 'Deus in nomine tuo 
saluum me fac' preserved here (fols 146 v -8 r ), and 'God is myn helpere' (fols 
148 r -50 r ) stand out in their attempt to render convincingly the figure of an 
elderly monk who, while preparing to depart this life, is keen to offer advice 
relevant not only to himself but to his readers as well. 

A few additional cautions are appropriate, however. Scholars would 
agree that Lydgate's advisory voice is a conscious response to the 
conventional piety of fifteenth-century England. As Rosemary Woolf has 
pointed out, the piety of the medieval lyric often springs less from the unique 
feelings of its author than from his or her sources and, ultimately, from 
devotional tradition. 5 " Derek Pearsall situates himself firmly in Woolfs camp 
by downplaying hints of autobiography in conventional-sounding poems like 
the Testament , 53 But much can be made of even the illusion of Lydgate's 
'personality' in this and in other poems, an illusion heightened by the scribe 
of Harley 2255. Whoever he was, this person sought to elicit from readers a 
sympathetic response to a person named John Lydgate who wished to write 
for an audience; a poet who would appear to be more than a mere author- 
figure or a disembodied voice parroting bland, institutionally approved 
moralisation. Commenting on the 'notional' poet laureateship emerging from 
the speaking voices of texts like the Troy Book, Robert Meyer-Lee writes 
that '[i]n the pose of a laureate, Lydgate is at once idealized and historically 
concrete; his poetic "I" signifies a specific, flesh-and-blood person who at the 
same time is a personification of literary and moral authority'. 54 This 
authority clearly emerges in a different work like the Testament , despite, or 
rather in part because of, its revelation of the monk's earlier bad behaviour as 
a novice; in fact, this seemingly confessional quality enhances rather than 
diminishes one's sense of Lydgate as a real person. 55 

In this anthology Lydgate's range of literary topics and public stances 
has been consciously narrowed, the poet himself presented as a primarily 
monastic rather than courtly or even 'occasional' versifier, and one with an 
almost tangible commitment to his pastoral vocation. This persona may be a 
fiction, a 'voice' articulated by the text as opposed to an actual 'presence'; 56 
and even the manuscript's intended audience of like-minded devout Catholics 
ready to accompany Lydgate on a textual pilgrimage of faith may amount to 
nothing more than an 'imagined community', their ostensible orthodoxy a 
hoped-for, fanciful construct of both the poet and the scribe. 57 Certainly the 
manuscript 'fashions' its audience by appealing to the orthodox faithful; all 


Joseph L. Grossi, Jr. 

but ignored are dissenters like the Lollards, who remained active in Norfolk 
and Suffolk well into the fifteenth century. 58 On occasion, these become 
the poet's explicit target: in 'Mesure Is Tresour', Lydgate explains that the 
duty of ecclesiastics, 'Spiritual heerdys' (fol. 146 r , 1. 123), is to guard 
Christ's flock against 

wolvys fell rygour, 

That heretikys quenche nat the lyght 

Of Crystes feith nor of iust mesour. (fol. 146 r , 11. 126-8). 

Such references are rare, however. If one attempted to generalise about East 
Anglian religious attitudes on the basis of this manuscript alone, filled as it is 
with its reverence for the institutional Church, its indulgences and its saints, 
one would mistakenly suppose that the region had scarcely scented a whiff of 
heresy. Yet while the intended audience of this codex was limited and select, 
its exclusivity does not necessarily make that readership a fiction. Lydgate 
and the compiler of Harley 2253 may have had specific readers in mind; they 
certainly trusted what their own instincts told them about prevailing literary 
and devotional tastes; and they were sufficiently attuned to orthodox East 
Anglian piety to accommodate those tastes. 

What I hope I am showing, even in an incomplete survey of the 
manuscript's contents like this, is that the 'compiling presence' behind Harley 
2255—to borrow Julia Boffey and A. S. G. Edwards' useful term 59 — 
consciously seeks to depict Lydgate as a poet whose real treasures had been 
laid up first in Heaven, next in Bury St Edmunds, and last and least in 
Westminster. Lydgate's poems need not be 'given the last word' on the matter 
of their interpretation in all circumstances, but the 'first word', so to speak, 
needs to be heeded with an especially attentive ear. 60 As readers of this 
manuscript with purposes far removed from those of its original audience, we 
do well at least to acknowledge the social realities of its composition, the 
process whereby author, scribe and illustrator sought to preserve for posterity 
a Benedictine monk's reflections on the divine end of human life. 61 John 
Lydgate wore many masks, however, and the Harley short poem anthology 
which we have been considering here favours one role out of the many which 
he assumed in his long life. In a valuable recent article in PMLA, Seth Lerer 
explores the idiosyncrasy and fragmentariness of medieval writing when 
recovered in its original manuscript contexts. 'The idea of the anthology', he 
observes, 'controls much of the English medieval notion of the literary'. 6 " 


John Lydgate’s Contemptus Mundi in British Library, MS Harley 2255 

This insight applies as well to the anthology of Lydgateana considered here 
as to any other codex, for its scribe sought to control contemporary notions 
of an author whose vast output encouraged selective compilation. Building 
upon Ralph Hanna's remarks on manuscript circulation in his book Pursuing 
History , Lerer points out that anthologies and miscellanies 'represent 
"private, individual canons" rather than global ideas of canonicity or 
literariness'. 63 The Lydgate of Harley 2255 is, if not quite a fiction, at least a 
collaborative creation by a scribe who sought to intensify the devotional 
impulse already present in Lydgate's works. The author who emerges from 
this codex is something of a 'private, individual' Lydgate, a Benedictine 
monk rather than 'poet-propagandist to the Lancastrian dynasty', a moral 
counsellor well suited for a readership comprising either monks or, perhaps, 
male and female members of the lay confraternity of St Edmund’s Abbey. 64 
Although in Harley 2255 Lydgate seems to soar beyond the constraints of 
patronage in order to alight at the monastery, represented as the last stop 
before the Celestial Jerusalem, even this anthology does not define the poet 
for all time. Rather, it selects from a range of didactic, hagiographic, satiric 
and courtly roles which fifteenth-century scribes and readers understood to 
be simultaneously representative of Lydgate, commensurate with the prestige 
and sanctity of St Edmund's Abbey, and only somewhat less 'variable' than 
the world in which the Monk of Bury himself had had to live. 


Joseph L. Grossi, Jr. 


1 This essay originated with research undertaken at the British Library in the 
summers of 2002-04 and papers based on it presented at the International Medieval 
Congress, University of Leeds, in July 2003; at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York in 
November of the same year; and at the 'Text and Contexts' conference at Ohio State 
University in October, 2004. For helpful suggestions and encouragement at various stages 
of this project, I wish to thank the participants in those conferences as well as Frank 
Coulson, the conference organiser at Ohio State; A. S. G. Edwards; Alfred Hiatt; George 
Keiser; Stephen Reimer; Paul Thomas, the session organizer at Leeds; Andrew Wawn; 
and the anonymous reader for Leeds Studies in English. Any injudicious arguments are 
mine alone. Thanks also are due to my friends and English hosts Kevin Rea and Jennifer 
Rhoads; to my colleagues at Canisius College who supported this project, especially by 
means of a Summer Research Grant awarded me in 2004 by the Dean's Office; and to the 
staff of the British Library Manuscripts Room for permission to consult MS Harley 2255. 

2 For general studies and bibliography, see especially Walter Schirmer, John 
Lydgate: A Study in the Culture of the XVth Century, translated by Ann E. Keep (Berkeley: 
University of California Press, 1961); Derek Pearsall, John Lydgate (London: Routledge and 
Kegan Paul, 1970); Alain Renoir and C. David Benson, 'John Lydgate', in A Manual of the 
Writings in Middle English, 1050-1500 , vol. 6 (New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts 
and Sciences, 1980), pp. 1809-1920, 2071-2175; and Derek Pearsall, John Lydgate (1371- 
1449): A Bio-bibliography (Victoria: University of Victoria Press, 1997). 

3 On the Middle English ’anthology’, see Julia Boffey and A. S. G. Edwards, 
'Literary Texts', in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Volume III: 1400-1557, 
ed. by Lotte Hellinga and J. B. Trapp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 
pp. 555-75; and Seth Lerer, 'Medieval English Literature and the Idea of the Anthology', 
PMLA, 118 (2003), 1251-67, especially pp. 1255 and 1265, n. 8. Two other manuscripts 
of Lydgate's religious verse are related to MS Harley 2255: Jesus College, Cambridge MS 
56 and Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud misc. 683. These have been discussed by 
Eleanor Prescott Hammond, 'Two British Museum Manuscripts (Harley 2251 and Adds. 
34360): A Contribution to the Bibliography of John Lydgate', Anglia, 28 (1905), 1-28 (pp. 
24-5); Julia Boffey, 'Short Texts in Manuscript Anthologies: The Minor Poems of John 
Lydgate in Two Fifteenth-Century Collections', in The Whole Book: Cultural Perspectives 
on the Medieval Miscellany, ed. by Stephen G. Nichols and Siegfried Wenzel (Ann Arbor: 
University of Michigan Press, 1996), pp. 69-82 (pp. 71-2 and n. 17); and A. S. G. 
Edwards, 'Fifteenth-Century Middle English Verse Author Collections', in The English 
Medieval Book: Studies in Memory of Jeremy Griffiths, ed. by A. S. G. Edwards, Vincent 


John Lydgate's Contemptus Mundi in British Library, MS Harley 2255 

Gillespie and Ralph Hanna (London: The British Library, 2000), pp. 101-12 (p. 104). These 
two manuscripts and the comments on them by Boffey and Hammond are cited also by 
Stephen Reimer and Pamela Farvolden, 'Arms and the Manuscript: The Date and Provenance 
of Harley 2255', forthcoming in The Journal of the Early Book Society, 8 (2005). 

4 When citing Lydgate's poems, I use for the sake of convenience the titles 
supplied by Henry Noble MacCracken in The Minor Poems of John Lydgate, Part I: 
Religious Poems, EETS, e.s. 107 (London: Oxford University Press, 1911 (for 1910)); 
Part 2: Secular Poems, EETS, o.s. 192 (London: Oxford University Press, 1934 (for 
1933); repr. 1997). When quoting them, I provide first the folio number from Harley 2255 
and then line numbers as they appear in the corresponding printed texts in MacCracken. 
In general I have followed MacCracken's capitalisation, removal of caesural virgules, and 
expansion of scribal abbreviations. In the present study such abbreviations are expanded 
silently, however (differently from MacCracken's use of italicised letters, e.g. 
'dispoeiciourf); and I depart from MacCracken's use of boldface type to indicate 
underscoring of words in the manuscript. The light modern punctuation is my own, but 
parallel indentation of lines within stanzas is as found in the manuscript. 

5 The last lines of'A Praise of Peace' appear on what should be fol. 25 r but in fact 
has been erroneously numbered fol. 24 r by a modem paginator. To avoid confusion I have 
followed the erroneous pagination, which continues throughout the codex. 

6 Boffey and Edwards, 'Literary Texts', pp. 558-9. Boffey and Edwards remark on 
an increasingly widespread form of manuscript production after c. 1400, that of the 
’coherent collection [which] parallels the vogue for the single-work codex by 
amalgamating the works of a single author’: 'Literary Texts’, p. 558. Compare Rosemary 
Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 
pp. 375-76; Julia Boffey and John J. Thompson, ’Anthologies and Miscellanies: 
Production and Choice of Texts', in Book Production and Publishing in Britain 1375- 
1475, ed. by Jeremy Griffiths and Derek Pearsall (Cambridge: Cambridge University 
Press, 1989), pp. 279-315, especially pp. 279-80; and Linne Mooney, 'Professional 
Scribes? Identifying English Scribes Who Had a Hand in More Than One Manuscript', in 
New Directions in Later Medieval Manuscript Studies: Essays from the 1998 Harvard 
Conference, ed. by Derek Pearsall (York: York Medieval Press / Boydell Press, 2000), pp. 
131-41, especially pp. 138-9. 

7 See also The Index of Middle English Verse, ed. by Carleton Brown and Rossell 
Hope Robbins (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943), no. 2237. The Index will be 
cited hereafter as IMEV. For the debate about this poem, see especially Pearsall, John 
Lydgate, pp. 77-8, where he takes issue with MacCracken's rejection of it from the 
Lydgate canon in Minor Poems, I xxxi. 


Joseph L. Grossi, Jr, 

John Lydgate, p. 77. Regarding Harley 2255, A. S. G. Edwards writes that it 'is 
seemingly in some way connected with Lydgate's own monastery there [at Bury St 
Edmunds]': 'Fifteenth-Century Middle English Verse Author Collections', p. 104. See also 
note 39, below. 

