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The Sinner's Lament: Introduction


1 Meditation on the Passion; and of Three Arrows on Doomsday (MS Rawlinson C.285, fols. 64aB68b), a work associated with Richard Rolle (ed. Horstmann, pp. 120B21).

2 Woolf attempted to correct the error in 1966 (p. 321 n.3), but to no avail. The effect of the title has been to disappoint some who expect a better match for the sensational tale of a son who witnesses the hell-torments of his libidinous father. For example, Brian Stone curtly dismisses the "prologue'' as a "prolix and repetitive harangue'' (Medieval English Verse, second ed. [New York: Penguin, 1971], p. 83), while Andrea Hopkins mistakenly assumes the existence of several shared manuscripts (The Sinful Knights: A Study of Middle English Penitential Romance [Oxford: Clarendon, 1990], p. 220).

3 Abyde, Ye Who Pass By (lines 1B3, 7B8), ed. Carleton Brown, Religious Lyrics of the XIVth Century, p. 59. On the devotional image of Christ's body, see Gillespie, especially pp. 111B15; and Gray, pp. 140B41.

4 Twenty-one of these paintings still survive, and a few carry inscriptions; see Tristram, pp. 234B35 nn. 60, 62, 68; Gray, pp. 208B09. On the motif of the Three Living and the Three Dead, see Tristram, pp. 162B67, and the English poem De tribus regibus mortuis. On medieval images of death as "salutory warning'' rather than morbid interest in decay, see Pearsall, especially p. 66.

5 The Dance of Death, intro. White, pp. xxiiBxxiv; Tristram, pp. 168B70; Gray, pp. 50B51, 208; and E. Carleton Williams, "The Dance of Death in Painting and Sculpture in the Middle Ages,'' Journal of the British Archaelogical Association, 3rd series, I (1937), 229B57. See also Thomas Brewer, Memoir of the Life and Times of John Carpenter, Town Clerk of London (London: Arthur Taylor, 1856), pp. 29B36.

6 For some strong images of the damned suffering bodily fragmentation, see Bynum, plates 12, 15, 31; and also Kren and Wieck.

7 In noting the poem's "lack of steady progression,'' Woolf neglects to consider that what seems a flaw may in fact be part of an affective design. She detects a similar looseness in what may be a Latin source, the Speculum peccatorum (p. 322). Admittedly, the lyric that survives does contain C in both textual traditions C repetitions and tag phrases, and the manuscripts reveal scribes at work reconstructing the poem, willing to use familiar phrases as filler (see note to lines 25B32). The merits evident in Version A indicate, however, an original that was effectively constructed and phrased.

8 Lynne S. Blanchfield, "The Romances in MS Ashmole 61: An Idiosyncratic Scribe,'' in Romance in Medieval England, ed. Maldwyn Mills, Jennifer Fellows, and Carol M. Meale (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1991), p. 86, who postulates that Rate collected texts to entertain family audiences gathered for feasts of the Corpus Christi Guild in Leicester. See also Boffey and Thompson, pp. 297B99, 313B14 nn. 101B04; A. J. Bliss, ed., Sir Orfeo (Oxford: Clarendon, 1966), p. xvii; and M. B. Parkes, "The Literacy of the Laity,'' in The Mediaeval World, ed. David Daiches and Anthony Thorlby (London: Unwin Brothers, 1973), pp. 569, 576 nn. 82B83.

9 See Blanchfield, pp. 79, 82.

10 Phillipa Hardman, "A Mediaeval Library in parvo,'' Medium Evum 47 (1988), 262B73. See also Boffey and Thompson, pp. 295B97.

11 On the joining of these two works in a sequence elsewhere (MS Lambeth 853), see the Introduction to In a Valley of This Restless Mind. On quire 10 specifically, see Hardman, pp. 265, 272.

12 See F. J. Furnivall, ed., The Babees Book, EETS o.s. 32 (Oxford: N. Trübner & Co., 1868), pp. 58; see also Gray, pp. 48, 240 n. 54.

13 Thorlac Turville-Petre, "Some Medieval English Manuscripts in the North-East Midlands,'' in Manuscripts and Readers in Fifteenth Century England, ed. Derek Pearsall (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1983), pp. 133B40.

14 Owen, in Brewer and Owen, p. xiv. Stylized dragons appear on fol. 51b with the catchword and on fol. 52a with the explicit ("Explicit lamentacio''); a similar one appears on fol. 162a as part of the explicit for The Awntyrs off Arthure.

