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The Northern Homily Cycle: Introduction


1 Lynch, Medieval Church, p. 282.

2 Hinson, Church Triumphant, p. 396.

3 Brooke and Brooke, Popular Religion, p. 110.

4 Copeland, “Confessional Texts,” p. 390.

5 Brooke and Brooke, Popular Religion, p. 116.

6 Ignorantia sacerdotum, quoted in translation by Shinners and Dohar, Pastors, p. 128.

7 Horstmann, “Die Evangelien-Geschichten der Homiliensammlung des Ms. Vernon.”

8 Doyle, Vernon Manuscript

9 Carver, “Northern Homily Cycle, and Missionaries,” p. 260.

10 Horstmann, Altenglische Legenden, p. lviii; Gerould, Saints’ Legends, p. 169; Gerould, North English Homily Collection, p. 104; Mosher, Exemplum, p. 86; Owst, Preaching, pp. 49, 225. Carver, Northern Homily Cycle, pp. 56–73; Deanesly, Lollard Bible, p.149.

11 Heffernan, “Authorship,” pp. 289–309.

12 Heffernan, “Authorship,” p. 296.

13 Heffernan, “Authorship,” p. 300. Italics mine.

14 Heffernan, “Authorship,” p. 308.

15 Leyser, Hermits, p. 97.

16 Foreville and LeClercq, quoted in Southern, Western Society and the Church, p. 249. The most detailed discussion of the Austin canons is found in Dickinson, Origins of the Austin Canons.

17 The metaphorical meaning of “further on in the text” does seem clear here, although the MED citations for this adverb all relate literally to physical space.

18 Heffernan, “Authorship,” p. 289.

19 Spencer, English Preaching, p. 65.

20 Spencer, English Preaching, p. 73.

21 Spencer, English Preaching, p. 95.

22 Grosseteste, Epistolae, quoted in translation in Shinners and Dohar, Pastors, p. 13.

23 Morey, Book and Verse, p. 2.

24 Morey, Book and Verse, p. 324n5.

25 Spencer, English Preaching, p. 240.

26 Bremond, LeGoff, and Schmitt, L’”Exemplum,” pp. 36–37.

27 Waters, Angels and Earthly Creatures. pp. 62–63.

28 Scanlon, Narrative, Authority and Power, pp. 32, 57–65.

29 Scanlon, Narrative, Authority and Power, p. 58.

30 Scanlon, Narrative, Authority and Power, p. 68.

31 Scanlon, Narrative, Authority and Power, p. 67.

32 Waters, Angels and Earthly Creatures, pp. 63–64.

33 Gerould, “North-English Homily,” pp. 95–96; Deanesly, Lollard Bible, p. 149.

34 Than klerkes that thair mirour lokes, / And sees hou thai sal lif on bokes. Prol.67–68

35 Gerould, Saints’ Legends, pp. 167–68.

36 Duncan and Connolly, Middle English Mirror.

37 The editors have indicated their intention to bring out further volumes in the future. The full text of Robert’s Miroir has never been printed, and though another recent (and complete) edition of the English translation was published recently, it does not include the Anglo-Norman original (see Blumreich, Middle English Mirror).

38 Rouse and Rouse, Preachers, p. 4. See also Heffernan’s helpful comment and note in “Authorship” where he also notes having seen many such collections in the libraries of the Austin canons in the north of England (p. 293).

39 The Lives of the Fathers, a fourth- to sixth-century collection of writings about the desert monks and hermits of Egypt and Palestine, known in the Middle Ages as Vitae Patrum, was edited by Heribert Rosweyde in the seventeenth century, and is reprinted in Patrologia Latina 73–74.

40 McIntosh, Samuels, and Benskin, eds., Linguistic Atlas, vol. 3: Linguistic Profiles, p. 570.

41 Ker, Cunningham, and Watson, Medieval Manuscripts, vol. 2, p. 540.

42 Sprouse, “Scribal Dialect,” p. 105.

43 Described in Ker, Cunnignham, and Watson, Medieval Manuscripts, pp. 539–40.

44 Described in Black, Catalogue of the Manuscripts, pp. 63–64.

45 In his Register of Middle English Verse, Carleton Brown has paginated MS Gg V.31 in a way that future readers are likely to find confusing. A number of pages are missing at various points in the manuscript; the remaining pages are numbered in pencil, according to the original pagination. Brown, however, renumbers individual manuscript items according to the actual number of remaining pages, even though no such renumbering occurs in the manuscript itself. For this reason, I have provided the page numbers as noted in the manuscript.