9 Hammond first speculated on a connection between Curteys and Harley 2255 in 
'Two British Museum Manuscripts', pp. 24-25. According to Derek Pearsall, Harley 2255 
'is an old MS., a very good one, with texts of excellent authority, and it was probably 
prepared under Lydgate's direction as an anthology of his own religious and didactic 
verse, as a personal present for his abbot' (John Lydgate , p. 77), a view echoed later in the 
same author's Bio-bibliography, p. 82. As he indicates in his book-length study ( John 
Lydgate, p. 82, note 65), this theory was advanced also by Samuel Moore, 'Patrons of 
Letters in Norfolk and Suffolk, c. 1450', PMLA , 27 (1912), 188-207 (p. 207); and by 
Hammond, English Verse between Chaucer and Surrey (Durham: Duke University Press, 
1927; repr. New York: Octagon Press, 1965), p. 79. 

10 'Arms and the Manuscript'. This study takes issue with Hammond's speculation 
about the coat of arms in the manuscript (fol. l r ) in 'Two British Museum Manuscripts', 
pp. 24-25. Edwards, 'Fifteenth-Century [. . .] Author Collections', agrees with Reimer that 
’[t]he earlier view that the opening initial contains Curteys's arms seems incorrect' (p. Ill, 
n. 29). 1 wish to thank Professors Reimer and Farvolden for showing me their essay, with 
its very full description of the manuscript, prior to its publication. 

11 See also Kathleen Scott's remarks about Harley 2255 in 'Lydgate's Lives of 
Saints Edmund and Fremund: A Newly-Located Manuscript in Arundel Castle', Viator, 13 
(1982), 335-66 (p. 343, n. 33). I assume that one scribe rather than two compiled Harley 
2255, but the matter is far from settled: see Scott, 'Lydgate's Lives of Saints Edmund and 
Fremund', p. 343, n. 33; and Reimer and Farvolden, 'Arms and the Manuscript'. 

12 See the summary of the manuscript's contents in A Catalogue of the Harleian 
Manuscripts in the British Museum, 3 vols (1808; repr. Hildesheim: Georg Olm, 1973), 
II 592-4. 

13 John Lydgate, p. 169. For a pertinent study of the monastic narrator of Lydgate's 
Siege of Thebes, see Scott-Morgan Straker, 'Deference and Difference: Lydgate, Chaucer, 
and the Siege of Thebes', Review of English Studies, n.s. 52 (2001), 1-21. I am grateful to 
Alfred Hiatt for directing me to Straker’s article. 

14 The progress of this continuing debate cannot be evaluated here. James Simpson 
and Alessandra Petrina have independently challenged Pearsall's well-known refutation 
(in John Lydgate, pp. 14-16) of earlier arguments for a humanist Lydgate advanced by 
Walter Schirmer and Alain Renoir. See Simpson's Oxford English Literary Histo/y: 
Volume 2: 1350-1545: Reform and Cultural Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 
2002), p. 52 et seq.\ and Petrina's Cultural Politics in Fifteenth-Century England: The 


John Lydgate's Contemptus Mundi in British Library , MS Harley 2255 

Case of Humphrey. Duke of Gloucester (Leiden: Brill, 2004), especially pp. 282-4. For 
postscripts by both Pearsall and Simpson, see the former's 'Apotheosis of John Lydgate', 
Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 35 (2005), 25-38; and Simpson's response 
in 'Not the Last Word', in the same issue of JMEMS, pp. 111-19. 

15 An ability noted by Pearsall, John Lydgate, pp. 15, 131, 141-3; and A. J. Minnis, 
Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity (Cambridge: Brewer, 1982), pp. 137-9. See also Lee 
Patterson, 'Making Identities in Fifteenth-Century England: Henry V and John Lydgate', 
in New Historical Literary Study: Essays on Reproducing Texts, Representing History, ed. 
by Jeffrey Cox and Larry J. Reynolds (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 
69-107 (especially pp. 96-7). For a perspicacious reading of Lydgate's complex attitudes 
towards Julius Caesar in his lone prose tract, see Maura Nolan, 'The Art of History 
Writing: Lydgate's Serpent of Division', Speculum, 78 (2003), 99-127. These penetrating 
studies show that while Lydgate may have objected to the violence and paganism of 
Greece and Rome, he did not do so unthinkingly but rather explored those cultures with 
sophisticated agendas of his own. 

16 Christopher Cannon, 'Monastic Productions’, in The Cambridge History of 
Medieval English Literature , ed. by David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge University 
Press, 1999), pp. 316-48 (p. 341). 

17 Recent pertinent studies of East Anglian piety include Gail McMurray Gibson, 
The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages 
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989); Victor I. Scherb, Staging Faith: East 
Anglian Drama in the Later Middle Ages (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 
2001); Theresa Coletti, Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints: Theater, Gender, and 
Religion in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 
2004), esp. chapter 2, 'Some East Anglian Magdalenes’, pp. 50-99. 

18 On the impulse in Lydgate and Hoccleve towards the simultaneous memorialisation 
and ’decommissioning' of Chaucer's poetry, see John J. Thompson, 'After Chaucer: Resituating 
Middle English Poetry in the Late Medieval and Early Modem Period', in New Directions in 
Later Medieval Manuscript Studies, ed. by Pearsall, pp. 183-99. 

19 No textual evidence proves a Lancastrian commission for the Siege of Thebes (or, 
to use James Simpson's preferred title. The Destruction of Thebes), though scholars have 
long noted that the work speaks to Henry V's French ambitions. See, for example, 
Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 156; Patterson, 'Making Identities’, pp. 74-5, 93-7; Simpson, 
Reform and Cultural Revolution, pp. 105-06. Simpson puts forth his case for the renaming 
of The Siege of Thebes in "'Dysemol daies and fatal houres": Lydgate's Destruction of 
Thebes and Chaucer's Knight's Tale', in The Long Fifteenth Century: Essays for Douglas 
Gray, ed. by Helen Cooper and Sally Mapstone (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997), pp. 15-33. 


Joseph L. Grossi, Jr. 

20 For an intriguing study of the relationship between Lydgate's reputation and post- 
medieval print culture, see Joseph A. Dane and Irene Basey Beesemyer, 'The Denigration 
of John Lydgate: Implications of Printing History', English Studies , 81 (2000), 117-26. 

21 Space limitations prevent me from developing this point here, but even a casual 
perusal of the 'Letter' and of the enormous Fall of Princes reveals this ambivalence. 

22 Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c. 1400- 
1580 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 248-53. 

23 '[T]he Advice is pestilent enough', according to the early nineteenth-century 
compiler of the contents of the manuscript in A Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts, p. 
592, column 1. Derek Pearsall has called Lydgate's poem 'a peculiar piece of work' whose 
'multiplication of instances [of conformism] leads him into [. . .] pointless absurdity'; 
'[t]he whole poem is awkward and fumbling: the limited applicability of the original 
proverb leaves Lydgate with no clear directive, and he gropes forward as if every breath 
will be his last' ( John Lydgate , p. 209). 

24 Noted by several commentators: MacCraeken, Minor Poems, II 750; Pearsall, 
John Lydgate, p. 209; Alexandra Gillespie, '"These proverbes yet do last": Lydgate, the 
Fifth Earl of Northumberland, and Tudor Miscellanies from Print to Manuscript', 
Yearbook of English Studies, 33 (2003), 215-32 (p. 223). 

25 E.g. 'Forth, pilgrim, forth! Forth, beste, out of thy stall / Know thy contree, look 
up, thank God of af (11. 18-19); the poem is printed in The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd edn, 
general editor Larry Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), p. 653. Subsequent 
references to Chaucer's works will be to this edition. 

26 Kathleen Scott, Later Gothic Manuscripts 1390-1490, 2 vols (London: Harvey 
Miller, 1996), II 225 and 307, with specific reference to the arms as they appear in British 
Library MSS Harley 2278 and Yates Thompson 47, respectively. 

27 Despite their different contexts, the first part of the poem is also reminiscent of 
Arcite’s far blunter advice to Palamon in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale : 'And therfore, at the 
kynges court, my brother, / Ech man for hymself, ther is noon oother' ( Canterbuiy Tales, 
frag. 1,11. 1181-2). 

28 '"These proverbes yet do last"', p. 223. 

29 "'These proverbes yet do last'", pp. 223-4. 

30 See above, note 23. 

31 In The Fall of Princes, ed. by Henry Bergen, 4 vols, EETS, e.s. 121-4 (London: 
Oxford University Press, 1924-27), see I, 11. 5510-12; V, 1. 1174. In The Siege of Thebes, 
ed. by Axel Erdmann and Eilert Ekwall, 2 vols, EETS, e.s. 108 and 125 (London: Oxford 
University Press, 1911-1930), see 1. 682. 

32 See The Siege of Thebes, 11. 4698-4703. For exhortations to peace and unity in 
short poems addressed to Henry VI, see e.g. 'The Title and Pedigree of Henry VI', 11. 76 


John Lydgate's Contemptus Mundi in British Library, MS Harley 2255 

and 156; 'Ballade to King Henry VI', 11. 126 and 140; 'Henry Vi’s Triumphal Entry into 
London', 1. 448 ( Minor Poems, II 615, 617, 629, 630 and 645, respectively). 

33 In this poem Lydgate asserts that striving for earthly peace can effectively 
preserve 'monarchies and famous regiou[n]s' (fol. 22 r , 1. 44) from strife. 

34 'Making Identities', p. 93. 

35 The scholarship on late medieval English piety is vast, but see especially the 
works cited above in notes 17 and 22, and the following: Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The 
Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); 
Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the 
Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1992); and Sarah Beckwith, 
Christ’s Body: Identity, Culture and Society in Late Medieval Writings (London and New 
York: Routledge, 1993). Rosemary Woolf notes Lydgate's poetic indebtedness, especially 
in the Testament, to contemporary Crucifixion iconography: The English Religious Lyric 
in the Middle Ages, pp. 208-9. 

36 Seth Lerer, Chaucer and His Readers: Imagining the Author in Late-Medieval 
England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 100-8 (p. 106). 

37 Chaucer and His Readers, p. 108. 

38 Chaucer and His Readers, p. 114. 

39 This suspicion is hardly mine alone; Reimer and Farvolden ('Arms and the 
Manuscript') are the latest scholars to argue that Harley 2255 was produced for St 
Edmund's Abbey, and their reasons are the most convincing of all that have been adduced 
since Eleanor Hammond's time. 

40 Miri Rubin's analysis of Lydgate's 'Exposition of the Pater Hosted is especially 
useful in situating this poem and, by extension, others like it in their contemporary lay 
catechetical context: Corpus Christi, pp. 100-1. The whole chapter 'Beyond Design: 
Teaching and Reception of the Eucharist' (pp. 83-163) is especially rich. 

41 Chaucer and His Readers, p. 107, though I print the text of the poem as it 
appears in Harley 2255 (fol. 13 v , 11. 77-8), including MS 'beglad' for 'be glad'. 

42 'Lectiones sanctas libenter audire, orationi frequenter incumbere’; 'Otiositas 
inimica est animae, et ideo certis temporibus occupari debent ffatres in labore manuum, 
certis iterum horis in lectione divina': The Rule of St Benedict, in Latin and English with 
Notes, general editor Timothy Fry, OSB (Coilegeville: Liturgical Press, 1981), chapters 
IV, 11. 55-6 and XLVIII, 1. 1. This edition will be cited hereafter as RSB. 

43 On St Benedict's own programme of recommended readings for monks, see RSB 
chapter LXXIII, 11. 3-5 and the explanatory notes on p. 297. 

44 Dom Cuthbert Butler, Benedictine Monachism: Studies in Benedictine Life and 
Rule, 2nd edn (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1961), pp. 293-5. 

45 The refrain echoes Psalm 88, as noted by Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 260. 


Joseph L. Grossi, Jr. 

