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Meditation on Christ's Passion (MS Pepys 2125)

Profile author: Written by Allan F. Westphall in consultation with Dr Mayumi Taguchi and Dr Yoko Iyeiri
Revision date: Novermber 2010

Approximate Date, Sources, Provenance


Mayumi Taguchi and Dr Yoko Iyeiri are currently preparing the Meditation in Cambridge, Magdalene College MS Pepys 2125 for publication with the series Middle English Texts. I thank them both for sharing their work in progress with the Geographies of Orthodoxy research project.

At the conference Mapping Late Medieval Lives of Christ organised by the Geographies of Orthodoxy research project and hosted in the Queen’s University of Belfast June 10-13 2010, Mayumi Taguchi gave a talk entitled ‘The Pepysian Version of the Middle English Meditationes de Passione Christi’. In what follows, I endeavour to acknowledge those instances where my textual examples coincide with those presented by Taguchi in Belfast, though I may not necessarily be making the same points from these examples.

The Meditation on Christ’s Passion in Pepys 2125 is an adaptation of the Passion sequence of the pseudo-Bonaventuran Meditationes vitae Christi (MVC), starting with the meditation in general, and ending with an abbreviated passage from the Canticle of the Saints in Limbo.

All indications are that this text is a unique survival: the narrative scope which extends to the song of the fathers in limbo but omits treatment of the Last Supper and Christ’s post-Resurrection appearances is found in no other Middle English adaptation. The version in Pepys 2125 invites comparison with the Middle English Meditationes de Passione Christi, the adaptation of the Passion sequence of the Meditationes vitae Christi which appears to have enjoyed rather wide circulation only in England. It is, however, distinct from the Meditationes de Passione Christi as we know it in omitting treatment of the Last Supper, and in incorporating more material from the Latin on the subject of Christ’s Descent to Hell. Numerous unusual formulations and additions to the Latin found only in Pepys 2125 further suggest that this is a unique and independent adaptation of material which is derived, in all probability, from some version of the Latin Meditationes vitae Christi. Some discussion of these independent and original features will be made in the section ‘Contents’ below.

The Meditation on Christ’s Passion is a very close rendition of the Passion sequence of the Meditationes vitae Christi. It also correlates with the divisions and hourly prayers that we find in the MVC (as this has been edited by Peltier). The adaptor makes minor and sporadic omissions of material from the Latin: These pertain to some brief details of observation and reported speech, not to any of the central events of the Passion narrative.

As regards additions to the Latin source, two things stand out in the opinion of this author: Firstly, the English adaptor inserts a series of metaphorical descriptions of Mary as e.g. ‘lady of aungeles’ and ‘light of this worlde’ where such do not occur in the Latin. Secondly, and more noticeably, the adaptor inserts short conclusions and exhortations to the reader at the end of each chapter, beginning with the meditation of Terce. These instruct the reader to apply particular concentration in the discipline of religious meditation in order to produce the desired responses of compassion and pity. They echo similar instructions found throughout the Latin source to identify and visualize so as to be stirred to compassion, but in the English version they create a rounded sense of closure to each meditative section. Some examples and further discussion will be given in the section ‘Contents’.

It is the opinion of this writer that the additions found in The Meditation on Christ’s Passion when compared with the Latin Meditationes vitae Christ are mostly brief and sporadic: they constitute nothing like the lengthy additions and theological reflections of e.g. the Passion meditation in Michigan State University MS 1, or the interpolations of theology and religious polemic of Love’s Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ.

Dating: I refer to Ryan Perry’s codicological examination of Magdalene College Ms Pepys 2125 (accompanying this text profile) in which he dates the earliest portion of the manuscript towards the end of the fourteenth century, with the rest (including the Meditation on Christ’s Passion dating slightly later to the early to the mid-fifteenth century. 



The Meditation on Christ’s Passion in Pepys 2125 makes the following division of material, which replicates the same division from the Latin source Meditationes vitae Christi as edited by Peltier. It is noticeable that the first two meditations – those for the hours of Matins and Prime – retain the Latin headings, while the rest of the headings are in English.

‘Here bygynneth the meditacion of Cristes passion’

The meditation of Christ’s Passion in general.