46 As is the case with MS Gg V.31, MS Dd I.1 has also lost a significant number of pages. In this case, however, the original pagination has been cancelled in the manuscript itself and replaced by numbers reflecting the pages remaining. Carleton Brown’s Register follows the manuscript’s revised numbering and hence remains a reliable guide to finding individual items. However, the reader must be careful to note that the old numbers have been canceled only on the recto sides of the MS; they remain unchanged on the verso sides.
The Northern Homily Cycle (hereafter NHC) is a collection of homilies, opening with a paraphrase of the Gospel of the day, and concluding with a series of illustrative exempla. Composed in rhyming English verse, it is the earliest and most complete work of its kind, its widespread and enduring popularity witnessed by three distinct recensions and twenty surviving manuscripts ranging from the early fourteenth to the mid-fifteenth centuries. At a time when more people were attending church and being urged to attend church, the collection was intended to accompany the Gospel lessons that were read every Sunday as a part of the mass, the service the laity were most likely to attend. One part of the mass consisted of an unchanging series of ceremonies and chants surrounding the celebration of the Eucharist; intermixed with these were prayers, psalms, and lessons which varied from week to week according to the time of the year. As the entire service was sung or chanted in Latin, the laity were often noisy and inattentive, complaining of boredom, and sometimes throng­ing outside in the courtyard where they would wait until the high point of the service, the moment when the host and the chalice were elevated; they would then rush into the church to observe, leaving again afterward as quickly as possible.1

That the laity were moved primarily by what they could see is not surprising, since they could understand so little of what they heard. For many, perhaps, this was enough, and churches might also contain impressive visual representations of Christianity in the form of stained glass windows and sculpture. Nonetheless, the author of the NHC wanted more for his audience. In particular, he wanted to communicate something of his own understanding of the Gospel readings which changed from Sunday to Sunday, and were intimately tied to the form and meaning of Christ’s life. Thus he announces at the out­set his intention to “undo” (Prol.7) in English, for the benefit of the layfolk who do not understand Latin or French, the Gospel reading which is heard in church during the mass. Their need to under-stand this Gospel, he says, is just as great as that of learned folk, if they are to live righteously and attain the Kingdom of Heaven at their lives’ end. This passionate evan­gelical spirit is at the heart of the collection, seen over and over again through the author’s preaching on the need for shrift and his exhortations that no one who wishes for it need be beyond the reach of God’s mercy.

The cyclical nature of the collection (it includes a text for each of the fifty-two Sundays of the year) is specifically tied to the Christian understanding of time. The celestial bodies have provided us with a reference for measuring the passage of time throughout human existence, most notably by dividing it into daylight time and night time. Medieval under­standing would also have encompassed the reckoning of a year beginning either on March 25 (Annunciation Day) or January 1 (New Year's Day), the progression of the seasons, and the progression of life itself from birth to death. The canonical hours, representing the times of day at which Christian practice prescribed certain prayers to be said (e.g., Matins, Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext, Nones), were often used as temporal points of reference in the secular world as well. For Christians, time was additionally and most significantly organized around the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Thus, the Christian year begins not on January 1 or March 25, but with Advent, the season in which the birth of Christ is anticipated and which begins four weeks before Christmas. The year moves through the seasons of Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, bringing the year to a close with the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity. Every one of the fifty-two Sundays in the year has a name and a place in the Christian calendar, and each Sunday has a Gospel reading which is assigned on the basis of its appropriateness to the occasion. Something of the passion as well as the charm of the NHC can be seen from the words which present the Christian rationale for beginning with Advent:
A monethe bifor his birthe,
Hali Kirc wit menske and mirht,
Welcomes him everilke a yer,
And thankes God on fair maner,
For Cristes com and Goddes sande,
That lesed us of the fendes bande.
And forthi at that blisful tyme,
Quen Hali Kirk welcumes hime,
Wil I bigin to mak my spelle,
And of his com sumthing telle;
For Criste tocome mad endinge,
Of al our soru and our murninge. (Ratio, lines 29–40)

Holy Church with honor; mirth

coming; gift
freed; devil’s bonds


The text that follows is the one most commonly associated with the First Sunday in Advent; taken from Matthew 21:5, it begins, “Behold, thy king cometh.” These words, as quoted by Matthew, are part of an Old Testament prophetic utterance regarding the coming of the Messiah; its appropriateness to the season of Advent might seem obvious to the modern reader, yet this obviousness would only be apparent if the words themselves could be understood. That understanding is what the NHC-poet intended to promote, and thus it is that each of his own compositions begins with a Latin rubric giving the first few words of the Gospel lesson which had been preached on that particular Sunday, followed by an English paraphrase of that same lesson. His goal, however, did not end there. Once the text had been paraphrased in English, he went on to expound a lesson (or “homily”) relating to that text in some way, usually based, at least in part, on patristic exegesis. Then, in conclud­ing the sermon, he added a story known as an exemplum which he must have hoped would make the lesson more vivid and interesting for his audience. Along with narratives of hermits, saints and monks, knights, and ordinary sinners, the tales occasionally included items taken from folklore, local knowledge, and even the odd fabliau. There were models and precedents of various kinds for the many aspects of the NHC, but it remains original with regard to both its nature and its scope. Though there were numerous sermon cycles in Latin, there are no English verse cycles extant between the twelfth-century Ormulum and the NHC. The poet, certainly no Chaucer, can be both long-winded and repetitive, but he writes with intelligence and imagination on many subjects, and his poetry at times achieves both insight and beauty. The early unexpanded version of the NHC was partially edited in the nineteenth century and has long been out of print; my hope, therefore, in preparing this edition, is to make the NHC both available and accessible to a wider audience.


