Middle English Biblical Poetry
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions for the Medieval Herald! Can you please begin by providing a brief overview of your book Middle English Biblical Poetry?
The book explores six fairly short poems that retell episodes from the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, dating from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They are Iacob and Iosep, two lives of Adam and Eve, A Pistel of Susan, and the Gawain-poet’s Patience and Cleanness. For each poem I investigate its sources and influences, including the Ordinary Gloss, French and Latin biblical literature, English literature and the visual arts. I argue that these poems were written for a similar audience to secular romances: gentry or noble households who probably heard them read aloud. I explore how the Middle English writers adapted biblical stories, including how they bridged the gap between the Jewish and pagan cultures of the pre-Christian Mediterranean and medieval England.
Why do you think the genre of medieval Biblical poetry has been neglected?
Biblical poetry often gets labelled ‘paraphrase’, which sounds, to me at least, pretty boring – as if there is nothing new or interesting in it, just a (probably inferior) rewording of the biblical source. But the poems I look at are real artistic creations: in every case the poet has carefully crafted something tight, dramatic and emotionally involving. At the same time, my experience with students and even professional academics is that we can be very anxious about our lack of biblical knowledge and so find these texts daunting to approach. But once you open them up you can see they were written for lay audiences and emphasised themes those audiences would have found interesting – family relationships, for example. In the Introduction to my book I give a brief survey of different varieties of biblical literature, and I hope the book will stimulate more people to work on this group of texts.
Which Bible stories proved the most fertile sources for poets?
Adam and Eve seem to have a perennial popularity as an origin story, and of course the twin bonuses of nudity and Lucifer. However, there is a huge range! I look at just six poems in this book, but there are much longer poems that retell the whole of Creation history, such as Cursor Mundi. New Testament and apocryphal stories were also enormously popular – for example, there are various retellings in English and French of apocryphal episodes from the childhood of Jesus.
Were the poems intended to be purely didactic or are they open to different interpretations?
All of them have some kind of moral agenda, with Patience and Cleanness the most theologically complex. But that agenda exists alongside more narrative effects. Iacob and Iosep, for example, mainly emphasises the pathos of Joseph’s sufferings at the hands of his brothers and in Egypt, and then the joy of his family reunion at the poem’s end. A Pistel of Susan invites us to imagine what it would be like for a respectable married couple to be caught up in an unfair accusation of adultery and a threat of execution; it also incorporates a lovely passage describing their idyllic private garden.
Do you have a favourite re-interpretation of a story or parable?
Patience retells the story of Jonah so beautifully it has to be my favourite. It’s subtly comic, often at Jonah’s expense, and in the book I argue that the twist at the end of the story would have been a shock even to a medieval audience. I also love the evocative descriptions of the interior of the whale and of the wonderful vine that Jonah relaxes beneath when he thinks his trials are over.
What was your research process like and did your research surprise you?
I began the project looking at eight poems, and actually published articles on two fifteenth-century poems (The Storie of Asneth and The Life of Job) first. Because I wanted to look holistically at the poems and how they fitted into medieval English culture, I read a lot of possible sources and analogues, and trawled through visual representations of each story too. It has been quite a slow process, but it turned up lots of connections that show just how lively the biblical culture in medieval England must have been. For example, the way Abraham’s story is told in Cleannessseems to be influenced by manuscript art. And as the research progressed, secular romance increasingly seemed to be an important influence on these poems, which I hadn’t expected.
Your cover is brilliant! Tell us about it.
It’s an image I stumbled across online, from a fourteenth-century Bible historiale manuscript, Paris, BNF MS Français 10. The Bible historiale was a French version of Peter Comestor’s Historia Scholastica, and effectively a prose version of the Bible that emphasised its literal, historical meaning. The image marks the beginning of the Book of Jonah in this manuscript, and shows Jonah being vomited out by the whale onto the shore. Despite the fact he’s been in the whale’s belly for three days and nights, his blue robe, red hood and white cuffs look pristine. I think illustrations like this are the basis for a joke in Patience about the state of Jonah’s mantle. I fell in love with the image and was delighted when the BNF said we could use it for the cover!
What do you have planned next?
I’m starting work on an edition of some Middle English biblical poems for TEAMS Middle English Texts, including Iacob and Iosep and Patience, as well as some new ones I haven’t worked on before. The idea is to provide modern, reader-friendly editions of these texts with helpful glosses and notes, so that they can be much more widely read and studied.
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Naturally, we hope you have stayed well throughout the pandemic but how has your work been affected over these last 18 months or so?
Luckily my family has stayed fairly healthy, but trying to finish a book with two primary school-aged children at home was hard. I did most of the image permission requests from my bedroom!
CATHY HUME is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Bristol.
Cover illustration: The whale vomits Jonah out on dry land. Miniature from the beginning of the Book of Jonah in a fourteenth-century Bible historiale manuscript, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 10, fol 452v, by permission of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.