Item 27, Ypotis: Introduction


1 In many of the Middle English texts of Ypotis and the French Enfant Sage texts, the record of the dialogue is attributed to either the apostle John or John the Evangelist, who were widely regarded as being the same person in the Middle Ages; a few texts attribute it to John the Baptist, but this is clearly a scribal error.

2 The account that follows is indebted to the description by Francis Lee Utley, MWME 3.7.740–741, and to the monumental survey of Suchier in L’Enfant sage. For another useful (and briefer) appraisal of the tradition, see the introduction of Cross and Hill to The Prose Solomon and Saturn and Adrian and Ritheus, 3–13.

3 Though considerable variation exists between the surviving versions of L’Enfant sage, for the sake of convenience, I refer to this as a single work here and in the Explanatory Notes.

4 Suchier prints many of these texts in L’Enfant sage.

5 For the French texts, see Suchier, L’Enfant sage, pp. 422–62.

6 Luke 22–23; see also the expanded version of these episodes in The Northern Passion (item 28).

7 Smith, Common-place Book of the Fifteenth Century, p. 24.

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Item 27, Ypotis: Introduction

Origin, Genre, and Themes

Middle English scholars have either ignored or avoided the odd dialogue Ypotis, per­haps with good reason. The reasons for ignoring it are its workmanlike verse and un­original content. The reasons for avoiding it include its bewildering origin, arcane sources, uncertain genre, and confusing textual problems. But there are some very good reasons for paying closer attention to it, particularly its popularity — the text survives in fifteen manuscripts and one early print by Wynkyn de Worde, suggesting that it was read by a wide audience for ap­proximately two centuries. Its mishmash of biblical facts, pseudo-scientific lore, and pro­verbs may not appeal to many modern readers, but it appealed to medieval audiences, perhaps for its usefulness, for its faint hints of arcane lore, or as an example of the well-established genre of advice for princes. The text claims to have been written by the apostle John, and thus masquerades as a piece of quasi-biblical apocrypha; though the claim was probably never taken seriously, it surely helped the text find readers.1

The name of the title character, Ypotis, derives from the name of a first-century stoic philosopher, Epictetus (whose name was corrupted to Epitus, and thus Ypotis).2 Born a slave, Epictetus supposedly became a favorite of Emperor Hadrian, and a fabricated text called the Altercatio Hadriani Augusti et Epicteti Philosophi circulated from the third century onwards. This dialogue became connected with a list of riddles and questions regarding biblical trivia known as the Joca monachorum. Out of the mingling of these texts came a French dialogue between a wise child and Hadrian, L’Enfant sage, and this is the main source for the Middle English Ypotis.3 Other, similar works include the various dialogues of Solomon and Saturn in both Middle and Old English, the Old English Adrian and Ritheus, and other descendents of this tradition in Latin, Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Breton, Provençal, French, and Welsh.4

Ypotis provides a slender framework for the dialogue between the three-year-old Ypotis and Emperor Hadrian, though this is more of a frame than is provided in many of the related texts. Though the chain of events that leads the precocious child to an audience with the emperor remains unclear, the situation takes a dramatic turn at the end of the dialogue when Ypotis declares that he is Christ and departs to heaven without further explanation. The French Enfant sage does not conflate “Apitus” and Christ, and this seems to be the curious choice of the Middle English translator composer of Ypotis.5 The conflation may have been suggested by other dialogues that do feature Jesus, including the Disputation Bitwene Childe Jesu and Maistres of the Lawe of Jewus present in the Vernon manuscript (based loosely on the biblical episode of Jesus’ debate with the rabbis in the Temple), and perhaps his interrogations by Pilate and Herod.6 The claim that the text comes from St. John the Evangelist may have provided further authority by connecting it to the presumed author of Revelation, another text that concentrates on the workings of heaven and the angels. But the unlikelihood of a dialogue between Hadrian and Jesus (taking the name Ypotis without explanation), recorded by St. John, can best be described as “a curious example of the power of traditional names.”7

Though it seems completely without organization, the dialogue moves through a logical sequence of topics, from the origins of heaven and earth, the fall of man, the varieties of sin, and finally to the means of overcoming that sin through ritual and repentance. The ques­tions posed by the emperor concern the kinds of information that lay beyond the basic articles of faith and the Creed, but which any curious believer might want to know: the number of heav­ens and angelic orders, the sequence of the six days of creation, the reasons for fasting on Friday, and so forth. Some questions elicit a very commonplace type of exe­gesis, as when Ypotis lists all of Adam’s sins and those sins which God does not forgive. The information conveyed in Ypotis is considerably less arcane than in some of the source material and only touches on questions of scientific lore (e.g., the composition of Adam from seven elements). Whereas the Joca monachorum poses questions that require a profound knowledge of the Bible and a delight in wordplay, Ypotis only answers a question about Adam’s lifespan.