46 For example, in John Lydgate, pp. 5 and 17. 

47 Adapted from Psalm 87 (Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 275). 

48 A number of seemingly unique poems appear in this manuscript, most but not all 
of which in the last thirty folia or so. While space prevents me from considering all of 
them here, they include 'The World is Variable', 'Mesure Is Tresoure’, the final three 
seemingly autobiographical stanzas of 'Deus in nomine tuo saluum me fac' (a poem extant 
in three other manuscripts without those stanzas), 'God Is Myn Helpere', 'Undir a park full 
prudently pyght' ( IMEV 3821; the poem may not be Lydgate's), 'The Hood of Green', and 
'Against Millers and Bakers'. Did this scribe have special access to a cache of Lydgatean 
verse available only at Bury? According to John J. Thompson, 'What is clear is that some 
of the religious houses of the day were not only important centres for the production and 
transmission of Middle English religious literature but also provided copyists with 
privileged access to the resources upon which sophisticated editorial judgements could be 
based': 'Textual Instability and the Late Medieval Reputation of Some Middle English 
Religious Literature', Text: Transactions of the Society for Textual Scholarship, 5 (1991), 
175-94 (pp. 177-8, building on the work of A. I. Doyle (cited in note 12, p. 189)). 

49 Pearsall, John Lydgate: A Bio-bibliography, p. 12. Other studies of the Abbey 
include J. C. Cox, 'Houses of Benedictine Monks', in The Victoria History’ of the County 
of Suffolk, II, edited by William Page (London: Constable, 1907), pp. 56-72; A. B. 
Whittington, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk (1971; London: English Heritage handbook, 1992, 
repr. 1999), based on the same author's 'Bury St. Edmunds Abbey: The Plan, Design and 
Development of the Church and Monastic Buildings', from 'Report of the Summer 
Meeting of the Royal Archaeological Institute at Ipswich, 1951', Archaeological Journal 
108 (1951), pp. 168-87; and Robert Gottfried, Bury St Edmunds and the Urban Crisis: 
1290-1539 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), pp. 73-84. 

50 Theater of Devotion, pp. 127-8; italics in original. 

51 'Monastic Productions', pp. 316, 318. For his part, Butler concedes that 'the 
medieval presentation of Benedictine life' did in fact witness 'a complete transformation 
of the manner of life planned by St Benedict at Monte Cassino'; but he also demonstrates 
that the process had begun at least as far back as the eighth century, and that previously 
even Benedict had departed from some of his own original ideals (Benedictine 
Monachism, pp. 293-303 (especially pp. 298-9)). 

52 English Religious Lyric, pp. 5-6. 

53 John Lydgate, pp. 5 and 17. For a different view, see Sheila Delany, Impolitic 
Bodies: Poetry, Saints, and Society’ in Fifteenth-Centwy England: The Work of Osbern 
Bokenham (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 6. Julia Boffey carefully 
reasons that '[sjeveral manuscripts preserve it [the Testament ] as part of the corpus of 
Lydgate's minor poems, sometimes giving it extra prominence as if to highlight its status 


John Lydgate's Contemptus Mundi in British Library, MS Harley 2255 

as an autobiographical document. . . . The copy in British Library, MS Harley 2255 draws 
attention to Lydgate's reputation with the heading "Testamentum Johannis lidgate nobilis 
poete" (fol. 47 r )': 'Lydgate, Henryson, and the Literary Testament', MLQ, 53 (1992), 41-56 
(pp. 49-50). 

54 'Laureates and Beggars in Fifteenth-Century English Poetry: The Case of George 
Ashby', Speculum , 79 (2004), 688-726 (p. 696). 

55 For a wider discussion of the phenomenon of medieval poets simultaneously 
demonstrating their authority while conceding their human flaws, see A. J. Minnis, 'The 
Author's Two Bodies? Authority and Fallibility in Late-Medieval Textual Theory', in Of 
the Making of Books: Medieval Manuscripts, Their Scribes and Readers: Essays 
Presented to M. B. Parkes , ed. by Pamela R. Robinson and Rivkah Zim (Aldershot: 
Scolar, 1997), pp. 259-79. 

56 On the Derridean distinction between 'voice' and 'presence' in the pursuit of the 
Chaucerian narrator of the Canterbury Tales, see H. Marshall Leicester's introduction to 
The Disenchanted Self (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), pp. 1-31, 
especially pp. 8-10. 

57 I am, of course, adapting and echoing an already oft-echoed concept of Benedict 
Anderson's. See his Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of 
Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991, repr. 1996), especially the preliminary 
observations on such communities on pp. 6-7. 

58 Heresy Trials in the Diocese of Norwich, 1428-1431, ed. by Norman Tanner, 
Camden Society, 4th series, 20 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977). For stimulating 
discussion of the Lancastrian dynasty’s manipulation of the Lollard threat, see Paul 
Strohm, England's Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation, 1399- 
1422 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 32-62. 

59 'Literary Texts', p. 560. 

60 Here I echo and respond to the language of Strohm's statement of methodology in 
England's Empty Throne, p. xiii. The texts examined in his book do indeed disclose 
complex meanings which belie their surface ’enunciation[s]', and I find myself in 
agreement with some of the basic assumptions of Strohm's approach (e.g. that authorial 
intent does not circumscribe the total meaning of a text). As this essay suggests, however, 

I hesitate to assume that all texts may be 'potentially deceptive' (p. xiii). 

61 Compare Lee Patterson, 'Chaucer's Pardoner on the Couch: Psyche and Clio in 
Medieval Literary Studies', Speculum, 76 (2001), 638-80, p. 679; and Nicholas Watson, 
'Desire for the Past', Studies in the Age of Chaucer, 21 (1999), 59-97 (p. 97). 

62 Seth Lerer, 'Medieval English Literature and the Idea of the Anthology', p. 1253. 

63 'Medieval English Literature and the Idea of the Anthology', p. 1253. Lerer 
quotes Ralph Hanna III, Pursuing History: Middle English Manuscripts and Their Texts 


Joseph L. Grossi, Jr. 

(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 9. Hanna's remarks on that page deserve 
full quotation in their own right: 'Miscellaneous books testify to acts at least analogous to 
canon-formation as we understand it, but these are most normally private, individual 
canons. There was no general late-medieval vernacular literary public, only a range or 
spectrum of literary communities.' 

64 See Ralph Hanna III and A. S. G. Edwards, 'Rotheley, the De Vere Circle, and 
the Ellesmere Chaucer', Huntington Library Quarterly, 58 (1996), 11-35, p. 18, n. 24 and 
25 for bibliography on some of the fraternity's most illustrious members. Compare 
Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 27 and note 16. I am grateful to Professor Edwards for 
providing me a copy of his co-authored article. 


Deconstructing Skelton: The Texts of the English Poems 

A. S. G. Edwards 

John Skelton (c. 1460-1529) is the first English poet whose works were 
disseminated in significant forms in both manuscript and print during his 
lifetime. The extent to which the decisions to publish his works in a particular 
medium were considered ones cannot be finally resolved; but it seems 
probable that in such respects they were deliberate, detennined by the nature of a 
particular poem's subject matter and/or Skelton's sense of its potential audience. 

That publication was for Skelton a circumstance driven by occasion 
goes some way towards accounting for the curiously ad hoc nature of the early 
printing history of his poems. Unlike such contemporaries as Hawes' and 
Barclay, 2 Skelton does not appear to have had any stable relationship with a 
particular publisher, but found it necessary to deal with a number of different 
ones over time, from Wynkyn de Worde, who printed two editions of the 
bowge of courte in [1499] (STC 22597) and [c. 1510] (STC 22597.5), and also 
probably printed Elinor Rumming [1521] (STC 22611.5), to Richard Faques 
(to whose relationship with Skelton I will turn shortly), to John Rastell who 
printed agaynste a comely coystrowne [1527?] (STC 22611) and dyuers 
balettys and dyties solacyous [1528?] (STC 22604), and to Richard Pynson 
with whom the sequence of printed editions during his lifetime concludes with 
A replycacion agaynst certayne yong scolers [1528] (STC 22609). There is no 
evidence that the manuscript transmission of Skelton's poems was any more 
systematic. They occur in contexts that vary from the random—scribbled, for 
example, on the flyleaves of printed books, or extracted in manuscripts 
otherwise devoted to other subjects—as well as in fuller forms in larger 
compilations, albeit still of a miscellaneous kind, like John Colyns' so-called 
commonplace book, 3 or the 'Welles anthology', 4 or in de luxe household 
collections like British Library, Royal MS 18 D. II, a manuscript in which 

A. S. G. Edwards 

Skelton's early poem on the death of Henry Percy, fourth earl of 
Northumberland forms part of a larger celebration of the Percy family's 
achievements. 5 But there is no surviving evidence of contemporary attempts to 
assemble Skelton's poems systematically or extensively in manuscript. In 
general, it is hard to be sure of the extent to which Skelton achieved any 
distinctive identity through manuscript circulation. Apart from Royal 18 D. II, 
only the spacious layout of BL, Cotton MS Vitellius E. X, a copy of The 
Garland of Laurel, now fragmentary, suggests an inclination to produce any of 
Skelton's separately circulating poems in a relatively elaborate form. 

The picture of such early circulation in both manuscript and print is 
necessarily incomplete. Much has doubtless been lost. There is, for example, a 
tantalizing entry in the notebooks of the eighteenth-century antiquary, Thomas 
Heame, in which he describes 'two Leaves, cut out of some old Book, on one 
side of w ch verses, in old English, ad Patrem, filium & Spiritum Sanctum, by 
Skelton the Poet Laureat, perhaps written by his hand [. . .]’. 6 And the flurry of 
posthumous printed editions that appeared in the twenty or so years 
immediately after his death testifies to commercial attempts to satisfy a 
continued demand for Skelton's verse. Some of these posthumous editions are 
of considerable textual interest since they constitute the earliest surviving 
forms of a work: for example, the c. 1530 edition of Magnificence by John 
Rastell (STC 22607), or Richard Kele's 1545 edition of Why Come Ye Nat to 
Court (STC 22615). In addition, it is clear that these posthumous editions do 
not represent the full extent of Skelton's appeal in the years after his death. 
Rastell's inventories of the late 1530s show evidence of several editions of his 
poems now lost. 7 It is futile to speculate on how these lost editions would 
affect the editing of Skelton. But they do serve to remind us of the 
irretrievable loss of possibly crucial stages in the early transmission of his 
works and thus of some of the difficulties that any attempt to establish his 
texts must confront. 

Clearly any attempt to examine the text of Skelton's verse must 
consider issues of some complexity to do with the forms of its transmission 
and the relative authority with which these forms can be invested. Hence the 
use of the term 'deconstructing' in my title. I use it in a literal sense to suggest 
that the texts of some of Skelton's English poems warrant re-examination in 
ways that will require the dismantling of the forms in which they have been 
permitted to exist for a very long time. 


Deconstructing Skelton : The Texts of the English Poems 

To be precise since 1843. In that year Alexander Dyce published his 
two-volume edition of The Poetical Works of John Skelton. It is appropriate to 
say a little about Dyce. He was bom in 1798, and after early flirtations with 
both the law and the cloth he established himself as one of the prolific and 
distinguished editors of the first half of the nineteenth century. His main 
interest was dramatic literature: he produced editions of, among others, Peele, 
Middleton, Webster and Shakespeare, with a kind of metronomic efficiency 
that nonetheless demonstrated considerable scholarly acumen. He died in 1869 
and the old DNB pays tribute to his 'deep and varied learning, his minute 
accuracy, and his nice discriminations [. . .]. So long as the best traditions of 
English scholarship survive his name will be respected'. 8 

These qualities are reflected in his edition of Skelton. This seems to 
have been an unusually long meditated work. Wordsworth, himself an admirer 
of Skelton, wrote to Dyce in January 1833 to ask about progress, so one must 
assume that the conception of the edition considerably antedates that point. 9 
When it finally appeared a decade later it was clear that the wait had been 
justified. Dyce's edition was by any standards an extraordinary achievement. It 
presented for the first time a comprehensive canon of Skelton's poetry, 
together with dubia\ it was based on an examination of all the known early 
prints and manuscripts and was supported by careful commentary. It is a 
testimony to that achievement that nothing to surpass it has appeared in the 
subsequent history of Skelton studies. All collected editions of Skelton 
henceforward were based on Dyce, although there have been a few separate 
editions of individual works. I say this notwithstanding the most important 
subsequent such edition, John Scattergood's John Skelton: The Complete 
English Poems, which pays tribute to Dyce in its preface, 11 and which seems 
to have used Dyce's text as setting copy, sometimes down to its misprints. 12 
Although Scattergood's edition is a considerable advance over its 
predecessor in its annotation, its textual basis is still Dyce. And hence it is 
Dyce's text on which modern critical discussions have been based, either 
directly or indirectly. 

That nearly all forms of modem scholarship on a major early modem 
writer should be grounded on an edition now over one hundred and fifty years 
old can be seen as evidence of its lasting value, or to the textual incuriosity of 
most subsequent students, or possibly both. The time may be at hand for some 
assessment of the textual bases of Dyce's edition to determine the extent to 
which it reflects in an appropriate way the evidence of Skelton's text. 


