The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase Of The Old Testament: Introduction


1 Squires, “Treatment,” p. 187.

2 I make the distinction of publication because the sales of Russell A. Peck’s Heroic Women from the Old Tes­tament in Middle English Verse — a volume that includes the stories of Eve, Judith, and Jeph­thah’s daugh­ter from the Paraphrase — clearly reveal a considerable readership of some portions of the poem.

3 Morey, Book and Verse, pp. 146 and 69, respectively.

4 Critical reviews of the previous editors’ work were nearly universal in pointing out this latter defi­ciency; see, e.g., that by Liljegren for the first volume of the edition.

5 “Sein werk steht wie eine oase in der wüste der theologischen massen-literatur des 14. jahr­hunderts” (Heuser, “Die alttestamentlichen dichtungen,” p. 1). Unless cited otherwise, all trans­la­tions from Latin, Old English, and, as here, German, are my own; translations from the Bible are from the Douay-Rheims translation as revised in 1749–52 by Richard Challoner.

6 Wells, Manual, p. 398.

7 Cawley, Review of A Middle English Metrical Paraphrase, p. 454. He compares, for instance, the encounter between David and Goliath in the Paraphrase with that found in the Vulgate. His opinion is that the Para­phrase-poet does remarkable work in rendering both the action and the impact of the se­quence.

8 Laurence Muir, “Translations and Paraphrases,” p. 382.

9 Middle English Metrical Paraphrase, ed. Kalén, 1:clxxxi.

10 Stern, Review of A Middle English Metrical Paraphrase, p. 286. It is interesting to note that Stern thus chooses only the positive terms from Kalén’s own description of the poet, purposefully omitting the negative turn that Kalén had subsequently taken.

11 Peck, Heroic Women from the Old Testament, p. 110.

12 On knowledge of the Bible and its stories as a key functional component of lay literacy, see Aston, Lollards and Reformers, pp. 101–33. That this lay literacy was largely that of a male laity is a point made by Blamires, “Limits of Bible Study,” and McSheffrey, “Literacy and the Gender Gap.” Access points to the Bible were numerous even for the illiterate, deriving chiefly from the liturgy (on which see Lamb, “Place of the Bible in the Liturgy,” and, in conjunction with discussion of hag­io­graphy, Duffy, Stripping of the Altars, pp. 155–205).

13 Besserman, Chaucer’s Biblical Poetics, p. 7.

14 Besserman, Chaucer’s Biblical Poetics, p. 4.

15 Purchas’ name is recorded in the top margin of fol. 2r, in the same hand that summarizes the poem as “The Historie of the Bible in old English verse” on fol. 1v. As his summary implies, Purchas was most likely interested in the poem as an historical, encyclopedic document. Such a viewpoint is not surprising given that Purchas is most famous not for his clerical work but, first, for writing Pur­chas His Pilgrimage (1613), a survey of world religions and peoples that presents itself not as a spiri­tual jou­rney but as a historical one, and, second, for publishing the four-volume Hakluytus post­humus, or Pur­chas His Pilgrims(1625), a compilation of travel literature that included much of the work of Richard Hakluyt.

16 This is not to say that the poet is uninterested in law per se. Indeed, his work is contained within a greater frame of moral vision that is inextricably bound up with the very definitions of Scrip­ture: though constructed to entertain, there is no doubt the poem is meant to educate, as well. The Para­phrase thus functions in much the same way as Gower’s Confessio Amantis or Chaucer’s Can­ter­bury Tales: its “tales” serve to reinforce the underlying natural laws it asks the reader to imple­ment in his life, and its ostensible authority is God’s.

17 The headers appear on rectos; “Leviticus” appears on fols. 16r–18r.

18 For more on Cassiodorus and his possible connections to the Paraphrase, see below. For the or­dering of the books, see especially note 53.

19 Comestor and the Historia are discussed more fully below.

20 Ohlander, “Old French Parallels,” pp. 222–23. For Kalén’s original discussion, see his intro­duc­tion to the poem (1:clxxviii–cxciii). I have included their findings, along with much further evi­dence along these lines, in the explanatory notes.

21 While noting that the form was indeed rare, Stern observed in reviewing Kalén’s work that it is not entirely unique to these two cases; it also occurs in MS Harley 2253 (no. 8 in Wright’s Percy Society edition). See Saintsbury’s History of English Prosody, 1:117.

22 Middle English Metrical Paraphrase, ed. Kalén, 1:clviii–clix.

23 Beadle, “Origins of Abraham’s Preamble.”

24 On the development of these plays, see York Plays, ed. Beadle.

25 This location agrees with that found in McIntosh A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English, which in­cludes Selden. Supra 52 as linguistic profile 30, locating it in the West Riding.

26 Though we have no full gospel manuscripts from before the third cen­tury, the various dates presented here are nevertheless those most commonly accepted by scholars.

27 The tradition that the work was written by Mark, a disciple of Peter who wrote down the re­mem­brances of the Apostle, is first recorded by Papias in the second century, though it is impor­tant to note that Papias seems to indicate that the “Mark” that he knows is only a collection of sayings, not a narrative like the gospel as we now have it. Papias, a bishop, does not seem to have seen that text, nor does he affirm the existence of any others.

28 The dating of the fourth Gospel remains very much uncertain, with scholars falling along a “bell curve” between pre-70 and post-140 dates. John Dominic Crossan has recently suggested that a “first edition” appeared in the first years of the second century, with a second edition appearing between 120 and 150 (Historical Jesus, pp. 427–32).

29 His letters also speak to historical divergence in that they give no indication that he knew of other source texts (such as the Gospels or their hypothetical ur-texts like the Q document) or even, upon close reading, of specific details about a human being named Jesus. That is, Paul gives no indi­cation that he has knowledge of Jesus’ baptism, His miracles, His beatitudes, His parables, His unique birth, or His fundamentally rabbinical teachings. Perhaps most striking of all, Paul gives no hint that he is aware of Christ’s real-world Passion or its theological significance. For a succinct overview of the ramifications of these facts in determining the historicity of Jesus, see Doherty, “Jesus Puzzle.”

30 This possibility has been raised by many Catholic and Orthodox scholars, who supposed that the Jews failed to close off their own canon until the so-called Council of Jamnia in 90 CE, thus giving the first Christian communities some decades to determine on their own the canonicity of the deu­tero­canonical/apocryphal books. Yet searches of rabbinical evidence reveal no hints that the canon was in such a loose form at such a late date; indeed, such evidence as there is suggests that the Jewish canon had been more or less established perhaps as early as the time of Ezra’s return from the Bab­ylonian Exile (458 BCE), which would be in accord with Jewish traditions that follow the first book of Esdras in viewing him as one who “pre­pared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do and to teach in Israel the commandments and judgment” (1 Esdras 7:10). Ezra thereby becomes the figure­head for the establishment of the Jewish canon, a scribe/poet who consolidates Jewish cultural power by formalizing the word upon which it is based. (For a related discussion of Ezra in the context of poetic theory, see Bloom, Map of Mis­reading, pp. 41–62.) At any rate, most scholars now agree that if the canon was not closed in Ezra’s day, it was closed almost certainly no later than the time of the rabbi Hillel (born a gener­a­tion or two before the Common Era). See, e.g., Lewis, “Jamnia Revisited,” or Newman, Council of Jamnia and the Old Testament Canon.

31 The Septuagint, meaning “seventy” and thus often abbreviated LXX, is so named because it was supposedly translated by seventy (or seventy-two) scholars cloistered on the island of Pharos in the Alexandrian harbor at the command of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285–246 BCE). The basic out­line of its construction is given in the Letter of Aristeas, which claims to be an eyewitness account of the events but more likely dates to around 150–110 BCE. The story of the Septuagint’s trans­lation grew in the telling, so that Philo (in On Moses 2.25–44) could report that the translators, working in iso­la­tion from one another, came up with identical Greek translations of the Hebrew originals — marking the translation as divinely inspired. This story is itself further embellished by Christian writers such as Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3.21.2). For discussion of the later legends, see Jellicoe, Septuagint and Modern Study, pp. 44–47; for further overview of the Septuagint itself, see Metzger’s discussion in Bible in Translation, pp. 13–20.

32 Metzger, Bible in Translation, p. 18.

33 The “orthodox” reaction against the process of Hellenization is perhaps nowhere better pre­served than in the books of the Maccabees, which detail the victory of Judas Maccabeus and his or­tho­dox followers against foreign elements, culminating in the cleansing/rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem (celebrated at Hanukkah). In a turn of irony, these books are written in Greek, so they are not considered part of the Hebrew canon.

34 See Metzger, Bible in Translation, p. 20.

35 In contemporary Christianity, this impulse can be seen most clearly in some of the Protestant translations of the Bible, such as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which have attempted to translate not only from the canonized Hebrew text of the Old Testament (the Masoretic text) but also from earlier fragments such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

36 The Hexapla presented the Scriptures in six col­umns: (1) Hebrew, (2) Hebrew transliterated into Greek, (3) Hebrew literally (and pain­fully) translated into Greek by Aquila (c. 140 CE), (4) a more readable Greek translation by Sym­machus (c. 180), (5) a “purified” Septuagint trans­lation, and (6) a Greek revision of the Septuagint by Theodotion. While a few fragments of the Hexapla re­main, no copy of the whole, which must have been an enormous work in its entirety, exists today. Ori­gen’s originals were kept at Caesarea in the library of Pamphilus, but they appear to have been lost to history when Saracens took the town in 638. Origen’s version of the Septuagint, however, the fifth column of his text and often called simply the Hexaplaric translation of the Bible, became the basis for many subsequent translations and was eventually recognized as the official Old Testament of the Greek Orthodox community.

37 Precisely which Old Latin translation is unknown. Parts of the Bible were being translated from Greek into Latin at least as early as the time of Tertullian (c. 150–220), and these translations grew organically in bits and pieces under the hands of various and competing translators. By the end of the fourth century, Augustine was able to lament: “the translations of the Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek can be counted, but the Latin translators are out of all number. For in the early days of the faith every man who happened to get his hands upon a Greek manuscript, and who thought he had any knowledge, were it ever so little, of the two languages, ventured upon the work of translation” (On Christian Doctrine 2.10 — in Schaff, Select Library first series, 2:541). Scholars term these many translations, col­lec­tively, the Old Latin Bible (Vetus Latina), though it is important to note that this term does not apply to any single translation of the Bible. Pre-Vulgate full texts of the Bible are known by stemmatic families that are associated with the names of specific representative manu­scripts, such as the Codex Vercellensis or Codex Veronensis.

38 Jerome’s first translation of the Bible, based on Origen’s Hexaplaric text and begun at the direction of Pope Damasus in 383. For Jerome’s own account of the undertaking, see his Letter to Damasus, in Schaff, Select Library second series, 6:487–88.

39 Having based his first translations on Origen’s Hexaplaric Greek text, Jerome came to feel that a new translation reaching back to the Hebrew originals was required. From 390 to 404 he produced this new translation, which was met with mixed reviews. Augustine, for example, himself a proponent of the Greek and thus no fan of Jerome’s work, reports a near riot when a congregation in Oea (mod­ern Tripoli) heard a reading of the book of Jonas in Jerome’s brand-new Vulgate translation, one that did not accord with the rendering of the Septuagint. Such was the audience’s dismay that the bishop was ultimately forced to change the text of the Latin since “he desired not to be left without a congregation” (Letter 71 in Schaff, Select Library first series, 1:327). Nevertheless, Jerome’s scholarship (and the papal authority behind it) resulted in his second translation, commonly known as the Vulgate, be­coming the standard version of the Scriptures in the West for over a thousand years. Even today, Jerome’s Vulgate remains the authorized version of the Bible for the Roman Catholic Church.

40 Marsden, Text of the Old Testament, pp. 137–38, citing Institutiones 1.15.11.

41 In his 1967 Jarrow Lecture on the art of the Codex Amiatinus, Bruce-Mitford famously re­ported that the parchment sheets used for the three volumes would have required the pelts of ap­proximately 1,545 calves, a daunting statistic, in "Codex Amiatinus," p. 2. More recently, however, Gameson has argued that we should not allow ourselves to be too far swayed by such a large number since, while the under­taking was no doubt remarkable, the actual outlay of resources involved is difficult to determine with any precision: we have little knowledge of contemporary herd sizes, much less how the production of the three pandects would compare to an average scriptorium output during the same period of time (“Cost of the Codex Amiatinus”).

42 The key figure in this discovery was De Rossi, who in 1888 established the English connections (La Bibbia offerta da Ceolfrido).

43 An opposing view, that the text of the Ami­a­tinus is a Northumbrian-edited composition of texts and thus a parallel to Cassiodorus’ work rather than a facsimile of it, was presented by Michelle P. Brown in her 2004 University of London Palaeography Lecture, “Preaching with the Pen.”

44 Reproductions can be found in many places: e.g., Weitzmann, Late Antique and Early Christian Book Illumination, plate 48; David Wilson, Anglo-Saxon Art, illus. 39; Henderson, From Durrow to Kells, illus. 171. A line-art reproduction, useful for its clarity, was made for Garrucci’s Storia della arte cristiana, table 126, 1.

45 For a brief discussion, with examples and citations, see Meyvaert, “Bede, Cassiodorus, and the Codex Amia­tinus,” pp. 870–72.

46 It has also been speculated that the original could have represented Matthew the Evangelist, an opin­ion deriving primarily from the fact that in 698 Bishop Eadfrith of Lindis­farne ap­parently con­sulted the Codex Grandior at Wearmouth-Jarrow and used the same source utilized for the Ezra image to portray the evangelist in his Lindisfarne Gospels. The argument for Cassiodorus recently put forth by Meyvaert, however, is more convincing (“Date of Bede’s In Ezram,” pp. 1107–26). Ezra, of course, is a fitting figure given his formative role in the Jewish canon (discussed in note 30, above), but one wonders, too, if the Northumbrian monks would have seen a direct parallel between their own work and that of the Jewish scribe/teacher. Of particular note might be 2 Esdras, where Ezra brings the book that he has prepared of the Law of Moses (likely the whole of the Torah) to the people of Israel and reads it to them (2 Esdras 8:5–6).

47 Michelli, “What’s in the Cupboard?” p. 355. Arguing in favor of Grandior as the source, Mey­vaert opines that the Novem Codices “refers primarily not to physical volumes but to Cassiodorus’ own way of conceiving how Holy Scripture was divided” (“Date of Bede’s In Ezram,” p. 1114), though there is no firm evidence to either side of the matter. Meyvaert also does not address Michelli’s points about the labeling on the volumes discussed below. Note, for in­stance, that Meyvaert’s excellent recon­struction of the dry-pointing beneath the Ezra image — which reveals that Bede (or another monk) traced the illustration from an extant one presumably in their copy of the Codex Grandior — leaves the interior of the bookcase blank (p. 1118).

48 I have followed Marsden (Text of the Old Testament, p. 134) in both the reading of the labels and the ordering of their interior contents, which would fit with what Cassiodorus presents in the Insti­tutiones. Marsden also discusses the labels in detail in “Job in His Place.”

49 Michelli, “What’s in the Cupboard?” p. 354. Meyvaert (“Date of Bede’s In Ezram,” pp. 1114–15) attributes the change to Bede, and attempts to explain it as a correlation of Cassiodorus’ divisions with those of Augustine.

50 As an example of the need for protection, we might briefly recall the history of the Book of Kells, which was probably crafted on the Isle of Iona, perhaps as early as the sixth century but more likely in the late eighth. We know that the book was in existence by 806, when a Viking raid con­vinced the monks of Iona to move the book to a relatively safer location: Kells Monastery in County Meath, Ireland. In 1007 the book was stolen from Kells by parties unknown (probably raiding Danes), who tore off its bejewelled cover and threw its innards into a ditch. Two months and twenty days later, ac­cording to the Annals of Ulster (ed. and trans. Hennessy, 1:518–19), these pages were found buried under a pile of sod, which might well have protected the precious folios (though a few pages suffered damage from exposure to water). In 1654, when Cromwell’s cavalry was quartered in Kells, the book was sent to Dublin for safekeeping. In 1661, following the dissolution of the Irish monasteries, it was offi­cially given to Dublin’s Trinity College, where it remains today. Through these many incidents the codex lost some thirty leaves, its priceless cover, and, in a final trauma, a half-inch of its outer margins (including much art) due to the ignorant trimming of a bookbinder in 1821.

51 These fragments were being used as wrappers for estate papers when they were discovered, and are now catalogued as British Library, MSS Add. 37777 (the Greenwell Leaf) and 45025 (the Middleton Fragments), and Loan 81 (the Bankes Leaf or Kingston Lacy fragment).

52 Cassiodorus, Institutiones 1.6–14.

53 There is variation among some copies of the Vulgate, but by far the predominant order of the Old Testament books is the Octateuch (Genesis through Ruth), 1–4 Kings, 1–2 Paralipomenon (Chron­icles), 1 Esdras, Nehemias (2 Esdras), sometimes 2 Esdras (3 Esdras), Tobias, Judith, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticle of Canticles, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Isaias, Jeremias, Lamentations, Baruch, Ezechiel, Daniel, the Minor Prophets, and 1–2 Maccabees. For the origins of this order (and its variations), see Light, “French Bibles,” especially pp. 159–63. This is the same order as is preserved in Douay-Rheims. Comestor omits certain books in his Historia, so that his order is Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1–4 Kings, Tobias, Ezechiel, Daniel, Judith, Esther, and 1–2 Maccabees.

