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The Dispute between Mary and the Cross: Introduction


1 The reenvisioning of God's tortured body through a series of imaginative figures exists, as well, in Richard Rolle's meditation on the Passion: Meditation B, ed. Ogilvie-Thomson, p. 74, lines 195-250. Similes for the wounds liken them to heavenly stars, a net, a dovehouse, a honeycomb, a book, and a meadow of flowers. Of these figures, only the book also appears in Dispute. See also Gray (1972), pp. 122-45.

2 O. S. Pickering has detected the poet's style in three other poems (listed in the Select Bibliography; see Pickering [1978, 1997]).

3 My analysis of poetic structure is based on the forty-stanza poem found in the Vernon and Simeon MSS. The Royal MS possesses twenty-eight stanzas and is apparently an abridgement of the version found in Vernon/Simeon.

4 See, for example, Gray (1974), pp. 56-71; the charm edited by Theodore Silverstein, English Lyrics before 1500, York Medieval Texts (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971), p. 124; and the charms in Ralph Hanna III, "The Index of Middle English Verse and Huntington Library Collections," Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 74 (1980), 235-58.

5 See, for example, the centers of William Herebert's Thou Wommon boute Vere (lines 25-30, the Crucifixion); The Sweetness of Jesus (lines 60-61, Christ's vanquishing of the devil); and the Rolle-type Lament over the Passion (lines 13-16, Christ nailed and hung on Cross) (all ed. Carleton Brown, Religious Lyrics of the XIVth Century, second ed. rev. G. V. Smithers [Oxford: Clarendon, 1957], pp. 18-20, 61-65, 94-95). See also the lyric Jhesu That Hast Me Dere Iboght (ed. Brown, pp. 114-19); Pezzini, pp. 37-38; Rubin, pp. 302-08; and Weber, pp. 133-36, 250 n. 8.

6 A compiler's devotional preoccupation with the Passion seems to unify the diverse mix of texts put together in MS Ashmole 61. The Ashmole Charter of Christ appears with a drawing of a shield bearing Christ's five wounds, and the Northern Passion ends with an exhortation "to have Christ's Passion in mind as a 'warant', or shield against the Devil" (Blanchfield, p. 83). For other crucifixes that greet and embrace the faithful, see Camille, pp. 213-14.

7 Compare a ME couplet: "The gates of para[d]is thoruth Eve were iloken [locked] / And thoruth oure swete Ladi agein hui beoth nouthe open [they are now open]" (ed. F. J. Furnivall, Political, Religious, and Love Poems, EETS o.s. 15, second ed. [1903; rpt. Bungay, Suffolk: Richard Clay, 1965], p. 257).

8 I know of only a few other lyrics that represent this tradition through birthing metaphors. Stand Wel, Moder, under Rode, a planctus that has Mary in dialogue with Christ, portrays the Passion as a painful second birth with both mother and son the sensient participants. What appears at the center of this poem is Christ's request that his mother "let" him die (lines 31-36; ed. Silverstein, pp. 12-14). The idea is not that Jesus dutifully wants his mother's permission, but that his death is parallel to his conception: for both, God requests and gains the freely willed acquiescence of a humble Mary. See Love's Mirror, ed. Sargent, pp. 25-26, 178; and Weber, pp. 37-46, 125-33. Another lyric from the thirteenth century, Jesu Cristes milde moder (ed. Silverstein, pp. 17-19), has an interesting quartered structure based on birth: at the one-quarter point Mary and Christ feel the sword-wound (a kind of mutual impregnation with pain and sorrow); at midpoint she must yield to his death (with language that recalls her birthing of Jesus); at the three-quarter point there appears an astonishing figure of the Resurrection (one that violates Scripture) in which Christ glides whole through the stone sealing the tomb (a reversal of Christ conceived in Mary's virgin womb). I am indebted to Nancy Burian for bringing this last figure to my attention; see also Weber, pp. 137-40.

9 A version appears in the Vernon MS near Dispute (ed. Furnivall, The Testament of Christ, pp. 637-57); for the many other extant and variant texts, see Spalding.

10 Trans. Margaret F. Nims (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1967), pp. 32-34.

11 More discussion of this stanza appears in the note to lines 495-507.

12 The poem contains several French words that are quite rare in English; see, for example, notes to lines 38, 136, 368, and 372. There is also a mention of St. Denis at line 393.

13 The AN poem, too, survives in an interesting miscellany (British Library Addit. MS 46919) collected by Franciscan Friar William Herebert of Hereford. This work remains still unprinted. Although Lawton does not study its similarities to Dispute in depth, his remarks are useful (pp. 156-57).
The Dispute between Mary and the Cross is an invented debate between the two most intimate participant-observers of the Crucifixion: Christ's sorrowing mother and the non-human Cross. Christ is present too, of course, but he never speaks, not even to utter his own last words, which are reported to Mary by the Cross (line 271). Jesus's figure is entirely passive, with only the blood flowing from his wounds giving motion to his body. God's bleeding serves as both spectacle and poetic focal point. It is the source of Mary's pain, the Cross's occupational raison d'etre, and the meditant's subject for contemplative horror and veneration. Christ's body in torture is the sacrificial object to be named and renamed, defined and redefined by the two disputants. 1

The verbal texture of The Dispute between Mary and the Cross reveals a remarkable poet obsessed with language and, especially, with typological and metaphysical wordplay. At these skills he is so startlingly adept that his verbal pyrotechnics may be worthily compared to those of the Pearl-poet or of William Langland. We have here a distinct style of pun and metaphor, one shaped by an aesthetic of physical literalism, violent semantic conjunction, and rapid imagistic transmutation. 2 Words and visuals shift radically, sometimes at dizzying speed, often typologically or associatively, usually with a transcendent effect, as if the veil of words were constantly being ripped to reveal the holiest of meanings. Intensity informs both technique and content, as the poet verbally dissects Christ's bleeding body on a wooden cross-beam for all latent signs.