15 Gisela Guddat-Figge claims that the prognostications are later and in a different hand (Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Middle English Romances [Munich: W. Fink, 1976], pp. 140, 141 n. 6), but both Brewer (Brewer and Owen, p. vii) and R. M. Thomson (Catalogue of the Manuscripts of Lincoln Cathedral Chapter Library [Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1989], p. 68) assert the hand to be consistent. James Orchard Halliwell took Lament to be in a later and different hand (The Thornton Romances, Camden Society 1.30 [1844; rpt. New York: AMS, 1968], p. xxvii).

16 See Phillipa Hardman, "Reading the Spaces: Pictorial Intentions in the Thornton MSS, Lincoln Cathedral MS 91, and BL MS Add. 31042,'' Medium Evum 53 (1994), 250B74, who notes that elsewhere Thornton places a devotional lament of Christ before the Northern Passion (p. 262); she further argues that Thornton intended meditational images to be drawn next to two poems of Christ's lament (pp. 261B67). If she is right, then Lament, which is also accompanied by adequate space for an image, may have been intended to provide another meditational site in the manuscript. The sequence of Thornton's copying has been much studied. It appears that he originally planned to place Morte Arthure first in the manuscript, but later gaining access to the prose Alexander, he positioned it before the already completed Morte. See John J. Thompson, Robert Thornton and the London Thornton Manuscript (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1987), pp. 61B62; Ralph Hanna III, "The Growth of Robert Thornton's Books,'' Studies in Bibliography 40 (1987), 51B61.

17 Renate Haas, "The Laments for the Dead,'' in Karl Heinz G'ller, The "Alliterative Morte Arthure'': A Reassessment of the Poem (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1981), 117B29, 176B77; and also Russell A. Peck, "Willfulness and Wonders: Boethian Tragedy in the Alliterative Morte Arthure,'' in The Alliterative Tradition in the Fourteenth Century, ed. Bernard S. Levy and Paul E. Szarmach [Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1981], p. 170. For the death of Alexander, see The Prose Life of Alexander, ed. Westlake, pp. 113B15.

18 Edward Wilson, "Local Habitations and Names in MS Rawlinson C 813 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford,'' Review of English Studies, n.s. 41 (1990), 12B44 (especially pp. 32B37); and Jansen and Jordan, pp. 33B35.

19 See also Woolf: "[the speaker] insists on the deadly sins that he committed, which are characteristically those of the rich'' (p. 322).

20 Montague Rhodes James, A Descriptive Catalogue of the MSS in the Library of Lambeth Palace: The Mediaeval MSS (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932), p. 769. The volume also contains a list of itemized expenses incurred by a "John Semon'' in purchasing books and parchment.

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The Sinner's Lament: Introduction

What sorow, qwat dred hopes thon the weryed wrycches sal hafe whene God sal say: "Ite maledicti in ignem eternam." . . . Than sal the foule deevells dryfe thase wrytches in til hell als wod lyouns, withouten end thare forto dwele. Than sal thay wery the tyme that thai eever ylle wrogth. . . . Nedderes, snakis, tadis and other venemous beestis, ma than I can neevene, sal lif in that fyre als fysshes duse in the flode, to pyne thase wrytches. 1
An editorial misjudgment made in the nineteenth century and becoming, over time, an accepted tradition has obscured the true nature of the poem appearing here. In 1866 F. J. Furnivall misdesignated it the prologue to a longer work, The Adulterous Falmouth Squire, but, in doing so, he relied on the evidence of only one of its six manuscripts, Ashmole 61, where The Sinner's Lament immediately precedes The Adulterous Falmouth Squire and is copied continuously with it. Nowhere else are the two works related. They appear separately in every other manuscript, five others for Lament, seven for Squire. In one copy, moreover, Lament appears under a contemporary title: Lamentacio peccatoris.

