“Three Messengers of Death” (DIMEV 5387)
Three Messengers of Death: FOOTNOTES
1 And bow there where our masters go
2 Lines 21–24: Death is an obstacle to wrestlers; / I do not know the bounds of Death; / In happy times, / Let him beware, regardless of his age
3 And unless we be repentant, we shall pay the price
4 Lines 89–92: When I endure sickness, / I bear love of religion. / Lacking sickness, / I am not mindful of this love
5 Fully provided with a cold cloth (marked by the chill of death, i.e., a winding sheet)
6 Lines 159–60: When Death has come, men are cast therein / all naked, other than a shroud
7 [That] would not deliver him from punishment (see note)
Three Messengers of Death: EXPLANATORY NOTES
ABBREVIATIONS: A version: Lydgate, Dance of Death (Selden); B version: Lydgate, Dance of Death (Lansdowne); CT: Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, ed. Benson; D: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 322 (SC 21896); DMF: Dictionnaire du Moyen Français (1330–1500); DOST: Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue; FP: Lydgate, Fall of Princes, ed. Bergen; Gray: “Two Songs of Death,” ed. Gray; Hassell: Hassell, Middle French Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases; MED: Middle English Dictionary; ODNB: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; OED: Oxford English Dictionary; Whiting: Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases.
This narrative poem is found in the monumental and closely related Vernon and Simeon manuscripts (both dated c. 1390–1400), enormous collections of devotional poetry, romance, and other works, mainly in the vernacular; for a discussion of their contents see, in particular, the new facsimile edition Facsimile of the Vernon Manuscript, ed. Scase and Kennedy; and Scase, Making the Vernon Manuscript. The poem, like the rest of the Vernon Manuscript, is written in the West Midlands dialect, thus reminding us of the spread of death-related poetry through England.
The poem presents Death as having three trusty messengers: “Aventures” (literally “Adventure” but better translated in the sense of chance, diversion, fortune, or hazard), Sickness, and Old Age. Chance, the poem relates, steals people away like a thief in the night (lines 61–62), a description that, like many of the other works in this volume, uses the figure of the violent criminal to characterize the suddenness of Death’s approach. This thief, not choosy in his victims, steals a child that is but one day old (line 37–38), an image also seen in the Danse macabre and Lydgate’s Dance of Death. The poem compares the blithely unaware to a “foul in the lift” (bird in the air, line 98), playing on the notion of the dying person’s ephemeral beauty and fragility, as we also see in “A Mirror for Ladies at Their Toilet” (DIMEV 3454) and in “Warning Spoken by the Soul of a Dead Person” (DIMEV 3624). The second messenger, Sickness, treats the dying with greater honesty: Sickness “apertely” (line 73) announces Death’s approach, unlike his compatriot Chance who steals up unawares. Sickness also moves people to contrition, although the speaker sneers that such emotion is often short-lived once the illness is cured (lines 85–96). The poem thus critiques the hypocrisy of human religiosity when it flares up only in times of distress and emergency. Finally, Old Age, in the poem’s longest section, is characterized as a servant, forever at the gate and barred from entering into Death’s domain but pointing the way inside (lines 117–24). This detail is reminiscent of the metaphor for death in Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, in which the Old Man is ever knocking “on the ground, which is [his] moodres gate” without ever being let in (CT VI[C] 729) and speaks to the broader significance of architectural motifs to the death poetry tradition. This section also elaborates the trope, familiar from the danse macabre tradition, of Death’s inevitability and relentlessness in going after people of all social ranks, including the pope and the emperor (lines 139–40).
The Old Age section brings a few more generic motifs into play that we have not seen as much in other works in this edition. It cites learned authorities — St. Paul and Augustine — to bolster its claims concerning death’s inevitability and the importance of repentance and briefly paraphrases St. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” passage from 2 Corinthians 12:1–10 when discussing Sickness. The poem also features a brief ubi sunt moment concerning the passing of wealthy nobility that once amused themselves with hunting and hawking (lines 141–44), which we also see in “The Dawnce of Makabre” (DIMEV 4104). The poet goes on to present an Everyman figure at a churchyard, in which decorated tombs cover rotting bodies with wealth and finery. This stark image reminds the reader both of the physical presence of danse macabre imagery in churchyards, as well as of the vogue for transi tombs and their elaborate representation upon their valuable surfaces of the decomposing flesh within.
