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The Life of St. Scholastica in the South English Legendary (c. 1270-80)


1 She would rather be a nun than be wed as a wife

2 Lines 9-10: But neither of them could come to stay overnight at the other's abbey, / Nor would [they] think of staying out of their cells at night for any reason

3 All the joy they experienced with each other came from this (i.e., these conversations)

4 Let us remain together this one night, for the sake of Him who dearly redeemed us

5 "Be quiet," said Saint Benedict, "take care what you say["]

6 When this maid saw that it was of no avail to entreat her brother more

7 Lines 36-37: The night would be well advanced before the bad weather ended. / It was well for every living creature who found shelter

8 Lines 39-42: Then Saint Benedict could not on account of the weather go thence, / "Sister," he said, "what have you done? You are trying to destroy me! / Unless it (your prayer) was my Lord's will, you did not do well; / I never thought that I would break my vows["]

9 Leave me all alone if you like, for I do not owe you any thanks

10 Lines 51-52: The night seemed very short to them, and they were sorry at the end [of it], when they saw daylight, that they must go their separate ways


Abbreviations: A = Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 43 [base text]; C = Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 145.

3-5 Seyn Benet hire brother . . . he lette make. On Benedict's rule, see the Introduction to the SEL Life of St. Benedict (V[a]), above. On the late medieval custom of distinguishing the Benedictines from other orders by the color of their "habit," see the explanatory note to the SEL Life of St. Benedict, line 55. The earliest SEL manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Miscellany 108 (ed. Horstmann, ESEL, p. 197, chapter 34, lines 5-6) adds the following couplet between lines 4 and 5 of the present text: Of blake Monekus at Duyn : An Abbeye he let a-rere, / him-sulf þe Abite furst he nam : þe ʒongore for-to lere. The puzzling Duyn here is perhaps a variant form of dun, hill; the site of Benedict's monastery at Cassino was on a mountain, which was often incorporated into the place-name, as in the modern Monte Cassino. Compare the SEL Life of St. Benedict, line 50: "the hul of Casyn."

14 then. Acc. masc. sing. of ME definite article (compare OE þone).

14-16 tolde of Godes priveté . . . hi bitwene hem hadde. Compare Gregory the Great, Dialogues 2.33.2, in dei laudibus sacrisque conloquiis ("praising God and in holy conversation" - trans. White, p. 198), which is echoed variously in the breviaries. But Jacobus de Voragine in LA (chapter XLVIII, ed. Maggioni, p.319), does not specify the subject of their conversation, nor even the fact they talked at all.

17 Sori were this holi thinges bothe tho it was eve. That both saints regret the end of their day together is SEL's addition here, echoed again later (see lines 51-54).

19-24 Sori was this maide tho . . . in gode thoghte. The implication of these lines is that although monks and nuns should not break the rules of their monastic order (in this case, by spending the night away from their monasteries), Scholastica's age and infirmity lead her to wish for an exception, since she fears she will never see her brother again. The poet has already clearly explained in line 10 that Benedict and Scholastica would not normally think of spending the night away from their respective abbeys. But on this occasion the thought of cutting short their blissful conversation at day's end is particularly hard to bear, and when Benedict says it is time to part, Scholastica begins to appeal to him to let their meeting continue (19-20). However, there may be a textual problem in line 21, where Scholastica's flat statement that those who serve God dare not break the rules of their order fits uneasily into the surrounding context, in which she is arguing that God will forgive them for prolonging their stay. The Laud manuscript reading for this line makes better sense: ʒwane we In godes seruise beoth : we ne doz nouʒt ore ordre breke (Horstmann, ESEL, p. 198, line 23), i.e., we are not violating our rule, as long as what we do is part of serving God. This anticipates her statement in lines 23-24 of the present edition, where Scholastica assures her brother that Christ will forgive them their infringement of the literal rule because their intention is gode (line 24). None of Scholastica's reasoning is found in Gregory's Dialogues at this point, where Scholastica simply asks Benedict not to leave so that they might go on talking all night. The SEL version adds human pathos to the scene and depth to Scholastica's character here, while also rendering explicit what is implied in Gregory's account, i.e., that Scholastica, like many saints, has foreknowledge of her own death, which occurs three days later. Since Benedict himself dies not long after his sister, the episode as a whole serves a doubly prophetic purpose.

