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13.01.20, King'oo, Miserere Mei

13.01.20, King'oo, Miserere Mei

Despite being perhaps the most common of all texts in medieval and early modern England, the Penitential Psalms have remained surprisingly underinvestigated by premodernist scholars, especially medievalists. Recently, Lynn Staley's masterful article on the topic has provided a much-needed corrective, and Michael Kuczynski's work on the psalms in general is another salubrious exception. In contrast, the psalms have earned more notice among early modernists of the last few decades. Given this state of affairs, the use of the psalms, and the Penitential Psalms in particular, across the medieval/Reformation divide has gone without extended consideration. Now in Miserere Mei, King'oo lays out a concentrated argument for the centrality of the Penitential Psalms and what she calls a "penitential hermeneutic" in both late medieval and early modern culture. King'oo admits her work must be preliminary, as she has little critical basis on which to draw; nevertheless, the monograph makes a solid case for the need for further study in this area.

Except for the first section, King'oo generally compares two texts in order to develop her argument about the importance of the Penitential Psalms across the Reformation divide. King'oo is often at her best when working closely with texts, and this becomes evident from Chapter 2 onward. It is gratifying to see John Fisher's sermons on the Penitential Psalms receive the scholarly attention they deserve; King'oo is not exaggerating in calling this collection of sermons a bestseller of the early period of Henry VIII's reign. Pairing Fisher's sermons with one of Martin Luther's yet-untranslated commentaries, on the Penitential Psalms, allows King'oo to identify Augustinian bases in both, while at the same time exploring how even quite early on Luther's interpretation had strayed far from Fisher's orthodoxy. King'oo's mastery of Lutheran German is supremely useful here, and her contention that Luther's thinking on the Penitential Psalms was perhaps central to his developing notion of sola fide is provocative and deserving of development on its own. While the strategy of comparing Fisher and Luther as case studies highlights both their similarities and their differences, it does not provide King'oo an explanation for how Luther's work filters into English Reformed theology. To trace these paths seems like the logical next step in this portion of her argument. Fisher's sermons cease to be printed about the time Luther's works begin to be available in England, and this might have been a useful point of entry into such an investigation.

Thomas Wyatt's translation and revision of an Italian paraphrase of the Penitential Psalms, the topic of Chapter 3, marks the usual beginning of discussions of the Penitential Psalms in the English Reformation, and it is no surprise to find King'oo hitting her stride here. She shows detailed knowledge of the criticism and pays close attention to the historical timeline and textual nuance of Wyatt's rendition that sets the Penitential Psalms within the biblical narrative of David repenting for his sins with Bathsheba. To find background for Wyatt's paraphrase, King'oo turns to a few medieval English paraphrases of the Penitential Psalms. King'oo's identification of medieval paraphrases of the Penitential Psalms with the phenomenological ritual mode is compelling, and highlights the contrast between these and Wyatt's humanist, reformed, lyric paraphrase. While the medieval paraphrases she uses--by Maidstone, Brampton, and Croke--are today extant in only a handful of complete copies each, considered together they support King'oo's contention that a significant shift in approach to penitence occurred in the 1530s. According to King'oo, Wyatt's penitent sinner struggles with medieval penitence to emerge eventually as a reformed penitent.

In Chapter 4, King'oo traces ritual use of the Penitential Psalms continuing into the later sixteenth century, albeit promoting a reformed interpretation of penance. Her main examples here are two late sixteenth-century devotional manuals which she argues blend penitence with social or political messages. Queen Elizabeth was linked directly to the earlier of these manuals, and may have been partly its author; according to King'oo this imprint associated Elizabeth with David and Solomon both as penitents and divinely-approved rulers in an effort to affirm her own position on the throne early in her reign. Moreover, this association connects the new English Church, with Elizabeth at its head, with these Old Testament monarchs and the need to maintain unity in the Church against the external threat (real or exaggerated) of Catholicism. In contrast, the unity desired in King'oo's second case study, John Stubbs' translation of Theodore Beza's meditations on the Penitential Psalms, was unity among a Calvinist minority.

In Chapter 5 King'oo illustrates the fragmenting of approaches to the Penitential Psalms in the later Tudor and Stuart eras by contrasting several examples using close readings of each. Her careful explications of a range of penitential uses of these psalms up to this point make her reading of George Gascoigne's paraphrase of De Profundis as irreverent, even parodic, all the more shocking. This poem offers a striking argument for the room that had developed for experimentation in such paraphrases since the late medieval period. In contrast to Gascoigne, John Harington's Penitential Psalms' relative lack of penitence looks modest. Happily, King'oo includes Richard Verstegan's English Catholic version of the Penitential Psalms, and it provides a convenient reiteration of the medieval practice of penitence: a century after the beginning of the Reformation, such medieval penitence characterized now a marginalized, minority practice.

King'oo strives always to trace the development of English Reformed religious culture, and while her attention to the medieval context of these developments is admirable, her lack of familiarity with the period and its methods unfairly undercuts her otherwise important arguments in Chapter 1. She is absolutely right to highlight how the Penitential Psalms are literally central to medieval Books of Hours, as they are located between the Office of the Virgin and the Office of the Dead. The Book of Hours was the most popular book of the Middle Ages, and would therefore have made the Penitential Psalms among the most widely-known texts. Here King'oo uses changes in Davidic iconography to trace how the interpretation of the Penitential Psalms changed over the course of the later Middle Ages from broadly penitential to concentrating specifically on sexual sin. Nevertheless, while Miserere Mei is about the Penitential Psalms in England, King'oo's manuscript examples are not; most examples are drawn from Books of Hours of the use of Paris or elsewhere, and very few Sarum Books of Hours made to be used in England are examined at all. Indeed, Sarum examples complicate the picture. Kathleen L. Scott's chart of forty-two fifteenth-century manuscript Sarum Books of Hours show Davidic iconography chosen for the Penitential Psalms in just seven cases; while six of these are from the second half of the century, none feature David and Bathsheba. [1] In fact, the importation of the David and Bathsheba iconography seems to highlight the Continental focus of English culture (political and religious) in the decades immediately before and after the drafting of the Ninety-Five Theses. Given how much early English Reformation print came out of Antwerp, King'oo might have made use of revisionism by scholars such as Guido Latré to further trace the iconography she discusses to Paris, Antwerp, and other Continental sources. [2]

Aside from a partly unsuccessful foray into art history, King'oo traces a penitential hermeneutic from the late Middle Ages into the seventeenth century and beyond. She argues persuasively that the Penitential Psalms were read in a ritual mode throughout the period, and traces also variations on this mode. Unsurprisingly, the most influential variation reflects the shift in penitential theology during the Reformation. The second variation is the development of a lyric, historical approach to the Penitential Psalms. These major variants together with the range of minor Tudor variations King'oo uncovers emphasize how central the Penitential Psalms were to premodern English culture.



1. Kathleen L. Scott, Later Gothic Manuscripts, 1390-1490, 2 vols. (Turnhout: Harvey Miller, 1996), 2:382-3.

2. Guido Latré, "The 1535 Coverdale Bible and its Antwerp Origins," in Orlaith O'Sullivan and Ellen N. Herron, eds., The Bible as Book: The Reformation (Newcastle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2000), 89-102.