Between the fifth and twelfth centuries the Catholic Church grew from its early days as a small, sometimes persecuted sect within the Roman Empire to an institution that em­braced every corner of Europe and engaged in regular attempts to reach other parts of the world. Although, as we shall see, the people who lived during this “age of faith” were not uni­formly religious, medievalists rightly point to the power of the church in this period: “The church baptized all children. It stood at the center of medieval villages, towns, or eventually, cities. Everything of importance revolved around the church. Its bells tolled the hours of the day. Its calendar regulated the week, the month, and the year.”2

Nonetheless, up until the beginning of the thirteenth century, it was common for ordi­nary folk to attend church rarely, and to be quite ignorant regarding the prin­ciples of Christian faith and practice, and even the “story” of Christ himself. Moreover, although the life of the early church had centered around a communal meal known as Eucharist (i.e., the sharing of bread and wine representing the body and blood of Christ), in the later Middle Ages the sacrament of Eucharist became a priestly ceremony to be observed only from a distance by the laity, albeit in a spirit of great awe.3

In 1215, a gathering of church officials, known as the Fourth Lateran Council, was organized by Pope Innocent III and held in Rome. The pope had two great objectives for this conference, the first of which was to spur enthusiasm and preparation for a new crusade against the infidels. The second, however, was of far greater significance for ordinary folk, with its goal of requiring all Christians above the age of reason (i.e., twelve) to receive Eucharist at least once a year at Easter in their own parish churches; in preparation for this, all had first to confess to their parish priests and subsequently to perform whatever penance was stipulated. “Omnis utriusque sexus,” as this pronouncement was known, was “indisputably the most important factor in the rise of the industry of Latin and vernacular instruction on the doctrines of penance and mechanics of confession.”4

The need to confess and take communion at least once a year became the cornerstone of the church’s pastoral care for the laity. However, the official promulgation of these obli­gations also created an immediate problem for those charged with their execution (i.e., parish priests) who tended to be nearly as poor and ignorant as the congregations they served. The service of the mass, at which the Eucharist was observed or distributed, was in Latin, which layfolk would not understand. Moreover, the priests themselves were often illiterate; they might have memorized the Latin words they needed to say, but that did not necessarily mean they knew the meaning of those words. For the purpose of their rare attendance in church, the laity had been taught to recognize the salient features of the service and to make appropriate gestures and say suitable prayers, but the picture which arises resembles, not altogether inaccurately, that of the blind leading the blind.5

What resulted during the century which followed Fourth Lateran in 1215 was a con­certed effort to provide a better-educated clergy through the provision of written materials outlining and explaining such aspects of Christian belief and practice as the Ten Command­ments, the Creed, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Sacraments, and the teaching of the Gospels. Thus, while the words of the mass itself would continue to be spoken in Latin, the council urged the preaching of sermons on these topics in the vernacular, as an accompaniment to the mass. Half a century later, Archbishop Pecham stated explicitly that priests should explain these matters “in their mother tongue.”6 Other popular works of instruction in the vernacular which appeared at around the same time as the NHC were the South English Legendary, Cursor Mundi, and Handlyng Synne. None of these essentially contemporaneous works took the form of the NHC, however (i.e., a lectionary providing paraphrases of Gospels for the entire church year). Thus, the NHC remains unique in terms both of its scope and its early date.


Sixteen of the twenty extant manuscripts belong to the original, unexpanded early fourteenth-century recension whose primary home was in the north of England, perhaps in Yorkshire, which ran to approximately 20,000 lines of rhyming octosyllabic verse. In addition to the fifty-two Sundays of the year, the collection also included the feasts of the Purification, the Annunciation, and the Ascension. John Small printed the fragment extant in the earliest manuscript, Edinburgh, Royal College of Physicians MS, in his English Metrical Homilies (1862); the complete text has never been edited.

The Vernon and Simeon manuscripts represent the first of the two major expansions, dating from the late fourteenth century, which renders the collection in a midland dialect. In addition to dialect, this recension is characterized by its addition of new homilies, partic­ularly for individual feast days following Easter and Pentecost. Although there is no edition of this version, in 1877 Horstmann printed the text of the exempla found in the Vernon manuscript.7 The Vernon manuscript in its entirety may also be viewed in a facsimile edition.8

The second major expansion is found in two fifteenth-century manuscripts, Cotton Tiberius E.VII and Harley 4196. Like the first recension, this version is composed in a northern dialect; distinguishing features include the introduction of fresh material from the Vulgate into the previously composed homiletic material, expansion of narrative items (though without greatly changing them), the elimination of many of the exempla, and the addition of a series of saints’ legends (Tractatus de legenda Sanctorum) as readings for Christ­mas week. Saara Nevanlinna has edited the text of this version (excluding the Tractatus), though without interpretive notes on individual items.


