The Medieval Review 15.02.21


Easting, Robert, and Richard Sharpe, ed. and trans. Peter of Cornwall's "Book of Revelations". British Writers, 5. Toronto and Oxford: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies and the Bodleian Library, 2013. Pp. 632. $150.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9780888441843 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Eileen Gardiner
Italica Press
egardiner@italicapress.com

Although primarily a study of Peter of Cornwall's Book of Revelations, with a partial edition and translation, this volume also offers a fascinating portrait of England around the year 1200, with excursions into the world of oral transmission, scribal practices, book production, textual communities, reading, tithing, unbelief, and the complex interrelationships among nobles, parishes, monasteries and individual families and their members.

Easting and Sharpe describe their work themselves thus: "This group of stories... highlights in small compass many aspects of local life, town, country, and church, and does so in a way which shows the personal links binding these branches of society together. It shows too the ties that existed at the personal level between the rural shires, the churches and schools of the capital, and the royal court. It illustrates how the inner and outer worlds of a medieval person interlock, how ideas influence experience and experience feeds back into literature" (175) .

This volume includes a biography of Peter, who c.1140 was born in Cornwall either at Launceston or on the family estate at Trecarrel. He became an Augustinian canon in London thirty years later and spent the rest of his life there at Holy Trinity, Aldgate, becoming prior in May 1197. He died on July 7, 1221, at about the age of eighty and was buried in Holy Trinity's Chapel of the Virgin, which he himself built. From scant documentation, Easting and Sharpe piece together a picture of his education, career, and relationships, as well as a picture of Holy Trinity and its place within the London ecclesiastical community. The authors give particular attention to Peter as a scholar and writer, his method of working and his particular interests.

Peter is responsible for two works in addition to the Book of Revelations, and Easting and Sharpe examine them both. The Pantheologus, completed in 1189, is a four-part work that survives in seven manuscripts, one of them a presentation copy, with four additional manuscripts attested. It was designed as a sermon sourcebook for supporting theological positions with biblical references. The Liber Disputationum Petri contra Symonem iudeum, written 1208-10, survives in a unique manuscript (Windsor, Eton College, MS 130). Peter refers to a possible fourth work, the Liber Allegoriarum contra Simon Iudeum, which is not known to have survived.

Peter undertook his monumental Book of Revelations because, as he explains in his prologue, there are some who do not believe in God "nor that the soul of man lives after the death of the body, nor that there are other things spiritual and invisible." To counter this incidence of unbelief, he therefore "collected into this one volume revelations and spiritual visions...in which God, or angels, or souls, of men once dead were either seen or have spoken," expecting that his readers "will not doubt that God, and angels, and the souls of men exist, and live after the death of the body" (39-40). Despite Peter's familiarity with two important early works that examine the various underlying causes for dreams and visions--Augustine's De cura pro mortuis gerenda and Gregory the Great's Dialogi--Peter lacks any skepticism about the dreams that he presents. As long he can verify a report, he does not question whether the dream itself might be false, i.e., generated externally by evil spirits or internally by physical or mental illness.

Peter's little-known but rather large work survives in a unique manuscript (London, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 51). The contents of this manuscript are the 1,105 chapters (more than half a million words) that comprise the two books of Peter's Book of Revelations. The manuscript, dated to the year 1200, is the accomplishment of three scribes who worked almost simultaneously and directly under Peter's supervision to produce a volume of 462 folios measuring 14" (355 mm) tall x 9.5" (240 mm) wide x 4.75" (120 mm) thick.

Book one of the Book of Revelations includes otherworld visions, i.e., visions of heaven, purgatory, and hell, while book two contains all other kinds of revelations and visions, of which the visions of book one are a subset. Peter culled these visions from various sources. Reliable friends and acquaintances are responsible for reporting a small group of tales directly to Peter, but the vast majority comes from approximately 275 Latin texts ranging from the first century AD through to the time of writing. Authors include Ambrose, Athanasius, Bede, Bernard of Clairvaux, Gregory of Tours, Gregory the Great, Jerome, and Sulpicius Severus, to mention only a handful.

The work is notable for including the "Visions of Ailsi" (1.6-17), Peter's own grandfather, as well as two accounts relating to visions at St. Patrick's Purgatory in Donegal, Ireland. The first of these, the well-known Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii (1.1-4), which Easting edited in 1991 for the Early English Text Society (OS 298 [1991], pp. 121-54), is not included in this publication. The second, known as "Peter of Cornwall's Account of St. Patrick's Purgatory" (1.5), also edited previously by Easting (Analecta Bollandiana 97 [1979], 397-416) is a little-known and quite anomalous vision of the otherworld. A Cistercian abbot named Bricius told Peter this story, which had occurred approximately thirty years previously. Peter details the transmission of the third-hand story from reliable narrator to reliable narrator before embarking on an account of the experiences of an unnamed knight at the hall of King Gulinus. This king inflicts on his unfortunate guest a regimen of torture, which begins when he offers his beautiful daughter to the knight, who discovers in his wedding bed that she is a desiccated tree trunk to which he has become attached in a rather embarrassing manner. Although the tale correctly locates the famous purgatory in northwest Ireland, the otherworld setting itself is more reminiscent of medieval romance than afterlife vision.

This volume offers lightly annotated, traditional diplomatic editions from the unique manuscript and straightforward facing-page translations of Peter's Prologue, the Ailsi and St. Patrick's Purgatory visions mentioned above, and thirty-five other visions: eleven reported from the Cistercian Abbey of Ham (Stratford Langthorne) in Essex (reprinted from C.J. Holdsworth's 1962 article in Citeux [13:185-204]), three visions from Lessness in Kent, and twenty-one others related to Peter by a variety of sources from various locations.

