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

XI. Early Transition English

§ 7. The Bestiary; An Bispel; Sawles Warde

Besides satire and arguments of terror, allegory was employed for the same didactic end, notably in the Bestiary, An Bispel (a Parable) and Sawles Warde, each of which was based on a Latin original. The Bestiary is founded on the Latin Physiologus of one Thetbaldus, though earlier specimens had appeared in Old English and Anglo-French. Of the thirteen animals dealt with, twelve are taken from the work of Thetbaldus, the section relating to the dove from Neckam’s De Naturis Rerum (1, 56). The method of teaching is venerable but effective; the habits of animals are made to symbolise spiritual truth. The work does not, however, represent much originality, though the metrical form is a blending of old and new. Its six-syllable couplet is derived either from the Latin hexameters of the original or from Philipe de Thaun’s couplet, with which it is identical. But the treatment is far from regular; alliteration, rime and assonance are promiscuously used, and syllabic equivalence is but imperfectly apprehended. Occasionally delightful movements are obtained such as exist in

  • Al is man so is tis ern,
  • wuld[char] ge nu listen,
  • old in his[char] sinnes dern,
  • or he bicum[char] cristen:
  • And tus he newe[char] him [char]is man,
  • [char]anne he nime[char] to kirke,
  • or he it bi[char]enken can,
  • hise egen weren mirke.
  • But the whole seems to point to artistic inconsistencies rather than whimsical handling, though the work is interesting as showing English verse in the process of making.The second work, An Bispel, is a free translation of Anselm’s De Similitudine inter Deum et quemlibet regem suos judicantem. This prose parable relates and explains God’s dealings with mankind under the simile of a feast held by a king, to which are invited, by means of five messengers, both friend and foe. The English adapter adds certain details, notably the incident of the five messengers, who are intended to represent the five codes of law. The Sawles Warde,. a more pretentious allegory of much the same date, is based upon a Latin prose work of Hugo de St. Victor, the elements of which were suggested by St. Matthew, XXIV, 43. Wit (judgment) is lord of a castle (the soul of man). His wife (Will) is capricious, and the servants (the five senses) are hard to govern. He therefore needs the assistance of his four daughters (the four cardinal virtues, prudence, strength, temperance and righteousness); but the good behaviour of his household is ultimately assured by the appearance of two messengers, Fear (messenger of death), who paints the terrors of hell, and Love of Life, who describes the joys of heaven. The writer shows some originality in his treatment, and the allegory in his hands becomes rather more coherent and convincing; his characters are more developed, and certain dramatic touches are added here and there. The same motive appears in a short contemporaneous poem called Wil and Wit. Other didactic methods which call for brief mention are those in which the joys of heaven are persuasively described, as, for instance, in the poems Long Life and The Duty of Christians, or in which the dialogue form is used for the first time, as in Vices and Virtues (c. 1200)—“a soul’s confession of its sins, with reason’s description of the virtues.”

    The third section of the religious writings of this period is wholly concerned with the religious life of women. The twelfth century, the golden age of monasticism, witnessed also an increased sympathy with convent life; and this is evident not only from the letters of Ailred, but also from the increasing frequency with which legacies were left to convent communities, and from the founding of such an order as that of St. Gilbert of Sempringham. Before the Conquest religious women had been by no means a negligible quantity. The revival of interest in their cause, at this later date, was part of that impulse which had inspired, on the continent, the mystical writers St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Elisabeth of Schönau and the Philanthropic zeal of the noble Hedwig. In the thirteenth century, the convent of Helfta in Saxony was the centre of these tendencies; and, though it cannot be said with certainty that England produced any women-writers, yet the attention to practical religion and mystical thought, which had been the subjects of zeal abroad, are tolerably well represented in the writings for women in England.