Neither the identity of the original NHC-poet nor the date of its composition are known; nor do we know much about its real as opposed to its intended audience. The terminus ante quem is the early fourteenth century, the date of the earliest manuscript (Edinburgh, Royal College of Physicians). Carver has hypothesized a relatively precise window, between 1295 and 1306, for the following reason: in 1306, the second year of his pontificate, in a message addressed to the Friars Minor, Pope Clement V removed an earlier papal prohibition of Pope Boniface VIII (1294–1303) against missionary expeditions to the Saracens and other infidels. Putting this information together with lines 148–49 of Septuagesima Sunday, which criticize the pope for his failure to allow missionary activity, Carver concludes that “it seems reasonably certain, then, that the NHC was written between January of 1295 and July of 1306; and it seems more than likely that it was written before October 1303, when Boniface died.”9

Doubtless a cleric of some sort, whether regular or secular, the author has been variously theorized as a Benedictine monk (Horstmann, Gerould), a friar (Mosher, Owst, Carver), or a secular priest (Gerould); Deanesly suggests “some Austin canon or parish priest.”10 More recently, however, Thomas Heffernan has made a study of the differing liturgical practices common in the north of England at the time of the NHC’s composition, which has led him to conclude that a member of the regular order of Austin canons is by far the most likely candidate.11 While not wishing to rehearse the basis for the earlier proposals, most of which were not based on detailed analysis, I do think it worth summarizing Heffernan’s argu­ments. Taking five rubrics and their accompanying Sunday Gospels in the NHC, he has compared them with their corresponding texts in 1) the four major secular uses in England (Sarum, York, Hereford, Exeter); 2) the four mendicant orders active in the north (Fran­ciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, and Augustinians); 3) the regular orders of the Benedic­tines and the Cistercians; and 4) the Austin, Gilbertine, and Premonstratensian canons. Although no conclusion based on a selective study such as his can be absolutely definitive, Heffernan nonetheless builds a strong case in favor of the Austin canons as orginators of the cycle, based on the importance for the medieval cleric of the pericopal rubric not simply as a “scriptural tag” but as “a signal means of identification . . . God’s word is read by and to Dominicans or Franciscans, Cistercians or Carthusians, Austins or Gilbertines, seculars and laity. It is in this insistence on the particularity of the worship, a particularity which creates cohesion throughout the group, that the importance of the rubric lies.”12 Thus, to cite just one of Heffernan’s examples, in considering the phrasing of the Gospel pericope for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, he finds a slight variation among the seven NHC manu­scripts he has examined. This penchant for a “regulated system of variety”13 is not only typical of the practice of the Austin canons as seen elsewhere, it rules out, in this case at least, the secular uses, the Benedictines, the Dominicans, and the other canonical orders, all of whom always kept to one or other of the variations of phrase. More generally, Heffernan notes that Austin canons offered qualities necessary for the composition of a text like the NHC: their freedom from a rigorously prescriptive liturgy, the popularity of their order which had a significant number of houses in Yorkshire, and their inclusion of members “who worked at times within the sphere of the local parish church in a priestly capacity.”14 Henrietta Leyser indicates general acceptance of the idea that “regular canons both could and should . . . undertake pastoral work,” though there is disagreement among some scholars as to just how actively involved in preaching the Austin canons were.15 Finally, the new ascetical move­ments and orders of the twelfth century which led to the emergence of the Austin canons were characterized by two aspects that can be linked to recurring themes in the NHC. First, the revival of the eremetical tradition, in spirit if not in fact, may help to account for the number of hermits who play leading roles in the exempla; second, and more significantly, the desire to emulate apostolic poverty is reflected in the NHC-poet’s concern for and knowledge of the poor as over against the rich. Unlike monks who separated them­selves entirely from the world, regular canons embraced a life in common, but remained in touch with that world. While the Austin canons were neither very rich, very learned, nor very influential, as a phenomenon they were very important: they needed the proximity of human habitation, settling most often near a town or a castle, running small schools, hospitals, and places of retirement for the sick and the aged: “The monk renders an account only for his own soul: the canons for the souls of others as well.”16

Frequent allusions to the laity make the intended audience of the NHC clear, beginning with the Prologue: “For laued men haves mar mister, / Godes word forto her” (lines 55–56). Some phrases point towards a private reading audience, as when the poet refers the audience to more information concerning Adam’s loss of Paradise: “Als nethir mar man find mai / In Lenten on the first Sundai” (Second Sunday after Epiphany, lines 91–92), where the word nethir would probably mean “below” or “further on.”17 Yet the homily for Easter Mon­day suggests at the very least a strong interest on the part of our poet in the preaching that takes place in church, first praising those who come to church gladly in order partake of the spiritual food of a sermon, and then noting that “som man comes to the sermoune, / That ware bettir be in the toune,” because they pay so little attention, even falling asleep at times, though they they have no difficulty in staying awake at the tavern or wasting time in other unprofitable ways (Easter Monday, lines 97–146). Perhaps the strongest single piece of evidence suggesting that a public reading in church was at least the poet’s aspiration occurs in the Second Sunday in Advent when, following a Latin rendering of the fifteen signs of Doomsday, the following words (in Latin) occur: “These verses may be omitted by the reader when he reads in English before the laity” (line 180a). While conclusions as to audience must remain speculative, I confess that, like Heffernan, I am drawn to the belief that the NHC “was composed for oral delivery in church and so faced the myriad constraints that locale imposed — noise, inattention of the congregation, and a sharply defined time limit.”18

