The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament: Introduction

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The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament: Introduction

The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament is an ambitious retelling of the Bible for lay people. 1531 stanzas long, the complete poem embraces 18,372 verses. Composed in twelve-verse stanzas normally rhyming ababababcdcd, the first two quatrains are in four-stress lines, the third in three-stress lines. The poem survives in two manuscripts, MS Selden Supra 52 (fols. 2a-168a) in the Bodleian Library (Bodl. 3440), hereafter referred to as S, and MS Longleat 257 (fols. 119a-212a), in the private collection of the Marquis of Bath, hereafter referred to as L. These two manuscripts were copied independently of each other, and according to Herbert Kalén's calculations, neither is derived from the original manuscript or from a common manuscript, which means that early on there must have been at least five manuscripts of the poem in existence (Kalén, p. xxxiv). Both of the surviving manuscripts derive from the middle of the fifteenth century (1425-75). The original composition of the poem probably took place near the beginning of the fifteenth century, perhaps sometime between 1400-10. The original dialect appears to be Northern, probably from somewhere in Yorkshire. Kalén calculates that the dialect of S is closer to the original than L, which has been deliberately modified by a Midlands scribe to make it easier to read.

The manuscript environments in which the two versions survive are somewhat different, which suggests, in turn, something about the early readership of the poem. In addition to The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament (fols. 2-167), S contains thirty-five ``narrationes,'' i.e., saints lives from the Northern Homilies collection for the Sundays of the year, and three tales of monks in verse (fols. 172-239). A fifteenth-century love poem with refrain (``Thayr ys no myrth under the sky'') has been inserted on fols. 168v-169v. S must have been intended for devotional use, perhaps by a great household or a religious community, or perhaps for private meditational enjoyment and instruction. It once belonged to Samuel Purchas. The compilation of L is more secular in its orientation than S, and somewhat more aristocratic in its appeal. L begins with Lydgate's Siege of Thebes and two Chaucerian poems (Arcite and Palamon and the Tale of Grisildis), and a prose translation in mixed dialect of the romance Ipomadon. In L The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase, which follows Ipomadon, is missing the first 1472 lines of the poem (i.e., all of Genesis and the first two and a half stanzas of Exodus). But even though the biblical paraphrase is missing the beginning of the poem, the scribe is a careful copyist. Thus, it seems likely that the manuscript he was working from was also missing the opening lines. This manuscript bears the signature of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, before he became Richard III, which suggests that he once owned the manuscript and that it was in his possession from a period sometime before 1483 when he was crowned.

The order of materials in The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament, which is the same in both S and L, does not always follow that of the Vulgate. The poet omits Leviticus and, in general, excludes sections dealing with laws to concentrate instead upon narrative. He seems committed to shaping a kind of Hebraic epic, a story that runs from Creation to a time after the heroic defenses of Israel by Judas Maccabee and Judith. The quality of the verse in the poem is quite good. The poet has a reasonably good sense of line and often puts together compelling stories. His primary sources are the Vulgate and Peter Comestor's Historia scholastica, though he also draws upon popular sources such as Cursor Mundi and the York plays. His narrative is pleasantly enhanced with direct speeches that are sometimes vigorous and colloquial, sometimes solemn, aphoristic, or pathetic. The poet mixes into the narrative medieval settings and local detail in presenting warfare and domestic situations, and he often intersperses sententious commentary within the action.

Besides the chronicle narratives from Genesis through IV Kings, the poet includes narratives on Ruth, Job, Tobias, Esther, Judith, and portions of II Maccabees. Given the poet's penchant for dramatic narratives it is odd that he did not include sections on Jonah and Daniel. The absence of Daniel means that there is no story of Susanna and the elders in this poem. But he does include vignettes of most of the other notable Old Testament women. The poem concludes with the story of the mother and her seven sons who are martyred by the wicked Antiochus in II Maccabees 7, thus demonstrating, as the poet says, that the Jews too have their saints. He follows this touching saint's life with a satisfyingly vindictive narrative of God's hideous destruction of the villainous Antiochus as the evil king's body rots and is consumed by worms even before he is dead; so great is the stench that none will attend him in his last days. That story is taken from II Maccabees 9. The fame of the plight of Antiochus had been rendered into the vernacular by Chaucer, who, a half generation earlier, drew upon it in the Monk's Tale. Antiochus's wretched death certainly provides a thrilling demonstration of the fate of the one God does not love, though it makes for a rather odd conclusion to the biblical epic.

