18.05.25, Atkin and Leneghan, eds., The Psalms and Medieval English Literature

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Philip F. O'Mara

The Medieval Review 18.05.25

Atkin, Tamara and Francis Leneghan, eds. The Psalms and Medieval English Literature: From the Conversion to the Reformation . Woodbridge: D.S.Brewer, 2017. pp. 344. ISBN: 978-1-84384-435-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Philip F. O'Mara
Emeritus, Bridgewater College

The Book of Psalms, the basis of medieval liturgy, was also vital for personal spirituality and for early education. Newcomers to the clergy or monastic life acquired Latin literacy from its study, along with the principles of biblical interpretation. The editors of the book under review have focused on each of these elements of the psalter's cultural position. Leneghan's Introduction summarizes the findings and to some extent explains the approaches of each contributor, observing that the book is not arranged chronologically; five essays on translation treat Old English and Middle English versions and are followed by four on interpretation and four on "voice," the expressed and perceived aspirations found in the scriptural songs and derived from them in other literature, e.g. "Wulf and Eadwacer," Beowulf, and Piers Plowman. Well known topics are treated, e.g., the formal characteristics and interlinear glosses of the great uncial Psalms manuscripts, the Psalms translation and commentary of Richard Rolle, and its several adaptations by Lollard authors. Less prominent material is also discussed, e.g., the Old English verse translation of the entire psalter and the Middle English translations of and commentaries on the seven Penitential Psalms, one by the Carmelite friar Richard Maidstone, and one, the only one from a woman author, by Lady Eleanor Hull, a widow with a good command of Latin and French who, with notable stylistic flair, translated the Psalms themselves and a French commentary as well.

Contributors are expert and prominent: in Old English studies, Daniel Anlezark, Mark Faulkner, Francis Leneghan, Jane Roberts, and Jane Toswell; in Middle English Mike Rodman Jones, Michael P. Kuczynski, David Lawton, Elizabeth Solopova, Lynn Staley, Annie Sutherland, and Katherine Zieman. Vincent Gillespie's work on Rolle and on some poems by John Skelton is supported by extensive research in patristic and medieval Latin materials; his contribution is the most wide-ranging. The authors have built on the works of many other specialists, especially such recent scholars as Mary Dove, Ralph Hanna, Patrick P. O'Neill, etc.

Complete Psalms manuscripts with interlinear Old English glosses, of which fifteen survive, are impressive for their fine handwriting and imaginative decorative initials. Glosses are narrowly literal in some cases, carefully adapted to normal English idiom in others, and often enlightening as to the development of specific lexical items, as when scylfas, originally a term for a bird's wings, developed into modern "shelf" (the same is true for the important lexical shift, in the Middle English works of Richard Rolle, of lovynge from external performance to internal spirituality). Beyond glossing, early comments are often spiritually, even theologically exuberant and ingenious; detailed marginal interpretations are not rare. Some truly monumental manuscripts contain the entire Book of Psalms executed by expert scribes in large formats; one, produced at Canterbury in the twelfth century, contains all three ancient Latin translations in parallel columns, interlinear glosses and marginal annotations in Old English, a French commentary on one side of every page, and a Latin one between two of the versions. Each psalm has a prefatory illumination and a concluding prayer. This psalter weighs about twenty-one pounds. Nothing else comparable for size and elaboration remains, but there are several in which the entire book is translated into Old English. Some manuscripts contain only the seven Penitential Psalms, giving pride of place to Ps. 50, David's lament over his sinful affair with Bathsheba.

In the Middle English treatments of the Psalms derived from the Wycliffite movement, the steadily Catholic prose translation and commentary of the hermit Richard Rolle was more than once adapted to Wyclif's different theology. Articles discussing Rolle's work and its doctrinally complicated heritage will have, perhaps, the most immediate appeal to students not professionally concerned with manuscript style.

