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Item 23, The Incestuous Daughter: Introduction


1 For a brief summary of this evolution see the entry for “Penance” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, 11.623. See also Tentler, Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation, pp. 16–27.

2 Archibald, Incest and the Medieval Imagination, pp. 1–8.

Origin, Genre, and Themes

Though the loss of a leaf has rendered the tale of The Incestuous Daughter incomplete, the existence of complete texts of the tale in two other manuscripts means that the shape of the story can be easily grasped (see below, Text). There are also many other versions of the same plot: the incestuous daughter kills her father after their incest is discovered by her mother and goes on to become a prostitute before a tearful repentance and a sud­den death from the grief of contrition. It appears in many collections of exempla and in another frag­mentary text, the Middle English drama Dux Moraud.

The popularity of this story, attested by these many different versions, is hardly mys­terious. Preachers who used it as an exemplum in their sermons would surely be guar­anteed the attention of their audiences; though there are equally titillating exempla fea­turing even greater amounts of violence, depravity, and miraculous intervention, The Incestuous Daughter features an impres­sive combination of these elements, along with a highly encouraging moral. Though this moral varies somewhat among the different ver­sions, the tale generally exemplifies the remarkable mercy of a God who forgives even the most unspeakable sins, even when those sins have scarcely been atoned for. The other stanzaic Middle English version (in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson poet. 118) emphasizes the need of sinners to make use of the considerable grace that Christ has earned for them, while others use the tale to emphasize the importance of heartfelt contrition.

Here, the tale warns against despair (wanhope), but the final emphasis is on the readily available mercy of God rather than the dangers of forgetting it. The claim expressed in the closing lines that God recognizes genuine contrition for a sin that cannot be properly con­fessed may seem radical, but scholastic theories of confession upheld this doctrine. Al­bertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas viewed confession to a lay person in a time of great need as creating the equivalent to the sacrament of penance properly given by a priest, though subsequent claims by John Wycliff and other unorth­odox writers forced the Council of Trent in 1551 to clarify the Church’s position at the close of the Middle Ages.1 The Council explicitly denounced the notion that laity could hear confessions, though it left open the possibility that a contrite sinner who genuinely desired to confess to a priest, but who could not due to extraordinary circumstances, might still receive absolution from God.

The crimes of the incestuous daughter make her an ideal demonstration of God’s mercy. Incest was considered a particularly heinous sin, and many medieval narratives do not dis­tin­guish between the perpetrator and the victim of incest.2 Both are held ac­count­able for the sin and both are thoroughly dishonored by it. In The Incestuous Daughter the father’s conscience forces him to repent, whereas the daughter responds to incest by falling deeper into depravity. This response resembles the actions of many other women in exempla: once feminine sexual desire is allowed expression, it becomes an unreg­ulated force of destruction. In her multiple murders and her willingness to seduce every squire and clerk she encounters, the incestuous daughter quickly becomes a misogynist nightmare of the unbridled feminine libido, subject to neither reason nor conscience.

It is because of, not despite, this carnality and carnage that the daughter demonstrates so well the power of genuine contrition. Even in the moment when she seems most harden­ed in her sin, as she attempts to seduce men at a Good Friday sermon, her heart is most vulnerably human, and the words of the preaching bishop turn her from evil. Not all of the surviving versions of the exemplum feature the fiends leading the daughter by chains around her neck, a terrifying sight visible only to the preacher, but it is an effective means of de­monstrating how dangerous the bonds of sin can be and how easily tears of contrition can break them.

Manuscript Context

If Saint Eustace, Sir Isumbras, The Jealous Wife, and Sir Cleges (items 1, 5, 22, and 24) imagine the family as the setting for a virtuous, happy life, and celebrate the triumphant reunion of long-suffering families, The Incestuous Daughter moves in an opposite (but not contradictory) direction. Here the family is disordered from its beginning and sets the daughter off on her fall into the depths of sin until she destroys it. But in this story the family cannot be recreated, and it recedes into the background as the narrative shifts its focus to the salvation of the individual and not the family unit. Yet the idea of the family persists: the inces­tuous daughter seems to create a kind of substitute family with her “felos thre,” perhaps a horrible reminder of the three sons she murders because of her incest.

In addition to the other exempla, The Sinner’s Lament and The Adulterous Falmouth Squire (items 35a and 35b) make useful comparisons for considering the consequences of sexual sin and the hardening of the sinner’s heart. The Adulterous Falmouth Squire also ap­pears in the two other manuscripts that contain The Incestuous Daughter, suggesting a particularly close relationship between the two.


The two other extant texts of The Incestuous Daughter are in Cambridge University Library MS Ff.5.48 (P) and Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson poet. 118; though the Manual of the Writings in Middle English considers these two different versions (with the Ashmole and Cambridge manuscripts making up one “version”), they may best be seen as three copies of the same text with considerable variation. The Ashmole text shares many read­ings with the Rawlinson MS, but is on the whole closer to the Cambridge MS. The lost text in Ashmole 61 corresponds to the first 117 lines of the text in P, and the line numbers given here correspond to the line numbers in Horstmann’s edition of that text. The missing lines introduce the tale as an example of dangerous despair saved by the grace of repentance, and go on to describe how the father was tempted by a fiend into incest with his daughter. The daughter is made pregnant three times, and each time she murders the children to conceal their sin, until the mother discovers the incest. The daughter then murders the mother and the incest continues until the father repents and confesses to a priest, who tells the father he must cease having sex with his daughter and make a pil­grimage to the holy land as penance. The Ashmole 61 text begins in the midst of a dialogue between the father and the daughter in which he informs her that he will no longer sleep with her.

Many significant differences exist between the Ashmole and Cambridge texts, and in many readings the latter is clearly superior. But the Cambridge text is itself imperfect, with many missing lines, suggesting that both have been subject to considerable revision and loss.

Printed Editions

Horstmann, Carl. “Nachträge zu den Legenden.” Pp. 421–24. [Prints the text of Raw­linson poet. 118.]

———. Altenglische Legenden, neue Folge mit Einleitung und Anmerkungen. Pp. 334–38. [Collates Ashmole 61 and P.]

Thum, Albert Otto. “Untersuchungen über die mittelenglische Fromme Erzählung: A Tale of an Incestuous Daughter.” Rostock dissertation. Berlin, 1892. [Collates all three MSS.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 1107
MWME–67, 3557
Tubach, Frederic C. Index Exemplorum. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1969. [Lists various versions in exempla collections; see #2731, #2729, and #2739]

See also Archibald, Banks, Brandeis, Herrtage, Hieatt, Homan, and Karras (1990 and 1992) in the bibliography.

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