A. S. G. Edwards 

A fundamental problem in any such examination is the question of 
transmission: the determination of the relationship, and hence the relative 
authority of the various surviving forms of each of Skelton's texts. I begin with 
a brief but much anthologized poem, 'Manerly Margery Milk and Ale'. This 
describes an exchange between a clerk and a serving girl, in four five-line 
stanzas, the first three with a two-line refrain, the final one with one of four 
lines. Until recently it was known only in a single witness, BL, Additional MS 
5465, fols 96v-9r, the Fayrfax manuscript, a famous collection of Tudor 
music. But I recently identified another version in manuscript, copied on the 
flyleaf of a copy of a Caxton edition of the Dictes and Sayeingis of the 
Philosophres in Trinity College, Cambridge. 13 This includes one completely 
new stanza and a number of variants of arguable superiority to the Fayrfax 
version. It may also be the earliest surviving copy of any of Skelton's poems. I 
print this new stanza below: 

ye play full play ye breke my net bend 
qwat hav I Rouselit yov criste it for fende 
ye ware vs ye tere vs ye seldom vs a mend 
yett suffer good maisters & som what god wyll send 
I haytt such harskaldes at nothyng wyll spend 

The following lines appear at the corresponding point in BL, Additional 5465: 

Iwiss ye dele uncurtesly 
what wolde ye frompill me now fy fy 
what and ye shal be my piggesnye 
be Crist ye shall not no no hardely 
I will not be japed bodely (15-19) 

The discovery of such a new version is simply the benefit that time confers on 
a later generation of editors. But its implications are of interest, especially as 
they apply to this new stanza. How is it to be accounted for? How is its 
canonicity to be established? And how is it to be accommodated into the 
existing text of Skelton's poem? 

No ready answers present themselves to such questions. There are no 
secure stylistic criteria by which its authorship can be established. The version 
in the Fayrfax manuscript is set to music, a medium in which Skelton had 


Deconstructing Skelton: The Texts of the English Poems 

evident interest. This suggests something about the social environment in 
which a form of the poem may have circulated: that is, to be sung for a 
listening audience. But there seems no obvious transmissional hypothesis that 
can demonstrate that one form of the poem derives from the other. Indeed, the 
recognition of such an environment adds, rather than diminishes the 
difficulties of formulating any explanation that can ascribe both versions 
confidently to Skelton. For poems circulating within such social environments 
are susceptible to appropriation by unauthorized hands. 14 The most reasonable 
assumption might be that what survive are forms of the same lyric perhaps 
adapted to fit different occasions; and that both are possibly, but not certainly, 
by the same author. An assumption of the retrievability of a single text from 
the surviving evidence would serve to construct an entity that does not exist, 
that somehow accommodated, for example, the unique stanza of 'Manerly 
Margery' into the British Library version to produce a conflated text. But, as I 
have already suggested, there seem no secure grounds for following this 
assumption. The surviving versions lack the evidence of transmissional clarity 
that would make this a proper way of proceeding. The variant forms of 
'Manerly Margery' suggest that the circulation of Skelton's occasional verse 
does not invariably justify presenting it as a single critically edited text. 

These lines focus our attention on the survival of variant versions of 
poems ascribed to Skelton. The verses to celebrate the English victory over the 
Scots at Flodden in 1513 provide another example of this tendency. There are 
two forms of these verses associated with Skelton, the longer of which seems 
to be an amplification of the shorter. The shorter, titled A ballade of the 
scottysshe king, was published by Richard Faques in [1513] (STC 22593). The 
earliest surviving edition of the longer version, Against the Scots, is dated 
[1545?] (STC 22594), 15 but must have been first published close in time to the 
events to which it alludes, possibly again by Faques. The texts are verbally 
related and if one accepts that both are by Skelton, 6 they provide further 
testimony to his tendency not be content with a single version of a text but to 
see it as potentially adaptable to differing circumstances that cannot be readily 
recovered. Perhaps as more details of the victory emerged Skelton was 
prompted to capitalize on the circulation of the earlier poem by producing a 
more detailed account of the English triumph. 17 Such an impulse to 
amplification is hardly surprising, especially in occasional verse that may have 
struck a popular chord. And Dyce and other editors do print both poems 
separately. But they may provide a little further weight to a view that Skelton's 


A. S. G. Edwards 

verse cannot necessarily be edited under a controlling assumption that there is 
a single form of the text of a work to be recovered through collation and 
comparison of variants. 

Such an assumption goes to the procedural heart of Dyce's edition and 
its modem followers. The fonn of Skelton's oeuvre we find in these editions is 
one shaped in ways that, at times, crucially ignore the implications of 
available textual evidence to construct a single form of the text that lacks 
authority. We find this tendency evidenced in its most extreme form in the 
poem we now call Speke Parrott , 18 

As it is printed by Dyce and later editors this poem forms a satire on 
Cardinal Wolsey, in 520 lines, largely in rhyme royal stanzas. The textual 
situation, as reflected in the surviving witnesses, is rather more complex than 
this form of presentation indicates. Speke Parrott survives in two forms, in 
part in manuscript, in BL, Harley MS 2252, fols 133v-40, which includes lines 
1-56, 225-520, that is, about 350 lines out of 520. This version can be dated to 
the 1520s; hence it was copied in Skelton's lifetime. 19 There is also a series of 
printed versions of the poem, the earliest of which is dated c. 1545 (STC 
22598-600); these versions include lines 1-232, 265-9, 274-7. That is, out of a 
total of 241 lines, these editions provide about 175 lines not in the manuscript. 
This form of the text appears only in witnesses that all significantly postdate 
Skelton's death in 1529. 

It is unusual to find the forms of a poem so closely corresponding to the 
mode in which they have been transmitted, manuscript or print. There is little 
overlap of content between those parts of the text in these different modes. 
Only the opening fifty-six lines, and seventeen lines from the middle parts of 
the poem are common to both the manuscript and printed forms of the text. In 
fact, Speke Parrott as we are accustomed to read it in modem form does not 
exist in the witnesses to its text. The first time these witnesses were merged 
into a single entity is in Dyce's edition. He notes that the manuscript 'has 
supplied much not given in the printed copies' (II 1), but offers no hypothesis 
for the poem's transmission nor any rationale for the form of text he has 
constructed, one that creates a single entity out of manuscript and printed 
forms that have only a small amount of material in common. 

It is perhaps unsurprising that Dyce felt the poem he had constructed to 
be 'very obscure’ (II 338). Nor is it unsurprising that subsequent critics have 
followed him in acknowledging the poem's difficulties. Indeed, responses to it 
show even the best of Skelton's critics to poor effect. Some have actually 


Deconstructing Skelton: The Texts of the English Poems 

noted the textual situation and drawn conclusions of varying degrees of 
pessimism from it about the possibility of discussing the poem. But that has 
not inhibited them from doing so. 

For example, William Nelson, in his pioneering study, gives a concise 
summary of the textual problems here. He then concludes: 'For convenience, 
the poem as a whole may be split into two gross divisions, the first including 
the text as it appears in the printed version, the second consisting of the added 
matter that appears only in the manuscript.' 20 He does not explain what the 
benefits of such 'gross divisions' are, nor why he establishes the order he does 
when the manuscript part is actually earlier in date. A. R. Heiserman takes a 
more pessimistic view of the textual situation here: 'Today, most of Speke 
Parrott is nonsense to the critic and a stumbling block to the historian.' 21 He 
does go on to note 'the curious bibliographical [sic] state of the text' and to 
observe that 'no bibliographical [sic] analysis of the texts has yet been 
published'. 22 But this observation comes in the middle of an analysis of the 
poem that runs to more than sixty pages (pp. 126-89). Stanley Fish 
characterizes this as 'Skelton's most baffling poem' and discusses the textual 
problems it poses which he numbers among difficulties 'which would seem to 
render any reading provisional'. 23 But in spite of this he feels that 'a more or 
less satisfactory reading of the poem becomes possible' if it is approached 
through 'the psychology of the speaker'. 24 In the most recent discussion of the 
poem's textual states F. W. Brownlow draws this conclusion: 

The evidence, interpreted economically, shows that Speke, 
Parrot, having begun as a clearly shortened piece of work, 
proceeds, like several of Skelton's poems, simply to grow, and 
the two versions allow us to see it at a stage in its growth. 25 

He then argues that the different parts of this poem should be printed in 
reverse order. 26 The logic of this is not easy to grasp. What is striking about 
the two forms of the poem is their relative lack of overlap, a circumstance 
which seems to suggest less a 'growing' poem than one in which a small body 
of shared material was redeployed for different purposes. Obviously there is a 
difference here from the textual situation in the Flodden poems where there is 
clear verbal evidence of a relationship between the two versions that points to 
the likelihood that one is an expanded form of the other. In Speke Parrott it is 
the lack of relationship between the two portions of the poem beyond the 


A. S. G. Edwards 

opening lines that is striking. There seems no textual or bibliographical 
justification for printing both forms as one—or in reverse order. 

So far as I know, no one has considered the codicological evidence that 
suggests that the manuscript version reflects some form of booklet circulation, 
even if it is not constituted as a booklet in the manuscript itself. 27 Folios 133- 
40 of Harley 2252 are copied by a different hand from those of the preceding 
texts and its outer leaves were originally blank. It clearly represents therefore 
some contemporary form of circulation for Skelton's poem and therefore has 
some claim to an autonomous identity within Skelton's own lifetime. Clearly 
the posthumous printed editions offer another version with less obvious claims 
to authority. 

It is not easy to hypothesize a situation in which the poem could have 
become split into two parts through transmission unless one assumes once 
again some form of versioning in which the opening part of the poem was 
employed to some different/related/unrelated purpose from the rest. The poem 
is, of course, an occasional satire, and while Skelton may have engaged in 
some form of adaptation or revision it is also possible that someone else used 
part of it for emulative variation or elaboration, possibly in the hope that it 
might be ascribed to Skelton since a version by him on this subject was 
already circulating. But, leaving aside the attributional question, there seem no 
grounds for conflating two quite distinct texts into a single poem, and then 
using that version as a basis for critical study. The proper course would seem 
to be to print both forms separately. The durability of Dyce’s construct 
indicates the unwillingness of generations of literary critics to confront the 
implications of the textual evidence for this poem. 

The questions of textual integrity that Speak Parrott raises can be 
explored again in a more difficult problem, one which no-one hitherto seems 
to have even felt to be an issue. It occurs in The Garland of Laurel. The 
Garland is again a poem that survives in both manuscript and print versions. 
The manuscript version is in BL, Cotton Vitellius E. X, fols 208r-25v, 
possibly dating from the 1520s; the print is a contemporary edition by Richard 
Faques, the garlande or chapelet of laurell [1523] (STC 22610). Thus it is the 
only one of Skelton's major poems that may survive in both manuscript and 
printed forms from Skelton's lifetime. But the manuscript contains only a 
fragmentary text of the poem, now lacking lines 246-720 and from lines 1136 
to the end. The passage that concerns me here occurs only in Faques' edition. 


Deconstructing Skelton: The Texts of the English Poems 

It begins at line 1261 and is an interpolation that appears in the course 
of the lengthy enumeration of the canon of Skelton's own works (lines 1170ff). 
This portion of the poem is composed in rhyme royal stanzas. In the course of 
the enumeration Skelton mentions 'Of Phillip Sparow the lamentable fate' 
(1254). Immediately after this point the poem breaks off to incorporate part of 
the text of Philip Sparrow itself, hence shifting into short couplets or 
Skeltonics, before then reverting to the rhyme royal stanza otherwise used for 
the rest of the main text of this part of the Garland and continuing the list of 
Skelton's works. The interpolated lines correspond to lines 1261-1372 of 

Philip Sparrow, the ending of the poem, which is described in the earliest 


surviving printed text as 'an addicyon'. 

Why should this poem be singled out for such extended rehearsal here 
when no other of Skelton's works are? Some critics have linked the lengthy 
quotation to an earlier postulated quarrel between Skelton and Alexander 
Barclay to which Barclay seems to allude in his translation of the Ship of 
Fools in 15 09, 29 shortly after the generally assumed date of composition of 
Philip Sparrow w But it is hard to see what purpose would be served by 
adverting to such a quarrel nearly fifteen years later, nor how this passage 
bears on it directly in the context of autobibliography in which it occurs. 

The positioning of this passage as a supplementary ending or 'addition' 
in Philip Sparrow itself obviously makes it possible that it could have been 
detached in transmission from the main text. If so, then it may also be possible 
to see its presence in The Garland of Laurel rather differently from the way it 
has been presented editorially as a seamless part of the Garland. 

