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Preachers, Poets, and the Early English Lyric

Preachers, Poets, and the Early English Lyric

by Siegfried Wenzel

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The Middle English lyric is intimately related to late medieval preaching, not only because many lyrical poems have been preserved in sermon manuscripts, but also because preaching furnished a unique opportunity to create and utilize poems. Preaching, Poets, and the Early English Lyric explores this relationship in detail.


The Middle English lyric is intimately related to late medieval preaching, not only because many lyrical poems have been preserved in sermon manuscripts, but also because preaching furnished a unique opportunity to create and utilize poems. Preaching, Poets, and the Early English Lyric explores this relationship in detail.

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

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Preachers, Poets, and the Early English Lyric

By Siegfried Wenzel


Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06670-7


Preachers and Poets

Despite the massive study of preaching in medieval England by G. R. Owst — whose second book was subtitled A Neglected Chapter in the History of English Letters and of the English People — it is fair to say that the relations of Middle English literature to contemporary preaching are far from exhaustively studied and known. Owst's own interests were limited to showing that such large features of late medieval "letters" as realism, social satire and criticism, and the use of allegory were fully paralleled in contemporary sermons, rather than pointing to specific verbal material or structural elements which Chaucer, Langland, Gower, or the Corpus Christi plays had borrowed or imitated from sermons. This neglect of close investigation holds even more true of lyric poetry, and as a result the connection of English poems with sermons often goes undetected and even unsuspected. A good case in point is the poem entitled "How Christ Shall Come." During the last generation, it has held the attention of half a dozen critics who have attempted to elucidate and appraise its aesthetic achievement without realizing that the lines are nothing but the rhymed divisions of a Latin sermon and that several of these critical attempts looked at only one half of the English text.

Besides demonstrating that it always pays to examine a medieval poem's context, the embarrassing critical miscarriage of this case also elicits some deeper and more disturbing questions. If experienced readers have been struck by a certain lyrical power and emotion contained in these verses, where then does the line run that would distinguish versified prose which had a precise structural function in a sermon, from genuine lyric poetry? And further, since the images utilized in these stanzas as well as their meaning and their composition are completely conventional, what precisely does a critic evaluate in judging the accomplishment and beauty of a poem whose verbal texture is not particularly noteworthy — as was indeed acknowledged by the critics who dealt with these verses? Whatever answers he may propose to such nagging questions, the critic of medieval English literature must at least face up to the historical fact that the early English lyric was closely related to preaching. It is this fact that the following chapters will explore further.

The best known facet of this relation is that a large number of early English lyrics — most of them religious, but some also secular — have been preserved in manuscripts that were unquestionably connected with preaching. One of the foremost students of the Middle English lyric has stated that the four large groups of manuscripts: friar miscellanies, sermons and sermon notebooks, mystical and devotional works, and closet hymns, "are almost the sole source for our knowledge of Middle English verse to the end of the fourteenth century"; and even if one excludes "mystical and devotional works" as not directly related to preaching, and reduces the so-called "friar miscellanies" by several items whose association with preaching cannot be maintained, the debt of the early English lyric to preaching is still very impressive. With respect to their relationship to preaching, the manuscripts that have thus preserved the early English lyrics can be classified as follows:

(1) Sermon collections. Manuscripts which contain primarily a series of complete sermons. The series may be a regular cycle, running for instance from the first Sunday of Advent to the last Sunday after Trinity, or it may be a more or less haphazard gathering of sermons following no recognizable order. The sermons may differ in length, structure, completeness, and even language; come from one or a variety of authors; and be written in a single or several different hands. English verses here will normally appear within a definite sermon context and have a clearly discernible function in a sermon, even if they should have been added in the margins after the main text had been written.

(2) Preaching tools. Works written for the purpose of aiding preachers in composing their sermons. These are of many different kinds and forms, some of which will be mentioned at the beginning of chapter 4. In contrast to sermon collections, which were of course also intended to aid preachers as models and source books, preaching tools do not normally provide full and finished sermons but only their raw material or rules of general guidance. A good example is Fasciculus morum, a Franciscan work which offers preaching material discursively and arranged in the order of the seven deadly sins and their opposite virtues. Bromyard's Summa praedicantium furnishes similar material but organizes it instead in a large number of separate articles arranged in alphabetical order. John of Grimestone's commonplace book, which will be examined more closely in chapter 4, is very similar to Bromyard's Summa in presenting an alphabetical series of topics, but the material in the individual articles is here more haphazardly gathered without the logical and schematic arrangement and the more discursive treatment one finds in Bromyard. To this type also belongs the Speculum Christiani, which was even translated in its entirety into English. All these texts contain English verses. Depending on the nature of the preaching tool, the verses will have more or less context; but they normally lack any indication to what precise service they were put in an actual sermon.

