The Life of St. Thais


1-2 And a gode litill tale . . . heght Tayis. The beginning of the Life in HM 129 is indicated by a marginal Latin abbreviation for the word narracio. Only Vernon, with its Latin incipit - Conversio Taysis meretricis ("the conversion of Thaïs the prostitute") - makes explicit reference to a conversion. Where our manuscript begins by using the vernacular hore (line 2) to describe Thaïs, other versions name her a woman of ill fame (BL Add. 38010), a comun woman (BL Harley 4196), or simply a woman (Vernon; CUL Gg.5.31). On the doubled consonant in Off and the redundant d in and, see the Introduction.

1-6 And a gode litill tale . . . hyr foly. Harley 4196, which contains the "expanded" version of the NHC, adds ten lines overall to the Life of St. Thaïs. Most of the changes are not substantive, except near the beginning where the story is said to take place "in þis land" and a couplet is added, explicitly linking the prostitute with an urban location as well as making the monk's virtuous intention more apparent. The first twelve lines are as follows (ed. Rosenthal, Vitae Patrum, p. 159; our punctuation):
Sum tyme bifell so in þis land
A comun woman was dwelland
In a cete and vsed hir syn
And spared nowther more ne myn.
Hir fairhede foles to foly drogh
And many sawles with sin scho slogh.
So it bifell opon a tide
A haly hermit þar biside
Thurgh þe grace of god mighty
Gert hir forsake hir foly.
He went to þe cete on a day
Þis woman for he wald assay.
The last two lines here are a little closer to the Vitae Patrum which says of Paphnutius: sumpto habitu saeculari et uno solido, profectus est ad eam in quadam Ægypti civitate (PL 73.661; AS Oct. IV.225a).

5 And an hermyte. And coordinates with "Off and hore" (line 2), i.e., the tale is of a whore and a hermit. Lines 3-4 constitute a parenthesis. But other manuscripts, whose scribes apparently found the syntax odd, introduce a finite verb in the next line to complete the sense: e.g., Vernon: And an hermyte, . þat hiƷte pasmid, / Made hire hit leue . And hire folwid (ed. Horstmann, "Die Evangelien-Geschichten," p. 279). Other versions supply the verb wo(n)ned (dwelled), as in Ane hermyte wonned thar ner herby (CUL Gg.5.31; compare BL Additional 38010, in Rosenthal, Vitae Patrum, p. 158).

Pafniyzy. The hermit's name varies widely among the different versions (although neither Thaïs nor the monk is named in Harley 4196). The most common spelling in the manuscripts is Pan(n)onye, as in Gg.5.31 and Add. 38010. The form Pafniyzy (most likely the z is pronounced s or ts) seems to derive quite regularly from the medieval Latin Paphnutius, also rendered Pafnuce elsewhere in ME.

10 fayr. So HM 129, Vernon. Harley 4196, Add. 38010 read burely. Metrically, burely seems more likely to be the original reading, but at some stage in the transmission of the text, a scribe has dropped the Northern adjective in favor of fayr, presumably for the benefit of readers in the South of England.

14 And in a nidyrmor chamyr scho hym droghe. This metrically "heavy" verse is possibly corrupt in the manuscript. While nidyrmor may well be a Northern variant of ME nethermore ("lower"), the resulting five-beat, eleven-syllable verse is unusual in NHC, as is the duplication of "chamyr" in lines 14-15. Vernon and Harley agree on a quite different rendering: And Innore more þo heo hym drouh (Vernon) and Inermare þan scho him drogh (Harley), while Add. 38010 evades the issue with Than by þe hande sho hym droghe.

15 graythyd. Vernon, Harley: graid. See above, Introduction.

25 thase. HM 129: that.

27 spousbrek. The literal meaning of the term is "the breaking of marriage vows." The last recorded usage of this colorful word, according to the OED, was in 1637, if we except James Joyce's 1922 allusion, in Ulysses, to a dog "got in spousebreach." All the NHC manuscripts I have examined refer explicitly to lechery and adultery, whereas the Vita Thaisis makes no mention of particular sins, referring only to Thaïs' general responsibility for the damnation of men's souls as well as her own: Cur tantas animas perdidisti, ut non solum pro tuis, sed et pro illorum criminibus reddita ratione damneris? (PL 73.661; AS Oct. IV. 225a) ("Why are you causing the loss of so many souls so that you will be condemned to render an account not only of your own sins but of theirs as well?" trans. Ward, Harlots, p. 83). The other Middle English versions, as well as LA, which served as an additional source for some of them, likewise follow the Vita's more generalizing language. The NHC-poet's dramatic allusions to hellfire and an angry God represent a further expansion of the Latin text.

