Guy of Warwick the Anglo-Norman Guthlac?

Prior to the twentieth century, Guy of Warwick ranked among the most popular heroes of the Anglophone world, even being placed at one point among the Nine Worthies. And it is not hard to imagine why, as there is something for everyone in his story, for he is shown to be a great warrior and a dragon-slayer who later becomes a pilgrim and, eventually, a hermit.

Guy of Warwick as a Knight. Introductory illustration to a copy of Le Rommant de Guy de Warwik et de Herolt d’Ardenne (an abridged continental French prose version). London, British Library, MS Royal 15. E. VI, ff. 227r-272r (15th Century)
Guy of Warwick Slays the Dragon, Saving the Lion. The Taymouth Hours, London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 13, f. 14r (c. 1331)

The narrative was first written in Anglo-Norman shortly before 1204 A.D. (Weiss, “Gui de Warewic” 7). Attesting to the lengthy story’s success, nine manuscripts and seven fragments survive in Anglo-Norman. The earliest complete copy that we have in Middle English can be found in the Auchinleck Manuscript, Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates 19.2.1, dated to c. 1330-1340. Two other, much later versions exist in Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College, MS 107/176 (c. 1470s) and Cambridge, University Library, MS Ff.2.38 (c. 1479-1484) (Wiggins, “The Manuscripts and Texts” 64). And there are an additional two sets of fragments in Middle English. One thing interesting about the layout of the text in the Auchinleck Manuscript is that it is separated into a sort of trilogy, consisting of what is known as the couplet Guy of Warwick, covering Guy’s early exploits (ff. 108r-146v), the stanzaic Guy of Warwick, recounting his later life events (ff. 146v-167r), and Reinbroun, which deals with the feats of Guy’s son (ff. 167r-175v). The Auchinleck Manuscript also includes a text called the Speculum Gy de Warewyke, a homiletic treatise that uses Guy’s narrative as a frame to discuss the sins and the importance of contrition and penance.

The entire Auchinleck Manuscript, as well as a treasure trove of information, is available online here: https://auchinleck.nls.uk/.

Guy’s cultural importance extended beyond England and France and also into the early modern period. A now lost Middle English version likely served as the basis for the fifteenth-century Irish Beathadh Sir Gyi o Bharbhuic, copied in Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 1298B, pp. 300-347. What is most remarkable about this version is that it incorporates material from the Speculum. It is furthermore no secret, for example, that Edmund Spenser’s Guyon from Book II of The Faerie Queene is modeled on Guy of Warwick, and we can also see reflections of Guy in the Redcrosse Knight of Book I (Cooper, “Romance after 1400” 718-719 and The English Romance in Time 92-99). In fact, as Helen Cooper demonstrates, the popularity of the Guy narrative continued unabated up through the Victorian era (“Romance after 1400” 704-706).

For more on the later life of the Guy of Warwick legend, see Dr. Siân Echard’s page: http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/sechard/GUY.HTM.

So what, you might be asking, is this blockbuster story all about? Well, the narrative tells of Guy, a steward’s son, who falls in love with Felice, the Earl of Warwick’s daughter, and is compelled to climb the social ladder through heroic acts in order to prove himself. Guy has many battles and adventures on the Continent, winning fame and admiration abroad. While in Constantinople, he rescues a lion from a dragon. He also makes a bosom companion in the person of Terri of Worms. On his way back to England, Guy slays the villainous Otun, Duke of Pavia, but he also gets caught up in a confrontation in which he rashly kills the son of Count Florentine. Before returning home to Warwick, Guy helps King Athelstan by slaying a dragon that is ravaging Northumberland. He then marries Felice and fathers a child, Reinbroun. The trajectory is not unlike other romans d’aventure. But once he has fulfilled all of his desires, Guy is suddenly overcome by deep inner turmoil while gazing at the stars one evening, realizing that, as yet, God has had no place in his life. With this, he vows to dedicate himself to holy pursuits and become a pilgrim, expiating by means of his body, as he says, those sins committed by his body, namely the lives of others destroyed and lost through his reckless longing for glory. Upon departing, he gives Felice his sword, and Felice, in turn, gives him a ring to remember her by. (They halve the ring in later versions.) Their parting is a tearful one. In his subsequent travels, Guy, always incognito, makes his way to the Holy Land, aiding and rescuing others, Christian and “Saracen” alike, in many martial exploits. He assists the Saracen King Triamour by vanquishing the giant Amoraunt and, in the process, helps the Christian Earl Jonas and his sons. He also eventually saves his friend Terri by defeating Berard, the likewise treacherous nephew of Otun. Though comparatively little space is given to Felice, she devotes herself to serving her community in Warwickshire through charitable deeds. When Guy makes his final return to England, he aids King Athelstan again, this time preventing a Danish invasion by defeating the giant Colbrond and thus becoming the savior of England. However, he retreats unnoticed to the woods outside of his estate in Warwick. Guy’s desire is to receive religious instruction from another hermit and to live out the rest of his days in contemplation. Guy eventually learns from the Archangel Michael that he has a week left to live (he will die on the eighth day), and so he sends word to Felice as well as his ring (or half-ring) for identification purposes. She comes to him on the point of death, and his soul is soon borne to Heaven by angels. A sweet fragrance issues forth from his body, which (in all versions of the text) is said to be so heavy that it cannot be removed from his hermitage. Felice herself dies soon afterwards. The two are buried together in the hermitage (at least at first) and are said to be reunited in Heaven. The narrative thus shifts from being something like a chanson de geste to something much more hagiographical.