In one remarkable stanza, for instance, Adam's bite of the apple collapses in time to become Christ's deep side-wound, a radical revision of the fruit-on-a-tree figure that conflates sin, sacrifice, eucharist, and redemption (stanza 10). This revelatory figure typifies how the poet (in the words of the doctrinal Cross) continually reconstitutes images of graphic gore as figures of eucharistic nourishment, bills of pardon, or other types of redemptive exempla. The Dispute poet asks the meditant reader to confront the Passion as a paradox of body-torn spectacle and whole-bodied redemption. He grounds religious meaning in the physical, an incarnational aesthetic that extends even to how the poem is structured, its distinctive design being two shapes superimposed: a Cross and a maternal human body. By means of poetic form, the poet makes manifest the physical nature of the two disputants while also advancing a theological argument of twin motherhood and double birth.

A look at the frame formed by stanzas 1 and 40 illustrates the poet's method of naming and renaming through pun, contrast, and unfolded meaning. In the opening stanza Mary names Jesus her "Fruit," now removed from her body and nailed to "Rode-treo." She calls the Cross a disgraceful "pillori" for felons who is harming her innocent son (lines 1-13), her womb's fruit now turned into a tree's fruit. The maternal/arboreal analogy sets off a dazzling flux of fructuous images in subsequent stanzas, from the apple of Eden to the grape of eucharistic wine. Eventually, too, the Cross will revalue the name "pillori" it receives here from Mary by naming itself the "piler" (pillar) that shows humanity the vertical way to salvation (line 150). In reconfiguring the Cross both architecturally and linguistically, the poet's verbal sleight illuminates one of many holy transformations occurring through Christ's Passion.

The pathos of the first stanza C a scene of human torture told in the injured voice of distraught maternal sorrow C is similarly transmuted and wholly inverted in the last stanza. Christ's lacerated body is now seen to be merely a garment, borne (and born into) expressly "to blede." Thus clothed in royal red garments, he rides a "stokky stede," the wooden "stock" of the Cross revealed as the sturdy mount of a heroic Knight, who rides this instrument to save people from the devil and lead them in triumph to Judgment. In a post-Resurrection world the roadmap to the afterlife has been newly configured. Formerly there was but one path, the one to hell; now there are two ways, one pointed to hell, the other to heaven. A person may choose between opposites, a choice drawn literally in the Cross's symmetrical pointings C up or down, right or left C and made possible by three mediating, physical agents: Jesus's blood, Mary (who imparted to him that blood), and the Cross (where the blood was shed). The final stanza thus inscribes Mary's opening tones of woe and reproach inside a larger sphere of triumph and joy.

The poetic debate is itself symmetrically shaped like the Cross, 3 with the disputants opposed in emotional register (compassion/dispassion), gender (female/ male, by pronoun), and species (human/nonhuman). In forty thirteen-line stanzas they speak in balanced turns, three speeches each: eight stanzas for Mary, nine for the Cross, three for Mary (first half); then, three for the Cross, nine for Mary, and eight for the Cross's winning position (second half). The resultant mirrored ratio, 8:9:323:9:8, is probably meaningful: 23 and 32 and 3, numbers of duality (as in the debate) and trinity. Meditation upon these lengths might suggest a cruciform shape, with a vertical base of eight units, a horizontal crossbar of nine, and a topmast of three. One manuscript of the three that preserve Dispute (MS Royal 18 A.x) includes marginal notations to mark the changes in speakers, which may indicate that the poem was, at least in some settings, read aloud in opposing voices. Moreover, while the disputants are meant to be contrasts, they also come to be, in religious essence, alike: both are "mothers" for God and mankind (lines 450-51, 491), and both are trees, which in Mary's case means the human lineage she embodies (line 478). The poet builds poetic argument on chiastic opposition and analogy, and as he does so, he models the poem on the familiar and sacred shape of a cross.

Modern readers should not hesitate to apprehend this seemingly arcane shaping of the poem, for the poet shows that he did not expect it to be obscure. At the poetic midpoint he displays the figure through the Cross's words:
"Ladi, to make the devel dredi,
God schop me a scheld, schame to schilde,
       Til Lomb of Love dyede,
   And on me yeld the gost with vois.
   I was chose a relik chois,
   The signe of Jhesu Cristes Crois;
       Ther dar no devel abyde." (lines 254-60)
The center of the poem is a defining moment, and here the Cross triply names himself as a shield, a choice relic, and a sign that wards off the devil. In the thirteenth-century Ancrene Wisse, a late version of which is found near Dispute in the Vernon MS, a figure of the crucifix as a shield is developed: In a shield there are three things, the wood, the leather and the painting. So it was in this shield: the wood of the cross, the leather of God's body, the painting of the red blood that colored it so beautifully. . . . After a brave knight's death, his shield is hung high in church in his memory. So is this shield, that is, the crucifix, set high in church . . . to bring to mind Jesus Christ's chivalry, which he performed on the cross. (trans. Savage and Watson, p. 192) The Cross is made the shield of Christ the Lover-Knight, the same figure for Christ that appears at the end of Dispute.