If we assume that the collection was in fact aimed at a lay congregation, we must also wonder how it might have been received. According to H. Leith Spencer, that audience, whether rural or urban, would have been composed of both men and women of a variety of sorts and conditions who could have heard a sermon preached either at morning mass, or in the afternoon when it might be heard in the churchyard or marketplace as well as in church.19 Medieval audiences were notoriously restless and despite the best intentions of the NHC-poet to engage their interest many listeners might have said that his preaching “cometh in at the on ere and goeth oute at the other.”20 But for those who did listen, what did they make of what they heard? Perhaps they took the homilies to heart, though in the case of the injunctions against lechery which, as Spencer observes, were found in so many medieval sermons, they might well have resisted “in the face of a stubborn conviction in their hearers that it was only doing what came naturally.”21 The exempla might more easily have held their attention, but how applicable would they have seemed to the lives of the laity, given that only a minority center on those in secular life? My own answer, admittedly conjectural, is that though the clergy not only figure largely but are often badly behaved, the narratives are for the most part told in such a way as to broadly suggest human ways of being in the world. Furthermore, though anti-feminist attitudes are certainly present, even the misbehaving women of the exempla, almost always members of a religious order, often figure human nature in a way that transcends the purely misogynistic.


Although word-for-word translation of scripture was increasingly seen as risky in the later Middle Ages, preachers nonetheless had an obligation to preach God’s word, as seen in the following anecdote told of Robert Grosseteste, who was deeply concerned with pastoral care of the laity. When approached by a cleric with a request to undertake advanced study in Paris instead of ministering to the care of souls, Grosseteste wrote in a letter of 1235: “The Lord said to the chief of his apostles, ‘If you love me, feed my sheep’, not ‘If you love me, lecture to the pastors of my sheep.’”22 The author of the NHC (as witnessed by the earliest manuscripts of the original version of the NHC, which include large amounts of Gospel material) seems to have been more attentive to the need to convey the matter of scripture than to the supposed danger, which in any case was less where a metrical paraphrase was at issue. Over the next two centuries, however, official resistance hardened and became most intolerant in the suppression of the Lollards in the fifteenth century.23 Thus, an interesting paradox can be seen in the way later manuscripts of the NHC have made alterations to earlier ones with respect to the quantity of biblical paraphrase. “The rising pressure against vernacular translation may be indicated by the fact that the later manuscripts of the original version include less and less biblical material in Latin or English; some manu-scripts copy only the exempla; no manuscript contains only the gospel paraphrases.”24

Each individual item within the collection is divided into three parts of varying length. Following the Latin rubric which gives the first few words of the Sunday Gospel pericope (that is, the scriptural lesson appointed in the missal for recitation for that day), the text is paraphrased in English. These paraphrases may be relatively short and unadorned renderings of the Gospel texts, but they are occasionally interrupted by some thought which has struck the poet and on which he may expand before the homily proper is reached. The conclusion of the paraphrase is signaled by the words, “This es the strenghe of oure Gospell / Als man with Ynglihsse tonge may tell” (First Sunday after the Nativity, lines 65–66). The homily which follows the Gospel paraphrase takes the form typically found in medieval sermons, the so-called ancient form of sermon construction rather than the “modern” or university form. The latter began with a short scriptural phrase which was then subdivided and analyzed, whereas the former expanded on an entire Gospel passage, teasing out themes and allegorical meanings in the manner of Augustine and Gregory. This form was thought to be particularly suitable for the laity, presumably because of its less academic character, as the following quotation from the fourteenth-century Dominican Thomas Waleys suggests: “When a sermon is preached, not to the clergy, but to the people, one does not adopt a short theme; instead the whole Gospel which is read during mass is taken as the theme, and it is expounded in its entirely.”25 Though the interests and concerns of the NHC-poet are apparent in every part of the individual items — unifying paraphrase, homily, and exemplum — the themes and ideas which engage him are seen at their clearest and most original in the homily proper. Over and over again the homilies express a compassionate concern for the poor and anger at the inequal­ities between rich and poor. The poet’s awareness of the possibility of damnation and the mercy God freely extends to those who repent and reform their lives further leads him to stress both the importance of confession and the need of the laity to hear not just preaching, but good preaching of God’s word. He also draws attention on many occasions to corruption and greed within the clergy itself and the consequences for the laity who are so often ill-served by those who should teach them.

The purpose of the exempla found in the NHC is to confirm or illustrate the themes of the preceding homily. Like all exempla, they tell a brief and didactic story that employs the rhetorical mode of persuasion through its appeal to authentic human experience.26 Of the NHC’s fifty-nine Gospel paraphrases and homilies, forty-six include one or more of these narratives, some of them biblical, but most taken from a wide variety of earlier sources. Generally speaking, clerical figures (e.g., bishops, monks, hermits, nuns) predominate as the protagonists of exempla, which developed initially in a monastic milieu; narratives focusing on purely secular incidents were a later addition to their subject matter. However, despite this clerical emphasis, the pithy, realistic, and entertaining qualities of the exemplum had obvious appeal for the laity: “It is often noted in preaching manuals and collections of exempla that such ‘concrete’ means of persuasion are particularly appropriate for laypeople.”27 The exemplum can be traced back to Greek and Roman origins; its use as a feature of the Christian sermon began with Gregory the Great, but it was not until the time of the great preaching campaigns (beginning in the mid-twelfth century and continuing into the thirteenth) that it became a nearly universal feature of medieval discourse.28 From the time of Cardinal Jacques de Vitry and the preaching friars (c. 1200), these narratives rapidly became prominent elements of sermons, generating collections from which preachers might draw.

