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Pety Job: Introduction


1 Called Dirge, or Dirige, from the antiphon that begins the first nocturn of Matins: Dirige, Domine Deus meus, in conspectu tua viam meam, ''Direct my path, O Lord my God, in your sight" (Breviarium Sarum, ed. Proctor and Wordsworth, p. 274). Vespers of the same office was commonly known as Placebo from its opening antiphon. Line 550 of Pety Job assumes an audience familiar with these terms.

2 (1) Job 7.16-21, (2) Job 10.1-7, (3) Job 10.8-12, (4) Job 13.22-28, (5) Job 14.1-6, (6) Job 14.13-16, (7) Job 17.1-3, 11-25, (8) Job 19.20-27, and (9) Job 10.18-22.

3 Littlehales, pp. xi-xxii; McSparran and Robinson, pp. viii-ix.

4 Plates 5 and 6 present the illustrations for Pety Job that appear in two of these manuscripts. The rubric appears in full in Plate 6.

5 A. I. Doyle, ''An Unrecognized Piece of Piers the Ploughman's Creed and Other Works by Its Scribe," Speculum 34 (1959), 434. The known records on this scribe are summarized by Linne Mooney, ''A Middle English Text on the Seven Liberal Arts," Speculum 68 (1993), 1028 nn. 7-8 and ''More Manuscripts Written by a Chaucer Scribe," Chaucer Review 30 (1996), 401-07. He is the copyist for most of one booklet of R.3.21, a portion containing The Bird with Four Feathers and most of Pety Job (fols. 34r to 49v [top four lines only]). See also Julia Boffey and John J. Thompson, ''Anthologies and Miscellanies: Production and Choice of Texts," in Jeremy Griffiths and Derek Pearsall, eds., Book Production and Publishing in Britain 1375-1475 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 308 n. 57.

6 See Allen, p. 370; Crawford, pp. 138-46; Parkes, pp. 564-70; and C. A. Robson, ''Vernacular Scriptures in France," Cambridge History of the Bible, ed. G. W. H. Lampe, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), pp. 448-51.

7 Le Mistère du Viel Testament (ed. James de Rothschild, Société des anciens textes français 5 [Paris: Firmin Didot, 1885], pp. iii-xii, 1-51) and La Patience de Job (ed. Albert Meiller [Paris: Klincksieck, 1971]); see Crawford, pp. 141-43.

8 Allen, p. 370. Nesson's poem is more than twice the length of Pety Job; for a comparison, especially of the consolation and mortality themes, see Crawford, pp. 143-58. On Nesson's poem, see C. S. Shapley, ''Pierre de Nesson's Les Vigilles de la mort," in Studies in French Poetry of the Fifteenth Century (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970), pp. 1-31.

9 I am grateful to Dr. Doyle for providing this information. An illumination from the St. John manuscript is reproduced in J. J. G. Alexander and Elïbieta Temple, Illuminated Manuscripts in Oxford College Libraries, the University Archives and the Taylor Institution (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985), plate 763. On the iconography typically associated with the figure of Job, see Meyer; Von der Osten; and Garmonsway and Raymo, eds., A Middle English Metrical Life of Job.

10 Crawford, p. 127; see also pp. 137, 140. Compare, however, the different usage of Besserman, who refers to all ME texts of the Dirge as ''Pety Job," grouping the present poem with the prose translation found in the Prymer and a shorter poetic version (p. 81). In his analysis the liturgy remains the text of central importance, and in all variants the voice is understood to be that of Job. In Pety Job, however, Besserman acknowledges that the words ''are best thought of as . . . spoken for a penitent fifteenth-century audience by and through the biblical protagonist" (p. 82).

11 On fifteenth-century translational methods, see Jerome Mitchell, Thomas Hoccleve (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1968), pp. 75-77; and Barratt, p. 275.

12 The refrain follows a formula described by Stephen Manning, the liturgically based ''address plus petition" (Wisdom and Number: Toward a Critical Appraisal of the Middle English Religious Lyric [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962], p. 64). According to Manning, a refrain poem creates its own kind of structure, based not on ''progression" but rather on ''sheer force of repetition."

13 Alford, pp. 323-25. The other poems are The Bird with Four Feathers (printed in this edition and a companion to Pety Job in three manuscripts); a verse prayer Fader and Sone and Holy Gost; and a carol Syng We to the Trinite. On other poems taking refrains from the liturgy, see F. A. Patterson, pp. 22-24. The insertion of the word ''Domine" in popular usage indicates the common source to be the liturgy, not the Vulgate directly, where the word of address does not appear.

14 McSparran and Robinson, p. xvi. Kreuzer summarizes some of the MS correspondences: (1938), pp. 78-80, (1949), pp. 359-63.