The two halves of Guy’s life are clearly displayed in the Rous Roll, which depicts and gives a brief history of each significant family member (historically real or otherwise) of the Beauchamp Earls of Warwick.

Guy of Warwick in the Rous Roll. Pictured from left to right are Felice’s father, Felice and her son Reinbroun, Guy of Warwick as a knight with the lion, then Guy of Warwick as penitent pilgrim and vanquisher of Colbrond, then the adult Reinbroun. London, British Library, MS Additional 48976, f. 3ar (c. 1483)

Guy’s later life is also the likely subject of two misericords in English cathedrals.

Misericord Showing Guy Fighting Colbrond (S03) (c. 1350-1360), Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester, England
Misericord with Felice Giving Alms to the Hermit Guy (SH-16) (c. 1330s), Wells Cathedral, Wells, England

A number of literary antecedents to the figure of Guy have been posited. Many scholars, like Judith Weiss, point to the twelfth-century Le Moniage Guillaume (part of the William of Orange cycle) whose main character, Guillaume d’Orange (otherwise known as Guillaume au Court Nez), is a warrior who battles “Saracens” and later becomes a monk and then hermit, fearful for the state of his soul after having killed so many people (“The Exploitation” 44-46). As Angus Kennedy points out, it is also not uncommon in Arthurian romances, for example, for hermit-saints to have previously been members of the chivalric class (72). Both verse and prose French romances alike show a host of knights who choose to retreat from the world and end their days as hermits: the protagonist of Escanor; Perceval in Manessier’s Continuation and in the Queste del Saint Graal; at least thirteen knights in the Perlesvaus; Mordrain and Nascien, King Urien, Girflet, Bors and Hector, and even Lancelot in the Vulgate Cycle; Guiron and his ancestors in Palamède; and Pergamon in Perceforest (74-75). References to aristocratic hermits exist in many other texts, particularly Arthurian, but these hermits, as they are presented, are not entirely separated from the world. In fact, they very often still play a role in their societies (think of all of the other hermits in the Queste del Saint Graal) (77-78).

To my mind, however, there is an as yet unnoticed parallel with the late-eighth-century Old English lives of St. Guthlac in that invaluable repository of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the Exeter Book (Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501). (For some images, go here. The lives are based, at least in part, on the Latin Vita sancti Guthlaci (between 730 and 749 A.D.) written by a man named Felix, likely a monk, about whom next to nothing is known. Guthlac, though, was born around 673 A.D. into a royal Mercian family and had a military career before becoming a monk at Repton Abbey and then two years later a hermit in the Lincolnshire fens at what is now Crowland (Croyland in the Middle Ages). He died there in 714, and a shrine was erected to commemorate him. Around this eventually grew Crowland Abbey and around this the town (Bradley 248-249).

Crowland Abbey, Lincolnshire
Quatrefoil Portraying Scenes from St. Guthlac’s Life, Crowland Abbey, Lincolnshire

In the Exeter Book’s Guthlac A (ff. 32v-44v), the saint is said to be attacked by demons who try to tempt him into abandoning his hermitage by making him feel guilty for leaving his family. They also seek to make him feel lonely, to crave human company. Guthlac ultimately resists, but we have here the same tensions that we see exhibited in later works like the legend of St. Alexis and Guy’s narrative. The events that are most reminiscent of Guy’s story, however, are those found in Guthlac B (ff. 44v-52v). Guthlac has a servant who attends to him, much as Guy the hermit does as well, and it is to this person that Guthlac makes a prediction, told to him by an angel, that he has eight days left to live (ll. 1034b-1038a). Shortly before his death, Guthlac has the servant boy prepare to seek out his most cherished virgin sister, “wuldres wynmaeg,” to tell her that he has kept apart from her for so long so that he could attain an eternal life, free from imperfections, with her in Heaven (l. 1345a; ll. 1175a-1196a). Guthlac dies before his sister, who is to bury him in his hermitage, comes; sweet odor issues forth (ll. 1271b-1273a); and his soul is borne to Heaven by angels (ll. 1305a-1306a). We see the same knowledge of impending death delivered by an angelic presence in Gui de Warewic and later versions, many of the very same details regarding Guy’s death, and the sister’s role is easily replaced by the wife’s—which also acts to make familial tensions that much greater. So then, is Guy meant to be a saint? That, dear reader, is a question for another post…or a book.

