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Thomas of Hales, Love Rune: Introduction


1 On the place-name Hales, see C. Brown, p. 198; Dickins and Wilson, p. 103;

2 Hill (1964), pp. 329-30; and D'Angelo, p. 236.

3 On how the two poems compare, see Wells (1914), pp. 236-37.

4 On the history of Jesus College MS 29, see Hill (1963), pp. 203-13; and on affiliated English manuscripts, see Jeffrey, pp. 205-11.

5 The early ME passage reads: "Nalde ha nane ronnes ne nane luve runes leornin ne lustnen" (ed. Eugen Einenkel, EETS, o.s. 80 [1884; rpt. Millwood, N. Y.: Kraus, 1975], p. 7; in Latin: non amatoria carmina videre aut audire volebat).

6 The ME author terms the mystery of God's Passion a derne run: "the deopschipe and te derne run of his death on rode" (ed. Einenkel, p. 62).

7 She declares, "Ich habbe uncnut summe of theos cnotti cnotten" (ed. Einenkel, p. 54), and later describes her knotted espousal to Christ (p. 71). Hence, her eventual torture with "cnottede schurgen [scourges]" (p. 73) seems figuratively matched to the quality of her sainthood.

8 Elkins details several examples of close spiritual friendships between religious men and women (pp. 19-60). The relationship of Christina de Markyate and Geoffrey of St. Albans gave rise to rumors of impropriety, which the writer of Christina's vita dismisses as false (Elkins, pp. 35-38). For other examples, see Fein, pp. 141-42; Newman, pp. 46-75; and P. Brown, pp. 140-59. On how friars exercised their pastoral care of men and women in gender-specific ways, see Coakley (1991, 1994).

9 This interpretation of the poem's setting as generic rather than specific differs from the mainstream of criticism, where there has been speculation as to the maiden's status (nun, recluse, or laywoman; see notes to lines 1 and 4). While there may have been a specific female who inspired the poem, it is important also to see how Thomas has contrived a common experience and how a recognition of the contrivance nuances the meaning of the rune that follows. On the allusion to the Annunciation, see Levy, pp. 123-34. An Annunciation hymn follows Love Rune in the manuscript.

10 In Sawles Warde the holy confessors (like Thomas of Hales) appear to be even higher than the virgins (trans. Savage and Watson, pp. 218-19; ed. R. Morris, Old English Homilies, EETS o.s. 29, 34 [1868; rpt. New York: Greenwood, 1969], p. 261; see also Bugge, p. 118). On the doctrine and aesthetics of virginity in medieval thought, see Bugge; Atkinson, pp. 131-43; Bloch, pp. 93-112; and Wogan-Browne, pp. 165-94.

11 Cambridge History of English Literature, p. 258. On the mixing of erotic and sacred love, see also Swanton, p. 248.

12 This passage opens the English Franciscan Robert Grosseteste's popular Templum Dei, a work dated c. 1220-30 (ed. Goering and Mantello, pp. 6-10), and one that Thomas probably was familiar with.

13 For a fascinating survey of many explicit images of Christ's sacred manhood in medieval and Renaissance art, which modern thinking has obscured, see Steinberg.

14 This phrase has been read by all commentators as "you should guard your virginity under your skirt" (see the note to line 167).

15 Or, 50 + 50 + 5, as laid out in the MS; see Note on the Edited Text (below). Thomas of Hales's interest in numbers also appears in his sermon, "a meditation in the form of a figurative kissing of Christ's feet. . . . divided into ten," based on the ten talents of Matthew 25.14-20 (Legge [1935], pp. 227-28).

16 The motif appears in The Bird with Four Feathers, another poem edited in this volume. On the tradition, see A. C. Spearing, "Central and Displaced Sovereignty in Three Medieval Poems," Review of English Studies, n.s. 33 (1982), 247-61.

17 The cross holds a talismanic power in Ancrene Wisse and two of the fourteenth-century poems edited in this volume: The Dispute between Mary and the Cross and The Four Leaves of the Truelove. The practice is discussed in the introductions to those poems.

18 Edited in this volume.

19 The poem is also referenced as a song in the text and in the incipit. This reference, like the one to a document roll, participates in the poet's extensive allusions to Revelations. On the poem as a cantus on an unsealed roll, see notes to lines 194-202, 196, and 203.
The jewel-like lyric presented here is to be read in the spirit of a riddle or conundrum, one that imparts a mysterious, holy wisdom to be lived and learned by heart. Thomas of Hales, the author of Love Rune, calls himself not a maker of verse but the worker of a ron (line 2). The Anglo-Saxon term suggests an intricate verbal construction containing hidden meanings accessible only to the initiated or chosen. Such art was thought to follow the way of God, for as Hugh of Saint Victor wrote, God speaks by riddles, darkly and in secret, because "in this way truth keeps the faithful busy in searching it out, and at the same time continues hidden, lest it be found by unbelievers" (p. 134). Although the poem is not titled in its sole extant copy, the poet's simple, cryptic phrase in line 2 describes the elegant amulet that follows. Love Rune meets the multiple promise of its title: it is an artful song, counsel, and mystery about love.

The single surviving copy of the poem has a Latin incipit that provides a circumstance for the poem: Here begins a certain song which Brother Thomas of Hales of the order of Minorites composed at the request of a young girl dedicated to God. The opening stanza repeats this circumstance but is written in first-person address to the reader. Therefore only through the incipit do we know that "Ich" is Thomas of Hales, friar Minor. The incipit also provides scholars the first attested link between an English religious lyric and the Franciscan movement of the early thirteenth century. The Friars Minor constituted a new Franciscan order licensed in England in 1224. From that year until well into the fifteenth century the friars had an enduring, wide-ranging effect upon the development of English lyric expression. The Franciscans followed their founder, Saint Francis of Assisi, who wanted them to be doctors de trobar or jonguleurs Dei, "God's troubadours." The Friars Minor saw it as their mission to preach to the general populace, cutting their evangelical messages from popular cloth, that is, song, proverb, story, and verse (Hill [1964], p. 330; Jeffrey, pp. 12-32; Brewer, p. 44; Swanton pp. 246-48).