54 See the headnotes to the later books of the Paraphrase for discussion on some of the literary ramifications of paraphrase ordering as it stands; it may be that these effects are indeed the cause of the “fragmented” quality that is here attributed to sources.

55 The vernacular quality of the poem is discussed more fully below.

56 Luscombe, “Peter Comestor,” pp. 115–16. Comestor was particularly fond of the Jewish his­torian Josephus, whom he quotes often in the Historia.

57 Hugh, Didascalion, 6.3. Even Hugh’s summaDe sacramentis, where we would most expect a defense of allegory, is based on history rather than theology: he there argues that world history is the history of the Church, and thus history is the key to understanding both Creation and the Escha­ton, not to mention the here and now between those revelatory end-points.

58 Hugh, Didascalion, 6.3.

59 Luscombe, “Peter Comestor,” p. 119.

60 Comestor, HS Prol. (1054). Citations of Comestor are given by book and chapter and then, in parentheses, by columnation in the Patrologia Latina edited by Migne (PL).

61 de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, 2:78. By way of example, de Lubac notes the statement of Jerome in his commentary on Mark: “Non historiam denegamus, sed spiritalem intelligentiam praeferimus” [“We don’t denigrate the historical, but we prefer the spiritual understanding”] (In Marcum 9.1–7, in Morin’sAnecdota maredsolana 3:2.348).

62 Morey (“Peter Comestor,” pp. 6–7) notes an Oxford University statute from 1253 that “al­lowed no one to complete theological study ‘nisi legerit aliquem librum de canone Biblie vel librum Sen­ten­tiarum vel Historiarum vel predicaverit publice universitati’” [“unless he will have studied some book of the canon of the Bible or of the Sentences or of the Historia or preached the whole publicly”] (from Little and Pelster, Oxford Theology, p. 25n2). The verb legere here means something much more than “to read”: it is the close “study” of a book, which in addition to reading would likely in­clude the pro­duc­tion of substantial written commentary (much like a dissertation today).

63 Morey, “Peter Comestor,” p. 6.

64 Morey, “Peter Comestor,” pp. 8–9.

65 William of Auvergne, Sapiential Books 1, 2.329, quoted in Smalley, Study of the Bible, p. 215.

66 On the traditional place of the literal within the four senses of scripture, see de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, 2:41–82. For a general historical overview of Hugh of St. Victor and the establishment of the Vic­torines, see Smalley, Study of the Bible, pp. 83–111.

67 MS Balliol 23, for fol. 42d, trans. Smalley, Study of the Bible, p. 233.

68 Oxford, MS Trinity 65, fol. 241r, trans. Smalley, Study of the Bible, p. 233. For further discussion of this passage, and of Langton in general, see Smalley, “Langton and the Four Senses of Scripture.”

69 HS, Genesis 33 [1329]. Comestor’s interpolation also provides a fine example of how lexicon can itself become a source of allegory: the equation of the scepter with Mary is bol­stered by the fact that, in Latin, the terms for “scepter” (virga) and “virgin” (virgo) are easily (and con­ventionally) con­fused.

70 This is not to say that Christ is not significantly present in other ways throughout the land­scape of the poem; in a Trinitarian sense, the many references to “God” (by name, title, or pronoun) within the poem are co-equal references to Christ. The pressure to read these Christologically is par­ticularly strong in introductory passages focused on God as creator or judge. The point here is, rather, to underscore the relative scarcity of the “naming” of Christ.

71 This long digression, unnoted as a directly “Christian” moment in the poem by previous scholars, might also refer to Christ by attributing the activity of Creation to God’s Word. See expla­natory note to lines 13085–86.

72 To wit: not long ago I taught a short summer course at a retirement community on the intel­lectual traditions of the West, and we read portions of the Bible as background material. While I had intended to discuss the content of the select passages, our time was spent instead with my mediating an ongoing conflict among the retirees about the best version of the Bible. Attempts had been made to start a Bible study, apparently, but they had dissolved when half the community desired to use the Re­vised Version or another “Protestant” version of the Bible, while the other half desired to read the Bible in its “original” — the King James.

73 Judah, Tosephta, Megillah 4.41, p. 228.

74 The New Testament is particularly tricky since it seems that some of the Gospel material was not originally written in Greek but in now-lost Aramaic versions.

75 Technically speaking, even the whole of the Old Testament is not in Hebrew: Jeremias 10:11, Daniel 2:4b–7:28, and Ezra 4:8–6:18 and 7:12–26 are in Aramaic. That said, the current standard Hebrew text of the Bible is the Masoretic text, compiled by a group of Jewish scholars called the Mas­oretes (the “transmitters of tradition”) from the seventh to the tenth centuries CE. The oldest com­plete Masoretic text, and the primary basis for the Jewish and thus Protestant Bibles, is the Codex Leningrad, dating from around 1000 CE. But earlier fragments, such as those found at Wadi Murab­ba’at (early second century CE) and the Dead Sea Scrolls, have shown the remarkable accuracy of the Masoretic texts. See, for example, Geisler and Nix, comparing the Masoretic text to that of the Dead Sea Great Isaiah scroll (probably second century BCE): “Of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, there are only seventeen letters in question. Ten of these letters are simply a matter of spelling, which does not affect the sense. Four more letters are minor stylistic changes, such as conjunctions. The three remaining letters comprise the word ‘light,’ which is added in verse 11, and which does not affect the meaning greatly. Furthermore, this word is supported by the LXX and IQ Is. Thus, in one chapter of 166 words, there is only one word (three letters) in question after a thousand years of transmission — and this word does not signi­ficantly change the meaning of the passage” (General Introduction to the Bible, p. 263). Generally speak­ing, one letter out of a thousand differs between the Ma­soretic text and the various earlier fragments.

76 Recall the link between Chaucer’s tales of Sir Thopas and Melibee (here quoted from Canterbury Tales VII [B2]942 and 931, respectively), in which the pilgrim Chaucer is cut off from his singsong and seem­ingly pointless Thopas by the Host and urged to tell something “In which ther be som murthe or som doc­tryne” (935). The question for Chaucer, just as for his reader, is how to access an under­lying truth that is presumed to exist. For more on these problems of reader-response, see below.

77 This issue is by no means confined to the Bible. Note, for example, the 1989 fatwah that the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran pronounced against Salman Rushdie for his suggestion, in The Satanic Verses, that the Islamic scriptures, too, are subject to mediation.

78 Bede reports that in the seventh century Cædmon composed songs rooted in Scripture, though whether these efforts are best considered translations or paraphrases cannot now be known; we encoun­ter similar uncertainty regarding Aldhelm’s supposed vernacular uses of Scripture around the year 700 (Remley,Old English Biblical Verse, pp. 38–39). The earliest reported literal translation of the Bible into Old English comes from Cuthbert and Ranulf Higden, who both record that Bede himself translated at least parts of the Latin Gospel of John on his deathbed in 735 (Dove, First English Bible, p. 14).
The earliest extensive example of translation into Old English that survives is the ninth-century interlinear gloss found in the Vespasian Psalter. The late ninth century saw Alfred the Great’s organized effort to translate major Latin works into the vernacular — including his own translation of the first fifty psalms. A relative flood of material followed in the tenth century, including translations from the Old Testament by Ælfric and interlinear glosses of the Gospels by Aldred. 

79 The Old English text of the preface (from Oxford, Bodliean Library, MS Laud Misc. 509) can be found in numerous places, including Mitchell and Robinson’s Guide to Old English, pp. 190–95. For the full text of preface and trans­lation, see Old English Version of the Heptateuch.

80 Ælfric was less reticent about translating or paraphrasing other books of the Bible, it seems. All told over his prolific career, he produced Anglo-Saxon versions of all or part of the books of Genesis, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Kings, Judith, Esther, and the Maccabees, a strikingly similar list to those texts incorporated in the Paraphrase.

81 Ælfric of Eynsham, Homilies, ed. and trans. Thorpe, 2:467.

82 See Hahn (“Early Middle English,” p. 85) for discussion not only of Orrm’s work but of the need to spell his name (and that of his work) as he would have wished.

83 See especially the dedication to the Orrmulum, lines 1–334.

84 Smalley, Study of the Bible, p. 244.

85 “Litteratura pollere debetis, ut saltem litteralem sensum gregi vobis subdito exponatis”; quoted by Smalley, Study of the Bible, p. 244.

86 While the Bible has a strong and steady influence on a great many other Anglo-Saxon works, whether they are allegorical tales like The Phoenix or heroic epics like Beowulf, I am regarding such strains as tangential to the line of works presenting themselves as biblical translation.

87 As in the Anglo-Saxon corpus (see note 85, above), I am here leaving aside those works that do not set themselves forth as biblical translation, though such a distinction does include some fasci­nat­ing and influential liturgical or devotional works, such as The Northern Passion and The South En­glish Legendary. On the “peripheral” nature of these works to the translation of the Bible, see Fow­ler, Bible in Early English Literature, p. 127.

88 I say “so-called” because Genesis and Exodus includes, in fact, the whole of the narrative Penta­teuch within its rhyming 4,162 lines. The dating of this important representative of early Middle English is imprecise. It survives in only one manuscript, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 444, which dates to the first quarter of the fourteenth century. Hinckley (“Riddle of The Ormulum,” p. 193) and Laurence Muir (“Translations and Paraphrases,” p. 381) both argue for a considerably earlier com­position for the poem itself, perhaps even in the twelfth century, while most scholars, including Buehler (Mid­dle English Genesis and Exodus, p. 10) opt for a mid-thirteenth century date. For a brief overview of the poem itself, see Morey, Book and Verse, pp. 133–42.

89 For an overview of the poem, see Morey, Book and Verse, pp. 158–59.

90 Morey, Book and Verse, p. 101.

91 Thompson, “Cursor Mundi,” p. 101.

92 Morey, Book and Verse, p. 100.

93 Morey, Book and Verse, p. 101.

94 See, for instance, the explanatory notes to lines 273, 781–84, and 1302. We cannot make too much of such similarities, however, as there are just as many differences as there are similarities (see, e.g., the explanatory note to line 4431). Medieval poetry, especially that of the alliterative move­ment, is notorious for its use of stock phrases, descriptions, and forms. I am disinclined to view Cursor Mundi as anything more than a source at a distance: remembered by the Paraphrase-poet, perhaps, but not before him as he composed his work.

95 On the existence of a literary canon of biblical works that stands as an alternative to what we typically consider to be the centrality of Chaucer and romance, see Hanna, “English Biblical Texts.” Hanna concludes: “In contrast to the Chaucerian mode, a vernacular bible has, since the tenth cen­tury, always been central to English literary production. And the Wycliffite effort proved an enor­mously successful consolidation of this interest — to the extent that it progressively supplanted, and then thoroughly extinguished, pre-existing indigenous efforts. Rather than an oppositional force, one might find in the Lollard translators and their efforts at propagating Scripture an exam­ple of the movement toward (and the recuperation of) a central English literary tradition” (p. 153).

96 For discussion of the fascinating role of stained glass windows as early Bibles for the poor, in­clu­ding their relationship to the manuscript Biblia pauperum, see Caviness, “Biblical Stories in Windows.”

97 For an overview of the several versions of the Wycliffite Bible, and the controversies about their number, composition, and authorship, see Hudson, Premature Reformation, pp. 238–47. I will here treat the translations as a collective impulse associated (to one degree or another) with the name of Wycliffe, referring to a Wycliffite Bible in the same way that one might refer to the Old Latin version of the Bible (on which see note 36, above).

98 Quoted in Deanesly, Lollard Bible, p. 238. Deanesly cites the recipient as Pope John XXII, but this is in error.

99 One of the finest overviews of Wycliffe is that found in Levy’s introduction to his trans­lation of Wycliffe’s On the Truth of Holy Scripture, pp. 1–40. Another very readable, if somewhat dated, over­view of Wycliffe and Lollardy, which specifically addresses their associations with contemporary four­teenth-century literature, can be found in McKisack, Fourteenth Century, pp. 499–532.

100 On women and the Lollard movement, see note 124, below, and the excellent discussion in Hudson, Premature Reform­ation, pp. 99, 186–87.

101 Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, ed. Tanner, 1:415–16.

102 In Of Prelates 11 Wycliffe (or one of his followers) broadens this point to include all clergymen: “a lewid mannus preiere þat schal be sauyd is wiþ-outen mesure betre þan þat prelat þat schal by dampnyd” (English Works of Wyclif, ed. Mat­thew, p. 77). Wycliffe was a prolific writer, but a great many of the writings of his followers were distributed under his name. Of the many volumes of Wycliffite ma­terial available in Latin and English I have tried to limit my citations to those English works edited by Matthew for the Early English Texts Society (under the name of Wycliffe alone), as this is likely the most widely avail­able collection of Wycliffite texts.

103 Compare the Wycliffite Of Prelates 22, where it is said that prelates teach that nothing is lawful in the Church “wiþ-outen leue of þe bischop of rome, þouõ he be anticrist ful of symonye & heresie” (English Works of Wyclif, ed. Matthew, pp. 89–90).

104 E.g., Clergy May Not Hold Property 5 (English Works of Wyclif, ed. Matthew, pp. 376–79). It was supposed that in the fourth century Emperor Constantine the Great had given the lands of the western Roman Empire into the keeping of Pope Sylvester. The supposedly original document detailing this “donation” was proved to be a forgery in the fifteenth century by Lorenzo Valla.

105 For discussion, see Hudson, Premature Reformation, pp. 294–301.

106 One of the Wycliffites’ more witty attacks was the observation that the first letters of the four pri­mary orders — Carmelite, Augustinian, Iacobite (Dominican), and Minorite (Franciscan) — spell out the name of Caim (Cain), the first murderer. Workman cites numerous instances of the acrostic in Wycliffite works, and he notes that it may have derived from Odo of Sheriton (John Wyclif, 2:103). The demeaning acrostic was quite popular, appearing, for example, in Mum and the Sothsegger (lines 500–04) and in the short poem “Preste, Ne Monke, Ne Yit Chanoun” (lines 109–16, in Dean, ed., Medi­eval English Political Writings, p. 50). On a related note, Wycliffites were also fond of calling friaries “Cain’s castles”; e.g., De Officio Pastorali 9 and 27–28 (English Works of Wyclif, ed. Matthew, pp. 420 and 446–50).

107 E.g., Of Confession 13 (English Works of Wyclif, ed. Matthew, pp. 344–45).

108 De Officio Pastorali 15 (English Works of WyclifEnglish Works of Wyclif, ed. Matthew, p. 429). While such statements may give Wycliffe and his followers the ap­pearance of being “part of a crusade to take the Word of God to the ordinary people in their own language in the same way that the nineteenth century Bible societies set out to do,” Long rightly notes caution against using our own political histories as a lens into this period of history; Wycliffe’s desire for translation “was rather the result of a readjustment to authority, the resetting of parameters within which the laity functioned” (Translating the Bible, p. 81).

109 Wycliffe (or a follower) observes that even the priests themselves could benefit from some time off to study the Word in Why Poor Priests Have No Benefice 2 (English Works of Wyclif, ed. Matthew, pp. 248–51).

110 E.g., Of the Leaven of Pharisees 3 (English Works of Wyclif, ed. Matthew, pp. 7–13), Of Prelates 21 (p. 89), How Satan and His Priests 1–2 (pp. 264–68), and Of Confession 12 (pp. 342–43). What Wycliffe and his followers considered the literal was not necessary the historical, as it was with the Vic­torines, who treated the terms as if they were interchangeable. Rather, the Wycliffites regarded the literal as “that sense of Scripture which the Holy Spirit primarily intends, inasmuch as it promotes the faithful soul’s ascent to God” (Wycliffe On the Truth of Holy Scripture, p. 16). On the hermeneutic trajec­tory of Lollard thought about the pre­eminence of the literal sense, see Ghosh, Wycliffite Heresy, pp. 11–15.

111 Derek Wilson, People and the Book, p. x.

112 Trans. Ghosh (Wycliffite Heresy, p. 98); the Latin text reads: “sacra scriptura nec pro parte eius plana, nec pro parte eius obscura, nec cum doctorum approbatorum expositionibus quo­modolibet a vulgari populo sit legenda” (from Butler, “Determination against Biblical Translation, 1401,” p. 414). For an extensive discussion of this debate, which occurred in Oxford, see Hudson, “Debate on Bible Translation.”

