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Moral Love Songs and Laments: Introduction


1 Hugh of Saint Victor, "The Soul's Three Ways of Seeing,'' in Selected Spiritual Writings, trans. a religious of the Community of St. Mary the Virgin (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), p. 183.

2 John V. Fleming, "The Centuple Structure of the Pearl,'' in The Alliterative Tradition in the Fourteenth Century, ed. Bernard S. Levy and Paul E. Szarmach (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1981), p. 82.

3 Britton J. Harwood, "Pearl as Diptych,'' in Text and Matter: New Critical Perspectives of the Pearl-Poet, ed. Robert J. Blanch, Miriam Youngerman Miller, and Julian N. Wasserman (Troy, N. Y.: Whitson, 1991), p. 61. See too the spatial analysis of Cary Nelson, "Pearl: The Circle as Figural Space,'' in The Incarnate Word: Literature as Verbal Space (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973), pp. 25-49.

4 Eugene Vance, "Pearl: Love and the Poetics of Participation,'' in Poetics: Theory and Practice in Medieval English Literature, ed. Piero Boitani and Anna Torti (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1991), p. 141.

5 John C. Hirsh, "A Fifteenth-Century Commentary on 'Ihesu for Thy Holy Name,''' Notes and Queries 17 (1970), 44-45.

6 Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, "The Apple's Message: Some Post-Conquest Hagiographic Accounts of Textual Transmission,'' in Late Medieval Religious Texts and Their Transmission: Essays in Honour of A. I. Doyle, ed. A. J. Minnis (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1994), p. 49.

7 The literature on how medieval readers read devotional texts and who these readers were is vast and varied. Sources I recommend include: Margaret Aston, "Devotional Literacy," in Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literact in Late Medieval Religion (London: Hambledon, 1984), pp. 101-33; C. A. J. Armstrong, "The Piety of Cicely, Duchess of York: A Study of Late Mediaeval Culture," in For Hilaire Belloc: Essays in Honour of His 72nd Birthday, ed. Douglas Woodruff (London: Sheed & Ward, 1942), pp. 73-94; John C. Hirsh, "Prayer and Meditation in Late Mediaeval England: MS Bodley 789," Medium AEvum 48 (1979), 55-66; Ann M. Hutchinson, "Devotional Reading in the Monastery and in the Late Medieval Household," and George R. Keiser, "'Noght How Lang Man Lifs; But How Wele': The Laity and the Ladder of Perfection," both in De Cella in Seculum: Religious and Secular Life and Devotion in Late Medieval England, ed. Michael G. Sargent (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1989), pp. 145-59, 215-27; Sixten Ringbom, "Devotional Images and Imaginative Devotions: Notes on the Place of Art in Late Medieval Private Piety," Gazette des beaux-arts 73 (1969), 159-70; Vincent Gillespie, "Lukynge in haly bukes: Lectio in Some Late Medieval Spiritual Miscellanies," Analecta Cartusiana 106 (1984), 1-27; Mary Carruthers, "Memory and the Ethics of Reading," in The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 156-88. For additional discussion and bibliography, the reader is referred to the introductions to each poem.
"Meditation," according to Hugh of Saint Victor, "is the concentrated and judicious reconsideration of thought, that tries to unravel something complicated or scrutinizes something obscure to get at the truth of it." 1 The authors of the poems in this volume designed them as forms that conceal truths accessible to those willing to delve them studiously and devoutly. The lyric becomes an object perceived in meditation, which, when properly used, promises to be spiritually efficacious. These poets saw poetry as a deliberative process leading to religious renewal: sacred images sequenced for the thoughts and emotions they arouse, correlated to tenets of redemptive theology, and situated to invite God's grace to enter a reflective reader's responsive heart.

These moral love songs and laments thus illustrate how, in the devout medieval English sensibility, doctrine was vitally connected to affective receptivity. One may grasp intellectually the theology of redemption and grace, but only through one's heart-felt response to God's offering of love (in Incarnation and Passion) may one gain these rewards. High emotionalism marks these poems' penitential lyricism. Narrative moods range from love-longing and passion to bitter grief and sorrowful lament, feelings that devolve from the intimately personal state of being God's created creature, individually answerable to divine law and love. Whatever emotion holds sway, these lyric songs anatomize the human side of love and raise its expression to the godly sphere, either as one's yearning for God or as God's reciprocal love for humankind.