‘Meditacio specialis & valde deuota hora Matutina’

Christ’s prayer to the father; words between the Archangel Michael and Christ; the four wills of Christ; Judas’s Betrayal; Arrest and Crossing the Cedron; Mary’s prayer to the Father.

‘Meditacio hora pryma de deuocione Ihesu ad Pilatum’

Christ before Pilate and Herod; the Scourging; Christ crowned king.

‘Meditacion in the thridde howr of cristes peyne’

Christ naked before the crowd; the road to Calvary; Christ meets Mary.

‘Meditacion of the sixte houre of the crucify3yng of owr lord Ihesu’

On Calvary; Christ naked before the crowd; Mary’s sorrow; Crucifixion (two versions); Mary and Christ pray to Father.

‘Meditacion in the howr of noon of prayer and 3eldyng vp the gost’

Christ’s words on the Cross; Christ’s final cry heard in hell; Death; Mary’s sorrow.

‘Meditacyon after noon of the openynge of the side of owr lord Ihesu’

Mary’s lament; Mary’s words to the soldiers; Longinus pierces Christ’s side; the death of Mary’s soul.

‘Meditation at euensong tyme of taking down of the body of owr lord Ihesu of the croys’

Arrival of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea; Mary, John and Joseph worship at the Cross; Deposition from the Cross.

‘Meditacion in the howr of complyn of the burynge of Ihesu’

The sorrow of Mary and Mary Magdalene; Joseph and Nicodemus wrap the body of Christ; washing Christ’s feet and face with tears; Mary’s lament to Christ; the Burial.

‘Meditacion of turning a3en to the cite of owre lady and hure companye after the buryng of owre lord’

Mary as widow; worship at the Cross; the gathering in Mount Syon; Mary laments and recollects the Passion.

‘A deuout meditacion of gaderyng of the chosen on the Satterday’

Arrival of disciples; Peter’s shame; words between Mary and disciples; John relates the deeds of Christ to Mary; preparation of ointments.

‘Meditacion of owre lord Ihesu goyng to helle after his deth’

Christ’s soul with the godhead descends to the holy fathers in Hell; Christ’s exemplary meekness; singing and rejoicing.

‘Meditacion of the song in the free prisone of helle’

the song of the souls in limbo; Christ leads the fathers to Paradise.

The Meditation on Christ’s Passion in Pepys 2125 shows correlation with the division into hours in the Latin Meditationes vitae Christi (as edited by Peltier), and thus also with the divisions in the Meditationes de Passione Christi.

Characteristic of the Pepys adaptation are a number of unusual and sometimes surprising word choices in the process of translating from the Latin into English. There seems to be, on the whole, a freshness and originality of expression which appears to sit well with Ryan Perry’s observation that many of the items in the manuscript are unique and unusual, and ‘do appear to indicate some level of institutional or individual isolation’ (Perry, manuscript description of Pepys 2125). Below are a few examples of such noteworthy word choices:

· The meditation in general instructs the reader to meditate on the details of Christ’s Passion ‘with deepness of herte… and with the ynmest partye of thy bowelys’ (fol. 28v, from the Latin ‘totis viscerum medullis’)

· The meditation for the hour of Prime starts with the words ‘Erly in the spryng of the day’ (fol. 31r, Latin ‘autem’). In the same meditation, the Jews say to Christ ‘This day shal be fulfilled thy whicchecraft’ (Latin ‘hodie complebuntur maleficia tua’). As far as this author can ascertain, the word ‘whicchecraft’ occurs in no other MVC adaptation. (Mayumi Taguchi also noted the occurrence of this term in her Belfast paper)

· Christ’s third words on the Cross are ‘to the thef, axing mercy and forthynkyng [repenting] his synne (fol. 34 r, Latin ‘ad latronem poenitentem’). The term ‘forthynkyng’ is also used by Nicholas Love in his Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, and I have been unable to find it used elsewhere in the corpus of Middle English Bonaventuriana.

Examples of additions:

‘Fro the tyme that he had mad an ende of his sermon, he 3ede in to hit, and alle his disciples with hym owttake Iudas whuche was noon of his’. (fol. 29 r) The addition ‘owttake Iudas whuche was noon of his’ is of the English adaptor’s invention: it is not in the gospels, and it is, to my knowledge, not found in the MVC or in any other of its English adaptations.