113 Trans. Deanesly, Lollard Bible, pp. 295–96.

114 William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament was first printed in 1525–26, but parts of the Old Testament were left untranslated when he was convicted of heresy and executed by stran­gulation on 6 October 1536. It is said that his final words were “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.” Tragically, it seems that the eyes of the king were already opening. Miles Coverdale’s complete Bible translation (partially based on Tyndale’s) was printed in 1535 and dedicated to the king and queen of England; Coverdale died a natural death. That said, Tyndale’s work has the appearance of opening a floodgate, coinciding as it does with religio-political events in England that would quickly lead to authorized translations of the Bible. Other sixteenth-century translations include the 1537 Bible of “Thomas Matthew” (probably a pseudonym for John Rogers, a friend of Tyndale’s); Richard Taverner’s Bible (1539); the Great Bible (1539), which was the first “authorized” translation; the two translations by Edmund Becke (1549 and 1551); the Geneva Bible (1560), which was used by Shake­speare; the Bishops’ Bible (1568); and the Douay-Rheims Bible (1582–1610), which is utilized for most translations in this volume. It was this wide variety of available English translations that led di­rectly to King James I’s 1604 decision to sponsor politically the production of a new translation of the Bible that would act to further social unification. The result was the King James Bible, first published in 1611. For concise descriptions of these various translations, see Metzger, Bible in Translation, pp. 56–72. For a fuller account, see Long, Translating the Bible, pp. 80–212.

115 See Hanna, “English Biblical Texts.”

116 On this point see note 95, above.

117 The one possible exception to this conclusion is the term “popelard” in line 6650. The word, meaning “hypocrite” or “traitor,” derives from the Old French papelart or papelarde, and typically carries a similar spelling in its Middle English forms. The orthographical appearance here, it might be suggested, reveals some influence of the term pope and thus might reveal an antagonistic attitude toward the papacy — though even this would not necessarily speak to a Wycliffite origin for the Para­phrase. The “pope” spelling also occurs several times, however, in the Chester Plays (5.296, 5.312, 15.362, 17.157, and 24.589), suggesting that the form might well be a mark of Northern origin rather than a sign of religious or political perspective. See MED papelard.

118 Elsewhere in the poem the poet makes an explicit personal connection between Christianity and Judaism, calling the latter “our law” (line 384) and “our fayth” (line 552). For a terrifying look at one strain of contemporary medieval anti-Semitic literature, see Siege of Jerusalem. My edition of that poem includes much discussion of the issue, but see especially pp. 14–17.

119 On which, see Elizabeth Robertson, Early English Devotional Prose, p. 36.

120 Ferrante, Woman as Image, p. 17.

121 Squires, “Treatment,” p. 196.

122 Peck, Heroic Women from the Old Testament, p. 111.

123 On the possibility that the poet has subtly worked implications of her ill-fame into the text, clues that are to be found only if one already knows the biblical account, see the explanatory note to lines 2711–12.

<a data-cke-saved-name="f124" name="f124" "="">124 For brief perspectives on the importance of women to the movement, see Cross, “‘Great Rea­son­ers in Scripture,’” pp. 359–80, and Aston, Lollards and Reformers, pp. 49–70. For an attempted cor­rec­tion of the older view that the Wycliffites were effectively egalitarian, see McSheffrey’s Gender and Heresy, where she argues that the movement actually disconnected women from those aspects of pop­ular Christianity that were most meaningful to them.

125 Quoted in Jeffrey, “Chaucer and Wyclif,” p. 113. It is possible that Foxe’s suspicion was fur­thered in his mind by the incorrect attribution of works like Jack Upland and Testament of Love to Chau­cer’s hand, but the image of Chaucer as a premature Protestant poet continued long after such works were removed from his canon. See Besserman, Chaucer’s Biblical Poetics, pp. 204–05.

126 Peck, Heroic Women from the Old Testament, p. 109.

127 Peck, Heroic Women from the Old Testament, p. 109.

128 De officio pastorali 15 (Wycliffe, English Works of Wyclif, ed. Matthew, p. 429). For discussion about the relation between this early Lord’s Prayer Play and the great Corpus Christi Play that we normally associate with York, see York Plays, ed. Smith, pp. xxviii–xxix.

129 Chaucer also echoes this sentiment in the link between his own Chaucer-as-pilgrim tales, Thopas and Melibee, where he reports that the sentence of the Gospels is one, despite the surface (we might say “literal”) differences between their stories (Canterbury Tales VII[B2]943–66). One only needs to read correctly in order to discern the underlying, unifying truth. Many critics have read this statement as the defining principle for understanding the Tales themselves: so seemingly varied but yet of one sentence, one moral substance (see, e.g., D. W. Robertson, Preface to Chaucer, pp. 367–69).

130 Morey, Book and Verse, pp. 14–15.

131 Minnis, Medieval Theory of Authorship, p. 205.

132 These notations are in the Longleat manuscript, not the Selden manuscript utilized as a base text for the pre­sent edition. See Middle English Metrical Paraphrase, ed. Kalén, 1:viii–ix.

133 Fowler, Bible in Early English Literature, p. 133.

134 Ohlander, “Old French Parallels,” p. 203. This quality is by no means unique to the Paraphrase or even to late medieval literature. The Jewish writer Josephus, for example, carries out the same im­pulse in constructing his own retellings of Scripture: he is among the first to expand the story of Sam­son (inAntiquites of the Jews 5.8.1–12), adding human motivation and characterization in order to make the story more real, more likely (note particularly his original 5.8.12). In short, he makes Sam­son a historical man of great sanctity rather than a legendary man of supernatural powers. For more on Samson’s literary history, see Krouse, Milton’s Samson and the Christian Tradition. It may well be this aspect of Josephus that makes him so attractive to Comestor, and Comestor to the Paraphrase-poet.

135 Brunner, Review of A Middle English Metrical Paraphrase, p. 477.

136 Brunner, Review of A Middle English Metrical Paraphrase, p. 478.

137 Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascences, pp. 84–85.

138 Minnis, Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity, p. 6.

139 Minnis, Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity, p. 6.

140 Bloom and Rosenberg, Book of J, p. 35.

141 Fowler, Bible in Early English Literature, p. 133.

142 Morey, Book and Verse, p. 14, citing Goates, Pepysian Harmony, xi; compare Cursor Mundi, lines 1–28 and 85–88.

143 This is not to say the Paraphrase-poet alone planted those seeds. See Lynette Muir, Biblical Drama, for an overview of biblical drama across Europe, much of which predates the great cycles of late medieval England. For more specific looks at the latter, see Woolf, English Mystery Plays, and Stevens,Four Mid­dle English Mystery Cycles.

144 Based on the introduction to Peck’s Heroic Women from the Old Testament, pp. 116–17.
Print Copyright Info Purchase

The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase Of The Old Testament: Introduction

The poem’s ponderous title befits its scale.
— Morey, Book and Verse, p. 146 

In a 1996 essay on the characterization of Judith in The Middle English Metrical Para­phrase of the Old Testament, Ann Squires notes that the Paraphrase “has attracted very little cri­tical attention,” especially in comparison with other retellings of the Old Test­ament like the Old English Judith; “indeed,” she writes, the Paraphrase “is comparatively little known.”1 Given that a complete bibliography of essays to date that take the Paraphrase as their pri­mary subject might run to as few as three items, her opinion would seem to border on under­statement. If publication is any indication, the Paraphrase seems rather worse off than “little known.”2 So the individual who dares to foist upon the world a new edition of this almost uni­versally ignored poem admittedly has some explaining to do. Namely, why has this poem been so neglec­ted? And, if so few ever read it, why is a new edition even needed?

These questions are intimately related, I think, given the two primary reasons that the poem has been ignored. The first reason is its length and subject. Comprised of 1,531 12-verse stanzas, running to a total of 18,372 verses, the Paraphrase is unquestionably a mam­moth work; James H. Morey, one of the few modern critics to reveal much aware­ness of the poem, humorously points out that its “ponderous title befits its scale” as “one of the longest and most comprehensive biblical paraphrases.”3 Like the Bible upon which it is based, then, it is unlikely to be a text read cover-to-cover by the fainthearted. Rather, the Para­phrase is a text more apt to be regarded as a reference book than as a work of literature: useful, per­haps, for reviewing stories of bulwarks like Samson, David, Job, or Judith. Yet the opin­ion that this is not a full-fledged work of literature is mis­informed. The Paraphrase is, in several ways, a re­markable artifact of the Chaucerian period, one that can reveal a great deal about ver­nacular biblical literature in Middle English, about readership and lay under­stan­dings of the Bible, about the relationship between Christians and Jews in latemedieval England, about the envi­ron­ment in which the Lollards and other re­formers worked, about per­ceived roles of women in history and in society, and even about the compo­sition of medieval drama.

That such issues have thus far been largely unnoted is surely due to the second problem one faces when approaching the Paraphrase: not only is it long, it is unavailable. None of the five volumes of the only previous complete edition of the poem, published through the efforts of two editors — Herbert Kalén and Urban Ohlander — over the course of forty years, has found wide circulation. Even more, their edition makes little effort to place the work within the cultural milieu it addresses and lacks substantive explanatory notes that might explore the poet’s use of and derivation of ideas from source material.4 This new edition, there­fore, has been set forth in an effort to remedy some of these issues. If nothing else, by bringing fresh attention to the Paraphrase within the cultural fields that nurtured it, this edition hopes to invigorate study of what can be viewed as a centerpiece for accessing the burgeoning studies of a rapidly expanding culture.

Still, despite its lack of availability and its massive size, despite even the perceived prob­lems with the Kalén-Ohlander edition, the Para­phrase’s inability to garner much critical atten­tion is a strange silence, since academia, like nature, abhors a vacuum. This failure to pick up on the poem at a time when historicist criticism and cultural studies appear to be flourishing becomes all the more curious when one notes that some of the earliest critics to examine the poem came away with distinctly favorable impressions. In 1908, for instance, Wilhelm Heuser re­garded it as “an oasis in the desolation of the popular theo­logical lit­erature of the fourteenth century.”5 Though less exuberant than Heuser, John Edwin Wells’ original Manual of the Writings in Middle English, published before the Kalén-Ohlander edi­tion began to appear, praises the poem for its “well handled” verse, noting especially its “very elaborate alliteration between pairs of lines.”6 And A. C. Cawley, reviewing the second volume of the Kalén-Ohlander edition almost fifty years ago, complained that the poem “deserves to be better known,” ob­serving in partic­ular that the poet “excels at straight­for­ward, racy narrative.”7 One would expect that a flurry of essays and studies would have fol­lowed, especially after the pub­li­ca­tion of the fifth and final volume of the Kalén-Ohlander text. Yet this never happened. In fact, al­though Laurence Muir, the author of the poem’s entry in the revised Manual, pub­lished after the appearance of the full Kalén-Oh­lander edi­tion, still regards the poem in a positive light, he is noticeably less effusive with its praise than had been Wells, Cawley, and other early writers: “Impressive mainly for its mag­nitude, the poem never­theless narrates the Biblical stories faithfully and straight­­forwardly, with a certain poetic skill.”8 Strangely, the Kalén-Ohlander edition apparently did little to in­crease the reputation of the poem. What, one wonders, happened?

Perhaps we need look no further than the first volume of the Kalén-Ohlander edition. True to early editing practices, Kalén wrote a sizable philological introduction for the first volume of the edition, presenting over 115 pages on matters of phon­ology, accidence, syn­tax, and so forth. An excellent comparison of the manuscripts, determining their dialects and rela­tion to each other and to the now-lost original, occupies a further fifty-seven pages. Yet his dis­cussion of the literary aspects of the poem consists of a scant sixteen pages, most of which is con­cerned with a rough determination of sources. And though he acknowledges that the poem “is a very important piece of work in English literature and compares very favourably with many of its mediæval productions,” Kalén is still derogatory in his final regard of the poem:
A careful study of the poem shows us that it is only very rarely that the author rises above the level of a well-informed, able, conscientious and careful rimer; on the whole, the poem is very tame and colourless, and its monotony bears witness to the great labour the author had in putting the vast material into verse. It is only at the end of the paraphrase, in the De matre cum VII filijs and De Anthioco that we meet with a more poetical treatment of the subjects and a livelier tone, which sometimes achieves dramatic vividness.9
This is not particularly heady praise, and it is certainly not the kind of comment to inspire critical inquiry. Of course, whether the assessment is valid or not depends upon the kinds of questions one seeks to answer in exploring the poem’s vast terrain.

And Kalén need not be the final word in such matters. Gustaf Stern, for example, re­viewing Kalén’s edition in 1925, found the poet far more deft than Kalén gave him credit for, praising the Paraphrase-poet as both “well-informed and able.”10 To this we can add the com­ments of Russell A. Peck, who edited selections from the poem for his thematic col­lec­tion Heroic Women from the Old Testament in Middle English Verse. “The quality of the verse in the poem,” Peck writes, “is quite good. The poet has a reasonably good sense of line and often puts together compelling stories. . . . His narrative is pleasantly enhanced with direct speech­es that are sometimes vigorous and colloquial, sometimes solemn, aphoristic, or pathetic.”11 I hope to show, through the course of this introduction and the explanatory notes that follow the poem itself, that Peck’s regard for the Paraphrase — falling somewhere between the dismissive comments of Kalén and the lauds of Heuser — is precisely ap­pro­priate to this fascinating poem. To that end, this introduction will briefly lay out the basic bibliographical facts of the Paraphrase (its manuscripts, sources, date, provenance); then, after a more ex­tended discussion of biblical canon formation and the poem’s possible rela­tionship to Cassi­o­dorus and the Codex Amiatinus, I will concentrate on the place of the poem within the cultural geography of late medieval England, a place that is integral in theory if not in effect. That is, the Paraphrase manages to engage primary cultural issues across the broadest possible spec­trum, even if its own readership might have been com­paratively small. Part of this centrality, of course, is its subject matter.12 The Bible, in ways we are only beginning to understand, might be said to function within late medieval culture just as a glacier of a prior age exacted the geology of the land, moving and shaping the terrain it leaves behind, its defining presence sometimes detected only in the occasional moraines left by its passing.

Lawrence Besserman has recently argued that preoccupation with the Bible so thor­oughly saturates the late medieval period that for Chaucer we can (and should) talk pro­ductively of a biblical poetic. Using as his starting point Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “faith in the Bible as a sufficient source of divine guidance,” Besserman turns to comparison with late medieval England:
Of course Chaucer and his contemporaries also assumed that the Bible was divinely inspired, an expression of God’s will for humankind to follow. And yet, as the various inscriptions of biblical diction, imagery, and narrative in Chaucer’s works seem strongly to imply, Chaucer could not possibly have shared Bonhoeffer’s strong Protestant faith — it was Wyclif’s faith, and would be Luther’s, too — in the Bible’s ability to convey all that a Christian must know and do for his or her salvation. On the other hand, Chaucer also seems to have been troub­led by the opposing view, which held that laymen were not competent to interpret the Bible for themselves — a view espoused as orthodoxy by leading fourteenth-century English and European churchmen.13
In the space between those two opposing views, Besserman argues, Chaucer fashioned a biblical poetic, “his creative response to what he and many of his contemporaries had come to regard as the diverse and correspondingly complex poetics of the Bible.”14 More than a glacial force, then, the Bible ultimately functions like a tectonic substratum located just under the more visible but seemingly unconnected features of the surface of the literary landscape in late medieval England.

The anonymous poet behind the Paraphrase was among the contemporaries of which Besserman writes, and he composed his massive work at the same time that Chaucer was writing so many of his finest works. No surprise, then, that he is similarly caught between the conflicting impulses of orthodoxy and reform. As he writes in the Prologue to his poem, he is writing for “sympyll men” (line 19) so that they might access the Bible and “our sawlis may be savyd” (line 36) — a position that would seem to be one of relation to Wycliffe and the reformist agenda. Yet the text that he provides is not the Bible. It is a translation (and expansion) of the single most authorized paraphrase of the Bible then in currency, that writ­ten by the “maystur of storyse” (line 18), Peter Comestor. Thus engaged on both sides of a fundamental and foundational debate, The Middle English Metrical Para­phrase of the Old Tes­tament, in a way that few texts can claim, taps into a range of deposits undergirding the cultural geo­graphy of late medieval England: the context of vernacular trans­lations of the Bible, the importation of the Bible into romance contexts (and the corresponding mor­phol­ogy of romance into the Bible), the tendencies toward realism in the conceiving of indi­vidual and social circumstances, and a generally sympathetic attitude toward the roles of women and Jews that is reflective of a more heterogeneous culture than we might typically expect.


The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament survives in two manuscripts: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Arch. Selden. Supra 52 (fols. 2r–168r), utilized as the base text for both the Kalén-Ohlander edition and this present work, and MS Longleat 257 (fols. 119r–212r) in the private collections of the marquis of Bath. On the basis of dialect, ellipsis (missing material), and matters of content, the two manuscripts clearly represent inde­pendent textual lines, neither deriving directly from the now-lost original, probably written in the West Riding of Yorkshire. An analysis of their scribal hands, linguistic fea­tures, and physical characteristics reveals that both manuscripts date from the early to mid-fifteenth century. The dialect of the Selden manuscript, which apparently once be­longed to the English clergyman Samuel Purchas (1577–1626),15 is far closer to the original dialect of the poem; the dialect of the Longleat manuscript, which seems to have once belonged to Richard, duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III), is noticeably more Mid­land in origin. The Longleat manuscript is also in­complete, lacking the first 1,472 lines of the Paraphrase, along with additional lines scattered throughout the poem. Since the copyist of this manu­script seems to have been quite careful in his work, we must con­clude that his source was likewise missing these lines, placing this text at least one re­move from the shared source of both the Longleat and Selden manuscripts.