The poet names the current king of England, Henry III (line 82), a great benefactor of the Franciscans who generously endowed all their communities in England (Hill [1964], p. 325). The king's mention dates the composition of Love Rune to between 1224 and 1272, Henry's last regnal year. A narrower range can be postulated from other evidence: an anecdote in a book of friars' exempla mentions that Thomas of Hales was, with another boy (Adam de Maddelay), a chorister at St. Mary's, Hereford. Both boys later became friars. The anecdote can be dated to the second quarter of the thirteenth century (Hill [1964], pp. 327-30). With Thomas located in Hereford, his entry into the Franciscan order might have been linked to the career of Ralph of Maidstone, who in 1239 resigned as Bishop of Hereford (a position he had held since 1234), to become a simple friar. Thomas may have entered the order during the relatively short period of Maidstone's bishopric, or perhaps he followed Maidstone's example in 1239. If so, the dates for the writing of Love Rune would be narrowed to 1234-72.

The author was a native of either Hailes in Gloucestershire (which the southwestern dialect of the sole surviving text supports) or Hales Owen located then in Shropshire, now in Worchestershire. 1 What little else is known of his career comes from two letters in which Thomas is named, first as a friendly acquaintance of Adam Marsh and perhaps as a member of the London house, and second as one of four friars (along with Adam Marsh) writing to Fulk Basset, Bishop of London (1244-58). Adam Marsh was a prominent Franciscan from 1232 until his death in 1259, and he was a close friend of Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln and head of the Franciscan School at Oxford. The fragmentary evidence thus shows that Thomas had some important cosmopolitan connections, that "c. 1252-56" he "was associated with, and associating with, notable Franciscans, probably in London." 2

Three of Thomas's writings are extant in three languages: an Anglo-Norman sermon, a Latin prose life of Mary, and the English Love Rune. Manuscripts may preserve more of his works, particularly sermons, but there survive no further attributions to his name. Like Love Rune, the other works written by Thomas seem to be directed in large measure toward an audience of women (Horrall [1986], pp. 296-98). His Vita sancte Marie enjoyed a fairly wide distribution, particularly in England and German-speaking areas of Europe, to judge from thirteen extant manuscripts, and it was skillfully translated into Middle English in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century. Love Rune was also still known in late fourteenth-century England, when it was modernized, probably for another female audience, under the title Of Clene Maydenhod. 3 This descendent poem survives in the Vernon Manuscript, near similar modernizations of two early thirteenth-century anchoritic texts, Ancrene Wisse and The Wooing of Our Lord.

The sole surviving copy of Love Rune appears in one of the important early Franciscan miscellanies, Oxford, Jesus College MS 29, dated late thirteenth century. 4 Many medieval English lyric collections appear in manuscripts attributable to the Franciscans or to their influence, and individual lyrics are often traceable back to such collections. Among the contents of Jesus College MS 29 are the Middle English Owl and the Nightingale, Proverbs of Alfred, A Moral Ode (or Poema Morale), and eleven poems that survive only in this book. The copy of Love Rune found here, however, does not duplicate what is stated to be its original form: a roll. In the last two stanzas the poet instructs the maiden to turn to the poem often, by "drawing it forth," unrolling the document "open and without seal," and singing it in a "sweet voice" (lines 194-95, 202-03). The physical instructions have led scholars to conclude that the verses were originally written on a roll and perhaps were accompanied by musical notation (Hill [1964], pp. 322-35; Woolf [1968], pp. 57-58).

The Franciscan endeavor to appropriate art forms with wide secular appeal clearly resides in the fine, persuasive tones of Love Rune. While the runic notion and the love-song formula tap popular streams, it is unknown whether Love Rune was written for a general audience. The purported audience is a single maiden, and the circumstance, if generalized to a larger circle, would seem most appropriate to friars like Thomas and those individuals (lay or cloistered) whom they served as confessors. The rune has a private meaning meant for the specified female reader, but it also conveys a public valence, as in a generalized way the message extends to the maiden's community of women (line 198) and to the friars who compiled and read books such as Jesus College MS 29.

The term luve ron appears once elsewhere in a work that predates the lyric, a work that Thomas may have known. In The Life of Saint Katherine the phrase corresponds to the term amatoria carmina in the Latin source, and it appears in the context of Katherine's disinterest in social activities:
This mild, gentle maiden, this lovely lady of blameless behavior, did not delight in any frivolous games or foolish songs. She did not learn or long for any love songs or love stories, 5 but she always had her eyes or her heart on Holy Writ, and most often both together. (trans. Savage and Watson, p. 263; italics added)
Although Katherine avoids love runes, she can understand the derne runes (hidden secrets) that pertain to God. Central to Katherine's character is her access to wisdom so profound that she outshines fifty masters of philosophy. She gathers this wisdom not just through a training in hali writ but also from a life of virginal solitude: "she kept to herself — and thought always to herself — a maiden in maidenhood, as she sat in a chamber in her family house" (p. 263). When the philosophers acknowledge her sapiential superiority, they perceive that it flows directly from the recesses of God's mind, which they state themselves unable to fathom:
For as soon as she called on Christ and named his name, and the great strength of his sublimity, and then showed clearly the depth and the secret mystery of his death on the Cross, 6 all our worldly wisdom went away, so that we were afraid of his majesty. (p. 273; italics added)
Elsewhere the wisdom to which Katherine has access is termed (by her) an unknotted knot — that is, a riddle revealed — which is hers because she is "knotted" to Christ in marriage. 7 The key to Katherine's knowledge lies in her oneness with Christ; through her virgin body she possesses his unbroken image, and thus by a physical state she gains a direct line to godly wisdom (pp. 267-68).