A couple of further points may be relevant. The Garland was published 
by Faques, who had previously published at least one of Skelton's Flodden 
poems in 1513. This earlier poem appears to have been Faques' first foray into 
printing verse and he did not do a very good job of it: there are frequent errors 
which testify to a lack of expertise in printing verse. Indeed, he published very 
little other verse before returning a decade later to the Garland. Hence, his 
handling of the text might again reflect some general uncertainty about how to 
properly treat a poem in a number of different verse forms. 

This does not explain why Faques would have been able to interpolate 
part of the text of one poem into another. Once again, speculation is all that is 
possible. We have, in fact, no early complete edition of Philip Sparrow : the 
earliest is [1545?] (STC 22594) and no text of it survives before that included 


A. S. G. Edwards 

in the Garland. Yet, the allusion to it in the Garland makes clear that the 
composition of Philip Sparrow must antedate its inclusion in that poem: 

Of Phillip Sparow the lamentable fate, 

The dolefull desteny, and the carefull chaunce, 

Dyvysed by Skelton after the funerall rate; 

Yet sum there be therewith that take grevaunce 
And grudge therat with frownyng countenance; 

But what of that? Hard it is to please all men; 

Who list amende it, let hym set to his penne. (1254-60) 

Possibly Faques himself had published an earlier edition of Philip Sparrow. If 
so, it would not be difficult to imagine circumstances in which, in a not very 
efficient printing house, with little experience of printing verse, materials 
might become incorrectly conflated, not least if loose sheets of more than one 
work by Skelton were in close proximity. It may be that the presence of Philip 
Sparrow in the Garland is the result of some fortuitous interpolation of 
extraneous material that happened to be circulating within the printer's orbit 
rather than as a deliberate reiteration here by Skelton of part of another poem. 
None of the other works enumerated by Skelton in the Garland is treated in 
this way. 

A factor that bears on the possibility of erroneous interpolation is the 
number of lines from Philip Sparrow in the Garland. There are a hundred and 
sixteen (lines 1260-1375). This number is readily divisible to form either a 
single leaf, in double columns (58 lines to a page, 29 to a column), or a 
bifolium, in single columns (29 lines to a page). Hence these lines form a 
distinct unit that could have been intercalated into existing materials that may 
themselves have been rather messy. (The Garland seems to have been 
composed over a considerable time, probably beginning in the 1490s, and 
in different verse forms, circumstances that could have added to problems 
of dealing with printer's copy in a house unaccustomed to handling 
complicated verse texts.) 

It is obviously unfortunate for the argument I seek to make that Faques' 
printed edition has the only complete version of the Garland. Only three 
quires of the manuscript version in BL, Cotton Vitellius E. X survive, each of 
six leaves, now folios 208r-25v; one can infer from the amount of text these 
contain that four further gatherings of six leaves have been lost, that is, twenty 


Deconstructing Skelton: The Texts of the English Poems 

four leaves, two quires (B-C) containing the missing lines 246-720, two (F-G), 
containing the missing text from lines 1136 to the end. 

The missing quires B and C contained 475 lines, or an average of 237 
lines to a quire. The number of lines per quire tends to go down during the 
transcription of the poem. The scribe was never disposed to compress his text 
anyway; the layout throughout is quite spacious. The number of lines to a page 
varies from eight (fol. 222v) to twenty four (fols 210r-v, 223r), with generous 
spaces allowed for headings. With one exception (fol. 220r) the text is copied 
in single columns. 

The complete version of the text as printed by Dyce comprises a further 
513 lines from line 1136. If one assumes two quires of six leaves have been 
lost that would mean that there would an average of 256 lines to a quire; that 
is, significantly more than occur in any previous quire in spite of the evident 
tendency towards fewer lines to a quire as the manuscript proceeds. If, 
however, one assumes that the Philip Sparrow portion was not there, that is 
lines 1261-1374, the total number of lines drops to about 400, a number that 
could be readily accommodated into two six-leaf quires. 31 Even if one 
assumed that the short Philip Sparrow lines would have been written in double 
column and hence accommodated into smaller space it would have been a 
tight squeeze to get onto a single leaf and hence unlikely to occasion very 
much reduction in overall space. 32 This argument is obviously speculative, 
constrained by the paucity of evidence. But it may suggest that the text of the 
Philip Sparrow portion of the Garland needs to be treated with some caution 
and warrants more discussion than it has yet received. 33 

If, as I have argued, a number of aspects of Skelton's text have been 
given misleading appearances in the modem forms in which they have been 
represented for us, what needs to be done to replace Dyce with a version of 
Skelton's poetry that more accurately reflects the textual evidence provided by 
the surviving witnesses to his corpus? What might a new edition of Skelton's 
verse look like? 

At the heart of the textual issues are two matters that need to be grasped 
more clearly than they have been that will necessarily affect the presentation 
of the text. One is the issue of textual intractability: as I have suggested, some 
of what are termed 'works' by Dyce are actually variant forms that were 
welded into single entities hundreds of years after their creation in ways that 
seem at odds with the textual evidence. These variant forms are different in 
kind from either the local variations that inevitably occur in manually 


A. S. G. Edwards 

transmitted texts or the larger scale divergences evident in the multiple forms 
of a work like Piers Plowman. They seem to demonstrate instead an 
intennittent disposition on Skelton's part to adapt materials for different 
circumstances now no longer recoverable and that these materials cannot be 
fruitfully compressed into a single text. The general thrust of my arguments is 
clearly that the idea of critical editing, insofar as this presupposes a belief in 
the recovery of a single, final intention may not be applicable for some of 
Skelton's poems. 

If one allows such poems to retain their distinct, multiple identities the 
text will become a lot messier. Variant forms of a text, like those for the lyric 
'Mannerly Margery', simply stand separately without any attempt to reconcile 
them into a single entity. A poem like Speke Parrott would have to be printed 
in a way that reflects both of its textually indeterminate states. It may be that 
the status of the final part of Philip Sparrow warrants reconsideration, if, as 
may have been the case, it enjoyed circulation separate from the larger text. 

In a number of instances, another more technical issue may contribute 
to this messiness. This is the question of copy text. 1 use the term in the classic 
formulation of W. W. Greg's 'Rationale of Copy Text', 34 a formulation that has 
had enonnous implications for the editing of Renaissance texts as well as, 
increasingly, those of later periods. But Greg began his career as a medievalist 
and at least some editions of Middle English works reveal some understanding 
of the methodology he advocates. 

Greg's arguments relate to the choice of a base text to give form to 
the accidentals or non-substantive aspects of a text. In essence he 
suggested that it would be most sensible to choose the earliest surviving 
form of the text as copy text, a decision that did not mean an editor was 
bound to its substantive readings. 

If one were to apply the implications of the argument to Skelton, his 
text would look rather different. For example, the final section of Philip 
Sparrow, which survives in its earliest form in the Garland of Laurel, 
antedates the next surviving version by more than twenty years. It differs 
significantly in orthography, offers forms that are potentially closer to the 
author's original, and contains a number of substantive variants. 35 Yet, as a 
textual witness it has been wholly ignored by editors of Philip Sparrow. Any 
responsible future edition of this poem must take account of its status and the 
authority of its readings, both accidental and substantive. 


Deconstructing Skelton: The Texts of the English Poems 

There are other instances where Dyce has ignored earlier manuscript 
versions in favour of later printed ones. He rejects the version of Colyn Clout 
in BL, Harley 2252, probably copied in the 1520s, seemingly on the grounds 
that it omits two passages, totalling about a hundred lines that appear in the 
earliest printed edition by Godfray ([1531?]; STC 22600.5), almost certainly 
produced after Skelton's death/ 6 Yet it is possible to argue, on the grounds of 
general theories of copy text, that since Harley is the only witness during 
Skelton's lifetime it has some claim to be the basis for those portions of the 
copy text it can provide. One might also argue again that as a distinct 
contemporary version the Harley text has some claim to an autonomous status. 
But even if one believed that the later printed version preserved Skelton's final 
version of the poem, it would be proper to employ the Harley manuscript for 
those portions of the text it contains, that is, most of its 1265 lines, since it 
preserves the earliest form of its accidentals. And the effect of adopting the 
manuscript as copy text can be to produce a rather different sense of the poem, 
one that is not adequately indicated in Dyce's text. Take this passage from 
Godfray, with part in parallel in Harley: 

Godfray Harley 

Fyckell falsenesse 

With unstablenesse 
And yf ye stande in doute 
Who brought this ryme about. 

My name is Collyn Cloute. (44-9) 

And fyckell falsenesse, 

And varyablenesse, 

With vnstedfastnes 

And yf they stande in doute [. . .] 

The claims of the readings in Harley here seem in general at least as 
compelling as those of Godfrey's edition and possibly more so. The passages 
are clearly different in rhythm and in substance. It would be possible to argue 
that, in the case of the most significant substantive variant ('unstablenesse' / 
'vnstedfastnes', 46), that Harley offers a more precisely focused reading in the 
context. ('Unstablenesse' lacks the heavier weight of moral opprobrium that 
'vnstedfastnes' has). 

Throughout, the variants between manuscript and printed versions often 
suggest that Harley deserves more consideration than it has received. To 
clarify the point I will examine a slightly longer passage: 


A. S. G. Edwards 


Or bokes to compyle 

Of dyvers maner style 

Vyce to revyle 

And synne to exyle 

To teche or to preche 

As reason wyll reche 

Sey this and sey that 

His heed is so fat 

He wottyth never what 

Ne whereof he speketh 

He cryeth and he creketh 

He pryeth and he preketh 

He chydeth and he chatters 

He prayeth and he patters (9-22) 


Or bokes to compyle 
Of dyvers maner of style 
Vyces to revyle 
And syn for to exile 
To teche or to preche 
As reason wold reherse 
Say this or sey that 
Hys heed ys so fatte 
He sayeth he wott not whate 
Nor wherof he spekythe 
He cryeth he creketh 
He pryeth he preketh 
He chydeth he chatters 
He prayeth he patters 

There is substantive variation in all but four of the fourteen lines (9, 11, 13, 
16) and extensive orthographic variation throughout. Some of Harley's 
readings do seem easier than Godfray's, as when Harley reads 'maner of style' 
for Godfray's 'maner style' (10) or 'for to exile' for Godfray's 'to exile' (12). But 
at times Harley does offer a potentially superior variant as in the reading 'He 
sayeth he wott not whate' for Godfray's 'He wottyth never what' (17), where 
the direct attribution of the clause to Wolsey ('He sayeth [. . .]') gives a more 
direct force to the satire. More difficult is a point where Harley reads: 'As 
reason wold reherse', while Godfray has: 'As reason wyll reche' (14); that is, 
'as reason will direct', rather than Harley: 'as reason would explain'. Obvious 
arguments in support of Godfray are that it rhymes with line 13 and makes 
acceptable sense. However, Harley also makes acceptable sense. And at other 
points in the poem, in lines 65, 546-8 the irregular rhyme pattern of skeltonics 
is not sustained. 37 The collocation of reason [. . .] reherse is a stock alliterative 
one, found elsewhere, for example, in Piers Plowman , B XI 415 and Richard 
the Redeles, 1. 315. And reherse is a word that Skelton uses with some 
frequency elsewhere, albeit only once elsewhere in an alliterative context 
{Garland of Laurel, 840). The arguments for preferring Harley are not 
conclusive, of course; but it is defensible. 


Deconstructing Skelton: The Texts of the English Poems 

The variation between the two texts often does not differ in terms of 
sense. An edited version of these lines must confront the problems of choice 
of copy text and decisions on emendation. In general terms, it seems proper to 
adopt the Harley manuscript as copy text since it is earlier than Godfray's print 
and hence less subject to processes of regularization that may have obtained in 
the printing house (at least in theory). But this produces a form of the text at 
times rather different from that to which modem readers of Skelton are 
accustomed. Such a form presents an orthographically, rhythmically, and (at 
times) substantively distinct Skelton from that we encounter in Dyce. 

The late Fredson Bowers once famously remarked that: 

it is still a current oddity that many a literary critic has 
investigated the past ownership and mechanical condition of 
his second-hand automobile, or the pedigree and training of 
his dog, more thoroughly than he has looked into the 
qualifications of the text on which his critical theories rest. 38 

The editorial incuriosity that has surrounded Skelton's poems suggests that 
Bowers' point still has force. But if Skelton is to be studied with any degree of 
seriousness some understanding of the crucial limitations of the only 
significant edition of his complete works is necessary. A new edition of 
Skelton's English poems is an important desideratum of early modem literary 
studies and an essential preliminary to the proper study of this most difficult 


A. S. G. Edwards 


1 See A. S. G. Edwards, 'Poet and Printer in Sixteenth Century England: Stephen 
Hawes and Wynkyn de Worde', Gutenberg Jahrbuch (1980), 82-8. 