15 On the general question of women as the audience of texts, see Carol M. Meale, '''alle the bokes that I haue of latyn, englisch, and frensch': Laywomen and Their Books in Late Medieval England," and Julia Boffey, ''Women Authors and Women's Literacy in Fourteenth- and Fifteenth-Century England," in Women and Literature in Britain 1150-1500, ed. Carol M. Meale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 128-58, 159-82.

16 See Pantin, and Armstrong. Evidence of early ownership in Trinity R.3.21, CUL Ff.2.38, and Pepys 1584 suggests, moreover, that a class of devout bourgeois also read Pety Job. The latter two volumes, especially, appear to have been ''household books" in general use within middle-class families. All five MSS contain full pastoralia — expositions of the basic tenets of Christian doctrine — designed to educate the laity.

17 The poem contains a subtle and progressive ''subnarrative" that positions the voice initially with the living but seems gradually to move past the point of death (see note to line 203).

18 This theme was also favored by Gregory the Great in the Moralia in Job. In general, though, the author of Pety Job shows little dependence upon Gregory's important commentary. On this emphasis on human nothingness, see especially the note to lines 13-16, and the evocative imagery of stanza 24 (note to lines 277-80).
The poem Pety Job is a passionate penitential monologue that uses as its meditative base the liturgical text intoned daily for the souls of the dead. In the mid-fifteenth century (the approximate date for the composition of Pety Job), the Matins of the Office of the Dead, also called the Nine Lessons of the Dirge, 1 was a long-established sequence of verses drawn from Job's speeches to God. 2 The Matins service contained three nocturns, each made up of three psalms (read with antiphons) and three lessons from Job. Cloistered religious would have heard the Office read every day, and, increasingly in the fifteenth century, a devout and literate laity imitated monastic practice by daily attendance at mass and disciplined private devotions at home. Laypersons adopting a personal regimen of worship were instructed to recite their devotions daily; the Office of the Dead was often one of the prescribed offices (Pantin, pp. 405, 413-14). Along with the Little Office of Our Lady and the Hours of the Cross and of the Holy Ghost, the Office of the Dead was among the regular items in primers and in private books of hours. 3

Pety Job must, then, be read in recognition of a culture that fully embraced the Office of the Dead as a ritualized way to enclose and confront death, or at least to accept its mystery through time-honored words of earnest entreaty, rebellion, questioning, and submission. The speeches of the long-suffering Job provided the Pety Job poet a lyrical departure point, and the universality of the liturgy offered an emotionally charged context. Repetition of the Latin — whether fully understood or not by auditors — would most likely have been a somber but comforting experience, a memorial to the departed and a prayerful remembrance of one's own fate. Through vernacular translation and gloss the Middle English poet aligns the ancient words of Job to a medieval reader's desire to comprehend his or her own mortal condition, investing words already fraught with the power of long usage with a contemporary fervor and immediacy.

In three of the five Pety Job manuscripts scribes have prefaced the poem with a discursive incipit:
Here begynneth the nyne lessons of the Dirige, whych Job made in hys tribulacioun lying on the donghyll, and ben declared more opynly to lewde mennes understanding by a solempne, worthy, and discrete clerke Rychard Hampole, and ys cleped Pety Job, and ys full profitable to stere synners to compunccioun. 4
The other two manuscripts have no such rubric. While the long introduction has no authorial basis, it does offer a glimpse of the work's appeal to a contemporary reader, mingled, probably, with a bookseller's commercialism. The three manuscripts (Douce 322, Harley 1706, and Trinity R.3.21) all appear to have been produced in or near London, with one of them (Trinity R.3.21) copied by a scribe known to have had access to volumes that had belonged to John Shirley (c. 1366-1456). This scribe's work is datable to the reign of Edward IV (1460-83). Historians have gathered evidence that points to a ''setting of John Shirley and his successors in the business of compiling manuscript miscellanies, based in a shop in St. Batholomew's Close and employing local resources, aided by a network of personal relationships." 5 There is no proof that the book business of St. Bartholomew's had a role in producing Douce 322 and Harley 1706, but circumstantial evidence — early patrons or owners — points to connections within the same neighborhood and social circles.

The chatty rubric that introduces Pety Job is characteristic of volumes produced by John Shirley, and the feature derives, perhaps, from a desire to imitate contemporary French fashion, where such rubrics were common. In France the vernacular translation of Scripture was not restricted (as it was in England after 1408), and expositions upon the Book of Job and the Dirge were very popular. The fashion extended into French-speaking circles in England, particularly in London. 6 Two French plays about Job rely heavily upon the Office of the Dead for dialogue, 7 and there was also a stylish, philosophic poem, Vigillus de la mort, or Paraphrase des neufs leçons de Job, in wide circulation, written by Pierre Nesson (1383-1442/3), ''a poet conspicuous in the higher circles of his time." 8 The illustrations appearing near two of the long rubrics (Plates 5 and 6) also suggest French fashion. A. I. Doyle believes the source of the Douce illustration to be a similar P for Parce mihi on fol. 22 of Oxford, St. John's College MS 208, a Sarum book of hours. 9 This exemplar is by the Master of Sir John Falstolf, a French illuminator working in England and Normandy in the 1440s and 1450s.