Crucial, too, in the Cross's self-representation is the notion that it defends Christians against the devil, a popular understanding of the Cross's power that was readily adapted to religio-magical purposes. Medical charms from medieval England were punctuated liberally with cruciform signs to be physically gestured by the practitioner as a way to enhance the charm's potency. They might also include Cross-inspired asseverations by the four apostles, or by a house's four corners, as in John the carpenter's "white pater-noster" in Chaucer's Miller's Tale (I 3478-85). 4 Again, the Ancrene Wisse provides some of the best analogous passages on the Cross as a devil-repelling talisman, as it guides anchoritic readers (and possibly, by the time it appears in the Vernon MS, lay readers) in their devotions to the Cross, including, for example, a prayer by which to bless one's bed before retiring:
The cross + makes all evil flee.
The cross + restores everything.
By this sign of the cross +
may all evil flee far away.
And by the same sign +
may whatever is good be preserved. (p. 65)
Elsewhere, the author explains how to use the Cross as a weapon against the devil:
Hold it up against the enemy, show it to him clearly. The sight of it alone puts him to flight. For it both shames him and terrifies him out of his wits. (p. 155)
Such an act of self-defense is meant quite literally, for the devil lurks behind every temptation felt physically in the body: "Drive your knees sharply down to the earth and lift up the staff of the cross and swing it in four directions against the hell-dog: this is nothing else than to bless yourself all around with the sign of the holy cross" (p. 154). Attacks from the devil required vigorous defense.

The practices recommended in Ancrene Wisse persist in many later texts that attest to a cultic adoration of the Cross as well as an abiding belief in its efficacious powers. From the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, the behaviors associated with these beliefs filtered increasingly into the lay population. In prescribing a set of devotional practices for a layman, a fifteenth-century clerical writer exhorts him to "make the sign of the Cross at the head, at the feet, at the hands, and at the side" of his bed every morning when he rises (Pantin, p. 398). At supper he is to fashion a Cross upon the wooden table from five bread crumbs, allowing no one but his wife to perceive what he is doing (p. 400). The five crumbs in this shape would recall the five wounds of Christ. At the same time, the writer asks the devout man not to "climb up to the Cross" in church, apparently discouraging a zealous practice of laypersons kissing the rood, which church officials thought either a risk or a nuisance (pp. 399, 404). Henry VI made a devotional custom of beginning each meal with "a certain dish which represented the five wounds of Christ as it were red with blood" (qtd. by Pantin, p. 408).

Why did the Dispute poet affix a Cross-sign at the center and further invoke it in the oppositional structure? Viewed against the popular tradition of devotion to the Cross, the answer is obvious. The poem is itself an emblematically shaped crucifix designed to shield the reader and ward off the devil. The poet leads the reader to meditate on the words of the holy disputants and the image of Christ bleeding, and C as in any other devotion to the Cross C to learn how to be saved. The practice of embedding a crucifix in poetry is not unique to this poet. It exists meaningfully in Thomas of Hales's Love Rune and in The Four Leaves of the Truelove (both appearing in this volume). Numerous Middle English religious poets position, without any deeper structuring, an image of the Crucifixion at the center of their verses. 5 A brief verse tale found in MS Ashmole 61, The Legend of the Crucifix, uses a chiastic structure to present an exemplum of reconciliation between two long-time enemies: the older knight repents his hatred at the one-quarter point, the two make peace at midpoint, and the younger knight is embraced and kissed by a momentarily animated crucifix at the three-quarters point. 6 Discovering poetic content matched to a cruciform shape was probably relatively routine for readers expecting a poem to be a useful meditational device. The Dispute poet is unusual, however, in declaring so emphatically the shape of the verbal token, that is, by conjuring, in the Cross's own words, that choice sign that scares off the devil.

The second figure verbally "made flesh" in Dispute C a maternal body giving birth C is somewhat more startling to discover, and it was doubtless less common in verse than was an embedded crucifix. The key places are stanzas 19 and 21, which surround the crucifix stanza quoted above. Stanza 19 recounts, in Mary's voice, the collective plea of the Old Testament prophets to be delivered "Out of the wildernesses ston" (line 237). This plea for release from a hard place, similar to a fetal struggle to be born, is answered by God's Incarnation in Mary, expressed as the stony "Mount of Syon / Becom Man" (line 239-40). Deliverance from stone required stone made flesh, with the rhyme-words ston and bon coming to seem divinely ordered. The prophets facing rocky barriers in the wilderness were unable to "bore" into "hevene blis" until "blod brac up the yate" (lines 243-47). Their release from exile and entry into heaven is visualized as a burrowing through a bloodied opening. The configuration enacts a birth, with the second disputant Mary C herself a virgin C being the archetypal mother who inspires the poetic figure of parturition.

