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XVI. Later Transition English

§ 3. The South English Legendary

Mention has already been made of the South English Legendary, a collection of versified lives of the saints in the same dialect and metre as those of the Gloucester Chronicle. The fact that certain passages from these lives are incorporated in the Chronicle has led to the conclusion that one person was responsible for both; but, as we have seen, the Chronicle is probably the work of three hands, if not of more, and it is impossible to say anything more definite about the authorship of the Legendary than that it had its origin in the neighbourhood of Gloucester towards the end of the thirteenth century, and that more than one author was concerned in it. The oldest manuscript (Laud 108 in the Bodleian) was written after 1265, and is dated by its editor, Horstmann, as belonging to the years 1280–90.

It is probable, however, that it had been in hand a considerable time. As the number of saints’ days increased, it was found convenient to have at hand homiletic material for each festival; and, as no single monastic library would contain manuscripts of all the independent lives required, these had to be borrowed and copied as occasion served. This was a task too great for any one man, and it is most probable that the monks at Gloucester had been gathering the legends together for some years, and that a number of them contributed towards the first redaction. This would partly account for the unequal merit of the lives, some of which display much more literary and poetic feeling than others. But, in considering this point, it must be remembered that the charm of any particular story depends largely on its original source; even the clumsy pen of a monkish translator could not wholly disguise the beauty of such legends as that of St. Francis.

Although the collection is of the most varied description, and comprises the lives of saints of all countries and of all ages down to the time of compilation, the best-told legends are those of native saints; and, as the style of these is not unlike that of the author of the longer continuation of the Gloucester Chronicle, it is possible that they may be by him. Among them may be especially mentioned the very vivid account of the career and murder of St. Thomas of Canterbury, which displays considerable dramatic power, and the life of St. Edmund of Pontigny (archbishop Edmund Rich, who died in 1240), which treats of events that were still fresh in men’s minds and, like the Gloucester Chronicle, betrays a great admiration for Simon de Montfort. The same predilection, it may be noted, is evident in the life of St. Dominic, where Sir Simon, “that good and gracious knight,” is commended for having lent his support to the order of preaching friars.

Some of the lives, such as those of St. Kenelm and St. Michael, are made the vehicle of secular instruction, and contain curious geographical and scientific disquisitions, the latter being especially valuable for its light upon medieval folk-and devil-lore and for its cosmology. The most interesting of all the lives are those connected with St. Patrick and St. Brendan. The story of Sir Owayn’s visit to purgatory shows all the characteristic Celtic wealth of imagination in the description of the torments endured. Nothing could be more terrible than the lines which describe him as “dragged all about in a waste land, so black and dark that he saw nothing but the fiends, who drove him hither and thither and thronged around him.” And, on the other hand, nothing could be more charming in its strange mystic beauty than the story of St. Brendan’s sojourn in the Isle of Birds, and his interview with the penitent Judas, permitted, in recompense of one charitable deed, to enjoy a little respite from the pains of hell.

While the monks of Gloucester were thus busy with hagiology, similar activity was exhibited in the north of England, according to Horstmann in the diocese of Durham, though the prevalence of midland forms in the texts points to a district further south. There exists in many manuscripts, the earliest of which, in the Royal College of Physicians at Edinburgh, seems to have been written at the beginning of the fourteenth century, a cycle of homilies, in octosyllabic couplets, covering the whole of the Sundays in the church year. Two of the later manuscripts (Harleian 4196 and Tiberius E. VII), both written about 1350, contain also a cycle of legends for use on saints’ days.