Art. 4, De seint Johan le Ewangeliste: Introduction

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Art. 4, De seint Johan le Ewangeliste: Introduction

by: Susanna Greer Fein (Editor), David Raybin (Translator), Jan Ziolkowski (Translator)

ABBREVIATIONS: AND: Anglo-Norman Dictionary; ANL: Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts (R. Dean and Boulton); BL: British Library (London); BnF: Bibliothèque nationale de France (Paris); CUL: Cambridge University Library; MED: Middle English Dictionary; NLW: National Library of Wales (Aberystwyth); PL: Patrologiae cursus completus . . . series latina (Migne).

The Life of Saint John the Evangelist is the first of four prose saints’ lives copied at the end of booklet 2. Judging from instances of the same lives in other manuscripts, the original group was probably a set of five: John the Evangelist, John the Baptist, Bartholomew, Paul, and Peter. The author abbreviates the vita of John as it was popularly known and preached with a traditional enumeration of John’s four special graces: (1) Christ loved his friend John best of the apostles; (2) John was a virgin; (3) John slept on Christ’s breast at the Last Supper, by which he gained access to hidden secrets; and (4) from the cross, Christ entrusted Mary to John’s care. The second and third of these graces are reflected in this telling: John’s virginity allows him to survive the torture of boiling oil, and John expresses his access to God’s secrets by writing the Apocalypse. Elsewhere in Scribe A’s portion of Harley 2253, Herman de Valenciennes’s Passion of Our Lord (art. 2) depicts John sleeping on Christ’s breast (lines 14–17), and The Gospel of Nicodemus (art. 3) shows Christ entrusting his mother to John (lines 262–64; see also art. 2, lines 1895–1901).

The Anglo-Norman life of Saint John found in Harley accentuates the apostle’s capacity to revive the dead: the woman Drusiana, three men, and then a young man. Such miracles provide access to unseen spiritual realities when revived individuals offer testimonies to benefit the living. The vita also selects, from among the saint’s many miracles, two that center upon the conversion of gemstones. In the first one, when jewels are smashed in accord with a philosopher’s teachings, John miraculously restores them to teach a lesson about how natural wealth ought to be distributed to the poor. In the second one, John provides a pair of young men with a lesson on wealth by turning sticks and pebbles into gold wands and gemstones and then converting them back into their original, humble substances. These two well-known stories, long attached to the life of Saint John, expound a unified doctrine on the proper use of wealth, a theme exemplified throughout the vita and later utilized by the Pearl poet, who counts Saint John’s Apocalypse among his inspirations (Fein 2014). In the thirteenth-century tradition of great illustrated English Apocalypses, these same events from John’s vita were very often depicted beside images of Revelation (see Cartlidge and Elliot; McKitterick).

John’s life story is set later than the other apostolic saints’ lives in Harley. It is said to occur during and after the reign of Roman Emperor Domitian (81–96 A.D.). Unlike John the Baptist, Bartholomew, and Peter, John the Evangelist did not suffer martyrdom. Instead, he was reputed to have lived to a very ripe old age, dying of natural causes when the time was proper.

[Fols. 41va–43vb. ANL 546 (1). Scribe: A, with title inserted by B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 4. Initials: Opening large initial L (seven lines high) is outlined, but not filled in. Red A of Aprés (line 85; two lines high) has been inserted by Scribe B. Layout: Two columns. Editions: D. Russell 1989, pp. 51–77. Other MSS: Paris, BnF MS français 19525, fols. 31r–36rb (ed. D. Russell 1989, pp. 50–76; trans. Short 2005); London, BL MS Egerton 2710, fols. 139r–142v. Picard Version: Paris, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal 3516, fols. 58r–60v (ed. D. Russell 1989, pp. 65–77). Latin Analogue: Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. Ryan, 1:50–55. Translations: None.


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