Hannah Zdansky, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

Bibliography (Cited and/or Suggested):

N.B. This list is not exhaustive.

Primary Sources (with introductions, notes, and commentary) 

Boeve de Haumtone and Gui de Warewic: Two Anglo-Norman Romances. Trans. Judith Weiss. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2008. 97-243.

Cambridge University Library MS Ff.2.38. Ed. Frances McSparran and P. R. Robinson. London: Scolar Press, 1979.

Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac. Ed. and Trans. Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956.

Gui de Warewic: Roman du XIIIe Siècle. Ed. Alfred Ewert. 2 vols. Paris: Champion, 1932-1933.

“Guthlac A.” Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Trans. S. A. J. Bradley. London: Everyman, 1982. 248-268.

“Guthlac A.” The Exeter Book. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. vol 3. Ed. George Philip Krapp and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936. 49-72.

“Guthlac B.” Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Trans. S. A. J. Bradley. London: Everyman, 1982. 269-283.

“Guthlac B.” The Exeter Book. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. vol 3. Ed. George Philip Krapp and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936. 72-88. 

Speculum Gy de Warewyke. Ed. Georgiana Lea Morrill. Early English Text Society. e.s. vol. 75. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1898.

Stanzaic Guy of Warwick. Ed. Alison Wiggins. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2004. 

The Auchinleck Manuscript: National Library of Scotland Advocates’ MS. 19.2.1. Ed. Derek Pearsall and I. C. Cunningham. London: Scolar Press, 1977. 

The Guthlac Poems of the Exeter Book. Ed. Jane Roberts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

“The Irish Lives of Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton.” Ed. and Trans. F. N. Robinson. Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie 6 (1908): 9-338.

The Romance of Guy of Warwick. Edited from the Auchinleck MS. in the Advocates’ Library, Edinburgh, and from MS. 107 in Caius College, Cambridge. Ed. Julius Zupitza. Early English Text Society. e.s. vols. 42, 49, 59. London: N. Trübner & Co., 1883, 1887, 1891.

The Romance of Guy of Warwick. The Second or 15th-Century Version. Edited from the Paper MS. Ff.2.38 in the University Library, Cambridge. Ed. Julius Zupitza. Early English Text Society. e.s. vols. 25-26. London: N. Trübner & Co., 1875-1876.

Secondary Sources

Ailes, Marianne. “Gui de Warewic in Its Manuscript Context.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 12-26.

Byrne, Aisling. “The Circulation of Romances from England in Late-Medieval Ireland.” Medieval Romance and Material Culture. Ed. Nicholas Perkins. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2015. 183-198.

Cannon, Christopher. “Chaucer and the Auchinleck Manuscript Revisited.” The Chaucer Review 46 (2011): 131-146.

Cooper, Helen. “Guy as Early Modern English Hero.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 185-200.

Cooper, Helen. “Romance after 1400.” The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature.  Ed. David Wallace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 690-719.

Cooper, Helen. The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Crane, Ronald S. “The Vogue of Guy of Warwick from the Close of the Middle Ages to the Romantic Revival.” PMLA 30 (1915): 125-194.

Crane, Susan. “Anglo-Norman Romances of English Heroes: ‘Ancestral Romance’?” Romance Philology 35 (1981-1982): 601-608.

Crane, Susan. “Guy of Warwick and the Question of Exemplary Romance.” Genre 17 (1984): 351-374.

Crane, Susan. Insular Romance: Politics, Faith, and Culture in Anglo-Norman and Middle English Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Djordjević, Ivana. “Guy of Warwick as a Translation.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 27-43.

Djordjević, Ivana. “Nation and Translation: Guy of Warwick between Languages.” Nottingham Medieval Studies 57 (2013): 111-144.

Dyas, Dee. Pilgrimage in Medieval English Literature, 700-1500. Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001.

Echard, Siân. “Of Dragons and Saracens: Guy and Bevis in Early Print Illustration.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 154-168.

Edwards, A. S. G. “The Speculum Guy de Warwick and Lydgate’s Guy of Warwick: The Non-Romance Middle English Tradition.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 81-93.

Fellows, Jennifer. “Printed Romance in the Sixteenth Century.” A Companion to Medieval Popular Romance. Ed. Raluca L. Radulescu and Cory James Rushton. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2009. 67-78.

Field, Rosalind. “From Gui to Guy: The Fashioning of a Popular Romance.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 44-60.

Frankis, John. “Taste and Patronage in Late Medieval England as Reflected in Versions of Guy of Warwick.” Medium Aevum 66 (1997): 80-93.

Gordon, Sarah. “Translation and Cultural Transformation of a Hero: The Anglo-Norman and Middle English Romances of Guy of Warwick.” The Medieval Translator. Traduire au Moyen Âge. Ed. Jacqueline Jenkins and Olivier Bertrand. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. 319-331.