2 See David Carlson, 'Alexander Barclay and Richard Pynson: A Tudor Printer and 
his Writer', Anglia, 113 (1995), 283-302. 

3 Now British Library, Harley MS 2252. 

4 Now Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson MS C. 813; see The Welles Anthology 
MS. Rawlinson C. 813: A Critical Edition, ed. by Sharon L. Jansen and Kathleen H. Jordan 
(Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1991). 

5 For description of this manuscript see, most recently Kathleen Scott, Later Gothic 
Manuscripts 1390-1490, 2 vols (London: Harvey Miller, 1996), II 282-5, and the further 
references cited there. 

6 Remarks and Collections of Thomas Hearne, ed. by C. E. Doble et al., 10 vols 
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1895-1915), IV 214; this is not noted in R. S. Kinsman, John 
Skelton, Early Tudor Laureate: an annotated bibliography c. 1488-1977 (Boston: Hall, 

7 See R. J. Roberts, 'John Rastell's Inventory of 1538', The Library, 6 lh series, 1 
(1979), 34-42. The missing editions include one of'ware the hawke' (36 [20]), a fragment 
of which has recently surfaced in a private collection. (I am much indebted to the owner for 
allowing me to examine this and for confirming the edition as Rastell's.) 

8 DNB, XVI 277. 

9 The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. by E. de Selincourt (Oxford: 
Clarendon Press, 1939), p. 638. 

10 By R. L. Ramsay, EETS e.s. 98 (London, 1906) and Paula Neuss of Magnificence, 
Revels Plays (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980); by F. W. Brownlow of the 
The Book of the Laurel [i.e. The Garland of Laurel] (Newark: University of Delaware 
Press, 1990); by Julia Boffey of the Bowge of Court, in Fifteenth-Centwy English Dream 
Visions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); and by David Carlson of the Latin Writings 
(. Studies in Philology, Texts and Studies, 1991). In addition, there is a well-annotated selection 
by Robert S. Kinsman, John Skelton: Poems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969). 

11 John Skelton: The Complete English Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983): '[. . .] 
whose magnificent two-volume edition of 1843 this book in some sense tries to replace' (p. 
13). All line references are to Scattergood's edition unless otherwise specified. 

12 This point is made by F. W. Brownlow in his edition, The Book of the Laurel, p. 39 
and n. 28. 


Deconstructing Skelton: The Texts of the English Poems 

13 For text and further references see A. S. G. Edwards and L. R. Mooney, 'A New 
Version of a Skelton Lyric', Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society , 10 
(1994), 507-10. 

14 Contemporary evidence of this tendency to unauthorized adaptation survives 
explicitly in Dunbar's poem, 'Schir, I complane off iniuris' in which he protests about the 
actions of one 'Muris' who has 'magellit' one of his poems and presented it to James IV; see 
The Poems of William Dunbar , ed. by Priscilla Bawcutt, 2 vols (Glasgow: Association for 
Scottish Literary Studies, 1998), I 199. 

15 It appears in Certayne bokes compyled by mayster skelton (STC 22598). 

16 Once again, there are attributionai problems. There is no early authority for 
assigning this poem to Skelton. He is not named in Faques's edition; nor is there any 
mention of either Flodden poem in his account of his canon in the Garland of Laurel ; the 
earliest attribution comes in the c. 1545 edition. 

17 For discussion of the two versions which broadly reflects this assumption, see John 
Scattergood, 'A defining moment: the battle of Flodden and English poetry,' in Vernacular 
Literature and Current Affairs in the Early Sixteenth Century, ed. by Jennifer Britnell and 
Richard Britnell (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), pp. 62-70, especially pp. 73-6. 

18 Skelton refers to it in The Garland of Laurel as 'Item the Popingay, that hath in 
commendacyoun / Ladyes and gentylwomen suche as deservyd, / And suche as be 
counterfettis they be reservyd' (11. 1188-90). 

19 For discussion of the dating of this part of the manuscript see the important study 
by Carol M. Meale, 'The Compiler at Work; John Colyns and BL MS Harley 2252,’ in 
Manuscripts and Readers in Fifteenth-Centuiy England, ed. by D. Pearsall (Cambridge: 
Brewer, 1983), pp. 82-103, especially pp. 95-6. I am also grateful to Dr Meale for extended 
private conversation about Harley 2252 and for confirming my own conclusions. 

20 William Nelson, John Skelton Laureate (New York: Columbia University Press, 
1935), pp. 159-60. 

21 A. R. Heiserman, Skelton and Satire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 
1961), p. 127. 

22 Heiserman, Skelton and Satire, p. 134, fn. 16. 

23 Stanley Fish, John Skelton’s Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), pp. 

24 Fish, John Skelton's Poetry, p. 140. 

25 F. W. Brownlow, 'The Boke Compiled by Maister Skelton, Poet Laureate, Called 
Speke Parrot,' English Literary Renaissance, 1 (1971), 3-26 (p. 7). 

26 Brownlow, 'The Boke Compiled by Maister Skelton', pp. 7-8. 


A. S. G. Edwards 

27 On booklet circulation in medieval English texts see, most recently, Ralph Hanna 
III, Pursuing History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), pp, 21-34 and the 
references cited there. 

28 This characterization is itself an indication of Skelton's typically accretive 
technique, his disinclination to impose upon many of his poems a single moment of closure, 
but rather to see the invocation of such a possibility as the prelude to a series of deferrals. 

29 This view is summarized by Scattergood in his edition, p. 406. 

30 This is generally held to be c. 1505; see R. S. Kinsman and T. Yonge, John 
Skelton: Canon and Census (New York: Renaissance Society of America, 1967), p. 11. 

31 To posit three missing quires would implausibly reduce the number of missing 
lines to a quire to about 171, whereas elsewhere it never drops below 200. 

32 For example, on fol. 220, the only point where short lines are written in double 
columns (925-53) in the manuscript, only 28 lines occupy a frill page, i.e. 14 to a column. If 
the same layout were to be employed for the Philip Sparrow portion the text would run to 
two full leaves (four pages). It would mean that the remaining 400 lines would average 
twenty to a page. The pages on fols 224r-5v immediately preceding the missing part of the 
text have 11, 18, 17 and 14 lines respectively. The layout is too irregular to permit any 
confident conclusions, but the general trend to fewer lines does provide some measure of 
support for my hypothesis. 

33 I can, however, invoke in my support the response of one earlier reader, possibly 
the seventeenth-century antiquary, Elias Ashmole (it occurs in a copy of the edition of the 
Pithy pleasant [. . .] workes of maister john skelton, generally ascribed to John Stow (1568; 
STC 22608) in the Ashmole collection in the Bodleian Library): 'The following staves [. . .] 
be here displaced: as belonging to Philip Sparow by way of additions you have the 
afterward at the sheet U iii.’ It appears in the facsimile reproduction of this copy by the 
Scolar Press (Menston, 1970), sig. Di r . 

34 W. W. Greg, 'The Rationale of Copy Text', originally published in Studies in 
Bibliography, 3 (1950/1), 19-36; reprinted in revised form in The Collected Papers of Sir 
Walter W. Greg, ed. by J. C. Maxwell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), pp. 374-91. 

35 For example, 1261. For the] 1268. The; 1313. that] 1326. the; 1338. Of] 1351. 
And; 1367. that] 1375. as. (The lemma is the reading in the Garland', the reading after the 
lemma is that of Philip Sparrow, prefaced by line number). 

36 See Scattergood's edition, p. 465, where it is said the manuscript lacks lines 431 - 
58, 479-556. In fact, this account of the missing lines is incorrect. The manuscript lacks 
lines 431-458, 479-559, 576-80; there are other smaller omissions, generally of a line, or 
couplet throughout the text in Harley 2252. 

37 Also (arguably) line 654; line 1037 is incomplete in Godfray. 


Deconstructing Skelton: The Texts of the English Poems 

38 Textual and Literary Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), p. 5. 

39 I am grateful to Professor Julia Boffey and the readers of Leeds Studies in English 
for comments on drafts of this paper. 



Christina of Markyate: A Twelfth-Century Holy Woman, ed. by Samuel Fanous 
and Flenrietta Leyser. (London and New York: Routledge, 2005). xv + 266 pp + 8 
plates. ISBN 0 4153 0858 5 (Hardback), ISBN 0 4153 0859 3 (Paperback). 

This collection of essays is a very welcome set of approaches to the study of 
Christina of Markyate's life and the texts associated with her. The methodologies 
deployed by its contributors are varied, but each essay is rooted in a 
consciousness of the nature of the textual evidence and the importance of reading 
it in context. In 'Christina of Markyate: the introduction' (pp. 1-11), Henrietta 
Leyser sets Christina's life in 'a world shaped and scarred by the Norman 
Conquest' (p. 1), and in particular by East Anglian rising and counter-rising. As 
Leyser points out, however, Christina's family were associated in a variety of 
ways with the Norman elite, and her Life shows no negative attitudes towards 
Norman rule. Leyser goes on to chart, with reference to the essays in the 
collection, what is known about Christina's biography and the relationship and 
function of her Life and the St Albans Psalter, and to situate Christina's devotion 
to the Virgin Mary both in longstanding pre-Conquest traditions and in trends 
newly imported from Continental Europe in the twelfth century. Christina is thus 
positioned from the start of the collection as a figure who encompasses, and is 
constructed as embodying, both continuity and change. 

In 'Christina of Markyate: the literary background' (pp. 12-24), Douglas 
Gray stresses the marginality of the Life of Christina in terms of genre and 
periodisation, and raises interesting questions about the nature of the composition 
of the Life and the political-linguistic culture in which Christina lived and in 
which her Life was written. Stephanie Hollis and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne situate 
Christina in the context of 'St Albans and women's monasticism: lives and their 
foundations in Christina's world' (pp. 25-52), and explore 'the possibilities and 
expectations of Christina's situation’ (p. 25). They offer an exceptionally well 
researched and carefully argued demonstration of how the available linguistic, 
textual and social options mean that Christina's personal and literary lives are a 
kind of improvised collation of the continuing and the new. 

In 'Christina of Markyate and the double crown' (pp. 53-78), Samuel 
Fanous highlights the skill of the author of the Life of Christina in combining two 
hagiographic traditions: that of the virgin martyr and that of the ascetic martyr. 


Fanous demonstrates that the author of the Life would have had access through 
the St Albans library and the traditions of the site itself to key texts from both 
traditions, and concludes that the Life is 'a testament to what was possible within 
the conventions of medieval biography'. Neil Cartlidge continues the theme of 
taking the Life seriously as a work of literature, rather than simply mining it for 
biographical details, in 'The unknown pilgrim: drama and romance in the Life of 
Christina of Markyate' (pp. 79-98). Through a careful stylistic analysis of the 
'vanishing pilgrim' episode, Cartlidge shows how the author draws on the kind of 
exegesis deployed by medieval drama and romance to create a text which does 
not present itself as realistic, but rather as 'expressionistic' (p. 95). 

Two related chapters follow. C. Stephen Jaeger examines 'The loves of 
Christina of Markyate' (pp. 99-115) in the context of'the conceptual tour de force 
of twelfth-century thought on the experience of love: to incorporate the act of 
love itself [. . .] into the idealism of love' (p. 99). Jaeger shows how the Life's 
narrative structure is based on Christina's relationships with men, which allow the 
author to focus on the tension between physical and spiritual passion, and to 
present Christina's progression from the one to the other. Thomas Head's 'The 
marriages of Christina of Markyate' (pp. 116-37), an abridged version of his 
article of the same name published in Viator in 1990, with a brief new afterword, 
takes Christina's marriage to Christ as its central topic, and emphasises the concrete 
nature of that maniage for Christina and her hagiographer. R.l. Moore's 'Ranulf 
Flambard and Christina of Markyate 1 (pp. 138-42) is another reprinted piece 
(previously published in his Belief and Culture), which offers a brief reading of the 
episode in which Christina thwarts Flambard's attempt to 'commit a wicked deed' widi 
her. Moore's succinctly-argued proposition is that 'Christina did not so much refuse to 
take over the duties of her aunt as insist on reinterpreting them' (p. 141). 

