03.04.11, Murdoch and Tasioulas, eds, The Apocryphal Lives of Adam and Eve

Main Article Content

Graeme Dunphy

The Medieval Review baj9928.0304.011


Murdoch, Brian and J.A. Tasioulas, eds.. The Apocryphal Lives of Adam and Eve. Series: Exeter Medieval English Texts and Studies. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 2002. Pp. viii, 159. ISBN: 0-85989-698-6.

Reviewed by:
Graeme Dunphy
University of Regensburg

This new text edition of two important Middle English Adambooks will be welcomed by English and general mediaeval scholarship alike. The Auchinleck Life of Adam is an early fourteenth-century poem comprising 780 lines in rhyming couplets, composed in the dialect of London or Middlesex and surviving only in the Auchinleck Manuscript (Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland, Advocates' MS 19.2.1) which was committed to writing in the 1330s. The Canticum de Creatione (Oxford: Bodleian Library, olim Trinity College, MS 57) is slightly later; it helpfully gives its own date of composition as 1375. The 1200 lines of the Canticum are arranged in six-line strophes; the dialect appears to be Sussex. Both are paraphrases into English of the Latin Vita Adae, but apparently from different versions of the source. They therefore provide many interesting points of comparison, and should by rights attract attention far beyond the ranks of Middle English specialists. As the Adambooks are known throughout mediaeval Europe, their study is an interdisciplinary undertaking, and the English poems provide useful points of reference for scholars of the French, German or Latin Middle Ages; but equally, these lively, entertaining and easily readable texts are attractive for beginning students, and ought to have a regular place on the Middle English syllabus.

Unfortunately, however, the existing nineteenth-century editions are outdated and inaccessible, and in consequence neither work is as well known as it warrants. The inclusion of these poems in the Exeter series is therefore particularly welcome, and the two editors are to be congratulated on the success of their joint project. The division of labour is clear: Jacqueline Tasioulas is a specialist in early English, whereas Brian Murdoch is a literary scholar with a reputation for comparative work on the Adambooks. Their co-operation has clearly been fruitful, as this reasonably-priced paperback edition is eminently useable.

In terms of first impressions, it may seem incongruous that the cover illustrations contain text in Middle High German, from the manuscript of Lutwin's verse paraphrase Eva und Adam. The editors explain that this is unavoidable on account of the paucity of illustrated Adambooks in English, the miniatures in the Auchenleck manuscript having been excised in a reprehensible piece of early-modern vandalism. Drawing on an equivalent German manuscript from the same century at least suggests how the English manuscript might have been illustrated, if only we knew. As a result, the cover also highlights the international nature of the Adam tradition: Lutwin reappears as a point of comparison inside the volume.

Once we begin to turn the pages, we find a neatly presented edition which is a pleasure to work with. The volume scores with its very clear and easily readable Middle English text. A sensible editorial policy means that at the foot of the page there is a full critical apparatus especially of the Auchinleck text, but there is little in the way of distracting symbols in the text itself. A student-friendly glossary elucidates most of the Middle English vocabulary which might pose problems, the lemma being very helpfully the form found in the text, even when this is not the conventional citation form: giving teþ (the form sought) rather than toþ (the form in the dictionaries) is exactly what the inexperienced reader needs. Although no translation of the texts is offered, this aid is sufficient to allow those with limited prior knowledge of fourteenth-century English to find their bearings relatively quickly. The down-side of this, of course, is that the glossary cannot at the same time attempt to provide the detailed analysis which might interest a more advanced user involved in work on historical linguistics. On this kind of question, editors must make their choice, and on language matters Murdoch and Tasioulas have opted to support the beginner.

The introduction gives the usual basic data on dating, dialect, metrics and manuscript transmission, and also a fairly comprehensive survey of the history of Adambooks in Latin and various mediaeval vernaculars. The exuberance and humour of these texts, their theological and cultural centrality, and their intrinsic interest, are well portrayed. For literary studies, these connections are particularly important. Readers familiar with the work of Brian Murdoch will recognise the emphasis on the breadth of the tradition which he has highlighted elsewhere.