The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament begins with a Prologue of three stanzas, which I have included in this edition since it offers a brief rationale for the making of the poem. It then proceeds to the story of creation. Like Cursor Mundi and the York Plays, the poem's creation story combines the two biblical creation stories of Genesis with legendary material of Lucifer's fall from Heaven at the end of the first day, once light and darkness have been separated. The narrative then proceeds to the story of Adam and Eve, which concludes as in Comester with Eve bearing ``sixty and more'' sons and daughters (21.6-7). As in the York Plays, Cain slays Abel with the jawbone of an ass, Noah's ark settles in the hills of ``armynie,'' and so on. The legendary material adds considerably to the awesomeness of the narrative.

In this poem one is struck by the neutrality with which Eve is presented. There is no raging against her, as is often the case in anti-feministic medieval literature, though she does play her part in a role that is specifically gendered. Given the particular focus of this volume on heroic women let me cite the account at length: God thinks it is not good for ``a man alon hys lyf to led'' (12.2), so He creates Eve out of Adam's side, ``a crokyd rybe, os [as] clerkes can rede, / And ther of formyd He hym a fere [companion], / a female, frutt furth to bred'' (12.6-8). The new couple are given ``fre wyll to be wyse'' and warned against eating of the Tree of Knowledge. Lucifer, ``our fellyst foe, / that fallyn was not fer before'' is intensely jealous of the worthy new creations, and, fearing ``that thei the same sted suld restore / that he and hys felows fell fro,'' sets out to beguile them (15.1-12). As a serpent ``with woman face full fayr and clere'' (16.4) the fiend approaches Eve and asks:






``What may yt meyn
that ye tent noyght to this tree?''
Scho sayd, ``That wold turne us to tene:
God bad that we suld leet yt be.''
The fend sayd, ``Foyles the more,
by that skyll scornyd ar ye;
God wold not that ye wer
alway so wyse os He.

``This frutt may gyf wysdom and wytt,
als godes so sall ye both begyn.''
Scho saw that frutt so fayr and fytt,
and eth therof this welth to wyn.
Scho bad Adam to ette of yt,
to bytt theron he wold noght blyne.
Hys boldness and that balfull bytt
cast hym in care and all hys kynd.
When thei this frutt had takyd,
qwerfor thei wer both blamyd.
Thei saw then thei wer nakyd;
full yll thei were aschamyd.

With lefys ther privates can thei hyd,
and playnly durst thei not apeyre.
God callyd on Adam in that tyd,
and he sayd, ``Lord, I hyd me heyre,
I hath so doyn, I der not byd.''
God askyd why and in what manere.
``Lord, yf I wer yll ocupyd
yt was thrugh fandyng of my fere.''
God askyd why that schoe went
that forbeyd frutt for to fele.
Scho sayd, ``Lord, the serpent
gart me do ylka deyle.''

God told then unto all thre
what thei suld feyle for ther forfeytt.
To the worme He sayd, ``Waryd thou be,
wend on thy wome ay erth forto eytte;
And, woman, frutt that comys on the
sall be broyght furth with paynys grett;
And, Adam, for thou trowd not me,
wyn thou thy foyd with swynke and swett;
So sall all thyn ofspryng
unto the uttmast ende.''
To manys kynd com this thyng
thrugh falssyng of the fend.

Fro Paradyse thei wer exilyd
withoutyn grace agayn to passe.
So went thei both os bestes wyld,
thei cowd no lovyng. Bot alase,
Soyn Eve consavyd and bare a chyld,
Cayn, that sythyn so cursyd was
Because of Abell meke and myld
that he slow with a cheke of a nase.
For the offerand of Abell
was accepte in Goddes syght,
And Caymys went down to Hell
and to God gaf noe lyght.

