12.06.14, Livingston, The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament

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Norma J. Engberg

The Medieval Review 12.06.14

Livingston, Michael. The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament. TEAMS Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo:Medieval Institute Publications, 2011. Pp. 701. ISBN: 978-1-58044-150-6.

Reviewed by:

Norma J. Engberg

This newest volume in the TEAMS series is a medievalist's delight: 701 pages including Introduction, Text, End Notes, Variant Readings, and Bibliography. The anonymous Middle English (hereafter ME) poem, thus edited by Michael Livingston, is dated to 1380, contemporary with Chaucer and the Wycliffite movement. A few decades later, the York Plays borrowed phrasing from the Paraphrase, and used the same, rather unusual, stanza pattern. Livingston's ample 43 page introduction surveys possible sources, and recounts the history of the Bible and its early English translations, played out against a background of cultural interchanges. The Paraphrase does not contain the entire Old Testament: it anthologizes materials from the Octateuch (minus Leviticus); the Histories (I and II Samuel; and I and II Kings), and the Hagiographies (Job, Tobias, Esther, Judith, and II Maccabees). Livingston suggests a reason why the poet omitted the sixteen prophetic books, psalms and the five books of wisdom: they did not lend themselves to reconstructive "historical" narrative (609). The poet's targeted audience, identified in the poem's prologue, is "simple" men, in other words, persons not knowing Latin.

This edition prints the ME aligned to the left margin, with vocabulary supplements (generally single-word equivalents) in the right margin. The poem is broken into stanzas rhyming ABABABABCDCD. The first eight lines are basically octosyllabic (iambic tetrameter), and the last four are hexasyllabic (iambic trimeter), with elision, as needed, in both. The first eight lines use heavier alliteration—sometimes linking as many as three words on the same line—than the last four. One might be able to argue for a caesura although the text is not printed in this way. Thus, the poem exhibits a mix of the native OE metrical practices (alliteration, caesura, and variable stress) and borrowed ME metrical practices (rhyme and iambuses). For the purposes of this review, I have translated quotations from the poem into Current English without attempting to imitate its metrical practices.

This labor-intensive Paraphrase is a free translation of Peter Comestor's Historia Scholastica (hereafter HS), composed in the last years of the 1160s, but its treatment of the Octateuch and the histories was also influenced by Josephus' Jewish Antiquities and by an Old French version of HS which ran out toward the end of II Kings (6). HS was a teaching tool in the Victorine tradition. In 1215, it became part of the standard theological curriculum of the Middle Ages. It emphasized literal over allegorical interpretation and in some places became a shortcut substituted for the study of the Bible itself (18-19). Livingston lists the content of HS as: "Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1-4 Kings, Tobias, Ezechiel, Daniel, Judith, Esther, and 1-2 Maccabees" (17, n. 53). Thus, the Paraphrase is a far-from-literal translation of the Vulgate; books are rearranged and abridged; details considered unimportant by the poet are omitted. Since everyone knows the stories associated with the Biblical books, the following paragraphs concentrate on how the poet adapted his source materials to his targeted audience and how he handled contemporary theological arguments.

The poet claims he is presenting exempla--examples to be imitated or avoided; they are kept brief, he explains in his prologue, so men may easily learn to recite and understand them. We might expect that each exemplum would be accompanied by a moral. In fact, the story of Jephthah's vow and of his daughter's being the first out the door of his house is unusual in this respect. Here the poet does append a four-line "moral," disagreeing with the message of the story and presenting his generalization in aphorism format: "Such follies should men be eager to avoid / and be advised before they vow so. / A foolish vow is better to be broken / Than guiltless man or woman slain" (ll. 381-4). Readers who consider Jephthah's behavior appalling will be glad to hear the poet condemn his "foolish vow."

The poet's adaptations include: (1) summarizing events occurring in series and (2) re-ordering the stories in a given book. The poet's use of summary is illustrated by a comparison of the Paraphrase's plagues-narrative, occupying six twelve-line stanzas (ll. 1717-1788) with the Biblical plagues-narrative, occupying approximately five chapters (Exodus 7:14-12:32). Material from the last three chapters of Judges is put first so that the story of Samson, tempted by women always with a bad result, is placed at the end of Judges, juxtaposed to Ruth. A contrast is intended between Samson's behavior (as a Jew disloyal to the Jewish cause) and Ruth's behavior (as a non-Jew loyal to the Jewish cause) and between Delilah's behavior and Ruth's behavior (worst of women vs. best of women) (576).