The long rubric gives the poem two titles. Both are also found in the simpler rubric appearing in CUL Ff.2.38 and Pepys 1584:

Here . . . begynneth the ix lessons of dyryge whych ys clepyd Pety Job.

The first title, The Nyne Lessons of the Dirige, is purely descriptive and it defines the work's liturgical status as paraphrase of the Dirge. The scribe or compiler assumes an audience that would easily recognize the reference. The second title is to be taken, however, as the primary one: Pety Job. Middle English pety derives from Old French petit, and the phrase means ''little Job," in other words, an abridgement of the Job story. Strictly speaking, the phrase is a misnomer because its use in French referred to résumés of the Job narrative, with the long speeches omitted, but here the verses are drawn from dialogue only. Apparently, ''any highly-abridged version of the Book of Job . . . could be classed as a 'petit Job' by scribes of the fifteenth century." 10

The long rubric's ascription of authorship to the early fourteenth-century Yorkshire mystic, Richard Rolle, hermit of Hampole, cannot be accurate. Neither the dialect (southeast midland) nor the date of composition fits the facts known about Rolle. There also exists a marked difference in tone and style. Hope Emily Allen observes that Pety Job's lyric qualities are wholly unmatched in Rolle's writings:
[Pety Job] is a very beautiful commentary, of a sustained poetical and metrical power quite beyond what Rolle has shown in any other work; and, though very devout, it is quite unmystical. It seems to speak in a detached way of those sanctified in this life (among whom Rolle ranged himself). (p. 370)
Richard Rolle did write a commentary upon the Office of the Dead, Postillae super novem lectiones, a work whose aims were quite different from those of Pety Job. Rolle's gloss absorbed and transformed the solemn mood of the Office within his own mystical doctrine, in which the penitent ''was open to receive the foretaste of salvation in warmth, sweetness and song" (Hughes, p. 265). Pety Job, on the other hand, ''from beginning to end preserves the tone of proud, and even bitter submissiveness found in the original texts" (Allen, p. 370). Nonetheless, Rolle's popularity was at its height in the fifteenth century, and works attached to his name were in demand. The false ascription of Pety Job to Richard Rolle in the three London-area manuscripts bespeaks a bookdealer's interest in catering to a strong popular taste for a certain kind of devotional reading.

The conscious, subtle, and sophisticated style of Pety Job devolves from a particular social milieu, in which ''literature" was seen as cognate with devotional values, and poetic ''translation" did not demand the word-for-word reenactment of a text. One manuscript of Pety Job (Harley 1706) contains a brief note explaining how reading is a pious engagement of the mind to devotional pursuits:
We schulde rede and use bokes into this ende and entente: For formys of preysynge and preyynge to God, to oure lady Seynte Marye, and to alle the seyntes, that we myghte have by the forseyd use of redynge understondynge of God, of hys benyfetys, of hys lawe, of hys servyce, or sume orther goodly and gostely trowthis, or ellys that we myghte have good affeccyon toward God and hys seyntes and hys servyce to be gendryd and geten. (fol. 212b; quoted by Doyle, p. 231)
A book's purpose is to provide a path to understanding God, God's law, and God's service. Pety Job as paraphrase of a liturgical service offers such understanding and (as in the long rubric) is ''full profitable to stere synners to compunccioun." As A.I. Doyle remarks, the notion of literature here expressed carries a peculiarly medieval sense, that is, reading becomes an activity pursued solely for spiritual improvement, as part of ''a regular habit of mind and living, shared by solitaries and widows in vows, . . . besides monks, nuns, and friars, and accepted as something to be emulated, so far as possible, by earnest seculars, clerks and layfolk" (p. 231). To help this wide community of the devout reach a better understanding of God, the vernacular poet-translator would have understood that his role was to convey the ''truth" — not merely the words — embedded in the original. The source is used nonrestrictively to beget an independent work that remains, nevertheless, a translation. An expansionof the original material is to be expected — it is to be ''declared more opynly to lewde mennes understandyng" — and such expansion, when handled skillfully, was regarded highly as a sign of inspiration. 11