The meditation of Prime adds the detail that Christ bleeds from his nails when having his hands bound by the Jews: ‘The prynces and the maystres of that folk come a3en and made his hondes to be bownde byhynde hym so sore that the blood brast owt at euery nayl’. (fol. 31r) Again, this detail does not occur in the Latin, nor in any other Middle English adaptation of the MVC. (This addition about Christ’s bloodletting has also been noted by Mayumi Taguchi as an example of what she terms ‘affective addition’) Thomas Bestul notes the occurrence of the detail that Christ bleeds from his nails in a number of Northern European Passion treatments, and it occurs (in connection with Christ’s Arrest) in the early thirteenth-century The Wohunge of Ure Lauerd (see Thomas Bestul, ‘Chaucer's Parson 's Tale and the Late-Medieval Tradition of Religious Meditation', p. 609). I will argue later in the section ‘Affective meditation and the cultivation of virtue’ that such addition to the source reflects a tendency in the English adaptation to provide a greater degree of anatomical specificity to the narrative of the Crucifixion of Christ.

Also in Prime, the Latin ‘et Pilatus ipsum misit ad Herodem’ becomes ‘and Pylat hym apposith [questions] but Pylat wytyng hym of Galilee sente hym to Herod that was at Ierusalem in tho dayes’. (fol. 31v) Uniquely, the English here notes the questioning of Christ and adds the locations of Galilee and Jerusalem.

The ‘Meditacion of the song in the free prisone of helle’ relates how the souls in limbo worship Christ, and then adds (with no apparent source) ‘and eke the sawle of the lif was there with hym in myrthe and comfort’.

In a few places the adaptor makes mention of John, where none occurs in the source. Thus in the meditation ‘after noon’, we hear that Mary ‘fel half ded down bytwene the armes of seynt Iohn and Marie Maudeleyne’ (fol. 35r, the Latin has ‘inter brachia Magdalenae’) Also, in the same meditation, ‘Now awakith owr lady of hure sorewe and ryseth vp asking of Iohn what he haueth ydo to hure sone, and he answering and seide, ‘No thyng’’. (fol. 35r, here the Latin has the plural ‘respondent ei, nihil esse factum de eo’). In some contrast to the Latin, the English adaptation thus draws John more directly into the centre of the narrative: John figures as central to the emotional pathos and affective responses that surround the dead figure of Christ.

Omissions and abbreviations are very few and minor in the Meditation on Christ’s Passion. An example of abbreviation occurs in the meditation ‘after noon’, where the English does not include the apostrophe found in the Latin (and, so it seems, in all the English adaptations of the Passion narrative of the MVC) to the Virgin Mary that she works in vain when she begs the soldiers not to break the legs of Christ (fol. 35r).

Another abbreviation occurs in the opening meditation in general, where the enumeration of the respective tortures of Christ committed by the Jews is significantly shortened. It is particularly interesting to note that this list of the sundry torments has been re-written as a direct address to Christ. Although the list is shorter than found in the Latin and the various English adaptations, the Pepys version changes what is an account in the third-person, to an apostrophic, prayerful invocation to Christ. (This feature was also noted by Mayumi Taguchi in her Belfast paper; she sees the direct speech to Christ as a way of intensifying the emotive appeal of the passage). As the passage cited below suggests, this direct appeal to Christ finally culminates in a second-person address to the reader, by which time Christ is mentioned in the third-person. This provides varying forms of appeal and intimate address, as well as a dynamic, multi-perspective approach to the general meditation of Christ’s tortures that is not a feature of the Latin, and which has not so far been noted in other Middle English adaptations.

