Back to top

The Northern Homily Cycle: Prologue


1 Lines 124–26: Of God, and to the destruction of the devil, / And to the joy of saints and angels, / And to the salvation of Christian souls

2 [Here] ends the Prologue. [Here] begins the reason why the present work begins with the first Sunday of the Advent of the Lord


Abbreviations: CT: Chaucer, Canterbury Tales; NHC: Northern Homily Cycle; NIMEV: The New Index of Middle English Verse, ed. Boffey and Edwards; For manuscript abbreviations (ED, A, D, G, L, V), see the Introduction.

The Prologue opens with a hymn of praise to God, accompanied by the exhortation that all humankind in return praise God for his creative and salvific power. Clerks, especially, have a duty to help the laity with this task through their teaching: from this follows the need for the laity to have the words of the Gospel, which is preached in church every Sunday, “un­done” in English so that they can understand the meaning of what they hear. Only if clerks take seriously their responsibility to teach what they know, will layfolk be helped to live righteously and so attain the Kingdom of Heaven. The early unexpanded NHC is the only version of the cycle to contain this prologue: both of the later expanded versions omit it, presumably because there was no longer a need to make a special case for preaching in English.

NIMEV 777. Manuscripts: ED: fols. 16r–16v; A: fols. 1r–2v; G: fols. 5v–7v; D: (not included); L: fol. 1r.

4 A God, a miht, in persons thre. The doctrine of the Trinity asserts that one indivis­ible Godhead exists and is known in three eternally distinct forms: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Church’s Trinitarian faith developed its present form largely under the influence of Athanasius in the fourth century.

7 That mad of riht noht alle thing. The traditional belief is that God created the world “ex nihilo,” solely through the activity of his sovereign will.

14 Of erthe and lam thou made manne. “And the Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth . . .” (Genesis 2:7).

30 on rode him boht. The NHC-poet frequently uses metaphors (common to many medieval texts) of buying and selling to express the idea of the Redemption, whereby the life, suffering, and above all the death of Christ are seen as a kind of “ransom price” that frees humans from sin.

63 On Ingelis tong. The importance of using English for the benefit of the laity is expressed in other contemporary works (e.g., Handlyng Synne and Cursor Mundi). Compare the following passage from the latter: “This ilk bok is es translate / In to Inglis tong to rede, / For the loue of Inglis lede, / Inglis lede of Ingland, / For the commun at understand” (Cotton version, ed. Morris, lines 232–36).

67–68 Than klerkes that thair mirour lokes, / And sees hou thai sal lif on bokes. The clergy are able to monitor their own behavior through their ability to read God’s word for themselves. See the Introduction (p. 10) for Gerould’s suggestion with regard to this line.

89–90 Al faur a talle. The NHC-poet here articulates a medieval belief, greatly influenced by Augustine, in the single truth or meaning underlying Scripture. In his De Con­sensu Evangelistarum Augustine explains that despite individual differences all four Gospels are teaching the same truth of Christ’s life and work. In Book 3 of On Christian Doctrine he writes further that “when . . . from a single passage in the Scripture not one but two or more meanings are elicited, even if what he who wrote the passage intended remains hidden, there is no danger if any of the meanings may be seen to be congruous with the truth taught in other passages of the Holy Scriptures” (3.27.38, pp. 101–02). Chaucer memorably expresses the same concept in the prologue to his Tale of Melibee:
. . . ye woot that every Evaungelist,
That telleth us the peyne of Jhesu Crist,
Ne seith nat alle thyng as his felawe dooth;
But nathelees hir sentence is al sooth,
And alle acorden as in hire sentence,
Al be ther in hir tellyng difference.
For somme of hem seyn moore, and somme seyn lesse,
Whan they his pitous passioun expresse —
I meene of Mark, Mathew, Luc, and John —
But doutelees hir sentence is al oon. (CT VII[B2]943–52)
96 Er red in kirc. Of the three Sunday services open to the laity, mass, held fairly early in the morning, was the one best attended. The Gospels were almost certainly read in Latin at this time, hence the NHC-poet’s concern to paraphrase and explicate the text for his audience. This passage seemingly assumes a prior hearing of the Gospels, as part of the Sunday church service, leaving open the question of the time and venue during which the present text would have been heard or read.