Gos, Giselle. “New Perspectives on the Reception and Revision of Guy of Warwick in the Fifteenth Century.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 113 (2014): 156-183.

Griffith, David. “The Visual History of Guy of Warwick.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 110-132.

Hanna, Ralph, III. “Reconsidering the Auchinleck Manuscript.” New Directions in Later Medieval Manuscript Studies: Essays from the 1998 Harvard Conference. Ed. Derek Pearsall. York: York Medieval Press, 2000. 91-102.

Hopkins, Andrea. The Sinful Knights: A Study of Middle English Penitential Romance. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Kennedy, Angus J. “The Portrayal of the Hermit-Saint in French Arthurian Romance: The Remoulding of a Stock-Character.” An Arthurian Tapestry: Essays in Memory of Lewis Thorpe. Ed. Kenneth Varty. Glasgow: French Department of the University of Glasgow, 1981. 69-82.

King, Andrew. “Guy of Warwick and The Faerie Queene, Book II: Chivalry through the Ages.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 169-184.

Klausner, David N. “Didacticism and Drama in Guy of Warwick.” Medievalia et Humanistica 6 (1975): 103-119.

Legge, Mary Dominica. Anglo-Norman Literature and Its Background. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.

Matthews, David. “Whatever Happened to Your Heroes? Guy and Bevis after the Middle Ages.” The Making of the Middle Ages. Ed. Marios Costambeys. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007. 54-70.

Merisalo, Outi. “La fortune de Gui de Warewic à la fin du Moyen Âge (XVe siècle).” Le Moyen Âge par le Moyen Âge, même: réception, relectures et réécritures des textes médiévaux dans la littérature française des XIVe et XVe siècles. Ed. Laurent Brun and Silvère Menegaldo et al. Paris: Champion, 2012. 239-253.

Mills, Maldwyn. “Structure and Meaning in Guy of Warwick.” From Medieval to Medievalism. Ed. John Simons. London: Macmillan, 1992. 54-68.

Mills, Maldwyn. “Techniques of Translation in the Middle English Versions of Guy of Warwick.” The Medieval Translator II. Ed. Roger Ellis. London: Centre for Medieval Studies, University of London, 1991. 209-229.

Poppe, Erich. “Narrative Structure of Medieval Irish Adaptations: The Case of Guy and Beves.” Medieval Celtic Literature and Society. Ed. Helen Fulton. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005. 205-229.

Price, Paul. “Confessions of a Godless Killer: Guy of Warwick and Comprehensive Entertainment.” Medieval Insular Romance: Translation and Innovation. Ed. Judith Weiss, Jennifer Fellows, and Morgan Dickson. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000. 93-110.

Richmond, Velma Bourgeois. The Legend of Guy of Warwick. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996.

Rouse, Robert Allen. “An Exemplary Life: Guy of Warwick as Medieval Culture-Hero.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 94-109.

Shonk, Timothy A. “A Study of the Auchinleck Manuscript: Bookmen and Bookmaking in the Early Fourteenth Century.” Speculum 60 (1985): 71-91.

Shonk, Timothy A. “The Scribe as Editor: The Primary Scribe of the Auchinleck Manuscript.” Manuscripta 27 (1983): 19-20.

Spahn, Renata. Narrative Strukturen im Guy of Warwick: Zur Frage der Überlieferung einer mittelenglischen Romanze. Tübingen: G. Narr, 1991.

Quin, Gordon. Introduction. Stair Ercuil ocus a Bás. The Life and Death of Hercules. Ed. and Trans. Gordon Quin. Dublin: Irish Texts Society, 1939. xiii-xl.

Weiss, Judith. “Gui de Warewic at Home and Abroad: A Hero for Europe.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 1-11.

Weiss, Judith. “The Exploitation of Ideas of Pilgrimage and Sainthood in Gui de Warewic.” The Exploitations of Medieval Romance. Ed. Laura Ashe, Ivana Djordjević, and Judith Weiss. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2010. 43-56.

Wiggins, Alison. “A Makeover Story: The Caius Manuscript Copy of Guy of Warwick.” Studies in Philology 104 (2007): 471-500.

Wiggins, Alison. “Are Auchinleck Manuscript Scribes 1 and 6 the Same Scribe? The Advantages of Whole-Data Analysis and Electronic Texts.” Medium Aevum 73 (2004): 10-26.

Wiggins, Alison. “Guy of Warwick in Warwick?: Reconsidering the Dialect Evidence.” English Studies 84 (2003): 219-230.

Wiggins, Alison. “Imagining the Compiler: Guy of Warwick and the Compilation of the Auchinleck Manuscript.” Imagining the Book. Ed. Stephen Kelly and John J. Thompson. Turnhout: Brepols, 2005.

Wiggins, Alison. “The Manuscripts and Texts of the Middle English Guy of Warwick.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 61-80.

