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Item 6, The Ten Commandmants: Introduction


1 On the connections between the Speculum Christiani and the Council of Lambeth, see Cawley, “Middle English Metrical Versions,” pp. 129–32.

2 For the large body of similar works, see Pantin, English Church in the Fourteenth Century, pp. 189–219.

3 Gillespie, “Doctrina and Praedicacio,” p. 40.

4 Saint Augustine devised this numeration in the fifth century in his Quæstionum in Heptateuchum libri VII (Bk. II, Question lxxi), and it became the most common arrangement of the Commandments in the use of the medieval Church, eventually confirmed at the Council of Trent.

5 For discussion of the dangers of vernacular prayer and articles of faith, see McSheffrey, “Heresy, Orthodoxy and English Vernacular Religion 1480–1525.”

6 Blanchfield offers two other explanations: Rate may have been making a better copy of the first two stanzas, since the later version corrects the few errors made the first time around, or he may have been using the opening address of the Commandments as an opening for A Prayer to Mary (“Idiosyncratic Scribe,” p. 188).

Origin, Genre, and Themes

The Bible includes two recitations of the Ten Commandments or Decalogue, given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:3–17 and Deuteronomy 5:7–21). This replication empha­sizes the Commandments’ foundational importance for both Jewish and Christian ethics, but it also heralded the multiple versions of the Commandments used by the medi­eval Church. The Commandments were in turn translated many times into Middle English verse, in a wide variety of formats, styles, and contexts. Oddly enough, this multiplication extends even to Ash­mole 61 itself: Rate copied this text twice, once on fol. 17r, and again on fol. 22v (though this second copy is left incomplete). The reasons for this are not at all clear.

The text presented here comes from a widely-circulated compilation known as the Speculum Christiani. This fourteenth-century work consists of short English verses and Latin commentary on the fundamental doctrine of the medieval Church: the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Seven Virtues, the Seven Works of Mercy, and various remedies for sin. Though the Speculum Christiani was later translated entirely into Middle English, the original mix of English and Latin suggests the primary audience was made up of parish priests, the front line in the Church’s mission to educate the laity.

Devising materials for these parish priests, who were often poorly educated and without ample resources, became an increasingly urgent priority in the later Middle Ages as the Church fought off various forms of heresy. The Speculum Christiani traces back directly to the Council of Lambeth convened in 1281 by Archbishop John Pecham, and to the canon issued by the council known as Ignorantia sacerdotium (“On the Ignorance of Priests”).1 Archbishop Pecham ordered parish priests to instruct the laity in the basic elements of the faith every year; works such as the Speculum Christiani were composed to assist in this endeavor.2

Just as the Speculum Christiani had likely been cobbled together by unknown authors from a variety of materials, it was also easily disassembled into smaller pieces such as the text present­ed here, which includes only the Middle English Ten Commandments without Latin comment­ary or the two laws of Christ (love God and thy neighbor) discussed alongside the Command­ments in the second tabula of the Speculum Christiani. The Middle English verses presumably worked as mnemonic devices, helping both priest and parishioner keep the crucial tenets of Christian doctrine firmly in mind.3 In versifying the Commandments, the text has also altered and interpreted them. Gone is the injunction against graven images. Exodus 20:17 (“Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s house”), a single verse considered one com­mandment by most Protestants today, appears as two commandments treated in two distinct stanzas.4 The injunctions against taking God’s name in vain and against murder are elaborated with New Testament ideals. The poem here also has added stanzas at the beginning and the end of the Speculum Christiani’s stanzas on the Ten Commandments, so that it can stand as an autonomous poem.

The fact that The Ten Commandments is presented as an autonomous work without com­mentary hints at one of the ultimate effects of Archbishop Pecham’s program: vernacular texts of Christian doctrine became available for private lay study and contemplation. This was not without its dangers; as a result of the association linking Lollard heresy with English transla­tions of scripture and theological writing, recitation or possession of a Middle English version of the Ten Commandments could theoretically be a sign of heresy. In practice, this text and Middle English versions of the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed were only rarely seen as evi­dence of heresy, and only in conjunction with other Lollard beliefs.5 But while the Ten Com­mandments are, of course, at the very heart of Catholic orthodoxy, their presentation here treats them as a text like any other, to be read, reread, and interpreted by private readers, and that was very much a new and revolutionary idea.

Manuscript Context

The Ten Commandments appears in the heart of the most didactic section of Ashmole 61, immediately preceding two texts on good behavior, Stans Puer ad Mensam and Dame Courtesy (items 7 and 8), and following shortly after two others, How the Wise Man Taught His Son and How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter (items 3 and 4). Though the Ten Commandments are concerned with morality and the other texts with manners, these two categories are never entirely distinct in medieval thinking, and both kinds of texts are often addressed to young readers. Like The Ten Commandments, the prayers to Mary and for evening, morning, and the Levation of the Eucharist (items 15, 12, 13, and 17) may have been intended to be memorized and recited frequently.

The Ten Commandments also shares connections with later items in Ashmole 61, particularly folios 73–103, which contain The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls, The King and His Four Daughters, Ypotis, The Northern Passion, and The Short Charter of Christ (items 25–29). These items, as well as the Stimulus Consciencie Minor (item 33) are similarly centered around the basic tenets of the Christian faith, and most share a similarly straightforward didactic style.


Rate’s text conforms closely to the version in the Speculum Christiani, with the exception of the first and the last three stanzas, which are probably his own composition. With its appeal to a listening audience, the first stanza strongly suggests that Rate revised the poem with a view towards oral performance. In other respects, the variants among the many surviving texts are minimal; the few variants confirm Rate’s usual indifference to meter. Rate recopied the first two stanzas after item 13, A Morning Prayer, before breaking off, perhaps realizing he had already copied this text.6 The text here is based on the version that appears on fol. 17r; vari­ants from the version on fol. 22v are given in the Textual Notes.

Printed Editions

Brown, Carleton. “The Towneley Play of the Doctors and the Speculum Christiani.” Modern Language Notes 31 (1916), 223–36. [Prints the text of Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 89.]

Holmstedt, Gustaf, ed. Speculum Christiani. [The Middle English translation of the work with the Latin original on facing pages; includes the Ten Commandments on pp. 16–37.]

Zupitza, Julius. “Umschreibungen der Zehn Gebote im Mittelenglische Versen.” Archiv für Studium der Neueren Sprachen 85 (1890), 45–48. [Prints a text from British Library MS Harley 665, followed by the text of Ashmole 61, with variants from Cambridge, Jesus College 51].

Reference Works

NIMEV 1111. See also 1491 and 3687.
MWME, 2512–13

See also Cawley, Gillespie (1980), Kellogg and Talbert, Martin, and Pantin (1955) in the bibliography.

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