The poem follows the basic narrative of the Old Testament, though the very nature of a paraphrase indicates that this is not a rote retelling of Scripture. The poet is con­structing a work of edification, to be sure, but this edification is built on the use of stories as exempla. Large sections of the Old Testament that are devoted to Mosaic Law, for instance, are ex­cluded from the Paraphrase.16 While Leviticus appears as a running header across several folios of the base manuscript for this edition, the poet has included next to nothing of that book in his para­phrase.17 In addition to the excision of non-narrative material, the poet also felt free to re­order his materials from his Vulgate source: the very books of the Old Tes­ta­ment, for exam­ple, are not in Vulgate order, but in the order given in Cassiodorus’ Bible.18 The Para­phrase, then, is at once an abridgment and an expansion of the biblical text, trans­lated into Mid­dle English and altered, at times, by resort to other sources or to the poet’s own invention.

Though the anonymous poet of the Paraphrase relied heavily on the Bible as the basis for his work, it was not his sole source for the stories he chose to relate. We know, for in­stance, that he made extensive use of Peter Comestor’s popular Historia Scholastica (HS) to flesh out the legendary and apocryphal material of the narrative: it is Comestor, the famed mag­ister historiarum, who is the “maystur of storyse” that the poet mentions as his primary source in line 18.19 There is also evidence that the poet used a number of Middle English texts in com­­posing this mammoth work, including the famed Cursor Mundi. Arguably more impor­tant than these sources, however, was the poet’s almost certain — though silent — use of a metrical paraphrase of the Old Testament in Old French. Kalén was the first scholar to make this claim, and it was furthered by Ohlander in his completion of the Kalén-Ohlander edition of the poem. In particular, Kalén and Ohlander were interested in the still-unpub­lished Old French paraphrase in British Library, MS Egerton 2710. Ohlander produced a more lengthy separate study of the two poems’ relationships in 1962, concluding that “the similarity be­tween the two texts . . . is considerable.” The Old French and Middle English, he observes, share a “general tone and style,” and, even more importantly,
The same transposition of events as they occur in the Bible sometimes meets us in both texts. There are parallels in many minor details. One important point is the occurrence of Hebrew names that have been taken over by the English poet in their French, often corrupt, form, sometimes based simply on the French poet’s need for creating a rime-word.
Ohlander goes on to note, on the other hand, that there are also a number of “dissimi­larities” between the two works, such as the fact that “deviations from the Bible are found in one poem that are not found in the other”:
That the English poet has drawn on some French source seems beyond doubt. But that the French text is identical with the one we have been concerned with here, cannot be taken for granted. For we cannot rule out the possibility that our two biblical paraphrases go back to a common source, unknown to us and perhaps lost for ever.20
In the course of producing this edition I have made a number of additional comparisons between the Paraphrase and the Egerton paraphrase, cited in the notes as OFP, yet I cannot improve upon Ohlander’s general conclusion. The poems are, at times, close enough to sus­pect the Paraphrase-poet is producing an almost line-by-line rendering of the Old French, yet the number of non-parallels — especially where the Middle English stands alone against all known sources — indicates a greater distance between the two poems. That an Old French source very much like the paraphrase found in the Egerton manuscript has been used by the poet is a near certainty, but beyond this conclusion we cannot now go.

Kalén believed the York Plays were an additional source for the Paraphrase-poet, having ob­served that the two works share a number of speci­fic lines and details, an entire stanza at one point, and the same rare rhyme scheme throughout: a 12-line stanza rhyming abab­ababcdcd that is largely unknown elsewhere in Middle English literature.21 Kalén then uti­lized this re­la­tion­ship in order to determine the dating of the Paraphrase, using the com­posi­tion of the York Plays in “1340 or 1350” as a terminus a quo. From the poem’s lin­guis­tic characteristics, Kalén sug­gested a terminus ad quem of 1440, and he then further honed his linguistic dating down to a final proposal of composition in Yorkshire between 1400 and 1410.22 But Kalén was more con­fident than he should have been in both his dating of the York Plays and his ability to achieve such a narrow date range on linguistic evi­dence alone. He was also mis­taken on the nature of the relationship between the Paraphrase and the York Plays. As Rich­ard Beadle has sub­sequently revealed, Kalén had the relation­ship backwards. Exam­ining passages common to the York Plays, the Para­phrase, and the Eger­ton Old French para­phrase discussed above, Beadle has shown beyond doubt that theYork Plays borrowed from the Paraphrase rather than vice versa.23 Aside from the two manu­scripts of the Para­phrase themselves, our only reliable terminus is therefore the single sur­vi­v­ing manu­script of the York Plays: Lon­don, British Library, MS Add. 35290, which itself dates to c. 1430–40. What we now know of the fluid nature of dramatic composition un­for­tu­nately does not allow us to predate the relevant passages from the York Plays much be­fore this date.24 Left with only linguistic grounds on which to stand, therefore, we can do little to im­prove upon the date suggested by Wells in his original Manual: theParaphrase was likely writ­­ten in Yorkshire sometime in the latter half of the fourteenth century, probably around 1380.25 


Few cultural paradoxes are so profound, or so unnerving, as the process of religious canon­ization by which an essentially literary work becomes a sacred text.
— Bloom and Rosenberg, Book of J, p. 35 

Segal’s Law, one of the many modern add-ons to Murphy’s proverbial laws, is par­tic­u­larly applicable to a discussion of the development of the biblical canon: “A man with one watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure.” One faces, in fact, a more perplexing conundrum in the biblical canon; rather than two, today we have at least four primary canons of what Christians call the Old Testament — canons that are similar, to be sure, but by no means identical: Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and Jewish. If a man with two watches is liable to be confused about the time, the person seeking after the au­thentic form of the Bible is liable to be doubly so. And this is to say nothing of the proliferation of translations of those same sacred texts, each claiming (or, as in Bloom’s case, dis­avowing) their own notions of au­thor­ity and right.

Such a confusing state of affairs is troublesome enough for those who are accustomed to thinking of the Bible as a static text (or for those who desire to think so), but even more dif­ficult to understand is the means by which these various canons have been created. As Bloom observes, the process of canonization is, at its heart, one of altering the mode of a work’s place in our discourse: that is, removing it from the realm of the literary to the realm of the sacred. It is the human hand at work in such matters, and the implications of our thereby privileging one discourse over another on the basis of canon, that can be simul­tane­ously “profound” and “unnerving.” Let us start, however, at the beginning, with a brief over­view of the history of the Bible, using the formation of the New Testament as our primary example, since New Testa­ment formation is particularly revealing of the social and political pressures that come to bear on our notions of sacred text. How did confusion ever arise as to what is and is not the Bible?

The first century CE was, in terms of a religious environment, much like the twenty-first. People were relatively free to worship the god of their choosing, in the style of their choosing. From the mystery religions like those of Isis and Mithras to the various sects of Judaism (often termed according to their New Testament labels as Pharisees, Sad­ducees, Essenes, and Zealots), faith systems were then, as now, placed somewhat in a com­mercial position, hawking their beliefs as wares in hopes of expanding their hold on the mar­ketplace of ideas. The same was true of that budding Jewish-sect-turned-separate-reli­gion, Christianity. We need look no farther than the New Testament to see that within the first decades after the death of Jesus a number of Christian communities had already sprung up, each with their own individual sacred texts.26 The Gospel of Mark, for example, was written in Greek no earlier than 70 CE for a Hellenized Jewish audience by an unknown author whose native language was likely Latin and who knew very little about the geography or customs of the Holy Land.27 This Gospel was later used by the authors of Matthew, Luke, and Acts — with no evidence of the last of these before around 170. John, too, was written later, perhaps around 100, for a com­munity charac­terized by hints of Gnosticism and Christ-worship (often dubbed the Johan­nine com­munity).28 Paul’s letters were circulating by 50 and were esta­blished fairly quickly as authori­tative texts (2 Peter 3:15–16, for example, pre­supposes knowledge of some of Paul’s works), though debate was quick to ensue over which letters were genuinely of his hand and there­fore rightly to be privileged. Still other groups had other sacred texts, some of which have man­aged to survive in whole or in part despite their exclusion from the eventual New Tes­ta­ment canon: works like the Gospel of the Ebionites, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas, or the Gospel of Peter. Indeed, one might re­gard the very existence of Paul’s letters as tes­tament to the wide divergence of practice in the early Church, for if unity was the rule there would be no need to write them.29

The idea of creating a canon, a stable set of official texts that ought to be shared by all who would call themselves “Christian,” was a logical and necessary development as these dis­parate groups of believers began to connect and interact with each other, exchanging ideas and texts across the spaces that had previously separated them. The very notion of esta­blish­ing a can­on, therefore, is a direct result of the variation that was once available to readers. To con­trol doctrine, it was necessary to control the texts.

In Against Heresies (182–88) Irenaeus makes clear that he believes there are only four authentic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Likewise, he accepts as “canon” the let­ters of Paul (minus Philemon and Hebrews). Irenaeus is also one of the earliest writers to mark a clear division between what was increasingly termed the “New” Testa­ment and the “Old.” But although Irenaeus’ opinions are clear enough, things were obviously more murky at a broader perspective, as the third and fourth centuries saw increasingly vehement argu­ments about what was to be considered authentic scripture, most keenly seen in the con­flicting presentations of Scripture in the works of Origen and Eusebius of Caesarea. Origen accepted as authentic the four Gospels, thirteen Pauline letters, Acts, Apocalypse (Revela­tion), 1 Peter, and 1 John. Eusebius, however, considered Apocalypse to be spurious, and he added He­brews to the list of those works “universally accepted” as authentic. Origen, always at­tracted to the allegorical, also had a high regard for works like the Shepherd of Hermas, the Di­dache, and the Gospel of the Hebrews, all of which were considered by the more historically-minded Eusebius to be inferior and which the Church would ultimately exclude from the canon. Disputes continued.

In 382 Pope Damasus ordered Jerome, then a young scholar with a penchant for an­cient languages and lore, to come to Rome in order to participate in a synod devoting itself to the matter of canon. The result of this small synod was a document outlining the Catholic canon as it now exists (sometimes called the Damasan Canon), though the canon was not officially closed in the Catholic Church until the pronouncement of the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, at which point the issue had become para­mount in dealing with the Protestant Reformation. Politics has always been as vital to the shaping of religion as faith, just as religion, through faith, has always played its role in the shaping of politics. As we will see, this interconnection between religion and politics can be clearly seen in the late fourteenth century through the lens of the Paraphrase.

The process of forming an Old Testament canon is, in some regards, more simple than that which occurred with the New for the simple fact that a canon of one sort or another had been extant among the Jews centuries before Christ. Precisely when the Jewish canon was closed has been a subject of some debate, one that has fallen roughly along doctrinal party lines: Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox writers on the one hand and most remaining schol­ars on the other. The reason for the discrepancy is the acceptance, in the Catholic and Ortho­dox canons, of certain works that are not regarded as authentic in the Jewish Bible — or in the Pro­testant Bible which bases itself on that of the Jews. These “extra” works, termed the Deutero­canonical Books (by Catholic and Orthodox writers) or the Apocrypha (by most others), constitute seven full books: Tobias, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch (includ­ing the Epistle of Jeremias), and 1 and 2 Maccabees. In addition, there are expan­sions to books in the universally accepted canon of the Old Testament: an expansion to Esther (10:4–16:24), and a number of alterations to Daniel. These Daniel additions con­sti­tute 3:24–91 and chapters 13–14: The Song of the Three Jews and the stories of Susanna and of Bel and the Dragon. The Orthodox canon includes not only this material but also Psalm 151 and the books of 1 Esdras (Catholic Esdras becoming Orthodox 2 Esdras), Prayer of Mannaseh (some­­times called Odes), 3 Maccabees, and, in some traditions, 4 Maccabees.

Whether or not the Jewish canon was itself closed,30 a clear contributor to these canon differ­ences is the existence of the Septuagint (LXX), a Greek translation of the Jewish Scrip­tures that includes the Hellenistic material that so characterizes the Apocrypha.31 This ear­liest known translation of the Jewish Bible, written in what was the lingua franca of the eastern and southern Mediterranean, is indicative of both the loss of Hebrew among the increasingly Hellenized (Greek-influenced) Jews and the need to maintain unity throughout the diaspora. In any case, the Septuagint was the standard Bible of the early Christian Church: when the New Testament quotes the Old, it quotes the Septuagint in nearly every case.32 This adoption of the Greek text by the growing Christian community, along with a con­servative reaction among Jews to the cultural effects of Helleni­zation,33 resulted in the eventual condemnation of the Septuagint by Jewish scholars, “who declared that the day on which the Law was translated into Greek was as unfortunate for the Jews as that on which the Golden Calf was made.”34 This kind of reaction, coming from elite readers responding in self-interest, is seen again and again in the history of Scripture. Indeed, it stands in paral­lel to the situation in late medieval England as the Paraphrase was being written, when a priestly and authoritative caste attempted to outlaw and confiscate vernacular translations of the “original” text: English merely replaces Greek in the equation. At any rate, some Christian communities followed the Jews in attempting to reclaim the Hebrew originals,35 while most maintained use of the Septuagint, which soon underwent permutations of its own. By the third century CE, the Greek text was so muddled that Origen attempted to restore its sense by collating against the Hebrew, producing a work called the Hexapla.36

Thus, despite the best efforts of the Patristic Fathers, or perhaps because of them, the Christian Bible failed from the outset to coalesce into a universally applicable, universally accepted canon or text. And it is here, in the realization that the canon, and thus the text itself, far from being a stable, consistent, and coherent unit, is historically a thing in flux that varies from century to century, sect to sect, and person to person, caught up in politics and in cultural happenstance, that we begin to find im­portant connections to The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament. But before we can move too far into the place of the Para­phrase in these matters, we should briefly recall the place of biblical translation in the Middle Ages. In particular, we will need to delve into the works of a “forgotten” Latin translator of the Bible and into the hidden history of one of the most beautiful books in the world, the Codex Amiatinus, which has its own peculiar connections to the Paraphrase.


Cassiodorus was born around 490 CE, the child of a privileged family in southern Italy, and rose quickly to the stately ranks of the empire, holding the titles of councillor, quaestor, governor, consul, minister, and praetorian prefect as various rulers held sway in Italy. But in 540 he retired from politics and, following the example of Benedict of Nursia who had established Monte Cassino about ten years earlier, set up a monastery on his own estate. It was at this monastery, Vivarium, that Cassiodorus spent the rest of his days devoting himself to religious activities, living to be at least ninety-three years old (at which point, we are told, he was still writing). He wrote or compiled a great many works over the course of his long life, but a few in particular stand out for our purposes here. The first is his Institutiones divi­narum et sæcularium litterarum, which was written between 543 and 555, in which he attemp­ted to provide the monks of Vivarium with a plan of study that would lead to accurate inter­pre­tations of the Bible. As part of this project, he advocated a set of rules for correcting the texts of the Scriptures themselves so that the most accurate copy might be achieved: only from a reliable copy of the Bible might an accurate interpretation of it be made. Foremost among the steps to be taken in checking their texts, as Cas­sio­dorus advises his monks in Book 1 of the Institutiones, is to consult those copies of the Bible that he had already col­lected. Writing for an “in-house” audience of monks who were al­ready familiar with the hold­ings at Vivarium, Cassiodorus is tantalizingly imprecise in his descriptions of those hold­ings. Yet the work of modern scholars has filled in such blanks as Cassiodorus left for us, so that there is now a reasonable confidence that his primary source for correcting the Bible was a series of what he considered the four major translations of it: namely, the Greek Sep­tuagint (pro­bably Origen’s Hexaplaric text), an Old Latin trans­lation,37 the Hex­a­plaric Latin trans­la­tion,38 and Jerome’s now-standard Latin Vulgate trans­lation.39 As Marsden points out, this “complete series of Bibles at Vivarium” accords well with how Cassiodorus tells his scribes to proceed in adjusting their texts.40 In addition to these matters, Cassiodorus tells us in his Institutiones about another Bible of his own compilation: the Codex Grandior, a pan­dect (i.e., one-volume Bible) with illustrations. He also writes about the Novem Codices, which is, as its name implies, a division of the Bible into nine volumes. What these works might have been has long been con­sidered lost, though they enter into the history of the famed Codex Amia­tinus and, in turn, might well enter into the history of The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament.

Now housed in Florence at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, the Codex Amiatinus measures approximately 505 mm by 340 mm at the covers, 250 mm thick, and weighs roughly seventy-five pounds. It is, by any measure, an enormous book. It is also a strikingly beau­tiful one, being one of three near-identical pandects made (at what must have been an as­toun­ding cost)41 at the twin monasteries of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north of England at the be­gin­ning of the eighth century. The third and most elaborate of these three pandects, Amia­tinus was completed no later than 716 CE, when Abbot Ceolfrith, who had com­mis­sioned the works, died in Langres while accompanying the codex to Rome. From Rome the codex passed to the house at Monte Amiato in Italy (from which its name derives); it was at Amiato that the dedi­catory inscription on the volume, which named Ceolfrith, was al­tered, thereby literally erasing its true origins until modern paleographical studies were able to connect it undoubtedly with Wearmouth-Jarrow and Ceolfrith.42 In time, modern scholars were also able to reconstruct the background of the Codex Amiatinus before its arrival on the Con­tinent, eventually revealing that the pandect’s fateful journey to Rome was actually a home­coming of sorts.

