Sherry L Reames

title.none: Hamer and Russell, eds., Supplementary Lives in Some Manuscripts of the Gilte Legende (Sherry L Reames)

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.010 02.09.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Sherry L Reames, University of Wisconsin,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Hamer, Richard and Vida Russell, eds. Supplementary Lives in Some Manuscripts of the Gilte Legende. Early English Text Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. V, 564. ISBN: 0-197-22318-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.10

Hamer, Richard and Vida Russell, eds. Supplementary Lives in Some Manuscripts of the Gilte Legende. Early English Text Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. V, 564. ISBN: 0-197-22318-4.

Reviewed by:

Sherry L Reames
University of Wisconsin

The Middle English saints' Lives brought together in this edition are much more valuable and interesting than the title words "supplementary" and "some manuscripts" might suggest. The Gilte Legende proper, which is also being edited for EETS by Hamer and Russell, is a mid-fifteenth-century translation into Middle English prose of the Legende doree of Jean de Vignay -- that is, of the most influential French version of the Legenda aurea or Golden Legend, originally written in Latin by Jacobus de Voragine. The standard hagiographical contents of the Gilte Legende, like those of its Continental sources, are international but centered on Rome and the Mediterranean region, with very few British saints; hence the "supplementary Lives" added to three of its eight surviving manuscripts serve most obviously to redress this regional imbalance. Among the extra chapters supplied are accounts of sixteen British saints who were normally omitted from the Legenda aurea and its descendants: Aldhelm, Alphege, Augustine of Canterbury, Chad, Cuthbert, Dunstan, "Edmonde the Confessoure" (Edmund of Abingdon), Edmund King and Martyr, Edward the Confessor, Edward King and Martyr, Erkenwald, Frideswide, Kenelm, "Oswolde the Bisshop" (Oswald of Worcester and York), Swithun, and Winifred. Other "supplementary" texts found in one or more of these manuscripts are a detailed Life of Thomas Becket which is almost entirely different from the one in the Legenda aurea tradition; alternative Lives of two Irish saints, Brendan and Bridget; alternative or newly added Lives of several more saints -- Barbara, Dorothy, Faith [Foi], Jerome, Leodegar [Leger], Michael, Theophilus, and the Three Kings of Cologne; and two non-hagiographical items: an account of the indulgences promised to pilgrims who visit the seven principal churches in Rome and a treatise called "Whate the church betokeneth and dyvers other maters," which gives the allegorical meanings of church buildings, their furnishings and rituals, and then briefly explains the seven deadly sins, the twelve articles of faith, the seven sacraments, and other basic elements of the Christian faith. Except for the Three Kings of Cologne, which has been deferred because of its length and the complexity of its textual tradition, the volume being reviewed here includes all these Middle English texts, most of which have hitherto been unavailable in print.

The publication of this edition makes it convenient, for the first time, to study the connections between the Gilte Legende [hereafter GiL] and its closest surviving relatives in Middle English, Caxton's Golden Legend and the much earlier South English Legendary [hereafter SEL]. As Pierce Butler first suggested more than a century ago, Caxton must have used an expanded version of the GiL, including many of the supplementary Lives found in the expanded MSS that have survived, along with his French and Latin sources for the Golden Legend. Both the selection of English saints in Caxton's book and the details in his accounts resemble the additions to the GiL too closely to be explained by any other hypothesis than direct borrowing. To start with a very simple example, here are the opening lines from Caxton's chapter on St. Swithun [in the slightly modernized edition by F. S. Ellis]:

"S. Swithin, the holy confessor, was born beside Winchester in the time of St. Egbert, king. He was the seventh king after Kenulf that S. Birinus christened. For S. Austin christened not all England in S. Ethelbert's days, but S. Birinus christened the west part of England in the days of Kenulf the king. And at that time this holy S. Swithin served our Lady so devoutly that all people that knew him had great joy of his holiness, and Elmeston, that was in that time Bishop of Winchester, made him priest."

The corresponding passage from the GiL, as edited by Hamer and Russell, has more archaic spellings [including the use of the thorn, for which I will substitute "th"]; but in most other respects the two versions are identical:

"Seynt Swithen the holy confessour was bore bysides Wynchester in the tyme of [Kyng] Egbert. He was the .viij. kynge aftir Kenulf, that Seint Beryne cristened, for Seint Austyn cristened not al Inglonde in Kyng Athelbrightis days, but Seint Beryn dide cristen the west parte of Inglonde in the foreseid Kyng Kenulf is days. And than this holy Seint Swythen seruyd oure lorde in ful gret deuocion, so that al the peple had gret ioy of his holynes, and Elmeston that was tho bishop of Wyncester made him preste."