Zupitza, Julius. “Zur Literaturgeschichte des Guy von Warwick.” Sitzungesberichte der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Classe. vol. 74. no. 1. Vienna: Karl Gerold’s Sohn, 1873. 623-668.

“Of hiest God, Asneth, blessed thu be”: Female Readers and The Storie of Asneth

Many readers may not be familiar with the figure of Asenath, though she made her debut for modern audiences in DreamWorks Animation’s film Joseph: King of Dreams (released in 2000 as the prequel to The Prince of Egypt (1998)).

Image Source: DreamWorks Animation Wiki

She is mentioned just three times in the Book of Genesis as the “daughter of Potiphera, priest of On” whom Pharaoh gave to Joseph as a wife (41:45). Before the seven years of famine came to Egypt, as predicted by Joseph, she bore two sons (41:50) who are named Manasseh and Ephraim (46:20). Asenath is thus remembered as occupying an important place in the genealogy of Israel.

Jacob’s Blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 48:8-20). Pictured also are Asenath and Joseph. Vienna, Nationalbibliothek, MS Theol. gr. 31, f. 23r (6th Century A.D.)

Despite scant mention of her in the biblical text, however, she had quite a life outside of it. Judaic commentators were driven to explain how Jacob’s lineage could rightfully be passed through a non-Hebrew woman, and the first attempt made was among the Jewish Diaspora in Egypt, probably in Alexandria, around the time of Trajan’s rule (98-117 A.D.) (Burchard 104). Written in Greek, some scholars have placed the text among the Pseudepigrapha (though the work does not purport to have been written by anyone in particular); while others view it as an example of Midrashic tradition (Dwyer 118); and still others consider it to be a Hellenistic romance (Pervo 175; Heiserman 184-186). From the multi-cultural hub of Alexandria, the text passed through Christian hands into a myriad of Near-Eastern and European languages (Peck 2). It was quickly subsumed into Byzantine hagiography (Dwyer 118). And in the twelfth century, it was translated twice into Latin, once possibly at Canterbury, and it was this version that became the basis of a Middle English translation (Reid, “Female Initiation” 138).

The Storie of Asneth was translated into Middle English sometime during the first half of the fifteenth century in a West Midlands dialect (Peck 3). The only surviving copy we have of the text, though, is preserved in Huntington Library, MS Ellesmere 26. A. 13., copied sometime around 1450 or 1460 (Peck 9). The text can be found on ff. 116r-127r.

The Beginning of The Storie of Asneth. El 26 A 13, Egerton Family Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California, f. 116r

The manuscript can be divided into three parts. The first (ff. i r-v v) is in the hand of John Shirley (c. 1366-1456), book dealer and scribe famous for his copies of Chaucer, Lydgate, Hoccleve, and Trevisa. His section contains some devotional verse and poetry by Lydgate, a few lines of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde with some additions from Petrarch, and some lines from John Walton’s translation of Boethius’s De consolatione Philosophiae. The second part (ff. 1r-115v) of the manuscript is in a different hand and includes a few more short poems by Lydgate but mainly consists of Hoccleve’s Regement of Princes. The third part is taken up by The Storie of Asneth, written in yet another hand (Hume 55). By all accounts, the manuscript appears to be a composite, but just when the three parts were bound together is difficult to ascertain.

The entire digitized manuscript may be viewed here.

For more information, see the Digital Scriptorium Catalog Entry.

What is most interesting is that on the verso side of f. v, Shirley fashioned a bookplate that displays the names of sisters Margaret and Beatrice Lynne as well as his own. Shirley married Margaret at some point between 1421 and 1441, so it has been posited that he gave the first section of the manuscript to the sisters as a gift (Peck 2-3). In the second part of the manuscript, there is also a reference (f. 115r) to “Aluredo Corneburgh de Camera Regis,” written, it would appear, in Shirley’s hand. Avery Cornburgh was a Yeoman of the Chamber to King Edward IV and was wed to Beatrice sometime between 1459 and 1467, likely bringing into this arrangement section two of the manuscript. Shirley and Cornburgh seem to have known one another and eventually joined themselves to the same family. It makes commensurate sense, then, that the first two parts were bound together, and it is quite possible that at this time, the third section was added, though this cannot be verified (Hume 55-56).

Huntington Library, MS Ellesmere 26. A. 13. has, then, a strong connection to two literate, book-owning women, and in fact, another name appears in the margins (f. iii v)—“Elizabeth Gaynesford,” a friend of Beatrice. Thus, the book may even have circulated among a close-knit group of female readers. The circumstances surrounding the production of the Middle English Storie of Asneth are no less interesting. In her article “Patroness of Orthodoxy: Elizabeth Berkeley, John Walton, and the Middle English Storie of Asneth, a West Midlands Devotional Text,” Heather Reid has mounted considerable evidence that points to Elizabeth Beauchamp (née Berkeley), Countess of Warwick (1386-1422) as patroness of the Middle English text, having engaged her cleric, John Walton, an Augustinian canon at Osney Abbey, as translator. We can observe a decidedly female interest in vernacular translation of this text on the other side of the Channel as well. Vincent of Beauvais included an abbreviated version of Asenath’s story in his Speculum historiale (1253), and in 1332, Jeanne de Bourgogne, wife of Philippe VI de Valois (r. 1328-1350), commissioned Jean de Vignay to translate this text into French, producing the Miroir historial (Lusignan 497-498). So what made the account of Asenath so attractive to female readers?