In so writing the loftiest human emotions upon the divine realm, the poets joined in trying to express the sublimity of their topics through a perfected art, an art that sought form melded precisely to content. Our distance in time and culture from these writers has obscured the seriousness and delight of their accomplishments. The poems printed here — Love Rune, In a Valley of This Restless Mind, The Dispute between Mary and the Cross, The Four Leaves of the Truelove, The Bird with Four Feathers, Pety Job, and The Sinner's Lament — all share the fate of relative obscurity, even among specialists of medieval English verse. Their elusiveness in the canon may be attributed to a variety of perceptions and misperceptions: they have seemed too lengthy to classify with traditional lyrics, too didactic and artifice-ridden to appeal to moderns, too charming to be more than simply an ornamental exercise, or too lacking in narrative logic or verisimilitude even to be worth reading. Their unassuming presence in editions or anthologies prepared from the 1860s onwards has not led to general recognition of their artistic merits, perhaps because modern readers are rather far from the mindset of those who originally created a demand for the kind of mental stimulation and spiritual caretaking these texts supply.

With medievalists now in wide agreement on how rooted in the material and visible world was a theology centered on divine incorporealization, we can better understand how a culture of learned and popular devotionalism could have bred a poetics of incarnation. In accordance with a firm belief in Christ the Word made flesh to save mankind, several moral poets attempted to create from the Word so conceived the verbal means to flesh out signs and patterns of redemption for an audience eager to add such texts to their devotional lives. The sacred enigmas buried in these poems sometimes seem to be so curious as to be implausible; however, to a devout English reader of the time, for whom reading was a step toward God, the nuggets to be found in these texts were emanations of the divine, the reward that came from frequent perusal. Even if a reader failed to "get" every part of the pattern, the talismanic power of the incarnational poem was probably thought to be enough by itself to allow the balm of grace to flow into a reader of sufficient devotion.

Recent commentators on Pearl, the masterpiece of English devotional poems, have given us ways to understand how an incarnational aesthetic might operate in verse. The poetics of the Pearl-poet is, according to John Fleming, rather more akin to the theological art of Dante Alighieri than to the English prosodics of a long-line alliterative poet. 2 In particular, the centuple structure of Pearl (its 101 stanzas) links it with Ubertino da Casale's Arbor vitae crucifixae Jesu in a "mysterious tradition, at once open and hidden" that formalizes "the idea of penitential consolation . . . through numerological convention" (pp. 96-97). Ubertino, a Franciscan contemporary of Dante, also incorporated in his work the dialogic motif of Mary in debate with the Cross, in a version that may have partially influenced the highly original English rendering printed here. Fleming supplies the term incarnational verse to describe "certain patterns of poetic intentionality" that offer "visible demonstration" of "abstract and ideal truths" and that are "as relevant to the readers of these poems as to their writers" (p. 97).

Another recent writer on Pearl, Britton Harwood, delineates its diptych form, rendered in chiastic symmetries that present the poem, ultimately, as a "devotional object." 3 Each half collates with the other, he argues, and is read both sequentially and in simultaneity, in analogy with diptychs created in ivory in the Pearl-poet's day, where "the right-hand term of an opposition would stand in a superior relation to the left-hand one" (p. 65). The poem itself thus becomes "something to be seen"; more than a bauble, it is like the eucharistic wafer, a "figure for the opposition between time and eternity" (p. 72). Although he deals differently with the content of Pearl, Harwood, like Fleming, perceives that the poem is to be apprehended in its whole, shaped form.

Eugene Vance sorts the threads of philosophical and theological thought that likely would have influenced the Pearl-poet's "poetics" of the soul's participation in God's oneness, from Plato and Plotinus to Augustine and Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite. It is in Dionysius that Vance identifies "a Hellenistic Platonism radically revised as Christian theology" that offered to the Pearl-poet "a powerful counterbalance to Augustine's emphasis upon man's distance from an ineffable God." 4 Dionysius stressed instead both "the active potential of the human soul" and also "reciprocation on the part of an enamoured and extroverted God" (p. 141):
Eros is a structuring principle in the cosmic process of participation. . . . Thus, God participates as the partner of humanity in this eros, and God's ecstasy is a downward movement of love through Christ. Simultaneously, human eros reverts upwards through its own ecstasy. . . . [T]hrough the eucharist, the incarnate Christ is revealed to us perfectly, making communion with God and his mysteries possible. (p. 142)
Dionysius's ninth-century translator, John Scot Eriugena, used the term theosis to denote "the transformation in humans that comes through participation in divine love" or "the deification of what is created" (p. 143). Such transformation could also mark a poem thought to be created through the Word, a kind of poetics evidently espoused by both Dante and the Pearl-poet. Vance ends his analysis, like Harwood, with the eucharist, seen now as the means of human participation with the cosmic eros. Through it the priest reveals Christ "uche a day" and the lover gains the consolation he seeks, participating in God's reciprocated love: "Poetic discourse, then, has found its proper pearl and its proper Prince" (p. 147).