When Adam wyst withoutyn wer
this wekyd werk, he was full wo;
He morned ever and mad yll cher,
for meke Abell was murtherd so.
Bot aftur that, full mony a yer,
when he tyll Eve agan can go.
Then bare scho suns and doyghters sere,
the story says sexty and moe;
Then ylke on other toke
and lyfyd be law of kynd,
Als who so likes to loke
may seke and forther fynd.

attend not
should let





leaves; genitals
done; dare; abide

busyness; companion

forbidden; taste

made me do it

should suffer

food; labor

did not understand love
Soon; conceived

slew; jawbone; ass

knew; doubt

to; did
each one took another
In my seeking and finding of tales of heroic women in The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament I have chosen two narratives for this edition, The Story of Jephthah and his Daughter and The Story of Judith, to exemplify contrasting forms of female heroism in medieval ideology. One of the women is docile and obedient, upholding the authority of patriarchy; the other is aggressively active, challenging and instructing the patriarchs, albeit as God's humble instrument. The daughter of Jephthah remains nameless throughout her story. She is a woman who is selflessly devoted to God, her father, and her people. In this regard she functions as an obedient ``everyperson'' who looks unhesitatingly toward the common good. The poet makes the father somewhat more pathetic than he is in the Vulgate as he falls from his horse in grief when he sees his daughter approach and worries about explaining the situation to her. Likewise, the poet makes the daughter the more generously resolute as she reassures her father that all will be for the best, that he did the right thing, and that he should not grieve. The child consoles the father; the victim, the assailant. The moral of the narrative is rather different from that of the Vulgate. Instead of establishing a Hebrew ritual based upon her lamentation at dying a virgin, the daughter dies as a celebration of chaste obedience, while, at the end, the poet focuses attention on the foolishness of Jephthah's vow and the emptiness of his sorrow. In this regard the tone is not unlike that of Chaucer's Physician's Tale.

But the example of heroic virtue projected in the Story of Judith is a different matter. Here we have a woman who takes over when the patriarchy fails, who provides not simply the intelligence for recuperation from a bad situation but the means as well. Judith does it all. She conceives of the plan, instructs the priests and the people in their roles, infiltrates the enemy camp herself alone with only her maidservant, beguiles the enemy's general, restores the besieged city's water supply, slays the general with his own sword, beheads him, brings the head back to the priests, instructs them in how to terrify their enemies and in how to attack, and finally she admonishes the army on how to destroy and when to loot.

This ferocious narrative has a long history in English vernacular literature. It first appears as an Anglo-Saxon poem of the ninth or tenth century. Only about a quarter of the Old English Judith survives, the latter part (fitts 10-12) beginning with Holofernes' drunken feast and his murder and concluding with the slaughter of the Assyrian host, the awarding of the spoils to Judith, and her song of praise to God. It is perhaps noteworthy that this poem survives in MS Cotton Vitellius A xv, the late tenth-century codex containing Beowulf - two heroes in one place. In the High Middle Ages Judith is regularly cited, along with Sarah, Rebecca, Abigail, and Esther, as example of the good woman who places her love of God first and thus becomes God's chosen instrument to provide leadership and counsel where others fail. For example, Chaucer's Dame Prudence, in The Tale of Melibee, uses Judith as a potent foil to Melibee's folly: ``Judith by hire good conseil delivered the citee of Bethulie, in which she dwelled, out of the handes of Olofernus, that hadde it biseged and wolde have al destroyed it'' (CT VII.1098). At the end of the Middle Ages we find Thomas Hudson's Historie of Judith (1584), composed at the command of the ``most vertuous Princesse Iean, Queene of Nauarre,'' as an epic in imitation of ``Homer in his Iliades and Virgill in his Aeneidos.''

The story of Judith is so bold in its attack on what men have deemed to be their privileges that it makes men nervous to write about it. In The Merchant's Tale Chaucer, with brilliant irony, places allusions to her story, along with the stories of Rebecca, Abigail, and Esther, in the mouth of the unhappy Merchant, who praises the ``blisful ordre of wedlok precious'' and exhorts men to get down on their knees to ``thanken his God that hym hath sent a wyf,'' a wife that will last ``unto his lyves ende'' (CT IV. 1347-54). In a series of apostrophes the Merchant advises men to ``do alwey so as wommen wol thee rede'': ``Lo Judith, as the storie eek telle kan, / By wys conseil she Goddes peple kepte, / And slow hym Olofernus, whil he slepte'' (CT IV. 1366-68). But the story is not simply threatening to the male ego; it challenges the political structures of patriarchy as well. Male nervousness concerning the politics of the story is perhaps best seen in Thomas Hudson's admonition to the reader in his Historie of Judith (1584):

