Item 26, The King and His Four Daughters: Introduction


1 For an account of this debate as it relates to the texts discussed here, see Marx, Devil’s Rights and the Redemption, pp. 1–46.

2 For a recent survey of Grosseteste’s career, see McEvoy, Robert Grosseteste; see also Thomson, Writings of Robert Grosseteste, and Southern, Robert Grosseteste.

3 Sajavaara traces the complex relationship of Grosseteste’s allegory of the four daughters to the Midrash, works of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Hugh of St. Victor, and the earlier Latin allegory Rex et Famulus; see Middle English Translations, pp. 63–90.

4 For a survey of the material derived from and related to Grosseteste’s allegory of the four daughters, see Traver, Four Daughters of God.

5 Marx prints both the Latin Dictum 10 and a translation in Devil’s Rights and the Redemption, pp. 155–59.

6 Rhodes, Poetry Does Theology, pp. 46–47.

7 For the risks associated with discussing doctrine in vernacular literature, see Watson, “Cen­sorship and Cultural Change in Late-Medieval England.”

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Item 26, The King and His Four Daughters: Introduction

Origin, Genre, and Themes

The Latin etymology of the word “redemption” is “buying back,” and Christian thought has long seen the process by which Christ voluntarily died in exchange for the release of humanity from eternal punishment as a transaction. Yet defining the terms of this purchase has tested theologians for centuries, and the doctrine of the Redemption changed consider­ably from the days of the early Church through the end of the Middle Ages. In what sense was humanity owned by the devil before the purchase made by Christ? How and in what sense was Christ able to purchase humanity with his death? The issue became particu­larly controversial in the twelfth century as scholastic theologians attempted to reconcile and rationalize the diver­gent claims of the Church Fathers.1 Meanwhile, vernacular literature addressed the questions surrounding the Redemption as well; one of the most influential of these attempts was Robert Grosseteste’s Anglo-Norman allegory, Le Château d’Amour (The Castle of Love).

Grosseteste was a product of the university world that developed scholastic thought, and he taught at Oxford in the early decades of the thirteenth century before his appointment as bishop of Lincoln. His writings encompass an amazing range of topics, including Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, comets, optics, biblical exegesis, confession, domestic and agricultural itineraries, and the jurisdiction of civil and ecclesiastical authority.2 Though his most important contributions to subsequent medieval culture were his translations of Greek works into Latin, Le Château d’Amour had an impressively long life of its own. This verse text of approximately 1800 lines survives in eighteen manuscripts and was translated four different times into Middle English. The translation presented here consists of only a segment of Grosseteste’s work, and Ashmole 61 preserves the only surviving copy.

Le Château d’Amour seeks an explanation for the dynamics of the Redemption by turning to a line from Psalm 84 (numbered Psalm 85 in most modern bibles) that had already been allegorized in both the Hebrew Midrash and earlier Christian writing.3 The Psalm describes the reconciliation of Mercy, Truth, Justice (or Righteousness), and Peace. In Grosseteste’s alle­gory, these become the four daughters of a king (i.e., God) who engage in a dispute over a vassal of the king who has committed an offense. Mercy asks for lenience, but Truth and Justice demand that the vassal be punished. Peace sides with Mercy, and the son of the king (i.e., Christ) proposes a solution: he will take the punishment due to the vassal upon himself, and thereby release the vassal from torment.

Though Grosseteste’s Château d’Amour then moves through a series of other allegories, including the allegorization of the Virgin Mary as the castle where Christ begins his conflict with the devil, the Middle English translation presented here ends at the moment the king’s son announces a solution to the dispute of the four daughters. This was by far the most popular section of Grosseteste’s allegory, and it appears in other forms in many other works, including Langland’s Piers Plowman.4 Though the text in Ashmole 61 may be a fragment of a complete translation (its abrupt ending suggests this is the case), it is possible that the translator only wished to treat this portion of Grosseteste’s poem.

Though The King and His Four Daughters does not deviate very widely from Grosse­teste’s Anglo-Norman text, its language and its reduced scope emphasize a few particular aspects of his work. One is the sense of the Redemption’s place within history; though allegory can tend towards atemporal stasis, the allegorical portion of The King and His Four Daughters operates in a carefully constructed historical frame. The text begins with the Creation, discusses the obligations of Adam in Paradise, and introduces the allegory of the four daughters at the moment when Adam’s fall has condemned his descendents to punishment. The debate of the four daughters thus bridges the span of Old Testament history, and when Mercy loses the initial round of the argument, the narrator describes the Flood, using it as a metonym for the entire range of afflictions visited upon humanity after the fall. When Peace intervenes, her speech leads to the appearance of the king’s son, Wisdom, and the end of the text points forward to the Incarnation and Redemption.

