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22.11.08 Connolly/Duncan (eds.), The Middle English ‘Mirror’

22.11.08 Connolly/Duncan (eds.), The Middle English ‘Mirror’

I first came across the Middle English Mirror, a late fourteenth-century sermon collection, in the process of compiling an appendix to an anthology of medieval prologues. [1] I was a postdoctoral researcher on the French of England project, and this was my first meaningful encounter with a medieval manuscript. The Prologue to the Mirror begins with a lively introduction, characterising romaunce and gestes as folies and trufles, the province of the liar, and setting itself up in contrast as something profetabil boþe to lif & to soule. [2] But in the manuscript I was attempting to transcribe--Oxford, Bodleian Library, Holkham MS Misc. 40--the Mirror extends to more than 100 folios of dense prose in brown ink and presented a rather daunting prospect.

This paperback volume of the Mirror is altogether more approachable. Connolly and Duncan published an initial volume of their edition of the Mirror in 2003. That volume covered the section of the liturgical year from Advent to Sexagesima; the new volume takes up from where that left off, and extends to Pentecost. A further two volumes are planned. The editors’ base manuscript is Glasgow, University Library, Hunter MS 250, and extensive notes to the edition provide careful discussion of variants from the eight extant manuscripts, as well as explaining points of difficulty and directing the reader to relevant scholarship. There is also a selective glossary, which provides all the help that readers used to Middle English are likely to need.

As if that were not enough, Connolly and Duncan also present a parallel text of the Mirror’s source, Robert de Gretham’s thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman verse Miroir, which has not been previously edited, allowing for close comparison of the two texts. The editors’ erudition and the apparatus they provide therefore make this more useful than Blumreich’s 2002 edition, although until their final two volumes appear Blumreich’s is the only available edition of the full text of the Mirror. [3]

For the most part, the anonymous Middle English text is a close translation of the Miroir, though the change of form from French verse to English prose naturally alters the overall effect of the text. Robert dedicated his text to one “dame Aline,” perhaps Elena de Quincy (d. 1296). This dedication is dropped in the Middle English prose; instead, the audience is addressed generally as lordynges. There are occasional moments where the French seems to be misconstrued, perhaps, as the editors suggest, as much from palaeographical challenges as linguistic ability. For example, Robert wrote that just as sin causes God’s law to fail, par lius falt parrei (line 6136), or “a wall may fail [develop holes] in places.” The translator renders this as þe walle faileþ þar þat þe dor is (61), or “there’s no wall where the door is.”

The other significant effect of adaptation into prose is to make the beginning of each sermon, where a Gospel lection is presented in full, feel much closer to the Wycliffite Bible than the Miroir’s rhyming couplets. The writer is straightforward about what he is doing: in the first of the sermons presented in this volume, he presents a long prose paraphrase of Luke chapter 18, then announces: Now haue ȝe herd þe letter, now hereþ þe vnderstondynge (3). His translation constitutes the very letter of the Bible. I do not mean to suggest that this writer is himself a Wycliffite, but this text is one of many that deserve closer attention as we seek to understand how biblical translation and adaptation were practised and conceptualised around the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Certainly both Robert and his translator were happy to interpret and enliven their biblical material. For example, sermon 18, for the fifth Sunday in Lent, expounds the final verses of John Chapter 8, where Jesus debates with the Jews in the Temple following his encounter with the woman taken in adultery. Numerous small additions, made in the French and taken over in the English, alter the effect of the biblical text. In the gospel, Jesus says (in the Douay-Rheims translation), “He that is of God heareth the words of God.” Robert replaces the first phrase with Ki est de Deu e de s’escole (line 6078), carried over into Middle English as Þat is of God and of his scole (59). This introduces a new idea of approved institutional teaching. The presentation of the debate is then given more moral colour: the Jews in the Temple are characterised as speaking with enuie, whereas Jesus speaks ful mekelich and wiþouten enuie (59). There are more significant creative interventions in the interpretative sections of sermons. The Gospels narrate that the sky went dark at the Crucifixion. But in the Mirror and its French source, there is a more pleasant sequel. At the Resurrection, trees, and gresse, & al þat is, in gret swetenes þai cloþeþ hem; þe foules begynneþ to synge, and the sonne to schyne briȝter; al þinge in himseluen gladeþ in þe resurreccioun of Ihesus Crist (trees, and grass, and everything that exists clothes itself in great sweetness; the birds begin to sing and the sun to shine more brightly; all things rejoice in themselves at the Resurrection of Jesus Christ) (83).