In stanza 21 the speaking Cross must complete the explication begun by Mary. The imagery of stones dissolves when the gate breaks open, but another figure, the "Lomb of Love," remains, unifying stanzas 19-21. The prophets prayed for the "Lomb" to deliver them from the lion and the stone, and in response the incarnate God delivered them. Mary wonders why, if men were so much in need of the mild Lamb, did they and the Cross harm her child. The Cross responds that when the Lamb of Love died, he (the Cross) became the "relik chois," and he then explains the logic of redemption in spatial terms, that "Hevene yates weore keithed clos [shut tight] / Til the Lomb of Love dyede"; now "mon is out of bondes brouht, / And hevene dores undone!" Heaven's gates open as soon as the Cross reveals his essence and mission: it is he who has enabled the Lamb to die (Christ's last words also appear in stanza 21). The resultant image is thus of two figures superimposed: a crucifix upon the open ground of a gate newly ajar. The latter figure is maternally construed, that is, Mary (with maternal Cross) opens the gate that Eve had closed. 7

This working out of the doctrine of redemption in terms of embodied signs is part of an incarnational aesthetic that merges meaning with form. The poet makes literal the Cross's efficacy. But how can he justify a literalism of birth, especially when the mother in question C Mary C did not herself experience natural parturition? The answer rests in biblical doctrine, and, as with the Cross's explanation of its own sign, the poet carefully expounds this figure so that the reader will be sure to apprehend that a birth has occurred. In stanza 35 the Cross paraphrases Christ's words to Nicodemus: "I say to thee, unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3.3). Each Christian must be born twice, first bodily and then spiritually through baptism. In historical terms, the Christian progresses from a first birth into the old law of the Jewish patriarchs, to a second birth into the redemptive law of Christ. The prophesied passage from old to new inspires the birthing configuration of stanzas 19-21.

Beyond this doctrinal explanation, however, the birthing metaphor is grounded in the experience of Christ as an embodied man. The piety of the poem links Nativity and Passion, both being birthing events for the God who took flesh. The first birth is joyous, painless, and shared with Mary, a human mother who remains (miraculously) a virgin. The second birth through the Cross is, in contrast, filled with the labor pains of both mother and son, as God cataclysmically dies in body and mankind is redeemed. Mary feels the brunt of this torturous "birth" emotionally and physically, while the Cross bears the part of encumbered pregnancy, but it is Christ who is the actual Parent who births a new life for humanity. 8 The figure of the patriarchs escaping the wilderness merges in meaning with the triumphant Harrowing of Hell.

Implicit in the birthing image is the notion of God entering and departing the realm of finite time, and also of humans occupying a space in time either before or after the Crucifixion. It is therefore not surprising to find the poet considering time in ways both subtle and precise. That the depictions of Adam, Moses, and the wandering prophets occur before the midpoint of the poem is surely indicative of the old law. Here too are the Virgin's allusions to the Nativity C her lullings of the Holy Infant and her wrapping him gently C prefigurements of the grotesque reversals enacted in the Crucifixion. After the midpoint C the moment of second birth through the Passion C allusions shift to New Testament and future events: Paul's conversion of Dionysius, the Last Judgment, and most interestingly, a trio of newly converted Jews, who come to postfigure the Three Magi. The tale of the three Jews (stanzas 24-26) combined with an adjacent exposition on Christ as the Shepherd of Christians (stanza 23) forms a "new" Nativity story to accompany the maternally birthing Cross.

The highly charged image of Christ's body on the Cross is thus perpetually shifting as to what it signifies. It varies according to who explains it (Mary or Cross) and according to chronology (before or after Christ's momentous death). It also fluctuates by a dazzling associative process that seems to suggest that the sacramental made visible C through image, through words C eludes the natural laws of matter. A two-stanza sequence densely plays upon the body-as-parchment figure that must have been well known from The Charter of Christ, a poem reworked in many forms and surviving in many manuscripts. 9 Here, the figure is far from stable: Jesus's wounded body is, alternatingly, a shrine, a written pardon, eucharistic bread, a book; the Cross is the post for the pardon, the table under the bread, the wooden covers of the book, the altar displaying the open book (stanzas 15-16). In another instance of radical figural and linguistic dislocation, an argument near the end of the poem may be deciphered only when one comes to understand that each of five instances of the word kuynde/kende possesses a different signification: "creatures," "natural wits," "kindred," "heritage," "mankind" (lines 386-403).

There are at least two points at which the poet's fantasy appears to have strained a scribe's duller, more narrowly orthodox mind. The textual evidence suggests that the Vernon compiler (or a predecessor) had trouble accepting the boldness of some of the imagery attached to the vibrantly animated Cross. Here is where an editor is grateful for the variant Royal text C and sorry for the stanzas that are missing from it. The passages in question both occur in the second half of the poem and refer to the Cross's agency in the events during and after the Passion. In the first instance the Cross declares itself to have been "baptized" in Christ's blood (stanza 34), a non-human participation in a sacrament that might well have taxed a clerical redactor's willingness to transmit a metaphor. The Vernon/Simeon text contains altered pronouns so that the passage becomes a safe, pastoral explication of baptism C entirely ordinary and therefore entirely out of character for this poet of brilliant images. The second instance is similar. The Cross explains the legalistic role it will have at the Last Judgment, how it will present its own bill of grievance against mankind for their part in the Crucifixion, which is described from the viewpoint of one who actually felt the nails (stanza 37). This self-fashioning of the Cross could be another uncomfortable moment for a redactor. It has been "corrected" in the Vernon/ Simeon text by removal of all the first-person pronouns. The effect is to render the identity of the plaintiff(s) general and vague.