Larry Scanlon, whose book on the exemplum focuses chiefly on its deployment within Chaucerian tradition, argues that the exemplum was a means through which the Church attempted “to establish its ideological authority among the subordinate classes it had previ­ously ignored.”29 Thus, while the Church-sponsored sermon exemplum gave lay audiences knowledge of Christianity, it also functioned to maintain the Church’s separation and privilege.30 This reading of the purpose and function of exempla offers valuable insight into the medieval Church’s concern to maintain its authority, a concern certainly shared by the composer of the NHC, especially with regard to the importance of confession; nonetheless I question whether the latter always maintains a separation as absolute as that suggested by Scanlon. The poet’s willingness at times not only to criticize the clergy, but even to encourage his audience to criticize them, as well as his empathy for the laity in general and the poor in particular, suggest a more open-ended attitude as well as a degree at least of the “social permeability between the exemplarist and the audience” whose existence Scanlon denies.31 As Claire Waters points out, exempla, like vernacularity more generally, “did reflect a certain connection between the supposedly learned preacher and his supposedly unlearned flock,” and while the clergy might take a condescending attitude towards the laity’s need for stories, they themselves were neither always learned nor above a taste for such narratives.32

Within the NHC the nature and appropriateness of the connection between homily and tale vary widely as the following examples may help to illustrate. The NHC homily on Purification explains in detail the English name (Candlemas) and the meaning of the feast which honors the Virgin Mary. Its importance is further signaled by the fact that two exempla follow the homily, the first a miracle in which a pious woman holds fast to a candle given her in a vision by the Virgin, the second an account of a sinning abbess who is miraculously purified by Mary. In both cases the connection is evident: both homily and exempla well illustrate the veneration in which the Virgin Mary was held as well as her miraculous power. A second example shows a less compelling connection, especially when compared to another contemporary work, Handlyng Synne, which succeeds in creating a more meaningful link. The homily for the Second Sunday in Lent follows a paraphrase of Matthew’s account of the Canaanite woman who begs Jesus to heal her daughter (Matthew 15:21–28). Most of this unusually long homily expands on six important qualities demonstrated by the woman’s attitude towards Jesus, of which the most important is humility (as seen in her reaction to Jesus’ initial refusal to grant her request). Only at the end of the homily does the poet add a single stanza that allegorizes mother and daughter, when he likens the mother to “each sinful man” and the daughter to man’s soul which is sickened by the “spiritual illness of lechery.” This creates a link of sorts to the exemplum that tells of a young hermit afflicted by fleshly desire. The tale is engagingly told and makes a very good point about the univer­sality of sexual temptation and the need to be on guard, as well as the need to understand that repentance and forgiveness are never beyond our human reach; yet the homily is a richly-developed meditation which touches on many themes suggested by Matthew’s text, and the allegory so briefly produced at the homily’s conclusion hardly does justice to its complexity. By contrast, Mannyng includes this exemplum in the section treating the seven deadly sins, as part of his discussion of lechery, and the appositeness of the account of the hermit who so nearly succumbs to his desire is more obvious and more powerful when placed within this larger context. These two examples are less a criticism than an attempt to focus attention on the fact that some of the links between homily and exemplum are more meaningful than others; readers will have the opportunity to reach their own conclusion as to how successful the NHC-poet has been throughout in making the connection between homily and exemplum.


Some fifty or more years before the composition of the NHC, Robert of Gretham, a north-country Englishman, wrote a series of metrical homilies in Anglo-Norman for every Sunday of the year, to which he gave the title of the Miroir ou Les évangiles des domnées. Gordon Hall Gerould thought he had found the source for the NHC in Robert’s Miroir, and Margaret Deanesly, following Gerould’s lead, stated that the NHC-poet had “turned Robert’s verse Gospels from French into English, or composed English verses largely founded upon them.”33 Yet ten years later Gerould retreated from this claim, indicating that Robert’s work had provided a “model” rather than a source. Acknowledging that it might not be wise to argue from a reference in the Prologue to “clerks who look in their mirror / And see in books how they shall live,”34 that the writer knew this particular Miroir, he nonetheless finds much evidence of almost word-for-word paraphrase.35 Like the NHC, the Miroir has a prologue followed by a series of homilies, some of which are accompanied by exempla and, also like the NHC-poet, Robert indicates his desire to provide simple scriptural exposition based on Gospel paraphrases. The Miroir, however, is addressed to Dame Aline, a lady whom Robert served as chaplain, and in style and content it appears to be directed at a more aristocratic audience. The first portion of a late fourteenth-century Middle English translation of Robert’s Miroir has recently been edited in a dual-text edition which prints Robert’s Miroir alongside its later derivative.36 I have made a careful study of the Anglo-Norman text, and while I think it evident that the NHC-poet had read the Miroir, and renders a close paraphrase of at least one passage in Septuagesima (q.v.), as well as touching on some similar themes (bad preachers, the greed of the rich), the overall correspondence between the two is not great. The prologue is entirely different and there are no overlapping exempla; furthermore, although both authors have at times made use of the same homily taken from the writings of Gregory the Great, in most cases they develop it in completely different ways. Wherever possible I have indicated both the similarities and the differences in individual homilies up to Septuagesima Sunday, which is the extent of the Duncan-Connolly edition.37 While it has not been possible to compare the NHC with later portions of Robert’s Miroir, I believe that the correspondence is not likely to be any greater than in the earlier portion.

