Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.05.07 Denissen, Middle English Devotional Compilations

The Medieval Review

21.05.07 Denissen, Middle English Devotional Compilations


This volume approaches compilation as both a fluid process and a set of instantiations that capture that fluidity. Denissen argues that the study of compilations has too often fixated on identifying sources and what was done to them rather than on the resulting textual objects. She suggests that compilation is characterized by three features: source texts are extracted and recombined in ways that form a "new single and unified text;" there is a rationale or guiding principle behind this new entity; and the "literary effect" of the compilation is as deserving of attention as that of the source texts (2). To make this case, she draws on a wealth of scholarship in manuscript studies to examine "the activity or style of compiling" (2) as it appears in three works: Pore Caitif, the Tretyse of Love, and A Talkyng of the Love of God. Her discussion of these texts looks both backward and forward: backward to the texts that the compilers drew on, and forward to the "fluid and changeable" quality of the compilation itself as it appears and is reworked in different contexts (3). She is also consistently attentive to what a compilation, or one of its versions, has to say about the audience for which it was created, and while her focus is on Middle English, she highlights the various forms of translation (linguistic, but also for new audiences, or between genres) that her texts practice, considering their continuities with as well as divergences from the Latinate, clerical, or enclosed communities that provide their source materials.

While Denissen's three case-study works all aim to help audiences "develop a personal relationship with the divine at a fairly advanced level" (13) and share certain source materials (particularly Ancrene Wisse and the anchoritic works in its orbit; the writings of Richard Rolle also recur), they address different audiences and take distinctive approaches. She begins with Pore Caitif, "a broad religious and spiritual overview in the vernacular" whose "fullest and most characteristic version" contains fourteen tracts (21). That version begins with three tracts that present the basics of the Christian faith--the Creed, Commandments, and Our Father--before moving on to topics such as patience, spiritual battle, and the active and contemplative lives. Characterized by its compiler as offering instruction "without multiplicacioun of manye bookis" (22), Pore Caitif serves as a kind of mini-library or compendium that offers readers the materials for spiritual ascent.

Denissen proposes a rationale for the most usual ordering of Pore Caitif's component parts and delves into its use of its sources. Here and elsewhere, she cannot do without attention to the materials compilers used, since the reworking and reframing of sources is often where one can best see what is characteristic or unusual about a given compilation, but she is generally successful in keeping the sources from drawing attention away from the new composition. She also points out the problems with even treating Pore Caitif as a single work, given its varied manuscript survivals--thirty-two complete or mostly complete versions, sixteen other manuscripts with extracts, and five with just the section on the "Chartre of oure Heuenli Eritage." The text not only survives in many forms as a compilation unto itself but is drawn on to form new compilations, suggesting the layered and palimpsestic quality of late-medieval manuscript culture. In Cambridge University Library MS Hh.1.12, for example, Pore is absorbed into a new compilatory setting without any markers of its independent existence. Denissen also surveys a group of manuscripts containing notes, interpolations, or other works that suggest a reformist impulse (such as Bodleian MSS Rawlinson C 751 and Bodley 938) to emphasize that we need to assess the orthodoxy or otherwise of a text with careful attention to the "complicated process of textual composition" (36).

Moving to The Tretyse of Love, Denissen changes tack in several ways: most strikingly, this work exists only as a printed text (where it is accompanied by The Chastising of God's Children), meaning that the variation in surviving versions is greatly diminished, consisting primarily of different ownership notes (including some by Syon nuns). Here Denissen highlights the emphatic presence of the compiler as he "instructs his audience how to feel" (55) and presents himself as a mediator, and she looks at how the work's two separate Epilogues make visible layers of translation (French to English, manuscript to print) without enabling us to locate them precisely. She also excavates the work's extensive borrowings from Ancrene Wisse, arguing that this material gives rise to an "elaborate associative pattern" (62) in which the compiler brings in related patristic or biblical quotations while shaping the whole to suit a noblewoman who might want to use anchoritic life as a spiritual model without having to reject her worldly context.

With A Talkyng of the Love of God, Denissen returns to manuscripts, specifically the Vernon and Simeon MSS, the only places where this work survives and whose compilatory, archival nature it echoes. This move back to the fourteenth century is an apt reminder of the way in which compilations complicate ideas about a text's progress through time. A Talkyng draws on the Wooing Group and the writings of St. Anselm, offering "a late medieval account of the compiler's textual, visual and sensual responses to a selection of twelfth- and thirteenth-century source material" (81) shaped to a new reading community. Denissen emphasizes particularly the compiler's "affective and imaginative additions" (86) to his source texts, drawing on the work of Mary Carruthers and David Lawton to talk about compiling as a memory-based revoicing of intimately known works (90). She argues that over the course of A Talkyng "the compiler's own creative additions become more prominent" and his style more "authorial" (96), raising the question of when a compilation simply becomes a new work.

The texts Denissen chooses are ones that have been the subject of considerable scholarly attention, which means that her book itself, in its generous recognition and incorporation of earlier work on both the theory of medieval manuscript culture and the particular texts addressed here, at times seems pleasingly to echo its topic. While not a compilation per se, it is a reminder of the intertextuality and mutual reliance of scholarly works as well as their subjects, and its conjunction of approach and subject makes visible the ways in which Denissen's role is, in some ways, like that of a compiler. That is, while pointing out specific features or attributes of her case studies, she perhaps contributes most by gathering together far-flung and often very detailed work to provide readers with a nuanced picture of compilation, while also allowing us to glimpse, behind this particular presentation, the sources with their own agendas that shaped her reading.

The result is a kind of mosaic that seeks to view these compilatory works at various scales, from the minute (e.g., brief annotations or interpolations in a single manuscript) to the panoramic (the world of manuscript and early print culture), and in doing so to think about how those levels are related--how, for example, the characterization of a text on the name of Jesus and a text on the desire for Jesus in Pore Caitif's table of contents might set up a reader to see points of contact that the manuscript then carries out, or how the expansion of a single sentence in a text might both memorialize an annotation that moved from margin to center and imitate in miniaturethe inclusion of a treatise that expands on the topic of another treatise.

Those with an interest in the specific texts, prints, and manuscripts addressed will likely find the level of detail helpful, as when Denissen works through the slightly dizzying borrowings and rearrangements of material from Rolle's Form of Living and Pore Caitif in CUL Hh.1.12, which draws on both without acknowledging it (42). The book is generally well presented, with helpful tables to convey manuscript contents and subheads that structure the argument, though transcriptions and translations are not always reliable, which is unfortunate for less-known texts. The word presented in the quotation on p. 36 as reueyed, for example, must surely be understood as reneyed, "renounced" ("reneyed þe feiþ"), rather than "received"; "hely" is translated as "the holy man" instead of being recognized as the name Hely/Eli (37); "loue and haue delite in þi Creature or in his Creaturis" is translated as "love and find delight in yourself [literally 'your creature'] or in others [literally 'his creatures']," when, despite the spelling, "Creature" here seems more likely to mean "Creator" (44). These scribal variants, however, do not undermine the usefulness of the book as a whole, which gives the kind of closely detailed attention that is usually offered to one text at a time a larger framework that enables us to see the work of medieval compilers from a new angle.