22 never eft. So C. A: neuerft.

34 weder that was so cler and vair bigan to chaungi sone. Compare Gregory's Dialogues 2.33.3: Tanto uero erat caeli serenitas, ut nulla in aere nubes apparet ("the sky was so clear at the time that there was not a cloud to be seen" - trans. White, p. 199), the gist of which also occurs, though shortly afterwards, in LA (trans. Ryan, 1.192: "although minutes before the sky had been marvellously clear"). The breviary versions, however, do not mention the state of the weather before Scholastica's prayer.

35 snywe. Gregory in the Dialogues mentions only thunder, lightning, and rain, but hauli ("hail") is added to this threesome in the ESEL St. Scholace 37 (ed. Horstmann, p. 198). The "A" reviser substitutes the more meteorologically spectacular (and miraculous) snow.

lighte. A variant of the ME verb lighten (as in the ESEL version: leiʒten), one of whose meanings is "to emit flashes of lightning."

35-36 reyne . . . fyne. Either the Ashmole scribe or that of his exemplar was unfamiliar with the Southern English strong verb ryne(n)., which was being superseded elsewhere by the weak form, reyne(n). The correct rhyme is preserved in other manuscripts: compare the rhymes rine/fine in DM.

37-38 Omitted by all medieval versions at this point, whether in Latin or the vernacular, is a lengthy editorializing explanation by Gregory of the exact coincidence of Scholastica's prayer and the miraculous downpour (Dialogues 2.33.3). The SEL "A" reviser, however, adds instead one of his own characteristic editorializing comments (compare the SEL Life of St. Francis, lines 23-24), first to emphasize what a tremendous storm Scholastica's prayers have provoked, and second to exploit the punning possibilities of her name at this climactic moment in the story. Maister maide (line 38), a witty oxymoron interpreting scholastica (learned female, female teacher) to mean "schoolmaster virgin," and also "maid who is a leader or expert in a profession" (as in, e.g., master-clerk, master-builder, etc.). There is doubtless here a humorous allusion to the science of astronomy and meteorology as Scholastica's academic specialty (that such weder couthe awynne, line 38). But the cognomen also may connote "maid who has mastery" (reversing, of course, the medieval norm of gendered hierarchy). Finally, according to the MED, maister in a compound construction like this seems frequently to carry a pejorative sense, as in master-lyere. Thus maister maide, while calling attention to Scholastica's miraculous powers, could also be a tongue-in-cheek dig (albeit a good-humored one) at a woman's presuming to behave authoritatively like a man.

47 Bilef me al one yif thou wolt. Both the sarcastic humor and mock pathos here are typical of the SEL-poet's style, although partly suggested by Gregory's more phlegmatic version in Dialogues 2.33.4: "Go now, if you can. Leave me behind" (trans. White, p. 199). This last sentence, which clearly inspired the SEL-poet here, is omitted from the account in LA.

49-50 A copying error, whereby line 50 has been copied before line 49, was caught, after the fact, by the Ashmole scribe, who has written at the left-hand margin of line 50 the letter "b" and below that, at the beginning of the next line, the letter "a," indicating what should be the correct order, which is printed here. Once again the SEL is closer to Gregory (and in this case LA) than to the breviaries in detailing the pleasure the two saints take in their further conversation during Benedict's enforced overnight stay.