First of all, the narrative tells how Asenath comes to love Joseph. Born the beautiful daughter of the priest of Heliopolis, a powerful position, she is haughty and refuses all suitors. When asked by her parents if she would marry Joseph, Pharaoh’s right-hand man, who will just so happen to be paying them a visit, she balks at the idea. But when she watches him approach from her tower, she begins to feel the pangs of lovesickness. To add to the intrigue, though, Joseph spurns her, rejecting any woman who does not worship his God. Asenath is distraught and locks herself in her room, fasting and donning the sackcloth and ashes of repentance amidst her wails of lamentation. Eventually, she throws the household idols and all religious paraphernalia out the window. And after a significant period of such penance, she stands one night at her window and prays to the Hebrew God, converting, as it were, to Judaism. She is then graced with a mystical experience as a beautiful man appears to come down from Heaven, “a prince of Godis hous, and of Hys hevenly ost” (l. 420). He tells her to clean herself and change her clothes, for she will marry Joseph. Dressed afresh, Asenath demonstrates her hospitality by offering to get him some bread and wine from the cellar. He asks instead that she bring him a honeycomb, and she is upset because she knows there is none. He tells her to go check nonetheless, and lo, a honeycomb is present. Together, they share the honeycomb, about which she is told that

[…] blessed be thei that come to God in holy penance,
For thei schul ete of this comb, that bees made of Paradise,
Of the dew of rosis there, that are of gret plesance.
The angelis of God schul ete also this comb of prise,
And who that eteth of the same schal never dye in no wise. (ll. 545-549)

As soon as the “man com doun fro hevene” (l. 415) departs, Joseph returns to the house. He has received knowledge in a dream that Asenath is to be his wife, and the very next day Pharaoh marries them. We are then told: “And after Joseph knewe his wyf and sche conceived sone, / And bar Manasses and Effraim – this was here procreacion” (ll. 682-683). The remainder of the story deals with a threat upon Joseph’s life and a dramatic combat.

The full text is available here.

Asenath’s Meeting with Joseph; Asenath Locked in Her Tower; Asenath Throwing Out the Idols. Tempera on oak panel, c. 1500. Part of a series of six tondos portraying the life of Joseph. Repository: Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The text reads like a romance—ever a much-loved genre—but it is also biblically based and hagiographical in tenor. The Storie of Asneth shares similarities with accounts of heroic Old Testament women, like those found in the books of Ruth, Esther, Tobit, and Judith (West 76). And as Susan Bell notes, “Throughout the Middle Ages, following the teachings of the early Christian fathers, women were exhorted to model themselves on biblical heroines” (158). In one sense, the text could have been conceived of as an exemplum, demonstrating the “ethical virtues” of “self-discipline, penitence, humility” (Kee, “The Socio-Religious Setting” 185). Such a didactic yet romantically appealing narrative could have served well for instruction within a household (Peck 4-5). In the first section of her article “The Storie of Asneth: A Fifteenth-Century Commission and the Mystery of Its Epilogue,” Cathy Hume also demonstrates that the Middle English Storie of Asneth reflects fifteenth-century trends in hagiography and textual consumption, particularly by women, and she argues that what made the text so well received is that it presents an exemplary account of pious married life. The text shows that women can be religious and married, not forced to choose between the two, something that we know real women struggled with, like Margery Kempe. This makes figures like Asenath more imitable, a subject upon which Catherine Sanok has also had much to say. In an earlier article (“Female Initiation Rites and Women Visionaries: Mystical Marriage in the Middle English Translation of The Storie of Asneth”), Heather Reid discusses the text also in relation to accounts of women visionaries and writes a great deal about Asenath with respect to sacred marriage, chastity, and mysticism—all important topics also for this time period, as Dyan Elliott likewise attests. However, Asenath’s actual marriage to Joseph is also quite intriguing.

