The Pistil of Swete Susan: Introduction

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The Pistil of Swete Susan: Introduction

The Pistel of Swete Susan is a later fourteenth-century adaptation in thirteen-line alliterative stanzas of the thirteenth chapter of Daniel, the story of Susanna and the Elders. Its audience was that newly literate group, composed in part of women, among whom the Wycliffite movement flourished. Although there is little in the poem that would suggest the politics of that movement, apart from women, literacy, and Bible study, occasionally the wording of the poem is similar to that of the early Wycliffite Bible, enough to suggest that the author could have used that translation, along with the Vulgate, as his source. (I don't think the poem is by a woman, however, though its focus, even more than the thirteenth chapter of Daniel, is upon a woman.) The poem, like Patience, which retells the story of Jonah, reflects the strong interest in biblical narrative that marks vernacular literature and its audience around the time of John Wycliffe and his followers. The Pistel of Swete Susan is not as energetic or skillfully narrated as Patience, but, like Patience, it serves to familiarize its audience with a compelling biblical narrative and to provide through that vehicle instruction by thrilling example in complex moral and social issues. Although the story of the victimization of the innocent and virtuous young woman is universally appealing, it speaks with particular poignancy to medieval aristocratic women who found themselves intricately contained within patriarchal power structures which, if abused, might easily have destroyed them. It is a study in obedience - its dangers and rewards. The story is reassuring in that a benevolent and just God protects the innocent through the intervention of his youthful prophet Daniel, who is able to challenge the abuse, thus salvaging both Susan and the laws and institutions which had seemed about to kill her.

The poet follows the biblical narrative quite closely, both in plot and even in wording, with three exceptions. At the point in Daniel when the two judges begin ogling Joachim's wife and planning their seduction of her, the poet introduces an elaborate description of the orchard garden in which the ugly event will take place. The passage creates a wonderfully Edenic world, a world manifesting both God's bounty and the young couple's worth as aristocratic caretakers of nature. Joachim's estate is that of a superbly manicured fourteenth-century household, with moat, lovely dwelling places, and especially a well-tended garden, inhabited as joyously by the birds as by the people who relax there. The garden reflects well upon its owners - sophisticated people, who understand the order of God's world, enhance it through civilized gestures, and live by it in their personal lives. The garden is well enclosed, like the hortus conclusus of the Song of Songs, a semi-sacred place where Susan feels secure and confident of her privileges. She understands her household, and manages it well. On the fateful day she gives her attendants the afternoon off, providing they secure the gates while she modestly bathes. The intrusion by the lecherous old men is like a rehearsal of the fall, except that Susan does not fall. When threatened and coerced, rather than secure a few more days on earth at the expense of her soul by complying with the evil design of her would-be seducers, she commits herself to God, thereby protecting her chastity, and, ultimately, her beautiful relationship with Joachim, the law, and God, symbolized by the garden. She and Joachim keep their precious place, despite the wicked intruders. This chaste resolution they accomplish through Susan's steadfastness.

After the description of the garden the poet introduces a second innovation into the biblical narrative. As Susan withdraws into the garden to bathe, the poet dwells upon the mysterious beauty of the moment (lines 124-30): it is near the magical time of noon, and she is under a laurel tree as she undresses - auspicious phenomena in the fairy conventions of the day. It is a time and place when "feole ferlys" (many wonders) might unfold, depending, of course, upon how one sees the events. The lines heighten the illusive qualities of beauty, civilized structures where there are gardens, married couples, guests, servants, codes of behavior, and so on. Who sees what in such wondrous places? The wicked judges see opportunity as they set out to seduce Susan. They count on being perceived as just men by the public, so that they might manipulate how the public will respond to their accusations. They count on how society will view an imposingly beautiful woman in a compromised position; and they count on her perception of their power and how she will be viewed if exposed to the public, all as leverage to force her into having sex with them. They count on such cultural illusions being deceptively more powerful than her faith in God or the trust in her by others, such as her husband and attendants, who are mysteriously bound to her through their sacred contracts. The poet attends skillfully, albeit briefly, to the perspective of the servants as they wonder at the strange charges brought against her. The point of this innovation in the biblical narrative is to raise questions of how we read illusions within our wonderfully, but dangerously, sophisticated social structures.