Proof that the link in Ashmole is spurious can be readily demonstrated. Someone — most likely "Rate," the Ashmole scribe and compiler — doctored the first stanza in order to join the two works and to give a name and locale to the sinner: he is identified, satirically, as Sir William Basterdfeld of England. Three verses were added to this stanza, and its eight-line length was consequently altered to eleven lines. The ascription can therefore be dismissed as an extrapolation by someone who wished to join two originally separate pieces. Nevertheless, Furnivall's designation appears in virtually every index and catalogue. Even where Squire is absent (as it is everywhere but Ashmole), The Sinner's Lament has been consigned to the anonymity conferred by a lifeless title, Prologue to The Adulterous Falmouth Squire. 2

The surviving evidence warrants a more accurate appraisal. What the manuscripts preserve is not the prologue to a particular story but rather a penitential lyric that beckons a fifteenth-century audience to contrition through the assumed voice and bodily torment of a doomed, already dead sinner. The manuscripts show, moreover, that the poem survives in two distinct versions, with no record made before now of the second one. While the copies that have been published all derive from the same tradition, the text found in Oxford, Corpus Christi College MS 237 (CCC 237) preserves a version that has a greater length, a finer structure of parallel halves, and a more inclusive social orientation. This version is the one printed here — designated "A" — with the other manuscripts representing "B." Version A emphasizes the need of general humanity — men and women, rich and poor — to repent before they die. Version B, surviving at its most complete in Ashmole 61, points its poetic finger at rich, indolent noblemen, singling out lechery as their chief vice.

The Sinner's Lament belongs to a widespread class of penitential lyrics in which the dead speak from the grave and deliver a warning to the living. The sinner expresses sorrow for his sins, and (in Version A only) he follows doctrine and convention in enumerating his guilt in all seven deadly sins. Being located, however, outside the efficacy of a standard confession, this speaker will be neither purged of sin nor saved from hell. His cry for sympathy comes from the place beyond purification: the realm of the damned. In life he was immersed in worldly desire, and he fatally delayed in seeking God. Now God has abandoned him. His emotional plea is therefore not for himself (as one expects in an act of penance), but for the reader: "Look upon me! See my pain! Help yourself before it is too late!" The sinner's chance has passed; the reader's is now. The rhetoric of the poem posits an unlikely act of virtue from an unvirtuous man. It also grants a glimpse of the experience beyond the grave: unnerving tortures that would extract belated confession from a hardened sinner. Were the reader to see his or her own life for what it is — a living suicide of impious behavior — he or she might repent while there is time. The poem is thus structured upon a set of implicit contrasts — living/dead, here/there, now/then, light/dark — that reconfigure time on earth as a living death in sin, while death becomes an afterlife devoid of hope but of potential redemptive value to others. Horror and empathy may lead the reader to contrition and God while time exists.

The Sinner's Lament conjures for the receptive reader what Woolf terms "a warning meditative image" (p. 323), a visual imaging of the speaker's body and its condition. Other graphic warnings from the suffering dead exist in Middle English (many enumerated by Woolf, pp. 315-21), and the opening call to those who pass by is itself a convention (from Lamentations 1.12, "O vos omnes qui transitis per viam"). The call to behold and learn can be found both in death lyrics and in meditative lyrics with a somewhat different orientation. It opens, for example, a poem asking the passers-by to contemplate Christ's wounded body:
Abyde, gud men, and hald yhour pays
And here what God Himselven says,
   Hyngand on the rode:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Behald my body or thou gang,
And think opon my payns strang . . . 3
Both types of appeal (from the dead, from Christ wounded) are calls to visualize a body in its suffering, and the similarity says something about medieval devotional habits. The values of the body become the route for spiritual change. Such poems appeal directly to the emotions, to innate trust in what one sees, to sensorial knowledge of pain, and to each individual's primal sense of corporeal wholeness. The meditant is asked to empathize with a human sufferer whose body is undergoing an arduous trial. By feeling the wretched condition of another in one's normally complacent flesh, one might be drawn closer to adopting the salvational instruction in one's spiritual life.

It is possible, too, that the original version of The Sinner's Lament, with its bold visual opening ("Behold and see!"), had some sort of pictorial representation to aid the meditant, either a manuscript illustration or a wall painting. Its content accords with other popular subjects commonly displayed in public places. In allowing a dead man to speak to the living, it is reminiscent of the widespread motif of the Three Dead and the Three Living, often found painted upon the sanctuary walls of medieval English churches. 4 Similarly, John Lydgate's Dance of Death, commissioned in 1426 by John Carpenter, City Clerk of London (c. 1370?-1441?), accompanied rich paintings along the wall of the north cloister of Saint Paul's Cathedral. 5 Death was a popular subject for such representation: in life-sized public display, the stasis of image (the dead) could serve as forcible contrast to those who move by. Some of the affective power may also have rested in a wry reversal of who comes and goes. As Philippa Tristram observes, "it is the dead, paradoxically, who dance, whilst the living are frozen in fear" (p. 168).