For a medieval cleric, it was not only natural, but expected, that he would claim authori­zation for his preaching based on his citation of previous “authorities,” namely the Church Fathers writing in the first few hundred years after Christ. Authors cited directly by the NHC-poet include Augustine, Jerome, Gregory, and Bede, the last two of whom receive very frequent mention. Once again, I have tried wherever possible to point out correspondences with these authors in individual items. Although the poet could conceivably have read individual copies of the homilies of Gregory and Bede, or of Bede’s commentaries on the Gospels, it is more likely that he has taken them from a collection of distinctiones or a biblical catena, which were not only readily available but apparently much in demand by vernacular preachers by the time of the NHC’s writing.38 Given the lack of a single specifically iden­tifiable source, there is no way to evaluate precisely the original contribution made by the NHC author to the materials he has used. The allegorical mode so frequently employed in his exposition of biblical passages was a commonplace of medieval interpretation, and many figures are so widespread, that it is neither possible nor important to try to pin down their ultimate original. Even where the differences between one of Gregory’s homilies and its development in the hands of our author are apparent, there is no way to be certain how much of this development has been appropriated from an intermediary source. Nonetheless, I believe that readers will observe over time a sense of a unique and original poetic voice which unmistakably marks the collection as whole.

The sources for the exempla of the NHC were ably researched by Gerould in a doctoral dissertation of 1902 (North English Homily Collection), and his conclusions have held up for the most part, although I have supplemented his work in all cases with my own research. As with the homilies, the particular collection or collections from which individual exempla were drawn cannot be pinpointed, but in most cases the ultimate source from which the NHC version is descended is known and the following generalizations apply as an indication of probable origins. The so-called Vitae Patrum39 and the thirteenth-century Legenda Aurea by the Dominican Jacobus de Voragine have provided many items; the exempla found in the ever-popular Dialogues of Gregory the Great have also been drawn on in several instances. Biblical narratives, while not conforming precisely to the definition of an exemplum, have taken their place among NHC narratives on a number of occasions. The collections of miracles of the Virgin which proliferated in the later Middle Ages account for four exempla and there are many saints’ legends which must have come from individual legenda or collections thereof. Other sources include two contemporary collections of exempla, the Alphabetum Narrationum by Arnold of Liège and Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum. For every item included in this edition I have suggested its probable source as well as giving its number in Frederic C. Tubach’s Index Exemplorum, a most helpful aid to anyone wishing to study different versions of the same exemplum.


The NHC, as previously indicated, runs to approximately 20,000 lines, of which a little more than a third have been included in this edition (7715 lines). Items have been taken from every part of the complete cycle, in order to give the reader a sense of the liturgical year, which begins with Advent and ends with the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity. Selection of individual items has been further based on providing as much variety and interest as possible. All of the items not included here have been listed in their appro­priate position in the cycle, along with (in the explanatory notes) identification of the biblical pericopes, folio numbers for all manuscripts consulted in this edition, and New Index of Middle English Verse numbers for individual items.

The original unexpanded NHC survives in sixteen manuscripts, only nine of which are reasonably complete. This edition is based principally on two manuscripts. The first of these, Edinburgh, Royal College of Physicians, is the earliest (early fourteenth century), but contains only the Prologue, the Ratio quare, and the first thirteen homilies, breaking off near the beginning of the second exemplum for Purification. The pages of the orignial manu­script, a thin quarto on vellum, have been individually mounted in a cardboard frame; three leaves are missing after fol. 24. The NHC portion of the manuscript is found on fols. 16r–36v; the beginning and end of the manuscript contain parts of the early fourteenth-century poem Cursor Mundi. The hand (textura) in which the NHC portion is written is the same throughout, and the language is northern in character. The manuscript was bequeathed to the library in 1741 by Dr. John Drummond, and was mounted in cardboard and bound during the second half of the nineteenth century. The pages have been ruled, with two columns to a page and forty-three lines in each column. The Latin rubric is in red but the manuscript is otherwise exceedingly plain, with no ornamentation of any kind.

Where Edinburgh breaks off, I have continued with Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 42, which offers a relatively early, good, and nearly complete text of the entire col­lection (fols. 216–223 are missing). This manuscript, also northern in character, consists of 257 vellum leaves, written in a single text hand of the mid-fourteenth century. Each page has a single column containing thirty-eight lines, with faint ruling still usually visible. There are no illustrations, but a modest degree of ornamentation has been attempted. The Latin rubric is occasionally underlined in red, and the large blue letter that begins the Gospel paraphrase is infilled with a simple design; red vine-like scrollings run down the side of each page. On the first leaf, small red carets bracket individual couplets, but this practice is not continued elsewhere. Following the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity, some further items have been added: Purification (missing from its calendrical position); the Vigil and Feast of John the Baptist, and the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul.