While the introduction deals with broader contexts, the analysis of the two Middle English poems themselves is reserved for the notes at the end of the volume. These concentrate on the relationship of the texts to their Latin source, the Vita Adae, and in this they are extremely thorough. A serious problem here is of course that there was never a standard text of the Vita, which has a vast and complex manuscript tradition, so that it would be difficult to isolate the Latin "source" of a vernacular Adambook even if we had a satisfactory critical edition; in the absence of one, it is quite impossible for the layman to avoid becoming lost in the maze of Latin versions. The editors' wise solution is to find for each short segment of verse the Vita text which comes closest and to comment on its similarities and differences. This gives a good impression of how the English poets must have worked with their source, without prejudice to the exact nature of this source, which, as the reader is several times reminded, remains open.

The notes include extensive citations from the Latin Vita, which are extremely useful. These do contain a small number of typographical errors, which it might be possible to eliminate in a second edition: on p. 111, for utiman read utinam; p.112 for duam read suam; p. 115 for er read et, etc. Again there are no translations, and regrettably we can no longer assume that students of Middle English will be able to cope with so much Latin. However, to include English versions of so many excerpts would have cluttered the notes so far as to make them cumbersome. The point, I think, is that these notes are not in any case aimed at students: the information they contain will principally be useful to experienced readers involved in comparative studies.

For those interested in the thematic development from Latin to English, on translation theory and motif transmission, on the use of the source to elucidate the idiosyncrasies of the poems or of the poems as witnesses to the Latin tradition, the notes are a veritable treasure-trove. The notes in text-editions are often so general that they can say little new, but in this case they are rigorous enough to offer meaningful new research. However, this does mean that they are highly specialised, almost a single-purpose commentary, and the reader will not find much help on other, specifically Middle English questions. There are many points of internal interest in these poems which are not touched upon because they do not pertain to the Vita. It would be unfair to put this down as a deficit, for a thirty-page commentary cannot do everything and the decision to cover one aspect comprehensively is perfectly legitimate. The task of addressing other kinds of questions which readers might ask must fall to the author of a future study.

For example, the Adambooks make mention of two rivers, the Tigris and the Jordan, and Middle English has several words meaning "river" which can be applied to these. Despite writing independently and in different dialects and decades, both poets consistently reserve "flum" (Auchinleck) or "flom" (Canticum) for the Jordan, while using other terms such as "flod" or "stronde" for the Tigris. Indeed the Auchinleck text never mentions the Jordan by name; the poet is content to say: "Eue in to Tiger wode...and in to þe flum wode Adam" (235, 237). This does not appear to reflect the distribution of Latin flumen or fluvius in the Vita, nor on a cursory perusal of the dictionaries can I discern any collocational pattern maintained throughout the Middle English corpus. I can offer no immediate explanation other than the possibility that there may be a convention familiar in certain monastic circles to which both poets belong, but at any rate it is the kind of question which would be worth pursuing. The new edition makes such studies possible, but does not itself offer answers.

However it would be invidious to criticise a book for what it does not attempt to do. Murdoch and Tasioulas have set out to provide us with a text suitable for use in the Middle English classroom but equally tailored to the needs of advanced literary research requiring access to Adambooks in a variety of languages. The edition has a clear bias towards literary scholarship; linguistics specialists ask different questions and require a different kind of edition. Editions which try to satisfy both camps sometimes fall between two stools, and the present editors appear to have made a conscious decision to do one thing well. The fact that the glossary is aimed at linguistic beginners while the notes are clearly designed to support advanced work in literary scholarship suggests that the editors are targeting the interdisciplinary market. Their text thus has the merit of being accessible to those outwith the confines of mediaeval English studies; and yet it is a critical edition which will do justice to the demands of the Early English departments. By focusing their commentary so intensively on the source question, the editors have ensured that a meaningful new contribution has been made to our understanding of these texts. There is still much to be done, but the way has been prepared.

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Author Biography

Graeme Dunphy

University of Regensburg