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The Storie of Asneth: Introduction


1 Aseneth = Greek and Latin spelling; Asenath = Midrash spelling; Asneth = Middle English spelling.

2 Pirke R. El. xxxviii; Midr. Abkir, quoted in Yair Gen. 146; Targ. Yer. Gen xli.45, xlvi.20; Midr. Aggadah, ed. Buber, i.97.

3 The Jewish Encyclopedia (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1907), II, 172.

4 Nahum Sarna, Encyclopaedia Judaica 3, col. 693. See also W. Spiegelberg, Aegyptologische Randglossern zum Alten Testament (Strassburg: Schlesier and Schweikhardt, 1904), pp. 18-19.

5 For an excellent detailed summary and commentary on the Greek narrative see Kaufmann Kohler, ``Asenath, Life and Confession or Prayer of'' in The Jewish Encyclopedia (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1907), II, 172-76. For a modern translation, see Christoph Burchard, Joseph and Aseneth: A New Translation and Introduction, in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Garden City: Doubleday, 1985), II, 177-247.

6 For a detailed description of the manuscript see the Guide to Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Huntington Library (San Marino: The Huntington Library, 1989), pp. 35-39.

7 For discussion of John Shirley's biography, see A. I. Doyle, ``More Light on John Shirley,'' Medium Aevum, 30 (1961), 93-101. For speculation on Shirley's role in the fifteenth-century book trade, see Walter Schirmer, John Lydgate: A Study in the Culture of the XVth Century, trans. Ann E. Keep (London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1961), pp. 251- 53; Derek Pearsall, John Lydgate (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1970), pp. 73-78; and A. I. Doyle, ``English Books In and Out of Court,'' in English Court and Culture in the Later Middle Ages, ed. V. J. Scattergood and J. W. Sherborne (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1983), pp. 163-81.

8 Guide to the Huntington, p. 37. The inscription is illustrated in English Court and Culture, plate 17. The note in Shirley's hand naming ``Aluredo Corneburgh'' is important in that it indicates, along with the continuous pagination, that not only the opening gathering but the first 115 folios were assembled under Shirley's supervision and in the possession of the two sisters, even though the bulk of the manuscript is not in Shirley's hand.

9 The Paston Letters 1422-1509 A.D., ed. James Gairdner, vol. 2 (Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co Ltd, 1900), p. 107. For a brief account of what is known about Cornburgh's career, see Doyle, ``English Books In and Out of Court,'' p. 177.

10 Guide to the Huntington, p. 39. See also J. C. Wedgwood and A. Holt, History of Parliament (London: H. M. Stationery Office, 1936-38), I, 368-69.

11 Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 7 (1982), 742-68.

12 In a letter to me dated 17 April 1991, A. I. Doyle observes: ``I would remark with relation to the possible date of composition of the poem(s), on the very strong alliterative style, which to a large extent over-rides the stanzaic rhyming quality. The syntax and accentuation are not polished post-Chaucerian in their effects. Some of the vocabulary supports this impression. It inclines me to push the composition back to earlier in the fifteenth century, and it is not easy to date paleographically the hand, as a conventional textura. The `cadel' decorative initials with grotesques are also difficult to date, for they occur in liturgical manuscripts over a long stretch of time, certainly from the beginning of the fifteenth century into the sixteenth, when they are utilised by printers too. They are not common in English literary manuscripts, but there are some from Yorkshire of very early fifteenth or even late fourteenth century making. They could, of course, have been added sometime after the writing, though I wasn't inclined to think so when I saw the manuscript.''

13 See Rossell Hope Robbins, ``The Findern Anthology,'' PMLA, 69 (1954), 610-42.

14 ``The Storie of Asneth: An Unknown Middle English Translation of a Lost Latin Version,'' JEGP, 9 (1910), 224-64. MacCracken prints the text along with Vincent of Beauvais' redaction of the Latin source at the bottom of the page. The Lydgate reference to Asneth appears in ``To Mary the Queen of Heaven'' (line 35), where ``Assenek off Egypt, of beaute pereles'' is compared to the Virgin. See The Minor Poems of John Lydgate, ed. Henry Noble MacCracken, EETS e.s. 107 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1911), p. 286.

15 ``Asenath of Egypt in Middle English,'' Medium Aevum, 39 (1970), 122.

16 It is perhaps noteworthy that the phrase ``without varyance'' which is attached to Margery Hungerford's name appears three times in The Storie of Asneth.

17 In correspondence to me dated 17 April 1991, A. I. Doyle remarks: ``I could not connect John [Shirley] with the contemporaneous Warwickshire Shirleys, well documented, or other north Midland branches, but I do wonder.''

18 Batiffol thought that the Latin translation of the Greek narrative might have been done by Robert Grosseteste, who in 1242 had translated from Greek into Latin The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, from which he had drawn material for his Casteau d'Amour; Batiffol thought both works had ``une remarquable affinité'' with the Latin Aseneth. But James notes that the copy of the poem in Corpus Christi 424 is of the twelfth century, and thus must precede Grosseteste.

19 Corpus Christi 424 consists of six volumes bound up into one. The Latin Aseneth is the only item in volume five (it is item twelve in the anthology) and is the only work of the twelfth century among the six fascicules. The copy of Asneth in Corpus Christi 288 is of the thirteenth century. Corpus Christi 288 includes several volumes of religious materials from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries bound together.

20 See MacCracken's reprint of Vincent of Beauvais' text at the bottom of the page in his edition of the Middle English poem, JEGP, 9 (1910), 224-64.

