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22.05.12 Barratt/Powell (eds.), The Fifteen Oes and Other Prayers

22.05.12 Barratt/Powell (eds.), The Fifteen Oes and Other Prayers

This is a very welcome addition to the remarkable list of Middle English Texts from Heidelberg University Press. It stands as an excellent example of the editorial quality that has been one of the hallmarks of the series, together with its eclectic list of titles covering scientific, medical, religious, and secular texts. Barratt and Powell offer an edition of the Middle English “Fifteen Oes” and some other prayers as found in the text published by William Caxton in 1491. The “Fifteen Oes” consists of fifteen short prose prayers, which begin with an “O Ihesu” or “O blessed Ihesu” invocation and then proceed to focus on a particular Passion event that will lead to a specific request. The “Fifteen Oes” are followed by two bilingual (Middle English and Latin) prayers, one prayer in Middle English, and twelve Latin prayers. The Caxton version ends with a colophon that mentions Lady Elizabeth, “quene of Englonde & France” and Lady Margaret Beaufort, “moder vnto our souerayn lorde the kinge” (16.525-7).

The edition per se is preceded by a generous introduction that first discusses the only surviving copy of Caxton’s edition (STC 20195), which is held in the British Library, London (IA.55144). De Worde reused the volume for the edition of his horae (STC 15875). One of these copies, Lambeth Palace Library [ZZ] may have belonged to Lady Margaret Beaufort.

Although Barratt and Powell present an edition of the Middle English “Fifteen Oes,” they offer a detailed discussion of the original Latin version. The general narrative about the line of transmission of the Latin Oes--from a female solitary who received the prayers in a vision, to a hermit she informed about them, who in his turn passed them on to an abbess--makes for an interesting account. Evidence supports the composition of the prayers in England, with Yorkshire as a possible location. The attribution of the Latin Oes to St. Bridget is no longer tenable, but scholars such as Wilmart, Rogers, and Duffy have postulated its composition either within religious circles associated with Richard Rolle, or among the English Brigittines of Syon Abbey. Although the task of investigating hundreds of manuscripts of the Latin Oes is beyond the scope of Barratt and Powell, they provide some interesting information, which I summarise below.

Manuscript evidence suggests a date at least as old as the third quarter of the fourteenth century, which indisputably invalidates the English Brigittine milieu, since the foundation of Syon Abbey dates to 1415. Several manuscripts associate the Latin Oes with Bernard of Clairvaux. His sermon fifteen on the Song of Songs is completely devoted to the Name of Jesus, and the hymn Dulcis Iesu memoria, which was attributed to him, shares with the Latin Oes stylistic and thematic features: the “O Ihesu” of each Latin Oe giving the impression that the prayers are an expression of the devotion to the Holy Name. Appendix 1 makes the reader’s experience of the editorial arguments richer, because it enables rigorous analysis of them. If the influence of Dulcis Iesu memoria upon the Latin Oes is irrefutable, and can be checked in both the Latin and Middle English, the suggestion by the editors that the prayers are part of the devotion to the Name of Jesus needs to be tempered. Dulcis Iesu memoria fulfilled multiple functions during the late medieval period. It was often associated with the Passion events, and the reference to “Ihesu” in this context expresses his humanity, while the fully developed devotion to the Name of Jesus dissociates itself from too strong a focus on his material conditions, delving instead into more abstract considerations that verge towards the apophatic. This is not to refute the influence of the Holy Name devotion, but more to stress that, despite this tendency, the prayers resolutely and unabashedly bring the “I-voice” back, after the “O Ihesu” invocation, to focus on the physical circumstances of the Passion events. Isaiah 1:6, quia a planta pedis usque ad verticem capitis non fuit in te sanitas (35), rendered as “Fro the sole of thy fote to the toppe of thy hede there was no hole place” (2.41-2), offered as part of the third, tenth and twelfth Oes, summarises well this relentless focus on the corporeality of Jesus. Bernard himself offered his monks a contemplative map made up of the body of Christ, in which monks had to climb from his feet to finally find refuge and repose in his side wounds. The use of scripture, the liturgy, and pseudo-Bernardine texts, as argued by the editors, point safely to a monastic milieu, most probably a Cistercian one.

Although the number of versions of the Middle English “Oes” does not compare with the Latin tradition, its translation history is quite complex, with several different copies in prose and verse. The editors focus their attention on five manuscripts in which versions related to Caxton’s edition survive. Appendix 1 serves well as a supplement to the discussion of Caxton’s Middle English version. Comparison between the Latin text in the Appendix and the Middle English version yields the following information. If Caxton’s “word for word” approach promises a version faithful to the Latin original, in matter of fact, the translation deviates substantially from the Latin. Among some of the most significant adaptations, the editors note how the first Oe, by far the longest of all, repeats the “O Ihesu” invocation three times, with three more references to “Ihesu.”

Another prayer from the Caxton edition, “Ihesu for thy holy name,” corroborates further the point about the influence of the devotion to the Name. Margaret Beaufort commissioned the collection from Caxton and so, considering her direct involvement in the promotion of the devotion in England, and its implementation as a new liturgical feast, it is not surprising that her commission would reflect this interest.

The devotional interests of Lady Margaret were nurtured within the context of the spiritual life of the Brigittine sisters of Syon Abbey, who provided her with their monastery as an alternative place of worship outside the royal household. Both aristocratic women owned devotional books. Barratt and Powell mention, among others, the Hours of Elizabeth the Queen (London, BL, MS Additional 50001), the Beaufort Hours (London, BL, MS Royal 2 A xviii), the Book of Hours of Richard III (London, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 474), and many more. These books are however in Latin, and apart from Richard III’s book which contains the Latin Oes, the Middle English Oesare not included. London, Westminster Abbey Library, MS 39, probably commissioned by Lady Margaret for her last husband, Sir Thomas Stanley, is predominantly in Latin, but has a few prayers in English. It offers a substantial number of prayers on the Name and includes the Psalter of Jesus, which is not dissimilar in structure to the Oes, with its fifteen petitions articulated around “Jesus.”

The compact but dense introduction by Barratt and Powell is a goldmine of information that could open new research avenues. I wonder for instance whether the information provided will lead to further research into Lady Margaret’s translations. Also, in view of the extensive number of prayers on the Holy Name extant in London, Westminster Abbey Library, MS 39, I wonder whether an edition and analysis of the whole manuscript would not enable a better understanding of the way in which a fifteenth-century lay devotional reader would have incorporated this particular devotion within a broader devotional scheme, including passion meditations.

However, it is hoped that the edition of Fifteen Oes and Other Prayers will also trigger new interest in these prayers. This highly polished volume is provided with the Middle English prayers, followed by Latin ones, as found in Caxton’s edition, suggesting an audience with bilingual ability in para-liturgical material, which would likely include the queen and her mother. The brief textual apparatus is based on de Worde’s edition, with Lambeth Palace Library [ZZ] 1494.6 as an important witness. The commentary is another goldmine of information that deals with sources, analogues, occasional difficult readings, and peculiar lexical occurrences. The commentary also includes translations of the Latin prayers, with generous information on extant manuscript versions (see for instance the commentary to the prayer Domine Deus omnipotens, ll. 247-63). Following Appendix 1 which contains the constructed Latin Oes, Appendix 2 offers a partial index to De Worde’s edition. A brief glossary of common liturgical terms is then succeeded by an extensive general glossary. An index of incipits and a bibliography complete this outstanding edition, which deserves lavish praise.