The monastery at Wearmouth in Northumbria had been founded a short generation earlier, in 674, by Benedict Biscop, who imported stone masons from France in order to produce a complex for what quickly became a thriving intellectual community. Around five years later, Benedict, Ceolfrith, and an assorted group of other Anglo-Saxon monks — in­clud­ing, quite probably, the future Venerable Bede — traveled to Rome and, while there, bought a number of books to bring back to Northumbria. Among those items purchased, almost certainly, was a copy of Cassiodorus’ Codex Grandior, though they did not, appar­ently, com­pletely understand his hand in the work. After their return to England, the monks of Wear­mouth founded a second abbey at nearby Jarrow in 681. Ceolfrith was ap­pointed its abbot, and he traveled there with Bede and the Rome-bought copy of the Codex Grandior, which was probably placed in the church of St. Paul at Jarrow when it was con­secrated in 685. It was sometime in the subsequent decade that the decision to produce the three great pan­dects was made: one copy would be housed in Jarrow, one in Wearmouth, and one would be a presentation copy to show the Roman Church the skill of a burgeoning com­munity that was, in many respects, at the edge of the world. Their inspiration for creating these enor­mous one-volume masterpieces was, undoubtedly, the very copy of Cassiodorus’ Codex Gran­dior that they had brought from Rome. And this was only the begin­ning of Cas­sio­dorus’ con­nection to the work at Wearmouth-Jarrow, for scholars now believe that the text within Amiatinus is likely a surviving example of a revision of the Vulgate text that was authorized by Cassiodorus him­self, generally assumed to be that of the Codex Grandior.43 

The most famous illustration in the Codex Amiatinus is that of a scribe sitting before an open bookcase containing the Old and New Testaments in nine volumes set on five shelves. The scribe is writing in a book, and the implements of his craft are scattered upon the floor around his feet (incidentally making the image one that is useful for under­stand­ing medieval manuscript creation) along with another single-volume book.44 The scribe, we are told via caption, is the prophet Ezra. The theme of the image is clearly not the work of the monks at Wearmouth-Jarrow, as it has much more in common with Medi­ter­ranean than Insular art.45 Scholars have seen in this image, then, evidence that the scribes were copying an existing image from one of Cassiodorus’ books. Even more, scholars have come to under­stand that the hand responsible for the image — Paul Meyvaert argues it is none other than Bede’s — was altering his exemplar in the process of composition: the original image was un­labeled but almost assuredly depicted Cassio­dorus himself.46 Yet it is not the identi­fica­tion of the seated figure that is of immediate interest to the study of the Paraphrase. Rather, it is the bookcase that is interesting.

Scholarly opinion has long viewed the nine volumes in the bookcase as repre­sen­ting Cassiodorus’ division of scripture into nine parts, known as the Novem Codices, since there are no other nine-volume divisions of the Bible that would make sense in this context. More than just representing the Novem Codices, however, the volumes in the bookcase might indi­cate an even deeper connection between Amiatinus and Cassiodorus’ work. Perette Michelli has recently argued that, rather than a random image of a half-re­membered collection of books, what’s in the cupboard is, in fact, an image of what’s in the Codex Amiatinus itself: Cassiodorus’ Novem Codices. That is, the portrait could indicate that even the text of the Codex Amiatinus might be copied from the actual text of the Novem Codices rather than, as scholars have previously assumed, the Codex Grandior.47 And there is some good reason to sus­pect this, since the Novem Codices as they are pic­tured in the Ezra image do not directly correspond with the “clues” about the nature of Cassiodorus’ text that can be found in his surviving writings such as the Institutiones. In other words, an illustrator trying to depict the Novem Codices on the basis of Cassiodorus’ other works would not have given us the drawing we now have. If noth­ing else, the books on the five shelves seem to be neither labeled nor arranged cor­rectly. The labels on their spines, now barely visible, read:
     REG . PAR . L . VI
     PSAL . LIB . I
     PROP . L . XVI
     EPIST . AP . XXI
These nine volumes, according to Cassiodorus’ outlines in the Institutiones, should contain:
1. The Octateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth (a total of eight books)
2. The Kings: 1–4 Kings, 1–2 Chronicles (six books)
3. The Histories: Job, Tobias, Esther, Judith, 1–2 Esdras, 1–2 Maccabees (eight books)
4. The Psalms (one book)
5. The books of Solomon: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticle, Wisdom, Sirach (five books)
6. The Prophets: Isaias, Jeremias, Daniel, Ezekiel, Twelve Minor Prophets (sixteen books)
7. The Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John (four books)
8. The Epistles of the Apostles (twenty-one books)
9. The Acts of the Apostles and the Apocalypse of John (two books)48
The abbreviations for the nine parts of the Bible used in this image are not those that Cas­si­odorus suggests in his Institutiones, nor are these parts in the order that Cassiodorus recom­mends in that text. In particular, what is here called the Histories ought to be called “Agio­graphorum,” be abbreviated “AGI” (rather than “HIST”), and appear after the codex con­taining the Solomonic material. For Michelli, the only logical conclusion to be drawn from these (and other) discrepancies is remarkable in both its simplicity and its impli­cation: “the books in the cupboard are likely to have been done ‘from life’, and the Novem Codiceswould therefore appear to have been at Wearmouth-Jarrow.”49 If true, this would mean that Bene­dict and Ceolfrith bought more of Cassiodorus’ works than just the Codex Grandior while in Rome. They might well have bought much of the remains of his library from then-closed Vivarium. What next happens to these works of Cassiodorus is somewhat of a mystery. We know the sub­sequent history of the Codex Amiatinus after its arrival, sans Ceolfrith, in Rome. We think that Alcuin possibly viewed one of the other pandects around 790, when such a vol­ume was given to Worcester Cathedral by Offa, and we must assume that such valuable items would have been kept safe to the best of the monks’ abilities.50 But beyond this we have silence. Only a few leaves from one of the sister pandects of the Amiatinus have survived.51 Of Cassiodorus’ Novem Codices, no survival beyond the eighth century is certain.

Which brings us, at long last, to The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testa­ment. Written in the late fourteenth century, the Paraphrase includes seventeen books of the Old Testament: the Octateuch (comprising Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus [largely omitted], Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth), the four books of Kings (1–4 Kings or 1–2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings, into which 1–2 Chronicles have been heavily inter­polated), Job, Tobias, Esther, Judith, and part of the second book of the Maccabees. It is not, then, a com­plete Old Testament. Missing are the Psalms, pro­ver­bial material, and, most strikingly, the many books of the prophets.

According to Cassiodorus’ descriptions in the Institutiones, the books of the Paraphrase are the Octa­teuch, the Kings, and the Hagiography. There is little dissension between canonical tradi­tions on this point. But it is in the ordering of the so-called hagiographic material that we begin to encounter some discrepancies, as the order of these books in the Paraphrase is that which Cassiodorus reports as his own preferred order, with the single exception of the “missing” book of Esdras, which would be inserted between Judith and the Maccabees.52 It is noticeably not, however, the order of the material as presented in Jerome’s Vulgate, which is so often considered to have been the established authoritative text of the Bible in the relatively stable canon of the medieval church in the West.53 Even more strange is the con­nec­tion of the three parts of the Bible — Octateuch, Kings, Hagiography — with­out any notion of something missing between them. After all, we are mis­sing three parts of the Old Testa­ment, constituting twenty-two books: Psalms (one book), The books of Solomon (five books), and The Prophets (sixteen books). The implication would seem to be that the three parts of the Bible that we do get are para­phrased from a source already set in this order. And this order, as we have seen, is the “wrong” order of Cassio­dorus’ nine-volume division of Scrip­ture that is otherwise un­at­tested aside from the por­trait of Ezra in the Codex Amiatinus.

We are left with remarkable connections in want of firm explanation. One possibility, of course, is that the connection is simple coincidence: the result of an illus­trator’s lack of care in listing the titles of the Novem Codices in the correct order and a poet’s unrelated need, almost seven hundred years later, to place the exciting nar­rative material of the Bible together into one unbroken strand. Yet one questions such careless­ness in the preparation of a presen­tation copy of a pandect that must have been worth far, far more than its weight in gold, es­pecially if we accept Meyvaert’s theory that the executing hand is Bede’s. And one won­ders, too, about the excision of some quite exciting narrative material, such as that which is found in the book of Daniel, that could have worked well in the Para­phrase but whose absence is entirely unnoted by the poet. Against such alter­natives, the pos­sibility that the Paraphrase-poet had access to actual physical volumes of Cassiodorus’ Novem Codices is intriguing. We might even speculate that the poet had at hand only three surviving volumes of the nine-volume work, and the last of those in some­what fragmented form. Thus we might explain the order of the texts as they are presented, the lack of inter­vening ma­terial between or after them, and the fact that we are given so little of Maccabees, which would have been in the third, frag­mented, volume.54 As we have already seen, the Para­phrase-poet was at work in the north of England, where cen­turies earlier these many strands of Cas­sio­dorus’ work had moved in and among the monasteries. It would be a strange set of cir­cumstances that would lead to the otherwise-unnoted survival of parts of the Novem Codices for so many years, but it would be by no means impossible. Beyond this possibility, we dare not move much further, and per­haps al­ready we have moved too far into specu­lation. Let us return, then, to the “letter” of the mat­ter, and examine the rela­tionship of the Paraphrase to the Master of Stories, Peter Comestor.

This buke is of grett degré,
   os all wettys that ben wyse,
For of the Bybyll sall yt be
   the poyntes that ar mad most in price,
Als maysters of dyvinité
   and on, the maystur of storyse,
For sympyll men soyn forto se,
   settes yt thus in this schort assyse;
And in moyr schort maner
   is my mynd forto make yt,
That men may lyghtly leyre
   to tell and undertake yt.
               — Paraphrase, lines 13–24
as all know
Bible shall
            highlights; are made; of importance
As masters
and one [especially]
to understand at once
sets it; paraphrase
more brief

easily learn
recite; understand

In its second stanza, after an initial prayer that God will look favorably on the poet and will guide him through the mediation of Mary using the full powers of the Trinity, the prologue to The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament declares its basic pur­pose: to set forth the Bible in a paraphrase that will be more brief than the original text and will present in English the most exciting bits of the narrative in order to provoke “sym­pyll men” (line 19, likely meaning those unlearned in Latin) into a greater interest in the Scriptures.55 The poet’s primary example in his concept of paraphrasing the Bible stories, and indeed the one on whose text his work is based, is the “maystur of storyse” (line 18), Peter Comestor.

Peter Comestor was born in Troyes around 1100. An able student, he was both dean of its cathedral church and canon of the nearby abbey of St. Loup by 1147. There is evidence that he had studied under John of Tours and that, at some point, he may have heard Peter Abe­lard. Regardless, his studies in theology advanced to the point that, by 1159, he was living in Paris, studying directly under Peter Lombard. Within ten years his own success at teaching theology won him the chancellorship of the cathedral school of Notre Dame in Paris, a posi­tion he held until his death in 1178. It was during his time as chancellor, during the last years of the 1160s, that he wrote and published the work for which he is most known, the Historia Scholastica, a work whose impact can hardly be understated. David Lus­combe, for his part, notes that Comestor irrevocably “altered the character of Bible studies . . . by widening the range of materials for study so as to include the evidence of the liturgy, of pictures, and of relics. He made a special use of the history, topography, and antiquities of Palestine,” inclu­ding a substantial number of works in Hebrew.56 Luscombe’s term “evi­dence” is particularly apt, as Comestor was a pro­ponent of the Victorine tradition of literal reading of the Bible, a method of exegesis grounded in the works of the influential Hugh of St. Victor (1096–1141), who had advised his students first to learn and memorize the whole of the Bible’s literal sense: “First you learn history . . . reviewing from beginning to end what has been done, when it has been done, where it has been done, and by whom it has been done. For these are the four things which are especially to be sought for in history — the person, the business done, the time, and the place.”57 Regarding those who viewed such literal readings as inferior to the allegorical, Hugh had sharp words: “I know that there are certain fellows who want to play the philosopher right away. They say that stories should be left to pseudo apostles. The knowledge of these fellows is like that of an ass. Don’t imitate persons of this kind.”58 Lus­combe observes that Comestor thus “was in effect fulfilling Hugh’s wish for a continuous and comprehensive com­mentary which took the form of an historia.”59 Comestor himself writes in the prologue of the Historia that he will keep to only historical matters, “pelagus mys­ter­i­orum peritioribus relinquens”60 (“leaving the sea of mys­teries to the more experi­enced”), an attack, perhaps, on certain commentators who had abandoned all sense of the literal or historical in preference for spiritual or alle­gorical readings.61 In fulfilling these Victorine principles, Comestor’s work neatly fit into the pro­verbial gap in the marketplace. The Historia thus became an immediate and resounding success. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council gave it approval, and it be­came, along with the glossed Bible and Peter Lombard’s Sentences, part of the standard theo­logical cur­riculum of the Middle Ages.62 Indeed, the Historia proved to be, as Morey observes, “the single most important medium through which a popular Bible took shape, from the thir­teenth into the fifteenth century, in France, England, and elsewhere.”63 Such was its popu­larity that it was translated into an astounding number of medieval European vernaculars. Morey lists trans­lations “into Saxon (c. 1248, by order of Heinrich Raspe, landgrave of Thuringia), Dutch (c. 1271, theRijmbijbel by Jacob van Maerlant), Old French (c. 1295, the Bible historiale by Guyart Desmoulins), and Portu­guese (fourteenth century), and Czech. There are also Cas­tilian, Catalan, and Old Norse trans­lations.”64 The Historia was so popular, in fact, that it began to encroach on the study of the Bible itself. Shortly before 1223, for example, William of Au­vergne complained about readers (and presumably writers) who were “satisfied to have heard the preliminaries to Holy Scripture, such as the Histories or some other works. The rest they neglect.”65 

Given such obvious and far-ranging popularity, it is striking to find no full translation of Comestor’s work in the extant corpus of Middle English. On this note alone, the Para­phrase takes on enormous importance in studies of Middle English culture from a his­torical, literary, and intellectual perspective, for it comprises the most sustained trans­lation — though one that is so loose as to seem at times a paraphrase of Comestor’s para­phrase — of the Historia into Middle English. As such, it also represents a strong strand of Victorine tradition surviving into the late Middle Ages in northern England, a tradition in which the literal level of the text is privileged over the allegorical.66

To see how the Paraphrase conforms to Comestor’s Victorine principle that the historical or literal level of the text must be thoroughly grasped before the exegete can begin to ap­proach the higher levels of interpretation, let us look at the case of Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24. Here Balaam, the prophet hired by King Balak to curse the people of Israel who have entered into his lands, has refused to do so. Quite to the contrary, he has re­peatedly blessed Israel and cursed Balak for, he says, he can only speak the will of God. For our pur­pose, let us look at Balaam’s final prophecy, in which he prophesies a coming leader for Israel:
I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not near. A star shall rise out of Jacob and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel: and shall strike the chiefs of Moab, and shall waste all the children of Seth. And he shall possess Idumea: the inheritance of Seir shall come to their enemies, but Israel shall do manfully. Out of Jacob he shall come that shall rule, and shall destroy the remains of the city. (Numbers 24:17–19)
In his glossing of these verses, the Victorine Peter Cantor (d. 1197) writes: “Note that every­thing which is said of Christ up to And when he saw [verse 20] can be applied to David, except this he shall waste all the children of Seth.” Peter argues that since Seth’s descendants would all have died in the Flood of Genesis, the children of Seth must mean all of mankind: “But David did not waste all mankind, nor the men of all nations, and this at least is true of Christ.”67 The Victorine Stephen Langton (d. 1228) is even more direct in his reading of the verses:
This is a manifest prophecy of Christ. Hence no literal interpretation other than the pro­ph­ecy ought to be understood. Thus should we expound the letter: A star Christ shall rise through incarnation out of Jacob the Jewish people . . . And he shall possess Idumea; all peoples shall be his, that is Christ’s. Literally this was fulfilled under David; that [it might] mys­tically [signify that] Christ should strike the vices [i.e., the chiefs of Moab] and possess their lands, that is the men whom sin has in bondage.68
In other words, the Victorines, so adamant in maintaining and preferring a literal, his­tor­ical reading of the Scriptures as a necessary foundation for the construction of alle­go­r­ical or spiritual (and moral and anagogical) readings of the text, here coalesce the literal/ historical and the alle­gor­ical/spiritual. The only literal reading possible is the allegorical. We find this same argu­ment in place in Comestor, who simply inserts the allegorical reading paren­the­tically into his quotation of Scripture as if the one flowed necessarily from the other in a technique of interpolated explication that gives equal weight to both: “‘Orietur stella ex Jacob et consurget virga,’ id est Maria, ‘ex Israel . . .’”69 He goes on, in commenting on the passage, to concur with his Victorine brethren in viewing the allegorical reading — the star is Christ — as the literal in this instance. The particular con­nection between Balaam’s Old Testament prophecy and its perceived ful­fillment in the New Testament thus raised the importance of the “star of Jacob”: the Biblia pauperum, for example, cites Balaam as a pre­figure­ment of Epiphany (see plate c). The Chester Plays show the importance of the prophecy even more clearly, perhaps, as they include only one play between the Abrahamic covenant and the Nativity: Play 5, the Cappers Play, which con­stitutes a brief announcement of the Ten Commandments (lines 1–95), followed by a long pres­en­­tation of the story of Balaam and his prophecy (lines 96–455). While these other lit­erary works clearly reveal the fondness for and importance of the passage, none follows as precisely as the Para­phrase the Victorine reasoning; building out of Comestor’s Historia:
And Balam ther mad prophecyse
     that Crist suld come amang ther kynd.
He sayd a sterne suld ryse
     of Jacob begynnyng,
And a wand of mekyll price
     of Israel owt suld spryng,