Ypotis thus popularizes the material in these earlier Latin works, concentrating on subjects of the greatest practical use for those readers who did not have years of formal education but who nonetheless wished to learn more about the Bible than they might glean from regular readings of the Psalms and gospels in church services. The text probably served as a catechism for younger audiences, providing an education in some of the basic elements of the faith. If so, then the text’s form becomes even more remarkable, as a story of an adult taught by a child used by adults to teach children.

Manuscript Context

Ypotis makes a strong connection between the texts that adjoin it in Ashmole 61. The text that immediately precedes it, The King and His Four Daughters (item 26), is also a kind of dialogue, and is primarily concerned with the establishment of Adam in paradise and the nature of his fall, and ends with a case for the necessity of the Redemption. Ypotis revisits all of these questions, though it has less to say about the workings of the Redemption and more to say about the creation. The Northern Passion (item 28) follows up where The King and His Four Daughters and Ypotis leave off, with a much more concentrated retelling of the events at the heart of the Redemption. In the last section of Ypotis, the narrator reminds us that the text has enjoined readers “The Passyone of Cryst to have in mynd” (line 486); The Northern Passion takes up this task in earnest.

Though it derives from very different sources and operates in a different genre, Ypotis bears a close resemblance to Stimulus Consciencie Minor (item 33); both are hodgepodge col­lec­tions of important religious information that expand upon the basic facts presented in works like The Ten Commandments (item 6) and The Wounds and the Sins (item 38). All these texts testify to the widely held desire of late medieval readers to learn more about the tenets of their faith than the Church’s basic requirements demanded. Ypotis was also likely read to the same young audiences targeted by How the Wise Man Taught His Son (item 3) and the other conduct liter­ature of the first three quires.


The text is quite corrupt, with some errors attributable to Rate and some to previous scribal practice. Ashmole 61’s text most closely resembles the texts in British Library MSS Cotton Titus A.26, Additional 36983 (B), and Arundel 140, of which all share many clearly defective lines. Some errors even seem attributable to the original translator/composer of Ypotis, who may have garbled portions of L’Enfant sage and thus forced scribes to struggle with confusing passages.

Many lines and even entire sections are missing from the Ashmole text. Though some of this is due to common forms of scribal error, Rate also seems to have deliberately omit­ted couplets and entire sections of text at several points, particularly in the final sections on infamous Fridays and the Virgin. Though they are mentioned in the Textual Notes, no at­tempt to replace these lines has been made.

Printed Editions

Gardiner-Scott, Tanya. “The Missing Link: An Edition of the Middle English Ypotis from York Minster MS XVI.L.12.” Traditio 46 (1991), 235–59.

Gruber, H., ed. “Zu den mittelenglischen Dialog Ipotis.” Dissertation. Berlin, 1887. [An attempt at a critical edition, though it does not collate all the manuscripts; readings from Ashmole 61 collated in the Textual Notes.]

Horstmann, Carl, ed. Altenglische Legenden, neue Folge mit Einleitung und Anmerkungen. [Prints Ypotis twice: from the Vernon MS (Bodleian Eng. poet. a.1) with variants from the Simeon MS (British Library MS Additional 22283), on pp. 341–48; and also from British Library MS Cotton Caligula A.2, with variants from three other MSS, including Ashmole 61, on pp. 511–26.]

Smith, Lucy Toulmin, ed. A Common-place Book of the Fifteenth Century: Containing a Reli­gious Play and Poetry, Legal Forms, and Local Accounts. London: Trübner and Co.,1886. Pp. 23–46. [Prints text of the Brome MS, now New Haven, Beinecke Library MS 365 (Br).]

Suchier, Walter, ed. L’enfant sage (Das Gespräch des Kaisers Hadrian mit dem klugen kinde Epitas). Dresden: Niemeyer, 1910. [Treats the whole tradition, including Latin, Welsh, French, Provençal, Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Breton. Prints Ypotis from B and Cambridge, Trinity College MS B.2.18, pp. 465–91.]

Sutton, Josephine D. “Hitherto Unprinted Manuscripts of the Middle English Ipotis.” PMLA 31 (1916), 114–60. [Prints Bodleian English poet. c.3; Cambridge, St John’s College MS 29; Cambridge, Trinity College MS 61 (B.2.18); and B. Argues that Ashmole 750 represents best text.]

Reference Works

MWME–41, 898–99

See also Burton, Cross and Hill, Furnivall (1901), and Suchier in the bibliography.

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