21 The Middle English poet quite evidently works from the longer Latin version, not a redaction, however. But although the longer Latin version of Aseneth was known to at least the Middle English poet and Vincent of Beauvais, the Corpus Christi manuscripts of the poem have not been widely known to more recent scholars. Batiffol had finished editing the Greek version, which was the source of the Latin work, before M. R. James informed him of the existence of the Corpus Christi manuscripts containing the Latin version; James's edition was then added as a second fascicule to some copies of Studia patristica: études d'ancienne littérature chrétienne (1889), but not to all. (Richard Dwyer notes that the Princeton Theological Seminary's copy of Batiffol does not have James' Latin text; nor is it mentioned in the Jewish Encyclopedia's discussion of Batiffol's views. Dwyer found it in the copy of Studia patristica in the Andover-Harvard Theological Library. I obtained it through the Orthodox Catholic Alliance in Buffalo, New York.) When Henry Noble MacCracken edited the Middle English version in 1910, he knew nothing of the longer Latin text, though he argued that such a work must exist on grounds of the prologue to the Middle English poem, which mentions it, and the fact that the Middle English story is more complete and closer to the Greek version than Vincent's version in the Speculum historiale. It was not until 1970, in Medium Aevum, that Dwyer demonstrated that the Middle English version is in fact a translation of the twelfth-century version that James edited.

22 Bell, pp. 167-68. See also Veronica Sekules, ``Women and Art in England in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries,'' in Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England: 1200-1400, ed. Jonathan Alexander and Paul Binski (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1987), pp. 41-48.

23 Several typological elements of the story derive from the Targum of pseudo-Jonathan, the midrash of Rabbi Eliezar the great, and various writings of Philo Judaeus. See Dwyer, p. 118; the articles on Asenath by Gerson B. Levi and Kaufmann Kohler, The Jewish Encyclopedia (1907) II; and Pierre Batiffol, Studia patristica (1889), pp. 11-18, on the legends of Dinah and Aseneth.

24 For an interesting discussion of the iconography of Mary's robe as a refuge for the faithful, see John V. Fleming, ``Anticlerical Satire as Theological Essay: Chaucer's Summoner's Tale,'' Thalia, 6 (1983), 5-22.

25 See John Plummer, The Hours of Catherine of Cleves: Introduction and Commentaries (New York: George Braziller, n.d.), Pl. 5: Birth of the Virgin, with its bee hive and honey bees in the border (Plate IV). See the entry on bees in The Book of Beasts, being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century, trans. T. H. White (London: Jonathan Cape, 1954), p. 154 for the proposition that they procreate without sexual intercourse.

26 Pp. 262-64. MacCracken notes (p. 264) that the -yse rhyme runs throughout the ``epilogue'' (i.e., the ``Lament'') either as the a or b rhyme.

27 Carleton Brown and Rossell Hope Robbins, The Index of Middle English Verse (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943), p. 1.
The Origin of the Story

The story of Asneth originates in Midrashic commentaries on two verses in Genesis. In the first verse, Pharaoh gives Joseph a new name ``and called him in the Egyptian tongue, The saviour of the world. And he gave him to wife Aseneth,1 the daughter of Putiphare, priest of Heliopolis. Then Joseph went out to the land of Egypt'' (Gen. 41:45 - Douay translation). In the second passage we are told that before the famine, ``Joseph had two sons born: whom Aseneth, the daughter of Putiphare, priest of Heliopolis, bore unto him'' (Gen. 41:50), the two sons being Manasses and Ephraim. The verses caused some consternation among ancient Hebraic commentators because it appears the lineage of Jacob and his favorite son passes through a gentile woman, a thought that is particularly troublesome in that it occurs in the same context as the story of Dinah, which is hostile toward mésalliance. When Dinah is inseminated by the gentile Shechem, Simeon and Levi kill all the men of his tribe for their affront to their sister (Gen. 34). One tradition explains that Asenath is Dinah's daughter, who is secreted away to Egypt to be raised by the holy priest Potiphera.2 Marcus Jastrow summarizes the two versions of this explanation:
When [Dinah's] brothers had learned of the birth of an illegitimate child to their family, they wanted to kill the child in order to prevent public disgrace. But Jacob placed upon the child's neck a talismanic plate engraved with the name of God, and - according to one version - left her exposed under a thorn-bush (``seneh,'' whence the name of the girl, ``Asenath''), and the angel Gabriel carried her to the house of Potiphar in Egypt, where the latter's wife, being childless, reared her as her own daughter. According to another version (Midr. Aggadah), Jacob had the child exposed under the walls of Egypt. Her crying attracted the attention of Potiphar, who was passing at the time.3
Thus, according to this narrative the blood-line of Joseph remains somewhat more pure, as Joseph marries, through God's intervention, his own niece.

Another Midrashic tradition, apparently from the Hellenistic community at Alexandria, turns the story of Aseneth into a missionary tale. In this version Asenath is Potiphar's daughter, but God makes the choice, cleanses the gentile woman, and prepares her by means of an angel for her sacred wedding. This tradition draws upon Egyptian mythology in the naming of Asenath after Neith, the androgynous river god-goddess who gives birth to the Pleiades, the seven shining stars that guide navigators.4 In the missionary tale Asenath is a leader, like Ruth or Esther or Sara the wife of Tobit or Susannah wife of Joachim, whose life is an example to converts of God's mysterious ways.