Qwylke suld conquere kyng and cuntré
     of Moabyse in mony a sted.
And suns of Seth, also sayd he,
     suld be hent from handes of dede.
The stern to Crist may lykynd be
     to lyght them that lay low os led;
The wand, Mary his moyder fre,
     that suld com of the Jew kynred.
Thes wordes was fro God sent. (lines 2503–17)


scepter of great glory
would spring forth

Which should
Moabites in all places
the children
           seized by the hands of death
star; likened
as low as lead
noble mother
from the Jewish kindred
The allegorical, then, has become the literal, introducing a surprisingly rare mention of Christ in what is undoubtedly a Christian text. In fact, its seemingly anachronistic incursion into the story of Balaam is one of only eight (previous scholars have counted seven) direct references to “Jesus” or “Christ” in this 18,372-line poem:70
1. Lines 32–33. The prologue to the poem, in which the poet first reminds the reader that the “figures” he is about to present help us to meditate upon the nature of Christ; he then prays for Christ’s guidance as he sets forth into his writing.
2. Lines 2504–13. The poet’s explication of the prophecy of Balaam, cited above.
3. Lines 4451–83. In introducing the book of Ruth, the poet notes the genealogical con­nec­­tions between the persons of this book and Christ.
4. Line 4619. At the conclusion of the book of Ruth, the poet again notes the genealogical con­nections between the persons of this book and Christ.
5. Line 9323. In locating the place at which David built an altar to God, the poet repeats the tradition that Jesus would eventually die upon the same hill.
6. Lines 13081–128. Concluding the story of the siege of Samaria, the poet compares the death of the despairing captain (4 Kings [2 Kings] 7:20) to the suicide of Judas.71
7. Lines 13967–68. After reporting that Jonas was in the belly of the whale for three days, the poet notes that Christ was buried three days before He rose from the dead, an asso­ciation alluded to in both Matthew (16:4) and Luke (11:29–32).
8. Lines 17751–57. In introducing the story of 2 Maccabees 7, the poet observes that while there are martyrs among the Christians, there are martyrs among the Jews, too, even if they did not know Christ.
In not one of these instances is the allegorical reading (we might say the Christological reading) given priority over the literal. And in none of them is much time even given to mention of Christ or the Christian perspective on the text. The paucity of such matters clearly sets the Paraphrase within a Victorine tradition of literal readings. Even more, it helps to provide an insight into the intended audience of the poem, a matter that will be dis­cussed more thoroughly below.

Thus endes the Boke of Judyth,
   als clerkes may knaw by clergy clere.
God graunt hym hele that hath turned yt
   in Ynglysch lawd men forto lere!
Insampyll may men here se
   to be trew in trowyng.
God graunt us so to be
   and to His blyse to bryng!
               — Paraphrase, lines 17741–48
Book of Judith
           as clerks may know by good scholarship
health who has translated it
English [for] unlearned; to learn
loyal in belief

The Paraphrase sets forth its purpose, as we have noted, in its opening stanzas, of being written for “sympyll men” (line 19) who need better access to the Scriptures. But it is not until the end of the book of Judith, 17,744 lines into the project, that the poet makes clear what here constitutes a “sympyll” man: the poet asks God for blessings now that he has translated the text into English so that “lawd” men might learn from it. A “sympyll” man, then, is a “lewd” one — one who does not speak Latin. So at its core the Paraphrase is, at least in the mind of its author, an act of translation of the Holy Scriptures. It is with this in mind that the poet asks for favor, and it is on this basis that he places the possi­bilities of its suc­cess, its power, and its authority. The declaration, while innocent enough, is significant. It sets the Paraphrase within a long tradition of translation and its associated controversies: cen­turies of political/religious dialogue between those who wanted to open up the sacred word and those who wished to close it off. The Paraphrase-poet is thus placed in the un­en­viable posi­tion of toeing the line of heresy in late medieval England. Even more, as we shall see, the poet’s declaration that he is translating the Bible into English for “sympyll men” tells us a great deal about the potential audiences of the Paraphrase, another of the cultural cruces upon which this literary artifact is built.

We have already noted that the translation of the Scriptures is no new thing, going back at least twenty-one centuries to the composition of the Greek Septuagint. Yet al­though it is blessed with antiquity, biblical translation has been, and still remains today,72 a source of potential conflict and certain uncertainty. Nowhere is the troubling nature of the task of scrip­tural transmission more clearly stated, I think, than in the words of Rabbi Judah, who taught in the second century CE: “He who translates a biblical verse literally is a liar, but he who elaborates on it is a blasphemer.”73 Judah’s conclusion, it would seem, is that the ori­ginal word is the sole word, and that nothing can come between that Holy Scripture and its audience. Aside from the most basic question of which word is the right word given the tumultuous complexities of textual tradition — a subject we have already broached in canon formation alone, not to mention the scribal inconsistencies between defined copies of a single book or text — Judah’s position seems unsatisfactory. Even if we were to confine our­selves to the Old Testament,74 and even if we were to agree that there is just one version of the original Hebrew of that Testament that is standard and authentic,75 we are left with the difficulty of a Scripture in want of translation since so few can read that ancient language. Worse yet, the inevitable relativity inherent in the very act of reading would seem to lead us to the rather untenable conclusion that God wrote a Scripture that can have but one legiti­mate readership: God Himself, who simultaneously becomes the most literal of readers. Why, then, we might well ask, did He create? How can we be in God’s image if true under­standing remains beyond our grasp? Is God like the tem­pestuous gods of Homer, a Creator who enjoys the dramatic contradictions of multi­plicity, an entertainment of life that tem­porarily plays out before His Olympian throne? Is all the world literally but a stage where we devolve into nothing but “sondry folk” who enable God to “despendest tyme”?76 All of us, as readers, are caught up in the contradictions that afflict the mind of the Paraphrase-poet’s Job: obliged to read according to his own ingenuity, and inevitably reading wrong, yet being ultimately judged as a reader less by the conclusion of his piteous response than by the integrity (intention) of his honest effort.

The problem is a hard one, and clearly not without import: translation (even in the simple act of reading a text, wherein the words on the page are translated into the mind) is clearly necessary, yet it immediately risks the chance of error and devolution — some­thing that ought to be avoided in what was, and is still by many today, considered to be divinely derived text.77 Perhaps inevitably, however, the central role of Scripture as a political orga­nizing force has more often than not been the arbiter in determining support for or argu­ments against its translation. In this context, and pertinent to the later work of the Para­phrase-poet, we might observe that almost as soon as Christianity had come to England there were impulses to translate the Scriptures for the newly converted or those about to be so.

Such can be the power of the familiar, of tradition, and of authority, that a translation, too, can be ascribed the status of the original. Thus when Anglo-Saxon scribes and scholars turned to the question of translating Holy Writ, Jerome’s Vulgate had, in effect, replaced the various older texts of the Scriptures: their original was the Latin.78 This, for instance, was the case with the monk Ælfric, later abbot of Eynsham, who translated parts of the Latin into Old English for his liege, Æthelward, around the year 1000 CE. In the Preface to his translation of Genesis, Ælfric writes about his trepidation concerning the task to which he has been ordered:
Now it seems to me, sire, that this work is very dangerous for me or for any other man to undertake, for I fear that some unlearned man, on reading this book or hearing it read, will believe that he might live today (in the time of the New Law) just as the old fathers lived in ancient times when the Old Law was in place or as men lived under the Law of Moses. I once knew a certain mass priest (he was actually my teacher at one time) who had the book of Genesis and could understand some of the Latin; so this man spoke about the great patri­arch Jacob, about how he had four wives: two sisters and their two servants. He spoke com­plete truth, but he did not know — nor did I then know — how much of a difference there is between the Old Law and the New Law.79
Ælfric has personally seen, he explains, how even those who know Latin can misunderstand the text, and he is astute enough to know that only the most learned individuals could com­prehend Latin. And if even the most learned can misunderstand the text, Ælfric is right to be worried about the “incorrect” readings (or hearings) that could be committed by an un­learned audience. As a clergyman, Ælfric believes both that the New Law established by Christ in the New Testament abolishes the old Mosaic Law given by the Old Testament and that the Old Testament prefigures the New Testament and the coming of Christ; he worries that the unlearned might not understand this vital distinction and revert to an older — and now sinful — way of living their lives. He also clearly believes in the sanctity of the text that he is preparing to translate: the text that is itself already a translation, Jerome’s Vulgate.

Though he realizes that he must fulfill Æthelward’s request and complete the translation into Anglo-Saxon, Ælfric is also deeply troubled at the prospect of changing what he feels to be the Word of God. Indeed, it is of no small coincidence that the Anglo-Saxon verb that Ælfric uses for “translate” — awendan — means also to “change,” “alter,” or even “pervert.” Thus Ælfric is at great pains to impress upon those who will read his text not only his own fear but also the fear that they, too, should have: knowing that clergy as well as aristocrats will read the text and knowing, too, that copies will surely be made in order to spread know­ledge of the Old Testament, Ælfric begs future copyists to preserve his text as closely as possible in order to minimize the chances of misrepresenting what he feels to be an accurate translation of Jerome’s text — a rendition that he claims replicates the Latin as closely as possible while preserving good (Old) English sense. In this way, Ælfric hopes that potential readers (and hearers) of the text will not misunderstand the Word of God, and that the Word of God will remain accurate to the Will of God.80

Ælfric’s separation between the learned and the unlearned approaches to Scripture can also be seen in his preaching. In his homilies, written between 990 and 994, he was careful to confine his teachings to the literal sense of Scripture, refusing, for example, to discuss the Gospel genealogy on Mary’s Nativity Feast because it would certainly involve alle­gorical inter­pretations: “This day’s gospel is also very difficult for laymen to understand; it is all chiefly occupied with names of holy men, and they require a very long exposition according to the ghostly sense; we therefore leave it unsaid.”81 Smalley points out how much this per­spective has changed by the beginning of the thirteenth century, when Orrm, an Augus­tin­ian canon in Lincolnshire, wrote a sequence of Gospel homilies generally called the Orrmu­lum.82 Claiming a desire for his non-Latin reading English countrymen (“læwedd follc” — line 55) to save their souls by understanding the teachings of the Christian faith83 — the same purpose, of course, as Ælfric’s homilies — Orrm “teaches them these doctrines by means of elaborate allegory and number symbolism.” Clearly, as Smalley points out, Orrm’s “idea of what was suitable for ‘simple men’ differed profoundly from Aelfric’s.”84

Despite Orrm’s high and hopeful opinion of what “simple men” would be able to under­stand, most medieval writers were more in line with Ælfric’s consideration of the un­learned (read: non-Latin speaking) masses. Even many among the clergy were known to have their lim­i­tations, especially when it came to allegorical readings of Scripture. Thus the English scholar Alexander Neckham (Nequam), a contemporary of Orrm, observes in a sermon that, if nothing else, parish priests ought “to at least expound the literal sense” of the Bible to their flocks.85 Neckham’s observation calls to mind the Victorines and their demand that stu­dents understand the literal reading of the Bible before undertaking other, more complex or subtle readings of the text; indeed, the 1215 papal authorization of Comes­tor’s Historia at the Fourth Lateran Council occurred just two years before Neckham’s death.

As we have seen, even before the Paraphrase-poet took on the formidable task of simul­taneously accomplishing both Neckham’s and Comestor’s goals by turning a literal-sense text into the English vernacular, other writers had been working to provide vernacular avenues for the reading of biblical material in medieval England: Bible translation weaves in and out of the surviving Anglo-Saxon corpus, from direct translations in poetry and prose by men such as Alfred the Great and the aforementioned Ælfric to more Paraphrase-like renditions of Bible stories, like the wonderful Judith or Genesis poems.86 After the Norman Conquest in 1066, however, there is a long period in which biblical translation into the English vernacular has every appearance of being on hold:87 the earliest surviving example of such a work in Middle English is the so-called Genesis and Exodus, a poem that appears to have been written in the northern area of Norfolk around 1250.88 This nearly two-hundred-year pause in the tradition of translation might well be due to the facts of the Conquest itself, placing, as it did, a French elite in charge of England and introducing (or corresponding to) a general gap in medieval English liter­ature. But we might observe, too, that Genesis and Exodus appears in coincidence with the rising popularity of Comestor’s Historia and other like narratives that proliferated after the Fourth Lateran Council with its renewed focus on lay spirituality. Indeed, like Para­phraseGenesis and Exodus is based in large part on Comestor’s work, which had been authorized at that council.

Smaller than Genesis and Exodus in scale, but another of the major works in the verna­cular Bible tradition, is the Middle English Jacob and Joseph (c.1250), a poem that associates itself with the minstrel tradition of stories told to a large and rambunctious gath­ering.89 Jacob and Joseph narrates Joseph’s story (Genesis 37–47) in 538 lines, using a number of extra­biblical legends and details probably culled from French sources. Some of the more fascinating of these additional stories are shared with the massive Cursor Mundi, which poem is also worth brief discussion not only as a monument in the chain of English biblical trans­mission but also as a possible inspiration for the Paraphrase.

Cursor Mundi is an enormous work: its several different versions range in length from between 24,000 to 30,000 lines. Written at the end of the thirteenth century, Cursor Mundi purports to explain the history and thereby the meaning of the whole of Creation, along the way making use of materials “derived variously from the Bible, the Fathers, the apocrypha, mythology, the Historia Scholastica, and French texts such as La Bible de Herman de Valen­ciennes, Robert Grosseteste’s Chateau d’Amour, and the Traduction anonyme de la Bible entière,” just to name a few.90 It is, as Thompson has called it, an “anecdotal liter­ary-didactic” work.91 Although a single hand may have made some attempt to smooth out some of its rough edges, Cursor Mundi is no doubt ultimately the work of several compilers who have incor­porated numerous apparently preexisting poems into long passages of trans­­lation from other sources.92 As a result, the narrative never seems to coalesce into a streamlined, uni­vocal text. Nevertheless, Cursor Mundi was widely distributed and widely read; its func­tion as an inspirational text for later writers interested in biblical translation is simply beyond doubt, its influence widely documented. LikeParaphrase, it is a work that downplays doc­trine in favor of a more Victorine literal level of reading and understanding. As Morey ob­serves, “with no qualms of heterodoxy, such texts become, for practical pur­poses, vernacular Bibles.”93 That the Paraphrase-poet, himself the author of what also amounts to a vernacular Bible, would have known of its existence is almost a surety. He may, indeed, have read (or heard) parts of the earlier text at some point. A number of lines in the Paraphrasen echo parallel lines found in Cursor Mundi, and at times both works concur in their choice of extra­biblical material for inclusion.94Such similarities cannot produce a con­vincing case for direct source study, but they certainly speak to the central place that such texts held within the literary culture of medieval England.95

While there are a number of other works of biblical translation that might be utilized to paint the literary background against which the Paraphrase was formed, like the psalter of Richard Rolle (c. 1300–1349), some of the poems gathered together with selections from the Paraphrase in Peck’s Heroic Women from the Old Testament, or even the genre-defying mix of art, iconography, and Scripture that is the Biblia pauperum,96 few of them com­pare in scope to monumental works like Cursor Mundi and the Paraphrase. One work that must be dis­cussed here, however, is the hugely successful and controversial translation of the Bible associated with the Oxford reformer John Wycliffe.97


That wretched and pestilent fellow John Wycliffe, of damnable memory, that son of the old serpent, the very herald and child of antichrist . . . to fill up the measure of his malice, he devised the expedient of a new translation of the scriptures into the mother tongue.