Within this devotional aesthetic the Pety Job poet produces an exceptionally fine piece of contritional writing. Surprisingly, given its rare power of expression, Pety Job's lyric lament has garnered little modern critical attention other than some brief praise in scattered quarters. In agreement with Allen's remarks, Laurence Muir voices an opinion that ''the poetry has power and beauty" (p. 383), and E. V. Gordon's observes that Pety Job is closer, metrically, to Pearl than any other surviving poem in the same stanza and may even contain verbal echoes (p. 87). Against these discernments stands the more usual reflex that puts Pety Job, without closer discrimination of style or form, into a vast class of penitential and didactic literature. For example, Frances McSparran's description of CUL Ff.2.38 explains the genre's dry appeal: ''The various items [in a group including Pety Job] are not lyrical or affective; there is little emotional warmth, no mysticism or exaltation; instead, they are sober, religious, didactic and chastening" (p. viii). Pety Job deserves, however, to be separated from conventional penitential poems and tracts and to become better recognized. The poetic voice resonates with an intensity of emotion both sustained and insistent. Translating Job loosely, the poet scrutinizes the quintessential condition of each individual, who by his own nature could not be redeemed but by an undeserved gift of grace. As a lyrical expression of monumental contrasts — human insufficiency juxtaposed to divine omnipotence — the poem ultimately transcends its own theme of human unworthiness, becoming a powerful artistic successor to the sublimity of its biblical source.

The poet adopts the difficult stanza form of Pearl, twelve lines in a complex rhyme-scheme that uses only three rhymes. As in the group of Vernon lyrics with the same stanzaic pattern, each stanza of Pety Job ends with a refrain, here drawn from the opening words of the First Lesson, Parce michi, Domine, ''Spare me, Lorde" (Job 7.16). Since these words also stand as the poem's first line, the refrain delivers a circular effect, from stanza to stanza and from end back to beginning. 12 The poet has charged what could have been mere perfunctory tags with a sense of urgent entreaty. William Langland's casual shorthanding of the phrase to parce (in Piers Plowman B 18.390) and its use as a refrain in at least three other surviving poems point to its widespread familiarity. 13 In Pety Job the translation stresses the speaker's desired intimacy with God: Domine is rendered ''dear Lord," michi expanded to ''my soul," and the imperative parce rendered emphatically with its subject ''Thou spare!" The resultant phrase in English, ''Lyef Lord, my soule Thow spare!", invigorates the hypnotically familiar Latin.

In the three London-based manuscripts each stanza of Pety Job is headed by a Vulgate verse from Job, in the same nonsequential order used for the Nine Lessons. The scribes of the remaining two copies reproduced Pety Job as a more exclusively English lyric, the Latin headings omitted. These two manuscripts, CUL Ff.2.38 and Pepys 1584, closely overlap in contents, and although they were not copied from the same exemplar, the scribes ''likely had access to some standard source in which these related texts were already associated." 14 The former of these manuscripts is a volume compiled for private use within a secular household. It is instructive to see here the poem presented for a lay audience without its Latin counterpart. Indeed, it is possible that the original poem did not possess the Latin headings. Often the poet will extend a thought or rhetorical figure over a series of stanzas, seeming to assume a reader's light recall of the Latin without any actual interruption of the English verses.

Evidence in two of the London-based manuscripts (Douce 322 and Harley 1706) connects them with Dartford Priory and Barking Abbey, two London houses closely associated with prominent, wealthy families (Doyle, pp. 222-43). From such evidence, Crawford postulates an early audience that was primarily in orders. Along with Syon Monastery, these religious foundations ''were at the center of the fifteenth-century movement for more devotional literature and must have been involved with considerable book-commissioning and book-lending" (p. 108). Crawford speculates that the free renderings of the Nine Lessons in the vernacular ''could have supplied, for instance, nine days of the required readings in English during meals" for nuns who ''were by the fifteenth century urged to learn the meaning of the texts they recited" (pp. 107-08). 15 The later of the two manuscripts, Harley 1706 (c. 1475- 1500; a copy of Douce 322 or its replica) retains the signature of one of its early owners, Elizabeth Beaumont, a noblewoman with substantial family ties to Dartford (her husband's aunt and then her own aunt or cousin had been prioress in the years 1442-58 and 1471-72, respectively) and to Barking (where her sister was a nun). About a year after her husband William's death in 1507, Elizabeth married John Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford. Her signature appears six times in the volume, twice as ''Beaumount" and four times as ''Oxynforde." One of the earlier Beaumont signatures appears on fol. 11a below the text of Pety Job. By all accounts this early ''reader" of Pety Job lived a devout life:
[S]he died [in 1537] in the Benedictine nunnery of Stratford (at Bow), another not-far-distant community of gentle birth and breeding, and was buried, along with her husband, in the church of the London Austin friars' convent. . . . [I]n the preamble of [her] extremely pious [will] the Countess speaks of herself as being then in her 'pure widowhede', a phrase which might be interpreted to mean that she had actually taken, as was quite frequent with ladies of her condition in the Middle Ages, special vows to remain in such a state, pursuing a quasi religious manner of life. (Doyle, pp. 235-37)
What evidence exists, then, as to an early audience for Pety Job suggests it included women of noble birth and high religious observance, some in orders and some secular but with close family ties to religious houses. It is fair to assume, as well, an audience of some men — those who served as spiritual counselors to such women and family members who, like the Earl of Oxford, would have shared some of this devotional practice. 16