The Asneth narrative first appears as a story independent of Hebrew commentaries in second-century Alexandria.5 Writing in Hellenistic Greek, the author seems to be of a Hebraic community that may or may not be Christian. If not, the eucharistic materials could be interpolations. If so, the author is of a learned Christian sect still closely allied to the Hebrew community that knows Hebraic symbology intimately and still adheres to dietary laws. The author is well acquainted with the Hellenistic Midrash and the perplexing issues of Joseph's marriage to a woman of pagan heritage. The position espoused by the romance narrative is evangelical and places faith in God above the Law. Kaufmann Kohler notes the similarity between the evangelical message of the poem and that of Hellenistic Hebrew commentators. In the Greek romance, when Aseneth receives her new name she is called ``Manos,'' meaning in Hebrew ``City of Refuge,'' as a sign that through Aseneth many gentiles ``should take refuge under the wings of the divine Shekinah (compare Rev. xiii.6), and under her walls those that turn to God, the Most High, should find protection in repentance'' (Jewish Encyclopedia, II, 174). Her Hebrew name ``Asenath'' is a transposition of letters in the word ``nasat,'' meaning ``she has fled,'' the idea being that in her conversion she has fled from idolatry to her refuge in God. According to Kohler,
The book as a whole belongs to the Hellenistic propaganda literature by which Jewish writers endeavored to win the non-Jewish world for the Jewish faith, while at the same time eagerly representing their Hebrew ancestors as physical as well as moral heroes. (Jewish Encyclopedia II, 176)
But regardless of whether it originates in a Hellenistic Jewish or quasi-Christian community, the Greek romance of Joseph and Aseneth survives with Christian interpolators who translate it into Syriac (sixth century), Armenian, Ethiopic, Slavic, and Latin. The Latin version comes from the twelfth century and was subsequently abbreviated by Vincent of Beauvais in the Speculum historiale (c. 1260). The Middle English version is based upon the twelfth-century Latin version, not the abridgment.

The Middle English Storie of Asneth and Its Provenance

The Middle English Storie of Asneth survives in a single manuscript, Ellesmere 26.A.13, which was once part of the Bridgewater collection and is now in the Huntington Library.6 Asneth and a ``Lament on the death of a fair lady'' appear at the end (the last twelve folios, fols. 116-27, numbered 121-32 in the manuscript) in a textura script. The manuscript's first gathering of four leaves is in the secretary script of John Shirley and includes devotional verses by Lydgate, Boethius, Chaucer, and Petrarch (fols. ii-iii). Folios 1-17, in a bastard anglicana, include poems by Lydgate, and fols. 18-115, in the same hand, include Thomas Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes.

The manuscript provides a number of clues to its fifteenth-century ownership. The first page is headed with the names of Margaret and Beatrice, in large letters. Sketches of a griffin passant and a boar on fol. iv refer to the Lynne family and to Avery Cornburgh. The sketches, along with the Shirley bookplate on fol. v that also bears the women's names, account for the names on the first folio, for Margaret and Beatrice are two of the three daughters of William and Alice Lynne. The women are evidently the owners of at least the first gathering and most likely more.

Margaret and Beatrice were raised by their mother Alice after their father, a wool merchant and grocer of London, died. John Shirley, the famous amanuensis, publisher, book dealer, literary gossip, and founder of England's first important lending library,7 helped with the management of their household. At some point between 1423 when William Lynne died and 1441 when John Shirley made his will, Margaret Lynne became Shirley's second wife. John was born about 1366, so it must have been a marriage in which ``tendre youthe hath wedded stoupyng age'' [CT IV 1737]. But he can't have been too ``stoupyng,'' for he completed one of his most important manuscripts, Ashmole 59, when he was ninety years old, and conceived upon Margaret eight sons and four daughters before his death in 1456. John is thought to have known Chaucer in his youth and was apparently a longtime friend, publisher, and literary agent of Lydgate. Margaret must have been an intelligent and capable woman, for she was appointed executrix of his complicated will (Doyle, ``More Light,'' p. 96).

Beatrice, Margaret's sister, married Avery Cornburgh. On fol. 115 of Ellesmere 26.A.13, after Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes, Cornburgh is identified by a note in Shirley's hand as ``Aluredo Corneburgh de Camera Regis.''8 He is also mentioned in a letter from John Russe to John Paston dated 15 July 1462 (?) as a ``yoman of the Kynges chaumbre.''9 The appearance of Beatrice's name in conjunction with Margaret's at the head of the manuscript and again in the bookplate at the end of the first quire suggests that perhaps that gathering had at one time been a gift to the Lynne girls from Shirley. One other name written in this first gathering is that of ``Elizabeth Gaynesford'' (fol. iiiv). She is the wife of Nicholas Gaynsford (noted on fol. ivr as ``necolas gaynsford''). This Gaynsford may have been Usher to the Chamber of Edward IV and his Queen, Elizabeth Woodville.10 If so, he would probably have known Cornburgh. That it is his wife's name that is first cited suggests she was a friend of at least Beatrice. These several names in the manuscript identify a circle of substantial Londoners affiliated with the outer reaches of the royal court and help us to understand the interests and concerns of such people.

But, regardless of whether The Storie of Asneth has anything to do with the Shirley household, one is struck by the prominence of women in the history of the manuscript's ownership. Given the subject matter of The Storie of Asneth and the female patronage announced in its Prologue, the Middle English Asneth would seem to be part of the dramatic increase of books of piety and instruction in the fifteenth century written in the vernacular at the request of women, under the patronage of women, and for the instruction of women, about which Susan Groag Bell writes in her pioneering study ``Medieval Women Book Owners: Arbiters of Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture.''11

Date of Composition

The Manual of Writings in Middle English estimates the date of composition of the Middle English Asneth to be c. 1400 (II, 383). The Middle English Dictionary cites several words that appear in Asneth, suggesting a date of about 1475. The language of the poem seems later than 1400, mainly because of the large number of Latin neologisms the poet invents as he is translating.12 But it could have been copied into the Ellesmere MS around 1450 or 1460, during the time that the manuscript was still in the possession of the Shirley family. Or it could have been copied later. Most certainly the copy we now possess is not a holograph copy, as some addenda to fifteenth-century manuscripts appear to be.13 That is, the date of composition and the date of entry into the Ellesmere MS are not the same. The Ellesmere poem has been copied from another draft of the poem. Although the scribe writes with a careful, well-trained hand, even decorating some capitals with the profile of a man, there are various eyeskip errors which have been corrected by the scribe.