(3) Preacher's notebooks. Manuscripts that contain a variety of preaching materials, usually copied down without any particular order. These notebooks may contain exempla, extracts from the Fathers, short paragraphs on theological or moral topics (such as, transubstantiation or abstinence), sermon outlines, and even entire sermons; but these different materials appear together in a rather helter-skelter way, and it is this lack of both homogeneity and orderly arrangement that distinguishes notebooks from preaching tools. Good examples of preacher's notebooks with many English verses are British Library, MS. Harley 7322, and several manuscripts compiled by the fifteenth-century priest and recluse John Dygoun. Such notebooks are not always easy to distinguish from sermon collections proper, even upon close examination of the respective codex. In some cases a preacher copied an entire series of sermons into what he intended to be his notebook. In others, a scribe added some stray paragraphs on the incompletely filled pages of a sermon collection. And in yet other cases a sermon collection was later bound together with different materials, resulting in a composite manuscript that comprises "booklets" belonging to different types of our classification. This complex situation calls for detailed study of each individual manuscript, its physical makeup as well as its contents — a field of investigation that still awaits much patient work. Nonetheless, it is usually not difficult to tell whether the environment of an English poem, the particular section of a manuscript where it occurs, is that of a sermon collection or of a notebook.

(4) Miscellanies. Collections of various texts including poems, but the latter do not appear in a specific context of sermons or preaching material. In manuscripts I would include in this category, an English poem is sometimes accompanied by musical notation. Thus, Oxford, Corpus Christi College MS. 59, from Llanthony Priory, Gloucestershire, and written shortly after 1265, is in general very much like the notebooks of the previous category, and some of its material may or may not have been used in preaching. But the three English poems it preserves (one a translation of the Lord's Prayer, the second a hymn with music) are not thematically or functionally related in the codex to a preaching context. Similarly, British Library, MS. Arundel 292, from the Benedictine cathedral priory of Norwich, contains material that very probably was used in preaching; yet its nine English items in verse, of two different periods, appear without specific sermon (or for that matter, any other) context. The distinction I have drawn between categories three and four may strike some readers as a trifle pedantic, but it will serve as a necessary reminder that, for example, the poems in MS. Arundel 292, such as "The Blacksmiths," must not be automatically associated with preaching on the ground of the general nature of the manuscript in which they appear.

(5) Poetic anthologies. A collection of pieces primarily in verse, although some prose items may be included. The poems do not have any clear sermon context. This category comprises such famous manuscripts as Bodleian Library, MS. Digby 86; Oxford, Jesus College MS. 29; British Library, MS. Cotton Caligula A.ix; MS. Harley 2253; and others. Together with narrative verse, such as La3amon's Brut or The Owl and the Nightingale, they all contain larger numbers of lyric poems, often in English, French, and Latin.

(6) Non-preaching books. This category comprises books whose subject matter is homogeneous and is not directly related to preaching, but is not a collection of poetry. They may include one or two English poems. To this type belong, for example, liturgical books that carry isolated poems on their flyleaves, or the copy of Ancrene Wisse that preserves an English song at its end, or chronicles whose text contains one or more verses including some that are also found in sermons. I would also include here cases like Nou goth sonne vnder wod, which appears in a summa of Christian doctrine with guidance for meditation. The poem may have later been quoted in sermons, but its original context is that of a non-preaching book.

Regarding the preservation of early English lyrics in books made and used by preachers, a special problem attaches to a group of seven manuscripts which have been labeled "friar miscellanies." These "Golden Treasuries or Oxford Books of Verse of the thirteenth century," as they have been called, are of primary interest to the student of medieval lyrics and narrative poetry, not only because of the large number of the English poems they contain but also because of their outstanding poetic quality. Their assignment to one of the mendicant orders rests either on the association that the respective codices may have held with a religious order — an association that is frequently very tenuous — or else on the fact that they share certain poems with manuscripts whose connection with a mendicant order is more definite. The prime case in the latter respect is MS. Harley 2253, but its association with friars can no longer be seriously maintained. With regard to their possible connection with preaching materials, of the manuscripts once included among "friar miscellanies" I would consider Cambridge, Trinity College MS. 323 a preacher's notebook (class 3); Bodleian Library, MS. Digby 2, and British Library, MS. Harley 913, miscellanies (class 4); and MS. Digby 86, Oxford, Jesus College MS. 29 (part II), British Library, MS. Cotton Caligula A. ix (part II), and MS. Harley 2253, poetic anthologies (class 5).