This limited selection is based on the uniqueness of these particular visions. They are not found elsewhere, whereas by contrast the remaining 1,068 visions from the Book of Revelations--unedited and untranslated here--are otherwise available in editions and translations of Peter's original sources, from Church Fathers to chronicles, saints' lives to miracle books. The editors undertake the remarkable task of identifying all these sources, then make them accessible through a calendar of all the chapters with incipit, source, and previous edition. An index of chapters simply identifying the source text, an additional index of authors and works keyed to the chapters, an index of saints, an index by BHL (Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina) numbers--including CPL numbers (Clavis patrum Latinorum) where pertinent--and a general index keyed to both chapters and pages complement the calendar, providing a wealth of finding aids. Digital editions of medieval texts will, no doubt, continue to make these kinds of identifications increasingly possible and, as usual, enabling scholars to establish a clearer picture of different medieval textual communities.

Each edited and translated text or group of texts is accompanied by a substantial introduction. The introduction to "Peter's Account of St. Patrick's Purgatory," places the tale within the complex literary history, geography, and pilgrimage tradition of St. Patrick's Purgatory. The introduction to the "Visions of Ailsi" draws on two important earlier articles: Sharpe, "Peter of Cornwall and Launceston," Cornish Studies 16 (1985): 5-53; and Easting and Sharpe, "Peter of Cornwall: The Visions of Ailsi and His Sons," Mediaevistik 1 (1988): 207-62. It engages with two topics. The first involves a complex local Cornish tithe dispute that involved Peter's ancestors, particularly his grandfather. The second concerns the transmission of a layman's visionary tales through generations of a family to an ecclesiastical compiler of texts, who happened to be a descendant.

The introduction to the visions from Ham is reprinted from the Holdsworth article mentioned above and sets the tone for the introductions to the visions from Lessness and the other visions related by Peter. They all consider Peter's relationship to the sources, providing brief descriptions of each of the visions and indicating their notable elements. Concern about the role of the Cistercians and Augustinian canons, devotion to the Virgin Mary, saintly interventions, monastic life, transmission of texts, and reliability of witnesses form, in part, a framework for all these discussions.

The otherworld visions included in the volume range from the unusual tale from St. Patrick's Purgatory to several tales in which a deceased monk returns to report to his former brethren about conditions in the afterlife. Ailsi's narrative focuses on his encounter with his recently deceased son Paganus. Paganus helps his father on his journey through purgatory, hell and the earthly paradise, before the two argue when the father resists returning to the land of the living to complete his appointed lifespan.

In the tales from Ham the fate of Cistercians in the otherworld becomes a notable theme. For instance, in one tale (1.203) a Cistercian lay brother enters the otherworld without his habit, and without this outward sign the devils seize him. Angels intervene just in time, and the soul is allowed to petition his abbot in a vision. The abbot, seeing the man's singed hair and burned tunic, has his body exhumed, redressed in the habit of a lay brother, and returned to the grave. The glorified brother reappears in another vision dressed in his habit to thank the abbot for bringing about his liberation.

Another tale from an unnamed Cistercian abbey also concerns a habit (2.582) as well as a deceased monk who returns twice to visit a still-living friend. In his first appearance he wears an over-garment and a canon's habit, explaining that he was not yet worthy of a monk's garb. Thirty days later, when he reappears, he is dressed in his proper habit. He explains that because he was always late to canonical hours, he was at first deprived of his garment, but finally received it through the intercession of Mary who offered prayers for him.

Easting and Sharpe also include a chapter devoted to a thorough description of the Lambeth Palace manuscript of the Book of Revelations (342-53, with two black-and-white plates showing examples of the work of all three scribes). The manuscript was clearly intended for Peter's own use, and his annotations--including his corrections and cross-references--indicate how he continued to be engaged with this manuscript. It remained at Holy Trinity after his death and continued to be used by those who followed him. Somehow, despite the destruction of Holy Trinity, Aldgate, as well as the other institutions that figure in this book--the monasteries of Stratford Langthorne (Ham), Lessness, Coggeshall, and Lough Derg--this book survived. The library disappeared with the monastery, but we can trace this book as it was transferred first to Henry FitzAlan, earl of Arundel, and then to his son-in-law, John Lumley, and finally to Richard Bancroft, archbishop of Canterbury. The book then entered the Lambeth Palace collection. It received some notice from M.R. James and from G.G. Coulton, who published extracts in his Social Life in Britain (1918, pp. 218-26): the vision of John of Orpington from the prologue concerning a dream of pigs and a priest, as well as sections from the "Visions of Ailsi."

Easting and Sharpe's thorough treatment of Peter of Cornwall's Book of Revelations is a valuable contribution to the study of dreams, visions, ghosts, death, and afterlife in the Middle Ages. It provides a surprising picture of the vast amount of this material available in the twelfth century, and it also provides insights into how this material was circulated and transmitted. The volume also will be of interest to scholars of medieval England for the picture it affords of the workings and relationships among various groups and communities. While the editors do not deploy explicit theoretical methodologies, they do present a firm basis for those who would like to examine Peter and his work using frames such as intentionality, authorial control, author/actor, text and textuality. This is an important resource for twelfth-century England, vision/dream and afterlife studies, as well as textual studies.



Copyright (c) 2015 Eileen Gardiner



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