The Poet, the Patron, and the Audience<

Henry Noble MacCracken suggests that the author of the poem might be a cleric, a chaplain, perhaps, living not far from Warwickshire and not long after the death of Chaucer. He comments on the fact that several Lydgate poems are to be found in the same manuscript and notes that Lydgate is the only other Middle English writer he knows who mentions the name Asneth.14 Richard Dwyer's study of the poem's relationship to its Latin source discards the possibility that Lydgate might be the author of the Middle English poem, however.15 But the poem is very like Lydgate in its taste. Lydgate would certainly have been capable of the neologisms in the poem, and he often wrote on the behalf of women. Moreover, Shirley often talks about Lydgate in his notes, how he wrote this poem for that occasion, and so on. But The Storie of Asneth bears no such annotation, which, given Shirley's propensity for gossip, militates against Lydgate's authorship. Moreover, Lydgate's verse is seldom as heavily alliterative as Asneth. It seems rather that the poet is well schooled in Lydgate, sharing many of that poet's goals, and that his poem, like so much of Lydgate, is known to the Shirley circle. It is unlikely, however, that either of the Lynne sisters would have been the commissioner of the poem; more likely that person would be someone closer to the aristocracy.

The Prologue to the Middle English poem offers several specific clues about the poet and his patroness. The persona tells how a lady ``me desired in Englysh to translate / The Latyn of that lady, Asneth Putifar.'' He replies that he lacks the skill to ``kerve out the kernelis, to glade with yowre graunge.'' The lady insists that he translate the poem for her, however, so he complies. There is no equivalent to this prologue in the Latin source of the poem. In discussing the passionate interest of upper class women in obtaining vernacular devotional literature for purposes of instruction within the household, Susan Bell notes that often such material is added to existing volumes. She also notes that frequently such fifteenth-century women owned not simply a book or two, but had libraries of their own. The poet's phrase about carving out ``kernelis, to glade with yowre graunge,'' which seems to mean ``to add gladly to your granary,'' could be a witty reference to his patroness's library where such kernels of wisdom are stored. The metaphor also anticipates the grain motif which becomes important typologically in the subsequent poem. Though the lady's holdings would have been in no way comparable to the substantial lending library of John Shirley, it seems to be something she was proud of.

The addition of Asneth to the Ellesmere MS may provide clues to the manuscript's readership. Perhaps it began as a Shirley book that got lent but not returned, only added to! In his study of the Findern manuscript, another great fifteenth-century anthology laden with Chauceriana, Rossell Hope Robbins demonstrated that that work was not simply the possession of a great fifteenth-century woman's household but that it served apparently as a book for several households which were linked through, among other things, literary interests. Many names of women appear in the Findern manuscript, including those of ``Anne Schyrley'' and ``Margery hungerford wtowte varyance'' (p. 626).16 Robbins notes that ``documentation can be found for the families of Hungerford, Coton, Francis, and Shirley, all in the immediate vicinity of Findern, showing that they were well-known local families, and surely friends of the Finderns'' (p. 627). (The names of women from all these families appear in the margins of the manuscript.) Robbins was of the opinion that young women of these neighboring families would visit Findern and copy into the big book texts of poems they enjoyed from manuscripts they owned or had borrowed for the occasion (p. 628). One is reminded of the situation in The Assemblie of Ladies, where women gather on a summer day to present poems to each other. I do not know whether the Anne Shirley of the Findern manuscript (Warwickshire) is kin to the Margaret and John Shirley of the Asneth manuscript (South Derbyshire),17 but certainly the circumstances of the two manuscripts share in common a female propriety that cherishes books and adds appropriate materials to them. The owners and users of both books were clearly interested in vernacular literature, literature of a Chaucerian tradition as well as literature of devotion and Christian instruction.

Whoever the lady was who commissioned the poem, to know of the Latin story of Joseph and Aseneth she would have to have been quite well educated and in contact with someone who had an unusual library, for, except in its abridged form, the story was not widely known. In fact, the Latin version of the story that is the source for the Middle English poem could not have enjoyed much circulation at all, though Vincent of Beauvais' redaction of it did circulate more widely in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in both Latin and French. The original Latin romance of Joseph and Aseneth survives in two Cambridge manuscripts, Corpus Christi 424 and Corpus Christi 288, which M. R. James collated and added as an addendum to Batiffol's edition of the Greek version published as Studia Patristica in 1889.18 James was of the opinion that the copy in Corpus Christi 424 came from Christ Church, Canterbury, and that the whole of Corpus Christi 288 once belonged to it. The earlier copy is twelfth century and has been bound with fourteenth- and fifteenth-century astronomical treatises, including Chaucer's Treatise on the Astrolabe.19 In Corpus Christi 288, the thirteenth-century Latin Aseneth appears in a collection of religious biographies and saints lives that share typologically similar materials. This version of the Liber de Aseneth et quomodo Joseph duxit eam in uxorem begins with a poem to the Virgin that apparently was meant to be sung, since the lines are spaced for music that is not filled in. It is preceded in the volume by Liber de infantia salvatoris nostri et de ejus cognatis Ioachimo Anna, et de miraculis virginis Mariae. This narrative tells of Jesus eating ears of corn during the flight into Egypt, a passage that suggests a pleasant inverse typology of the Joseph-Asneth narrative where, instead of Joseph as the Christ figure who supplies grain to Israel, Jesus is a Joseph figure going to Egypt to find grain.

Either might have served as the Middle English poet's source. If the twelfth-century manuscript were already bound with the astrolabe materials as it is in Corpus Christi 424, then it might have been accessible to the Shirley family, who specialized in Chaucer and Chauceriana. Or, given the devotional contents of the later copy, that manuscript might also have been one sought out by a fifteenth-century female patron. The Middle English poem makes no use of the poem to the Virgin, however, which, one might imagine, would have appealed to both poet and patron. The Middle English poet's female patron might have heard of the story of Asneth through one of the more popular redactions which circulated in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, of course, but that would not explain how the translator obtained a copy of the longer Latin version to translate.

