Noble Ambition: Requesting a New Confessor in the Late Middle Ages

ASV, Penitenzieria Aposotolica, Reg. 33 f. 270r

As the and papacy and its various offices grew in complexity throughout the Late Middle Ages, a plethora of new religious possibilities opened to non-elites across Western Europe. One such papal office, called the Apostolic Penitentiary, provided the opportunity for common parishioners to have the precious religious privileges that the medieval nobility had fought for two centuries to solidify and perpetuate. The Apostolic Penitentiary granted special dispensation for a variety of religious requests by parishioners across Western Europe, requests beyond the authority of their bishops to grant. Such requests could involve an approval of a marriage that was within four degrees of relationship through blood or marriage, approval for a portable altar so that the petitioner might be able to celebrate mass regardless of location, or an appeal by a supplicant for a new confessor outside of their parish priest. By the fifteenth century, a well-to-do townsperson in Ghent could enjoy many of the same personal religious privileges of the Duke of Burgundy in form, if not in grandeur.

Christians from every diocese in Western Europe could write to the Penitentiary via a special letter called a supplicatio, or a supplication. A supplication contained the name of the supplicant, perhaps some personal information about that person such as their profession or class, the diocese from which the request originated, and the date upon which the supplication was processed by the Penitentiary. Receipts of these supplications were collected by the Penitentiary and organized into yearly registers. One such example of a supplication for a new confessor can be seen below:

ASV, Penitenzieria Aposotolica, Reg. Mat. Div. 6, 28v

As with most supplications, the entry above is heavily abbreviated based on the sheer number of requests the Penitentiary received. It reads: Item Petro van der Ghert de Venrade et Helisabeth eius uxor laici et Gherardo Hermanni de Eyck et Helisabeth Montz eius uxor Leodiensis diocesis petunt litterae confessionalibus fiat de speciali. Datum 16 Maii 1456.

Translated: Peter van der Ghert of Venrade and his wife Elisabeth and Gerard Hermanni of Eyck and his wife Elisabeth Montz, laypeople of the diocese of Liege seek letters of confession (the right to choose a new confessor was called litterae confessionalibus). Granted under special papal mandate on the 16th of May 1456.

The most important part of this entry for our purposes here is the word laici, whereby the supplication indicates that the two couples from Venrade and Eyck were simple laypeople. They were not nobiles or clerici, nobles or clerics, two common appellations within the Penitentiary registers. All that was needed for a layperson to send a supplicatio from their diocese to the Apostolic Penitentiary was a fee. The exact cost of the fee varied, but it was certainly not prohibitively expensive, as many non-elites are represented in the records of the Penitentiary. Indeed, laici appear to have supplicated far more often to the Apostolic Penitentiary than to the similarly suited office, the Papal Chancery.

However, for many elites hoping to replicate their social superiors, they too had to go through the supplication process to the Penitentiary:

ASV, Penitenzieria Aposotolica, Reg. Mat. Div. 6, 16v

Transcription: Johannes Boyssel domicellus et perpetuus mareschallus ducatus Limburgen. Leodiensis diocesis.: petit litteras confessions de gratia speciali fiat de speciali D. s. t. 17 Julii 1456.

Translation: John Boyssel, young lord and ducal marshal in perpetuity of Limburg, in the diocese of Liege seeks a letter of confession…17th of July 1456.

Above we see John Boyssel, who is of a much higher social and political standing than the earlier entry in the supplications above. Boyssel is a perpetuus ducatus mareschallus, or a ducal marshal, and thus a lifetime appointee by either the Duke of Burgundy, or, more likely, the Duke of Limburg to this military position. Such a personage is a particularly striking inclusion in the registers of the Penitentiary. Boyssel’s appointment placed him among secular lords allowed to act in the stead of the dukes themselves. That Boyssel had to go through the same channels as commoners, possibly his own subjects, within the diocese of Liege, speaks to the social leveling effect of the Apostolic Penitentiary.

Sean Sapp, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame


Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Penitenzieria Apostolica, Registrum 6, f. 16v, 28v.

Clarke, Peter D. “New evidence of noble and gentry piety in fifteenth-century England and Wales,” Journal of Medieval History 34 (2008): 23-35.