The visceral effect in Lament, if experienced with the sinner, is one of shattered boundaries. 6 Those well delineated in life — body versus soul, self versus external world — crumble away in death. The wretched sinner speaks from a realm where hardfast worldly verities have shifted, his former states of luxury and dominance vastly altered to pain and servitude. The sinner's physical suffering is made gruesomely palpable to the reader: toads and snakes "lap" him both outside and inside his body, which is evidently losing its determinant shape, deteriorating first to a "cage," and then to "fire," and all the while devils rip him from "toppe to too."

The image of body as cage occupies the middle stanza of the poem, followed by various types of confinement noticeably cruder and more open than is a living person's normal sense of body. The damned soul is caged by fire, fettered by fiends, confined as a beast in a stall. What develops is a tactile sense of the soul lost, not merely abandoned metaphysically but also homeless in a space without its accustomed fleshly enclosure. The poet shatters the reader's worldly sense of time and space by forcing a sensation of the sinner's corporeal open-endedness. The rhetorical contrasts deployed in the speaker's warnings thus challenge the reader's sense of distance from the next world: "Such as I am shall you be." The verbal structure, at times loose, repetitive, distracted, is like the sinner in pain, and like his increasingly unstructured body, with its unwanted reptilian appendages. 7

Remarkably, given the frequent vagaries of medieval lyric survival, most of the six manuscripts that preserve The Sinner's Lament were copied by men identifiable by name, locale, and compilational habits, allowing us to glimpse some early readers of this lyric and to guess at the reasons for its inclusion in their collections. In general, these copyists treated the poem casually: it never appears with the same number of strophes in any two manuscripts; lines or groups of lines have a tendency to be repeated or misplaced; and frequently (in four manuscripts) it seems to have been used as a filler in a blank space left between copies of longer works. Always it fits thematically with adjacent material, and how it fits can be informative. Probably because the piece had some sort of public (and possibly oral) life, it was seen as available for plunder by compilers wishing to adapt it for a contextual purpose, much as a well-known song or saying might now be used. Often chosen to complement longer pieces, Lament was apt to be placed so as to become a meditational epilogue or preface to another devotional lament or narrative about someone's fall from grandeur to death.

In MS Ashmole 61 the northeast midland scribe Rate formally affixed Lament to The Adulterous Falmouth Squire. Rate, who was selecting and editing a variety of works for "family audiences of mixed age and gender," 8 handles texts in ways both idiosyncratic and purposeful. He adapted works to enhance their appeal to his audience and to fit his own biases. Thus it was probably Rate who gave the doomed sinner the allegorical name "Sir Will(ia)m Basterdfeld" — a droll sign of his willful lechery. Rate signs the work preceding Lament, but he does not sign Lament, which is followed by Squire without any break other than a slightly enlarged first capital. Another Rate signature appears after Squire. Elsewhere the compiler shows a devotional interest in meditations upon Christ's wounds and in family tales that mix demons and adulterous sinning, such as The Knight and His Jealous Wife and The Tale of an Incestuous Daughter. 9

Advocates MS 19.3.1, a manuscript now in Scotland, was also copied for family use in the northeast midlands. The primary scribe identifies himself by the signature "Recardum Heege." Other hands appear in the volume, and one of them, signed "John Hawghton," collaborates with Heege in two quires. 10 Hawghton is the copyist of Lament, which appears in the tenth quire. Heege's hand opens this gathering with a long lament poem, Lichfield's Complaint of God, and the lyric The Sweetness of Jesus. 11 Beginning on the next available recto, Hawghton copies Lament, Lydgate's Four Things That Make a Man a Fool (worship, women, wine, and old age), maxims for daily conduct, and a hand-shaped device for teaching Guidonian musical notation. The maxims, current in a number of versions, were often incorporated into Lydgate's Dietary and taught to children:
Serve thou God truly,
And the world besely;
Ete thy mete merely ["merrily"],
   And ever lyf in rest.
Thank God mekly,
Thoughe he veset the poorly,
For he may mende it lyghtly
   Wen hym likthe best. 12
This piece and the seven-line Lydgate poem carry the air of common wisdoms to be committed to memory and recited at appropriate moments. Given Hawghton's interest in musical instruction, they may well have had accompanying tunes, as may Lament, which breaks off in this manuscript after eight stanzas. The tenth quire forms one of several entertaining and edifying booklets collected into this large volume, Adv. 19.3.1, which apparently formed the household library of a late fifteenth-century family, possibly the Sherbrookes of Derbyshire. 13 The arrangement of booklets in the bound manuscript divides into halves, so that Lament becomes appropriately grouped not only with Lichfield's Complaint, but also with visionary tales similarly warning of the afterlife, The Vision of Tundale and The Trental of Saint Gregory.