That these changes occurred in the Vernon/Simeon texts suggests that the time-honored rhetorical device of personification faced skepticism in some late fourteenth-century circles, perhaps particularly when used for a devotional text having such sacred figures as agents. The poet, who appears to have been aware of potential resistence, ends the poem by explaining that the Cross "evere yit hath ben def and dom" and that the point of this apocryphal telling with its "faire [rhetorical] flour" is "to drive the devel abak" (lines 500-06). Even though The Dream of the Rood was well out of memory, a reputable model for giving the Cross a voice existed in Geoffrey of Vinsauf's Poetria nova (c. 1200), where the piece illustrating prosopopeia has an eloquent Cross exhorting Christians to go off on crusade. 10 Moreover, when the Dispute poet makes the disclaimer, he simultaneously asserts that his story is grounded in eye-witness truth (lines 495-97). He seems to be arguing that the subject has a paradoxical and profound "not-true-but-still-true" status. The Cross did not speak; nonetheless, what it says here is true. The poem-as-Cross is a worded Cross that repels the devil and points to salvation, just like the true Cross, even if the historical Cross never spoke any words to Mary. 11

While Dispute is the first extant rendering of a Mary/Cross debate in English, the concept appears in medieval writings in many languages. There are at least two Latin, two Italian, two Old French, one Old ProvenHal, one Anglo-Norman, and one Middle Dutch versions. In addition, there are two more Middle English versions that date after Dispute, one by Walter Kennedy and one by Deguilleville's anonymous translator. The Middle English Dispute and at least three other versions appear to be indebted to Philippe de Grève's Crux de te volo conqueri (Yeager, pp. 54-55; Holthausen, pp. 22-26). Dispute is, however, considerably longer, using de Grève's poem as a "point of departure for original rhapsodic amplification" and effectively leaving it behind somewhere in stanza 11 (Lawton, pp. 154-55). While the Dutch version by Jacob van Maerlant is written in thirteen-line stanzas and also indebted to de Grève, it bears no real resemblance to Dispute (Lawton, pp. 156, 168-69). The more interesting analogues are the Anglo-Norman poem and the two Old French poems, especially Guillaume de Deguilleville's Pèlerinage de l'ame. This broad area of possible influence needs more study, especially in light of the evidence that the Dispute poet had close knowledge of French. 12 The degree to which Franciscans reworked and promulgated the form also deserves attention, since the continental Mary/Cross debates are so often found in Franciscan collections. 13

Within Middle English literature Dispute has other interesting associations. In metrical terms, it is one of the earliest extant poems in the thirteen-line stanza that developed as a more formally alliterated form in the late fourteenth century. A poem in a near-identical stanza, The Festivals of the Church, follows Dispute in the Royal MS. In the Vernon and Simeon MSS Dispute appears just before The Pistel of Swete Susan, a more alliterative thirteen-line poem. The structural likeness of Dispute and The Four Leaves of the Truelove C both forty stanzas, both built on cruciform and birthing figures C is very intriguing, and Truelove has the stanza closest to that of Susan. These correspondences seem to indicate some commonality of purpose and audience. Other works in the Vernon and Simeon MSS appear to bear a close aesthetic relationship to Dispute, in particular, The Lamentation of Mary to Saint Bernard, The Debate of the Body and the Soul, and the The Testament of Christ. The texts known as The Middle English Harrowing of Hell and The Gospel of Nicodemus may also belong in the group of seminal writings, since the Christian event vividly depicted there, conceived as a fissure in time from old to new law, informs the dramatic structure by halves in both Dispute and Truelove. In the Middle English corpus, there is, of course, a vast amount of meditative and mystical literature on the Passion. David Lawton believes that the Dispute poet's debt to Richard Rolle and the Vernon Talking of the Love of God "approaches the explicit" (p. 157). The poet actually names the mystical theologian Dionysius (line 393), whose influence was known through The Cloud of Unknowing and other English writings. In a few places there seems to be a debt to a well-known devotional text, the Pseudo-Bonaventuran Meditationes vitae Christi, which Nicholas Love translated as The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ.

For a period of several centuries the concept of Mary and the Cross in debate possessed a theological vitality that medieval preachers and moral writers found useful to tap. A comparison of Mary's maternity to the Cross's redemptive function clearly had an appeal both intellectual and popular. Peter Yeager sees the tradition as "the expression of a deeply felt spiritual reality" and "the actualization of a pattern potentially available" in medieval Christianity (pp. 62, 64). In Dispute an English poet intriguingly opposes the values of the planctus with those of sober moral instruction. While Mary's heightened emotionalism is designed to soften the heart of the meditant with empathy and compassion, the Cross's logical intellectualism confirms the legalistic economy of a sacrificing God. For the medieval Christian both of these responses are correct, but each purely by itself may be found deficient. The understanding symbolized by the Cross and by the Incarnation that took place in Mary is about a truth found in the reconciliation of things C of divinity and humanity C inherently opposed but joined in one form.