128 Pater noster etc. These words, following the end of the verse line, are a reminder that these prayers are now to be spoken. The laity were expected to know, at a minimum, the Creed, the Pater Noster, or “Lord’s Prayer,” taken from the words spoken by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:9–13), and the Ave Maria, or “Hail Mary,” a prayer loosely based on Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary in Luke 1:28 and 42. They were encouraged to recite these and other prayers at identified points in the church service (Swanson, Church and Society, pp. 276–77).


Abbreviations: MED: Middle English Dictionary. For manuscript abbreviations (ED, A, D, G, L, V), see the Introduction.

1 I have marked the scribe’s practice of leaving space for large initials by inden­tion. Most of these initials, as here, were never filled in. In the present case, the scribe has simply left the three-line blank (extending through line 3) blocked out and written ff, very small, in the left margin to indicate that a capi­tal F is to be inserted in the space. Though most blanks are treated in this way, the scribe has occasionally omitted even the guide letters.
1–3 The opening lines of the Prologue are written continuously across the page with­out deference to the line breaks. Beginning at line 4, however, the scribe be­gins to observe the verse endings, starting a fresh line for each verse. He does not deviate from this practice again.

5 biginning. MS: beginnige.

8 forthe. So A. MS: foþe.

17 this. MS: þi.

25 thee. So A. MS omits.

38 lewde. So A. MS: laud.

42 aght. So A. MS: au.

45 all. So A. MS omits.

59 god es. MS: godes.

98 God. So A. MS omits.

102 that. So A. MS: þa.

115 biginninge. MS: beginnige.

124 sendschipe. Small: scendschipe. Small has either misread or silently emended this word but the form as given in the manuscript is noted by MED (using this citation) as being a northern or early form.


