It is worth thinking about the redactions in this context, however, since women have a place in their history, too. In the later thirteenth century, Vincent of Beauvais included a redaction of the Latin narrative of Aseneth in his Speculum historiale (cap. 118-24).20 In 1328 Margaret of Provence commissioned John de Vignai to translate Vincent's Speculum into French (the Miroir Hystorial), a work that was frequently copied.21 Owning the compendious Miroir Hystorial would be like having one's own encyclopedia. But women wanted books not just for their instructive stories. They sought books for religious and cultural instruction as well. Susan Bell notes that by owning books, especially Books of Hours, medieval women influenced the shaping of iconography and ``acted as international ambassadors of cultural change through their distribution of books over a broad geographic area.''22 Such a cultural exchange is certainly evident in the diverse reaches of the Middle English Storie of Asneth as its pseudo-biblical plot and rich iconography conflate Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, and English culture.

Christian Iconography and Pleasant Instruction

The Middle English poem is rich in Christian typology, which adds immensely to the complexity of the narrative and the general interest in the poem. Much of the typology may be traced back to the original Alexandrian Greek version of the second century.23 The typology of the original is Neoplatonic and seems quite akin to the kind of glossing one finds in Philo and early Christian commentators such as Origen, Clement of Alexandria, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Basil. It is the same typology that survives in fifteenth-century block books known as the Biblia Pauperum (The Bible of the Poor), the illustrated Psalters, and Books of Hours, all of which draw their ideas from medieval biblical commentaries such as the Glossa ordinaria and other compendia of earlier glosses or commentaries on Genesis such as those by St. Ambrose or St. Augustine.

Given the rich iconographic environment of The Storie of Asneth, it is easy to see how an intelligent woman, concerned with the raising of her household, might want to have it available in the vernacular for instruction. Girls trained on the Psalter, lives of the saints, and prayers of the church would find the poem to be richly resonant with the same figural language. Moreover, such a narrative as Asneth provides the governess with a superior example for the guidance of young women. The poem offers a magnificent study of a young woman coming into responsible adulthood, fully cognizant that her choices matter. The narrative functions on two levels, both as a compendium of Christian teaching and as a guidebook in social behavior for aristocratic women. Its plot is thrilling, high-minded and romantic, a story that a young girl would respond to and admire. Here the heroine is quite different from Virginia in Chaucer's Physician's Tale or Griselda in the Clerk's Tale. Asneth is an obedient daughter, yet she is also strongly independent. She thinks for herself. Above all, she is chaste and deeply religious. She enjoys a powerful person-God relationship. Hers is a religion that recognizes preeminently the importance of trust in God, but also strong personal responsibilities to herself. But with these responsibilities comes as well a keen sense of female privilege.

For example, with the news of Joseph's impending visit, Potiphar, her father, indicates that he would like to give Asneth to Joseph as a bride. She objects firmly:
And when Asneth had herd here fadir thise wordis reherse,
With straunge yes on hym sche loked, here color gan disteyne, [eyes]
And seide to hym, ``Why seie ye thus, my worshyp to reverse,
To take me caytyf to a straunger? Of hym I have disdeyne.
A futif he ys, by bargayn bouht, and more I say yow pleine,
That herdis sone of Chanan his lady wold have fuyled.
In prison therefore he was put and of al worshyp spuyled.

``And after yt happid that Pharao, as he lay in slepe,
Dreyht was dered in hys dremys, diversely dremynge,
And then this Joseph was take out of the prison depe
To rede hym right the redeles of his swevenynge.
The olde wyfis of Egipt han craft in that cunnynge,
And therfore that dreme redere I utterly forsake,
And take me to the kyngis sone, my marie and my make.''
In the passage the poet studies with subtlety the dynamics of a healthy aristocratic family. Asneth would marry a husband who respects women, not defiles them. She knows that she is worthy of a prince, not some shepherd's son who has cheated his way to the top. (She will, ultimately, of course, marry even more than a king's son: she will marry the son of God - and in holiest matrimony.) The parents admire Asneth for her wisdom and intelligence, and for her chastity. She loves her parents, goes out to greet them on various occasions; but she also recognizes when not to be docile. Her father has no opportunity to reason with her at this point (though one can imagine that he would - he's no tyrant), because Joseph arrives at that very moment, and Asneth retires to her room.

Asneth's chambers are in a tower apart, but they have windows - three of them. She has a room with several views and can see in three directions. From her window she sees Joseph's arrival, immediately recognizes his chaste beauty, falls in love with him, and regrets her strong words. What pleases her about Joseph is his independence and his piety, which is manifested in his refusal to eat unclean food. He lives by a higher law which she yearns for but does not yet understand. When Joseph sees Asneth watching from her window, he scorns her as a designing woman, one of the hordes of Egyptian women who are trying to get into bed with him. But her father defends her, praises her chastity and cleanness, comparing her to Joseph himself - which pleases Joseph, who asks to meet her. But when Joseph refuses to kiss her because her mouth has touched unclean food, Asneth is humiliated and again withdraws to her room to enter into a seven day penitential fast, casting out the idols of her parents, covering herself with ashes and tears, and praying to the God of Joseph for forgiveness. Her prayer is a superbly modulated piece, resonant in the language of the penitential Psalms, a model of self-chastisement. If part of a young woman's training was the study of the Psalter, she would be especially receptive to this moment in the poem as she contemplated the verbal echoes.