Asenath is an admirable young woman but so too is her relationship with Joseph, though little has been said about the spirituality of her human marriage. However, for the majority of the female lay readership of Asenath’s story, this would have been the subject of more immediacy. When Joseph comes to see Asenath after her conversion—both having received a vision from God—he “[…] streihte out his hand, and loveli gan her brace. / Thei kiste then bothe in same with cuntenance excellent” (ll. 621-622). Asenath welcomes him, as she did before, yet this time she moves to wash his feet, a gesture reminiscent of Christ towards his disciples. She tells Joseph, “I schal hem wasshe […] / Thi feet ar myn owne feet, thi handdis also with alle, / And thi soule ys my soule: thu are thn myn owen fere” (ll. 627, 630-631). While she exhibits humility towards Joseph by washing his feet, she also declares their relationship to be reciprocal: he is hers as much as she is now his. For all intents and purposes, she describes the two of them to be the biblical “duo in carne una” (Mark 10:8). This paints a rather encouraging picture of human love and marriage; indeed, it is the prelapsarian ideal in its parity. For a fifteenth-century female audience engaging with this text, this is not only enlightening and inspirational; it is also empowering. The union Asenath is establishing with Joseph is Edenic in quality, and this is something for which Joseph also seems to strive. Both are represented as exceptional human beings who achieve an extraordinary relationship, and their union is one in which God is the center. In fact, their marriage is brought about through God, once Asenath—who possesses a noteworthy degree of control over her own destiny—decides to dedicate herself to “the heyhe Lord God of Joseph, almyhti in His throne” (l. 349). And the bond produced from such a relationship is one of equal affection and regard, of selflessness and charity. The presentation of marriage in The Storie of Asneth is one in which both parties are able to honor God through their relationship with one another, a union not only approved of, but promoted by God—something that would have resonated well.

On so many counts, The Storie of Asneth would have been a captivating text for a fifteenth-century female readership. Women were in no way ignorant of the fact that they endured the insidious yoke of patriarchy in both temporal and spiritual spheres, even though Judeo-Christian theology is very clear that women’s souls are equal. It is no surprise, for instance, that Catherine of Alexandria was such a popular saint, as discussed in a blog post by Mary Helen Galluch. Asenath is less radical than Catherine, though, in her devotion. And she weds and continues the family line, marrying, as it were, piety and the lay life—much as many medieval women did.

The Birth of Ephraim. Pictured from left to right are Joseph’s attendant, Joseph, Manasseh, a midwife presenting the infant Ephraim, and Asenath. Mosaic (narthex, bay 8, dome), c. 1200-1299. Venice, Basilica di San Marco

But her example lends a dignity to the lay life, and there are a number of parallels between Asenath’s actions in the text and those of the righteous woman of Proverbs 31. While on the one hand, Asenath remains circumscribed by patriarchal society (as the woman of Proverbs 31 is also) and can be seen as something of a safe, contained model; on the other hand, her claim to be Joseph’s peer in marriage and her exemplary conduct as a human being (regardless of gendered expectations) bring her far above the level of vessel and drudge. She is not a beautiful but passive romance heroine, for she energetically shows physical charm to be of far less importance than virtuous actions and that “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30).

Hannah Zdansky, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

Bibliography (Cited and/or Suggested):

Primary Sources

“The Storie of Asneth.” Heroic Women from the Old Testament in Middle English Verse. Ed. Russell A. Peck. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1991. 1-23.

Secondary Sources

Bell, Susan Groag. “Medieval Women Book Owners: Arbiters of Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture.” Women and Power in the Middle Ages. Ed. Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988. 149-187.

Burchard, Christoph. “The Importance of Joseph and Aseneth for the Study of the New Testament: A General Survey and a Fresh Look at the Lord’s Supper.” New Testament Studies 33 (1987): 102-134.

Douglas, Rees Conrad. “Liminality and Conversion in Joseph and Aseneth.” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 3 (1988): 31-42.

Dwyer, R. A. “Asenath of Egypt in Middle English.” Medium Aevum 39 (1970): 118-122.

Elliott, Dyan. Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Hartman, Geoffrey. “Midrash as Law and Literature.” The Geoffrey Hartman Reader. New York: Fordham University Press, 2004. 205-222.

Heiserman, Arthur R. The Novel before the Novel: Essays and Discussions about the Beginnings of Prose Fiction in the West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Hume, Cathy. “The Storie of Asneth: A Fifteenth-Century Commission and the Mystery of Its Epilogue.” Medium Aevum 82 (2013): 44-65.

Kee, Howard C. “The Socio-Cultural Setting of Joseph and Aseneth.” New Testament Studies 29 (1983): 394-413.

Kee, Howard C. “The Socio-Religious Setting and Aims of ‘Joseph and Asenath.’” Society of Biblical Literature 1976 Seminar Papers. Ed. George MacRae. Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976. 183-192.

Kraemer, Ross Shepard When Aseneth Met Joseph: A Late Antique Tale of the Biblical Patriarch and His Egyptian Wife, Reconsidered. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Lipsett, B. Diane. “Aseneth and the Sublime Turn.” Desiring Conversion: Hermas, Thecla, Aseneth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 86-122.

Liptzin, Sol. “Lady Asenath.” Biblical Themes in World Literature. Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1985. 62-73.