A third adaptation involves adding extra-canonical materials. An example of a non-canonical addition--from Midrash writings--is the following childhood experience of Moses (555). After he had been weaned and come to live in the palace with the "king's daughter," he was a favorite of her father who, on one occasion, while holding the boy on his lap, placed his golden crown on the boy's head. The child took the crown from his head and "very eagerly defiled it with his feet in order to break it" (ll.1559-60). The king's clerks saw this as a confirmation of their warning that the king would be undone by a Hebrew and thus that the child should be put to death immediately. However, one wise man intervened, suggesting that what the child did was not done with ill-intent. He proposed a test: hot coals were brought and offered to the child as toys to play with. Moses put them in his mouth. The coals burned his tongue causing a life-long speech impediment, but his innocent mistake saved his life (87-9).

The poet uses the device of anachronism--the attribution of a custom or event, characteristic of a later time in history, to an earlier period where it does not belong--purposefully. References to chivalry and to the Roman Catholic Church are examples of the poet's imposing the interests and concerns of his immediate audience onto events which happened 1600 or more years earlier. The word "chivalry" itself occurs on lines 3605 and 11502. The ranks include "king" (l.11908), "prince" (l.11908), "duke" (lines 7429, 7431, 11908) and "knight(s)" (lines 7375, 7379, 12061, 12711). Activities pictured include a "tournament" (l.3845) where men gather to "joust" (l.3846) and the attack on Jabesh-Gilead complete with "siege hooks and engines" (l.5213). After his first victory in battle, Saul is praised in terms similar to those used to describe Arthur as a new king: "King Saul slew that day / a hundred with his hands, / and won worship forever / to him and all his lands. / This was [his] first feat of chivalry..." (ll.5301-5). Livingston in his Notes points out that "the poet's 'medievalizing' of the narrative through these details...underscores the romance nature of his work: the resulting text is thus a generic hybrid..." (581).

Terminology from Roman Catholic Church hierarchy is used because it helps the targeted reader relate to the Israelite priesthood: during the exodus, "Aaron was ordained to be bishop in order to receive the sacrifice, and priests and deacons [were ordained] in their degree to serve him in various services" (ll.2005-8). After death of Aaron: "They then chose his son Eleazar to be bishop" (ll.2349-50). Joshua conveyed God's plan for the crossing of the Jordan River into the Promise Land: "Priests and deacons he ordered / to bear God's ark up before them" (ll. 2777-8). Contemporary church practices are also reflected in this reference to the intercession of saints and to auricular confession: "Of holy men then He will hear / that profer for us their prayer. / Then is it good wisdom that we / send our prayers by many saints / and speak, while we have time on earth, / to them we know are wise,... " (ll. 13109-13114). A shocking recent event--the scene where the king's henchmen murdered Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury--is recalled when, unlike the account in II Kings, Bishop Zechariah is murdered by King Joash in the temple by the altar (ll. 13643-6).

Livingston catalogs the poet's eight mentions of Christ by name in his Introduction (22). In addition, there are "echoes" of New Testament passages, associated with Jesus but not specifically identified with him. The first of these, quoted by Saul on the occasion of his first resounding victory, echoes Lord's Prayer, "He desires that we forgive gladly / all those who have to us have done trespass" (ll. 5331-2). The other four are from Job. Livingston explains that because Comestor omits Job and because the OF translation of Comestor ran out near the end of II Kings, the paraphrase poet's source(s) for his version of Job cannot be readily identified. Further, the poet is "at his most distant from the Biblical text when he moves through this book." It is either "garbled" or "an inspired refashioning—a subtle, theologically profound permutation" (609). Among the changes which the poet makes are the shortening of the "friends" speeches (each is limited to two) and the omission of Elihu. Early on, Job sees himself as a Christ figure: "If God take more vengeance on me / to make me tormented on a tree (cross), / my righteousness shall I never forsake,..." (ll. 14681-3). The third friend, Eliphaz, recounts the parable of the rich man and the leper from Luke 16:19-31; then he interprets it as if Job was the ungenerous rich man who is now being punished. However, Job turns the interpretation around, comparing himself to the leper and Eliphaz to the rich man in the parable (ll. 14713-14754). After the three friends leave, Job, now completely alone, addresses God and summarizes Jesus' raising of Lazarus, sayng "So may Thou raise me by thy word / from the sorrow I suffer day and night" (14983-4). Finally, Job compares the thief on the cross' situation to his own, saying, "And Thou knowest I wrought never such wrong / to murder neither man nor wife, / nor never man's goods I stole...Why should I suffer this grief? / This is unmeasurable." (14995-15000). Such anachronistic "echoes" superimpose New Testament concerns onto a narrative of events which happened 500 or more years earlier.