Rachel Koopmans examines the relationship between Christina and her 
hagiographer, and the influence each of them might have had on the Life, in 
'Dining at Markyate with Lady Christina' (pp. 143-59). Koopmans ponders 
whether Christina would have approved of the Life, and whether it, and her image 
in the St Alban's Psalter, might have been intended 'to shape Christina's own 
image of herself (p. 157). In 'Alternative intimacies: men, women and spiritual 
direction in the twelfth century' (pp. 160-83), Dyan Elliott constructs a typology of 
spiritual direction, to show how Christina's experience compares to older and newer 
versions of this relationship. Elliott shows how these relationships are often presented 
as an alternative to marital intimacy, but concedes 'the difficulty in evading a 
matrimonial paradigm' and notes, perceptively, that 'Christina was stalked by the 



spectre of marriage' (p. 161). Kathryn Kelsey Staples and Ruth Mazzo Karras provide 
a further exploration of the dynamics of desire in 'Christina's tempting: sexual desire 
and women's sanctity' (pp. 184-96), arguing that Christina's temptation reflects 
twelfth-century changes in views on the sexual temptation of women. 

The next two essays focus on texts associated with Christina. 'The St 
Alban's Psalter: the abbot and the anchoress' (pp. 197-216) by Jane Geddes 
examines the Psalter in detail, and section by section, for indications of what 
prompted its production, and of how it might have been received. Geddes 
concludes that the Psalter reflects most strongly the concerns of Abbot Geoffrey 
de Gorran. Tony Hunt's study concentrates on 'The Life of St Alexis, 475-1125' 
(pp. 217-28), provides an account of the development and transmission to twelfth- 
century England of the story of Alexis, shows that the St Albans Psalter version 
of the Life of St Alexis is 'a mature version 1 (p. 224) of the legend, and proposes 
that the relationship between Alexis and his bride is intended to reflect that of 
Abbot Geoffrey and Christina. 

In its final essay, E.A. Jones' 'Christina of Markyate and The Hermits and 
Anchorites of England (pp. 229-53), the collection turns from hagiography to 
historiography. Jones is engaged in the completion of a revision of the 1914 book 
by Rotha Mary Clay to which his essay title refers, and in this essay he offers a 
critique of Clay's methodology and presents a list, organised by county, of hermits 
and anchorites in Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Huntingdonshire, which he uses 
to situate Christina in the context of contemporary solitaries. A Select Bibliography 
and a very useful index of names and places follow the essays. 

Fanous and Leyser have assembled a collection which performs two very 
significant roles. It provides a badly-needed sustained analysis of Christina and 
her Life, and also is resolute in setting both in a range of contexts, rather than 
treating them as isolated and unusual. It is especially refreshing and stimulating to 
see Christina's life and the texts associated with her examined as emerging from 
pre-Conquest traditions and preoccupations as well as from post-Conquest ones. 
The essay by Hollis and Wogan-Browne is perhaps the strongest example of this, 
and will stand as an important model for the study of twelfth-century English 
devotional practices and related texts. Overall, the collection opens up its 
important central subject to readers experienced and new and offers important 
contributions to the study of major themes related to religious writing, women's 
lives and the complex cultural influences of the twelfth century. 




Turpines Story: A Middle English Translation of the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle, 
ed. by Stephen H. A. Shepherd, EETS o.s. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 
2004). 170 pp. ISBN: 0-19-722325-7. 

This edition presents, for the first time, the unique Middle English translation of 
the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle , the medieval gesta of Charles the Great. The text is 
edited from San Marino, California, Huntington Library MS HM 28,561, 
accompanied by a comprehensive critical apparatus. Previous comments on the 
scribal hands and decoration, as well as the relationships with related texts are 
closely analysed alongside some very exciting discoveries, notably the identity of 
the owners, their political allegiance, and the cultural context for the production 
of the miscellany including this text. 

The manuscript contains, alongside the translation of the Pseudo-Turpin 
Chronicle, John Trevisa's translations of Pseudo-William of Ockham, Richard 
Fitzralph, Pseudo-Methodius, Ranulf Higden’s Polychonicon, accompanied by 
Trevisa's Dialogue between a Lord and a Clerk, his Epistle to Thomas IV, Lord 
Berkeley, and a plethora of Latin and English documents relating to the 
Lancastrian claim to the throne of England, taking the form of historical notes, 
poetry and a genealogical table. The variety of texts included in this collection, 
together with the unfinished borders and decorated initials, leads Shepherd to 
conclude that this is 'a project of considerable ambition gone awry’ (p. xvi). From 
this perspective, the identification of the owner(s)/ commissioner(s) through the 
arms displayed on fols lr and 88r as the Mull (alias Mill or Myll) family of 
Harescombe in Gloucestershire (quartering Rous, also of the same location), 
sheds particular light onto a web of local political and cultural affiliations during 
the Wars of the Roses. 

The Mulls increased their 'family prominence' through land acquisition and 
Thomas Mull's extensive service on royal commissions in Gloucestershire from 
the 1430s to the 1450s and as Justice of the Peace during the same period. He was 
also Sheriff of Hereford and MP for Gloucestershire in the 1430s and 1440s, 
positions which brought him into contact with political figures of his day, like 
Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, whom he served as steward, the 
Boteler and Despenser families, and, more importantly, the Talbots and the 
Berkeleys. Thomas's son, Hugh, continued the administrative, legal and political 
career of his father, serving in the same positions during the 1460s, and, after the 
accession of the Yorkist Edward IV, becoming involved in the famous 1468 
'Cornelius plot', designed to support the Lancastrian Margaret of Anjou's attempt 



to regain the crown for Henry VI. Interestingly, Shepherd notes, another member 
of the lesser gentry possibly involved in the same plot was Sir Thomas Malory, 
the Lancastrian writer of romance who had similar connections with magnates of 
the day and enjoyed history and romance (p. xx). 

The political allegiances of the Mulls are well documented: Thomas and his 
son are said to have raised an opposition against Richard, Duke of York (p. xxi), 
and the subsequent forfeiture of the Mull properties during the Yorkist rule proves 
the unswerving loyalty of the family to the Lancastrians. The situation 
deteriorated further due to their support to the Talbots in the famous Berkeley law 
suit. As Lord Berkeley had been the patron of Trevisa's translations, Shepherd 
suggests that the commissioning of the Mull manuscript was intended as a 
cultural weapon against the Berkeleys, 'a symbol of the appropriation of their 
heritage which was the goal of the lawsuit', which would furthermore demoralize 
the Berkeleys because of the 'evident determination of [Thomas Mull's] 
antagonism' (p. xxiv). The Talbot family, enemies of the Berkeleys, would thus 
have been favourably disposed towards the Mulls, whose manuscript could 
function as an 'extra-legal commitment [. . .] to preserving the literary heritage' of 
the Talbot successors. 

On the basis of the Mulls' Lancastrian allegiance and the unfinished state of 
the decorative elements, Shepherd dates the composition of the manuscript 
around 1460-1, the time of the deaths of Thomas Mull and his eldest son, Sir 
William. At this time the Mull properties were forfeited under the Yorkist rule. 
The dating is also supported by linguistic and palaeographical evidence, while the 
choice of the story of Charlemagne might be seen as a continuation of the 
Polychronicon as urged by Higden (p. xxvi), as well as a reflection of the 
renewed interest in Charlemagne, who was one of the medieval Nine Worthies. 
The latter element is read by Shepherd as a further indication of Lancastrian 
influence; Queen Margaret became the Tenth Worthy in the celebratory pageant 
at her coronation, and on that occasion the Talbots presented her with a deluxe 
manuscript containing romances and historical material, something the Mulls 
might have tried to emulate in their own commission. 

Shepherd acknowledges the various agendas employed in the use of this 
text across periods, and discusses at length the relationships among this 
translation and several other variants of the story, notably through analyses of the 
exempla of good governance and Christian behaviour. The 'Englishing' of the 
translation encompasses elements ranging from a possible deliberate reading of 
Milo, father of Roland, as an Englishman, three times in this translation (the 



Mulls also claimed, through the Rous ancestry, their descent from a famous 
English Milo, Earl of Hereford, in the twelfth century [p. li]), to identifying 
Roland as Tristran's father, similar to other English historical accounts, like 
Castleford's Chronicle. The Mull family thus attempted to emulate the cultural 
patronage of the Talbots by 'inscribing with their arms, their identity both as 
custodians of history and [. . .] as guarantors of a specific dynastic future' (p. liii). 
The journey through which this medieval account of Charlemagne's great deeds 
found its way into the miscellany commissioned/consumed in a household of the 
lesser gentry during the Wars of the Roses prompts us to reconsider the cultural and 
political aspirations of members of this social class. Alongside recent editions and 
analyses of miscellanies containing Brut chronicles and romances in the vernacular, 
this edition draws attention to the importance of studying the context of the 
production of manuscripts in this period. Complete with dialectal analysis, a 
comprehensive commentary on literary and historical analogues, and a glossary, 
this excellently produced edition certainly proposes an invaluable source for further 
research, which will no doubt spark future projects on the cultural, literary and 
political implications of reading romance and chronicles in late medieval England. 


Emily Steiner, Documentary Culture and the Making of Middle English 
Literature. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). xvi + 266 pp. ISBN 
0 521 82484 2. 

The history of the book and the history of the document have traditionally been 
conceived as separate enterprises. Yet as Emily Steiner's Documentary Culture 
and the Making of Middle English Literature shows, the two are intertwined to 
the extent that one cannot be understood without the other. Steiner explores the 
ways in which legal documents figure in—or, at times, actually figure—medieval 
literature. Starting from the observation that documents are literary as well as 
historical artifacts—carefully constructed along formal lines, dependent upon 
legal fictions, they embody but also determine social and political relations— 
Steiner focuses on the significance of documents in a variety of literary contexts. 
At the core of the book is a study of the function of the document in two distinct 
but related groups of texts: Piers Plowman and the 'Piers Plowman tradition', and 
the Middle English 'Charters of Christ'. But as its title suggests, the book's scope 



is much wider, extending from Le pelerinage de la vie humaine of Guillaume de 
Deguileville to the attempts of the Lollards Margery Baxter and William Thorpe 
to interfere with official documentary practices in order to effect a form of self¬ 
representation. An intriguing epilogue points out the recurrence to documents in 
the writing of Margery Kempe, a dedicated auto-archivist. The fictional 
documents in most of these works have long attracted attention; Steiner, however, 
is the first to attempt to analyse these manifestations of the document in the 
broader context of what she terms 'documentary culture'. The results are fruitful. 

Crucial to Steiner's analysis is the idea that documents are not static or 
rigidly hierarchical: as their appearances in various Middle English texts show, 
they are highly adaptable. Further, she sees documentary culture as not restricted 
to official discourse, and by no means monologic: rather, it is a site of contest 
between various institutional and social forces. And documents provided English 
literature with something more than a trope: Steiner argues for the presence of a 
'documentary poetics' in Middle English texts, one that helped 'shape an identity', 
imbuing the very formulation and practice of literary texts. The strength of the 
book lies in its subtle readings of these documentary presences, readings that 
draw on Steiner's awareness of the manipulation of documentary form, and her 
insight into the ramifications of such manipulation. An excellent section on the 
Charters of Christ—poems that represent the body of the crucified Christ as a 
legal document, given by God to 'all present and future'—notes the way the 
'crucified Christ becomes a sacramental body through documentary forms of 
address' (p. 64), and observes that the sorrowing speaker of the document 
simultaneously becomes a legal actor (p. 65). The poem rests on a play on wills: 
the crucified body testifies to the abjection of the will; but via the document it 
becomes a legal subject, embodying the will to act; finally it figures the 
conversion of affective memory to legal memory, as the poem 'transforms the 
suffering body of Christ into an efficacious one' (p. 69). Here and throughout 
Steiner profitably picks up on the performativity of documents, a quality 
embedded in documentary formulas ('by my present charter I have confirmed'), 
and which gave them important capacities: not merely authority, but enactment, 
replayability, awareness of audience. 