A third alteration in the biblical narrative is less elaborate than the description of the garden, though more precisely pointed than the illusive moment of the encounter. Like the garden description this alteration enhances the personal worth, both private and social, of the heroine. And, especially, it demonstrates her ability to see through "feole ferlys." The passage occurs after the false charges of adultery have been brought against Susan, where she asks for and is permitted an audience with her husband. (In the Vulgate no such meeting takes place.) The passage (lines 239-60) is a superbly modulated study in trust and simplicity. When charged with adultery by the judges, she asserts "I am sakeles [guiltless] of syn" (line 240) and asks to see her husband. What is unsaid is as important as what is spoken. In the presence of her husband Susan does not challenge the laws or even her male accusers. She simply says as "kyndeli" as she knows how: "Iwis, I wraththed the [abused you] nevere, at my witand [to my knowledge], / Neither in word ne in werk, in elde ne in youthe" (lines 250-51) and, modestly rising to her knees, kisses his hand, acknowledging that since she has been condemned by the judges, she will not presume to "disparage thi mouth" (line 253). She does not attempt to dispute the case or to manipulate his opinion. Her modest silence speaks for her. She knows how to see him and he her. He responds by removing the fetters from her feet, kisses her sweetly, and commits both Susan and himself to God: "'In other world schul we mete.' / Seide he no mare" (lines 259-60). He, like her, recognizes the complexity of the entrapment, and rather than rebelliously curse justice and the law, maintains trust in God. Susan then prays to "Thou Maker of Middelert" (line 263), professing her cleanness and beseeching His mercy; whereby, "Grete God of His grace" (line 276), as in the source, sends Daniel to make clear to all what the wicked have obscured. In the end, none but the lecherous judges, who looked perversely, are entrapped by the illusions.

Susan's faith in God and the moral system of the patriarchy is presented as something beautiful and enduring. Like Virginia in Chaucer's Physician's Tale, or Griselda in the Clerk's Tale, or Constance in the Man of Law's Tale, Susan's chastity and trust in divine benevolence sustain her through her trial. The poet is careful to delineate her feelings and her awareness of boundaries and obligations. In the Vulgate, several verses are devoted to the feelings of the lecherous old men, depicting how they initially hide their lechery from each other, then, once exposed, make a concerted effort to entrap her (Dan. 13:10-14). The effect in the Bible is to dramatize how sin, which begins in the individual hearts of men, assumes political dimensions and becomes fiercely destructive. By deleting these materials, the Susan-poet keeps the focus on the heroine's dilemma and her virtue. She is capable of making right choices and does so decisively, in the process securing herself in God and her husband's affection even more firmly than she was secure in the moated and well-tended garden. Her example defines a model that was much cherished by women in the fourteenth century, both for its heroism and for its poignancy. It was not, of course, the only model. Nor is it a model easily understood in the twentieth century. We must be especially careful not to confuse Susan's heroism with passivity or weakness. She is more active, decisive, daring, and firm in her choices than the old men are in their perverse abuse of their authority.

We do not know precisely when or where The Pistel of Swete Susan was first written. The dialect suggests that it comes from southern Yorkshire, the same area as The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament. Andrew of Wyntoun, in his Cronykil of Scotland (1420), attributes "The Pistil of Suet Susane," along with "a gret Gest of Arthure, / And the Awntyr of Gawayne," to "Huchown of the Awle Ryale" (Bk. V, ch. 12, lines 4311-13; 4280, 4288). At one time the "gret Gest of Arthure" was identified with the Alliterative Morte Arthure, since Wyntoun describes in some detail the contents of the poem as an account of Arthur's conquest over "Lucyus Hyberyus emperoure." Henry Noble MacCracken and others have demonstrated the unlikelihood of such an identification, however, because of differences in dialect between The Pistel of Swete Susan and the Alliterative Morte Arthure. Likewise, some argued at the end of the last century that the "Awntyr of Gawane" must be the poem we know as The Awntyrs of Arthur, though others have dismissed the association on grounds of dialectal differences. Certainly, none of the three works attributed to Huchown are Scottish, and we have no knowledge how Wyntoun may have been acquainted with them. Nor, in the instances of the two Arthurian works, can we be exactly certain what poems the titles refer to. In the instance of "The Pistil of Suet Susane," however, it seems unlikely that Wyntoun could mean any other poem than the Middle English poem of our concern here. Perhaps a copy of the poem made its way to Scotland where the chronicler encountered it in the company of manuscripts of the Arthurian poems. Such a clutch of materials could well have come from Yorkshire, as much that was of value did.