The Mirror also includes plenty of exemplary stories from other sources, whose colourful details often linger longer in the mind than their moral lesson. The rather sad story of a woman working in a brothel, taken from the Vitae Patrum, is told in sermon 16. Her brother attempts to extract her from her foule and abhominable life (47), and she agrees to go with him to the desert. But because she will not go back into the brothel to get her hood, he is reluctant to be seen in her bareheaded presence on the street. They become separated and he fond hire dede, and hire fete al blodi, for sche had followed him bare-fote (49). The moral simply reminds us that it is never too late to repent.

The exemplum of King Conred’s Knight, here presented as an unnamed king’s servant, is retold in sermon 15 with verve. The servant relates the visions he has had on his sickbed, which unfolds with the strange logic and powerful imagery of a dream. Two angel figures bring out a small book, fair and white and clene, and he finds that Y, þat neuer couþe (knew how to) rede, rad it: it turns out to be a book of his good deeds. But it is so small that þar ne miȝt nouȝt muchel þinge be writen þarinne (not much could be written in it) (31). The next two visitors are blak, and horrible, and stynkand, wiþ brennand eiȝen and skabbed visage.... On alle half Y tourned me for anguische for to loke ȝif Y miȝt haue hid me from hem, ac whider þat Y tourned me þai wer tofor me (black and horrible and stinking, with burning eyes and scabbed anguish I turned myself in every direction to see if I could hide myself from them, but wherever I turned they were there in front of me) (31-3). This book is gret and horrible, and þar was inne more letterur þan was in two bibles. And wold ich, nold ich, Y rede þarinne alle myn euel dedes (33).

Much of the material here is of broader cultural historical interest. For example, the overt distinction between Old Testament Jews, trewe and stedfast, and New Testament Jews, fals and misbileuand (63) and the talk of God taking holi cherche from the Saracens (29) could extend our understanding of medieval Christian concepts of, and hostility towards, other faiths and traditions. The idea that baptism constitutes marriage to Christ, articulated in sermon 27, was one I had not previously encountered and might warrant further scholarly attention. Sympathy for women’s suffering in childbearing is expressed in the Middle English text in terms that are strikingly more gendered than in Robert’s text: þe pyne of þe woman is so gret þat no man may it segge (121).

Perhaps this last belongs to the group of changes that hint at the kind of audience the English translator has in mind. That audience, as mentioned above, is addressed as lordynges, though this may be no more than a convention borrowed from vernacular romance. Still, there are some hints that they are imagined as people who are enmeshed in worldly things, with possessions that they could not easily give up. One telling addition comes at the end of sermon 25, when we are told that to reach heaven, the Christian will need to leave behind worldly love, but nouȝt cast awai al his gode (137). On the other hand, Robert’s interest in the role of learning is elaborated. It is sinful, we are told, in both French and English texts, to konnen witte for to anoye oþer (17). The Middle English text of a later sermon adds that ech man þat God han sent more connynge þan oþer, he is endette to techen his broþer and wiþnyme (reprove) him of synne (113). Elsewhere the translator feels compelled to remark that while living a holy life may be more important for a Christian than learning, wiþouten connynge he ne mai neuer wel werche (133). All this creates the impression that this translator is both firmly on the side of learning, and tailoring his messages to an audience that might include both the wealthy and the educated, and the married as well as the professionally celibate.

This is a careful, scholarly edition and I could find little in it to criticise: I am reduced to suggesting that the English paragraphs on page 101 might have more logically followed the divisions in the French text. The editors modestly draw attention in their endnotes to various scriptural allusions that they have not been able to trace, for example in the note to line 4 of page 155. I hope that their work will enable and encourage further research on this rich text.



1. Vernacular Literary Theory from the French of Medieval England: Texts and Translations, c. 1120 -- c. 1450, ed. and trans. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Thelma Fenster, and Delbert Russell (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2016).

2. The Middle English Mirror: Sermons from Advent to Sexagesima, ed. Thomas G. Duncan and Margaret Connolly, Middle English Texts 34 (Heidelberg: Winter, 2003), 1.

3. The Middle English ‘Mirror’: An Edition Based on Bodleian Library, MS Holkham misc. 40, ed. Kathleen Marie Blumreich, Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance 9 (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2002).