Asneth's independence and pious obedience are rewarded on the eighth day as the angel of God approaches her and bids her rise from the ashes, to cast off her penitential garb, to clean herself and dress in a new gown. In her transformed state she is given a new name - ``Moche-of-Refute'' (462). She is a new person, a person of grace. But she is also still her older virtuous self. Her good breeding shines as she behaves in the exemplary role of domestic management (one thinks of Milton's Eve in Paradise Lost hosting Raphael), offering the stranger food and courteous hospitality. He asks for a honeycomb. She immediately would make preparation to fetch one from the field of her heritage. When the angel says she has one in her cellar, she speaks right up: ``My lord, / Knowyth wel ther is non, in no maner of wyse'' (523-24). Asneth knows her house, knows what's in her larder and what is not, or at least she thinks she does. She is wrong, of course, for the angel has supplied the new food of which both he and she are about to partake. But her error does not matter. The point is that Asneth has a voice and uses it well. She thinks. When she goes to the cellar and returns with the divine food, the angel kindly taunts her: ``Whi saidest thu ther was non in thi celer?'' (532). To which she replies:
Lord, non swych honycomb in governance hadde I there,
But by commaundement of thi mouth, so yt was do,
For the odour therof ys lik the breth of thi mouth also.
She knows what is under her governance; she also knows what's new, and, with a Pauline sense of the odor of piety, identifies the source. The angel praises ``the wisdam of Asneth,'' smiles ``upon here intelligence'' (539), and blesses her.

Asneth is, indeed, bright and strong minded. Later, when she is to marry Joseph, she meets him alone - ``here fadir was absent.'' Joseph asks a maid to wash his feet for him, but Asneth interjects:
I schal hem wasshe, ye ar my lord dere.

Fro hennys forth I am thin awne, thi handmaid and thi thralle.
Whi ashest thu anothir maide to wasshe thi feet here?
Thi feet ar myn owne feet, thi handdis also with alle,
And thi soule ys my soule: thu are thn myn owen fere.
The point is not simply that she is obedient, but that her obedience gives her privileges which she recognizes and claims, privileges which extend not simply to his feet, but to his soul. He may get her when he marries, but she gets him too. He is hers - ``thi soule ys my soule: thu are thn myn owen fere,'' which implies, in effect, ``you are my rib.''

A third example of her strong sense of privilege within obedience occurs when she first is to meet Jacob, her father-in-law: she, not Joseph, arranges the visit. She says to Joseph, ``Mi fadir I schal go se, / For a god he is to me, thi fader Israel'' (724-25). That is, although she acknowledges a godlike authority within the patriarchy, she does so through her own will and perspective. Jacob is not ``your father,'' but first ``my father'' and then ``thi father Israel.'' Asneth's actions are always thoughtful. She understands formalities, both their forms and their implications. Even when she is distraught and overwhelmed with grief, the focus is on her intelligent use of her will. She is both attached and independent. She understands the private and the decorous. She is represented as being remarkably adult throughout the poem. It is the adult decisions that make her attractive to Joseph and to her parents and that give her status with the angel of God.

But let me return to my earlier comments on the poem's typology. The Storie of Asneth is rich with the resonances of Christian typology, typology of the sort that is prominent in meditational literature and iconography of the visual arts in general - those areas of cultural experience in which women have a dominant role. Primarily the poem works within familiar penitential typologies - the paradigms of death-life, old heritage-new, abduction-return - and typologies of a faith that is superior to Law, both topics of enormous appeal in fifteenth-century England. Joseph is Christlike - ``nothynge fro hym ys hid, he hath so gret cunnyngge'' (206), this ``son of God.'' He is the food supplier who, though sold into exile by his brethren, becomes their redeemer (see Plate I). The blockbooks regularly juxtapose his being put in the well by his brethren with Christ's being laid in the tomb (Plate II). And, when Reuben comes to help but finds the well empty, the parallel is drawn to the empty tomb after the Resurrection (Plate III). In The Storie of Asneth Joseph is not, of course, simply an allegorical figure. He too makes misjudgments when he first sees Asneth, before he comes to share in the dream. The point is made clear that the dream comes first to her. In this instance the effect is somewhat akin to the resurrected Christ's first appearing not to Peter and the apostles but to the three Marys at the tomb.

Asneth is amply adorned with Marian imagery. The angel's visit resonates with the Annunciation: she is the ancilla. In her redeemed state, with her new name - ``Moche-of-Refute'' - she is a mediator, protector, and guarantor like Mary; her spiritual wings, like Mary's robe, provide shelter for her seven attendants and, through her womb, she provides guarantee of the heritage.24 She is often compared to a city of refuge - a ``cité bild of joye.'' And, as in the earlier Alexandrian narrative, she is also like the bride figure in Song of Songs - a sort of orphan after she rejects the idols of her parents to discover God as her ``protectour and defendour of fadirles children alle'' (361). Like the Bride in the Song of Songs, her life is filled with vacillations which she copes with; she is approached, instructed, isolated, wedded, abducted, then restored (see Plate III, which links the Bride with penance and the Joseph story).

Juxtaposed to the elaborate penitential typologies of Asneth's two prayers are the eucharistic and marriage tropes, those sacraments for which her penance prepares her. The honeycomb episode is rich with eucharistic lore. It is the food from God, a comb that is broken during the feeding, mended with the sign of a bloody cross, and borne back to heaven by the bees of paradise. The bees connote innocence and purity. According to John Plummer, they are affiliated with Mary's immaculate conception because they were thought to procreate without intercourse.25 For Asneth, the serving of the honey is akin to a priestly rite in which she is the celebrant. A young girl, trained on the pleasures of reading from Books of Hours with their marginal beehives (Plate IV) and the incumbent iconography, would find such passages as the honeycomb episode to be delightful in their double-talk. Similarly the approach of the divine chariot to carry the angel back to heaven would resonate with the implications of Elijah and Ezekiel, as the translations between time and eternity are depicted. Reference is made to Leviathan as a figure of Hell (see the Jonah trope, Plate I), from which she would be protected. The field of ``our heritage,'' to which Asneth's parents are often retired, carries overtones of the old dispensation, to be valued, but also to be surpassed. My point is, the poem is rich with signs, and trains one to delight in discovering them and exploring them as part of one's Christian acculturation.