Contributors, with varied and mutually enlightening perspectives, treat codicology, paleography, textual criticism, philology, and cultural history. The collection is a companion to a special 2015 issue of Renaissance Studies on the Psalms in Early Modern English, but is independently valuable. Surprising even to some medievalists, the material is too extensive for complete coverage. No two surviving psalters contain exactly the same glosses; indeed no two have the same layout, as Jane Roberts, in the only essay provided with illustrations, shows (39). Some Old English MSS were lined and paginated with a view to the inclusion of interlinear glosses, while in others the glossing scribes interposed their work in much later years and sometimes almost haphazardly. In the important Eadwine Psalter, copied from a lost and apparently much earlier model, there are almost 2,500 unique glosses (Faulkner, 75). There are studies of vocabulary, with attention to various translations of the same Latin original, and of the functions of the Psalms in liturgical and personal prayer. One essay compares Old English and Middle English versions of just a few lines from Psalm 50. No complete survey of the linguistic evidence available in the surviving MSS has yet appeared; this is one of several research suggestions made in this volume. Challenges to accepted ideas are frequent, and readers of every degree of expertise will be grateful for generally clear exposition of difficult concepts, literary and theological, and seldom appreciated trajectories. The Index includes many but not all footnote references. Failure to take note of The Place of the Psalms in the Intellectual Culture of the Middle Ages, ed. Nancy van Deusen (Albany: State University of New York Press 1999), to which several articles refer and which is a major earlier contribution to research in this field, is most regrettable.

Adaptation, as described here, was not mere ornament. Rhyming verse (used in one complete Middle English version) promoted memorization, as Old English alliteration had promoted devout rumination. Rolle's focus on solitary prayer is radically reconsidered in the Wycliffite revision. The Penitential Psalms as a group encourage repentance especially after grave sin, and in medieval Christian thinking they become a voice of the community. Rolle's focus, basically Catholic though minimally liturgical, is on growth in holiness through solitary prayer, first learning to pray, and then enjoying it ever more profoundly as one arrives at mystical union with God expressible only in song. Lollard revisions of Rolle's translation and commentary, denying the sacramental validity of auricular confession, affirming absolute predestination, etc., advanced, unfortunately with no diminution of the anti-Semitism of so much scriptural interpretation of the time, a somewhat contradictory outlook on Christian life. Polemical, explicitly Wycliffite matter is extensive in the first revision. Such themes are not as prominent in later versions, whose authors, without entirely retreating from Lollard distinctives, were arguably more eager to publish the scriptural text, with an edifying commentary, than to make converts. Catholic versions of the Lollard revisions of Rolle's original work restore the conformity of the text with ordinary modes of preaching and instruction. This element of continuity in outlook deserves examination in relation to the life of faith as inculcated, expressly and by implication, in the earlier tradition of prayer through the Psalms, and as it appears in the complexity of book culture. The dramatic aspects of rejoicing, grieving, repenting and longing for safety, prominent in the Psalms, the formal aspects of repetition with variation, and the tradition of identifying oneself with Christ and the Church while chanting them, evoked lasting attachment, and given the many Psalm quotations and allusions in other literature, must have mitigated the thoughtless repetition inevitable in weekly recitation.

Staley argues for a connection between Maidstone's version of the seven Penitential Psalms and his Latin poem for Richard II; the topic of repentance is important for both. If the link is strong, it is one of the few detectable ties between the long tradition of psalter versions and politics. A more general religious and sociocultural aspect of this tradition deserves attention. The psalter, essential to the prayer life of the professionally religious, including those who needed help with the Latin text, was from early on likewise valued by lay people. Complete translations, including those in very simple verse, may have reduced the felt distance between them and full-time church people. The impetus continued and seemingly strengthen with time. The rapid circulation of the Wycliffite Bible, as a manuscript Bible was accessible only to the rich, signals an aspiration to something closer to equality among all Christians, but hardly realizable in that form. To memorize Psalms, to sing them with understanding whether in the vernacular or in Latin, to study them and a commentary such as that by Richard Rolle, often copied as he wrote it and as Lollards more than once modified it, enabled, in this still feudal society, a real leveling of the spiritual field. This move in the direction of unity of understanding and expression has continued and is not exhausted yet; the psalter itself remains a significant element in it.

Study of these essays makes for admiration of the fervor, learning, and zeal to serve the faithful of those who gave themselves, often for years, to copying, glossing, translating, copying earlier commentaries and themselves commenting on the Psalms. The wide variety of formats, the appearance of both prose and verse versions, and the intelligence, scholarship and judgment of the originators of these works are duplicated by the authors of these thirteen articles, and admirably in all respects.

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