Note on the Edited Text

In the notes that follow the edited text I present a chart showing the degree of variance between the Vernon/Simeon and Royal versions of Dispute. Often the sense of the shorter version in Royal is inferior to the Vernon/Simeon text. In some instances, however, metaphors or wordplays that are typical of the poet's style seem to be more sharply preserved in Royal. Where the rhetorical flourishes are blurred in Vernon/Simeon but apparently preserved in Royal, I have emended with reference to the Royal text. Other emendation has been made rarely but where needed to restore rhymes, sense, or alliteration. As regards the latter feature, nearly all lines have at least two alliterating words; when this trait is lacking and a word from Royal supplies it, I have often accepted Royal as evidence of a better reading. Individual emendations are recorded and discussed in the notes.

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Select Bibliography


Vernon MS: Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Eng. poet. a.1, fols. 315bB316b. C. 1390. [Base text; copied in triple columns by Vernon/Simeon scribe B.]

Simeon MS: London, British Library Addit. MS 22283, fols. 124bB125b. C. 1390. [Copied in triple columns by Vernon/Simeon scribe A.]

London, British Library Royal MS 18 A.x, fols. 126aB130b. C. 1450. [Marginal notations mark changes in speakers.]


Doyle, A. I., intro. The Vernon Manuscript: A Facsimile of Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS. Eng. Poet. a.1. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1987.


Furnivall, F. J., ed. The Minor Poems of the Vernon Manuscript. Part 2. EETS o.s. 117. 1901; rpt. New York: Greenwood, 1969. Pp. 612-26. [Vernon MS.]

Morris, Richard, ed. Legends of the Holy Rood: Symbols of the Passion and Cross Poems. EETS o.s. 46. 1881; rpt. New York: Greenwood, 1969. Pp. 131-49, 197-209. [Vernon and Royal MSS.]

Probable Latin Source

Philippe de Grève (d. 1236). Crux de te volo conqueri. Ed. G. M. Dreves. In Analecta hymnica medii aevi. Vol. 21, no. 14. 1895; rpt. New York: Johnson, 1961. Pp. 20-22. [Author was Chancellor of the University of Paris c. 1218-36.]

Other Medieval Mary/Cross Dispute Poems

Ben vorrei piangere quando mi rimembro. Extracts printed in: Giuseppe Rondoni. "Laudi drammatiche dei Disciplinati di Siena." Giornale storico della letterature italiana 2 (1883), 286-93. [Fourteenth-century Italian poem with dramatic interaction, associated with Franciscanism.]

Croix, je me vueil a toy complaindre. Ed. A. Långfors. "Notice du manuscrit français 17068 de la Bibliothèque Nationale." Romania 43 (1914), 21-27. [Old French poem.]

Crux dura quid fecisti. Included in: Ubertino da Casale [Thirteenth-century Spiritual Franciscan from Tuscany]. Arbor vitae crucifixae Jesu. Intro. Charles T. Davis. Monumenta politica et philosophica rariora. Ser. 1, no. 4. Turin, 1961. Bk. 4, cap. 25. [Twelfth-century Latin didactic poem with several variants, one of which is a dialogue between Mary and Christ. For another version, see Sticca, pp. 71-77.]

Coment Nostre Dame e la Croiz disputerant sanz nule voiz. London, British Library Addit. MS 46919, fols. 79aB80a. [Unpublished Anglo-Norman poem in a miscellany compiled by Franciscan William Herebert of Hereford (d. 1333); see extracts in Paul Meyer, "Notice et extraits du ms. 8336 de la bibliothèque de Sir Thomas Phillipps B Cheltenham," Romania 13 (1884), 521-22; MS described in Library Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts, 1946-50, vol. 27 (London: The British Library, 1979), pp. 197-206.]

Deguilleville, Guillaume de. "Altercation piteous entre l'arbre verd et l'arbre sec." Ed. Jakob J. Sthrzinger. In Le Pélerinage de l'ame de G. de Deguilleville, vv. 5931B 6166, 6617-78. London: Roxburghe Society, 1985. [French moral poem composed between 1330 and 1358, translated into English c. 1413, and printed by Caxton in 1483. See The Pilgrimage of the Soul, ed. Rosemarie Potz McGerr (New York: Garland, 1990), p. xlix.]

E . . . alem tot enviro. Ed. Paul Meyer. In Daurel et Beton: Chanson de geste provençale. Société des anciens textes français 75. Paris: Firmin Didot et cie, 1880. Pp. Lxxix-lxxxv. [Old Provençal poem by Franciscan author; incomplete.]

Kennedy, Walter. The Passioun of Christ, vv. 1093-1162. Ed. J. A. W. Bennett. In Devotional Pieces in Prose and Verse. Scottish Text Society. Third ser., no. 23. Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1955. Pp. 42-45. [Fifteenth-century Middle English poem; indebted to Philippe de Grève.]

Molto si dolea sovente. Ed. Giuseppe Mazzatini. In Inventario dei manoscritti italiani delle biblioteche di Francia. Vol. 3. Rome, 1888. Pp. 254-57. [Italian poem; indebted to Philippe de Grève.]

van Maerlant, Jacob. Ene Disputacie van onser Vrouwen ende van den heiligen Cruce. Ed. Johannes Franck. In Mittelniederländische Grammatik. Leipzig: T. O. Weigel, 1883. Pp. 172-79. [Thirteenth-century Middle Dutch poem in 46 13-line stanzas; indebted to Philippe de Grève.]