By whatever name we call it -incarnational verse or poetics of participation — an aesthetic of sacred forms and types made sensible to the mind that dwells in devout meditation can be seen, to varying degrees, in the moral love songs and laments presented here. Dionysius was translated again in the twelfth century, and yet again in the thirteenth, then by Robert Grosseteste, an English scholar whose writings must have been familiar to his contemporary and fellow Franciscan Thomas of Hales, author of Love Rune. Later, the fourteenth-century poet of The Dispute between Mary and the Cross cited Dionysius's authority (whom he confused, as was common in contemporary practice, with Saint Denis).

Evidence for a practice of locating divine emanations in well-crafted words can also be adduced from other sources. It is well known that the relics and icons of saints were thought to be, like God's biblical Word, supernaturally imbued with the sacred essence of their origins. Efficacious icons did not have to be images, though: they could consist of words instead. Prayers (the Pater Noster especially), charms invoking the Trinity, Christ, or the Cross, and even saints' lives were believed to be possessed of spiritual powers. A devout person's contact with these texts, if occurring in a mode of exceptional receptivity, might allow God's grace to enter his or her being. To give a simple example, a fifteenth-century verse prayer that invokes Christ's name and Passion is composed in precisely thirty-three words, "mystecally representyng xxxiij yerys of the age of owr lord Jesu Cryst"; it is to be recited in a given pattern upon five colored beads of the rosary; and doing so will gain the speaker (according to a scribal note) an indulgence of 5,425 years, this number equivalent to the total number of wounds Christ received. 5 The text of the prayer is important to the petitioner, but so is the form composed in thirty-three words, for it memorializes and makes "mystecally" present Christ's wounded, thirty-three-year-old body, and it is through this sacrificed body (physically commemorated through handled beads and voiced prayer) that the petitioner hopes his own body and soul will be saved.

Medieval medical practitioners also routinely relied on the healing efficacy of prescribed charms and prayers. There are many instances of spiritual leechcraft worked through iconic texts, always with an intriguing emphasis placed upon the words' literal powers as objectified things sacred in themselves. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne notes a practice designed to protect the unborn and their expectant mothers: "Holy names [were] invoked via inscription on scraps of parchment tied to the bodies of pregnant women, or [were] carved on apples for their ingestion." 6 The written words — their semantics and sequencing — originated in a tradition that was the province of the expert practitioner. For the needy patient their efficacy worked not through her reading them, but rather through her wearing or eating them. In such instances, a written text's "ability to function as a species of contact relic" is felt by both practitioner and patient to be coextensive with its literate meaning (p. 43).

While the poetic texts in this volume are not charms, prayers, or saints' lives, they do invoke through remarkable structural techniques, typological shadings, and biblical echoes, the names and signs sacred to Christianity. Often embedded as enigma, such forms were clearly founded on the poets' belief that they helped to summon God's presence, as in prayer, and that emanations of divine grace could thus be conveyed to the meditant reader. That poets structured their poems on the shape of the Cross or enigmatically enclosed in them several namings of God suggests the very serious spiritual mission that they expected such verse to fulfill in the life of a reader. Such poetry was not merely to be read (as we might be prone to think of reading as a simple straight-once-through process), but rather consumed metaphysically, so that it might bring "sowlehele" to the devout, penitent user. One needs to picture the meditant man or woman retreating regularly to a private spot, reading a text through many times over an extended period, quite likely committing it to memory, and pausing over its words and verbalized images to make connections, find patterns, discover signs and meanings, participate with compassion in its depiction of holy suffering, and absorb its objectified shape, that is, what it becomes when perceived whole rather than as a series of discrete signifiers. 7

