Back to top

Item 32, Maidstone's Seven Penitential Psalms: Introduction

Item 32, Maidstone’s Seven Penitential Psalms, INTRODUCTION: FOOTNOTES

1 For the history of the English primers and for their origins in early monasticism, see the intro­duction by Edmund Bishop in Littlehales, Prymer or Lay Folks Prayer Book, pp. ix–xxii.

2 James Morey offers a good recent overview of the various Middle English translations of the psalms in Book and Verse, pp. 172–94.

3 For a discussion of the psalms’ influence on Langland’s Piers Plowman, see Kuczynski, Prophetic Song, pp. 189–215.

4 Petrarch, Letter XVIII, “To Giovanni Boccaccio.”

5 See Colish, “Psalterium Scholasticorum.”

6 Edden, “Richard Maidstone’s Penitential Psalms,” pp. 79–80.

7 Edden, “Richard Maidstone’s Penitential Psalms,” p. 77.

8 For the details of this dispute, see Edden, “Debate between Richard Maidstone and the Lollard Ashwardby”; see also Hudson, Premature Reformation, pp. 91–94. Maidstone’s treatise on the subject is printed by Williams, “Protectorium Pauperis.”

9 See Maidstone, Concordia, pp. 4–16.

10 Edden, “Richard Maidstone’s Penitential Psalms,” pp. 89–90.

11 For the relationship to the Wycliffite Bible, see Edden, “Richard Maidstone’s Penitential Psalms,” pp. 92–93, note 16. For an argument that “vernacular theology” faced scrutiny after Arch­bishop Arundel’s anti-Lollard Constitutions of 1409, see Watson, “Censorship and Cultural Change in Late-Medieval England.”

12 Pearsall, for example, writes of the “occasional vigour” of the translation (Old English and Middle English Poetry, p. 135).

Origin, Genre, and Themes

Of all the books of the Hebrew Bible, none was more important to the daily life of the medieval Church than the psalms. Psalms were a major part of the earliest Christian liturgy, and the Divine Office of the Benedictine Order required monks to read all 150 psalms over the course of a week’s worship. In the eighth century (and possibly earlier) monks also began reciting the fifteen “gradual” psalms (Vulgate numbers 119–133) and the seven penitential psalms (Vulgate numbers 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142) in private devotion. These groups of psalms later circulated in primers, handbooks of devotion for the laity that were also used for the instruction of children in the basics of Latin.1

The majority of primers were in Latin, and the Latin text of the psalms (or rather texts, since the Vulgate was only one of several Latin texts of the psalms in circulation) retained its authority up to the Henrician Reformation. But the English laity demonstrated a desire to read the psalms in their native tongue, as evidenced by the number of complete Middle English psalters, particularly in the translation by Richard Rolle.2 The seven penitential psalms, perhaps a more manageable unit for many lay readers, also survives in a number of translations and in many manuscripts. The popularity of these seven psalms owes some­thing to their powerful emphasis on confession and contrition, a fitting topic for private devotional reading.

The ubiquity of the psalms in medieval culture meant that much vernacular liter­ature relied extensively on their language; Dante and Langland, for example, were deeply indebted to the psalms for both their styles and their understanding of poetry’s function.3 Yet the psalms posed genuine difficulties for medieval readers. Many of these difficulties were the kinds posed by any lyric poetry read outside of its original context; the form, voice, and his­torical context of the Hebrew poems were largely obscure to medieval readers. Scholastic exegesis never resolved debates about whether or not David wrote all 150 psalms, and indi­vidual phrases prompted considerable dispute. Even a reader as confident as Petrarch found the psalms dangerous territory. In a letter to Boccaccio thanking him for the gift of Au­gustine’s influential commentary (the Enarrationes in Psalmos), Petrarch describes the study of the psalms as an exhausting, humbling experience.4 Augustine’s commentary was one of several important guides to the psalms, only partly superseded by Peter Lom­bard’s consol­idation of the commen­taries of Augustine, Cassiodorus, and others in his Catena, which was widely used as a classroom text.5

Given the difficulties posed by the psalms, it is hardly surprising that translators frequently incorporated commentary into their translations, making the text more approachable for the less-educated reader (including both lay people and clerics who did not have a monastic or university education). Richard Maidstone’s translation of the seven penitential psalms is often called a paraphrase, but this does not accurately characterize his method. He provides both translation and commentary, and manages to split this process neatly in two while retaining the appearance of a single text. The first two lines of each eight-line stanza generally translate a single Latin verse, and the remaining lines of the stanza draw out the significance of the text in various ways.