The Sinner's Lament also appears in the important manuscript of romances copied by Robert Thornton of Yorkshire, Lincoln Cathedral MS 91. The arrangement of this volume falls into three subject areas: (1) narrative texts, with ten romances, (2) religious and devotional writings, and (3) a medical tract. Lament appears early in the first section of romances, wedged between the prose Life of Alexander and the alliterative Morte Arthure. The first two quires and most of the third contain Alexander. The fourth through sixth quires contain Morte Arthure, beginning on the first recto (fol. 53a). The third quire originally possessed more leaves than Thornton needed for the prose narrative; he excised some, but space remained on fols. 49b-51b. On these folios appear:
49b         Late pen-trials, including names of Thornton's son and grandson;
               otherwise blank.
50a-b      Prognostications of weather.
51a         A few more late pen trials, but otherwise blank.
5lb-52a   Lamentacio peccatoris, and a crude sketch of a head and torso.
52b         Crude sketches of knights and a charger; a catchword for fol. 53
               (joining this quire to the first Morte quire). 14
The script on these leaves is uneven, but most scholars have agreed that Robert Thornton wrote all the items (other than the scribbles) here and elsewhere in the volume, where the handwriting varies considerably. 15 Given that Lament appears on folios left at the end of a long work, its copying must have occurred after Alexander had been copied, possibly even after the Alexander quires had been joined to the Morte Arthure quires. For a scribe who often sought thematic development in the sequencing of material, 16 the position of Lament between the narratives of exemplary but flawed men could be significant: Lament seems to follow as a comment upon Alexander, which ends somberly with the hero's death, or as a meditative prelude to Morte Arthure, a casus with its own share of worldly pride and laments over the dead. 17 Elsewhere, Thornton displays an interest in visions of the afterlife by inscribing A Revelation of Purgatory Shown to a Holy Woman (fols. 250b-58a).

Thornton's possible association of Lament with de casibus narrative may be further illuminated by the interests of a later compiler. Humphrey Welles, a Tudor administrative official and recusant, whose career was tied to the court of Henry VIII, created what is now MS Rawlinson C.813 (the Welles Anthology). This book is a gathering of lyrics, several of which are lamentations for the deaths of the once politically powerful. Appearing near the beginning of the collection, Lament helps to establish a subject that must have been vitally interesting to Welles: that tragedy can unexpectedly afflict the proud lives of those close to the court. 18

To varying degrees, these four manuscript settings support the class bias of Version B, in which a pointed reference to "lords" rather than "men" (line 97) targets wealthy aristocrats as particularly susceptible to the sinner's fate because they practice his crimes of gluttony, sloth, and (in Ashmole 61 especially) lechery. 19 While in agreement as to the order of stanzas, these manuscripts differ in number of stanzas, with Ashmole being the longest (see chart in Notes). A fifth manuscript of Lament cannot be classed as either A or B because it preserves only the first eighteen lines, which are the same in both versions. However, the copy here follows the pattern of being placed with contextually appropriate material and of representing a later addition. Here the associations are with an Office of the Dead and an Hours of the Virgin's Compassion (both in Latin) and an English rime royal poem on the Sorrows of the Virgin. Mixed with these elevated laments, Lament — a less doctrinal planctus — would seem to be chosen for its affective appeal. The late hand that began its inscription on a last quire leaf after the Virgin's compassion used a formal book script to fill seventeen of the page's twenty-two ruled lines. Prayers to Saint Cuthberga suggest Wimborne as the provenance of this volume. 20

