The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XVI. Later Transition English

§ 6. Cursor Mundi

Further evidence of literary activity in the north of England during this period is given by Cursor Mundi, a very long poem, which, as its name implies, treats of universal rather than local history, and, like the cycles of miracle plays which were just beginning to pass out of the hands of their clerical inventors into those of laymen, relates the story of the world from the creation to the day of doom. It opens with a prologue, which is, practically, the author’s “apology” for his undertaking. Men, he says, rejoice to hear romances of Alexander and Julius Cæsar, of the long strife between Greece and Troy, of king Arthur and Charlemagne. Each man is attracted by what he enjoys the most, and all men delight especially in their “paramours”; but the best lady of all is the Virgin Mary, and whosoever takes her for his own shall find that her love is ever true and loyal. Therefore, the poet will compose a work in her honour; and, because French rimes are commonly found everywhere, but there is nothing for those who know only English, he will write it for him who “na Frenche can.”

With this explanation the author embarks on his vast theme, which he divides according to the seven ages of the world, a device copied from Bede. He describes the creation, the war in heaven, the temptation of Eve, the expulsion from Paradise, the history of the patriarchs and so on through the Bible narrative, sometimes abridging, but more often enlarging, the story by long additions, drawn from the most diverse authorities, which add greatly to the interest of the narrative. One of the most interesting of these additions is the legend of the Holy Rood: this is not told in a complete form in one place, but is introduced in relation to the history of the men who were connected with it. In place of the prophecies there are inserted two parables, probably from Grosseteste’s Château d’Amour; and the poet then goes on to tell with much detail of the youth of Mary, the birth of Christ and His childhood. Then follow the story of his life as given by the evangelists, His death and descent into hell, the careers of the apostles, the assumption of the Virgin and a section on doomsday. The author concludes with an address to his fellow-men, begging them to think upon the transitory nature of earthly joys, and a prayer to the Virgin, commending his work to her approval.

The humility betrayed in the concluding lines is all the more attractive because, as his poem shows, the writer was an accomplished scholar, extremely well read in medieval literature. His work, indeed, is a storehouse of legends, not all of which have been traced to their original sources. His most important authority was the Historia Scholastica of Peter Comestor; but he used many others, among which may be mentioned Wace’s F[char]e;te de la Conception Notre Dame, Grosseteste’s Ch[char]ateau d’Amour, the apocryphal gospels, a south English poem on the assumption of the Virgin ascribed to Edmund Rich, Adso’s Libellus de Antichristo, the Elucidarium of Honorius of Autun, Isidore of Seville and the Golden Legend of Jacobus a Voragine.

The popularity of Cursor Mundi is witnessed by the large number of manuscripts in which it is preserved, and it has many qualities to account for this. In the first place, the author never loses sight of his audience, showing great skill in appealing to the needs of rude, unlettered people whose religious instruction must, necessarily, be conveyed by way of concrete example. He has a keen eye for the picturesque; his description of the Flood, for instance, may be compared with the famous passage in the alliterative poem, Cleanness, and he lingers over the episode of Goliath with an enjoyment due as much to his own delight in story-telling as to a knowledge of what his hearers will appreciate; there is a strong family likeness between the Philistine hero and such monsters as Colbrand and Ascapart. The strong humanity which runs through the whole book is one of its most attractive features, and shows that the writer was full of sympathy for his fellow creatures.

The whole poem shows considerable artistic skill. In spite of the immense mass of material with which it deals, it is well proportioned, and the narrative is lucid and easy. The verse form is generally that of the eight-syllabled couplet; but, when treating of the passion and death of Christ, the poet uses alternately riming lines of eight and six syllables; and the discourse between Christ and man, which follows the account of the crucifixion, consists largely of six-lined monorimed stanzas.

Of the author, beyond the fact that he was, as he himself states, a cleric, nothing whatever is known. Hupe’s theory, that his name was John of Lindebergh, which place he identifies with Limber Magna in Lincolnshire, is based on a misreading of an insertion in one of the manuscripts by the scribe who copied it; and all that can be affirmed with any confidence is that the author lived in the north of England towards the end of the thirteenth or beginning of the fourteenth century. Some of the later manuscripts show west midland and even southern peculiarities, but this is only another testimony to the wide-spread popularity of the poem.