The theory that the original audience was substantially composed of women may give one pause, for the poem Pety Job is avowedly masculine in its theological philosophizing, as is the Book of Job. The question posed in the second stanza of the poem, that is, the vexed query of Job 7.17 (Quid est homo, quia magnificas eum?, ''What is a man that thou shouldst magnify him?"), opens an inquiry that is framed in gendered terms. By the term man the poet means ''the condition of each soul born into the world from a woman." The rhetorical stance separates ''man" (the status of the voice and his audience) from ''woman" (the contaminating source of a material life cursed by constant sinning and a consciousness of sinning). There is little doubt that a house of religious women could accept this metaphorically gendered definition, just as Chaucer's Second Nun could term herself an ''unworthy sone of Eve" (CT VIII 62), an interesting inversion of ordinary gendered terms, making the original ancestor a woman, and each penitent descendent, like the narrating Nun, a male child. The Pety Job poet underscores the distinction, as though the dual-gendered world symbolizes the essence of the human predicament of separation from God. One's troubles begin at the moment of birth (lines 625-33). The poet adds to his Latin source the self-negating wish that he had been absorbed into his mother's body. He wishes that his eyes — part of his enemy flesh — might never have looked upon the enticements of the enemy world.

The lyric voice thus speaks of a misery shared by all who have (or have had) voices to speak and ears to listen. The poet provides a generic name for the verses of Pety Job: they are a song of truth (lines 2-3, 9-12). The words of the poem represent a speech-act that is conscious of its own vocal essence, that is, of the power and dangers inherent in speaking. It becomes the collective voice of all dead and all living, individualized but sharing the universal experience, and wishing, paradoxically, for the status of the unborn, the only condition that could have prevented the speaker from knowing and saying terrible truths. It is utterance reduced to a basic sentence: the soul stands in need of God's grace; he cannot achieve salvation on his own merits. With nuanced subtlety and a sense of anguish, the poet of Pety Job explores the complex psychology of sin, penance, and verbal confession. Lee Patterson has described the delicate tightrope act that contrition had become in late medieval religious life: ''an uneasy balance of negation and assertion, a radical self-hatred and fear of God that is paradoxically joined to spes triplex [the threefold hope of pardon, grace, and glory] and a reliance on divine mercy" (pp. 378-79). In style and substance Pety Job is expressive of such inner conflict.

The insistently intimate tone portrays a voice mature in self-knowledge but also pathetically childlike, alternately petitioning, praising, fearing, questioning, even reproaching the Deity addressed as majestic Father-Figure. A mood of prayer and confession prevails. The reader is soon invited to be more than an eavesdropper and to accept the interiorized lament as his own (lines 31-34). Eventually the speaker asks that his words be written down as an example to others. Given that the poem exists on the page, the written verses become the fulfillment of the verbally enacted petition (stanzas 48-49, expanding upon Job 19.23-24). Nevertheless, the request and its embodiment in writing run counter to the verbal self-consciousness of the prayer-lament, which the voice offers as a spoken utterance to be written down by someone else, that is, a compassionate friend of the speaker, who ought, after the lyricist's death, to remember and pity his plight (stanzas 46-47, an expansion of Job 19.21-22). Such a friend will remember him with the prescribed prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, as well as with recitation of the Office of the Dead on his behalf (lines 547-50). The poem thus enacts the very liturgy that will someday serve for the voice who speaks it, or perhaps it already has. 17 The oral rituals of petition, confession, and the intoned Office of the Dead coexist, consciously and paradoxically, with their material representation as a written text.

The lyric voice is itself in a sense disembodied, but it returns, often and obsessively, to the subject of corporeality, for the sounding tongue is enclosed by the body (stanza 45). Salvation, if it is to come, depends upon the sinner's confessional voice, yet speaking is itself a reflex of the corrupt body. The paradox creates a powerful tension between verbal form and penitential meaning, leading to a subtle exploration of the difficulties inherent in any confession that emerges from a man still mortally enclosed within the brittle clay of life. Man is caught in sin even as he speaks.

The theme of man as shaped from clay derives from Job 10.9 (see stanza 14), but the voice of Pety Job reiterates this theme even more insistently than the source, making it a metaphor that defines human nothingness. 18 For example, in the seventh stanza, where Job complains, ''I shall sleep now in the dust: and if thou seek me in the morning, I shall not be" (7.21), the lyricist's voice takes the thought further by lamenting his origin in dust:
Loo, in pouder I shall slepe,
For owte of poudere furst I cam,
And into poudere must I crepe,
For of that same kynde I am.
That I ne am pouder I may not threpe,
For erthe I am as was Adam,
And nowe my pytte ys dolven depe;
Though men me seke, ryght nought I am! (lines 73-80)
He makes literal Job's implied equation between dirt, human corporeality, the grave, and death's oblivion.