Numerous attempts have been made to identify Hucheon (see MacCracken's summary essay on the problem), the only certain conclusion being that whoever he was, if he did write "The Pistil of Suet Susane" and if that is our poem, he was not a Scotsman. Nor does Wyntoun say that he was. In an effort to link the authorship of the Alliterative Morte Arthure and The Pistel of Swete Susan, Moritz Trautmann [Anglia, 1 (1878), 109-49] noted eleven words which he thought were unique to the two poems. His word list has been pecked at by other scholars who have succeeded in finding other instances of the eleven in other texts. The fact remains that several of the words are not common words, however, and there are thus some instances of likeness of wording and usage between those two works that, although not unique, are strikingly similar, nonetheless. Such common word hoard does not, of course, prove common authorship or even common provenance, but it does suggest something about a common readership. The Susan-poet might well have known the Alliterative Morte Arthure. He could also have known the Awntyrs of Arthur. The advice offered to women in this poem is not utterly different from the advice to Guinevere in that poem. All three of the poems explore abuses of power by men of authority. That is, someone interested in those topics might well have assembled them in such a way that, a generation later, Andrew of Wyntoun could have thought them to be by the same author.

The Pistel of Swete Susan apparently enjoyed some circulation among readers in that it survives in five manuscripts, one of which is fragmentary. None of the five is the original. And though it is not possible to provide a very useful stemma that relates the manuscripts to a single source, it is evident that three of the manuscripts (Vernon, Simeon, HM 114) constitute a genetic group which could be fairly close to the original, and a fourth (Pierpont Morgan M 818), though somewhat later than the others, can sometimes be right where the other group shares common errors. In this edition I have followed the Vernon manuscript, partly because its version of Susan is the best and earliest of the group of three, and partly because of the significance of the great book itself. The Vernon manuscript is one of the marvels of the fourteenth-century English book world. It is a gigantic book, originally containing more than 420 leaves measuring at least twenty-two and a half inches by fifteen and a half, in two or three columns of normally eighty lines in each and weighing more than fifty pounds. A. I. Doyle speaks of it and its companion volume as "virtual libraries" unto themselves (p. 331). The Simeon anthology, which is nearly as large as the Vernon, was copied in the same workshop as the Vernon, and also contains The Pistel of Swete Susan. Both are enormous anthologies of religious and instructional verse and prose, mainly in the vernacular English, and containing such important works as the South English Legendary, the Northern Homily Cycle, the Pricke of Conscience, Robert Grosseteste's Castle of Love, the Speculum Vitae, Richard Rolle's Form of Perfect Living, an English translation of Pseudo-Bonaventura's Stimulus Amoris, the Abbey of the Holy Ghost, an A-version of Piers Plowman, and a version of the Ancrene Riwle (the latter two being in the Vernon but not the Simeon manuscript). Robert E. Lewis and others have suggested that the two manuscripts may have originated in a Cistercian house in northern Worcestershire, perhaps Bordesley Abbey (p. 251). Although The Pistel of Swete Susan appears in both anthologies, copied in the same hand from a common exemplar, it seems likely that the Vernon was done first.

A. I. Doyle (1974) has commented on the pre-history of both manuscripts, which is "no less remarkable than the end-products" (p. 333). The range of supply of originals to be copied and therefore the knowledge of what was available and desirable in putting together such an anthology are diverse professionally and regionally. How or why The Pistel of Swete Susan was chosen to be included we can only conjecture, but given the predominantly instructional and religious content of the other materials in the anthologies it is fair to assume that it was seen as of a piece with the saints' lives and instructional material. Who commissioned either or both of the manuscripts is not known. The Simeon manuscript has one faint clue, however, a scarcely legible phrase or signature in a margin, which could be read as Joan Bohun. Whether it is her signature or whether she had anything to do with the Simeon or Vernon manuscripts we don't know. But it is worth including A. I. Doyle's account of her here (Vernon MS Facsimile, 1987), simply because it must have been someone like her whose patronage lay behind these great anthologies and whose agenda in life made such books and their contents important:
The Joan Bohun in question was daughter of Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, and sister of Thomas Arundel (1354-1414), Bishop of Ely, Archbishop of York and of Canterbury. She married Humphrey Bohun, Earl of Hereford, Essex and Northampton (1342-73), to whom the alliterative romance William of Palerne was addressed. Their first daughter Eleanor married Thomas Duke of Gloucester, one of the sons of Edward III, both leaving notable collections of books, his including a Wycliffite Bible; the second daughter, Mary, was the first wife of Henry IV and mother of Henry V. After her husband's death Joan seems to have spent much of her life in the eastern counties, being buried with him in Walden Abbey, of which she was a major benefactor, in 1419. In 1395/6 she was living in the diocese of Ely and in 1399 she had a royal grant of residence in the castle of Rochester for life. In 1414 she was allowed to modify a vow of fasting on account of increasing infirmities, which suggests that she had been leading a particularly pious life, like such later noble widows as Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, and Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, in a quasi-religious household. Her death, and those of her husband, father and mother, are recorded in the Luttrell Psalter, perhaps by one of her executors. She may have been the owner of the Anglo-Norman Apocalypse, New College MS.65 . . . and for her Thomas Hoccleve translated the verse Complaint of the Virgin which is also found in the anonymous English prose rendering of Deguileville's Pilgrimage of the Soul made for a great lady in 1413, and so possibly by him for her too. . . . As a devout and wealthy widow with her own retinue, and no doubt many links with the West Midlands and clerical counsel, she was undoubtedly the sort of person for whom the manuscript would have been appropriate, even if not specifically designed. The tabs and Latin annotations, implying an earlier clerical utilisation, are not wholly incompatible, if for use by her household. (pp. 15-16)
We cannot know whether Joan Bohun ever read The Pistel of Swete Susan, let alone commissioned it or chose to have it included in anthologies such as the Vernon and Simeon manuscripts. But whoever did must have been someone like her in devotion and literary temperament. The poem's appearance in these manuscripts is simply one further hint at the poem's life within the jurisdiction of women and their vested interest in vernacular religious literature.