Some of the Iewys, meke Ihesu, benygne Ihesu, swete Ihesu, taketh the. Some byndeth the. Some ariseth a3enst the. Some cryeth on the. Some puttith forth to the. Some apposith the. Some berith fals wytnesse a3ens the. Some betith and defowlith thy fayre face. Some boffetith the. Some ledith the to a pyler. Some scorgith the. Some clothith the with purpyr in shame. Some corowneth the with thornes. Some with scorn knelith byfore the. This wyse thou mayst se many repreuyes ydo to the lord, swete Ihesu, he ys first lad forth and thane a3en now to a place, now to anothir… (fol. 28v)

Original meditative instructions:

Whereas the above alterations and additions are brief and occur without discernable rationale or pattern, the English adaptor systematically inserts a brief meditative instruction and exhortation at the end of each meditation that are not a feature of the Latin source. These begin with the meditation of Terce (‘the thridde howr’), and offer didactic instruction regarding the level of concentration that should be brought to the discipline of meditation in order to bring about the desired response of pity and compassion. These short exhortations occur regularly and produce a sense of closure to each individual meditation. We might speculate if these didactic appeals are a reflection of an anticipated reading process that would focus on concentrated, piecemeal reading of self-contained meditative sections. Some examples of these directives are the following. (Mayumi Taguchi also noted in her Belfast paper that major additions occur as additions at the end of chapters and as linking passages between the hourly meditations):

· Therfore yf thu bythenke the busyly in thy comtemplacion, truste wel thu shalt haue compassion of thy lord Ihesu whuche forto delyvere the from thraldom and daunger of the fend suffred al this for the and for this entent that thou sholdest loue hym parfitly. (End of meditation of Sext, fol. 34r)

· Now se after what ys don at noon to owre lady and to hure felawes and herto busily and deuoutly bowe down thy ey3e and vnderstond hem al with greet compassion and pyte. (End of meditation of noon, fol. 34v)

· Now thou mayst see what angres haueth falle to the sone and to the moder and these gedir togedyr and kepe hem hauyng compassion and thenne shalt thou haue grace as Y seide byfore. (End of meditation of Compline, fol. 36v)

· Therfore if thou wilt haue swetnesse in thy contemplacion of hem, thou shalt haue gret compassion in thyn herte these dayes, and thenne shalt thou turne and se in thy gostly sight to the workes of thy lord in this day and hym wurshupe with al thyn herte and loue. (End of meditation of the Saturday, fol. 38r)

(See also the section on ‘Affective meditation’ where I offer some more discussion.)


Rhetoric and Manner of Exposition

Glossatory, contextualising exposition

There are some very minor explanatory additions made in the Pepys Meditation. For instance, after noting that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus bring with them one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes, the text adds ‘the which were most swete oynementz to kepe body fro corrupcion’ (fol. 35r).

In the meditation of Prime, the English adaptation omits the reference to Peter Comestor’s Historia Scholastica, according to which the pillar to which Christ was tied still shows the marks of his blood. However, the reference to the same work that records the length of the Cross is retained: ‘Hit ys told in Storye that that croys was fifteen feete in lengthe’ (fol. 32v).

Metaphoric elaboration

The English adaptation reiterates what is in the source. Noteworthy are a string of metaphors used to describe the Virgin Mary that develop what is in the Latin. For discussion see the section ‘The Virgin Mary’ below.

Reading instructions

In addition to what is reiterated from the Latin source, the English interpolates a series of meditative guidelines as conclusions to each chapter, and exhortations to concentrated reading without ‘ouer-skyppyng of sentence’ (fol. 28v). For discussion see ‘Affective meditation and the cultivation of virtue’ below.

Some rather unusual formulations repeat instructions from the ‘meditation in general’ in the MVC, but do so in somewhat idiosyncratic manner. For instance, the reader is instructed to think on Christ’s Passion ‘bisiliche with depnesse of herte and with the ynmest partye of thy bowelys’ (fol. 28v).

Textual Authority and Theological Position

Textual authority

The Meditation on Christ’s Passion makes no recourse to textual authority outside of what is found in the Passion narrative of the Latin Meditationes vitae Christi.

As noted above, the reference in the meditation of Prime to Comestor’s Historia Scholastica that provides details about the pillar is omitted in the English adaptation.

