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XVI. Later Transition English

§ 13. The Ayenbite of Inwyt

The other important Kentish production of this time was the Ayenbite of Inwyt (the “again-biting” of the inner wit, the remorse of conscience), the value of which, however, is distinctly philological rather than literary. Our information as to its author is derived from his preface in the unique manuscript in the British Museum, which states that it was made with his own hand by Dan Michel, of Northgate in Kent, and belonged to the library of St. Austin at Canterbury, and from a note at the end of the treatise, which adds that it was written in English for the sake of ignorant men, to guard them against sin, and that it was finished on the vigil of the holy apostles, Simon and Jude, by a brother of the cloister of St. Austin of Canterbury, in the year 1340.

The Ayenbite of Inwyt was not, however, and original work. It was a translation of a very popular French treatise, the Somme des Vices et des Vertus (known also as Li Livres roiaux des Vices et des Vertus, and Somme le Roi), compiled, in 1279, by frere Lorens, a Dominican, at the request of Philip the Bold, son and successor of Louis IX. This, in its turn, was borrowed from other writers, and was composed of various homilies, on the ten commandments, the creed, the seven deadly sins, the knowledge of good and evil, the seven petitions of the Paternoster, the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, the seven cardinal virtues and confession, many of which exist in manuscripts anterior to the time of frere Lorens.

The treatment of these subjects, especially in the section on the seven deadly sins, is allegorical. The sins are first compared with the seven heads of the beast which St. John saw in the Apocalypse; then, by a change of metaphor, pride becomes the root of all the rest, and each of them is represented as bringing forth various boughs. Thus, the boughs of pride are untruth, despite, presumption, ambition, idle bliss, hypocrisy and wicked dread; while from untruth spring three twigs, foulhood, foolishness and apostasy. This elaborate classification into divisions and sub-divisions is characteristic of the whole work, and becomes not a little tiresome; on the other hand, the very frequent recourse to metaphor which accompanies it serves to drive the lesson home. Idle bliss is the great wind that throweth down the great towers, and the high steeples, and the great beeches in the woods, by which are signified men in high places; the boaster is the cuckoo who singeth always of himself.

Sometimes these comparisons are drawn from the natural histroy of the day, the bestiaries, or, as Dan Michel calls them, the “bokes of kende.” Thus, flatterers are like to nickers (sea-fairies), which have the bodies of women and the tails of fishes, and sing so sweetly that they make the sailors fall asleep, and afterwards swallow them; or like the adder called “serayn,” which runs more quickly than a horse, and whose venom is so deadly that no medicine can cure its sting. Other illustrations are borrowed from Seneca, from Aesop, Boethius, St. Augustine, St. Gregory, St. Bernard, St. Jerome and St. Anselm.

Unfortunately, Dan Michel was a very incompetent translator. He often quite fails to grasp the sense of his original, and his version is frequently unintelligible without recourse to the French work. It is noticeable, however, that it improves as it proceeds, as if he taught himself the language by his work upon it. The same MS. contains Kentish versions of the Paternoster, the creed and the famous sermon entitled Sawles Warde, which is abridged from an original at least one hundred years older. It is a highly allegorical treatment of Matthew, xxiv, 43, derived from Hugo of St. Victor’s De Anima, and describes how the house of Reason is guarded by sleight, Strength and Righteousness, and how they receive Dread, the messenger of Death, and Love of Life Everlasting, who is sent from heaven.

Certain resemblances between the Ayenbite of Inwyt and The Parson’s Tale have led to the supposition that Chaucer was acquainted with either the English or the French version. It has recently been proved, however, that these resemblances are confined to the section on the seven deadly sins, and even these are not concerned with the structure of the argument, but consist rather of scattered passages. And, although the immediate source of The Parson’s Tale is still unknown, it has been shown that its phraseology and general argument are very similar to those of a Latin tract written by Raymund of Pennaforte, general of the Dominicans in 1238, and that the digression on the seven deadly sins is an adaptation of the Summa seu Tractatus de Viciis, composed before 1261 by William Peraldus, another Dominican Friar.