While the voice sings of how the body's weighted flesh drags down the soul, he also bewails another punishment that comes through intellect: man lives in knowledge of his constantly flawed state. The voice, in a state of conflict, is deeply repentant but still ''dived" deep in sin (stanza 4). The unfairness of the struggle sometimes rankles the penitent: it was God who endowed man with his substance; why did He make man's flesh have desires contrary to His will (lines 51-52; see Job 7.20)? And is it not a great hardship to have such faulty vision that man may see only outward things, and not the spiritual ways of God (lines 295-99; see stanza 10)? For the penitent soul, punishment seems to come arbitrarily for sins enacted unconsciously or over which he had no control (lines 457-64). The ways of God are inscrutable, and despite the hope for mercy, man's subjugated condition seems unbearably cruel treatment from a Father.

The psychological and metaphysical dilemma takes on an existential dimension. God has endowed man with an unasked-for awareness of his own unworthiness and has also made him subject to a never-ending surveillance. Quoting, paraphrasing, and freely expanding upon Job, the lyric voice complains that man may not hide himself from God, who knows all his movements, private deeds, and thoughts (stanzas 22-23); he pleads for a brief respite (stanza 31); and he expects no relief from correction even in the afterlife (lines 373-82). He complains especially of his tormented thoughts, which cannot make sense of this predicament. These thoughts — a mark of his humanity — keep him awake, turning night into day (stanzas 40-41; see Job 17.11-12). At last, in a remarkable shifting of the images of sleeplessness and troubled thoughts, the voice reduces the life of the soul to a little bed of personal consciousness:
In derkenesse dymme, all oute of ese,
My lytell bed spred I have:
That bed shall I never lese,
Though I wolde for angor rave,
Tyll the Day of Dome that, of my grave,
I shall aryse, and mo with me.
My soule, Lorde, I pray, Thow save
With Parce michi, Domine! (lines 497-504)
The soul's ''lytell bed" is its enclosure within the body, and in this small space the mind is afflicted with the tormenting ''thoughts" of personal guilt and future doom that the voice of Pety Job records with precision. And these thoughts will pass to another small space, the grave, where the still troubled soul will await the Day of Judgment.

The voice's self-negating impulses — a wish to be unborn, an utterance of misery, a preoccupation with death — translate into a desire to be released from consciousness, from speech, and, logically extended, even from the production of a religious art of the kind created here. A profound, black irony would seem to rest at the heart of a poem composed to express a desire to undo God's creation of self-aware humanity: the logic behind the lyric complaint would seemingly repudiate the human power to create the beautiful artifact of earnest devotion that Pety Job becomes. Nevertheless, subject always to God, the voice carries on.

Crawford accurately characterizes Pety Job as ''not a dogmatic treatise on the sacrament of penance," but ''rather the emotional expression of a poetic 'I' in which the audience could participate" (p. 176). She goes on to evaluate the seeming absence of a transcendent, mystical goal:
[While] he seeks to motivate [his audience] to do their duty[, t]here is no penetrating assessment of the value of repentance, no mystical fervor, no tender devotion in the Pety Job: in short, no achievement of sublimity. (p. 177; compare Allen, p. 370, and Hughes, p. 265)
This assessment, put in negative terms, does not quite do justice to the poet's accomplishment. While perhaps there is nothing in Pety Job that is like Richard Rolle's assurance of ''warmth, sweetness, and song," the poet does achieve what might be called a sublime revelation without ever losing the meditative focus upon human smallness and unworthiness. The penultimate lesson, Lesson 8, provided opportunity, for here the words of Job extend the promise that one may personally glimpse the Godhead:
For I know that my Redeemer liveth; and in the last day I shall rise out of the earth. And I shall be clothed again with my skin, and in my flesh I shall see my God: whom I myself shall see, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. This my hope is laid up in my bosom. (19.25-27)
The soulful voice of Pety Job affirms his faith in this experience, praising God's magnificence in his transported account of what wondrous sights he will see. The burden of the isolated consciousness will be rewarded by the promised directness and non-vicariousness of this experience (lines 605-08). The penitent voice imagines that he shall see this sight himself, as was promised, with his own spiritually transformed eyes.