But the signs in The Storie of Asneth are not simply those of biblical iconography. They are social and political as well. And in this regard they function pointedly toward the social acculturation of an aristocratic young woman. The relationship between Asneth and Joseph after their betrothal but prior to their espousal is detailed. Asneth is permitted outgoing generosity. She claims prenuptial time with Joseph, yet at the same time remains chaste, until all the formalities are accomplished. Then she is much adored, adorned, and blessed. After the marriage we see Asneth in an administrative role, looking after the business of the harvest from the fields of the heritage. Even in the abduction, she teaches her audience how to behave in adverse circumstances and to forgive their enemies, once order has been restored and the domestic and political scene secured.

One final observation. In the Ellesmere manuscript a lament on the death of a great lady immediately follows the story of Asneth. It is in the same verse form as Asneth and was apparently already attached to the exemplum that our scribe copied. MacCracken considered it to be an epilogue, as if the lady who requested the translation had died and is now lamented.26 Brown and Robbins, in the Index of Middle English Verse, considered it to be a separate poem.27 I have included it in this edition as a sort of tentative epilogue, probably not originally a part of the poem, but possibly written on behalf of the patroness and added to the manuscript after her death. If this interpretation is accurate, then we know that the patroness died a young woman and that she was of high birth - ``of lordis lyne and lynage sche was'' (927). I recognize that such a procedure is strictly conjectural, but it adds a fitting congruity for a work that was commissioned by women, read by women, and used as part of their effort to hono

The Dialect and Versification

The Storie of Asneth was originally composed in a West Midland dialect, probably early in the fifteenth century. Participles are formed by -ing, or, usually, -ynge. Occasionally one finds -i- instead of -e- in plural inflections of nouns, as in nuttis, kernelis, and spiritis, and, rarely, -i- in the past tense inflection of verbs, as in foundid. The third person singular female possessive pronoun her is regularly spelled here, which will at first seem confusing to modern readers. The plural possessive their is also spelled here and sometimes her. The first person plural possessive our appears as our, oure, hour, and howre. The scribe often uses terminal flourishes (otiose strokes) after -ng, -ll, and -r in place of -e. I have transcribed such flourishes as -e for the sake of consistency in pronouns (about a third of the possessive third person singular female pronouns have the flourish instead of the -e, the others being spelled here); and all participles ending in the flourish I have transcribed with the -e, so that rhyme words with the flourish and those with the -e appear in this edition the same. It is quite possible that the -e had phonemic value in the original poem.

The manuscript has some punctuation in it, namely a dot used to mark periods within lines, as in lines 572, 573, and 624. Doyle is quite right in observing that the alliterative patterning is often more noticeable than the rhyme royal stanzas. One reason for this is the lack of metrical feet and the frequent use of enjambment. The poem reads like stanzaic prose. But I do not think that lack of meter or a regular alliterative scheme is a sign of incompetence in this overly modest poet. The effect of the alliterative stanzas is not unmusical; the poet has a good sense of rhythm, one might say a ``good ear,'' once one gets a feel for the line. The poetry is quite effective when read aloud.

Go To The Storie of Asneth
Select Bibliography

Middle English Text

Huntington Manuscript Ellesmere 26.A.13 (fols. 116-27). Manuscript of The Storie of Asneth, a romance in Middle English (933 lines). The Middle English tale is unique to this manuscript, and occurs as items 13-14 (beginning of vol. II of a composite volume). For a full description of the manuscript, see Guide to Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Huntington Library (1989), pp. 35-39. Carleton Brown, Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century, pp. 241-43, reprints the epilogue as a separate poem (i.e., item 14 on the death of the lady, lines 885-933 - fols. 126- 27).

MacCracken, Henry Noble, ed. ``The Storie of Asneth: An Unknown Middle English Translation of a Lost Latin Version.'' JEGP, 9 (1910), 224-64. [This is the only previously printed version of the poem. MacCracken includes Vincent of Beauvais' version of the tale in Latin at the bottom of the page.]

Muir, Laurence. ``IV. Translations and Paraphrases of the Bible, and Commentaries.'' In A Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050-1500, ed. J. Burke Severs (Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1970), II, 383 [West Midlands, probably just before or after 1400], and 536 [seven entries].


Batiffol, Pierre. Studia patristica: études d'ancienne littérature chrétienne. Fasc. I, Le Livre de la priere d'Aseneth. Paris: E. Leroux, 1889. [Includes an edition of the second-century Greek original found in the eleventh-twelfth-century manuscript Vaticanus Graecus 803, and, in some copies, M. R. James' edition of the Latin text based on the twelfth-century manuscript Corpus Christi 424.]

Burchard, Christoph. Joseph and Aseneth: A New Translation and Introduction. In The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1985), II, 177-247. [Includes discussion of the sixteen manuscripts of the Greek version, with summary discussions of the Syriac, Armenian, Latin, Slavonic, Rumanian, Ethiopian, and modern Greek translations; discussion of the language and style of the original first-second-century Greek, its date and provenance, theological importance, key ideas, and historical and cultural importance. Select bibliography. This modern English translation of the Greek original divides the narrative into twenty-nine chapters.]

Vincent of Beauvais. Speculum historiale, Book VI. cap. cxviii-cxxiiii. [Vincent's thirteenth-century Latin redaction (c. 1260) was translated into French (1325) and subsequently into German and Dutch, with numerous compilations based on Vincent in other languages. In sixteenth-century France it was turned into a play for Corpus Christi Day. Vincent omitted in his abridgment the prayer of Aseneth, along with minor details such as Potiphar's desire to have his daughter married from his own door. ``But the phraseology of the Speculum is elsewhere reproduced by the English writer with such exact fidelity, that, except for the suppressions above noted, we must consider the Vincentian narrative an accurate copy of the earlier Latin Text'' (MacCracken, JEGP, 9 (1910), 225).]