30 brethe. A variant form of brathe, from ON bræði.

37 caytyfe. Our scribe uses here the Norman form of the Old French word for captive. Compare Chaucer's use of the same word in The Pardoner's Tale, in the self-description of the Old Man as "a restelees kaityf" (CT VI[C]728), and in The Parson's Tale, in the description of the damned: "For, as seith Seint Gregorie, 'To wrecche caytyves shal be deeth withoute deeth'" (CT X(I)213).

40 leve to folow thee. Several versions add the following lines to Thaïs' speech here: "To do pennaunce for my synne / That I sa lang has dwelled in" (CUL Gg.5.31).

44 lange hit whare in to dwell. This would appear to be the NHC-poet's way of signaling his radical abbreviation of the second half of the legend.

48 gyff God that we may do. The Vernon manuscript adds the following prayer, the language of which (e.g., the end-rhyme of the first couplet, implying holi gost was originally hali gast) suggests it originated in the North, not in the scribe's own region:
Lord, send vs . þe holi gost
And Ʒif vs grace . vr synnes (to) wast,
þat we ne drede . wo ne wandreth
But Ʒif vs mekenesse . and Meth,
And bring vs . to þat ilke blis
Ther meke men . wiþ Crist is. amen.


Print Copyright Info Purchase

The Life of St. Thais

The Life of St. Thais in the Northern Homily Cycle (early 1300s), from San Marino, Huntington Library MS HM 129, fols. 114r-114v










And a gode litill tale her lyis
Off and hore that heght Tayis -
Hir fairhede folis to foly drow,
And many sowilis with syn scho slow -
And an hermyte that heght Pafniyzy
That made hyr leve thus hyr foly.
He come and gaff pennyis twelfe
And sayd, "I woll syn with thee myselfe."
And into chamyr scho hym led
And schowyd hym a fayr bed,
And bade hym, "Stey and do thi will,"
And he answerd and sayd hyr till:
"This sted is noght privey inoghe."
And in a nidyrmor chamyr scho hym droghe,
Into a chamyr honestely graythyd
And suche wordys to hym scho said:
"In this sted may no thynge us se
Bot God fro whom noght hyd may be."
And he askyd gyff scho trowyd ryght
That noght is hyd fro Godis syght.
And scho sayd, "Ye, well trow I
That He seith all as Allmyghty."
And he sayd, "Than is grete ferly
How thou art so bold and hardy
To do byfor Hys eyin thase dedys
That man to pyn off Hell ledys,
As lechery and spousbrek
Whare off the fyre of Hell doth wrek.
So lange may thu thi Loueryd wrethe
That on thee woll He kythe His brethe,
And into Hell fyre thee casst
Bot yyff thou leve thi syn in hast."
That hore was aferd of the pyne off Hell
And to the hermyte fete scho fell,
And sore scho grete and eskyd mercy
And sayd scho wold leve hyr folly.
"I am," scho sayd, "a synful caytyfe,
And with penauns I woll mend my lyfe;
Thou have, leve fadyr, mercy of me
And gyfe me leve to folow thee."
To wildernys scho with hym yede
And bet with penauns hyr mysdede.
I may noght of hyr penauns tell
For lange hit whare in to dwell;
Bot to yow schortely for to speke,
Scho toke on hyr body suche wreke,
That hyr sely gost to God yold scho,
And so gyff God that we may do.
(see note)
Of a whore that was named; (see note)
beauty drew fools
souls with; destroyed
(see note)
leave (abandon)

[a] chamber
(see note)

place; private
lower room; (see note)
respectably (neatly) arrayed; (see note)

if she believed


before His eyes those; (see note)
[Such] as; adultery; (see note)
For which; punish
Lord anger
manifest His wrath; (see note)



wretch; (see note)

Dear father, have mercy on me
(see note)
atoned by penance [for]

would be; (see note)

inflicted; punishment
blessed spirit; yielded
God grant; (see note)

Go To The Life of St. Benedict