The meditation of Compline contains the following consideration, with a clear identification of Comestor’s Historia:

‘Hit is rad in storye that owr lord shewid by reuelacion to a woman that his hed was shaue and his berd pullid, bute the gospellers writeth nat al, and therefore that he was shaue Y can nat preue by holy writ, but of pullyng of his berd hit may be preued for Ysaie the prophete seith in the persone of Crist thus: ‘My body y haue 3yue to smytenges and my chekes to pullynge’. (fol. 36r)

Consideration of the authority for this apocryphal story (which finds some support in Isaiah 50, 6) is absent from all other English MVC adaptations, with the exception of the Passion meditation in Michigan SU MS1. But the Michigan meditation seems somewhat confused here, saying ‘I haue rede in scripture that owre Lorde Jhesu schewede reuelacyon to a holy man that hys hede was clyppede and the hare of hys berde pullede away. Bot the euanglerist wrytes nogth all Crystis passion…’ (ed. by Joseph Jenks 1956, p. 149)

The Latin for this passage reads:

Legitur autem in quadam scriptura, quod Dominus devotae suae revelavit, quod ipse tonsus fuit capillis, et depilatus barba; sed Evangelistae non scripserunt omnia. Et quidem quod ipse fuit tonsatus, vel sicut est, nescio probare per scripturam, sed de depilatione barbae potest probari. Dicit enim Isaias in persona Domini: ‘Corpus meum dedi percutientibus, et genas meas vellentibus’. (Meditationes vitae Christi, ed. by Peltier, p. 609)

According to a certain author, I read that the Lord revealed to one of his devoted followers that he had his hair cut off and his beard pulled out; but, the Evangelists did not write down everything. I do not know that I could prove from Scripture that his head was shorn, but the plucking of his beard could be proved. In fact, Isaiah, speaking in the person of the Lord, said, “I surrendered my body to those striking me, and my cheeks to those plucking them”. (From the translation by Taney, Miller, and Stallings-Taney, p. 261)

The Latin here makes imprecise reference to ‘quadam scriptura’. It thus seems to be the case that the Meditation in Pepys 2125 is the only adaptation to make the direct link with Comestor’s Historia in this instance.

Affective meditation and the cultivation of virtue

There appears to be in the Meditation on Christ’s Passion an anxiety that the reader might fail to apply the proper concentration and diligence to the discipline of meditative reading. The meditative reader is instructed to pay the closest possible attention to the words and affective markers in each individual meditation, in order to bring about the spiritual, emotional, and moral transformation that is indicated in the opening general meditation. A number of the instructions for close meditative reading are only found in this English adaptation. Furthermore, the instructions that conclude each meditation appear to be unique to this English version, and serve as reminders to the readers about the concentration and dedication required for a fruitful reading. Underlying such reiterated instruction, we might speculate, is a concern that the text may be read quickly and casually as a narrative account or story, and not as a frame for the type of meditation that demands dedicated imaginative and visual immersion.

The following passage occurs as the conclusion to the meditation following Compline (‘Meditacion of turning a3en to the cite of owre lady and hure companye after the buryng of owre lord’). It is one of a number of such didactic and instructional passages that are not a feature of the Latin MVC as edited by Peltier:

Of al this haue compassion that I haue toold bifore and hold hit hertyly in thy mynde with greet hertily sorewe and lowly bythok [reflect on, be mindful of] the of al this that ys byfalle to thy lord Ihesu, to owre lady, and to alle other that y haue seyde, and after that thou hast wel bythought the of he, and art in hem wel fed, tak the blessyng of owre lord, and come a3eyn to other comtemplacion of thy lord and there dispose the to anoynte thy lord with tho wymen and thenne rys with thy lord in comfort and gladnesse as Y shal shewe the a littel after thorw grace of God, and this ys the meditacion of the secunde day. (fol. 37v)

These directives focus particularly on the concentration required for the discipline of meditation to be efficacious and lead to grace and a feeling of sweetness in devotion. In these appeals, the reader is constantly instructed to meditate on details of the Passion ‘busily’ and ‘deuoutly’. Pity, sorrow and compassion are specifically noted as the virtues to be striven for in the discipline of meditation. The idea that the reader is to ‘dispose the to anoynte thy lord with tho women’ points to the reader imagining him/herself present at the events narrated, here specifically the moment after the burial of Christ where Mary weeps at the Sepulchre and the Cross. It may also likely suggest the doctrine of compunctio cordis, in which the emotional responses from meditative reading are manifested in tears of compunction. However, this entirely conventional doctrine is not unfolded in more detail here or anywhere else in the adaptor’s interpolations.