— Archbishop Arundel, in a letter to Anti-Pope John XXIII, 141298 

The desire to bring the Bible to the late medieval English populace, not to mention the idea of translating the text itself, undoubtedly provides some connection between the Para­phrase and the Lollard movement associated with John Wycliffe (1330–84), an Oxford theo­logian, philosopher, preacher, and reformer.99The Lollards or Wycliffites, the former term being a hostile epithet and the latter perhaps overemphasizing Wycliffe’s position at the head of the movement, preached, among other things, a return to poverty, personal con­nections to divine will (ultimately leading Wycliffe to condemn the papacy and ec­cles­iastical order itself), equality of the sexes,100 and public access to the Word of God, a funda­men­tal principle that caused Wycliffe to support publicly the task of translating the Vulgate into English, beginning in 1378. This task was completed after his death by fellow re­for­mers, and the first Wycliffite Bible appeared in 1388. Wycliffe’s movement, and “his” ver­na­cular Bible with it, quickly spread over England and even onto the Continent, where refor­mers such as John Hus and Martin Luther con­fessed themselves to be deeply indebted to Wy­cliffe. Hus, in fact, surrendered his life by doing so: given safe conduct to attend the sessions at the councils of Constance (1414–18), he was found to be guilty of the same heresies as the newly condemned (and very dead) Wycliffe. His safe conduct was revoked, since a promise made to a heretic is no promise at all, and he was burned at the stake on 6 July 1415, his ashes thrown into the Rhine River. The same postmortem fate had been declared for Wy­cliffe’s bodily remains just two months earlier on 4 May 1415:
This holy synod, therefore, at the instance of the procurator-fiscal and since a decree was issued to the effect that sentence should be heard on this day, declares, defines and decrees that the said John Wyclif was a notorious and obstinate heretic who died in heresy, and it an­a­thematises him and condemns his memory. It decrees and orders that his body and bones are to be exhumed, if they can be identified among the corpses of the faithful, and to be scat­tered far from a burial place of the church, in accordance with canonical and lawful sanctions.101
Philip Repton, the bishop overseeing Lutterworth, where Wycliffe was buried, failed to act on this de­cree, but his successor Richard Fleming did not: under his direction, at the urging of Pope Martin V, Wycliffe’s earthly remains were disinterred, burned, and thrown into the River Swift in 1428 — more than forty years after his death.

The heretical views of the Wycliffites are generally categorized under five basic rubrics: the nature of the Church, the rights of the papacy, the duty of the priesthood, the doctrine of Tran­substantiation, and the use of Scripture. The Church Wycliffe considered to be the body of the Elect, whose head is Christ. In both respects, Wycliffites worked against papal direc­tion: Christ, not the pope, was the head of the Church, and thus Christ alone, not the pope, de­ter­mined who was within or without the fold of the faith. The Wycliffites repeatedly poin­ted out that not even a pope knew if he was among the Elect, such know­ledge being God’s alone. At the beginning of Wycliffe’s career he did not consider the papacy as an evil, though he acknowledged from his early years that evil men might be (and had been) pope.102 But at the end of his career he had come to regard the papal institution itself as evil: at his death he was writing a work entitled The Anti-Christ, referring to the papal seat.103 The root of the papal fall, Wycliffites argued, was Constantine’s Dona­tion,104 a rationale that related strongly to their views on the priesthood: they called for the clergy to denounce all worldly possessions, returning all to the people. All who followed Christ were His clergy, the right to grant forgiveness being God’s alone.105 The Wycliffites were thus merci­less in attack­ing the mendicant orders.106 And they were similarly forth­coming in their attacks on certain doctrines of the Church: Transubstantiation, which had been made doctrine at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, they declared a wicked lie, their belief being that the Eucharist was a symbol of Christ, not Christ Himself.107 

As if all this were not enough, the Wycliffites attacked the establishment at its core by declaring that
it semyþ first þat þe wit of goddis lawe shulde be tau3t in þat tunge þat is more knowun, for þis wit is goddis word. . . . Þe hooly gast 3af to apostlis wit at wit-sunday for to knowe al maner langagis to teche þe puple goddis lawe þerby; & so god wolde þat þe puple were tau3t goddis lawe in dyuerse tungis.108
In reply to the friars’ claims that it would be heresy to translate the Holy Bible, the Wyclif­fites countered by pointing out that their Holy Writ was, itself, a translation. The Church was not amused. Nor was it amused when Wycliffe taught his fol­lowers that the only way to be a true Christian was to read and study the Bible.109 He made few friends among the pa­pacy, too, for declaring that of the four senses of Scripture, only the literal could be coun­ted on for truth: the rest, upon which claims such as papal authority and the doctrine of Tran­substantiation relied, at best were dan­gerous and, at worst, the fancy of the eccles­iastical elite.110 The Wycliffites’ overriding principle that Scripture was the supreme author­ity — and thus could be the means to judge the Church, its doctrines, and even its personnel — potentially made the Bible, as one critic memorably phrases the mat­ter, “a handbook of revolution as much as Das Kapital came to be in a much later age.”111 

While Wycliffe’s attacks against the establishment were legion, it was his call for ver­nacular Bibles that was increasingly singled out for response by the establishment. In a de­bate in 1401 William Butler stated in his determination that making or possessing any ver­nacular scripture was heresy: “sacred scripture neither in its plain nor in its obscure part[s], nor with the ex­po­sition of approved doctors, is to be read by the vulgar people howsoever [they choose].”112 Even so, the advocacy of biblical translation was not labeled outright her­esy until the 1409 promulgation of Archbishop Arundel’s censorship laws, which were draf­ted by synod in Oxford in 1407. The fifth of Arundel’s constitutions forbade the reading of Wycliffe’s works, a warning given ultimate force in the seventh constitution, entitled “That No One Shall Translate Texts of Holy Scripture into the English Tongue”:
therefore we decree and ordain that no one shall in future translate on his own authority any text of holy scripture into the English tongue or into any other tongue, by way of book, booklet, or treatise. Nor shall any man read this kind of book, booklet, or treatise, now recently composed in the time of the said John Wycliffe, or later, or any that shall be com­posed in the future, in whole or part, publicly or secretly, under penalty of the greater ex­com­munication, until that translation shall be recognized and approved by the diocesan of the place, or if the matter demand it, by a provincial council. Whosoever disobeys this, let him be punished after the same fashion as an abettor of heresy and error.113
As a result of these reactions, it would be over a century before another English translation of the Bible (Coverdale’s) was made widely available in England.114

Against the background of this tumultuous time, sometime between the beginnings of Wycliffe’s career and the exhumation and destruction of his body, The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament was written. One wonders, then, what impact the Wycliffite movement might have had on the composition of the Paraphrase. Could it possibly be a Wycliffite work? And how is it that any work of this kind, whether Wycliffite or not, could sur­vive the numerous condemnations of biblical translation?

The latter question is probably the more simply answered. Despite the fact that the Wycliffite Bible was declared heretical, and that just possessing a copy could, at times, war­rant the branding of heresy upon one’s person regardless of personal beliefs, around 250 copies of the translation survive in whole or in part — more than twice as many as any other Middle English work (the second being Prick of Conscience, with 117 surviving copies). Chau­cer’s famous Canterbury Tales, by way of comparison, survives in a “mere” 64 copies. To say, then, that the various condemnations of the Wycliffite work failed to result in its un­availa­bility is an understatement. In fact, careful combing of extant records has shown that many of the orthodox leaders themselves retained copies of Wycliffe’s translation.115 Indeed, it is no stretch to conjecture that so few copies of the Paraphrase exist not because of the condem­nation of the Wycliffite Bible but because of the popularity of that heretical work. That is, the Wycliffite Bible so strongly filled the lay need for vernacular translation that it effectively sealed the market and cut off preexisting traditions of translation.116 The Paraphrase might thus be viewed, dependent upon chronology, either as a premature im­pulse or a belated ad­dition to what Hudson has provocatively termed the “premature Refor­ma­tion” of Lollardy. But is the Paraphrase a Lollard work?

The tradition of biblical paraphrase . . . anticipated and to some degree set the stage for later reformist movements simply because it provided a precedent for the existence of bib­lical material in English and because it was directed specifically toward a lay audience. The introductions to the paraphrases often express an egalitarian desire to spread the Word among native English who know no other tongue, and who are as much entitled to the saving grace of Scripture as learned clerks.
— Morey, Book and Verse, p. 2 

We have already seen that the Paraphrase, like Cursor Mundi, the OrrmulumGenesis and Exo­dus, or a number of other works that fit into this tradition, certainly accords with what Morey calls the “egalitarian desire” to translate Scripture, to render it, as the Paraphrase-poet puts it, “in Ynglysch lawd men forto lere” (line 17744). We have also already seen that there is an aspect of such work that is essentially reformist at its core. But the question of whether the lewd audience of such works is necessarily a “lay audience,” as Morey suggests, is more difficult to discern, especially in the case of the Paraphrase. Who wrote this poem, and for whom did he write it? And can it, when all is said and done, be tied to the Lollards?

The Paraphrase-poet, we can be sure, was a man of some learning, well-versed in not only Latin but also Middle English and Old French texts. We can imagine that he was, at the least, a clerk. And, given his desire to translate for lewd men despite whatever warnings might have been current about such activity, we might also consider him a man somewhat on the fringe of orthodoxy. But orthodoxy cannot exist in a vacuum; it is always in need of relative defi­nition for or against one position or another. So if the poet is on the fringe of orthodoxy, it must also be said that he is being compared to orthodoxy in London as it has come down to us through strong but politically biased voices like Arundel’s. What the Para­phrase-poet, wri­ting in the West Riding of Yorkshire far away from the primary centers of the Wycliffite de­bates in London and Oxford, considered orthodoxy, and how he posi­tioned himself relative to that mode of belief, must remain a mystery to us. He certainly gives no indication that he considers himself a potential target for attack on theological or political grounds. He does not spend much time at all constructing a preemptive defense. Quite to the contrary, he goes about his business as if such issues did not exist. And, for him, perhaps they did not.

What that business was, a translation of the literal sense of Scripture, might be thought to have much in com­mon with Wycliffite goals, though it is no more a necessarily Wycliffite work than its many precedents from Cursor Mundi to Genesis and Exodus. And while it shares with the Wycliffites the desire to present that sense of Scripture to the non-Latin-speaking public, many followers of Wycliffe would no doubt object to the heavy use of Comestor, who habitually moves in and out of the text of the Word itself and has no qualms about altering it in order to make sense of his stories in one way or another. The Wycliffites desired an un­mediated Word, a naked text, which a paraphrase most assuredly is not. We might also note that the vocabulary of this trans­lation, as mentioned earlier, includes several terms asso­ciated with the ecclesiastical hierarchy. These anachronisms did not need to be added to the bib­lical account. The fact that the poet chose to add them, however, and chose to do so in a way that did not cast aspersions upon them, is something that might be unlikely in a work influenced by the more radical vein of Lollardy.117

More closely akin to the Wycliffites, however, is the treatment of women in the Para­phrase. As one can see from the title of Peck’s edition that included parts of this poem — Heroic Women from the Old Testament — women in the Paraphrase are treated quite a bit more favorably than we might expect given the tendency in literature of this period to wax poetic in the misogynist vein. True to Lollard thought, the sexes are placed on relatively equal footing in the text, both having high points and faults, neither naturally superior to the other. Note, for example, the opening description of Judith:
Dame Judyth was a gentyll Jew
   and woman wyse whore sho suld wende.
Now wyll we nevyn hyr story new,
   for to sum men yt myght amend
To see how sho in trewth was trew
   als lang als sho in lyf con lend
And lufed the Law als lele Ebrew
   that Moyses tyll hyr kynred kend.
wise wherever she went
invoke her
truth was true
           so long as she in life remained
loved; as a loyal Hebrew
to her people taught

(lines 16957–64)
There is much that could be discussed in this passage, not least of which is the favorable presentation of the Jews and of Jewish Law, a standpoint that is taken throughout the poem and is also somewhat surprising given the anti-Semitisms that are so typical of much medi­eval literature.118 Aside from this, however, it is striking how Judith is held up as not only a good Jew but also a wise woman — a characteristic that is here made to seem natural to her femi­ninity, not abnormal to it. Joan Ferrante observes that while Judith was often held as an ex­ceptional role model for women,119 she was typically “divested” of her humanity by exegetes and “made to represent impersonal abstractions like the church.”120 And the Para­phrase-poet’s refusal to symbolize is all the more interesting in light of the fact that she is held up not just as a role model for women, but for men, too: the poet suggests that men and women both might better themselves by looking to her (“to sum men yt myght amend,” line 16960). Squires asserts that the poet has nevertheless labored “to de-fuse the threat” of Judith’s “powerful femininity” even to the “expense of the diffu­sion of the power” of his poem, but if there are efforts to “domesticate” Judith afoot in the Paraphrase, one must con­cede that the poet’s heart does not seem to be in it.121

Still, one might “excuse” any positive portrayal of Judith as being the result of her cen­trality to her tale. She is clearly the hero of her story, one with even a heroic Anglo-Saxon cultural forebear, so perhaps we might expect the poet to treat her thus. We would surely not expect, however, a positive spin on the story of Eve, who was almost universally con­demned in Christian exegesis both before, during, and after the Middle Ages as the cause of the Fall and thus the origin of the spiritually tainting original sin, however that sin was defined. But if we look at the story of the Fall in the Paraphrase, we see that many of the negative con­no­tations associated with Eve, or even the Eva/Ave dichotomies so common to fifteenth-century thought, are missing. As Peck comments, “one is struck by the neutrality” of her character.122 And while Peck notes that Eve “does play her part in a role that is specifically gendered,” the Paraphrase-poet refuses to step beyond the strictures of the text in his portrayal of that role. Eve thus becomes a wholly tempered figure, made all the less culpable in the Fall by the wicked machinations of Lucifer, the fallen angel who beguiles both Adam and Eve, as the poet makes clear (line 180). And the actual Fall into original sin is attributed to Adam’s folly, not Eve’s: “Hys boldnes and that balfull bytt / cast hym in care and all hys kyne” (lines 199–200). One might argue that this kinder portrayal of Eve is the result of the Paraphrase-poet’s deep commitment to literal readings — while Eve is certainly culpable in Genesis, the more negative portrayals of her are largely read into the account — but how then would one deal with the poet’s treatment of Rahab? She is unequivocally termed a prostitute in both the Bible (Joshua 2:1) and Comestor (HS Jos. 2 [1261]), but here she is described as some­one who runs an inn (line 2712).123 While these relatively positive portrayals of women are not necessarily Wycliffite, they certainly have much in common with the leveling of the gen­dered playing field that has at times been noted as a hallmark of the Wycliffite move­ment.124

We have in the Paraphrase a mammoth undertaking, written at a time when such work could result in the often-fatal brand of heresy. It was on 26 February 1401, after all, that William Sawtrey was burned at the stake for his Wycliffite views, earning him citation as the first confirmed Lollard martyr. And while theParaphrase bears certain affinities with Wy­cliffe’s movement — a desire to bring Latin texts to the “lewd” people of England, a theo­retically more equitable regard for women — it seems difficult to call it a Wycliffite text with­out a great deal of equivocation. The poet uses ecclesiastical terms when he does not need to do so, and one imagines that his heavy reliance on Comestor, at times following it at the expense of Holy Writ, would make those committed to Wycliffite principles very uneasy indeed. We might hope for a doctrinal statement on the part of the poet, a clue that might cut through the gordion knot of the issue of Wycliffite influence, but direct ser­monizing is rare in this text. And even when it does occur, as it does at the end of the books of Kings, there are vestiges of both orthodoxy and reform to be found:
Be this ensampyll may we se,
   sen vengance thore so sone was sene,
Us ow to honour ylke degré
   of Holy Kyrke that kept is clene,
And noyght to wene ourself that we
   be worthy swylk maters to mene,
Bot als thei deme in dew degré
   to drese our dedes on days be dene.
God graunt us well to werke
   and so to lyfe and end
In trowth of Holy Chyrche
   that we to welth may wend! (lines 14077–88)
since; there; soon; seen
We ought; each rank
Church; pure
           Except as they judge; manner
arrange; deeds; straightaway

bliss; journey
With orthodoxy, the poet instructs his readers to honor the ecclesiasts. With the reformers, he adds the important addendum “that kept is clene.” Both sides of the coin, if the reader wishes to find them, are in play in this poem. And perhaps therein resides much of its power and success. This sic et non quality — especially as it relates to Lollardy — might well remind us of Chaucer’s Parson, whose Lollard leanings (if he has any) must be sniffed out, as in the epilogue to the Man of Law’s Tale:
       Owre Hoost upon his stiropes stood anon,
And seyde, “Goode men, herkeneth everych on!
This was a thrifty tale for the nones!
Sir Parisshe Prest,” quod he, “for Goddes bones,
Telle us a tale, as was thi forward yore.
I se wel that ye lerned men in lore
Can moche good, by Goddes dignitee!”
       The Parson him answerde, “Benedicitee!
What eyleth the man, so synfully to swere?”
Oure Hoost answerde, “O Jankin, be ye there?
I smelle a Lollere in the wynd,” quod he.
“Now! goode men,” quod oure Hoste, “herkeneth me;
Abydeth, for Goddes digne passioun,
For we schal han a predicacioun;
This Lollere heer wil prechen us somwhat.” (Canterbury Tales II[B1]1163–77)
Harry Bailey’s opinion of the Parson was well supported in 1563 by John Foxe, who went even further to consider Chaucer himself “to be a right Wicklevian, or else there never was any.”125 But of course we need not trust either man’s opinion, any more than those of later critics who have at various times championed the Parson and his creator as occupying any number of points along the sliding scale between heresy and orthodoxy: Bailey and Foxe (and all their subsequent critics) are readers — with all the power, privilege, and crippling limits that come along with it.

