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XVI. Later Transition English

§ 4. Northern Homilies and Legends

Considerable diversity is shown in the recensions of the homilies: the Edinburgh MS. opens with a prologue, in which the author, like so many writers of the time, carefully explains that his work is intended for ignorant men, who cannot understand French; and, since it is the custom of the common people to come to church on Sundays, he has turned into English for them the Gospel for the day. His version, however, is not a close translation; it resembles Ormulum in giving first a paraphrase of the Scripture, and then an exposition of the passage chosen; but, in addition to this, there is also a narracio, or story, to illustrate the lesson and drive the moral home. These stories are often quite short, sometimes mere anecdotes, and are derived from the most diverse sources: sometimes from saints’ lives, sometimes from Scripture and sometimes from French fabliaux. The homilist is an especial lover of the poor, and one of his most striking sermons is that for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, on the subject of Christ stilling the waves. The world, says he, is but a sea, tossed up and down, where the great fishes eat the small; for the rich men of the world devour what the poor earn by their labour, and the king acts towards the weak as the whale towards the herring. Like Mannyng of Brunne, the writer has a special word of condemnation for usurers.

The Harleian manuscript is, unfortunately, imperfect at the beginning, so that it is impossible to say whether it ever contained the prologue; while the MS. Tiberius E. VII was so badly burned in the Cottonian fire that the greater part of it cannot be deciphered. These manuscripts, however, show that the homilies had been entirely worked over and rewritten in the half century that had elapsed since the Edinburgh version was composed. The plan of paraphrase, exposition and narration is not always followed, and, so far as Easter Sunday, the stories are taken chiefly from Scripture. From this point, however, they depend on other sources, and they are especially interesting when compared with the contents of other northern poems of the same period. The legend of the Holy Rood, for instance, which runs like a thread through Cursor Mundi, is given at great length, and so, also, is the graphic story of Piers the usurer, which occurs in Handlyng Synne. Among the stories is the well-known legend of the monk who was lured by a bird from his monastery, and only returned to it after three hundred years, when everything was changed, and no one knew him.

The legends which follow these homilies are much more restricted in scope than those of the southern collection, and are confined chiefly to lives of the apostles or of the early Christian martyrs, St. Thomas of Canterbury being the only English saint represented. But, while the Gloucester Legendary seems to have been intended only as a reference book for the preacher, the northern series shows the lives in a finished form, suitable for reading or reciting in church. The verse is polished, limpid and fluent, betraying, in its graceful movement, traces of French influence, while, at the same time, it is not free from the tendency to alliteration prevalent in northern poetry. The writer had a genuine gift of narration and possessed both humour and dramatic power, as is shown by the story of the lord and lady who were parted by shipwreck and restored to one another by the favour of St. Mary Magdalene; and, like most medieval homilists, he excels in the description of horrors—of fiends “blacker than any coal,” and of dragons armed with scales as stiff as steel. Sometimes, a little homily is interwoven with the story; and one passage, which rebukes men for slumbering or chattering in church, resembles a similar exhortation in Handlyng Synne. The section on the “faithful dead,” also, seems to be in close dependence on that work. Three of the stories told occur in close juxtaposition in Mannyng’s book; and a reference to the story of Piers the usurer, which is mentioned but not related, probably because it had already found a place in the homilies, points to the conclusion that the compiler was well acquainted with the work of his predecessor.