The above directive also appears to make a point about the structure of reading, requiring that one be first accomplished and proficient in one meditation (one should first be ‘wel fed’ from meditating on one aspect of the Passion), before proceeding to the next (‘come a3eyn to other comtemplacion of thy lord’). The need for such focused and concentrated reading is underscored initially in the ‘meditation in general’, where the reader is required to meditate ‘nat with disese of his sowle ne 3et ouer-skyppyng of sentence’ (fol. 28v, this does not appear in the Latin). Furthermore, when the narrative voice demands that readers pursue the meditation of Christ’s Deposition with particular affective concentration, then the Pepys meditation is probably the only of the English adaptations to include this: ‘Now bihold bysily with deuocion and swetnesse with comfort, compassion and bysynesse the manere of takynge down of owre lord Ihesu’. (fol. 35v)

The required concentration in the exercise of imaginative reconstruction of the details of Christ’s Passion is stressed from the outset in the initial chapter, which follows the Latin closely in glossing the transformative nature of meditation, but which adds that it may lead to ‘a newe staat of 3owthe’ (In her Belfast paper, Mayumi Taguchi also noted this ‘unusual’ use of ‘3owthe’ to describe the ‘physical pleasures’ obtainable through the discipline of Passion

If thou bysiliche with depnesse of herte grope, and with the ynnmest partye of thy bowelys, thenke vpon hem, they shulle gendre in thy sawle a newe compassion, a newe pyte, newe gladnesses, newe comfortes, and as it semyth folewyng thou shalt receyue a newe staat of 3owthe for thy trauail. (fol. 28v)

As these examples indicate, it is particularly on the topic of the meditative discipline itself and on the concentration with which it should be pursued that the English adaptor interpolates his own reflections. The following is a free adaptation of the Latin: it replaces a passage in which the narrative persona acknowledges himself unworthy and inexperienced in meditation and contemplation:

But for to gete this stat ys no man able of himself, but as a child that can nat speke, hit is vnknowyng, and therefore hit ys needful that al owtward bysynes left, he ordeyne his herte and his thought with al his studye and hys eyen euer wakyng busyly to ordeygne hem to a gret and strong batayle and lastynge. (fol 28v)

This noteworthy passage can be seen to suggest some intent on the part of the English adaptor to clarify that the experience of sweetness in meditation can never be entirely achievable by humans alone: divine co-operative grace is essential in any process of bringing about lasting spiritual and moral re-orientation. Also, any such re-orientation remains an ‘vnknowyng’ – a hidden, inaccessible and concealed experience – to the person who fails to apply full concentration to the ‘studye’ that reforms thought and heart. ‘Vnknowyng’ is a word that we may tend to associate with the sustained contemplations in which Julian of Norwich probes the contents of her visions, or with the apophatic tradition in English late medieval spirituality (and specifically with the work The Cloud of Unknowing) where the term is employed in a specialist mystical theology to suggest a process of abandoning knowledge and discursive consciousness. However, it is used in the Pepys Meditation to contrast acquired proficiency in meditative literacy with the approach that pursues meditation with insufficient dedication and so fails to experience its transformative potential.

While the English omits a number of passages from the Latin that detail the physical torment of Christ in his Passion, the adaptor also occasionally adds brief details that are not in the source. One example is when the Jews tie Christ’s hands ‘so sore that the blood brast owt at euery nayl’. (fol. 31r) Such additions suggest some interest in the macabre palpability and physiology of Christ’s Passion. An interpolation in the scene of the Scourging of Christ similarly demonstrates an interest in the blood of Christ, observing that ‘his sorwe ys euer eknyd [increased], his blood dryeth and ys puttud [discharged], hit wexith nesshe [soft/delicate] and ys thynned’ (fol. 31v, not in the Latin source)