So perhaps what is most important about the inky darkness in which we find ourselves when we try to ascertain the religious or political leanings of the Paraphrase-poet or Chaucer (or Gower or Langland) is that the murkiness stands as a testament to the currency of and preoccupation with such issues in late medieval England. Reform, whether termed Wycliffite or not, is yet one more moraine in the cultural landscape in which the Paraphrase resides. The poet was no doubt aware of it — how could he not be? — and by composing a literal para­phrase of accepted texts, oxymoronic as that might seem, and refusing thereby to engage in doctrinal debate, the Paraphrase-poet deftly avoids much of the difficulty that could have plagued his text and perhaps even threatened his life. By straddling the line be­tween reform and status quo, the poet manages to construct a narrative that spoke to any num­ber of audiences: from reformers seeking access to Comestor’s influential work to young clerks not yet well versed in Latin and in need of a crib text to gain an initial under­standing of the essential stories of the Old Testament. And if manuscript contexts can tell us any­thing, we can surmise that he achieved a remarkable success in this regard. In the Sel­den manuscript the Paraphrase is the first item, followed by thirty-four saints’ lives from the Northern Homily Collection and three tales about holy monks (fols. 172r–239r), with a fif­teenth-century love poem (inserted on fols. 168v–169v). Peck con­cludes that Selden “must have been intended for devotional use, perhaps by a great household or a religious com­munity, or perhaps for private meditational enjoyment and instruction.”126 In the Longleat manuscript, on the other hand, the poem is the final item, preceded by Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes (fols. 1r–48r), the Chaucerian pieces Arcite and Palamon(fols. 53r–77r) and Grisildis (fols. 77v–89v), and a translation of the romance Ipomadon (fols. 90r–105r); as Peck observes: “The compilation . . . is more secular in its orientation than S[elden], and somewhat more aristocratic in its appeal.”127 Which camp the Paraphrase-poet imagined he was writing for, if indeed he had one in mind, must elude us, our only final clue being the fact that, within only a few years or decades of the com­pletion of this poem, it was being used as a source for one of the most famous dramatic sequences in medieval England, the magnificent York cycle of plays. But even here we are left with strange leads. For while this cycle is not generally known as a reformative work, and certainly not as one that borders on heresy, in one of his defenses of scriptural trans­lation Wycliffe himself favorably mentions how friars have taught the Paternoster in English, “as men seyen in the pley of York.”128 Like Janus, theParaphrase seems always to be of two faces, a text that is liable to produce what readings are sought within its thousands of verses. It is, in this sense, a quite fitting translation of the Holy Word, which can be so easy to hear but so difficult to understand.

This boke that is the Bybyll cald,
   and all that owtt of yt is drawn,
For Holy Wrytt we sall yt hald
   and honour yt ever os our awn;
All patriarkes and prophettes yt told,
   so ever ther saynges sekerly ar knawn,        
And all wer fygurs fayr to fald
   how coymmyng of Crist myght be kawn.
                — Paraphrase, lines 25–32
called the Bible

shall; hold
as our own

whenever their sayings are known certainly
were figures; tell
mediated upon

In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes: “For what things soever were written were written for our learning: that, through patience and the comfort of the scriptures, we might have hope” (15:4; compare 2 Timothy 3:16). Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest cites this advice at the conclusion of his tale:
But ye that holden this tale a folye,
As of a fox, or of a cok and hen,
Taketh the moralite, goode men.
For Seint Paul seith that al that writen is,
To oure doctrine it is ywrite, ywis;
Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille. (Canterbury Tales VII[B2]3438–43)
Chaucer again refers to the line in his Retraction, pointing out that while his work may be at the mercy of its readers, his intention was to follow Paul’s directive all along: “Al that is writen is writen for oure doctrine” (Canterbury Tales X[I]1083).129 What constitutes that very personal (but very vague) “oure doctrine” is painfully or amusingly unclear, depending on one’s point of view about the Retraction. Indeed, it may be its lack of clarity that makes the passage from Paul so popular in the late Middle Ages: Morey cites its use in as varied locations as Caxton’s preface to Malory and the Ovide moralisé.130 Looking across the spectrum of medieval citation of the passage, Minnis observes that the “‘all’ came to mean ‘almost anything,’ writing of all kinds” as the “discriminating reader” interpreted disparate ma­terial to create his own, neces­sarily personal, “doctrine.”131 For Chaucer, the “all” appears to include nearly the whole of his oeuvre; in an exercise in memory at the end of his Retraction he lists nearly the whole of his catalog as needing to be revoked: from the finest fart in the Miller’s Tale to Troilus’ rise through the spheres at the end of Troilus and Criseyde. Only his Boece and some clearly pro-Church documents are to be saved. Life is an exercise in reading, Chaucer’s Retraction says, and an uncertain one at that. Safer, perhaps, to do away with the chaff of enter­tainments entirely. They can, after all, be confusing to the “lewd” mind. On the contrary, Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest, having just told a clearly allegorical tale, trusts the reader in these matters. The difference is one of degree, not kind. Both the Retraction and the Nun’s Priest agree that the reading is ultimately up to the reader. For better or worse, the mind determines the moral or the morass.

For the Paraphrase-poet, too, the “all” of Paul becomes an exercise in expectation and reader response: just what can the reader be entrusted to understand? And, more im­por­tantly, what must the reader understand? Clearly, the poet’s audience may not under­stand Latin. But just as clearly, if unsaid, is the poet’s opinion that his audience should know what is in the Latin. That is, since salvation is to be found in the Scriptures, it is vital that every­one have access to what is found within the Latin text: thus the need for translation. Beyond the Bible, it would seem that the poet would include Comestor as essential writing for the devel­op­ment of proper doctrine. The prologue to the Paraphrase places the Historia and Scripture on essentially equal footing, and at least one reader of the poem agreed, noting in the margin not only the places where the Paraphrase disagrees with Holy Writ, but also where it disagrees with Comestor.132

What the poet finds in both the Bible and the Historia, and what he expects will be most beneficial to his presumed audience, are “fygurs fayr to fald [tell]” (line 31). Stories, in other words, and exciting ones at that. But of course these are more than just good tales. For although stories can be an end in and of themselves, they are most beneficial as a means to an end. Here again we might recall the introduction to the book of Judith, as the poet there states that by invoking her story anew he hopes “sum men” might amend their ways (lines 16959–60). Or, alternatively, we might recall the end of her book, where the poet begs God’s blessing for he who “hath turned yt / in Ynglysch lawd men forto lere” (lines 17743–44). Like Gower, his contemporary, the Paraphrase-poet views his collection of tales, enter­taining though they might be, as essentially both an individual and a col­lective means of instruction. Storytelling is a pedagogical exercise; or, vice-versa, teaching is an exercise in telling stories. If the stories fail, so too might the teaching.

But these stories do not fail. The Paraphrase-poet is clearly intrigued by the heroic nature of the Old Testament, the unfolding of an epic story, and his selections of Scripture reflect a wider cultural interest in romance narratives, particularly in its concluding episodes of Job, Tobias, Esther, and the tales from Maccabees. Fowler observes how in Genesis and Exo­dus “the influence of romance is clearly evident in apocryphal additions to the life of Moses,”133 but as romantically involved as that text can be it pales before the more com­prehensive Paraphrase, where it is not just the life of Moses that garners such treatment but, theoretically, the whole of the sacred Word. The result of this treatment is that “the epic element,” as Ohlan­der puts it mildly, “is everywhere taken care of very conscientiously,” and the Old Testament is transformed into something akin to romance — “comparison with chivalric poetry or the ‘chansons de geste’ is often near at hand,” Ohlander goes on to say. The poet thus produces a popularized and at times more sanitized account of Hebraic history, and “the world of the Old Testament is translated into the feudal age.”134 In this vein Brunner has called the Paraphrase a “pleas­ant retelling” that pours the Old Testament “through the alembic of the medieval mind.”135

Brunner’s term “alembic” is, in fact, exceedingly apt. In the poet’s hands Scripture be­comes a type of still, a textual apparatus that distills his own culture into the document of its foun­dation, filling it to the point of permeation even at the basic level of vocabulary. Through­out the text we find a lexicon more applicable to the Middle Ages than the biblical age as the poet brings the past action of the Bible into the present thoughts and concerns of his late medieval audience. By making the stories of Scripture more closely related to his contem­porary present, the poet surely hopes that his contemporary readers might more willingly lis­ten to the teachings based upon the Holy Word and let it affect their future actions. Thus we find a king’s “consaylle” (“council” — line 6216), as well as various dukes, knights, and knaves populating these stories. Similarly, we find the medieval ecclesiastical hierarchy of “byschopes and prestes” (line 7275), as well as “prelettes” (line 7922). We find medieval liturgical phrases such as “Diligam te, Domine” (line 9233) or “Miserere mei Deus” (line 8225). We find medi­eval garb, such as Abigail’s clothes or Goliath’s full steel armor. There is medieval fin’ amors — Saul’s daughter Michel pines for love in the courtly love vein, for example — and the related excess of emotion that we associate with romantic narratives, such as David’s anguished mour­ning for Jonathan. There are medieval attitudes and beha­viors throughout: Shimei spits at David rather than casting stones at him, and David per­sonally forgives him for the act — the biblical story, on the other hand, relates that Shimei just takes part in a general amnesty after David gains the crown. By the same token, Abner tries to bribe Joab’s brother Asahel rather than, as the Bible tells it, discuss his issues with him (lines 7445–48). The warfare of the poem, too, is medieval rather than bib­lical, as “gyb­crokes and en­gyns” (“siege hooks and siege en­gines” — line 5213) are memor­ably used in the battle for Jabesh-gilead. “Thus,” as Brunner has concluded, “the Biblical story is subtly transformed into a medieval chivalric romance.”136 

Erwin Panofsky terms this process in which authors update earlier models of art or narrative — whether it is to introduce Christian significance to Virgil and Ovid or to invest the past with the setting of the present — the “principle of disjunction.”137 In his study of the ramifications of these disjunctions in the work of Chaucer, A. J. Minnis calls the poems that result “at once anachronistic and historically accurate” (i.e., accurate in presenting the way they think about themselves):
Their anachronism mainly consists in such things as the late-medieval manners, fashions, ideals of chivalry, and doctrines of fin’ amors which Chaucer imposed on his pagan materials in an attempt (how conscious we will never know) to up-date the past slightly, to make it more meaningful in contemporary, ‘modern’ terms.138
The Paraphrase-poet, working in just the same vein as Chaucer, and presumably for much the same reasons, thus creates the most remarkable kind of document, what we might term romantic Scripture: a holy text that becomes at once ancient history and present reality. In this case, it is a Bible filled with de­bates of action rather than debates of scholarship and exegesis. While there are correlations with Chaucer and Gower here, there is also diver­gence. Minnis calls Chaucer “an ‘historial’ poet,” one writing “about events which had long since passed and beliefs which had been rendered obsolete.” Chaucer, he says, “did not write ex­em­plary history in the strict late-medieval and Renaissance sense of the term. His concern was with truth-to-life, with verisimilitude, rather than with moral truth.”139 Yet such exem­plary history is precisely the Paraphrase-poet’s goal. He shares with Chaucer the concern for verisimilitude, but it is truth-to-life not for the purpose of showing how ancients “thought and behaved in their historical time and place,” but, rather, to make the moral, exemplary lessons of the past all the more real for the present reader. We noted earlier Bloom’s obser­vation that “[f]ew cultural paradoxes are so profound, or so un­ner­ving, as the process of religious canonization by which an essentially literary work becomes a sacred text.”140 What we can now see, especially through the lens of a work like the Para­phrase, is how medieval literary history essentially inverts this dictum by taking the sacred text and moving it into the literary vernacular with results that are no less profound.

The idea of utilizing the trappings of secular literature for sacred purpose is nothing new. Fowler notes in his examination of early English biblical literature that the popularity of secular literature could at times cause “an anxiety on the part of the author to persuade his reader or listener to abandon the popular literature of the day and give his full at­tention to the biblical story, which is good for the soul”; in other words, “clerical authors were feeling the pressure of competition from secular literature.”141 The result at times opens up into what seems to be outright conflict between the sacred and secular in literature. This conflict can be seen at the beginning of Cursor Mundi, for example, or in the Middle English translation of Robert of Grentham’s thirteenth-century Miroir, a Gospel lectionary that describes itself in its introduction as “a litel treti3 of diuinite to turn man from romances and gestes, wherein he lesiþ mychel of his tyme þat so setteþ his hert from god, and to give him instead þing þat is profitable boþe to lyf & to soule.”142 And while the Paraphrase-poet is not so direct in his rebuttal of “romances and gestes,” the content of his poem would seem to indicate that he would be of a mind with the anonymous translator of Grentham’sMiroir. His concern is with souls and salvation. The romantic aspects of his work are but a means to that end.

The Paraphrase-poet is pre­senting an alternative romance, an epic only scarcely touched with the occasional lectio on the morals of the stories that he is presenting. The dra­matic nature of his poem’s staging, from dialogue to setting, thereby cultivates the seeds of some of the great biblical dramatacists who followed in his wake.143 Indeed, we know that one of the foremost of their number — the hand (or hands) behind the great York Plays — used this very text in the process of composition. The Paraphrase-poet’s proclamation that he in­tends to write stories “for sympyll men” (line 19) to understand the Scriptures and be en­gaged by them — “that men may lightly leyre / to tell and under take yt” (lines 23–24) — thus com­bines both the profit of sacred literature with the pleasure of the secular. This is Horace’s utile et dulce (“both useful and pleasing”) principle at its clear­est, a singular exam­ple of the didac­ticism that characterizes so much medieval literature, an aesthetic of peda­gogic efficacy that is inseparably linked to the essential component of true pleasure of the text. In a more doc­trinal vein, we might call this the practice by which ad litteram makes the Word flesh.


It has been the policy of the Middle English Texts Series to utilize the spelling of bib­lical names as they appear in the Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible, since this trans­lation is closest to that of the Vulgate. As this is the version utilized for all translations of Scripture, the policy generally makes good sense. TheParaphrase, however, presents ob­stacles to following this guideline as a hard and fast rule: many biblical names are known almost universally in a form different from that found in the Douay-Rheims or Vul­gate. Noe, for instance, appears to most eyes as a rather strange spelling for Noah. I have decided to err on the side of familiarity in this matter, and thus glosses and references tend to uti­lize the more common spellings except where the Douay-Rheims is directly quoted.

The presentation of numbers in medieval texts can be a delicate matter for editors. The base manuscript of the poem here edited, for instance, records that Jacob peeled back the bark on the rods where Laban’s cattle bred “VI or seven” times (line 966). This is readily under­standable enough, but shortly afterward the scribe writes that Jacob made both his wives and their female servants pregnant, “So that he had hymself, . . . Of suns full semly XII” (lines 981 and 983). The meaning here is again relatively clear, though it admittedly looks strange to the modern eye since these two lines are meant to end-rhyme (hymself : XII). Appearing even stranger are lines such as the statement of the widow of Obadiah about her husband’s good deeds in saving those whom Jezabel would have killed: “I C held he hale of hew” (line 12163), in which the first two letters represent “one hundred” rather than the first person pronoun and, as my younger students would imagine it, the verb “see.” In the interest of easing the reader’s labors here and elsewhere, I have silently replaced such ab­bre­viated roman numera­tions with spelled-out Middle English words as they appear else­where in the base manu­script. Thus, for example, the coun­ting of the tribe of Aser is here “fourty” rather than the scribal “XL” (line 7707). Expanded Latinate forms, such as “mille” (meaning “thousand”), are left as they stand but are usually glossed in the margin.

The scholar wishing a full accounting of the linguistic features of the poem is advised to seek out the first volume of the Kalén-Ohlander edition, which is unlikely to be sur­passed in the extent of its discussion. Briefly, though, one might note the following strong features as a guide to reading the poem:144
  • Midlands -o- is usually -a- or -ai- in Northern dialects, while occasionally Midlands a- will be o-. Thus Gast rather than Ghost (line 5); os our awn rather than as our own (line 28).
  • Midlands sh- is s- in the North. Thus sall rather than shall (line 27); suld rather than should (line 87).
  • Midlands -e- is often -o-. Thus thore rather than there (line 96); whore rather than where (line 16958).
  • Midlands -e- in verbal inflections appears as -y-. Thus savyd rather than saved (line 36); movyd rather than moved (line 48).
  • Participial -ing is usually -and (again, a Northern feature). Thus lastand rather than lasting (line 82); schynand rather than shining (line 106).
  • The pronoun she often appears as sho or scho.

Indexed as item 944 in Boffey and Edwards, New Index of Middle English Verse:
  • L: Longleat House, MS 257. Fols. 119r–212r. [Private collection of the marquis of Bath.]
  • S: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Arch. Selden. Supra 52. Fols. 2r–168r. [Base text.]

Go To Prologue