Middle English Poems Apparently by the Same Author

All 3e Mowen Be Blyth and Glade. Ed. O. S. Pickering. "A Middle English Poem on the Eucharist and Other Poems by the Same Author." Archiv für das Studium der Neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 215 (1978), 281-310. [Written in similar stanza, appears in Oxford, Bodleian Library Additional MS C 280, fols. 125aB127b.]

The Festivals of the Church. Ed. Richard Morris. In Legends of the Holy Rood: Symbols of the Passion and Cross Poems. EETS o.s. 46. 1881; rpt. New York: Greenwood, 1969. Pp. 210-21. [Written in similar stanza; follows Dispute in Royal MS 18 A.X, fols. 1306-46 (lacks end).]

Whon Grein of Whete Is Cast to Grounde. Ed. Carl Horstmann. "Proprium Sanctorum: Zusatz-Homilien des MS Vernon fol. CCXV ff. zur n'rdlichen Sammlung der Dominicalia evangelia." Archiv für das Studium der Neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 81 (1888), 83-85. [Written in similar stanza, appears in Vernon MS, fols. 215bB 216a.]

Related Middle English Works

Ancrene Wisse. Ed. and trans. Anne Savage and Nicholas Watson. Anchoritic Spirituality: "Ancrene Wisse" and Associated Works. New York: Paulist Press, 1991.

The Bird with Four Feathers. Printed in this edition. [Multiple namings of God concealed in a numerological text; appears near Dispute in Royal MS.]

The Cloud of Unknowing. Ed. Patrick J. Gallacher. TEAMS Middle English Text Series. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997. [English mystical work influenced by theology of Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite, named in Dispute, line 393.]

De tribus regibus mortuis. Ed. Ella Keats Whiting. In The Poems of John Audelay. EETS o.s. 184. 1931; rpt. Millwood, N. Y.: Kraus, 1988. Pp. xxivBxxvii, 217-23, 256-59. [Alliterative poem in 13-line stanzas.]

The Debate of the Body and the Soul. Ed. Thomas Wright. In The Latin Poems Commonly Attributed to Walter Mapes. Camden Society 16. London, 1841. Pp. 334-46. [Debate poem appearing in Vernon, Simeon, and Royal MSS.]

The Four Leaves of the Truelove. Printed in this edition. [Forty 13-line alliterative stanzas; second birth at midpoint; meditative focus on Mary's compassion and the Cross.]

Jhesu That Hast Me Dere Iboght. Ed. Carleton Brown. In Religious Lyrics of the XIVth Century. Second ed. Rev. G. V. Smithers. Oxford: Clarendon, 1957. Pp. 114-19. [Passion lyric to be said "at every Cros"; asks that Christ "write" the Cross in the heart of the petitioner.]

The Lamentation of Mary to Saint Bernard. Ed. Carl Horstmann. In The Minor Poems of the Vernon Manuscript. Part 1. EETS o.s. 98. 1892; rpt. New York: Greenwood, 1975. Pp. 297-328. [Passion narrative affectively recounted by Mary to Bernard of Clairvaux, from Vernon MS.]

Legend of the Crucifix. Ed. Carl Horstmann. In Altenglische Legenden, neue Folge. Heilbronn: Von Gebr. Henninger, 1881. Pp. 339-40. [Short tale with cruciate structure and animate Cross, from MS Ashmole 61.]

Love, Nicholas. Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ. Ed. Michael G. Sargent. Garland Medieval Texts 18. New York: Garland, 1992. [Especially the meditation on the Passion, pp. 161-90.]

Meditation on the Passion; and of Three Arrows on Doomsday. Ed. Carl Horstmann. In Yorkshire Writers. Vol. 1. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1895. Pp. 112-21. [Meditation on the Passion, influenced by Richard Rolle.]

The Middle-English Harrowing of Hell and Gospel of Nicodemus. Ed. William Henry Hulme. EETS e.s. 100. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trhbner, 1907.

Pearl. Ed. E. V. Gordon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953.

The Pistel of Swete Susan. Ed. Russell A. Peck. Heroic Women from the Old Testament in Middle English Verse. TEAMS Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1991. Pp. 73-108. [Written in 13-line alliterative stanzas; follows Dispute in Vernon and Simeon MSS.]

Stand Wel, Moder, under Rode. Ed. Theodore Silverstein. English Lyrics before 1500. York Medieval Texts. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971. Pp. 12-14. [Mary's lament addressed to Christ.]

Rolle, Richard. Meditation B. Ed. S. J. Ogilvie-Thomson. In Richard Rolle: Prose and Verse. EETS o.s. 293. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. Pp. 69-83. [Meditation on the Passion.]

The Testament of Christ. Ed. F. J. Furnivall. In The Minor Poems of the Vernon Manuscript. Part 2. EETS o.s. 117. 1901; rpt. New York: Greenwood, 1969. Pp. 637-57. [Imagery of Christ's body as inscribed parchment; follows The Pistel of Swete Susan in Vernon MS.]