The adaptor’s interest in the physiology of suffering is also evident in a brief addition found the account of the upright Crucifixion which notes that Christ, when climbing the ladder to the Cross ‘turned his reynys and his synewys owt streynyd and alle his ioyntes. Now beth openyd the kynges armes. Now beth sprad his faire hondes’ (fol. 33r, the Latin has ‘renes vertit, et illa regalia aperit brachia, et extendens manus pulcherrimas’). Again, we see that more anatomical detail is added to provide material for meditative immersion – material that also has the effect of underscoring the very human suffering that Christ undergoes on the Cross. It is noteworthy in this instance that the English produces a contrast that is less prominent in the Latin between, on the one hand, the excruciating anatomical detail of Christ’s torture, and, on the other, the elevated and beautiful state of the saviour (i.e. the mention of Christ’s royal arms (‘regalia brachia’) and most beautiful hands (‘manus pulcherrimas’).

Meditative reading and ‘bowing down the eyes’

The Meditation on Christ’s Passion instructs its reader in the process of meditative reading, and places particular emphasis on the close visual focus on the written text. The reader, for instance, is to

ordeyne his herte and his thought with al his studye and hys eyen euer waking. (fol. 28v)

The importance of such visual focus is later stressed in the conclusion to the meditation of Noon, which instructs the reader to ‘busyly and deuoutly bowe down thy ey3e’ (fol. 34v). This process of ‘bowing down the eyes’, in the sense of reading closely and with the eyes close to the page, is also recommended in the opening meditation: here the subject is how best to facilitate the transition from the summary recapitulation of Christ’s Passion in the meditation in general to the following detailed treatment ‘syngulerly of euery thing by hitself’ (fol. 29e). The reader is encouraged to apply a scrutinizing and fully concentrated meditative gaze to the words on the page, so as to better focus the emotional and visualising imagination:

Now of alle these that I haue shortly seide of the passion of Crist Ihesu, thou mayst gedery togedere and se holly what was do in thre owres to owre lord Ihesu Crist that ys in matins, in prime and in the sixte owr. But 3et so lightly shold nat the grete ne the bitter passion of owr lord Ihesu be tretid in so short tyme. Therfore Y praye the, bowe a3en thyne ey3en and 3yue hertily thyn entent therto, for mychel and gret ys the vnderstondyng therof and persyng bitterly thyn herte as long as thou thenkist theron. (fol. 29r)

For this idea of ‘bowing down the eyes’ see also Middle English Dictionary ‘bouen’, definition 5a (a): ‘be turned or facing (towards sth.); of the eyes: be looking (in a certain direction)’. Further implications could be of ‘bowen’ as a gesture of humility and reverence.

Furthermore, the Meditation instructs the reader to approach the text

nat with disese of his sowle ne 3et ouer-skyppyng of sentence, but with sight and biholdyng of thy gostly ey3en and parfitly vnderstondyng trewly. (fol. 28v)

Again, the instructions focus on the sense of sight: they appear to recommend close visual focusing in a literal as well as a figurative sense. What is suggested here is a complex process in which the eyes are alert, bowing down to scrutinize the text and the individual word on the page. But in such a process the reader crucially exercises the capacity to form inner mental images of the events read.

The divinity and humanity of Christ

The English adaptation follows the Latin closely in making distinction between the four conflicted wills of Christ:

There were in Crist fowre wellys as Y seide before: the first was of the flesh and in no wise wolde suffer deth. The secunde was of the censualite and freelte that grucchid and dradde a3enst the deth. The thridde was of reson and in that he obey3ed as the prophete seide: he ys offred vp for he wolde. Ther was also in hym the ferthe and that was of the godheede and that temperyd al and 3af vtterly doom and sentence that he sholde dye. (fol. 30r-30v)

The reader/meditator is also invited to comprehend the nature of Christ’s exemplary meekness through the distinction of Christ’s passible human nature from his elevated divinity, as the following instance shows. The narrative voice notes that Christ’s very human suffering appears, at an initial impression, to indicate a God who has, for a moment, taken leave of his divinity:

Now haf compassion of hym and gret wonder of his deppist meknesse, how he that ys euene with the fader he for3etith as hit semyth that he ys God and prayeth as a man. (fol. 29r)

Such distinction is made to work affectively and meditatively: the reader is invited to shift between attention to Christ’s humanity and his divinity (‘godhede’) in order to produce a spectrum of comprehension and emotional response:

Turne awey thyn eye fro the godhede and se hym a clene man most semly, most innocent, most louyng, al ouer scowrgid and his clothes al ouer dryed with blood of his bitter and sore woundes, euerychon departed from other and on the erthe liggyng. Byhold also to the godhede and se the euerlastyng, the incomprehensible that hye emperours maieste that myghtyly took flesh and blod of the virgyne Marie and neuer myghte synne. (fol. 32v)

While the examples above reiterate closely what is in the source, a few additions in the English indicate an interest in developing and clarifying the relations between the manhood and Godhead of Christ. For instance, when Christ descends to the holy fathers, the Latin has ‘descendit ad inferos ad sanctos patres’. But the English clarifies that Christ’s soul was accompanied with the divinity: ‘Thou shalt understond that as soone as owre lord was ded vpon the croys his sawle with the godheede wente down to holy faders’ (fol. 38r). In the same meditation of Christ’s Descent the emphasis is similarly on the joy experienced in Christ’s divinity (‘godheede’) before the Resurrection:

Thou myght thenke and vnderstonde that as after the resureccion they [the holy fathers] shulle make myrthe to hym and melodye, right so they dude now to hym, and right in the same manere the blessed sawle of owr lord Ihesu made gladnesse to the godheede. (fol. 38v)

The Virgin Mary

In two places, the Meditation on Christ’s Passion incorporates strings of metaphoric titles for the Virgin Mary that significantly develop what is in the Latin:

‘The queen of heuene, the empreysse of helle, the lady of aungeles, the light of this wordle. And the moder of mercy’. (fol. 36v, ‘Regina coeli’ in the Latin)

‘the queen of heuene and empreisse of helle and princess of holi churche, the domesmen of the wordle’. (fol. 38r, the Latin has ‘Domina coeli et terrae, et Princeps Ecclesiarum et omnium populorum, et duces totius divini excercitus’)

(These two noteworthy lists of epithets for Mary have also been noted by Mayumi Taguchi in her Belfast paper)

The designation of Mary as ‘empress of Hell’ may seem surprising, but has a long tradition in medieval religious and devotional writing (see the essay by Kate Koppelman in the bibliography). It is not unusual to see the designations as ‘queen of heaven’ and ‘empress of hell’ appear together, which suggests a view of Mary both as image of mercy and intercessory grace, and as someone with powers to condemn. More surprising is the title as ‘domesmen of the wordle’, which suggests, in the opinion of this writer, a view of Mary as involved in human salvation as a co-redeemer. This could be seen as theologically controversial, as it goes beyond the traditional view of Mary as mediator and exemplary respondent to the events of the Passion.

The meditation ‘after noon’, which concentrates of the piercing of Christ’s side and the lamentation of Mary, characterises Mary as ‘myrour and light of the wordle, tresour and chamberleyne of honeste and clennesse’ (fol. 35r, from ‘mundi speculum et reclinatorium nostrum’). And the same meditation concludes with the following original:

Therfore of hure haf compassion and pyte in thy meditacion and thu shalt be strengthid plenteuously with gret abundance of hur grace in thy contemplacion, for she strengthith euery creature. (fol 35r)

It is noteworthy that the few additions to the source that concern the Virgin Mary accord to her significant (and controversial?) agency in bestowing grace and as a ‘domesmen of the wordle’.

Dissemination and Reception Contexts


Bibliographical Materials

Kate Koppelman, ‘Devotional Ambivalence: The Virgin Mary as "Empresse of Helle”’, Essays in Medieval Studies 18 (2001) pp. 67-82.

Thomas Bestul, 'Chaucer's Parson's Tale and the Late-Medieval Tradition of Religious Meditation', Speculum, 64 (1989), 600-19.

A.C. Peltier, ed, S. Bonaventurae Opera Omnia, vol. 12 (Paris, 1868), pp. 509-630.

John of Caulibus, Meditations on the Life of Christ, ed. and trans. by F. X. Taney, A. Miller, and C. M. Stallings-Taney (Asheville, Pegasus Press, 1999)

An edition of The Meditation on Christ’s Passion is being prepared by Mayumi Taguchi and Yoko Iyeiri for publication with Middle English Texts.


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