MS CCC 237, the sole book preserving Version A, presents The Sinner's Lament in thirteen stanzas in an entirely different order. As with the other volumes, CCC 237 contains works compatible with Lament (especially with this version). Situated among more laments and The Pilgrimage of the Soul (a translation of Guillaume de Deguileville's PPlerinage de l'>me), Lament precedes Lydgate's Dance of Death. A scribe who signed himself "E. C." copied lives of Sts. Katherine and Margaret and the Deguileville translation. The same scribe (or one with a very similar hand) later added William Lichfield's Complaint of God and Lydgate's Dance of Death (under the heading "Daunce of Powlys," a title tying the poem to its public life at the Church of St. Paul's). This copyist was most likely Edmund Carpenter, the first known owner of CCC 237. He may have been a younger relative of John Carpenter, the London town clerk who commissioned Lydgate's poem (McGerr, p. lxvii). Edmund Carpenter (if he is "E. C.") did not, however, copy Lament. A second hand, one that does not appear elsewhere in the volume, has written the lyric on one and a half pages left blank between the Lichfield and Lydgate pieces. The lyric has been carefully laid out to fill the open space attractively: four large, eye-catching stanzas on the lower half of fol. 146a and the remaining nine in two neat columns (four and a half stanzas per column) on fol. 146b. It is clear that the piece was selected to complement its longer companions on either side.

The message of Version A targets all readers, not merely the rich. Directly addressed is an audience of rich and poor (line 73), men and women (line 31), all who need to heed the devotional call to repentance. The universalized message especially suits the juxtaposition in CCC 237 with Lydgate's inscription-poem The Dance of Death, where the figure of Death leads men and women of every estate and age to the grave. Philippa Tristram believes that the Dance of Death motif developed chronologically from the Three Living and Three Dead Legend. Since Lament is, like the Legend, a warning from the dead, her comparison of the two motifs sheds light on the apparent grouping in CCC 237:
The Legend is initially a warning to men to reform in this life; it has its relation to that instructive fear which ends in redemptive action. The Dance, which may possibly develop from it, no longer prompts men to choose, but forces them to submit to the inevitable. (p. 167)
Version A is well paired with Dance because it shares the same social perspective and its message is a prelude to that of the Dance.

Moreover, compared to B, Version A is structurally more coherent, being patterned in parallel, chronologically sequenced halves. The first half presents the sinner's memory of his youth and his past life, with a confession of all seven sins. The seventh stanza (the middle one) is a turning point that pivots upon images of eating, where the sinner's comfortable gluttony is inverted into the worms that dine upon him, while he mourns his lost chance to fast in penance. The second half of the poem develops his physical agonies after death, starting with the image of the cage (which follows from his youthful lightness as a bird) and progressing to a wish never to have been born into his now disintegrating body. In B this symmetry is blurred beyond recognition. First of all, the stanza that completes the confession of seven sins (stanza 6) is missing, so that the three named — lechery, sloth, gluttony — come to dominate a lament from a nobleman. The complaint of wasted youth (stanzas 2-5) is interrupted by the stanza about snakes and toads (stanza 9), blunting the logic of parallel halves in the A text. The eating stanza comes eighth out of twelve stanzas, so its effectiveness as a turning-point is also gone.

Thus, on the basis of how the ideas are patterned, Version A is superior to Version B. Whereas the poet of A intends to warn "man and wife" (line 31), the poet of the adapted B constructs a decidely male sinner who views women with hostility: she is a maiden or wife to be sexually used (line 15), or she is his mother who ought not have borne him (lines 81-82). Hence, the poet of B leans toward an understanding of the exclusively male human condition as circular and bearing a punishment that fits the crime: indifferently born of a woman through another man's fornication, one lives to fornicate, indiscriminately begetting more bastards, and finally one ends up in the hell of one's own actions. The Adulterous Falmouth Squire is about this subject, the clerical poet dutifully explaining how adultery causes the damnation of three souls, the man and woman who defy holy wedlock and the misbegotten heir, who will be barred from the priesthood. The Squire's lawful son — destined himself to become a priest — must learn the lesson by witnessing his father's torture by fiends.

Neither version offers much traditional imagery of the grave — only, perhaps, the toads and snakes — but the aura of a hellish place engulfs the sinner's speech: Lucifer and cohorts appear to have him well ensnared (lines 32, 80, 86-88) and the blast of a distant horn serves as his fateful summons (line 103). As he thus stands fleetingly before the living, the doomed sinner offers to all a lesson on grace: A person is to seek it while he or she is alive, grace being defined as the capacity, obtainable through God, to recognize one's own sinful condition and need for mercy. Even though the sinner himself failed to find this balm (line 14), he petitions God to provide it to everyone living, regardless of rank (line 101, Version A only). The signs of grace are defined in the tenth stanza: an ability to see in this lost soul a warning for oneself, the ability to know good from evil, a concern for the poor (expressed negatively as not killing them for their faults), and a refraining from overindulgence in physical desires. Themes raised in the opening stanzas — the acceptance of grace, the prevalence and meaninglessness of "debate" among the living, and an all-important sense for things drawing to an end — are all concluded in the last ones.