From here, the poem seamlessly moves into a brief vision of hell, which it chillingly and rather brilliantly imagines as a “pore halle” (line 157) with a low ceiling and close sides, filled with naked bodies, fittingly reminding us of a charnel house. Here the poem showcases some vivid turns of phrase, describing the dead as wrapped “in cloth of colde” (in a cloth of the chill of death, line 156) and highlights its characterization of hell as a cramped building by punning on the terms “helewowe” (end wall of a building) and “hell woe” (line 163). In this way, the poem builds up the architectural motifs introduced with the figure of Old Age as the servant at Death’s door. At this point, it also delves into the Signs of Death tradition, as it asserts the necessity of contemplating the visual spectacle of the body’s decomposition and consumption by maggots (lines 165–72). It thus also offers the mangled, rotting body as a paradoxical object of veneration and contemplation as we also see in “Warning Spoken by the Soul of a Dead Person” (DIMEV 3624).
This work is further enlivened by its macaronic quality: it intercalates two short Latin quatrains (lines 21–24, 89–92), which are roughly paraphrased in the English text in a manner reminiscent of Langland’s intercalation of Latin devotional verses and biblical citations, with vernacular translation and paraphrase, in Piers Plowman.
3 Job. Protagonist of the Book of Job in the Old Testament, Job is a paradigmatic figure of human suffering and perseverance. To disprove Satan, who maintains that humans only love God when in good fortune and prosperity, God chooses a wealthy and happy man, Job, and tests his faith by sending him a series of cataclysmic misfortunes. Job loses his livelihood, his family, is afflicted with disease, but, though embittered, ultimately maintains his faith and gains insight into the mysterious and, from the human perspective, arbitrary workings of the divine.
7 And seide his lyf nas bote a breth. Compare Job 7:7: “Remember that my life is but wind, and my eyes shall not return to see good things.”
10 For his righte wol he not lete. The subject of this line is Death.
45 dedly synne. The Christian church recognizes two classes of sin: venial and mortal. Venial sins are a violation of the moral law that merit punishment on earth but do not break the covenant with God, although their repeated occurrence may predispose one to graver infractions. Mortal sins break the covenant with God through a severe violation of Christian precepts and, without full repentance and divine forgiveness, ratified through the Church, result in eternal exclusion from the kingdom of Heaven.
46 veyghe. An alternate spelling of ME weien, this word literally means, according to the MED, “To weigh (somebody, a soul, one’s deeds, etc. in or as in a balance) to determine worthiness of divine punishment or reward, damnation or salvation; weigh (the soul) on the divine balance at the Day of Judgment” (sense 1b(a)).
47 ginne. Ginne has the same wide semantic field as the French engin: thus, according to the MED: “Inventive talent, ingenuity, cleverness; an expedient, scheme; strategy; trickery, treachery; ruse, wile; an ingenious device or contrivance, machine; an instrument; a machine or structure used in assaulting or defending fortifications, a siege machine or tower.” The semantic breadth of the word lends richness to the characterization of Aventures.
53 Seint Poul bit we schulden awake. An allusion to 1 Thessalonians 5:6: “Therefore, let us not sleep, as others do; but let us watch, and be sober.”
68 hende. Literally “handsy,” the same adjective applied to Nicholas in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale. See CT I (A) 3199.
100 Bereveth hem bothe hosel and schrift. The consequence of dying without repenting and receiving forgiveness for mortal sin is, according to the Christian church, eternal damnation. Compare note to line 45 above.
hosel. The Eucharist is a Christian rite that goes back to the biblical New Testament, when Jesus instructed His followers during the Last Supper, on the night before His Crucifixion, to eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of His body and blood. Still practiced today, the rite consists of parishioners imbibing wine and bread blessed by a priest at the conclusion of a church service.
105 ure Lordes kniht. This phrase is apposite to Seynt Poul. On St Paul’s illness, compare 2 Corinthians 12:1–10 and Galatians 4:12–14.