This edition will obviously make it easier for scholars to identify and assess the revisions actually made by Caxton when he compiled his best-selling version of the Golden Legend. The particular Lives published here will also facilitate some illuminating comparisons with the SEL, since (as Manfred Gorlach has demonstrated) the Lives of English saints added to the GiL seem to have been based in large part on the corresponding chapters of that earlier Middle English collection. The descriptions by Gorlach sometimes suggest that the author or authors of these portions of the GiL didn't change the SEL in any significant way unless they introduced new episodes or details from other sources. When one sets the two versions side by side, however, one quickly begins to appreciate the magnitude of the linguistic and stylistic transformation that was done whenever the diffuse rhyming couplets of the SEL, presumably composed for oral delivery, were rewritten in efficient fifteenth-century prose. Consider the opening lines on St. Swithun in the SEL, which have the same essential content as the GiL version quoted above but are not always easy for a modern reader to follow, much less punctuate [I quote from the standard EETS edition by d'Evelyn and Mill, with modern equivalents replacing thorn and yogh and a stroke replacing medial point in each line]:

Sein Swithin the confessour / was her of Engelonde Biside Winchestre he was ibore / as ich understonde Bi the kinges day Ekberd / this godeman was ibore That tho was king of Engelond / & somdel ek biuore The eightethe king he was that com / after Kenewolf the kinge That sein Berin dude to Cristendom / in Engelond ferst bringe Ac seint Austin hadde biuore / to Cristendom ibroght Athelbright the gode kyng / ac al the lond noght Ac suthe it was that sein Birin / here bi weste wende And turnde the king Kynewolf / as oure Louerd him grace sende So that Ekberd that was king / tho sein Swithin was ibore The eightethe was after Kynewolf / that so long was biuore Sein Swithin this yonge man / swuthe yong bigan Forto serui Iesu Crist / and to beo holy man Elmeston the bissop het / of Winchestre that was tho Sein Swithin he made preost / as he hadde other mo...

Comparing the "supplementary" Lives in the GiL with their counterparts in the SEL and Caxton becomes more interesting, of course, when there are substantial changes in content from one version to the next. Hamer and Russell have provided each text in this edition with a brief introduction and helpful notes which discuss (among other things) the nature and extent of the text's dependence on the SEL, identifying major additions, substitutions, and mistranslations. With regard to Thomas Becket, for example, they characterize the supplementary GiL Life in general as "dependent upon SEL [pages] 610-692, with additional material" (p. 283), and point out among its additions to the SEL three stories about miraculous signs witnessed in Rome, all of which were subsequently retold by Caxton. These added stories immediately pique one's curiosity because the SEL account of Thomas was so long and detailed that the author of the supplementary GiL Life devoted unusual effort to condensing it. What could have prompted him to insert these new stories in his own version? And why did Caxton keep them, even as he made drastic further cuts in the rest of the chapter? The first story (lines 713-42) is the oddest and most distinctive: Thomas, who has just arrived in Rome, allows himself and his entourage to eat meat on St. Mark's Day (April 25) since there is no fish to be had; and the cardinal who reports this transgression to the pope finds that the physical evidence, a capon leg, has been transformed into a fish. And (the story continues) this miracle not only persuades the pope of Thomas's innocence but also moves him to grant a special privilege to Thomas's diocese: henceforth everyone in the diocese of Canterbury will be allowed to eat meat on St. Mark's Day and will even receive an indulgence of 40 days for doing so. The second and third signs added to the SEL occur at the time of Thomas's death and serve in effect to reinforce the argument for his sanctity: the color of a chasuble Thomas had worn is changed from white to red, instantaneously informing the pope that he has been slain (lines 767-75 and 1151-55), and an angel begins the subsequent mass with "Letabitur iustus in Domino," signalling God's verdict that the appropriate service for this occasion is not a Requiem for the dead, but the service for a martyred saint (lines 1155-61). Again one wonders just what functions these stories served in the fifteenth century. Was St. Thomas's reputation under attack again in some circles, or was it the contemporary leaders of the church whose spiritual credentials were being questioned and needed reinforcement?