The Life of Saint Katherine belongs to a group of well-known Middle English prose texts composed from about 1200 to 1230 for the spiritual direction of religious women living as anchoresses in the West Midlands of England. Accompanying Saint Katherine are two more saints' legends, those of Saints Margaret and Juliana. These texts comprise one cluster of works associated with Ancrene Wisse (A Guide for Anchoresses). Other related pieces are Sawles Warde, Holy Maidenhood, and The Wooing of Our Lord. This literature is animated by a unified belief in the sanctity of virginity and the enclosed life, especially for women. The spiritual guidance found in these works is shaped by gender; that is, it is literature for women, and often it is specifically a learned man's counsel going to a woman positioned as being in need of his tutelage and as gladly, passively accepting of his higher wisdom (Newman, pp. 19-45). These instructions are imparted, however, with a view to empowering the female religious in her active espousal to God, a condition of joy she may achieve by diligently following the exercises in humility and models of saintly spirituality provided her.

In Thomas of Hales's Love Rune the situation found in Saint Katherine appears to be invoked for contrast. Acting quite unlike the chaste Katherine, a "maid of Christ" (mayde Cristes) has petitioned Brother Thomas earnestly and passionately (yorne) to make her a luve ron — a phrase easily read as "secret love message" — because she wants to learn how to take another true lover (lines 3-4). Apparently she cannot reconcile Christ's spiritual comforts with her physical longings. In his holy calling Thomas accepts the challenge of redirecting this potentially wayward soul toward the truest Lover she may hope to find. The luve ron becomes, consequently, not the secular advice the maiden seems to be asking for, but a song of the divine Love that awaits her when her desire is properly channeled, a song expressly like the one the brides of Christ will sing in heaven (line 203; Revelations 14.3-4). In its gendered discursive frame it resembles the anchoritic texts in the Ancrene Wisse group: a man gives counsel to a woman in spiritual need.

This framing fiction of Love Rune harbors an element hidden from view but latent in the circumstance and familiar to the audience. It is hidden because it is a sensitive subject: when a woman who belongs to God asks her spiritual counselor to advise her on a matter of love, it is strongly intimated that she has strayed from her spiritual lessons, mistaking the messenger for the message. Thomas's duty is to steer her gently, courteously, from a misguided infatuation with Thomas himself back to the correct path. In not addressing the lady's feelings directly, Thomas's private missive maintains a public propriety and guards the modesty and reputation of both parties.

Whether the situation was real or contrived, it was no doubt a snare that sometimes beset pious women dependent upon learned men for their religious counsel, and also a temptation for the men who gave the counsel. Gerald of Wales recounts how Gilbert of Sempringham, twelfth-century founder of the Gilbertines (a double house of monks and nuns), dealt with this problem in a dramatic way:
Gilbert, . . . when an old man and, as Gerald put it, "most unsuited for the purposes of lust," was looked upon with lascivious eyes by one of his own nuns. Gilbert was horrified, and the following day, after preaching a chapter on the virtue of chastity, he disrobed entirely, walked around three times for all to see him, "hairy, emaciated, scabrous and wild," and then cried, evidently pointing to the crucifix, "Behold the man who should be duly desired by a woman consecrated to God and a bride of Christ." He then went on, pointing to himself: "Behold the body on account of which a miserable woman has made her body and soul worthy of being lost in Hell." (Constable, p. 222)
The Ancrene author warns of this danger in another way, stating that if a man were ever allowed to see the anchoress's face, he might in his weakness desire her carnally, which would make the anchoress responsible for his fall (pp. 68-69). He teaches the female reader about seductive men by giving her a sample scenario: "And he says she may confidently look upon holy men — yes, someone like him, with his wide sleeves" (p. 68). Aelred of Rievaulx, too, in a passage that the Ancrene author may be recalling, advises that the recluse's confessor be "an elderly man of mature character" and that "she should avoid looking at him and only listen to him with fearful reserve. Listening frequently to the same man's voice can be a cause of great danger to many people" (pp. 51-52). The writers of anchoritic rulebooks maintained a vigilant awareness of the bodily temptations latent in the close emotional bonds that would naturally develop between a holy man and his female charge. 8

Thomas of Hales treats this danger besetting people of religious life by making it the framing fiction for a lyric extolling the virtues of the Holy Bridegroom. The situation need not have been real because it was well known and readily understood. Moreover, the maiden's unsaintly passion conforms to a misogynistic view that would have expected a woman to be unable to control her urges (McLaughlin, pp. 252-56) and a male counselor to be able to instruct her to a better way. Thomas assents to the maiden's request in order to produce a love message from God, adopting a role as God's emissary and becoming, properly, the woman's spiritual caretaker. Rosemary Woolf remarks that the narrator "acts as a paranymph for the divine bridegroom," fulfilling the ancient tradition of the friend who goes with the groom to fetch home the bride ([1968], p. 61). As such, Brother Thomas courteously declines to be the focus of the lady's attention, for, as he delicately puts the question to her at the end of his argument, "If one must choose between two things, does he not commit an evil if he should, without need, pick the worse and neglect the better?" (lines 189-92). The question pertains both to the lady's better choice and to Thomas's better action.

A private setting that the audience would have grasped carries, then, a portion of the encoded message. By a discreet indirection Thomas does not state his role in arousing the maiden's feelings, and thereby he preserves the maiden's dignity — and his own — even as he lovingly composes a love message of a higher purpose. Echoes of the Annunciation enlarge the meaning of this frame, turning the maiden into a figure for the human soul, wooed (as was Mary) by God, while the poet conveys words that portend a transforming miracle. Hence, whether the setting was a true circumstance or not matters little in how contemporaries would have read the poem. 9 It is written to impart truths universal to persons dedicated to Christ, and the specified genders underline a message that God's love for humanity — made immanent in Christ's male body — outshines any mortal attachment.