Similarly, Steiner's treatment of the role of documents in Piers Plowman 
provides refreshingly new readings of key scenes. Doubtless the most 
controversial of these is her reassessment of the famous 'tearing' of Truth's Pardon 
by Piers. Truth's pardon, Steiner persuasively argues, should be understood as a 
chirograph—that is, a document written in duplicate or triplicate which was 



meant to be tom, or cut, with one copy held by each of the parties involved in the 
legal act. Specifically, Tmth's pardon is the chirographum dei —and the long 
Pardon that precedes it is an expansion of the first line of the short Pardon, 
instituting a system of good works. Hence Piers' 'tearing' of the pardon is an 
affirmative act 'because it performs the contract of the chirographum dei' (p. 135), 
enacted in imitation of Augustine's commentary on Psalm 144 in Enarationes in 
Psalmos, which identifies a divine bond with the Athanasian Creed, and 
ultimately in imitatione dei (p. 137). Whereas previous Langland scholars have 
seen documents dissolving into scripture, Steiner argues that in Piers Plowman 
scripture is conceived as documentary in fonn and nature (p. 164). Here the 
exploration of documents as inherently public texts is important: 'certain legal 
instruments [. . .] were public because their rhetoric of universal notification and 
their open presentation established a reciprocal relation between the proclamation 
and the reception of a text that was nothing less than contractual' (p. 158). That 
tension between community and the self inherent in documentary form is 
followed through in discussion of the 1381 Rising letters, and Mum and the 
Sothsegger, with particular concern for the restorative function of the document: 
'[f]or the Mum- poet literary making becomes public healing when encased in 
legal documents'(p. 189). 

The potential for documentary form to be co-opted for radical, even 
heretical, purposes is explored in the final two chapters of Steiner’s book. Here 
she argues that Lollard adaptations and annotations brought out the 'radical 
political implications' of Christ's charter, particularly its construction of 
unmediated interaction between human and divine, suggesting on the basis of 
Langland's revisions to the B-text of Piers Plowman that 'perhaps by the 1380s [...] 
Christ's charter had already begun to be co-opted for Lollard polemic' (p. 217). 
Although speculative, this section is sensitive to the manuscript contexts of the 
charters of Christ, and careful comparison of the A, B, and C versions of the 
Charter successfully identifies some important differences. Moreover, the 
following chapter, on Margery Baxter and William Thorpe, puts more flesh on the 
Lollard documentary culture bones. The argument that Baxter sought to invoke 
'an alternate [Lollard] documentary culture' at her trial (e.g. via references to a 
charter of salvation in her womb) is plausible; and a convincing analysis explores 
the ways in which Thoipe's account of his trial—his Testimony —not only shows 
familiarity with documentary formulas, but the ability to gloss them to his 



From time to time Steiner overstates her case: the charter of Christ is said 
to ’embod[y] all the expectations and fears of vernacular literary production [. . .]' 
(p. 228) (all of them?); we are told that for certain medieval writers 'the legal 
document classified the lyric as a genre by making it quite literally a social 
contract' (p. 90) (all lyric?); Langland apparently 'invents public poetry from the 
matter of documentary culture' (p. 143); and 'in late medieval England 
documentary culture always constituted the matter from which even an anti¬ 
establishment agenda could proceed' (p. 239). These claims are too sweeping, but 
they seem to me to be understandable given the lack of attention to the 
significance of the document for literature prior to Steiner's work. And the book 
finishes strongly, showing the ways in which an eye for documents can cast new 
light on well-trodden ground: Steiner's consideration of Margery Kempe's 
insistence on collecting documents that testified to her encounters with 
ecclesiastical authorities—texts that ensured her safe passage, but that also 
constituted her own personal archive—ends with the point that documentary and 
literary cultures operated 'not through analogy but through reciprocity' (p. 246). If 
the argument that the document—or better the idea of the document—'makes' 
literature is overstated, the book nevertheless outlines compellingly the ways in 
which the document enables the redirection of official discourse: by means of its 
public nature, and by means of its simultaneous recognisability of form and its 
malleability and adaptability to particular agendas—by means of its capacity to 
incorporate and to be incorporated. 


Medieval Virginities, ed. by Anke Bemau, Ruth Evans and Sarah Salih. (Cardiff: 
University of Wales Press, 2003). xiv + 296 pp. hb ISBN 0708317634, pb ISBN 

Medieval Virginities opens not with the medieval but with the modem fascination 
with virginity: not only is medieval virginity studies a rapidly growing 'mini¬ 
discipline' among contemporary scholars, but the profile of virginity is also rising 
rapidly in popular culture (p. 1). Yet as editors Sarah Salih, Anke Bemau and 
Ruth Evans insist in their introduction, '[m]edieval virginity [. . .] is no more self- 
evident than the medieval itself. It is precisely because medieval virginity so often 
fantasizes itself (and is fantasized by others) as self-identical and ahistorical that 



we need to theorize and historicize its various manifestations' (p. 2). In order to 
break away from this monolithic view of virginity, they and their contributors 
argue for the multiplicity of virginities, both secular and sacred. Building upon 
current work as well as setting out in new directions, the 'collection aims to trace 
some of the specific manifestations of virginity in late medieval culture’ using 
literary, historical, and art-historical approaches (p. 7). 

As a collection, Medieval Virginities has many strengths. The three editors 
are uniquely qualified for such an undertaking, having already made a significant 
contribution to the field. Indeed, not only does their introduction effectively 
situate the work within the research that has already been undertaken as well as 
delineating possible areas for future scholarship, their own individual 
contributions are among the most thought-provoking. Moreover, the range of 
topics and methodologies offered by the essays is breathtaking, ranging from new 
studies in secular female virginity (Kim M. Phillips) and masculine virginity 
(John H. Arnold and Joanna Huntingdon), to the more obscure subjects of 
alchemy (Jonathan Hughes), chastity tests in Welsh prose (Jane Cartwright), and 
the depiction of sheela-na-gigs—naked women displaying 'oversized genitals' (p. 
33)—in stone sculpture (Juliette Dor). Robert Mills and Evans discuss the more 
traditional topic of female virgin saints, yet even these more predictable studies 
enter unpredictable territory. Mills, for example, uses postcolonial theory to move 
beyond the 'intractable double bind' of 'victimization and empowerment that 
appears to characterize the virgin martyr's condition' in order to examine how she 
plays a role in not one, but many networks of gender, class, and religious identity 
(pp. 187-8). Likewise Evans analyses how the passion narratives of virgin martyrs 
'are shaped by the absent presence of the Jew, especially in his fantasized 
relationship to the Eucharist' (p. 169). Some of the chapters, such as those by 
Salih and Hughes, initially seem only indirectly related to the study of virginity 
per se, but upon further consideration usefully demonstrate the wide range of the 
subject's applications. Furthermore, the presence of a complete bibliography as 
well as a detailed index for the entire collection ensures greater ease of reference. 

The greatest strength of the volume is the concluding essay by Jocelyn 
Wogan-Browne, a prominent scholar in the field for many years. As might be 
expected, she places the collection in the context of past studies and suggests 
possible directions for further research, but she also argues for the modem 
relevance of such studies. In her examination, both amusing and chilling, of 
recent medical textbooks, she reveals that the female urogenital systems are, even 
in the 1990s, still described in terms of inferiority and absence when compared to 



those of the male. Returning the reader to the present day, she does not end where 
the collection begins—with the role of virginity in horror films and the popular 
music scene—but with the 'damaging cultural valuations and constructions of 
virginity' that remain widespread, namely female genital mutilation (p. 247). Whether 
in Britain or abroad, examining the past, the present, or looking towards the future, 
she reminds us that 'the politics of who does what to whom in the name of the custody 
of women's bodies and virginities does not permit simple answers' (p. 248). 

If Medieval Virginities has a weakness, it is that its enormous breadth of 
scope sometimes leaves little room for depth. The wide range of virginities on 
offer makes it difficult for any particular variety to be explored in great detail. 
Likewise, the number of chapters (twelve) means that each contribution is 
relatively short. Some contributions, however, would have benefited from having 
a little more space to explore concepts. For example, Salih opens with a 
fascinating discussion about the need to examine the slippage between erotic and 
religious language rather than establishing them as discrete categories, but her 
examination of this slippage in the vita of Saint Gilbert of Sempringham and The 
Life of Christina of Markyate seems cramped. Still, the dazzling range of 
approaches on display more than compensates for such deficiencies, offering not 
a single end, but many new beginnings. 

Overall Medieval Virginities is a collection of essays with a great deal to 
offer the student or the scholar who has undertaken not only the study of 
virginity, but many other facets of literary studies as well as the religious, social, 
and cultural history of late medieval Britain and north-western Europe. A reading 
of the various contributions reveals that virginity is not only difficult to define or 
contain, but that examining the issues surrounding virginity leads to a deeper 
understanding of societal practices. As Wogan-Browne concludes, '[tjhinking 
hard about all our virginities and who has what kind of stake in them is valuable 
cultural work' (p. 248). 



Also published by Leeds Studies in English are the occasional series: 


(ISSN 0075-8574) 

LTM Medieval Drama Facsimiles 

(ISSN 0143-0335) 

Recent volumes in the LTM series include: 

The Gawain Country: Essays on the Topography of 
Middle English Poetry by R.W.V. Elliot (1984) 165pp. 

Staging the Chester Cycle, edited by David Mills (1985) vii + 123pp. 
Ur Dolum til Dala: Gudbrandur Vigfusson Centenary Essays, 
edited by Rory McTurk and Andrew Wawn (1989) x + 327pp. 

P. J. Cosijn: Notes on 'Beowulf, introduced, translated and annotated by 
Rolf H. Bremmer Jr, Jan van den Berg and David F. Johnson 
(1991) xxxvi + 120pp. 

A Study and Edition of Selected Middle English Sermons 
by V. M. O'Mara (1994) xi + 245pp. 

Concepts of National Identity in the Middle Ages, edited by Simon Forde, 
Lesley Johnson and Alan V. Murray (1995) viii + 213pp. 

The Old English Life of St Nicholas with the Old English Life of St Giles 
by E. M. Trehame (1997) viii + 218pp. 

The Heege Manuscript : a facsimile of NLS MS Advocates 19.3.1, 
introduced by Phillipa Hardman (2000), 60 + 432pp. 

And Medieval Drama Facsimile volumes include: 

The York Play, a facsimile of BL Additional MS 35290, edited by 
Richard Beadle and Peter Meredith (1983) Ixi + 551pp., 5 colour plates. 
The Chester Mystery Cycle, a facsimile of BL Harley MS 2124, edited by 
David Mills (1984) xxii + 288pp. 

Details of these series and of past numbers of Leeds Studies in English, including prices 
and availability, can be obtained from the LSE/LTM websites: 

or from: The Secretary, 

Leeds Studies in English, 

School of English, 

University of Leeds, 

Leeds LS2 9JT, U.K. 


All orders should be placed with the Secretary at the above address. 

Those with standing orders for any series ( Leeds Studies in English, LTM 
or the Drama Facsimiles) are entitled to a 25% discount on all publications. 

Also published by Leeds Studies in English are the occasional series: 


(ISSN 0075-8574) 

LTM Medieval Drama Facsimiles 

(ISSN 0143-0335) 

Recent volumes in the LTM series include: 

The Gawain Country: Essays on the Topography of 
Middle English Poetry by R.W.V. Elliot (1984) 165pp. 

Staging the Chester Cycle, edited by David Mills (1985) vii + 123pp. 
Ur Dolum til Dala: Gudbrandur Vigfusson Centenary Essays, 
edited by Rory McTurk and Andrew Wawn (1989) x + 327pp. 

P. J. Cosijn: Notes on 'Beowulf, introduced, translated and annotated by 
Rolf H. Bremmer Jr, Jan van den Berg and David F. Johnson 
(1991) xxxvi + 120pp. 

A Study and Edition of Selected Middle English Sermons 
by V. M. O'Mara (1994) xi + 245pp. 

Concepts of National Identity in the Middle Ages, edited by Simon Forde, 
Lesley Johnson and Alan V. Murray (1995) viii + 213pp. 

The Old English Life of St Nicholas with the Old English Life of St Giles 
by E. M. Trehame (1997) viii + 218pp. 

The Heege Manuscript : a facsimile of NLS MS Advocates 19.3.1, 
introduced by Phillipa Hardman (2000), 60 + 432pp. 

And Medieval Drama Facsimile volumes include: 

The York Play, a facsimile of BL Additional MS 35290, edited by 
Richard Beadle and Peter Meredith (1983) lxi + 551pp., 5 colour plates. 
The Chester Mystery Cycle, a facsimile of BL Harley MS 2124, edited by 
David Mills (1984) xxii + 288pp. 

Details of these series and of past numbers of Leeds Studies in English, including prices 
and availability, can be obtained from the LSE/LTM websites: 

or from: The Secretary, 

Leeds Studies in English, 

School of English, 

University of Leeds, 

Leeds LS2 9JT, U.K. 


All orders should be placed with the Secretary at the above address. 

Those with standing orders for any series ( Leeds Studies in English, LTM 
or the Drama Facsimiles) are entitled to a 25% discount on all publications.