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Art. 24b, Erthe toc of erthe: Introduction

ABBREVIATIONS: AND: Anglo-Norman Dictionary; ANL: Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts (R. Dean and Boulton); BL: British Library (London); Bodl.: Bodleian Library (Oxford); CCC: Corpus Christi College (Cambridge); CUL: Cambridge University Library (Cambridge); IMEV: The Index of Middle English Verse (Brown and Robbins); IMEV Suppl.: Supplement to the Index of Middle English Verse (Robbins and Cutler); MED: Middle English Dictionary; MWME: A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050–1500 (Severs et al.); NIMEV: A New Index of Middle English Verse (Boffey and Edwards); NLS: National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh).

In MS Harley 2253 Earth upon Earth concludes the Ludlow scribe’s trilingual meditation on mortality, which begins with the Anglo-Norman quatrain admonishing one to avoid earthly vanity (art. 24a) followed by a Latin couplet (art. 24a*). This pithy lyric is presumed to be the oldest type for the “Erthe on erthe” category of poems. Variants fall into four types spread across forty-one manuscripts. Belonging to the gnomic A-Version, Earth upon Earth joins longer formulations found in the Kildare manuscript (seven 6-line stanzas) and John Grimestone’s preaching book (four quatrains). The A-Version precedes the three other, more openly didactic versions.

Aside from the broad tradition documented by later texts, the brevity of the Ludlow scribe’s version is remarkably suited to the multilingual context it is given here. The scribe is probably responsible for this creative assemblage of texts, and maybe also for constructing from a folk aphorism this enigmatic version of Earth upon Earth. The Harley lyric riddles by means of dense, repetitive, often bewildering puns upon erthe (dust, flesh, woman, world, mankind, incarnate Christ), offering a mind-teasing elaboration of the Ash Wednesday liturgy: “Memento, homo, quod cinis es et in cinerem reverteris” (Remember, man, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return).

For comment on the poem, see Peck 1975, pp. 465–66 (who detects in it at least four different meanings); Kuczynski 2000, pp. 143–44; Boklund-Lagopoulou, p. 43; Fein 2007, p. 78; Fuller, pp. 269–70; and the descriptive bibliography provided in MWME 11:4317–18.

[Fol. 59v. IMEV, NIMEV 3939. MWME 9:3019 [263], 11:4172 [1]. Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 6. Meter: Four lines, aaaa4; the word erthe receives the first three stresses of every line. Layout: No columns; matched paraphs for this item and Carnal Love Is Folly (art. 24a). Editions: Ritson 1877, p. 13; H. M. R. Murray, p. 1; Brown 1932, p. 132 (no. 73); Brook, p. 29 (no. 1); Treharne, p. 568. Other MSS: Version A: Kildare MS (London, BL MS Harley 913), fols. 62r–63v; Grimestone MS (Edinburgh, NLS MS Advocates 18.7.21), fol. 87v. For Versions B and C, see IMEV, NIMEV 703, 704, 3940, 3985; MWME 9:3019 [264–66]; and H. M. R. Murray.]

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