The last lesson, Lesson 9, returns the voice, even with this hope, to his enduring condition of sin and penitence, now with the wish (already cited) that his mother's flesh had consumed him before his birth so that his eyes might never have seen the world. The hoped-for reward will be ineffably splendid, but the fact of day-to-day existence remains still a discouragement (lines 639-42). The song now becomes one of weeping, that is, the penitent's gift of tears, and the poem closes with an admonitory vision of ''the derke lande . . . / That kevered ys with black alway" (lines 667-68). The final imagery of death and hell is stark, powerful, and utterly bereaved in its frightening evocation of where the sinner without God would be abandoned:
The londe of myschefe and of derknes,
Whereas dampned soules dwell,
The londe of woo and of wrechednesse,
Where ben mo peynes than tonge may telle,
The londe of dethe and of duresse,
In whyche noon order may dwelle,
The londe of wepyng and of drerynesse,
And stynkyng sorow on to smelle! (lines 673-80; italics added)
This place with more pains ''than tonge may telle" possesses a horror as bluntly inexpressible as is the majesty of the Godhead. Lyricism somehow conveys the untold terror of this place of black abandonment, the poet's tongue succeeding both in expression of what cannot be said and in utterance of the only plea that may save him, ''Parce michi, Domine!"

Note on the Edited Text

In three manuscripts (Douce 322, Harley 1706, and Trinity Coll. Camb. R.3.21) each stanza of Pety Job is headed by the corresponding Latin verse from the Office of the Dead. Two manuscripts (Camb. Univ. Lib. Ff.2.38 and Pepys l584) omit Latin headings. I have used the latter format, supplying the Vulgate text as it is written by the Douce 322 scribe (and the corresponding Douay-Rheims translation) at the foot of each page of text. For a medieval reader the Latin text of the Office of the Dead was familiar; many would have known it by heart. For a modern reader not likely to have this facility, inclusion of Latin headings tends to obstruct the vigor of the vernacular poem. Moreover, one cannot be certain that the poem originally had the headings, especially since inclusion of the Latin led those three scribes to omit the poem's first line. In several instances, moreover, the English syntax flows across stanza breaks. Other editors have printed the poem with liturgical stanza headings, but Crawford acknowledges that they could have been ''added by a very clever copyist" (p. 44).

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Select Bibliography


Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 322, fols. 10a-15a. London, c. 1475. [Base text; connected to Dartford Priory.]

Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.3.21, fols. 38a-50b. London, c. 1475. [Copied by a London scribe (fl. 1460-83) who is known to have 

had access to Shirley manuscripts after John Shirley's death; an early owner, who perhaps commissioned it, was a well-to-do London mercer, Roger Thorney (c. 1450-1515).]

London, British Library MS Harley 1706, fols. 10b-15b. London, c. 1500. [A copy of Douce 322 or from the same exemplar; connected to Elizabeth Beaumont, Countess of Oxford, and to Barking Abbey.]

Cambridge, Cambridge University Library MS Ff.2.38, fols. 6a-10a. C. 1490. [Designed for use in a middle-class household; contains works of religious instruction and several romances.]

Cambridge, Magdalene College MS Pepys 1584, fols. 48a-62a. C. 1490. [Contents similar to religious portion of CUL Ff.2.38.]


McSparran, Frances, and P. R. Robinson, intro. Cambridge University Library MS Ff.2.38. London: Scolar, 1979.


Crawford, Karis Ann, ed. The Middle English Pety Job: A Critical Edition with a Study of Its Place in Late Medieval Religious Literature. Ph.D. Thesis (unpublished). University of Toronto, 1977. [Douce 322 as base text.]

Horstmann, Carl, ed. Yorkshire Writers. Vol. 2. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1896. Pp. 381-89. [Harley 1706 as base text.]

Kail, J., ed. Twenty-Six Political and Other Poems. EETS o.s. 124. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1904. Pp. xxiii, 120-43. [Douce 322.]

Lessons from the Dirge

Day, Mabel, ed. The Wheatley Manuscript. EETS o.s. 155. 1921. Pp. xviii-xix, 59-64. [Middle English prose text found in some primers.]

Kail, J., ed. Twenty-Six Political and Other Poems. EETS o.s. 124. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1904. Pp. 107-20. [Middle English verse paraphrase, in 52 8-line stanzas, based on primer translation.]

Littlehales, Henry, ed. The Prymer or Lay Folks' Prayer Book. EETS o.s. 105, 109. 1895, 1897; rpt. as one vol. Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus, 1975. Pp. 56-70. [Standard prose translation of liturgy.]

Procter, Francis, and Christopher Wordsworth, eds. Breviarium ad usum insignis ecclesiae Sarum. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1879. Pp. 274-79. [Latin liturgy.]

Related Middle English Works

The Bird with Four Feathers. Printed in this edition. [Same refrain; follows Pety Job in Douce 322 and Harley 1706; precedes it in Trinity R.3.21.]

Brampton, Thomas. Metrical Paraphrase of the Seven Penitential Psalms. Ed. James R. Kreuzer. Traditio 7 (1949), 359-403. [Paraphrase of liturgical Scripture; companion to Pety Job in Pepys 1584; also found in CUL Ff.2.38.]