141–44 Wher ben heo . . . . uppon heore steeden. This passage represents a well-known medieval motif known as ubi sunt, a lament for the death of revered figures from the past and for the inexorable passage of time that draws us, in the present, further from an imagined Golden Age. The convention of using the Latin phrase ubi sunt (meaning “where are they?”) goes back to an early use of the motif in the Book of Baruch 3:16–19. Modern readers may recognize the well-known phrase “But where are the snows of yester-year?” as exemplifying this motif; the phrase comes from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1870 translation of the medieval French poet François Villon’s Ballade des dames du temps jadis (1461). In addition to invoking the general ubi sunt motif, this stanza in Three Messengers of Death is a textual allusion to the Sayings of Saint Bernard, a popular Middle English poem composed c. 1275: see Furnivall’s edition of the Sayings in Minor Poems, pp. 511–22, especially lines 181–86 (p. 521).
163 Me may reche the helewowe. Surely there is wordplay here on helewough (end wall of building), continuing the architectural motif earlier in the stanza, and hell woe, or the suffering found in hell.
172 him. The antecedent of “him” is Death in line 160.
180 that is wormes mete. Proverbial. See Whiting W675.
186 Matussalé. Methuselah is mentioned in Genesis 5:21–27 as the longest-living person in the Hebrew Bible, dying at the age of 969 years old; he is also an important member of the genealogy connecting Adam and Noah, as the son of Enoch and father of Lamech. His name also comes up in passing in 1 Chronicles 1:3 and Luke 3:37.
191 prime. This indication of time refers to one of the set times for prayer, by which Christian clergy structure their day; this practice is known as the Liturgy of the Hours, the Divine Office, or the canonical hours.
194 seynt Austyn. St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE) was a Christian theologian and church father (that is, a founding figure for Christian thought) living in a Roman province of Northern Africa, where he served as bishop of Hippo Regius. His writings, such as The City of God, On Christian Doctrine and his autobiographical Confessions, have been enormous influences on the development of the Western theological and philosophical traditions. The author seems to be invoking Augustine in this moment to lend his words additional authority.
208 Ne scholden him of pyne bringe. The antecedent of “him” in this line is the man in line 201.
222 Trinité. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity holds that the Christian God is one God in three coequal and coeternal manifestations that are distinct from one another but of one substance: the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Ghost. A useful popular comparison is to consider the physical properties of water, whereby ice, water, and vapor are three different manifestations of the same substance.
Three Messengers of Death: TEXTUAL NOTES
Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Eng. poet. a.1 (SC 3938) [Vernon MS], fols. 297vc–98rb (basis for this edition)
London, British Library, MS Additional 22283 [Simeon MS], fols. 88vb–89ra
Horstmann, Carl, ed. “Nachträge zu den Legenden 5: The Messengers of Death.” Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 79 (1887), 432–34.
Furnivall, Frederick James, ed. “Of Þre Messagers of Deeth.” In The Minor Poems of the Vernon MS., Part II (with a few from the Digby MSS. 2 and 86). EETS o.s. 177. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1901. Pp. 443–48.
Doyle, I. A., ed. The Vernon Manuscript. A Facsimile of Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS. Eng. Poet.a.1, with an introduction by A.I. Doyle. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1987. Fols. 297vc–98rb.
Scase, Wendy, and Nick Kennedy, eds. A Facsimile Edition of the Vernon Manuscript: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Eng. Poet. A. 1. Oxford: The Bodleian Library, 2011. Fols. 297vc–98rb.