In his other major statement on the Redemption, his Latin Dictum number 10, Grosse­teste had used an economic metaphor.5 Christ was the purchaser of man’s freedom and paid the just price, while the devil attempted to keep both the payment (Christ) and the goods pur­chased (humanity), and therefore rightfully lost both. In Le Château d’Amour, however, Grosse­teste turned to legal and feudal metaphors, which are in turn emphasized by the translator of The King and His Four Daughters. Here, Adam is a vassal, who loses seisin (claim) of paradise after his disobedience and thus becomes a serf, devoid of legal rights. Only Christ, as both a de­scen­dent of Adam and one untouched by Adam’s sin, can make a plea for the recovery of mankind’s heritage. Though the text ends before the king’s son makes his legal case, hints of it appear in Mercy’s claim that the vassal’s enemies “dyd to hym trespas” (line 283). In Grosseteste’s text, Christ goes on to claim that Satan deceived Adam, and thus improperly gained his rights over fallen humanity.

Even as it answers some of the doctrinal questions surrounding the Redemption, Grosse­teste’s allegory inevitably raises other, equally difficult questions, or at least ques­tions that are not answered within the frame of the story. Is the king (God) somehow constrained by the feudal law he applies? In what sense, if any, can the king’s servant be restored to his legal rights? What authority vis-à-vis the king do the four daughters really have? Because it is only a fragment or an excerpt, The King and His Four Daughters leaves even more unanswered than Grosseteste’s original does, but his literary choices remain the source of this text’s advantages and difficulties. The appeal of Grosseteste’s work, as James Rhodes has recently argued, is its willingness to humanize the divine — which also means infusing humanity with divine attributes.6 The characters in this theological allegory act according to human laws; the characters themselves include both human figures (the king, the son, the servant) and qualities embodied by both God and human beings (justice, mercy, etc.). The poem manages to suggest that we might understand God and that God might understand us. If The King and His Four Daughters runs certain risks by taking on complex doctrinal questions within the medium of vernacular allegory — and by the fifteenth century this was indeed an endeavor that risked severe punishment — it also offers an appealingly human variety of religious orthodoxy.7

Manuscript Context

The King and His Four Daughters is closely related to the texts surrounding it: it shares a heavenly setting with The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls (item 25), and concerns many of the same topics of salvation history with Ypotis (item 27). The King and His Four Daughters can even be seen as initiating a sequence of logically ordered texts all concerned with the history and consequences of the Redemption. The Northern Passion (item 28) narrates the crucial episode at the heart of the Redemption, and The Short Charter of Christ (item 29) lays out its effects. The Short Charter also shares its governing legal metaphor with The King and His Four Daughters; both would appeal to the audience of The Rules for Purchasing Land (item 10).

As a debate, this text shares distant connections with The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools (item 16), but more closely resembles the debate at the end of The Jealous Wife (item 22), in which the Virgin Mary, arguing for mercy, triumphs over the seemingly justifiable claims of the devil.


Ashmole 61 preserves the only text of this translation of Le Château d’Amour, and thus it cannot be called a fragment with any certainty. Though the text does seem to break off at the end of a section rather than at a definitive conclusion, these 440 lines nevertheless may have seemed sufficiently autonomous to circulate on their own. If there is a missing ending, the break is not due to the loss of leaves from the manuscript, and Ypotis (item 27) follows directly after the last line of this text on fol. 83r.

Though Rate makes some of his usual errors (primarily omitted letters), the text is not noticeably defective. The readings in a few lines seem strained, suggesting that some scribal alteration of the original translation has occurred, but the absence of other surviving texts makes any emendation of these lines purely conjectural. Rate has bracketed the rhyming couplets.

Printed Editions

Horstmann, Carl, ed. Altenglische Legenden, neue Folge mit Einleitung und Anmerkungen. Pp. 345–54. [Prints The King and His Four Daughters from Ashmole 61.]

Sajavaara, Kari, ed. The Middle English Translations of Robert Grosseteste’s Chateau d’Amour. [Prints all four Middle English verse translations, including The King and His Four Daughters from Ashmole 61.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 1677
MWME–39, 2542–45
Morey, James H. Book and Verse: A Guide to Middle English Biblical Literature. Pp. 95–97.

See also Creek, Grosseteste, Hunt, Marx (1995), McEvoy, Rhodes, Southern (1986), Thomson, and Traver (1907 and 1925) in the bibliography.

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