I may not forget that they doe greatly wrong mee, Who thinkes that in discriuing the Catastrophe of this Historie (truelie tragicall) thinkes that I am becomme a voluntairy Aduocate to these troublesome & sedicious sprites (who for to serue their temerarious passions, and priuate inspirations) conspires against the liues of placed princes. For so much doe I disassent that this example and the like ought to be drawen in consequence, that I am verily perswaded that the act of Ahud, of Iaell, and of Iudith, who vnder coulour of obeisance and pretext of amitie layde their reuenging handes vppon Aeglon, Sisara, & Holophernes: had beene worthie of a hundreth gallowes, a hundreth fires, and a hundreth wheeles, if they had not beene peculiarly chosen of God for to vnlose the chaines, and breake the bands which retainde the Hebrewe people in more then Aegiptian seruitude, and expresly called to kill those tyrants with a death as shamefull as their liues were wicked and abhominable. But seing this question is so diffuse that it cannot bee absolued in few words, & that my braine is to weake for so high an enterprise, I send you to those who haue spent more oyle and tyme in turning the leaues of the sacred scriptures, then I haue done for the present. It mee sufficeth for the tyme to admonish the Reader, to attempt nothing without a cleare and indubitable vocation of God against those whom he hath erected aboue vs, and aboue althing, not to abuse the lawe of humaine hospitalitie, and other holy bands for to giue place to these frenetike oppinions so to abolish a pretended tyrannie. (Hudson, pp. 8-9)

The author of The Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament is less nervous about the behavior of Judith than Thomas Hudson was. Throughout his narrative he has heightened Judith's independence from the patriarchies of the world and at the same time emphasized her religious devotion. Perhaps that is because, in his poem, Judith exists exclusively within a religious context. But in his conclusion he faces the political overtones of the story straight on and proposes without apology that the story demonstrates ``how God wyll pupplysch his power / In wemen forto fall als fytt / als in men on the same manere'' (1479.2-4).

The story of Judith was probably first written in the second century B.C., about the time of the writing of I and II Maccabees. The story has no known basis in history. The author has set the romance several centuries earlier in a mythical time of hardship which conflates stories of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (605-562 B.C.), with Assyrian Nineveh (c. 612 B.C.), and Holofernes and Bagoas, the generals of the Persian king Artaxerxes Ochus, who made an attack upon Phoenicia and Egypt (c. 350 B.C.). The city Judith defends, Bethulia, is apparently a fictitious creation as well. It is unknown outside the book of Judith and has not been identified with any Palestinian site. Like the account of Judas Maccabees's heroic feats in defense of his people against tyranny, the story of Judith serves as an inspiring example to oppressed people. The name Judith is the female equivalent of Judas, and simply means ``Jewess.'' The name implies that she embodies what is good among the Jews. She is the representative of the chosen people, and in this regard the sections of her narrative dealing with the siege of the city are germane to a balanced understanding of the plot.

A reader of the Middle English version of the romance may, initially, at least, find the account of the siege of the city to be digressive. We should note, however, that the author of the poem has greatly reduced these kinds of materials from the Vulgate; but we should also keep in mind their importance to the heart of the story. The harrassment of the city (the poet never mentions Bethulia, only Jerusalem) equates with a harrassment of Judith and her people. When Ozias and the priests threaten to turn the city over to Holofernes if God does not come to their aid in five days, she instantly perceives the blasphemy and takes personal charge of the defense. It is Judaism that is endangered by the old men's decisions. Ironically, it is as if God does act to meet the demands of the patriarchy, but He does so through a woman, since the men have behaved shamefully with their demands. In the Middle English poem, after Judith returns victorious with Holofernes' head and the army has defeated the Assyrians according to her guidance, the booty is all given to her, with the words: ``We wott we have it wun / with wyll of God and wyt of the'' (1473.3-4). Judith then, like a bountiful ruler, divides the wealth among the poor ``be mesure both to man and wyfe'' (1474.4). Throughout the story her action has been for the common welfare of the city, and that is what she represents.