But the connection of Middle English lyrics with preaching goes far beyond their preservation in manuscripts that were made by and for preachers. A good many of these poems were actually used in sermons. This, too, is not a new insight. Yet the fact that such poems had a precise function in sermons beyond being merely decorative, and the precise nature of this function, is evidently not fully understood and appreciated by literary critics, as the case of "How Christ Shall Come" has shown us. How such lack of awareness can seriously mislead literary critics as well as historians of literature and of medieval society may be illustrated with the history of another text. The following three stanzas are found in one of the sermons that were apparently preached in the 1430s by Friar William Melton and collected by his Franciscan confrere Nicholas Philip:

    For þou art comen of good blood,
    Or for art a riche man of good,
    For þou art well loued of moo,
    And for þou art a [??]ong man alsoo.

    Þin fader was a bond man,
    Þin moder curtesye noun can,
    Euery beste þat leuyth now
    Is of more fredam þan þow.

    [??]if þou art pore, þan art pou fre,
    [??]if þou be riche, þan woo is þe.
    For but þor spendyte well ere þou goo,
    Þin song for euer is well-ay-woe.

The poem's first modern editor called this "a three-stanza song of a nonreligious nature." In a footnote he added that its second stanza "might be a separate poem inserted. Its sentiment suggests that it belongs to the popular song of freedom of medieval England," which however he could not "identify." The poem then entered the major collection of historical poems under the title "A Song of Freedom" with its second stanza called "a genuine fragment of a worker's song," and this new label has since assured it a place among the lost poetry of medieval England. Finally, a recent study of fifteenth-century political poetry tells us that the second stanza "is clearly meant to be an expression of discontent at the bondman's condition of villeinage," though the writer then adds that, judged by the third stanza, this particular bondman was apparently not terribly resentful but "accept[ed] his condition."

A fresh look at the manuscript brings a number of surprises. First, contrary to speculation that has suggested a date of 1434, the sermon is clearly signed "1431." Next, the three edited stanzas are only part of a total of five. And finally, their Latin context and their function in the sermon make it very improbable that they voice social protest or preserve a popular song. The sermon in question is on the text Qui custos est domini sui gloriabitur ("He that is the keeper of his master shall be glorified," Proverbs 27.18). Its introduction speaks of the king of England or France entrusting the custody of a beloved city to his officer, and applies this image to God entrusting the care of our souls to each one of us. This leads to the following division:

He has enjoined on each one of us, under pain of imprisonment, to keep this city in peace and quiet. Therefore, in order to keep this city, we must do four things which are commonly done to men of this world in their honor, namely:

    Loke his wonnyng be clene a-dy[??]te; dwelling; prepared
    Loke his mete be made a-ry[??]te;
    Loke [he] hafe good cumpanye:
    And loke he hafe good mynstralcye.

All four parts are then developed in the sermon at some length, and all contain some English verses. The second principal part, "see to it that his food be prepared right," stipulates that Christ takes delight in four sewys delicatis ("delicate savory dishes"), which are, together with their moral meanings, the following:

Rys — by the first I understand our rising from sin;
Maumene — by the second, contrition of sin;
Blancmanger — by the third I consider the contemplation of things above;
And a sarsine — by the fourth, the contemplation of things below.

The preacher's verbal wit, already manifest in this subdivision with its (understood) English pun on "the rice of rising from sin," appears again when he develops the second dish, maumene. This word normally designates a dish of chopped or teased chicken with spices and other ingredients, but the preacher tells us that its etymology means yuelelad, and consequently the dish can be moralized as a man's "ill-led" life which must be prepared for Christ's coming by contrition. In reply to the question how a man may have grief for sin, the preacher argues as follows: If man had never sinned, he would have cause for joy as long as he lives. Now, in this life, man can rejoice in four things: noble descent, wealth, love and friendship, and youth and strength. But experience shows that none of these four is a true cause for joy, for reasons that are explained in due order. Therefore, there is no real joy in this world but only grief, whose ultimate cause is original sin. This syllogistic development of the moral meaning of maumene is expressed in English quatrains. The first of these, "For pou art comen of good blood," summarizes the four possible causes of worldly joy. The first cause, noble descent, is then shown to be fallacious for the reasons adduced in stanza 2, "Pin fader was a bond man." These reasons, summarized in the English lines, are explained in the surrounding Latin commentary:

But surely, none of these is matter for joy but rather for grief if you examine them carefully. For if you rejoice in noble blood, you are a fool, because your lineage from which you come is this:

Þin fader was a bond man ...

For your first father, Adam, was bound (obligatus) to God and further to death, which is the greatest degree of servitude. Similarly, your mother is earth. When you come to her, you will have only worms, who will eat whoever he was and however vile he may be. "Every beast is more free" because it has to die only once, but you will die often unless you have done well. Therefore, even if you are descended from noble blood, you have no cause for joy.


Excerpted from Preachers, Poets, and the Early English Lyric by Siegfried Wenzel. Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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