   Fader and Sun and Haligast,
That anfald God es ay stedfast,
Worthi Driht in Trinité,
A God, a miht, in persons thre;
Withouten end and biginning,
Rihtwis Lauerd and mihti Kyng
That mad of riht noht alle thing
And geres the erthe froit forthe bring:
Witouten thee nan froit mai spring,
For al es loken in thi welding.
Thou ert Lauerd, that worthi Drihte
That al ophaldes wiht thi mihte.
Thou that al craftes kanne,
Of erthe and lam thou made manne
And gaf him gast of schilwisnes,
That thou mad efter thi liknes.
Thou filde this gaste sa full of witte,
Sa quaynt and crafti mad thou itte,
That al bestes er red for man,
Sa mani wyle and wrenk he can.
Forthi suld man in thi servis
Despend his witte and his quaintis;
For thu gaf man skil and insiht,
And hevenis blis thou haves him hiht
To kovenand that he serve thee riht
And se and knau thi mikel miht.
One thee bird be his mast thouht,
That ses quat thou for him has wroht,
And fra quat bale thou him broht,
Quen thou fra helle on rode him boht.
An unkind man es he,
That turnes alle his thoht fra thee,
And wel bird everilke man
Lof God after that he kan:
Lered men wit rihtwis lare,
And laued folk wit rihtwis fare;
Prestes wit matines and wit messe,
And lewde men wiht rihtwisnes;
Clerk wit lar of Godes worde,
For he haves in him Godes horde
Of wisdom and of gastlic lare,
That he ne aght noht forto spare,
Bot scheu it forth til laued menne,
And thaim the wai til hevin kenne.
For all sal we yeld acount,
Quat that wisdom mai amount,
That God havis given us for to spend,
In god oys til our lives end.
Forthi suld ilke precheour schau
The god that Godd havis gert him knau,
For qua sa hides Godes gift,
God mai chalange him of thift.
In al thing es he nouht lele,
That Godes gift fra man wil sele.
Forthi the litel that I kanne
Wil I schau til ilke manne,
Yf I kan mar god than he,
For than lif ic in charité;
For god es wisdom that es kid,
And nathing worthe quen it es hid.
Forthi wil I of my povert,
Schau sum thing that ik haf in hert,
On Ingelis tong that alle may
Understand quat I wil say,
For laued men haves mar mister,
Godes word forto her,
Than klerkes that thair mirour lokes,
And sees hou thai sal lif on bokes;
And bathe klerk and laued man,
Englis understand kan,
That was born in Ingeland,
And lang haves ben tharin wonand.
Bot al men can noht, iwis,
Understand Latin and Frankis.
Forthi me think almous it isse,
To wirke sum god thing on Inglisse,
That mai ken lered and laued bathe
Hou thai mai yem thaim fra schathe,
And stithe stand igain the fend,
And til the blis of heven wend.
Mi speche haf I mint to drawe,
Of Cristes dedes and his sau;
On him mai I best found mi werke,
And of his dedes tac mi merke,
That maked al this werd of noht,
And der mankind on rode boht.
The faur Godspellers us schawes
Cristes dedes and his sawes,
Al faur a talle thay telle,
Bot seer saues er in thair spelle,
And of thair spel in kirk at messe,
Er leszouns red bathe mar and lesse;
For at everilke messe we rede
Of Cristes wordes and his dede.
Forthi tha Godspells that always
Er red in kirc on Sundays,
Opon Inglis wil ic undo,
Yef God wil gif me grace tharto.
For namlic on the Sunanday,
Comes lawed men thair bede to say
To the kirc, an forto lere
Gastlic lare that thar thai here;
For als gret mister haf thay,
To wit quat the Godspel wil say
Als lered men, for bathe er bouht
Wit Cristes blod, and sal be broht
Til hevenes blis ful menskelie,
Yef thai lef her rihtwislie.
For wil ic on Inglis schau,
And ger our laued brether knawe,
Quat alle tha Godspelles saies,
That falles tille the Sunnendayes;
That thai mai her and hald in hert,
Thinge that thaim til God mai ert.
And forthi at our biginninge,
Pray we God of hevine kinge,
That he help us forto bringe
This ilke werk to god endinge;
And gif me grace sua make
This werk for laued mennes sake,
That I mai haf for my mede,
Hevenrik blis quen I am dede.
And our werc be worschipe
To God, and to the fend sendschipe,
And joy til halwe and till angel,
And Cresten folk til sauel hel.1
That it be sua, says inwardlye
“Pater noster,” “Ave Marie.” Pater noster etc.
onefold; is ever
One; one; (see note)
Righteous Lord
Who made everything from nothing; (see note)
makes; fruit; (t-note)

locked; power

uphold with
who understand all
loam; man; (see note)
the spirit of reason
are afraid of
tricks; knows
Use; cunning

In covenant; (t-note)
On; ought [to] be
When [he] sees what
what trouble
When; cross; redeemed; (see note)

ought every
Praise God as best he knows how
Learned; with good (just) teaching
unlearned people (laity); behavior
matins; mass
unlearned; (t-note)
knowledge (counsel)
ought; (t-note)
to ignorant
make known
we will all give an account; (t-note)

each; make known
made him know

then I live
made known; (t-note)
I have
English; (see note)

ignorant; have greater need

who examine themselves; (see note)


protect; harm
firmly; against; devil
I intend to speak

world from nothing
at great cost
Gospel writers

one tale; (see note)
various sayings are

(see note)
In; expound
If; (t-note)
Spiritual teaching; hear; (t-note)

live here





[In order] that it [may] be so, say
“Our Father,” “Hail Mary”; (see note)
Explicit Prologus. Incipit ratio quare presens opus incipiat Dominicam primam Adventus Domini.2

Go To Ratio