In general, the highly malleable text of The Sinner's Lament and its secondary addition to two-thirds of its manuscripts (Adv. 19.3.1, Thornton, Lambeth 560, CCC 237) suggest that the lyric enjoyed a popular and probably ephemeral existence — as either song or inscription to a devotional image — from about 1430 to 1530, an existence lively enough to cause it to come to mind when one heard, read, or recalled other mournful devotions or narrative laments of the great brought low. Perhaps Version A originated as an inscription and Version B was a popular, lightly satirical song that followed. While an oral source certainly does not underlie every surviving text, the currency of such a source would help to explain much of the wide variation seen from copy to copy.

Note on the Edited Text

Because the text preserved in CCC 237 is so valuable for recovering a more coherent version of this lyric of a lost soul, I have edited it with a minimal amount of emendation. The Notes present the variants of Version B and include a comparative table of the surviving stanzas in each manuscript.

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Select Bibliography



Oxford, Corpus Christi College MS 237, fols. 146a-146b. London, c. 1450. [Base text; 13 stanzas.]


Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 61, fols. 136a-136b. Northeast midlands (Leicestershire), c. 1479-88. [Scribe/compiler named Rate; 12 stanzas copied as 24 quatrains; lacks stanza 6; 3 spurious lines in stanza 1.]

Welles Anthology: Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson C.813, fols. 4b-6b. London, c. 1530. [Made by or for Humphrey Welles, Tudor courtier-lawyer; copied as 23 quatrains; lacks stanzas 6, 7a.]

Thornton MS: Lincoln, Lincoln Cathedral MS 91, fols. 51b-52a. Yorkshire, c. 1440. [Scribe/compiler is Robert Thornton, gentryman of East Newton, Yorkshire; poem entitled Lamentacio Peccatoris; copied as 20 quatrains; lacks stanzas 3b, 6, 9a, 11.]

Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.3.1, fols. 174a-175a. Northeast midlands, c. 1450. [Compiler named Recardum Heege; scribes are Heege, John Howghton (copyist of Lament), and others; lacks stanzas 6, 8, 11, 12, 13.]


London, Lambeth Palace Library MS 560, fol. 98b. Possibly Wimborne, c. 1475. [17 lines: vv. 1-12, 14-18.]


Brewer, D. S., and A. E. B. Owen, intro. The Thornton Manuscript (Lincoln Cathedral MS 91). London: Scolar, 1977.


Bolle, Wilhelm, ed. "Zur Lyrik der Rawlinson-Hs. C. 813." Anglia 34 (1911), 292-96. [Ashmole 61, Welles.]

Furnivall, F. J., ed. Political, Religious, and Love Poems. EETS o.s. 15. Second ed. 1903; rpt. Bungay, Suffolk: Richard Clay, 1965. Pp. 123-26. [Ashmole 61.]

Horstmann, Carl, ed. Altenglische Legenden: Neue Folge. Heilbronn: Henninger, 1881. Pp. 367-68, 529-30. [Ashmole 61, Thornton.]

Jansen, Sharon L., and Kathleen H. Jordan, eds. The Welles Anthology, MS. Rawlinson C. 813: A Critical Edition. Medieval and Renaissance Texts & Studies 75. Binghamton: SUNY Binghamton, 1991. Pp. 96-100. [Welles.]

Leonard, Anne L., ed. Zwei Mittelenglische Geschichten aus der H'lle. Zurich: Orell Füssli, 1891. [Collation of Ashmole 61, Welles, Thornton, Lambeth.]

Padelford, Frederick Morgan, ed. "The Songs in Manuscript Rawlinson C.8l3." Anglia 31 (1908), 317-20. [Welles.]

Perry, George G., ed. Religious Pieces in Prose and Verse. EETS o.s. 26. 1905; rpt. New York: Greenwood, 1969. Pp. 115-18. [Thornton.]

Latin Analogue

Speculum peccatorum. Ed. Clemens Blume and Guido M. Dreves. In Analecta hymnica medii aevi. Vol. 46. 1905; rpt. New York: Johnson, 1961. Pp. 349-51.

