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22.02.14 Newman (trans.), The Works of Richard Methley

22.02.14 Newman (trans.), The Works of Richard Methley

Barbara Newman’s fine translations into modern English of Richard Methley’s contemplative Latin and Middle English texts are of great value. So too is Laura Saetveit Miles’ lengthy and erudite introduction to this work published by the Cistercians about the Yorkshire Mount Grace Carthusian, Richard Methley, placing him in his context. Though there is now an academic distinction drawn between medieval “vernacular theology” presented in Middle English versus that in Latin, this was not really the case in the period. Latin was useful for a globalized European audience while the vernacular was more accessible to the laity and was inclusive of women and children excluded from scholarly learning. A tapestry through time and space was being woven of both modes interchangeably, paradoxically being both elitist and democratic, as Saetveit Miles notes (xlvi). These texts present a flowering of monastic contemplative practices and writings that began with the Desert Fathers and that would be tragically suppressed with the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII.

Guigo I had spoken of the Apostolate of the Scribe. Carthusians live in silence in individual hermit cells with enclosed gardens about a cloister, such as we can see in Yorkshire’s Mount Grace and Florence’s Certosa, creating an ideal architecture for contemplative writing. Barbara Newman’s titles show that architecture with “School,” “Bedroom” (perhaps better would be “Dormitory” or “Cell”), and “Refectory” for the initial three works she translates. We even read of the distraction where Methley has part of his cell’s wall opened up for a window to let in more light, the noise of the workmen blocking him from writing down his ecstasy (106). Conjoined to the architecture is the liturgy: the Mass, but also the Offices of the Hours, and the Angelus, the Angelic Greeting to Mary at prayer, rung of the three threes, then the nine peals as well, which are rung at dawn, noon and sunset. (We hear it in the Vita nova’s Beatrice as a nine, just as Dante would have heard in his childhood by the Florentine Badia, and again in Purgatorio VIII.4-6.) My experience of cloistered monasticism as Angelus Sister and Sacristan taught me also how aural that life is--its ringing of bells, its chanting of psalms--and how vastly unlike scholasticism’s removal from nature and abstraction from sensuality. Monasticism is paradoxically both of this particular fractalled moment in time and of boundless eternity. It is Augustine’s Confessions, not Aristotle’s Categories.

On page 66, n. 37 Newman comments of Henry Suso’s Horologium Sapientiae, “An English adaptation, The Treatise of the Seven Points of True Love and Everlasting Wisdom, was probably composed at Mount Grace.” It assuredly was written out there. When seeking Julian manuscripts on the Continent I found in Cambrai’s Mediathèque Municipale, The Treatise on Seven Points of True Love and Everlasting Wisdom, “scriptum finaliter in Monte gracie,” 20 May 1420, while Dirk Schultz’s edition of Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS Brogyntyn II.5, lists two manuscripts of the previous year with the identical colophon. Richard Methley was quoting from this rendition in 1485. English Benedictine nuns treasured their manuscript, likely acquired from Robert Cotton by Augustine Baker, in their seventeenth-century exile, their schoolgirls carefully cataloging it at the French Revolution. For these texts are a sacred conversation across time and space, Brian Stock’s and Ernst Curtius’ “textual community” across Europe’s Christendom, their roots in the Hebrew Psalms of Jesus’ liturgical prayers. Saetveit Miles sees the intertextuality of Pseudo-Dionysius, Guigo II, Hugh of Balma, the Victorines, Mechthild of Hackeborn, Marguerite Porete, Henry Suso, Richard Rolle, Birgitta of Sweden, Catherine of Siena, Alfonso of Jaén, Walter Hilton, the Cloud of Unknowing author, Jean Gerson, and Nicholas Love, but perhaps could have also noted likenesses with Meister Eckhart, John Tauler, Jan van Ruusbroec, of the Friends of God, and the Englishmen John Whiterig, William Flete and Adam Easton. She emphasizes the Carthusians but in reality this textual community included also Dominicans, Augustinians, Brigittines and Benedictines, as well as the Charterhouses which tended to vacuum up the others’ contemplative writings as A.I. Doyle noted. [1] Monica Hedlund, for instance, showed how Brigittine monks brought back Rolle’s and Easton’s writings to Vadstena and travelled along the axis of Yorkshire, Lincoln and Norwich, the Amherst Manuscript in its Lincoln dialect being more likely originally a Dominican / Brigittine compilation for anchoresses in Norwich and Lincoln that ended up in Carthusian libraries. [2] A. I. Doyle has mentioned to me in a letter that the Amherst scribe also wrote out Mechthild of Hackeborn’s Liber specialis gratie and Deguileville’s Pilgrimage allegories.