The notes by Hamer and Russell call relatively little attention to patterns of selective omission and re-emphasis in the supplementary GiL Lives, as compared with the SEL and Caxton; but this edition will make it convenient for scholars to identify and study these as well. Some of the most interesting ones I have noticed occur near the end of the Life of Thomas Becket. After Thomas's martyrdom the SEL account goes on at some length to relate the sorrow and repentance of King Henry, his humble submission to the pope's emissaries, and his public absolution by them, and then, five years later, his even more dramatic public penance at Thomas's tomb during the war with his son and the suggestions that he owed his ultimate victory in this conflict to the restored favor of St. Thomas. Then the SEL turns to the four knights who actually committed the murder, devoting another 30 lines to their repentance and punishment. Caxton's chapter on Thomas, however, conspicuously avoids this whole part of the narrative, inserting between the murder and the miraculous signs to the pope just one very understated sentence about the king: "And soon after tidings came to the king how he was slain, wherefore the king took great sorrow, and sent to Rome for his absolution" (Ellis ed., vol. 2, p. 196). Again one's curiosity is piqued. Did Caxton just regard the messy, complicated aftermath of the crime as irrelevant or aesthetically unpleasing, or did he think his intended audience would be uncomfortable with such an account of earthly rulers brought low? The supplementary GiL version, which stands as usual between the SEL and Caxton, adds another perspective on the issues. It relates almost the same sequence of events as the SEL, but changes the implicit message of the king's story by ending with his prayer for forgiveness by God and St. Thomas (lines 1230-34), omitting both the king's humiliation by the monks and the SEL's ensuing points about his victory over his rebellious son (and the son's death) as a result of the saint's intervention. Thus the story as Caxton would have known it sounds less like a political pamphlet and more like a sermon than it does in the SEL. The GiL also noticeably softens the tone when it relates the subsequent fates of the four assassins. Where the SEL draws another moral about justice, insisting that God punishes such evildoers by cutting their earthly lives short, no matter how deep their repentance (lines 2437-42), the GiL stresses the repentance itself, using language that encourages the audience to empathize with these repentant sinners (lines 1236-41 and 1247-49).

The purpose of the examples cited above is not to spin my own theories about retellings of a particular saint's legend, but to illustrate the potential usefulness of these supplementary GiL Lives in connection with other retellings of the same saints' lives. Most often, the fruitful comparisons will probably begin with the SEL, since twenty of the twenty-nine hagiographical texts in this edition are reported by Gorlach to have been translated, adapted, or paraphrased from that collection or early additions to it. But the other nine texts also present attractive possibilities for comparative studies, since they include detailed accounts of three English saints (Edward the Confessor, Erkenwald, and Augustine of Canterbury -- the latter in two versions, one far longer than the other) whose Lives were rarely retold except in Latin and three popular virgin martyrs (Winifred, Barbara, and Dorothy -- the latter in three different versions) whose Lives have survived in other vernacular languages but are rare in Middle English. In short, this edition provides a wealth of unusual and interesting texts that should be appealing to anyone who is interested in the growth and uses of vernacular hagiography, the legends and cults of English saints, lay religious culture more generally, or the development of English prose style in the late Middle Ages. All serious research libraries should have it.

The quality of the edition itself is excellent, for the most part. Hamer and Russell are experienced and reliable editors, and they have treated the texts with admirable care, restraint, and good sense, closely following one manuscript at a time and modernizing only such details as punctuation, capitalization, and word division. Thus their texts are both faithful to the readings of the manuscripts and intelligible to modern readers. Besides the text themselves, the edition provides a brief introduction to each text, some additional commentary in the form of explanatory notes, a fairly extensive glossary, an index of proper names, and an index of Biblical quotations and references. I noticed a few errors in the notes and wished for quite a bit more annotation of some texts than the editors provided. But it would be ungrateful actually to demand more of the editors and EETS than they have given us on this occasion.

Works cited:

Butler, Pierce. Legenda aurea--Legende doree--Golden Legend. Baltimore: John Murphy, 1899.

Caxton, William. The Golden Legend, or Lives of the Saints. F. S. Ellis, ed. 7 volumes in 4. London: J. M. Dent, 1900; rept. AMS, 1973.

D'Evelyn, Charlotte, and Anna J. Mill, eds. The South English Legendary, edited from Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 145 and British Museum MS Harley 2277. 3 vols. EETS o.s. 235, 236, 244. London: Oxford University Press, 1956-59.

Gorlach, Manfred. The Textual Tradition of the South English Legendary. Leeds Texts and Monographs, new series 6. Leeds: University of Leeds, 1974.

Gorlach, Manfred. Studies in Middle English Saints' Legends. Anglistische Forschungen 257. Heidelberg: Universitatsverlag C. Winter, 1998.