Friar Thomas of Hales, author of the thirteenth-century Love Rune, coaxes a devout reader to decipher the secret runes he has inscribed upon the poem's refined verbal surface. To dig deeply for buried meaning, the Franscican author implies, will bring rich reward. A shimmering treasure in verse, Love Rune belongs with the select group of medieval English poems of exceptional polish and perfection, such as The Dream of the Rood and Pearl. The mystic message of this rune-poem is offered in sexualized metaphors that yoke love to divine wisdom. The frame — an epistolary "love rune" from a friar counselor to a maiden — makes a gendered circumstance the pretext for a love counsel of the highest order, veiled with rich allusions to the Annunciation, Solomon's Temple, and the mystic Jewel that connotes both the Godhead and the mortal virginity that brings mystic access. Hidden at the center of the rune (its fiftieth line) is an image of the Cross, sign of its message of love from an incarnate, masculine Wooer. Thomas's language is courtly and elegant, with a subtle bawdy punning that stays within the parameters of a divine wooing conveyed through an earthly Gabriel-like friar.

Christ woos the reader rather more directly in the delicate and lovely In a Valley of This Restless Mind, a fourteenth-century lyric richly evocative of the love language found in Canticles. Christ is both male and female, both lover and mother, as he reaches out, wounded, to "Mannis Soul," seeking to stabilize the restless wandering of the lost narrator, whose persona merges imperceptibly with that of the reader. The narrator is transformed from seeker to sought, from male adventurer scouring the landscape for a "truelove" to a receptive, feminized soul led to her seduction. Consummation of this union produces an offspring, the same soul now converted and become a babe sucking the pap of Christ as Mother, nestled in the wounded heart, and ready to be reared on adversity. Metaphors of human sexuality and kinship — amid a strangely fluctuating sense of gender — underlie this love appeal from Christ, who is shown to be the androgynous, languishing Lover of each soul prepared to receive him.

Interchanged familial roles also direct the religious and aesthetic logic of The Dispute between Mary and the Cross, where, again, God's crucified body comes to signify the ultimate locus of divine Love. A debate is carried on while Christ hangs — nailed, bleeding, and silent — between the disputants, Mary and the speech-endowed Cross. Here God's display of love is felt to be exceptionally violent and gruesome, with the two holy observers unable to agree upon how it should be viewed. Mary sees her Son torn and tortured, and grief fills her with pain, lament, and reproach against the Cross. In response, the dispassionate Cross explains how it is itself a second "mother" to Christ, bearing him now as Mary formerly did and aiding him in a wrenching birth for all humanity. Dispute is a talismanic cross-poem that uses startling, rapidly shifting, metaphysical metaphors to underline its message of Love enacting a cosmic change. As Christ suffers in body, the Cross serves up the eucharistic bread carved on its "board" and the wine pressed in its "wine-press." Symmetrically arranged speeches offer the meditant reader a verbalized sign of the Cross, useful for warding off the devil and for attaining God's promise of redemption.

Another efficacious Cross materializes in The Four Leaves of the Truelove, an alliterative poem whose meditational function is overtly couched in a medicinal metaphor. Here Christ is true Husband, benevolent Parent, and caring Doctor of the soul. Sacred history is a series of knottings and unknottings, culminating in the Triune God's union with Mary, which leads to Christ's birth and death, and man's redemption. The incarnational story focuses upon a four-way union — Mary joined to Trinity — a union that embodies Truelove. The sign for this incarnational promise exists in nature: herb truelove, a cruciate, four-leaf plant. In the frame narrative a maiden sick with love-longing seeks the herb, hoping for a secular easement of her pain, but instead of finding the herb, she receives its consolatory lesson from a heaven-sent, speech-endowed turtledove, whose sermon recreates the shape of the Cross. Meekly grateful and consoled, the maiden-soul has been cured by Truelove, the long-sought herb administered in pure form through words (grace comes to mean both "herb-grass" and "grace"), at a dosage prescribed by the Physician Christ.

The Bird with Four Feathers also contains a loquacious bird giving a four-part disquisition. Probably slightly later in date than both Dispute and Truelove (c. 1400), Bird is told in the style of a penitential refrain poem. Stanzas of varying length (eight, twelve, sixteen, or twenty lines) conclude on the chirpy Latin line Parce michi, Domine!, "Spare me, Lord!" As the naïve narrator pursues his desire to understand what this cryptic line means, he is drawn to question the bird and listen to her long complaint over four lost feathers — Youth, Beauty, Strength, and Riches. The lament of an injured female bird becomes, curiously, the narrative of a foolish man. Guided by pity, the narrator listens and absorbs the sad story as an exemplum for his own life. The only remedy is penitence — as the refrain reiterates — and the reward is to see God's face, whose secret lineaments are embedded in various strategically placed namings of God in the bird's speech. Rather than be fooled by life's gifts into trusting in one's own powers, one must discern and rely on the sovereign Lord, font of a much-needed mercy.