The heart of the poem — the words that Thomas delivers to the maiden — provides the rest of the runic meaning, the mysterious secret to be unlocked. Understanding this hidden meaning requires one to adopt a perspective used in Christian didactic writings, drawn from mystic terminology, that expresses the holiness of virginity in metaphors that are strongly sexualized. The virgin's status as a bride of Christ is literalized. In the writings on virginity spiritualized union with God comes to depend on the perpetuance of an "intact" body, a female maidenhead (the bride-soul figured as a woman) becoming the "seal" that carnally connects a virgin to Christ (compare Holy Maidenhood, pp. 228-29). In the tradition this union is physical even as it is figurative, since the doctrine extols the fleshly link that brings to a virgin knowledge of the incarnate and virgin Christ. The virgin who has saved her body for Christ is more sanctified than a widow or a wife in a hierarchy that places her just below the angels. 10

The authors of virginity tracts seem often to take a special delight in sexual rhetoric, even in extraneous places, almost as if they are giddy with the license gained by immersion in an ascetic subject. A notable example is Aldhelm, an early eighth-century West Saxon bishop, who wrote the Latin treatise On Virginity. After a gracious greeting to ten named Anglo-Saxon nuns, he plunges into a prolix — and R-rated — Virgilian simile comparing his writing task to wrestling:
. . . one (athlete), smeared with the ointment of (some) slippery liquid, strives dexterously with his partner to work out the strenuous routines of wrestlers, sweating with the sinuous writhings of their flanks in the burning centre of the wrestling-pit . . . (p. 60)
And so on, for many more lines. Aldhelm deliberately turns the notion of virginity into a trope of concealment, as when he declares of one martyr saint: "I shall not allow the virginal glory of the martyr Julian to lie hidden in the secret recesses of silence" (p. 99). The writer's act exposes the virgin in a way that seems almost to violate his sanctified state. Aelred of Rievaulx, the twelfth-century English Cistercian abbot, writes in explicit sexual terms in a treatise to his own virgin sister, asking her to imagine the Incarnation as if she were the Virgin Mary: "with what a fire of love you were inflamed, when you felt in your mind and your womb the presence of majesty" (p. 80; Fein, pp. 146-47). A pivotal mystical experience for the virgin recluse Christina de Markyate — a contemporary of Aelred — involves an erotic-maternal encounter with Christ "in the guise of a small child": "with immeasurable delight she held Him at one moment to her virginal breast, at another she felt His presence within her even through the barrier of her flesh" (Life, p. 119). Writing for a milieu close in time to Thomas of Hales, the author of Holy Maidenhood gives the enclosed virgin plenty of lusty imagery to contemplate. To give one striking example:
"Your father" is the name [of] that vice that begot you on your mother — that same nasty flaming of the flesh, that burning itch of the bodily lust before that sickening act, that bestial swelling, that shameless coition, that stinking and ugly act of filth. (p. 228)
Such imagery is supposed to steel the virgin in her adamancy against the married state, but it obviously opens the door to another kind of knowledge, one of which she is known to be carnally innocent.

Love Rune needs to be read as part of this lively tradition, long practiced by ascetics and monks, even as it infuses it with the fresh strains of a new Franciscan lyricism. In what is still one of the best summations of Love Rune, a reader wrote in 1907 that with "lofty devotion," "passionate yearning," and "deep seriousness," the poet conveys "through a medium tender and refined" a sense of "erotic mysticism." 11 Christ has an appeal that is palpably physical, with his humanation openly male in its ability to attract a maiden. He is depicted as more handsome, more rich, more powerful, more wise, and of course more amorous than any earthly suitor may hope to be. The allure of Christ outdoes the famous lovers Paris, Amadas, and Tristan, the supreme heroes Hector and Caesar (lines 65-70), and even, in power and wealth, the sovereign ruler Henry III, King of England (lines 81-82, 102). Clothed in a material courtliness, Christ becomes the ultimate Lover-Knight proffering incomparable gifts (a castle and a gem) and wooing by means of the ultimate love song.

The gifts are of course supremely better than their earthly shadows: Solomon's temple possesses but a meager likeness to the castle (lines 113-20); a whole collection of precious gems fails to match the virtuous power of the valuable jewel called "Virginity" (Maydenhod), which the maiden must guard (witen) in the castle of her body (lines 153-76), a castle coextensive with God's mansion in heaven: "For the temple of God is holy, which you are" (1 Corinthians 3.17). 12 Thus while castle and gem symbolize body and virginity, they also denote the heavenly city, God's abode that exists inwardly and outwardly (compare Rogers, pp. 28-40). It is what Hugh of Saint Victor called the "inward dwelling" (p. 179), reached by contemplation, where one "glories inwardly in the Lord's hidden face" (p. 106). The Katherine author has Katherine describe it as a city of the heart, a gleaming metropolis of jewelled streets and joyous inhabitants that satisfies all desire (pp. 276-77).

What Katherine describes is the source of her wisdom, the deiform image that resides in her pristine body, derived from her "knotted" connection to Christ. This power also surfaces in the related Life of Saint Juliana when Juliana, beleaguered by a demon, calls for Christ's wisdom "silently in her heart" and is answered by a voice that gives specific instructions on how to bind the troublesome devil (pp. 312-13). Ruminating on Matthew 13.44, Hugh of Saint Victor pieces out the logic underlying the heart's power, in a passage that may have influenced Love Rune:
The kingdom of heaven is likened to treasure hidden in a field. The kingdom of heaven is of course eternal life. But Christ is life eternal, Christ is also wisdom, and wisdom is the treasure. And this treasure was hidden in the field of the human heart when man was created in the image and likeness of his Maker. . . . The dust of sin cast on the heart of man concealed that precious treasure from our sight, and the outspread darkness of ignorance intercepted wisdom's light. . . . Solomon builds the temple for God, since by the wisdom of God the heart of man was made, that in it God might dwell as in a temple. . . . That treasure, therefore, is hidden in the field of our own heart. (pp. 102-03)
Within the heart lies wisdom, and wisdom is God.

