Item 28, The Northern Passion: Introduction


1 For the scope of the apocryphal works that circulated in the medieval West, see Elliot, Apocryphal New Testament.

2 The best recent overview of the vast body of Latin Passion texts is in Bestul, Texts of the Passion, pp. 26–68 and 186–92; see also Marrow, Passion Iconography, pp. 7–27, and Salter, Nicholas Love’s “Myrrour,” pp. 4–19.

3 The French text is printed in NP, 2:102–25. Its sources are discussed in the same volume, 2:59–65.

4 The additional sources used by the Middle English translator are discussed in NP, 2:65–74; on the pseudo-Anselm’s Dialogus, see Bestul, Texts of the Passion, pp. 53–54.

5 As Kolve points out, narrative accounts of the Passion can only hint at the kinds of emotional matter that lyric or dramatic treatments can explore more thoroughly (Play Called Corpus Christi, pp. 176–77).

6 For the historical connections between the anti-Semitism of Passion narratives and specific campaigns against Jews, see Bestul, Texts of the Passion, pp. 73–110.

7 On the arousal of hatred as part of affective treatments of the Passion, see Bestul, Texts of the Passion, p. 71. On the importance of profanation in medieval understandings of the Passion, see Beckwith, Christ’s Body, pp. 56–57 and passim.

8 On the use of The Northern Passion in the cycle plays, see NP, 2:81–101.

9 For the scope of these connections, see Roy, Le Mystère de la Passion en France.

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Item 28, The Northern Passion: Introduction

Origin, Genre, and Themes

Few narratives are more compelling than the accounts of the Passion contained in the four canonical gospels, but dedicated readers have always demanded more than the gospels alone. There are discrepancies between them, many actors whose motives remain unclear, and Jesus’ words (as so often in the gospels) deepen the enigma of his role in the events. His refusal to answer Pilate’s question in John 18:38 — “What is truth?” — posed one such problem for medieval readers. In his account of the Passion in the Golden Legend, Jacobus de Voragine lists some of the possible answers offered by medieval exegesis: Pilate did not deserve to hear the answer; Pilate suddenly thought of the custom of releasing a prisoner at the feast of Passover and thus abruptly changed his tactics; or Pilate deliberately posed a question so complicated that it would take too long to answer, thus allowing him to claim that he had interrogated Christ without sincerely doing so (GL 1:205). But Jacobus takes his final answer from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus: Jesus did respond, and his subsequent description of truth offers a clear indictment of Pilate’s earthly authority. Jacobus’s recourse to this apocryphal work suggests how useful medieval writers found the apocryphal legends surrounding the Passion; the presence of these legends throughout The Northern Passion is not a sign of the author’s credulousness, but of his learning.1

Recourse to the apocrypha could answer many questions, and careful study helped elaborate the Passion narrative further still. Scholastic works such as Peter Lombard’s Sentences, Peter Comestor’s Historia Scholastica, and Clement of Llanthony’s gospel harmony treated the Passion narrative as the subject of rational investigation. But other kinds of demands on the Passion were created by mystical writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux and by the Franciscans’ emphasis on affective piety. These movements created their own accounts of the Passion suitable for private contemplation. These new retellings included lyrics, dialogues, and extended prose meditations that recast the story of the Passion as a confrontation between the devout reader and the suffering Christ.2

The Northern Passion is, in various ways, a product of all these traditions. It was written in the late thirteenth century and is primarily a translation of the Old French Passion composed about a century earlier. The French work is primarily based on the Vulgate gospels and legendary material from the Historia Scholastica.3 The Middle English translation also incorporates material from influential meditative works such as the Dialogus Beatae Mariae et Anselmi de Passione Domini erroneously attributed to Anselm and the pseudo-Bernardine Meditatio in passionem.4 It thus represents a synthesis of many of the most popular and influential accounts of the Passion, combining legendary material about the various participants (Judas, Pilate’s wife, etc.) and the materials of the Crucifixion (the nails, the cross) with affective material describing the hideous tortures and Christ’s lyrical speech from the cross.

Perhaps as a result of these different kinds of sources, The Northern Passion presents an account of the Passion that might serve many different uses. With its swift-moving plot and compelling episodes, it resembles other texts tailored for oral delivery (including romances and saints’ lives) and is perfectly suited for preaching. And while it lacks the kind of sustained depiction of Christ’s suffering or Mary’s sorrow present in other, more affective texts, it could certainly serve as the stimulus for further contemplation (including the informed reading of other texts in Ashmole 61).5

The text’s greatest strength is its interlaced plot: the central plot of the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, Jesus’ own gradual submission to his role, and the stories of the many characters who emerge and disappear as the structure of the gospels demand. Lying behind the entire plot is the question of how to respond to the Incarnation: who will accept that God became man? Judas falls prey to his basest desires, before recognizing the tragedy of his own mistake. Peter confidently asserts his unwavering loyalty to Jesus — “I schall folow thee were thou wyll gon” (line 378) — but he painfully learns the limits of his loyalty as the cock crows outside Pilate’s hall. Pilate struggles to see justice served, but his attempts to find an escape from the decision forced upon him are only a series of moral failures, as he falls back upon the protections provided by his legal authority. His last line before the crucifixion, “Als it is wryte, so it schall be,” is both a pompous defense of his mocking inscription “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” and an unwitting testament to the final triumph of Christ (line 1610).