What are of special interest in the poet's version of Tobit are two phrase-tags which link the story of Tobit to that of Job. We are not used to seeing Tobit next to Job, so we do not think about the fact that Tobit, blinded, suffers in much the same way as Job, covered with skin diseases, suffered. The first, and more frequent, phrase-tag uses the key words "loud" (publicly) + "still" (privately). It is found in Job on lines 15146, 15080, and 15191. The first occurrence in Tobit, "[T]o love God loud and still / whatever message He will send" (ll. 15227-8), is an admonition from the poet to his reader. The second occurrence is the book narrator's voice describing Tobit; "He loved ever God both loud and still / in spite of all the trials that He to him sent," (ll. 15482-3). The last two examples are from the advice given to Tobias by the angel: "For all that wed in love and fear / without fail they shall fare well: / with love both loud and still / to live in God's law..." (ll. 15895-8); and "Love thou the Lord that it [wife and wealth] has lent, / and love His Law both loud and still" (ll. 16371-2). The second phrase-tag uses the keywords "take" + "trace" (path). In Job's solitary prayer addressing God, he says: "And of my pains, Lord, have pity / and teach me therefore to take thy trace (path)" (ll. 14945-6). After his healing, Tobit confesses to God: "I have not loved Thy Law, alas, / nor truly attended to take thy trace (path)" (ll. 16239-40). This phrase-tag, as Livingston explains, may be derived from the antiphon, beginning "Dirige, Domine Deus Meus" ("Direct my path, O Lord my God"), from which the Dirge, "a sequence of verses drawn from Job [and] recited during the Matins of the Office of the Dead," derives its name (612- 13).

A final example of how contemporary Church teachings handle awkward story material links Job and II Maccabees. Unlike the Biblical version of Job, when God responds to Job's solitary prayer, He states: "Thou wast not worthy to be in bliss...Know thyself for unclean / and evil in all degree, /...And if thou will... / grant to God that thou art guilty. / Then will He grant thee grace to rise / and mend thee of thy leprosy" (ll. 15087-15100). Job has forgotten about original sin, and since he lives prior to the day of Jesus, he has not been baptized. Job prays, following God's directions exactly, and his possessions and family are returned to him. A similar issue arises in chapter seven of II Maccabees, where the poet enlarges on the victims' conversations with their torturers and the methods of torture in order to attenuate the story of the martyrdom of the woman and her seven sons. This was a popular "saint's tale" in the Middle Ages in spite of the theologians arguing over the deceased persons' status. Their fault was similar to Job's--they too bore the burden of original sin, had lived before the time of Christ, and had not been baptized. To circumvent this unfortunate omission, the apologists said they had been baptized in their own blood--the same explanation was given for the children slain by King Herod (623-4).

Obviously, specialists in ME literature and culture will value this volume, enjoying the hunt for rhetorical devices, unidentified "echoes," and theological arguments. Additionally, because of its lengthy discussion (in its Introduction) of ME translations and paraphrases and their Latin and French sources alongside its discussion of early "Protestantism," this edition will also be of interest to Church historians. A project which this new edition of the Paraphrase invites us to undertake is a study of voice--the poet-person's voice, the book-narrators' voices, the character's voices and their various audiences. Indeed, this would be an excellent text to use for a classroom demonstration of how Reader- Response Theory might work.

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Norma J. Engberg