Thomas of Hales's rune-poem both contains and conceals wisdom — the deepest wisdom of God. The way to access this wisdom (that is, to solve the riddle) is first to prepare oneself — by rejection of the world and contemplation of Christ's irresistible traits — and then to give oneself fully to the loving blandishments of the soul's espoused Husband. Love Rune enables the reader (figured as female) to take these steps and receive her mystic Lover each time she reads the poem, which she is instructed to do whenever she is struck by love-longing (lines 201-04). In a subtle reading Morton W. Bloomfield hints, provocatively, that the runic secret is sheltered like virginity itself; enclosed in a poetic frame and shielded from view, it "must be 'opened' to understand but . . . also must remain closed"; at the heart of the poem lies "wisdom" which "dwells in secret, in a holy of holies, in a temple, in the temple of man's mind" (p. 59). When Hugh of Saint Victor writes about writing about love, he shows a fascination with the paradox that this act entails:
Perhaps in an excess of wantonness we wear a harlot's face, since we are not ashamed to compose something in writing about love, though these are matters that even the shameless are sometimes unable to express in words without a blush. . . . Our purpose is to probe and seek what we may know and — when we know — avoid that into which some others go and, knowing, may indulge therein. (pp. 187-88)
The contemplative life seeks knowledge of God and God's love; it probes the depths for wisdom. This intellectual action by a carnal virgin sexualizes the soul.

The runic meaning of Love Rune devolves from a play on the concepts of knowability and unknowability. The poet raises this theme early by stating the maiden's request for a lover who is best wyte cuthe a freo wymmon (line 6). The phrase wyte cuthe, highly ambiguous, is open to a variety of meanings: "best able to guard/ protect/keep/ know/advise a noble/single woman" or "best advisor known to a noblewoman" (a reading that implicates Thomas in the maiden's request). Cuthe (from connen) is a verb susceptible throughout the poem to a sexualized meaning of "know," while witen tends to waver between its two verbal definitions, "guard, protect" (virginity) and "know" (Christ the Bridegroom). Thus while ambiguous language seems to cloud knowability, the combined senses of these key words imply both an access to God's wisdom and a sensual enjoyment of God's love through a perfected contemplation of the image borne in one's own bodily wholeness.

Serving as a prompt for the virgin bride, Thomas's rune-poem leads the mayde Cristes to the bridal chamber of her Spouse and introduces her to the spiritual love-act. Modern readers have glanced away from Thomas's boldest statements because sexualized metaphors pertaining to God seem to be almost unthinkable in our age. 13 Instead of uncovering the private meanings embedded in the poem, twentieth-century critics have tended to read them as they are clothed, seeing a gentle, didactic poem expressed in the elegant rhetoric of courtly love-verse. Influenced by the mystical love language of such writers as Hugh of Saint Victor and Bernard of Clairvaux, however, the writers of twelfth- and thirteenth-century virginity tracts were not shy in relegating to God the virility of a male Lover. Thomas of Hales adopts this language like the Franciscan he was, using the metaphor of sexuality within the metaphor of a secular love song. His punning on sexual meaning culminates in lines 153-84, where the pronouns he and hyne seem to indicate a neuter "it" (the choice of modest critics) referring to the maiden's virginity which must be witen ("guarded"), but the pronouns also possess a continuous double register, "He/Him," referring to Christ who is to be witen ("known") in ways nuanced as sexual. The friar's latent meaning culminates when the maiden is told, in a topos common to secular love-verse, that thu hyne witest under thine hemme, "you know Christ under your skirt" (line 167). 14

This moment is potentially the most sublime offering the poem holds for the spiritually receptive reader. But the poet has hidden still more mysteries to be delved and explored, at least one of which is embedded in the formal shape of Love Rune. The poem numbers twenty-five eight-line stanzas (each scribally written as four double lines) with a final ten-line stanza (written as five lines). The first stanza addresses the reader; the last two address the maiden and close on a personalized prayer. These three stanzas constitute the frame as discussed above. The love rune proper, that is, the epistle written to the maiden, is composed of the twenty-three stanzas that fall in between (184 lines). The argument balances two motifs: contemptus mundi (with an elegaic sense of the losses caused by transience) and sponsa Christi. In Bloomfield's analysis the first topos covers eighty lines (9-88), the second ninety-six lines (89-184) (pp. 55-57; see also Swanton, pp. 247-48). This assessment misses, however, the true dividing line, which occurs, significantly, at line 100, or, looked at another way, the rune's central ninety-second line. Overall the 210 lines divide as follows: 100 + 100 + 10. 15

The stanza containing the hundreth line is important, for it is the one that declares Christ as supreme — the ricchest mon of londe (line 97) — the most powerful and wealthy suitor a maid could desire. In this stanza of highest sovereignty, 16 the comparison extends to King Henry III, who must himself receive power from and bow before God. The hundreth line caps the centrality of this passage in the rune's central stanza:
Alle heo beoth to His honde,
Est and west, north and suth! (lines 99-100)
A sign of the Cross, delineated in the four cardinal directions, inscribes the center of the poem. It signifies God's redemptive power, the mysterious wisdom that the fifty pagan philosophers in The Life of Saint Katherine acknowledged to be beyond their ken. The mystery of the whole rests in Christ's Incarnation and Passion. Placing the Cross at the center sanctifies the rune and bids God to bring the power of his wisdom to its lines. 17