Any translation necessarily interprets, but Maidstone’s psalms have readily identifiable interests. Strongly Christological, they frequently return to the Passion as a way of allegorizing the suffering spoken by the speaker of the psalms and as a moment that demonstrated God’s abundant mercy. Even when the Latin verses make no obvious reference to passionate suffering, Maidstone’s stanzas return to the Incarnation, Passion, and Redemption (as in Psalm 50). Maidstone’s psalms also keep a clear focus on the Last Judgment, with many references to damnation, bliss, and the struggle between the sinner and the devil for the future of the soul. Maidstone was hardly original in interpreting the frequent mention of “enemies” that appear throughout the psalms as references to the enemy — for a Christian reader, the rather veno­mous calls for the humiliation of the psalmist’s enemies could hardly be interpreted otherwise. But Maidstone vigorously dramatizes this struggle, and the speaker voices emo­tional pleas for release from the “gostly bandys” (spiritual bonds) that tie him to the devil (line 867).

In addition to what Maidstone emphasizes and allegorizes in the psalms, what he does not address also suggests the particular nature of his translation. Many medieval commentaries on the psalms expressed interest in David as the putative author and offer interpretations based on the supposed context of David’s repentance. The enormous gravity of David’s sins — adultery with Bathsheba and the indirect murder of her husband Uriah — made him a fascin­ating and exemplary sinner. Maidstone never mentions this context of the psalms, and Valerie Edden suggests that as a result of this choice, the psalms become meditative texts to be voiced by the reader rather than read as someone else’s (i.e., David’s) words.6 Maidstone also largely ignores the titles of the psalms as they appear in most psalters, titles that were often subject to the same careful interpretative commentary as the psalms themselves. He makes no particular division between the seven psalms, a feature borne out in Rate’s layout, where only the large double-line initials at the head of each psalm let the reader distinguish between them. Though Edden does not consider the absence of the titles as evidence, she argues from other aspects of the text that Maidstone conceived of them as a single sequence, to be read in toto, and that “Maidstone’s psalms move beyond psalm paraphrase, using the psalms as the basis for a single, continuous penitential meditation to be used in private devo­tion and in preparation for the sacrament of penance.”7

Maidstone’s biography, insofar as it is known, offers a few further suggestions about the context of his translation. He was a Carmelite monk, ordained in 1376, and received a doctorate in theology from Oxford before 1390. He engaged in one of the public dis­putes about apostolic poverty, attacking the views of Oxford Wycliffites and one John Ashwardby in particular.8 He seems to have spent some time as a confessor in the service of John of Gaunt, the uncle of Richard II and the most powerful magnate in England in the 1370s and 1380s. Possibly as a result of this connection, in 1392 Maidstone wrote a celebratory Latin account of the concord between Richard II and the city of London, taking a distinctly royalist view of the settlement that opened the coffers of the wealthy London merchants for forced loans to Richard’s household.9 Maidstone died in 1396 and was buried in the Carmelite house of Aylesford in Kent. His translation of the seven penitential psalms cannot be dated with precision, though the 1380s or early 1390s seems most likely.