Having a Fit about Fitts: The Manuscript Structure of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

For many students, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will likely be the first medieval text they are assigned to read. Frequently included in popular anthologies such as the Norton, Sir Gawain is a story that even non-medievalists such as myself are likely to have some degree of familiarity with. However, despite the poem’s familiarity Sir Gawain still holds a number of surprises in store for scholars and readers. In particular, I wish to discuss here what have come to be known as the four “fitts” the poem is commonly divided into.

The text of Sir Gawain survives physically in just a single manuscript (Cotton Nero A.x.) in the possession of the British Library. The poem was rediscovered in the 1830s by Sir Frederic Madden, the Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Library and one of the foremost English scholars of his day. Madden edited and published the first edition of the poem, Syr Gawayne, in 1839. Here Madden inaugurated the tradition of dividing the text into four parts, or “fitts” as he termed them. This division has subsequently been unquestioningly received by most subsequent editors of the poem. In 1947, Laurita Lyttleton Hill became one of the first scholars to question the palaeographical justifications for Madden’s four-part division, writing, “One can only suppose that in the hundred years and more since Sir Frederic Madden’s ‘Syr Gawayne,’ tradition has solidified the published form of the poem into a mold that no one cares to disturb.”[1]

In the introduction to their 1925 scholarly edition of the poem J.R.R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon note that “The four main divisions of the poem are indicated by large ornamental coloured capitals. Smaller coloured capitals without ornament occur at the beginning of lines 619, 1421, 1893, 2259.”[2] In her scholarship Hill dug deeper into these paleogeographic descriptions, casting doubt on whether Tolkien and Gordon’s descriptions of the capitals as “large” or “small” were entirely accurate, and on whether the degrees of the capitals’ ornamentation stands up to scrutiny as a justification for the divisions.

Ultimately, Hill advocated for a nine-part division recognizing all of the manuscript’s capitals as places of division. Hill ended her argument with the emphatic claim, “It has become evident, however, that there is no absolute four-fold division of Gawain. Such a division exists only in printed tradition and cannot be supported by any attentive examination of Cotton Nero A.x. or of the poem itself.” I have included at the end of this post Hill’s diagram showing at what points in the narrative the capitals recognized in her nine-fold division occur in contrast to Madden’s. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton notes of the nine potential divisions, “One could make several observations: first, the divisions closely parallel the spirit of the medieval narrative summaries marking progress through romances—these tend to mark knightly clashes, deaths, and miraculous events. Second, perhaps more profoundly, the medieval divisions mark moments of soul searching.”[3] Although the four-fitt division creates a recognizable narrative structure for modern readers, it perhaps does so at the expense of the potentially richer alternative of attempting to recover these earlier conceptions of narrative progression.

Most subsequent editions since Hill’s article up to the present day have maintained Madden’s four-part division; however, an enriching scholarly conversation has taken up the debate surrounding the question of the four-fitt division’s paleographic merits. Unfortunately, this debate has been largely absent from the paratextual materials of many modern editions, such as Simon Armitage’s popular translation (which has since been taken up and used by the Norton). Many of these editions do not attempt to justify or explain their decision to retain Madden’s four-part division; due to the significant nature of Madden’s intervention it seems like an error to avoid addressing this decision, as many of the poem’s readers will, as a result, remain unaware about the poem’s structural uncertainty. I hope that recent scholarly endeavors such as the Cotton Nero A.x. Project, which seeks to increase access to the manuscript by digitizing it, will help to resuscitate this scholarly debate and perhaps even inspire new editions of Sir Gawainthat adhere more closely to the manuscript’s structure.

DivisionScribal InitialMadden’s DivisionCorrelation with the Poem
ISPart IThe beheading test, part 1; the new year, the blow received, lines 1-490.
IITPart IIThe year passes before the annual combat; the knight is armed: lines 491-618.
IIITN/AThe pentangle, the character of Gawain; the journey; Christmas Eve Gawain’s prayer for guidance; Lines 619-762.
IVNN/AThe sudden appearance of the perilous castle; Gawain’s reception; Christmas festivities; the exchange winnings proposed and accepted; Lines 763-1125.
VFPart IIIThe huntsman host; the deer hunt; temptation 1; lines 1126-1420.
VISN/AThe huntsman host; the boar hunt; temptation 2; the fox hunt; temptation 3; the magic girdle; Lines 1421-1892.
VIINN/AThe fox hunt concluded; Gawain asks for a guide; he bids goodbye to those in the castle: lines 1893-1997.
VIIINPart IVNew Year; the journey resumed; the ford perilous; the Green Knight appears: lines 1998-2258.
IXTN/AThe beheading test part 2; the blow returned; the connection of Morgan la Faye with the plot; Gawain returns to Arthur’s court: lines 2259-2530.
Source: Hill, Laurita Lyttleton. “Madden's Divisions of Sir Gawain and the `Large Initial Capitals' of Cotton Nero A.X..” Speculum, 21, 1, 1946, pp 70-71.