The Dialect

Originally written in a Yorkshire dialect at the beginning of the fifteenth century, The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament as it appears in the Selden manuscript bears a number of linguistic features characteristic of the northern dialects. One often finds -a- or -ai- where in the midlands one finds -o-; thus we have lang rather than long and mair rather than more. Instead of sh- we find s- as in sall and suld instead of shall and should. In some instances we encounter -o- where we might expect -e- as in whore and thore for where and there. In verbal inflections one often finds -y- where one might in the more familiar southeast midland dialect find -e-, as in endyd and haldyn instead of ended and holden. Participles often appear as -and rather than -ing as in syttand for sitting, standand for standing, and tythand for tything. In this dialect the subject of the sentence does not always agree with the verb according to modern conventions of number agreement. Thus we find Jews makes and thou has. The pronoun she often appears as sho or scho.
Select Bibliography


MS Selden supra 52 (Bodleian 3440), fols. 2a-168a.

MS Longleat 257, fols. 119a-212a.


A Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament, ed. Herbert Kalén. Goteborgs Hogskolas Arsskrift, vol. 28. Goteborg: Elanders Boktryckeri Aktiebolag, 1923. [The first 500 stanzas. Introduction, pp. cxciv, with sub-chapters on MSS, their relationship, phonology of the original, accidence, dialect and date of the original, dialects of the MSS, notes on meter, and remarks on literary relations.]

A Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament, ed. Urban Ohlander. Vols. 2-4, plus vol. 5: Glossary. Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis [Gothenburg Studies in English, vols. 5, 11, 16, 24]. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1955, 1960, 1963, 1972.


Laurence Muir, ``IV. Translations and Paraphrases of the Bible, and Commentaries,'' in A Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050-1500, ed. J. Burke Severs, Vol. 2. The Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1970), 382, 535-36.

Original Versions and Adaptations

Liber Iudith, in Biblia Sacra: Iuxta Vulgatam Versionem. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1983. I, 691-711.

The Book of Judith, in The Holy Bible: The Douay Version of The Old Testament (1609). New York: P. J. Kenedy and Sons, 1950.

Hudson, Thomas. Historie of Judith, ed. James Craigie. Scottish Text Society, series 3, vol. 14. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1941. [A translation from Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, first published by Thomas Vatroullier, Edinburgh, 1584.]

Related Discussions

Bal, Mieke. ``The Rape of Narrative and the Narrative of Rape: Speech Acts and Body Language in Judges,'' in Literature and the Body: Essays on Populations and Persons (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), pp. 1-32. [On Jephthah's use of cutting words and riddles as means of power and patriarchal entrapment.]

_____. Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. [Extensive discussion throughout of Jephthah and his daughter, the gender issues involved, concepts of duty and heroism, child-killing, sexual ripeness and virginity, namelessness, the opposition of the daughter and the narrator.]

Dubarle, André M. Judith: Formes et Sens des Diverses Traditions. 2 vols. Rome: Institut biblique pontifical, 1966.

Craven, Toni. Artistry and Faith in the Book of Judith. Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1983.

Garrard, Mary D. ``Judith.'' Ch. 5 in Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), pp. 278- 336. [Discusses representation of Judith in art from the catacombs to Klimt, as part of her exploration of Artemisia Gentileschi's four paintings of Judith, their iconography, and the female hero from the viewpoint of the female artist.]

Jacobus, Mary. ``Judith, Holofernes, and the Phallic Woman,'' in Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 110-136. [Analyzes the biases of Freud's use of Judith and Holofernes in ``The Taboo of Virginity,'' Friedrich Hebbel's tragedy, Judith (1840), and the Judith paintings of Horace Vernet, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Donatello's statue of Judith and Holofernes.]
Moore, Carey A. Judith. Anchor Bible Commentary Series No. 40. Garden City: Doubleday, 1985.

_____. ``Judith - The Case of the Pious Killer.'' Bible Review, 6 (1990), 26-36. [Reviews the case for rejecting Judith from the Hebrew canon; makes interesting observations on uses of irony within the text.]

Purdie, Edna. The Story of Judith in German and English Literature. Paris: H. Champion, 1927.

Society of Biblical Literature: 1989 Seminar Papers, ed. David J. Lull. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989. [See especially Amy-Jill Levine, ``Character Construction and Community Formation in the Book of Judith,'' pp. 561-69, with its discussion of marginality and of Judith as ``other''; and Sidnie Ann White, ``In the Steps of Jael and Deborah: Judith as Heroine,'' pp. 570-78, a structuralist analysis of Jewish heroines in the Hebrew Bible.]

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