Moreover, in a nexus of artful, half-hidden erotic metaphors, even the reference presenting Love Rune as if it were on an unsealed roll comes to be implicated. Thomas explains how the maiden may turn to this love song whenever she wishes to enjoy her espoused union with Christ: "Whenever you sit in longing, draw forth this same piece of writing; sing it in a sweet voice, and do everything as it directs you" (lines 201-04). The detail of a roll participates in allusions to the Annunciation, where a scroll is standard in artists' depictions, and also to the brides in Revelations, where rolls portend the song they shall sing. But, beyond these meanings, the roll is a suggestive medium for the poem, that may allude to the divine Wooer's masculinity. As a writ establishing marriage to Christ, Love Rune brings mystic ecstasy in material form. By establishing the poem's physical form (which need not have been literal) — that is, by causing a reader to imagine the poem as inscribed upon a roll — Thomas connects the poem's presence to its mystically encoded eroticism.

Thomas of Hales is indulging in a game that for him has a serious and sacred meaning. In knowing Christ to be the Word incarnate, he infuses the lyric with God's divine presence — by means of punning verbal signs, a Cross inscribed in the center, and perhaps even the document's physical shape. For himself he fashions a complex and aesthetically fascinating role. He is poet, friar-confessor, holy messenger, and go-between for God. Unlike the fluctuating, yet simply dual, positionings of reader and narrator in the later poem In a Valley of This Restless Mind, 18 which portrays the soul's wooing as directly from God, the author of Love Rune enters as a third party — the religious advisor — who joins together as in marriage the two lovers, eager Bridegroom and modest bride. Thomas's interest here shades into a kind of voyeurism, especially when he colors his language with explicit, gendered images of heterosexual love. He not only leads the maiden to her Truelove; he provides verbal enticements to the act of lovemaking.

What is ultimately most interesting about Thomas's construction of Love Rune is the care with which he provides solutions to the veiled secrets in the poem. Despite modern obscurity, none of the double signifiers is truly hidden. If one is able to read in the frame the delicacy of the relationship between a male spiritual advisor and a female charge, and if one understands the mystic state to which a virgin's body was thought to give access, the rune quickly yields its secrets. Words like cuthe and witen recur in modulated contexts that add nuance to each repetition. The reference to a roll occurs in the poem, so that reading the verses from a book like Jesus College MS 29 does not alter how one would come to apprehend the love song in its mystic figural form. 19

It appears, moreover, that the incipit is part of the original poem, because Thomas puns upon his own identity as a friar. Were it not for the incipit, this reference would be private between himself and the maiden — and entirely lost to future readers. In lines 121-24 the poet depicts the fortitude of Christ's mansion, which "stands upon a fine hill / Where it shall never fall, / Nor may any miner (or friar Minor) ever undermine it, / Or cause the foundation to give way." The word translated "undermine" is underwrot, so that embedded in the double meaning is a humble apology for Thomas's meager writing. Neither may a military miner tunnel under God's fortress (a sexual image, since the fortress is also the castle of the virgin's body), nor may a friar Minor falsify through poor writing the worthiness of God. Thomas implicitly identifies himself with the unworthy miner who might try but would fail to solace the maiden's love-longing.

Thomas of Hales wrote what is now the first known English Franciscan lyric. As it turns out, the stroke of luck that records this fact may be due not only to the diligence of a scribe but also to the precision of the poet, who fashioned of his own Franciscanism both the mode and the meaning for a mystical love-song, one that deftly masquerades as a private missive from a man to a woman.

Note on the Edited Text

The presentation of Love Rune in eight-line stanzas (210 lines) follows modern convention. The layout in Jesus 29 appears to indicate a somewhat different perception of the poem's line length by the scribe, who copies Thomas's poem in one hundred and five double lines, the beginning of each stanza marked by a colored capital. The scribe has, moreover, positioned the poem so that its midpoint (lines 99-100/MS 50) occurs at the bottom of the middle verso, and the compliment to Henry III (lines 101-02/MS 51) occurs at the top of the middle recto. The poet probably conceived of the rune as one hundred lines in length (twenty-five stanzas) plus a five-line coda (balanced spatially by the incipit). As with the inscribed Cross, a central number fifty would reflect the Crucifixion, that is, Christ's five wounds. This actual layout may indicate that the original poem was planned for inscription in a manuscript, which suggests, further, that the reference to a roll is primarily figurative.

Go To Love Rune
Select Bibliography


Oxford, Jesus College MS 29, Part II, fols. 187a-188b. C. 1270. [Franciscan miscellany of Anglo-Norman and English texts with some Latin.]


Brown, Carleton, ed. English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century. Oxford: Clarendon, 1932. Pp. xxiv, 68-74, 198-99.

Dickins, Bruce, and R. M. Wilson, eds. Early Middle English Texts. New York: Norton, 1951. Pp. 103-09, 216-20.

Dunn, Charles W., and Edward T. Byrnes, eds. Middle English Literature. Second ed. New York: Garland, 1990. Pp. 156-362.

Kaiser, Rolf, ed. Medieval English: An Old and Middle English Anthology. Third ed. Berlin: Rolf Kaiser, 1958. Pp. 219-21.

Morris, Richard, ed. An Old English Miscellany. EETS o.s. 49. 1872; rpt. New York: Greenwood, 1969. Pp. 93-99.

Edited Extracts

Cook, A. S., ed. A Literary Middle English Reader. Boston: Ginn, 1915. Pp. 239-40. [7 stanzas.]

Manly, John Matthews, ed. English Poetry (1170-1892). Boston: Ginn, 1907. Pp. 10-12. [17 stanzas.]

Sisam, Celia, and Kenneth Sisam, eds. The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse. Oxford: Clarendon, 1970. P. 13. [2 stanzas.]


