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22.05.07 Smith, A Christian Mannes Bileeve

22.05.07 Smith, A Christian Mannes Bileeve

In the corpus of medieval devotional materials, the Apostles’ Creed is foundational, training Christians in the primary tenets of the faith. The fourteenth-century “A Christian Mannes Bileeve” (CMB) participates in the long tradition of commentaries on the Creed; presented in the vernacular, with the Creed and authorizing texts in Latin, this most robust of the four surviving Middle English versions was meant to reach a broad lay audience. Even more importantly, CMB is a text written to include women. Despite its importance, CMB has not previously been published; Smith’s edition, volume 60 of the Middle English Texts series, thus contributes significantly to studies of Middle English devotional material, vernacular writing, women’s literacy and religious practice, lay devotion, theological studies, and beyond.

In this well-designed critical edition, Smith makes a fully-edited CMB text accessible to a wide range of readers. Her choice to focus on recovering “the earliest form of the work that can be deduced from the surviving textual evidence” is, I think, wise, and because she provides a full collation of all four manuscripts, both junior and experienced scholars will benefit. Those learning codicology and editorial methods have before them an excellent example of how to produce a reliable edition; scholars wishing to construct an evolution of the text will be able to do so as all four texts are represented; and those who simply need a good critical edition of the text to work from have that as well. She notes too that she has followed the base text scribe’s irregular orthography (explaining what that orthography is), an excellent decision for presenting an edition that can be a reliable witness to a manuscript, particularly for those who cannot visit the text or obtain a good facsimile or image.

Conversely, she has wisely left out from her apparatus variations that will not affect the reader’s ability to rely on her edition for meaningful textual differences, so that the apparatus will remain clear and navigable. The apparatus is short enough that it might have been helpfully positioned at the foot of each page for easier reference, though the edition is cleanly laid out as is and the apparatus is easy to access in any case. In her thorough commentary Smith identifies source material and offers thoughtful commentary on emendations and textual content. The helpful and selective glossary makes this text approachable, especially for student readers, and the bibliography is thorough and extremely useful both to demonstrate the work Smith has put in here as well as to guide readers to other sources of interest. Of great value to this edition as well is Smith’s thorough introduction. She argues successfully for many important facets of CMB, including its blend of genres (theological treatise, lyric, commentary, source material) and languages. She points out as well that CMB is an important vehicle for lyric survivals and transmission. Her linguistic profiles on the C and Lp manuscripts are thoughtful additions to the work of LALME and these, together with the glossary, make the volume an excellent scholarly contribution as well as teaching aid for students studying Middle English. Her tabulation and discussion of the significance of the linguistic features are helpful too for showing much about the circulation and copying of manuscripts in the complex linguistic crucible of medieval England.

Smith’s arguments also position CMB to take a place in the lineup of texts important for a deeper socio-historical understanding of its audience. Not simply a theological text, CMB also sheds light on the time and place in which it was constructed, and gives us an additional window, especially desirable, into its author’s world and what s/he imagined would resonate with the audience. In this way CMB is somewhat like Ancrene Wisse (a thirteenth-century Middle English treatise for anchoritic women): AW’s author drew his well-known romance metaphors from the world of his intended readers, an educated, aristocratic female audience. Similarly, the author of CMB shows us much about women’s religious and social lives in fourteenth-century England. Likewise, what Smith demonstrates about the four surviving CMB manuscripts enriches what we know of the circulation of devotional texts in late Medieval England, particularly among women and women’s reading circles, as its manuscripts are linked to at least three religious women of the time. Smith points out that CMB would have been available to those literate women who could afford it, and that the text itself “encouraged ‘God’s own daughter’” to read it (xxxvi). Finally, Smith also positions CMB as arising from and participating in the exploration of affective piety. Smith’s careful work and thorough presentation make this edition a pleasure to use and an important contribution to Middle English studies.