The first text, “The School of Languishing Love,” is very heavily based on Richard Rolle, mixing together the Song of Solomon and Ovid, like Dante, being based on Love: “Because love is the cause of the whole universe, it can establish nothing better than love itself as a remedy, enabling everyone who wishes to love to attain at last a perceptible love” (10). Also, like Dante, it wildly mixes together the ineffability and inexpressibility of the ecstatic, apophatic vision with his personal incarnational reality, his own moment in flesh and blood in physical space and time, at Mount Grace Priory, 1 August 1484, liturgically being the Feast of St Peter in Chains (22). His texts will continue to log those moments of eternity, mapped in time and space. Jean Leclercq has shown in The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture how contemplatives living the liturgy absorb into their own words “Bible speak,” particularly of the Psalms, as Richard Methley does in these texts. As with the liturgy’s use of enveloping antiphons to psalms and with the use of anaphora in sermons, Methley’s style will often fractal back on itself with key repetitions. This text ends with a prayer to the Name of Jesus and the Five Wounds, the latter reminiscent of Brigittine devotions.

The second surviving text, called here “The Bedroom of the beloved Beloved,” opens with the Angelus, and plays with Rolle’s “Ego dormio,” of being alternatively awake to God and asleep to the World, and vice versa. In this text his vision of light centres upon the Annunciation and Easter in its timing. One delights in his comment, “As for angelic song, it is just as real in true lovers as a secular tune sung by teenagers in the flower of their youth.” He also delightfully comments against scholastic writing and preaching, veering instead to that more humanistic mode of thought, mental rather than physical, right hemisphere rather than left, Platonic rather than Aristotelian, “Let our talk be about love, which dwells freely in lovers and always gives a writer new material...That is why those who discuss perceptible love rarely scrutinize the words of others or cite standard authorities. Nor do they organize their writings in the usual way, setting up divisions and subdivisions, for the Holy Spirit knows what a reader may unexpectedly need. So the Spirit arranges a book more as a doctor treats a patient...” (84). On page 85, n. 94, Newman observes that the figure of Eternal Wisdom as Christ is feminine, but in Henry Suso’s autograph Horologium Sapientie,Einsiedeln, Cod. 710 (322), fol. 89, that figure of Holy Wisdom is a masculine and bearded Christ sheltering Suso and Elsbeth beneath his fur-lined cloak.

The third text, “The Refectory of Salvation,” discusses the Vow of Poverty as its opposite. In contrast to the first text, Richard’s raptures now come thick and fast, often coupled with the desire for death, reminding one of Julian’s similar prayer. He tells of his conversion to the monastic life through the alms he gave a holy anchoress (110).

The discussion on the incomplete, because acephalous, The Experience of Truth, on the “Discernment of Spirits,” could have mentioned this theme in Julian of Norwich, drawn from Alfonso of Jaèn in relation to Birgitta of Sweden and from William Flete applied to Catherine of Siena, which Julian gave in turn at the end of her Amherst text, dated by its scribe, 1413, and to Margery Kempe in their circa 1413 famous conversation together: that if a vision leads to charity rather than to vainglory, it is of the Holy Spirit; otherwise it is of the fiend. This text ends with a lovely chapter addressed to women, claiming that prostitutes can return to being virgins (147-148).

There is a brief mention of James Hogg that could well have been expanded. A former Carthusian monk, for years as a married professor at the University of Salzburg he edited and published Carthusian, Brigittine and Benedictine writings from manuscripts and fostered other scholars’ work. He was particularly drawn to Mount Grace’s Charterhouse and enlisted the Anglican priest John Clark in their joint work of editing its texts. Barbara Newman’s first three translations can be read hand in hand with Hogg’s facsimile of the Latin manuscript, Trinity College Cambridge MS 0.2.56, published in Analecta Cartusiana 64, of 1978. It could have been desirable to include one plate from this in the Cistercian publication to draw the reader closer to the original, a practice the Early English Text Society has always carried out admirably. I placed online the Middle English rendering of the enchanting “To Hew Heremyte: A Pystyl of Solitary Lyfe Nowadays,” in the midst of which one finds references to bird song, of larks, thrushes and nightingales, along with James Hogg’s autobiographical preface, at, this website also giving renderings of Pseudo-Dionysius, Guigo II, Hugh of Balma, John Whiterig, Jan van Ruusbroec, William Flete, Birgitta of Sweden, Julian of Norwich, her conversation with Margery Kempe, etc., in an attempt to trace Julian’s contemplative library.



1. A.I. Doyle, “Carthusian Participation in the Movement of Works of Richard Rolle Between England and Other Parts of Europe in the 14th and 15th Centuries,” in: Kartäusermystik und -Mystiker 2. Analecta Cartusiana, 55.2, ed. by James Hogg (Salzburg, 1981), 2.109-20.

2. Monica Hedlund, “Katillus Thorberni, A Syon Pioneer and His Books,” Birgittiana, 1 (1996): 67-87.