Joshua Wright
PhD student, English
University of Notre Dame

[1] Laurita Lyttleton Hill, “Madden’s Divisions of Sir Gawain and the `Large Initial Capitals’ of Cotton Nero A.X..” (21:1), 67.
[2] V. Gordon and J.R.R. Tolkien, editors, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. VIII.
[3] Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Madie Hilmo, and Linda Olson, Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts. 59.

Teaching Latin with English

When you first learned how to read and write, you probably did so in your native language. As natural as this seems, medieval teachers did things differently. Throughout most of the Middle ages, grammar meant Latin grammar; literate, able to read Latin. Ælfric’s Grammar (written ca. 992-1002), marks an important break with previous pedagogy.  In the first sentence Ælfric proclaims the revolutionary nature of his project: “I’ve worked to translate these excerpts from Priscian for you boys into your own language” (he does so in Latin, ironically enough). For the first time, then, a European vernacular was used to teach grammar.

Ælfric’s source is the Excerptiones de Prisciano, a judicious culling containing “almost all the important and interesting components” (David W. Porter, ed., Exerptiones de Prisciano, Woodridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002) from the Latin grammarian (fl. 500) whose textbook was a virtual best-seller in medieval Europe. The Excerptiones survives in only two complete manuscripts: London, British Library MS Add. 32246 and Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Nouv. Acq. Lat. 586. The former (pictured below), written in the first half of the eleventh century, is particularly noteworthy for the Latin-English glossaries that often crowd its margins (when there isn’t a random peasant’s head there instead).

London, British Library MS Add. 32246; fol. 24v.

It thus offers us a fascinating view of how medieval students in England could negotiate between Latin and their native tongue. The glosses in Add. 32246 were intended to help students cope with difficult Latin words by giving English definitions. They’re no less useful today, only now, when our collective knowledge of Latin greatly surpasses our knowledge of Old English, for the exact opposite reason: using Latin to improve our understanding of Old English. For scholars of Old English, who most often determine the shades of meaning of a word based on its usage in a very small corpus, the glossaries provide priceless linguistic information.

London, British Library MS Add. 32246; fol. 2v.

This particular folio contains a list of farming tools, as indicated by the majuscule heading in the top left corner: “DE INSTRVM(EN)TIS AGRICOLARV(M).” The format is simple with a period separating the Latin word on the left from its English equivalent. On the next line, we can see that Dentale (a plowshare’s beam) is cipp and Fimus (manure) is dung. At times two Latin synonyms are provided for one English word, or vice-versa. Thus, on the fourth line in the left margin Aculeus (spur) is translated as stiels. ł (an abbreviation for vel, “or”) gadisen. While the glosses aren’t directly related to the text, which at this point treats “the relationship of letters” (DE AFFINITATE LITTERARUM) and “consonants” (DE CONSONANTIBUS), it reflects a preoccupation similar to Ælfric’s, i.e. combining Latin grammar and English vocabulary aids .

At the top of folio 5r, we find another set of glosses written in a different hand. These glosses, sorted by letter (this page features “B”) but not in alphabetical order, define exceedingly obscure Latin words through more common ones.

London, British Library MS Add. 32246, fol. 5r.

Thus, at the top we see Boeties i. greci (“Boeotians, i.e., Greeks”), and on the line below, a Balano i. herba fullonu(m) qua uestis purgatus (“Balano, i.e., a fullonum herb that cleans clothes”). On the right margin, our other scribe has continued his Latin-English glossary of agricultural terms, now imitating the alphabetical order of the Latin-Latin list.

Garrett Jansen
University of Notre Dame