Pety Job was written some fifty years later than Bird, but some copyists or booksellers seem to have regarded it a companion to the earlier poem because of their shared refrain. This beautiful and powerful lyric is a rich paraphrase of — with impassioned departures from — the nine lessons of the Dirge, taken from the Office of the Dead. The Latin source passages are drawn from the speeches of Job, with their profound questions and ruminations on the essential nature of mortal existence. In Pety Job the intensely personal and psychological ramifications of the penitent's condition — never free of remorse, never without consciousness of sin, perpetually in a state of self-abnegation before God — are probed with the precision of a surgeon while the strangely disembodied, timeless lyric voice offers an incessant plea for mercy. The tonal beauty of Pety Job — ever at odds with its self-denying ethos — shows the frightening tension of a lucid self-awareness that would but may not escape itself. Pety Job is the gem of fifteenth-century penitential lyrics.

The final poem presented here is The Sinner's Lament, a late penitential poem with a history of misidentification as tangled as is its intricate web of manuscript affiliations and variant texts. The lyric purports to be the voiced lament of a sinner who has died with no hope for salvation. He speaks from beyond the grave, warning the living to avoid his foolish mistakes. The work survives in two versions, the better of the two unprinted until now. In the known version the sinner is a nobleman who sinned in gluttony, avarice, and lust; it thus betrays a bias of class as well as gender (women are not included in the targeted audience). The newly discovered version has the sinner regret his sinning in all seven vices, and the poet addresses humanity in general — rich and poor, men and women. This longer text is more finely structured by halves — the sinner's mistakes in life, his pains after death — with a midpoint that slyly inverts his gluttonous failure to fast into the worms that now feast on him. The basic, imagistic outline of the poem — a suffering body who calls on passers-by to look upon him in remembrance of their own souls' states — recalls and inverts the sacred sign of corpus Christi on the Cross, the meditative focus of so many other poems.

From Love Rune to The Sinner's Lament, these poems span at least two hundred years, with their differing styles reflective of changing milieus, traditions, and ideas among moral lyricists in this long period in England. From Thomas of Hales's early Franciscan piety, with clear debts to the affiliated prose texts of the Katherine group and Ancrene Wisse, to the Lament poet's damned soul, whose feverish plight reflects the purgatorial anxieties of a later age, these seven poems sketch out in miniature the changing audiences and tastes that fostered medieval English devotional verse. What holds them as a group is their poets' shared desire to provide a means for grace to devout readers prepared to meditate upon these poetic objects of devotion. The poems lead the receptive soul into an apprehension of and participation in the love freely given by God, manifest in sacred signs that the poets make mentally "visible," sensiently immediate, and affectively moving, just as they and their readers believed God to have made his love visible to humankind through living in the flesh and dying on the Cross.


AN          Anglo-Norman

EETS      Early English Text Society

ME         Middle English

MED      Middle English Dictionary

MS(S)    manuscript(s)

OE         Old English

OED      Oxford English Dictionary

OF         Old French

ON        Old Norse

List of Plates

Plate 1. John Gerarde's Herball (1597), p. 328. Woodcut illustration of One Berrie, or herbe Trueloue.. L.1.5.Med. Reproduced by permission of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Page 163.

Plate 2. The Four Leaves of the Truelove. Frontispiece woodcut to Wynkyn de Worde imprint, c. 1510. Huth 102. Reproduced by permission of the British Library, London. Page 169.

Plate 3. The Bird with Four Feathers, illustration above the incipit. MS Douce 322, fol. 15a. Reproduced by permission of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Page 257.

Plate 4. The Bird with Four Feathers, illustration above the incipit. TCC MS R.3.21, fol. 34a. Reproduced by permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge. Page 262.

Plate 5. Pety Job, illustrated initial P. MS Douce 322, fol. 10a. Reproduced by permission of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Page 293.

Plate 6. Pety Job, illustrated initial P. TCC MS R.3.21, fol. 38a. Reproduced by permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge. Page 294.

Go To Love Rune
Go To In a Valley of This Restless Mind
Go To The Dispute Between Mary and the Cross
Go To The Four Leaves of the Truelove
Go To The Bird with Four Feathers
Go To Pety Job
Go To The Sinner's Lament