This career confirms, though it cannot establish, Edden’s conclusion that Maidstone’s psalms strongly support clerical authority, the sacrament of penance, and staunchly anti-Wycliffite orthodoxy.10 Though ideal for private lay devotion, the text may have also been intended as a preparation for confession to a priest. And despite the irony that Maidstone seems to have borrowed a few translations from the later Wycliffite Bible, the extensive commentary and orthodox interpretation would have kept this text from the kind of suspicion faced by some vernacular translations of scripture and doctrine after the Wycliffite controversy.11

As a literary work, Maidstone’s psalms have earned some mild praise, and the twenty-one surviving manuscripts (as well as six others that preserve Psalm 50 only) suggest that medieval readers responded to it quite favorably.12 The frequent repetition of certain phrases, the strong images of the Passion, and Maidstone’s use of alliteration give these psalms a power different from, but not unlike, the biblical originals. A few decades after Ashmole 61 was compiled, Wyatt and other English poets would begin translating the seven penitential psalms anew, but for over a century Maidstone’s version seems to have stood as the most popular in England.

Manuscript Context

As a meditative exercise that forces the reader to contemplate his or her own sinfulness, Maidstone’s Seven Penitential Psalms share a very close connection with the item that follows immedi­ately after it, Stimulus Consciencie Minor (item 33). Though that text is more explicitly con­structed as an exercise, the two fit nicely together. The seven psalms demand inward con­templation, while the Stimulus concentrates on the larger consequences of sin and God’s mercy. The emotion of the former is balanced by the logical scholastic structure of the latter.

Maidstone’s Seven Penitential Psalms also recalls the other works in Ashmole 61 that focus on the Passion, most notably The Northern Passion, The Lament of Mary, and The Wounds and the Sins (items 28, 30, and 38). These last two texts are also meditative works that confront readers with their sins. In a faint but suggestive way, all these texts also illustrate the logic of the penitential ro­mance Sir Isumbras (item 5).


Rate has extensively altered the language of the text, changing innumerable words (often to avoid “hard” or unfamiliar words) and occasionally rewriting entire lines. His largest alter­ation is his radical abridgment of the stanzas of Psalm 129, where he has omitted four lines from each stanza, leaving only the translation and a line or two of commentary. Since many of Maidstone’s stanzas divide naturally in half, Rate’s abridgment does not render the text in any way unreadable, though any attentive reader would certainly notice the shorter stanza form. Since no other manuscript abridges Psalm 129 this way, the choice was almost certainly Rate’s, perhaps because he felt the psalm was already very familiar to him and his audience as part of the Office of the Dead, or perhaps simply to save space in copying a longer text. He abridges one other stanza (at line 713), though in that case it is less certain whether the omis­sion of four lines is intentional.

According to Edden’s edition, Rate’s text is closest to those in San Marino, CA, Huntington Library MS HM 142 and London, Longleat House MS 30 (the latter being a copy of the for­mer). But even within this manuscript group Rate introduces a large number of idiosyncratic readings.

Printed Editions

Adler, M., and M. Kaluza. “Studien zu Richard Rolle de Hampole.” Englische Studien 10 (1887), 215–55. [Collates three manuscripts, including Ashmole 61.]

Day, Mabel, ed. The Wheatley Manuscript: A Collection of Middle English Verse and Prose in a MS Now in the British Museum, Add. MSS 39574. EETS o.s. 155. London: Oxford University Press, 1921. Rpt. New York: Kraus Reprint, 1971. [Collates several man­uscripts; based on London, British Library MS Additional 39574.]

Kreuzer, James R. “Richard Maidstone’s Translation of the Fifty-First Psalm.” Modern Language Notes 66 (1951), 224–31. [Edits Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 141, one of six manuscripts that preserve Psalm 50 alone.]

Maidstone, Richard. Richard Maidstone’s Penitential Psalms. Ed. Valerie Edden. Heidel­berg: Carl Winter, 1990. [Collates all manuscripts; text based on Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson A 389.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 1961
MWME, 540–41
Morey, James H. Book and Verse: A Guide to Middle English Biblical Literature. Pp. 177–80.

See also Brampton, Deanesly, Edden (1986 and 1987), Hull, Kuczynski, Maidstone, Rolle (1884), J. Thompson (1988), Van Deusen, Williams, and Zim in the bibliography.

Go To Item 32, Maidstone’s Seven Penitential Psalms, text
Go To Abbreviations