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Item 29, The Short Charter of Christ: Introduction


1 See lines 19–30 of “Thou wommon boute fere,” in Davies, Medieval English Lyrics, pp. 95–97.

2 For the textual history of the related Middle English poems, see MWME–44. Other, less closely related charter texts include The Charter of the Abbey of the Holy Ghost (a Middle English prose allegory) and those in Langland’s Piers Plowman and Guillaume de Deguileville’s Pèlerinage de l’Ame.

3 Steiner, Documentary Culture, pp. 21–28 and passim.

4 Spalding, Middle English Charters, p. xxvi.

5 Spalding groups Ashmole 61 with British Library MS Harley 237, but as Blanchfield points out, this is based on only superficial resemblances (Spalding, Middle English Charters, p. lxv; Blanchfield, “Idiosyncratic Scribe,” p. 222).

Origin, Genre, and Themes

In the early fourteenth century, the Franciscan friar William Herebert wrote a Middle English lyric that uses the metaphor of a charter to consider the Crucifixion.1 At approxi­mately the same time, the author of the Franciscan handbook for preachers known as the Fasciculus Morum employed a very similar metaphor in composing a Latin Charter of Christ (Wenzel, pp. 146–47). The Short Charter of Christ was probably written a century later, and its rela­tionship to the Fasciculus Morum and the works of Herebert remains uncertain, but it clearly belongs in a family of related Middle English poems that include the Carta dei and The Long Charter of Christ.2 Collectively, these Middle English charter lyrics were widely circulated and survive in a large number of manuscripts.

All of these texts join one of medieval England’s richest sources of figurative language, the law, with its most popular devotional subject, the Passion. Thinking about the Redemp­tion in legal terms was hardly an innovation; in The King and His Four Daughters (item 26), Robert Grosseteste (and his translators) use the language of feudal justice to explain how Christ’s sacrifice acquitted humanity. The origins for this line of thought lie in the epistles of Paul, but even the biblical authority of legal metaphor cannot fully explain its pervasive influence on Middle English poetry. As Emily Steiner has argued, legal diction and forms gave poetry an authorizing model for effective language; in the case of lyric poetry, legal documents offer a model whereby a text’s material presence can manifest the will of the absent speaker.3

Few legal texts conveyed as much authority as charters, the most important documents in English law and the English system of land tenure. They could grant liberties and priv­ileges to individuals or classes of people, as in the case of the Magna Carta or the charters that established the rights of towns, universities, and other corporations. Charters could also be used to convey property rights. They were precious documents fiercely sought after by men and women of all classes, who copied them into cartularies, produced them as evidence in legal disputes, and occasionally forged them (perhaps the greatest tribute to their power). The Short Charter of Christ imitates the legal formulae of charters very closely, translating many Latin phrases with scrupulous precision to capture the same sense of grave authority possessed by royal charters.

The Short Charter’s medieval scribes also made great use of its form as a charter, writing the lyric on the back of legal charters and affixing drawn seals that imitate the form of royal seals. Most of these seals follow from the poem’s own suggestion (in lines omitted by Rate at the end of the poem) and imagine Christ’s body or wounds as the marker of the charter’s authenticity. The body of Christ, as the Fasciculus Morum author explains, resembles a sealed charter in that it provides a secure way of recording the charter’s authority:
Notice that a charter that is written in blood carries with it extreme reliability and
produces much admiration. Just such a charter did Christ write for us on the cross when
he who was “beautiful above the sons of men” stretched out his blessed body, as a
parchment-maker can be seen to spread a hide in the sun. In this way Christ, when his
hands and feet were nailed to the cross, offered his body like a charter to be written on.
The nails in his hands were used as a quill, and his precious blood as ink. And thus, with
this charter he restored to us our heritage that we had lost. (Wenzel, p. 213)
Rate follows up on this suggestion with his own interpretation of Christ’s seal; he has ended the poem abruptly and drawn underneath it a heraldic shield bearing four suns in each corner and a fifth in the center. As Mary Spalding suggested, this shield almost certainly refers to the five wounds of Christ, the five suns being a common visual represent­ation of the wounds.4

Despite the underlying importance of the wounded body of the Passion, what is most striking about The Short Charter is its cold directness and its odd but powerful mixture of feudal legalisms and divine mercy. Later medieval literature produced a kaleidoscope of perspectives on the Passion and Redemption; here these mysterious events are turned into a tangible thing, a document that guarantees the possibility of salvation. In the climate of fifteenth century devotion, when believers eagerly sought documentation of pardons and indulgences and car­ried the texts of charms or saints’ lives as talismans, this document securing humanity’s claim to mercy may have been seen as the most valuable of all.

Manuscript Context

The juxtaposition of The Northern Passion (item 28) and The Short Charter of Christ is one of the most suggestive pairings in Ashmole 61; though Cambridge University Library MS Ii.4.9 follows The Northern Passion with The Long Charter, Rate may well have made this connection independently. The two texts work well together as complimentary perspectives on the Redemption. The first offers an expansive historical narrative, the second delivers a compact summary, clarifying theological mysteries with familiar legal formulae. Read in the other direction, The Short Charter can be seen as a template for the longer narrative. The text that follows, The Lament of Mary (item 30), further expands these readings of the Passion and Redemption, adding the element of affective piety and reimagining the sufferings of Christ and Mary in the most vivid human terms.

As suggested, The Short Charter also shares strong connections with The King and His Four Daughters (item 26), which frames the sacrificial role of Christ in similar legal terms. Both texts speak a language intimately familiar to the landowning classes of England, the same readers who would consult The Rules for Purchasing Land (item 10). The Rules advise careful buyers to pro­cure a charter after every purchase, further illustrating The Short Charter’s importance as the ultimate guarantee of legal right.


The Short Charter survives in twenty-four manuscripts; the textual situation is too com­plex to associate Ashmole 61’s text with any one manuscript.5 Many of the others have Latin phrases as subheadings; Rate or his copy-text have omitted these. The most distinctive feature of Rate’s text is his omission of the poem’s last four lines (see Explanatory Notes). In other respects it is an unremarkable and largely unblemished copy.

Printed Editions

Förster, M. “Kleinere mittelenglische Texte.” Anglia 42 (1918),192–93. [Prints the text of Ashmole 61, with variants from Ashmole 189.]

Spalding, M. C. The Middle English Charters of Christ. Bryn Mawr, PA: Bryn Mawr College, 1914. [Text of Ashmole 61 on p. 12; prints the text of most manuscripts of The Short Charter and the two versions of The Long Charter.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 4184
MWME–44, 2548–50

See also Breeze, Horstmann (1895–96), J. Keen, Steiner, Wenzel (1989), and Woolf (1968) in the bibliography.

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