Criticism of The Dispute between Mary and the Cross

Brewer, Derek. English Gothic Literature. New York: Schocken, 1983. Pp. 59-60.

Fein, Susanna Greer. "Form and Continuity in the Alliterative Tradition: Cruciform Design and Double Birth in Two Stanzaic Poems." Modern Language Quarterly 53 (1992), 100-25.

Holthausen, F. "Der mittelenglische Disput zwischen Maria und dem Kreuze." Archiv fhr das Studien der Neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 105 (1900), 22-29.

Lawton, David A. "The Diversity of Middle English Alliterative Poetry." Leeds Studies in English 20 (1989), 153-62.

Pickering, O. S. "Middle English Metaphysical Verse? Imagery and Style in Some Fourteenth-Century Religious Poems." In Individuality and Achievement in Middle English Poetry. Ed. O. S. Pickering. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer, 1997. Pp. 85-104.

Schofield, W. H. "The Nature and Fabric of the Pearl." PMLA 19 (1904), 200.

Taylor, George C. "The English 'Planctus Mariae."' Modern Philology 4 (1907), 1-33. [Lists the common motifs.]

Utley, Francis Lee. "Dialogues, Debates, and Catechisms." In A Manual of Writings in Middle English, 1050-1500. Ed. Albert E. Hartung. Vol. 3. New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1972. Pp. 684-85, 841-42.

Woolf, Rosemary. The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Clarendon, 1968. Pp. 252-54.

Yeager, Peter. "The Dispute Between Mary and the Cross: Debate Poems of the Passion." Christianity & Literature 30 (1981), 53-69. [Discusses medieval analogues.]

Related Studies

Aston, Margaret. "Devotional Literacy." In Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion. London: Hambledon, 1984. Pp. 101-33.

Beckwith, Sarah. Christ's Body: Identity, Culture and Society in Late Medieval Writings. London: Routledge, 1993.

Bennett, J. A. W. Poetry of the Passion: Studies in Twelve Centuries of English Verse. Oxford: Clarendon, 1982.

Blake, N. F. "Vernon Manuscript: Contents and Organisation." In Studies in the Vernon Manuscript. Ed. Derek Pearsall. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1990. Pp. 45-59.

Breeze, Andrew. "The Charter of Christ in Medieval English, Welsh and Irish." Celtica 19 (1987), 111-20.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Camille, Michael. The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image-Making in Medieval Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Doyle, A. I. "The Shaping of the Vernon and Simeon Manuscripts." In Studies in the Vernon Manuscript. Ed. Derek Pearsall. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1990. Pp. 1-13.

Glasscoe, Marion. English Medieval Mystics: Games of Faith. Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1993.

Gray, Douglas. "Notes on Some Middle English Charms." In Chaucer and Middle English Studies in Honour of Rossell Hope Robbins. Ed. Beryl Rowland. Kent: Kent State University Press, 1974. Pp. 56-69.

——. Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972.

Kaske, R. E. "A Poem of the Cross in the Exeter Book: 'Riddle 60' and 'The Husband's Message."' Traditio 23 (1967), 41-71.

Keiser, George R. "The Middle English Planctus Mariae and the Rhetoric of Pathos." In The Popular Literature of Medieval England. Ed. Thomas J. Heffernan. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985. Pp. 167-93.

Pantin, W. A. "Instructions for a Devout and Literate Layman." In Medieval Learning and Literature: Essays Presented to Richard William Hunt. Ed. J. J. G. Alexander and M. T. Gibson. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976. Pp. 398-422.

Pearsall, Derek. Old English and Middle English Poetry. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977.

Pezzini, Domenico. "The Theme of the Passion in Richard Rolle and Julian of Norwich." In Religion in the Poetry and Drama of the Late Middle Ages in England. Ed. Piero Boitani and Anna Torti. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1990. Pp. 29-66.

Rhodes, J. T. "The Body of Christ in English Eucharistic Devotion, c.1500Bc.1620." In New Science Out of Old Books: Studies in Manuscripts and Early Printed Books in Honour of A. I. Doyle. Ed. Richard Beadle and A. J. Piper. Aldershot, Hants: Scolar Press, 1995. Pp. 388-419.

Rubin, Miri. Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Secor, John R. "The Planctus Mariae in ProvenHal Literature: A Subtle Blend of Courtly and Religious Traditions." In The Spirit of the Court. Ed. Glyn S. Burgess and Robert A. Taylor. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1983. Pp. 321-26.

Spalding, Mary Caroline. The Middle English Charters of Christ. Bryn Mawr College Monograph 15. Bryn Mawr: Bryn Mawr College, 1914.

Stanbury, Sarah. "The Virgin's Gaze: Spectacle and Transgression in Middle English Lyrics of the Passion." PMLA 106 (1991), 1083-93.

Sticca, Sandro. The "Planctus Mariae" in the Dramatic Tradition of the Middle Ages. Trans. Joseph R. Berrigan. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988.

Turville-Petre, Thorlac. "'Summer Sunday,' 'De Tribus Regibus Mortuis,' and 'The Awntyrs off Arthure': Three Poems in the Thirteen-Line Stanza." Review of English Studies, n.s. 25 (1974), 3-15.

Weber, Sarah Appleton. Theology and Poetry in the Middle English Lyric: A Study of Sacred History and Aesthetic Form. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1969.