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Art. 2, Herman de Valenciennes, La Passioun Nostre Seignour: Introduction

ABBREVIATIONS: AND: Anglo-Norman Dictionary; ANL: Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts (R. Dean and Boulton); BL: British Library (London); BnF: Bibliothèque nationale de France (Paris); CUL: Cambridge University Library; MED: Middle English Dictionary; NLW: National Library of Wales (Aberystwyth); PL: Patrologiae cursus completus . . . series latina (Migne).

The redactor of the Harley extract from Herman de Valenciennes’ Bible selected a portion of that long text that operates well on its own as a unified Passion narrative. The title affixed to it by the Ludlow scribe is La Passioun Nostre Seignour. In scope, it carries the reader from the raising of Lazarus to the resurrection of Jesus. It creates thereby a triumphal framework: two sepulchers emptied, Death twice defeated, and decisively so by means of the Passion. The extract closes with a sermon to beware the thief Death and seek God’s mercy while alive.

At full length, approximately 7,500 lines, Herman’s Bible covers Old Testament and New Testament events in amplified dramatic detail. Alternatively titled Li Romanz de Dieu et de sa mere, the entire poem venerates Mary by setting the life of Christ within apocryphal legends of the Virgin’s conception, birth, and marriage and, later, the Assumption. This emphasis on Mary is not, however, evident in the 2,091-line extract found in the Harley manuscript. Here, instead, interest in biblical women is subdued, occurring in balanced depictions of Martha and Mary, Lazarus’s sisters, at the beginning, and the Virgin and Mary Magdalene at the end. Instead, the extract’s focused attention falls on the intentions, emotions, and pained psychological sufferings of Judas and Peter — two apostles displayed as opposites during the dark night and day that follows the Last Supper. A theme of the isolated psyche haunts Herman’s compelling account of Passion events: facing death, Jesus separates himself to pray alone, sweating blood, while, in counterpoint, Judas and Peter grow solitary in their wanderings and their consciences — Judas eventually hanging himself in despair, Peter rejoining the apostles to meet the risen Lord.

The poem’s manner is consciously theatrical, emotional, heroic. A mark of Herman’s style is to accentuate dialogue among characters. Composed in laisses of monorhyming alexandrines, his heroic poem evokes the nostalgic grandeur of French epic chansons de geste. For popular effect, Herman adopts the genre’s use of verbal linking and temporal recursiveness: a string of laisses may linger on a specific event or emotion, retelling and refracting it by means of verbal modulations, raising pathos by replaying a scene from different angles. Along with other French biblical poems (those, for example, by Wace and Grosseteste), Herman’s poem served as a critical source for the Middle English Cursor Mundi, a sprawling scriptural poem with much the same mission: biblical narrative delivered in the vernacular to reach the laity (see Borland; and Thompson 1997).

The author was a twelfth-century canon priest with familial roots in Hainaut. Although he appears to have composed the poem in Continental French, c. 1188–1195, there survive many copies of it in Anglo-Norman, so it has often been suggested that Herman resided and worked in England — an idea that cannot, unfortunately, be verified. A varied range of selected portions survive in some thirty-six manuscripts (Boulton 2009, p. 111; see also Spiele, pp. 144–59). Nineteen of these, including Harley, preserve it in Anglo-Norman (R. Dean, pp. 266–68). To judge by numerous likenesses, two other Anglo-Norman manuscripts (Egerton and Paris, as listed below) have an undefined affinity with Harley’s booklet 2; their contents show significant points of congruence (D. Russell 1976, pp. 1–4). In overall perspective, the compiler of booklet 2 concerned himself with conveying Christian history centered on and following immediately from Christ’s Passion. After Herman’s dramatic presentation comes the Gospel of Nicodemus, which depicts the acts of Pilate and the Harrowing of Hell, and then the lives of John the Baptist and apostles John, Batholomew, and Peter.

The Harley extract from Herman’s Bible, copied by Scribe A and bearing Scribe B’s title La Passioun Nostre Seignour, has not been previously printed. In this edition, the laisses are numbered consecutively in accordance with the practice of previous editors. Each laisse is keyed by right-hand number to the versions printed by Spiele (S), E. Martin (M), and Kremer (K). Harley laisses 74–80 preserve a notable passage in which Herman departs from biblical narrative to speak briefly about himself and moralize. He also commemorates Henry II in a well-known passage (laisse 77). For further commentary on Herman de Valenciennes, see the discussions by Bonnard, pp. 11–14; Thompson 1997, pp. 25–31, 33–34; and Boulton 2009.

[Fols. 23ra–33va. ANL 485. Scribe: A, with title inserted by B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 3. Initials: Scribe A left spaces for large letters to be added later; several are filled in by Scribe B, but only on fols. 23v–26r (see textual notes). Meter: 168 monorhyming laisses in alexandrine lines. Layout: Two columns. Editions: None. Other MSS: The closest MSS are London, BL MS Egerton 2710, fols. 112r–125r, 136r–139r; and Paris, BnF MS français 19525, fols. 191va–202vb. Other Anglo-Norman MSS are listed in ANL 485. Editions from Other MSS: Kremer, pp. 49–88 (laisses 534–97 = Harley laisses 1–64); E. Martin, pp. 12–104 (laisses 598–691, 695–698 = Harley laisses 65–158, 161–68); Spiele, pp. 294–341 (laisses 528–665, 667–86 = Harley laisses 1–158). See also Meyer 1889, pp. 82–87 (extracts from Egerton 2710). Translations: None.]

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