ABBREVIATIONS: A1: London, British Library Additional 37049 fols. 31v–32r (basis for “Dawnce of Makabre”); A2: London, British Library Additional 15225, fols. 15r–16r (basis for “Shaking of the Sheets”); BD: Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates’ 1.1.6 (Bannatyne MS Draft), pp. 43r–44r; BM: Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates’ 1.1.6 (Bannatyne MS Main), fols. 56r–57r (basis for “Resoning betuix Death and Man”); Brown: Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century, ed. Brown, p. 241; Brunner: “Mittelenglische Todesgedichte,” ed. Brunner, pp. 27–28, 30; C: Cambridge, Cambridge University Library Ff.5.45, fols. 13r–14r; Cov: Coventry, Coventry Archives Acc. 325/1, fols. 70rb–74vb; Cutler: Cutler, John L. “A Middle English Acrostic,” p. 88; D: Oxford, Bodleian Library Douce 322 (SC 21896), fols. 19vb–20ra (basis for “Death’s Warning to the World”); Doty: “An Edition of British Museum MS Additional 37049: a Religious Miscellany,” ed. Doty, pp. 206–11; Dufour: La dance macabre peinte sous les charniers des Saints Innocents de Paris, ed. Dufour; F: Bibliothèque nationale de France fonds français 14989, fols. 1r–12v (basis for French Danse macabre); Fein: The Danse Macabre Printed by Guyot Marchant, ed. Fein; Furnivall: “Of Þre Messagers of Deeth,” ed. Furnivall, 2:443–48; H1: London, British Library Harley 1706, fols. 19v–20r; H2: London, British Library, Harley 116, fols. 128r–v (basis for “A Mirror for Young Ladies at their Toilet”); Horstmann: “Nachträge zu den Legenden 5: The Messengers of Death,” ed. Horstmann, pp. on 432–34; L: British Library MS Lansdowne 669, fols. 41v–50v (basis for Lydgate, Dance of Death, B version), fols. 41v–50v; Lincy: “La danse macabre reproduite textuellement d’apres l’unique exemplaire connu de l’édition princeps de Guyot Marchant,” ed. Le Roux de Lincy, pp. 291–317; N: New Haven, Beinecke Library MS 493, fols. 51v–60v; P: Cambridge, Magdalene College, Pepys Library, Pepys Ballads 2.62; R: Oxford, Bodleian Library 4o Rawl. 566 (203); RV: Rome, Venerable English College (AVCAU) MS 1405, fols. 111r–21r; S: Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Selden Supra 53, fols. 148r–58v (basis for Lydgate, Dance of Death, A version); Saugnieux: “La danse macabre française de Guyot Marchant (1486),” ed. Saugnieux, pp. 143–64; Silverstein: “Cest le Myrroure pur les Iofenes Dames,” ed. Silverstein, pp. 121–22; Sim: London, British Library Addit. 22283 [Simeon MS], fols. 88vb–89ra; V: Oxford, Bodleian Library Eng. poet. a.1 (SC 3938) [Vernon MS], fols. 297vc–98rb (basis for “Three Messengers of Death”); Warren: The Dance of Death, ed. Warren and White; W1: Oxford, Bodleian Library Wood 401 (60) (Wing H2013A); W2: Oxford, Bodleian Library Wood 402 (48) (Wing H2013B).
Title Three Messengers of Death. This title is derived from the Vernon Manuscript’s rubric to the work (fol. 297vc).
Rubric Her biginneth . . . iwis. So V. Not in Sim.
6 sore he. So V. Sim: Sore al he.
21 vetat. So V. Horstmann, Furnivall amend to necat.
23 Inter. So Horstmann, Furnivall. V, Sim: iter.
24 quelibet. So V. Sim: quilibet.
29 this messagers. So V. Sim: the messagers.
38 Theih. So V. Sim: þauh.
o. So V. Sim: on.
39 and. So V. Sim: an.
50 Withouten. So V. Sim: Withoute.
64 mowe. So V. Sim: mowen.
77 beoth. So V. Sim: ben.
82 habben. So V. Sim: habbe.
84 wolen. So V. Sim: wolleþ.
97 ben. So V. Sim: beoþ.
98 in the lift. So V. Sim: doth in the lift.
101 heore. So V. Sim: her.
110 messagers. So V. Sim: messager.
114 bekneth. So V. Sim: bekeneþ.
120 porter. So Sim, Horstmann, Furnivall. V: poter.
123 atte yate. So V. Sim: at the yate.
142 weore. So V. Sim: weoren.
144 An. So V. Sim: And.
183 doth us. So V. Sim: doth him.
205 alle men. So V. Sim: al the men.
206 Weore prestes masses to synge. So V. Sim: Weore prestes and masses dude singe.
210 in atte helle. So V. Sim: in at the helle.
217 he falleth. So V. Sim: thu falles.