Lusignan, Serge. « Le temps de l’homme au temps de monseigneur saint Louis : le Speculum historiale et les Grandes Chroniques de France ». Vincent de Beauvais : Intentions et réceptions d’une œuvre encyclopédique au Moyen-Âge. Ville Saint-Laurent, Québec : Les Éditions Bellarmin, 1990. 495-505.

Nisse, Ruth. “‘Your Name Will No Longer Be Aseneth’: Apocrypha, Anti-Martyrdom, and Jewish Conversion in Thirteenth-Century England.” Speculum 81 (2006): 734-753.

Peck, Russell A. Introduction. “The Storie of Asneth.” Heroic Women from the Old Testament in Middle English Verse. Ed. Russell A. Peck. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1991. 1-15.

Pervo, Richard I. “Joseph and Asenath and the Greek Novel.” Society of Biblical Literature 1976 Seminar Papers. Ed. George MacRae. Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976. 171-181.

Reid, Heather A. “Female Initiation Rites and Women Visionaries: Mystical Marriage in the Middle English Translation of The Storie of Asneth.” Women and the Divine in Literature before 1700: Essays in Memory of Margot Louis. Ed. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton. Victoria, British Columbia: ELS Editions, 2009. 137-152.

Reid, Heather A. “Patroness of Orthodoxy: Elizabeth Berkeley, John Walton, and the Middle English Storie of Asneth, a West Midlands Devotional Text.” Devotional Culture in Late Medieval England and Europe: Diverse Imaginations of Christ’s Life. Ed. Stephen Kelly and Ryan Perry. Turnhout: Brepols, 2014. 405-441.

Sanok, Catherine. Her Life Historical: Exemplarity and Female Saints’ Lives in Late Medieval England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Vikan, Gary. “Illustrated Manuscripts of the Romance of Joseph and Aseneth.” Society of Biblical Literature 1976 Seminar Papers. Ed. George MacRae. Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976. 193-208.

West, S. “Joseph and Asenath: A Neglected Greek Romance.” The Classical Quarterly 24 (1974): 70-81.

 

Reading Sir Gawain in the Digital Age

The advent of e-books has prompted discussion about the experience of reading and its relationship to a material text. Opponents of digital books speak fondly of holding a book in hand, the ability to feel the weight of the object and physically see yourself progress through the text. There is a sense of something lost when this object changes form, when paper becomes plastic, when clicking replaces page-turning, when your sense of place in the text is measured by percentage rather than pages.

Illumination from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x, f. 90v

Of course, changes in the way in which we materially experience reading have been going on far longer than the recent shift to digital media. The book versions of older texts are in many ways even more distant from their original form than digital books are to their print ancestors.

While some these changes are  obvious to the readers—the illuminations, the particular handwriting, the spacing of the text on the page—editors of print editions also make choices that are less apparent. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight provides an interesting example of how much print can transform a medieval manuscript, as seen in the editors alterations of the bob and wheel form. In this form, the stanza ends with two short lines (the bob) followed by four rhyming lines (the wheel):

 

The editors follow this form exactly, but as Kathryn Kerby-Fulton notes in Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts, the placement of the bob is not as regular in Gawain as modern editions would lead us to believe. Instead, the bob is written in the margin, often not directly before the wheel. Compare the following:

Modern Edition (eds. Andrew and Waldron)

Bot he defended hym so fayr þat no faut semed,
Ne non euel on nawþer þay wysten
Bot blysse.
Þay laʒed and layked longe;
At þe last scho con hym kysse,
Hir leue fayre con scho fonge,
And went hir waye, iwysse. (1551-1557)

Manuscript

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, lines 1521-1558. Note the placement of the bob “bot blysse” two lines above the bob. British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x, f. 111v

As Kerby-Fulton argues, this fluid placement of the bob changes our understanding of certain passages, since it can often be attached to several lines and still be grammatically correct. Andrew and Waldron translate the modern version of lines 1552-3 as “nor were they aware of anything but pleasure.” In the original text, however, the placement of the bob would render the line “But he defended him so fair that no fault seemed but pleasure.”

The placement of the bob obviously has some impact upon our understanding of the poem. But what about that illusive “reading experience”? The modern editions fundamentally change this as well. Imagine, for a minute, that you are a medieval reader. When you read the bob, do you hear it exactly where it is placed? Do you hear it where the modern editor would move it to? Or do you hear it after multiple lines? Perhaps your eye floats out to it on several occasions, placing it in multiple positions and playing with its flexible meanings. Gawain, after all, is a poem of playful language and deceit, and the poet is noted for his use of puns in Pearl.

No modern edition has been printed that maintains the manuscript’s irregular placement of the bob. The solution, then, is to turn back to the manuscript: to printed facsimiles, but also, perhaps counterintuitively, to digital scans of the original pages.

Jane Wageman
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Andrew, Malcolm, and Ronald Waldron. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. University of California Press, 1982.

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn, Maidie Hilmo, and Linda Olson. Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary and Visual Approaches. Cornell University Press, 2007.