Fader and Sone and Holy Gost. Ed Carleton Brown. Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century. Oxford: Clarendon, 1939. Pp. 210-11, 336. [Lyric with same refrain.]

God Send Us Patience in Our Old Age. Ed. Carleton Brown. In Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century. Oxford: Clarendon, 1939. Pp. 233-36. [Refrain poem in same stanza; appears in Harley 1706.]

Lichfield, William. The Complaint of God to Sinful Man. Ed. E. Bergstr'm. Anglia 34 (1911), 498-525. [Companion to Pety Job in CUL Ff.2.38; also found in Trinity R.3.21 and Pepys 1584.]

A Middle English Metrical Life of Job. Ed. G. N. Garmonsway and R. R. Raymo. In Early English and Norse Studies Presented to Hugh Smith in Honour of His Sixtieth Birthday. Ed. Arthur Brown and Peter Foote. London: Methuen, 1963. Pp. 77-98.

Parce mihi O Lorde Moste Excellent. Ed. Edward Bliss Reed. ''The Sixteenth-Century Lyrics in Add. MS. 18,752." Anglia 33 (1910), 353.

Pearl. Ed. E. V. Gordon. Oxford: Clarendon, 1953. [Same stanza; perhaps some verbal echoes (see p. 87).]

Syng We to the Trinite. Ed. Richard Leighton Greene. In The Early English Carols. Second ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977. Pp. 214, 439. [Carol with the same refrian.]

The Twelve Profits of Anger. Ed. James R. Kreuzer. PMLA 53 (1938), 78-85. [Poem on the virtues of affliction, found in both CUL Ff.2.38 and Pepys 1584.]

Vernon Lyrics. Ed. Carleton Brown. In Religious Lyrics of the XIVth Century. Second ed. Rev. G. V. Smithers. Oxford: Clarendon, 1957. Nos. 95, 100, 101, 103, 106, 110, 118, 120. [Refrain poems in same stanza.]

Criticism of Pety Job

Allen, Hope Emily. Writings Ascribed to Richard Rolle, Hermit of Hampole. New York: Heath, 1927. Pp. 369-70.

Besserman, Lawrence L. The Legend of Job in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979. Pp. 79-84.

Muir, Laurence. ''Translations and Paraphrases of the Bible, and Commentaries." In A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050-1500. Ed. J. Burke Severs. Vol. 2. Hamden, Conn.: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1970. Pp. 383-84, 536.

Related Studies

Alford, John. ''A Note on Piers Plowman B.xviii.390: 'Til parce it hote."' Modern Philology 69 (1971-72), 323-25.

Armstrong, C. A. J. ''The Piety of Cicely, Duchess of York: A Study in Late Mediaeval Culture." In For Hilaire Belloc: Essays in Honour of His 72nd Birthday. Ed. Douglas Woodruff. London: Sheed & Ward, 1942. Pp. 73-94.

Astell, Ann W. Job, Boethius, and Epic Truth. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994. Pp. 70-96.

Barratt, Alexandra. ''The Prymer and Its Influence on Fifteenth-Century English Passion Lyrics." Medium Ævum 44 (1975), 264-79.

Doyle, A. I. ''Books Connected with the Vere Family and Barking Abbey." Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society, n.s. 25 (1958), 222-43.

Fein, Susanna Greer. ''Twelve-Line Stanza Forms in Middle English and the Date of Pearl." Speculum 72 (1997), 367, 383-85, 389-90, 397.

Hughes, Jonathan. Pastors and Visionaries: Religion and Secular Life in Medieval Yorkshire. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 1988. Pp. 265-69.

Keiser, George R. '''Noght How Lang Man Lifs; Bot How Wele': The Laity and the Ladder of Perfection." In De Cella in Seculum: Religious and Secular Life and Devotion in Medieval England. Ed. Michael G. Sargent. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1989. Pp. 145-59.

Meyer, Kathi. ''St. Job as a Patron of Music." Art Bulletin 36 (1954), 21-31.

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.

Parkes, M. B. ''The Literacy of the Laity." In The Medieval World. Ed. David Daiches and Anthony Thorlby. London: Unwin Brothers, 1973. Pp. 555-76.

Patterson, Frank Allen. The Middle English Penitential Lyric. 1911; rpt. New York: AMS, 1966.

Patterson, Lee. ''The Subject of Confession." In Chaucer and the Subject of History. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991. Pp. 367-94.

Scattergood, V. J. ''Unpublished Middle English Poems from British Museum MS Harley 1706." English Philological Studies 12 (1970), 35-41.

Spitzig, Joseph A. Sacramental Penance in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1947.

Von der Osten, G. ''Job and Christ: The Development of a Devotional Image." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 16 (1953), 133-58.