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Art.3, De la Passioun Jhesu [L’Évangile de Nicodème, La Tradition A]: 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).

Booklet 2 consists entirely of Anglo-Norman texts copied by Scribe A, with titles affixed by the Ludlow scribe. In it, the Anglo-Norman prose Gospel of Nicodemus follows logically from Herman de Valenciennes’ Passion of Our Lord (art. 2). The title assigned here is De la Passioun Jhesu, an appellation that overlaps with Herman’s text, named by the scribe La Passioun Nostre Seignour. Here, too, booklet 2 shifts to prose, the mode that will be carried out to the end, in the four saints’ lives that come next.

The Latin Gospel of Nicodemus circulated in two forms, Traditions A and Tradition B. The Harley version translates Tradition A, the more common form in England. The textual divisions used in this edition conform to scholarly determinations about the history of what is an essentially accretive text. The sections are: Preface; Trial of Jesus; Crucifixion; Resurrection and Ascension; Descent into Hell; and End (Ford, p. 41–58). The two continuations (arts. 3a, 3b) are also traditional, but they do not appear in all copies: the Letter of Pilate to Tiberius and the Letter of Pilate to Emperor Claudius.

In the Middle Ages, the Gospel carried authority as pseudo-biblical apocrypha. It purports to offer a “true” historical account of the judicial proceedings against Jesus in the Roman pretorium, over which Pilate presided, and for which, it was believed, official reports were preserved. Extending the temporal account with further legends, the concluding addenda relate Pilate’s actions to the point of his death. Consequently, portions of the Gospel and its appendages are sometimes referred to as the Acts of Pilate. Moreover, these accounts of the Harrowing, the Resurrection, and the Ascension are made to seem eyewitness accounts by objective parties, bringing in legal “proof” to verify miracles. The telling of episodes preceding Christ’s Passion necessarily overlaps at many points with Herman’s emotion-infused account. The more straightforward Gospel delivers, nonetheless, a spectacular climax when it gives the reader something not found in Herman’s Bible: Christ’s descent into hell. The Gospel was the standard, trusted medieval source for the orthodox doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell, a ubiquitous motif arising in numerous literary genres and visual art-forms throughout medieval England (Tamburr, pp. 103–47). Indeed, the Ludlow scribe will himself insert a dramatic Middle English version of the Harrowing of Hell (art. 21) near the start of booklet 4. The Gospel was, consequently, enormously popular and deeply influential as the authoritative account of Jesus’ trial, passion, and harrowing — events that begged, in the popular imagination, for more elaboration.

Setting the time of composition in the thirteenth century, Ruth Dean proposes that the original translation was done in Continental French, and yet she notes how six manuscripts (including Harley) preserve it in Anglo-Norman (pp. 273–74). It should be remembered that circulating in medieval England were hundreds of copies of the Latin Gospel, as well as other translations in French or Middle English (see Izydorczyk; O’Gorman; Marx 1997). Of the five other Anglo-Norman manuscripts, two hold special interest in reference to Harley 2253: London, BL MS Egerton 2710 and Paris, BnF MS français 19525 (D. Russell 1976, pp. 1–4; Marx 1995, pp. 80–84; and Marx 1997, pp. 218–19). These thirteenth-century books contain the same basic works as does Harley’s booklet 2. Their existence points to a program to promote an established set of Anglo-Norman texts — biblical paraphrase, Passion apocrypha, and apostolic saints’ lives: evidently a planned program of instruction on the acts of early Christians. Combined with booklet 1, which holds The Lives of the Father (art. 1), Scribe A’s labor clearly aims to promote vernacular religious instruction in late-thirteenth- and early-fourteenth-century England.

[Fols. 33va–39rb. ANL 497. Scribe: A, with title inserted by B (Ludlow scribe). Quires: 3–4. Initials: Opening large initial C (six lines high) is outlined, but not filled in. Layout: Two columns. Editions: None. Other MSS (Anglo-Norman Version): Aberystwyth, NLW MS 5028C, fols. 120r–130v; Cambridge, Emmanuel College MS 106 (I.4.31), fols. 193r–196v; London, BL MS Egerton 613, fols. 13v–21r; London, BL MS Egerton 2710, fols. 126ra–132rb; and Paris, BnF MS français 19525, fols. 50va–59ra (ed. Ford, pp. 40–58). Middle English Prose Versions: Marx and Drennan; and Marx 2013. Middle English Verse Version: Hulme, pp. 23–136. Translations: None, but compare James 1924, pp. 94–145; and Elliott, pp. 164–204.]

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