The Dialect

The dialect of The Pistel of Swete Susan is mixed. Originating in Yorkshire it bears some northern features that persist in the Vernon and Simeon manuscripts. Thus we find mare for more and bare for bore. But mainly the linguistic features of the poem are midland in the mid-fourteenth century. Of the pronouns we find heo for she, hir for her, hem for them, heor(e) for their, ur(e) for our. The adverb is more often formed with -lich(e) than -ly, as in semlich and holliche.
Select Bibliography


Vernon MS: Bodleian English Poet. a. l, fol. 317a-b. C. 1400.

Simeon MS: British Library Additional 22283, fol. 125b-126a. C. 1400.

Phillips MS 8252: Huntington HM 114, fols. 184b-190b. C. 1425-50.

Ingilby MS: Pierpont Morgan M 818, fols. 1a-5a. C. 1425-50.

British Library MS Cotton Caligula A ii (pt. I), fols. 3a-5a. [missing first 104 lines of the poem.] C. 1450-60.


Horstmann, Carl. "Susanna: aus Vern. fol. 317," Anglia, 1 (1878), 85-101.

Amours, F. J. Scottish Alliterative Poems. Scottish Text Society. Vols. 27, 38. Edinburgh, 1892-97. Pp. 172-87; 364-87.

Miskimin, Alice. Susannah: An Alliterative Poem of the Fourteenth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969.

Turville-Petre, Thorlac. Alliterative Poetry of the Later Middle Ages: An Anthology. Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1989. Pp. 120-39.

The Vernon Manuscript: A Facsimile of Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS. Eng. Poet. a.1, with Introduction by A. I. Doyle. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1987.

Editions of the Bible

Biblia Sacra: Iuxta Vulgatam Versionem. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1983. II, 1368-71.

The Earlier Version of the Wycliffite Bible, ed. Conrad Lindberg. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1973. VI, 172-73.

The Holy Bible: The Douay Version. New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1950. Pp. 969-71.


Dobson, E. J. Notes and Queries, 216 (1971), 110-16.

Doyle, A. I. "The Shaping of the Vernon and Simeon Manuscripts." In Chaucer and Middle English Studies in Honour of Rossell Hope Robbins, ed. Beryl Rowland (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1974), pp. 328-41.

Garrard, Mary D. "Susanna." In Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), pp. 183- 209.

Kellogg, Alfred L. "Susannah and the Merchant's Tale." Speculum, 35 (1960), 275-79.

Lawton, David, ed. Middle English Alliterative Poetry and its Literary Background. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1982. [See especially A. I. Doyle, "The Manuscripts," pp. 88-100, for discussion of Vernon, Simeon, and Ellesmere 26.A.13 and their alliterative contents.]

Lewis, Robert E. "The Relationship of the Vernon and Simeon Texts of the Pricke of Conscience." In So Meny People, Longages and Tonges, ed. M. Benskin and M. L. Samuels (Edinburgh, 1981), pp. 251-64.

MacCracken, Henry Noble. "Concerning Huchown." PMLA, 25 (1910), 507-34.

Miles, Margaret R. Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989. [See especially chapter 4: "The Female Body as Figure," pp. 117-44.]

Turville-Petre, Thorlac. "Three Poems in the Thirteen-line Stanza." RES, n.s. 25 (1974), 1-14.

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