Background Studies on the Story of Aseneth in Europe

For additional bibliography on the four-text edition of the Greek original (i.e., the Syriac, Ethiopic, Slavic, and Armenian translations) see ``Asenath, Life and Confession or Prayer of'' by Kaufmann Kohler in The Jewish Encyclopedia II, 172-76. The Greek text has a number of Christian interpolations. Kohler provides a detailed summary (including the ``Christian interpolations''), with specific prayers translated entirely.
Aptowizer, V. ``Asenath, The Wife of Joseph - A Haggadic, Literary-Historical Study.'' Hebrew Union College Annual, 1 (1924), 239-306.

Burchard, Christoph. Untersuchungen zu Joseph und Asenath. Tübingen: Mohr, 1965. [Analyzes MSS in vernacular languages as well as Latin, Greek, Syriac, Armenian, and Old Slavonic, to prove that the European vogue of the romance before the printing press was in largest measure due to Vincent of Beauvais' Latin version in Speculum historiale (c. 1260), which was the principal source for translations and adaptations of Asenath stories in French, English, German, Dutch, Norse, Danish, Czech, and Polish MSS and the earliest printed versions in France and Germany.]

Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Kater Publishing House Jerusalem Ltd., 1972), vol. 3: ``Asenath,'' by Nahum M. Sarna, col. 693. [Hebr. meaning in Egyptian ``she belongs to, or is the servant of [the goddess] Neith,'' daughter of Poti-Phera, the high priest of On (Heliopolis).]

Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 10: ``Joseph and Asenath,'' by Marc Philonenko, cols. 223-24. [Discusses origin and early versions of the story and its three primary elements: the missionary story, the roman à clef, and as ``mystical Judaism.'' A short recension entirely Jewish; there are three longer recensions, which contain Christian interpolation.]

Liptzin, Sol. Biblical Themes in World Literature (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1985), pp. 62-73. [Details the history of the tale and offers an excellent paraphrase of the Greek text, stripped of its Christian accretions. The Testament of Joseph, which dates back to Maccabean times, goes into great detail in narrating the unsuccessful efforts of Potiphar's wife to seduce chaste Joseph, but does not expand the account of Asenath. But about the beginning of the common era Asenath stories must have circulated among the Jews, especially in the Egyptian diaspora. ``There are records of eighty-four medieval manuscripts on the marriage of Joseph and Asenath. Not all of them have survived, but those that did survive in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Old Slavonic, and other languages apparently all go back to a common source, a Joseph and Asenath romance of the early centuries of our era'' (p. 64). Liptzin discusses Joseph stories in the eighteenth-twentieth centuries, especially in Thomas Mann's Joseph and his Brothers, whose treatment of Asenath is minimal, though Mann gives much space to the attempted seduction by Potiphar's wife.]

Ruppert, Lothar. ``Liebe und Bekehrung: Zur Typologie des hellenistisch-judischen Romans Joseph und Asenet.'' In Paradeigmata: Literarische Typologie des Alten Testaments (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1989), pp. 33-42. [Love and conversion tropes in the Greek Romance.]

Stone, Michael E., ed. Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period: Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Qumran Sectarian Writings, Philo, Josephus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984. [Excellent background studies to the Hellenistic culture that produced the stories of Aseneth, Susanna, and Judith. See especially G. W. E. Nickelsburg, ``Stories of Biblical and Early Post-Biblical Times,'' pp. 33-88.]

Criticism of the Middle English Asneth and Its Sources

Burchard, Christoph. ``The Importance of Joseph and Aseneth for the Study of the New Testament.'' New Testament Studies, 33 (1987), 102-34.

Dwyer, R. A. ``Asenath of Egypt in Middle English.'' Medium Aevum, 39 (1970), 118-22.

Kee, H. ``The Socio-Cultural Setting of Joseph and Aseneth.'' New Testament Studies, 29 (1983), 394-413.

Pervo, R. I. ``Joseph and Asenath and the Greek Novel.'' SBL 1976 Seminar Papers, ed. G. MacRae. SBL Seminar Papers Series 10 (Missoula, Montana, 1976), pp. 171-81.

Smith, E. W., Jr. Joseph and Asenath and Early Christian Literature: A Contribution to the Corpus Hellenisticum Novi Testamenti. Ph.D. dissertation, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California, 1974.

West, S. ``Joseph and Asenath: A Neglected Greek Romance.'' The Classical Quarterly, n.s. 24 (1974), 70-81.

Related Studies

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. [See especially chapter 10, ``Women's Symbols,'' pp. 277-96.]

Erler, Mary, and Maryanne Kowaleski, eds. Women and Power in the Middle Ages. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988. [See especially Judith M. Bennett, ``Public Power and Authority in the Medieval English Countryside,'' pp. 18-36; Susan Groag Bell, ``Medieval Women Book Owners: Arbiters of Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture,'' pp. 149-87; and Joan Ferrante, ``Public Postures and Private Maneuvers: Roles Medieval Women Play,'' pp. 213-29.]

Garrard, Mary D. ``Historical Feminism and Female Iconography.'' In Artemisia Gentileschi: The Imagery of the Female in Italian Baroque Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), pp. 141-79. [On the 400-year-old tradition of women thinking about women and sexual politics in European society before the French Revolution; La Femme forte and the imagery of strong women.]

Labarge, Margaret Wade. A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. [See especially chapter 10, ``Women's Contributions to Medieval Culture,'' pp. 219-38.]

McNamer, Sarah. ``Female Authors, Provincial Settings: The Re-versing of Courtly
Love in the Findern Manuscript.'' Viator, 22 (1991), 279-310. [An informed study of female authorship and readership in mid-fifteenth-century England. Includes an edition of fifteen lyrics in the Findern Mansucript that seem to be by women.]