Fr. Cuthbert, O. S. F. C., trans. In A MediFval Anthology. Ed. Mary G. Segar. London: Longmans, Green, 1915. Pp. 49-55. [19 stanzas.]

Pancoast, Henry S., trans. In Medieval English Prose and Verse. Ed. Roger Sherman Loomis and Rudolph Willard. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1948. Pp. 63-65. [16 stanzas.]

Stone, Brian, trans. Medieval English Verse. Second ed. New York: Penguin, 1971. Pp. 51-56.

Weston, Jessie L., trans. The Chief Middle English Poets: Selected Poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914. Pp. 343-45.

Textual Commentary

Holthausen, F. "Zu Morris' Old English Miscellany." Archiv fhr das Studium der Neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 8 (1892), 369-70.

Thomas of Hales's Other Known Works

Horrall, Sarah, ed. The Lyf of Oure Lady: The ME Translation of Thomas of Hales' Vita sancte Marie. Middle English Texts 17. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1985. [Latin life of Mary.]

Legge, M. Dominica, ed. "The Anglo-Norman Sermon of Thomas of Hales." Modern Language Review 30 (1935), 212-18.

Related Latin Works

Aelred of Rievaulx. "Rule of Life for a Recluse." Trans. Mary Paul Macpherson. In Treatises; The Pastoral Prayer. Cistercian Fathers Series 2. Spencer, Mass.: Cistercian Publications, 1971. Pp. 43-102. [Prose treatise on the anchoritic life by a twelfth-century English Cistercian abbot, written as a letter to his recluse sister.]

Albertus Magnus. Book of Minerals. Trans. Dorothy Wyckoff. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967. [A lapidary.]

Aldhelm. De virginitate. Trans. Michael Lapidge and Michael Herren. In Aldhelm: The Prose Works. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1979. Pp. 51-132. [Prose treatise on virginity by a sixth- to seventh-century English abbot, written as a letter to the nuns of Barking Abbey.]

Grosseteste, Robert. Templum Dei. Ed. Joseph Goering and F. A. C. Mantello. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1984.

Hugh of Saint Victor. Selected Spiritual Writings. Trans. a Religious of the Community of St. Mary the Virgin. Intro. Aelred Squire. London: Faber and Faber, 1962.

Osbert of Clare. Letters. Ed. W. W. Williamson. London: Oxford University Press, 1929. Pp. 135-53. [Letters 40 and 41 on virginity; author was a twelfth-century prior of Westminster.]

Life of Christina of Markyate: A Twelfth Century Recluse. Ed. and trans. C. H. Talbot. Oxford: Clarendon, 1959. [Narrative of twelfth-century Englishwoman dedicated to Christ who escapes her family's desire to have her married.]

Related Middle English Works Earlier than Love Rune

Prose works composed 1200-25, printed in Anne Savage and Nicholas Watson, eds. and trans., Anchoritic Spirituality: "Ancrene Wisse" and Associated Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1991). Individual works are:
Ancrene Wisse. Pp. 41-207. [A rule for anchoresses.]
Holy Maidenhood. Pp. 223-43. [Argues for virginity by showing the ills of marriage.]
Saint Juliana. Pp. 306-21.
Saint Katherine. Pp. 259-84.
Saint Margaret. Pp. 288-305.
Sawles Warde. Pp. 209-21. [Allegory of the body as castle of the soul, drawn from Hugh of Saint Victor's De anima.]
Wooing of Our Lord. Pp. 245-57. [Love song to Jesus.]

Related Middle English Works Contemporary with Love Rune

Select contents of Oxford, Jesus College MS 29, printed in Richard Morris, ed. An Old English Miscellany, EETS o.s. 49 (1872; rpt. New York: Greenwood, 1969). Individual works are:
A Litel Soth Sermon. Pp. 187, 189, 191.
A Moral Ode. Pp. 58-71.
An Orison of Our Lord. Pp. 139-41.
Death. Pp. 169-85 [alternating with text from MS Cotton Caligulo A.ix].
Doomsday. Pp. 163, 165, 167, 169.
Long Life. Pp. 157, 159.
On Serving Christ. Pp. 90-92. [Precedes Love Rune.]
The Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. P. 100. [Follows Love Rune.]
The Passion of Our Lord. Pp. 37-57.

The Castle of Love. Ed. Kari Sajavaara. "The Middle English Translations of Robert Grosseteste's Chateau d'Amour." MJmoires de la sociJtJ nJophilologique de Helsinki 32 (1967), 5-434. [Original poem composed in Anglo-Norman, c. 1230-53; translated into English c. 1300.]

The Harley Lyrics. Ed. G. L. Brook. Fourth ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968.

The Owl and the Nightingale. Ed. J. H. G. Grattan and G. F. H. Sykes. EETS o.s. 119. 1935; rpt. Millwood, N. Y.: Kraus, 1975. [Appears in Jesus College MS 29.]

The Thrush and the Nightingale. Ed. Carleton Brown. In English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century. Oxford: Clarendon, 1932. Pp. 101-08, 207-08.

Were Beth They biforen Us Weren. Ed. Carleton Brown. In English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century. Oxford: Clarendon, 1932. Pp. 85-87, 202-03.

Related Middle English Works Later than Love Rune

A Talking of the Love of God. Ed. Carl Horstmann. In Yorkshire Writers. Vol. 2. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1896. Pp. 345-66. [Fourteenth-century descendent of The Wooing of Our Lord; appears in Vernon MS.]

The Four Leaves of the Truelove. Printed in this volume. [Fourteenth-century stanzaic alliterative poem; a maiden is counseled to seek God instead of an earthly lover.]