Neither of these two manuscripts is the original version, but, as noted above, both are northern in character and relatively early. Rather than relying solely on the more complete Ashmolean manuscript, I have chosen to begin with the Edinburgh fragment not only because it is significantly closer in time to the date of the NHC’s composition, but because of its highly distinctive northern features (see the section on Language below) and because it preserves at least one feature of the collection which was probably closer to the original than Ashmole (i.e., the tendency to include a significantly larger portion of the Latin rubric for each Sunday’s Gospel passage; Ashmole often cites no more than the first four or five words and later manuscripts sometimes omit the rubric altogether). Additionally, the text for the Second Sunday in Advent includes a unique editorial comment to the effect that certain Latin verses describing the fifteen signs of the “last times” are to be omitted by the reader when he reads in English before the laity. Though these words cannot be taken as proof that the intention was carried out, they do offer an invaluable indication of the author’s intention that the text was to be read aloud in church.

As will be seen from the notes, I have also consulted the following manuscripts from time to time, occasionally emending the text here presented based on their readings:
  • Cambridge University Library MS Gg 5.31. Vellum, early fifteenth century, northern.
  • Cambridge University Library MS Dd I.1. A long, narrow manuscript, principally on paper, perhaps intended to be carried in a saddle bag (i.e., a holster manuscript), early fifteenth century, language generally southern.
  • Lambeth Palace MS 260. Paper, early fifteenth century, northern.

Following the policy of the Middle English Texts Series, I have spelled out all numerals; expanded all abbreviations; replaced thorn with th, yogh with g, y, z, or gh, and (usually) ff with f; and used the modern equivalent for i/j and u/v. The scribe of MS Ashmole 42 has occasionally written two lines of verse on a single line, a practice which I have silently corrected. Punctuation and capitalization follow modern conventions. According to the policy of the Middle English Text Series, certain nouns (God, Lord, Son, Holy Ghost, and a few others) referring to the Christian deity are capitalized; when designating Christ’s mother, “lady” is also capitalized.


The editors of the Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English have identified the dialect of the Edinburgh manuscript as generally characteristic of Yorkshire. 40 N. R. Ker indicates that Angus McIntosh specified northwest Yorkshire.41 With regard to MS Ashmole 42, James R. Sprouse has attempted in a recent article to pinpoint a precise geographical location and he concludes that the manuscript was copied in the West Riding of Yorkshire, close to the Lancashire border.42 Augustinian houses were numerous in Yorkshire in the fourteenth century, and it seems more than possible that the original, as well as these two early copies, were created in one of them. I list below a few of the typically northern features that characterize both manuscripts:
Sounds: Old English a mostly remains unrounded: nan (none); stan (stone); ga (go); gasteli (ghostly).

Verbs: The suffix -s is used in the third person present tense, both singular and plural: saise (he says); tase (he takes); heres (they hear); dryves (they drive). The present participle ends in -and: wonand (dwelling); livand (living). The infinitive normally appears without final -n: will knawe (will know); walde do (would do). The preterite plural loses its final -n: we herd (we heard); we wend (we thought).

Pronouns: Third person feminine singular: scho (she); third person nominative plural: thai (they); third person accusative plural: thaim (them); demonstrative plural pronoun: thir (these).

Vocabulary: kirk (church); mikil (much); swilk (such); kythe (show); sal, suld (shall, should); til (to). References to northern vocabulary items of particular interest will be found in the notes.
In addition, Edinburgh shows the following unique northern features:
1) qu- for wh-: quat, qua, quil, quen, etc. (Ashmole: what, wha, whil, when, etc.)

2) Edinburgh also occasionally uses the form ic or ik for the first person singular pronoun (Ashmole 42 always has I).


The original unexpanded NHC:
  • ED: Edinburgh, MS Royal College of Physicians. [First base-text for this edition, covering Homilies 1–13]43
  • A: Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 42 (S.C. 6923) [Second base-text for this edition, covering Homilies 14–59]44
  • G: Cambridge University Library MS Gg.V.3145
  • D: Cambridge University Library MS Dd.I.146
  • L: Lambeth Palace Library MS 260
  • Minneapolis, Minnesota University Library MS Z 822 N81
  • San Marino, CA, Huntington Library MS HM 129
  • Cambridge University Library MS Addit. 8335 (olim Bute)
  • London, British Library MS Addit. 30358 (fragment)
  • London, British Library MS Addit. 38010
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library MS 30516 (Eng. poet. c.3) (fragment)
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library MS 3440 (Arch. Selden Supra 52) (exempla only)
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library MS 31791 (Eng. poet. c.4) (exempla only)
  • London, British Library MS Harley 2391 (exempla only)
  • Porkington 10 MS (exempla only)
  • London, British Library MS Lat. misc. b. 17 (fragment)
The first NHC expansion:
  • V: Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Eng. Poet a. 1 (the Vernon Manuscript)
  • London, British Library Addit. 22283 (the Simeon Manuscript)
The second NHC expansion:
  • London, British Library MS Cotton Tiberius E VII
  • London, British Library MS Harley 4196

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