Though many characters who encounter Jesus throughout The Northern Passion waver in their commitments and finally fall into the sin of denying him, the poem represents one group as consistently, resolutely, and thoroughly evil: the Jews led by Caiaphas receive no sympathetic analysis of their motives or fears. The degree of understanding extended to Judas and Pilate does not include the Jews, and they are portrayed as a uniformly bloodthirsty mob. Similar (and often more fervent) anti-Semitism appears in other Passion narratives from this period, and it relates to the wider phenomenon of medieval anti-Semitism that produced blood libels, expulsions, and pogroms.6 But the anti-Semitism of the Passion narratives also has its own specific causes deeply rooted in the Christian belief of the later Middle Ages. These causes include the desire to stimulate the emotions as part of an affective response to the crucifixion, and the increasing emphasis on the crucifixion as an act of profanation, a sacrilege committed against the body of Christ.7

What ultimately makes The Northern Passion a compelling text is also its great limitation. The absence of a larger context for the Passion within the broader scope of Christian teleology means that the events here seem to follow upon each other unpredictably, adding much to the story’s excitement. The narrative unfolds according to the secret desires of the characters, who are often largely unaware of their own motives. The controlling perspective of God’s plan for the Redemption is only hinted at in the opening and closing sections, and at fleeting moments such as Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. During the Last Supper, John sees the vision of the Apocalypse, but the narrator passes over the details, refusing to speak about the larger consequences of the story at hand. Though no medieval audience could be unaware of the Passion’s place within the grander scheme of divine history, it is still worth noting how little of this enters into The Northern Passion. Other recountings (including lyrics, prose meditations, and plays) infuse it with a complex sense of its salvific importance, but The Northern Passion plunges the reader into the dizzying immediacy of the event itself.

Despite its qualities as a narrative and the relatively high standard of its poetry, The Northern Passion has generally interested later readers as a source for other works, most notably the plays of the York and Towneley (Wakefield) cycles.8 In two manuscripts, the text was incorporated into the “expanded” Northern Homily Cycle, and the large number of surviving manuscripts (fourteen) suggests that The Northern Passion was quite popular, serving the needs of various audiences for over two hundred years.

Manuscript Context

As the second-longest text in Ashmole 61, and one that lies near the center of the collection as it now stands, The Northern Passion goes a long way towards defining the manuscript’s commitments. It serves as a focal point for the two texts that precede it — The King and His Four Daughters and Ypotis (items 26 and 27) — and the two texts that follow — The Short Charter of Christ and The Lament of Mary (items 29 and 30). Other texts rely heavily on an understanding of the Passion, especially Richard Maidstone’s Seven Penitential Psalms, The Stations of Jerusalem, and The Legend of the Resurrection (items 32, 34, and 36). This is, of course, entirely in keeping with the orthodox piety of the late fifteenth century, which placed the suffering of Christ at the center of its devotion, but it also hints at Rate’s own interests and perhaps his design for the manuscript as a whole.

In style, The Northern Passion shares close connections with many of the romances of Ashmole 61. Its interlaced structure that moves from one character or episode to another, its brisk presentation of action and adventure, and its vigorous, plainspoken language tie it closely to the methods of Middle English romance. In part, it inherits this from its Old French source, which was equally influenced by the style of the Old French roman de geste.9 Many of these same characteristics tie it to saints’ lives, including Saint Eustace and Saint Margaret (items 1 and 37). Taken collectively, works like Saint Eustace, The Erle of Tolous, Isumbras, and The Northern Passion demonstrate Rate’s taste for fast-moving narratives and simple verse, the standard fare of a rousing preacher or an entertaining storyteller.


Rate’s text is characteristically eclectic. It closely resembles Cambridge University Library MSS Ff.5.48 (P) and Ii.4.9 in many details, but omits many couplets present in these two manuscripts. This suggests that Rate has consciously abridged the text; the omitted lines rarely compromise the sense of the narrative. Elsewhere, Rate makes unique additions to the poem; see the note at line 228. More striking, however, is his alteration of the end of the poem, where he omits a large section on the Resurrection and revises the remaining portions. The obvious explanation for this radical abridgment is that Rate already planned to copy item 36, The Legend of the Resurrection, and chose not to duplicate that material in this text; there is evidence that some of the lines omitted from The Northern Passion have been borrowed for that later text.

Over two centuries of frequent copying many defective readings inevitably creep into a text, and Rate’s copy-text was clearly riddled with them. Most of these readings do not require emendation, but some seriously compromise the sense of the text. More often (as in the case of Cambridge University Library MS Ii.4.9), a more familiar word has been substituted for an older, less familiar one (NP, 2:39).

Printed Editions

Foster, Frances A., ed. The Northern Passion: Four Parallel Texts and the French Original, with Specimens of Additional Manuscripts. [Volume 1 prints four parallel texts and includes variants from Ashmole 61; volume 2 prints the Old French Passion and notes.]
Heuser, Wilhelm, and Frances A. Foster, eds. The Northern Passion (Supplement). EETS o.s. 183. London: Oxford University Press, 1930. [Prints two other MSS.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 1907
MWME 2.5.303.444–45, 638 (discusses only the Legend of the Cross)
Morey, James. Book and Verse: A Guide to Middle English Biblical Literature. Pp. 265–68.

See also Axton, Beckwith (1993), Bennett (1982), Bestul, B. Brown, F. Foster (1926), Marrow, F. Pickering, Salter, and Witalisz in the bibliography.

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