Of Clene Maydenhod. Ed. F. J. Furnivall. In The Minor Poems of the Vernon Manuscript. Vol 2. EETS o.s. 117. 1901; rpt. New York: Greenwood, 1969. Pp. 464-68. [Fourteenth-century descendent of A Love Rune; appears in Vernon MS.]

Pearl. Ed. E. V. Gordon. Oxford: Clarendon, 1953. [Important fouteenth-century poem, with imagery of gems, brides of Christ, and virginity.]

Criticism of Love Rune

Bloomfield, Morton W. "Thomas of Hales' 'A Love Rune' (1250-1270): A Christian Didactic Poem." In Europ@ische Lehrdichtung: Festschrift fhr Walter Naumann zum 70. Geburtstag. Ed. Hans Gerd R'tzer and Herbert Walz. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1981. Pp. 49-60.

Brewer, Derek. English Gothic Literature. New York: Schocken, 1983. Pp. 44-45.

Cambridge History of English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1907. Pp. 258-59.

D'Angelo, Benito, O. F. M. "English Franciscan Poetry before Geoffrey Chaucer (1340?-1400)." Trans. Luke M. Ciampi, O. F. M. Franciscan Studies 21 (1983), 218-60, especially 229, 235-39.

Hill, Betty. "The 'Luue-Ron' and Thomas de Hales." Modern Language Review 59 (1964), 321-30.

Horrall, Sarah. "Thomas of Hales, O. F. M.: His Life and Works." Traditio 42 (1986), 287-98.

Kane, George. Middle English Literature: A Critical Study of the Romances, the Religious Lyrics, "Piers Plowman." London: Methuen, 1951. Pp. 116-17.

Levy, Bernard S. "The Annunciation in Thomas de Hales' Love Ron." Mediaevalia 6 (1980), 123-34.

Manning, Stephen. Wisdom and Number: Toward a Critical Appraisal of the Middle English Religious Lyric. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962. Pp. 122-24.

Pearsall, Derek. Old English and Middle English Poetry. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977. Pp. 97, 141.

Rogers, William Elford. Images and Abstractions: Six Middle English Religious Lyrics. Anglistica 18. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1972. Pp. 22-40.

Saintsbury, George. A History of English Prosody from the Twelfth Century to the Present Day. Vol. 1. London: Macmillan, 1906. P. 56.

Schofield, William. English Literature from the Norman Conquest to Chaucer. Second ed. 1931; rpt. New York: Phaeton Press, 1969. Pp. 439-40.

Swanton, Michael. English Literature before Chaucer. London: Longman, 1987. Pp. 246-49.

Wells, John Edwin. "'A Luue Ron' and 'Of Clene Maydenhod.' " Modern Language Review 9 (1914), 236-37.

——. A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050-1400. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1916. Pp. 390, 406, 529-30, 852.

——. Woolf, Rosemary. The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Clarendon, 1968. Pp. 61-62.

Related Studies

Atkinson, Clarissa. "'Precious Balm in a Fragile Glass': The Ideology of Virginity in the Later Middle Ages." Journal of Family History 8 (1983), 131-43.

Bloch, R. Howard. "The Poetics of Virginity." In Medieval Misogyny. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Pp. 93-112.

Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Bugge, John. Virginitas: An Essay in the History of a Medieval Ideal. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975.

Coakley, John. "Friars as Confidants of Holy Women in Medieval Dominican Hagiography." In Images of Sainthood in Medieval Europe. Ed. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Timea Szell. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991. Pp. 222-46.

——.. "Friars, Sanctity, and Gender: Mendicant Encounters with Saints, 1250-1325." In Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages. Ed. Clare A. Lees. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994. Pp. 91-110.

Constable, Giles. "Aelred of Rievaulx and the Nun of Watton: An Episode in the Early History of the Gilbertine Order." In Medieval Women. Ed. Derek Baker. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978. Pp. 205-26.

Cornelius, Roberta D. The Figurative Castle: A Study in the Medieval Allegory of the Edifice with Especial Reference to Religious Writings. Bryn Mawr: Bryn Mawr College, 1930.

Elkins, Sharon K. Holy Women of Twelfth-Century England. Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 1988.

Fein, Susanna Greer. "Maternity in Aelred of Rievaulx's Letter to His Sister." In Medieval Mothering. Ed. John Carmi Parsons and Bonnie Wheeler. The New Middle Ages 3. New York: Garland Press, 1996. Pp. 139-56.
Hill, Betty. "The History of Jesus College, Oxford MS. 29." Medium Evum 32 (1963), 203-13.

Jeffrey, David L. The Early English Lyric and Franciscan Sprituality. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975.

Legge, M. Dominica. Anglo-Norman Literature and Its Background. Oxford: Clarendon, 1963. Pp. 114, 227-28, 351.

McGinn, Bernard. "The Language of Love in Christian and Jewish Mysticism." In Mysticism and Language. Ed. Stephen T. Katz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Pp. 202-35.

McLaughlin, Eleanor Commo. "Equality of Souls, Inequality of Sexes: Woman in Medieval Theology." In Religion and Sexism. Ed. Rosemary Radford Reuther. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974. Pp. 213-66.

Millett, Bella. "Women in No Man's Land: English Recluses and the Development of Vernacular Literature." In Women and Literature in Britain, 1150-1500. Ed. Carol M. Meale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Pp. 86-103.

Newman, Barbara. From Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

Robertson, Elizabeth. Early English Devotional Prose and the Female Audience. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.

Steinberg, Leo. The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. New York: Pantheon/October, 1983.

Wogan-Browne, Jocelyn. "The Virgin's Tale." In Feminist Readings in Middle English Literature: The Wife of Bath and All Her Sect. Ed. Ruth Evans and Lesley Johnson. London: Routledge, 1994. Pp. 165-94.

Woolf, Rosemary. "The Theme of Christ the Lover-Knight in Medieval English Literature." Review of English Studies, n.s. 13 (1962), 1-16.