The Medieval Review 09.11.12

Thompson, Anne B. The Northern Homily Cycle. TEAMS: Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Insitute Publications, 2008. Pp. 292. . 978-1-58044-126-1.

Reviewed by:

Fritz Kemmler
University of Tbingen

Anne Thompson's edition of parts of the Northern Homily Cycle is a highly welcome addition to the series. There are good reasons for her decision to present a selection only since a full edition of the approximately 20,000 lines of the full cycle would have required the space of several volumes (but see below). In her introduction (1-15) Anne Thompson sketches the background of this important collection of homilies, its transmission and later versions and adaptations. Students of (early) Middle English religious literature will now be able to compare substantial portions of the original or unexpanded version with the later expanded northern version edited by Saara Nevanlinna (3 vols., Helsinki, 1972-1984). They will notice that differences are sometimes very considerable, as for instance in homily 46 for the eleventh Sunday after Trinity--a homily with an exemplum which is unusually outspoken as to asceticism, marriage and sex.

Scholars with an interest in the field of religious instruction in the wake of the Fourth Lateran Council will be grateful for a reliable edition of both the prologue and ratio of the original version. The prologue, in particular, reveals authorial intentions similar to those found in the prologues to the Cursor mundi and Robert Mannyng's Handlyng Synne: religious instruction in the vernacular for an English audience consisting of laymen incapable of understanding both "Latin and Frankis".

Anne Thompson's edition of the original version contains 23 of the 59 homilies of the entire cycle and just over a third of the full text. It is somewhat surprising that she hardly says anything concerning her guiding principles in the process of selection. At one point, this is especially frustrating: Homily 59 (for the twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity) is included in the edition as it appears in MS A, ending with a hint that the entire gospel text (and its exposition) can be found under the fourth Sunday in Lent:

"The remnande of this Gospell thou maye Finde on the ferde Lentene Sonondaie." (197)

The homily for the fourth Sunday in Lent (No. 21) with its highly popular exemplum Piers Toller is, however, not included in the present edition.

Beginning students will certainly appreciate the (sometimes very) copious explanatory notes printed separately (199-262). In most instances Anne Thompson's notes are very helpful even though some additional information as to more recent contexts might have been useful. Thus, the reference to the Trinity in the Prologue (line 4) is treated in the explanatory notes at p. 199. In my view, a reference to the first canon of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 with its re- affirmation of the Doctrine of the Trinity would have shown the continuing debate about the chief constituents of the Christian faith. The explanatory note to ll. 67-68 of the Prologue, commenting on the mirror function of texts, could have been expanded to include the highly significant concept and important medieval literary genre of specula and their educating and monitoring function. The explanatory note to Homily 19, lines 88-89, Gromonde meaning "'translation'" is simply wrong--the meaning is certainly gourmand, reinforced by the apposition "the gredie" in both lines. Also, I would have expected at least a short explanatory note to a rather rare and positive use of the word pride in homily 6, line 132: "to lose the pride of heaven". Maybe this rather unusual use of "pride" was prompted by the rhyme: "syde--pride". However, these are indeed minor criticisms in view of the copious and expert explanatory notes.

There are only a few printer's errors in the book--p. 91, line 356: "blsse" should certainly read "blisse"; p. 105, line 144: "hin" should read "him"; p. 193, line 152: "skornrfulli" should probably read "skornfulli". Full bibliographical details are missing for The New Index of Middle English Verse and Horstmann's Altenglischen Legenden (279) should read Altenglische Legenden, his "Die evangeliien geschichten" (281) should read "Die Evangelien- Geschichten" (see 279).

In view of the importance of the Northern Homily Cycle as one of the earlier texts of religious instruction in the vernacular, it is to be hoped that a full edition of the text will be undertaken in the near future. The editors responsible for such an edition will certainly profit from Anne Thompson's expert volume.