51-54 All medieval versions, including the SEL, omit Gregory's interpretation of the episode at this point (Dialogues 2.33.5, trans. White, pp. 199-200), and move directly into the account of Scholastica's death which Gregory reserves for his next chapter, 34. But SEL inserts a unique transitional passage whimsically and somewhat audaciously reminiscent of the ancient literary topos of the forced separation of lovers at dawn. See Hatto, Eos.
Seyn Scolace the holi maide, holi was of lyve,
Levere heo hadde nonne be then be iwedded to wyve.1
Seyn Benet hire brother was, that verst the reule bivond
Of blake monkes and of nonnes that me halt into al that lond.
His soster Seyn Scolace blac nonne he lette make
And taughte hire penaunce to do, to vaste, and eke to wake.
This to holi creatures ech yer hadde ane wone
To come togadere some tyme and telle of Godes Sone.
Ac hor nouther in otheres abbei bileve come ne mighte,
Ne wende bileve vor nothing out of hor celle bi nyghte.2
Tho this gode holi maide ibroght was in gret elde,
Hire longede with hire brother speke vor feblesse that heo velde.
Tho heo hadde to him isend, togadere hi gonne wende,
And tolde of Godes priveté al then day to ende.
Of the joie of Hevene - hou holi men hor lif ladde -
Therof al hor joie was that hi bitwene hem hadde.3
Sori were this holi thinges bothe tho it was eve;
Seyn Benet to his soster sede that he ne mighte noleng bileve.
Sori was this maide tho. "Brother," heo sede, "thin ore!
This holi wordes so murie beth, yut we mote telle more.
Wen we in Godes service beth, ne dorre we our ordres breke.
Icham so feble that I ne wene never eft with thee speke;
Bileve we togadere this one nyght, vor Him that ous dere aboghte.4
Ichot He wole it ous vorgive, vor we doth it in gode thoghte."
"Be stille," quath Seyn Benet, "loke wat thou dost telle;5
Wel thou wost that I ne may bi nyghte be fram my celle."
Tho this maide isei that it ne huld to bidde hire brother more,6
Hire heved heo gan to honge adoun and wep swithe sore.
"Lord," heo sede, "Thou art fol of milce and of ore;
Let me, yif Thi wille beo, hure more of Thi lore.
Ne let noght my brother tonyght, Lord, fram me wende,
Ac let ous with tales of Thi blisse this night bringe to ende."
As this maide lokede up, tho heo hadde ido hire bone,
That weder that was so cler and vair bigan to chaungi sone.
Hit gan to snywe and thondri, lighte, and eke reyne,
That ver withynne nyght it was ar that weder wolde fyne.
That wel was ech quic best that was in eny inne.7
Nou was this a maister maide that such weder couthe awynne!
Tho ne mighte Seyn Benet for weder thenne wende,
"Soster," he sede, "wat hastou do? Thou fondest me to scende!
Yif it my Loverdes wille nere wel ne dudestou noght;
That ich schal myn ordre breke so nadde ich never ithoght."8
"Leve brother," the maide sede, "ich bad thee swithe yerne
To bileve her thus nyght, and ever thou dust werne.
Ich bad mi Lord another bone and He me herde anon.
Ches wether thou wolt bileve, other henne gon.
Bilef me al one yif thou wolt, vor no thonk ne can ich thee;9
Ich thonke God of Hevene that so sone hurde me."
Tho hi ne mighte departi noght al nyght togadere hi woke,
And tolde of the swetnesse that was myd God in tale and eke in boke.
The nyght hem thoghte swithe scort, and sori aten ende
Hi were, tho hi seie dai, that hi moste ato wende.10
Hi ne dorste no leng togadere be ac wende to hor celle;
Sori hi were for hi ne mighte no leng togadere telle.
Tho the maide was hom icome sore sek heo lay,
And as our Lordes wille was heo deide then thridde day.
As Seyn Benet in his celle eode his soster soule he sei
In forme of a culvere wit fle to Hevene an hei.
Hevene openede hire agen, the colvere gan in fle.
Glad was this holi man that this mighte isé.
Amorwe he and his covent thuder wende sone,
And burede this holi maide, as right was to done.
So God leve that we mote with Cristenemen be
Ibured at our ende day and to Hevene fle.

established; (see note)
that is observed

fast; keep watch
these two; custom
God's Son (i.e., Christ)

When; great age
sent [a message]
mysteries until that day's end; (see note)

these holy creatures; (see note)
no longer remain
have mercy; (see note)

dare; vows
I am; (see note)

I know

by night be away from

full of mercy and compassion

made her request
(see note)
to flash lightning; (see note)

(see note)

beseeched; earnestly
remain here this; did refuse

or go hence
(see note)

watched (stayed awake); (see note)

(see note)


walked about
white dove fly
to her (at her approach)

The next day; convent (community)



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