Related Middle English Works

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. xxiv-xxvii, 217-23. [Only Middle English poem on Three Dead and Three Living.]

Lydgate, John. The Dance of Death. Ed. Florence Warren and Beatrice White. EETS o.s. 181. 1931; rpt. Oxford: Humphrey Milford, 1971. [Follows Lament in CCC 237.]

——. Four Things That Make a Man a Fool. Ed. Henry Noble MacCracken. In The Minor Poems of John Lydgate. Part 2. EETS o.s. 192. 1934; rpt. London: Oxford University Press, 1961. P. 709 [III]. [Follows Lament in Adv. 19.3.1.]

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

Morte Arthure. Ed. Larry D. Benson. King Arthur's Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure. Second ed. Rev. Edward E. Foster. TEAMS Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1994. Pp. 129-284. [Alliterative poem; follows Lament in Thornton MS.]

The Adulterous Falmouth Squire. Ed. Carl Horstmann. In Altenglische Legenden, neue Folge. Heilbronn: Henninger, 1881. Pp. 368-70. [Vision of a sinner's afterlife; companion poem in Ashmole 61.]

The Knight and His Jealous Wife. Ed. Carl Horstmann. In Altenglische Legenden, neue Folge. Heilbronn: Henninger, 1881. Pp. 329-33. [Legend of Mary and devils vying for soul of sinful woman; appears in Ashmole 61.]

The Pilgrimage of the Soul. Ed. Rosemarie Potz McGerr. New York: Garland, 1990. [Contains "Pitouse Compleynte of the Soul"; appears in CCC 237.]

The Prose Life of Alexander. Ed J. S. Westlake. EETS o.s. 143. 1913; rpt. New York: Kraus, 1971. [Precedes Lament in Thorton MS.]

The Trental of Saint Gregory. Ed. K. D. Bülbring. "Das 'Trentale Sancti Gregorii' in der Edinburgher Handschrift." Anglia 13 (1891), 303-08. [Lament of saint's deceased sinful mother; appears in Adv. 19.3.1.]

The Vision of Tundale. Ed. W. B. D. D. Turnbull. Edinburgh: T. G. Stevenson, 1843. [Vision of afterlife; appears in Adv. 19.3.1.]

Criticism of The Sinner's Lament

Cooke, Thomas D. "Tales." In A Manual of Writings in Middle English, 1050B1500. Ed. Albert E. Hartung. Vol. 9. New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1993. Pp. 3259-60, 3552-53.

Louis, Cameron. "Proverbs, Precepts, and Monitory Pieces." In A Manual of Writings in Middle English, 1050B1500. Ed. Albert E. Hartung. Vol. 9. New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1993. Pp. 3035-36, 3395.

Woolf, Rosemary. The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Clarendon, 1968. Pp. 321-22, 325. [Related lyrics discussed on pp. 67-113, 309-55, 401-04.]

Related Studies

Boffey, Julia, and John J. Thompson. "Anthologies and Miscellanies: Production and Choice of Texts." In Book Production and Publishing in Britain 1375B1475. Ed. Jeremy Griffiths and Derek Pearsall. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Pp. 279-315.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200B1336. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Duffy, Eamon. "The Pains of Purgatory." In The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400B1580. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. Pp. 338-76. [Lament cited, p. 340.]

Gillespie, Vincent. "Strange Images of Death: The Passion in Later Medieval English Devotional and Mystical Writing." In Zeit, Tod und Ewigkeit in der Renaissance Literatur. Ed. James Hogg. Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universit@t Salzburg, 1987. Pp. 111-59.

Gray, Douglas. "Death and the Last Things." In Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972. Pp. 176-220.

Keiser, George. "The Progress of Purgatory: Visions of the Afterlife in Later Middle English Literature." In Zeit, Tod und Ewigkeit (see Gillespie). Pp. 72-100.

Kren, Thomas, and Roger S. Wieck. The Visions of Tondal from the Library of Margaret of York. Malibu: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1990.

Le Goff, Jacques. The Birth of Purgatory. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

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

Pearsall, Derek. "Signs of Life in Lydgate's Danse Macabre." In Zeit, Tod und Ewigkeit (see Gillespie). Pp. 59-71.

Tristram, Philippa. "Mortality and the Grave." In Figures of Life and Death in Medieval English Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1976. Pp. 152-83.

Wenzel, Siegfried. The Sin of Sloth: Acedia in Medieval Thought and Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960. Pp. 88-96.