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Van der Weyden, Descent from the Cross


The Privity of the Passion

Profile author: Allan Westphall
Revision date: June 1st, 2010

Approximate Date, Sources, Provenance

References are to the text printed in Yorkshire Writers, ed. by Carl Horstmann (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1895-96), vol. I, pp. 198-218. The text has also been edited by Stephanie Margaret Day in her doctoral thesis ‘A Critical Edition of The Privity of the Passion and the Lyrical Meditations’, University of York, 1991. This unpublished edition contains very useful analysis and notes, and I note some instances below where my analysis coincides with points made in Day’s thesis. References to the Latin Meditationes vitae Christi are to the edition by A. C. Peltier (see bibliography for details).


The Privity of the Passion (Privity) is a Middle English versions of the Passion sequence of the Meditationes vitae Christi (known as the Meditationes de passione Christi). It begins with brief mention of the Last Supper and, after extended treatment of Christ's Passion and post-Resurrection appearances, concludes with mention of the paschal mystery in the sacrament of the altar.

None of the four surviving manuscripts appear to be earlier that the first or second quarter of the fifteenth century. For issues of dating and provenance/dialect, see the codicological descriptions by Ryan Perry that accompany this textual profile.

As a vernacular verse treatment of the events of the Supper and Crucifixion of Christ, Privity aims to facilitate the meditative technique of visual evocation and frequently exhorts the reader to form mental images of the Supper and Passion events. It follows the source text in providing gospel accounts and meditations designed for the reader to enter into the Passion narrative with total mental absorption and to imagine and recollect events in the mind's 'eye'. As other pseudo-Bonaventuran lives of Christ, Privity exhorts its reader to visualise and witness the events of Christ's Passion in order to stir the heart to greater love of God and to bring about the moral reform into a state of compassion and contrition. And as other such meditative manuals, Privity employs the full rhetorical repertoire for eliciting affective, empathic response such as direct address, imagined speech, imaginative elaboration of gospel events, exclamations, and close visual focus on the aspects of torment. Particularly characteristic of this meditation are also a series of detailed accounts of the emotional reactions of the women who witness the death and resurrection of Christ, as well as a mimetic elaboration of the extravagant sadism of Christ's tormentors.

Privity is designed to facilitate meditative concentration and is purely affective in tone as it outlines appropriate moral application of the Passion narrative. In its instruction for image formation we see the type of 'fictional growth' which is so characteristic of such lives of Christ and which consists of an amplification and hypothetical re-workings of gospel story material, especially the details of Christ's corporeal agony. Through such elaboration, Privity offers the possibility of a personal gloss on the Crucifixion, while at the same time carefully circumscribing response and application. Occasionally, the reader is given a choice between different visual imaginings, for example regarding Christ's first appearance to either the holy Fathers in limbo or to his mother. The purpose of such option in the choice of meditation seems to be to allow the reader to concentrate on the visual and emotional configuration most efficacious for devotional purposes. Relying on affectivity in presenting the Passion as a call to penance and as the epitome of moral life, we see none of the allegorical exposition, extracts from biblical commentators, or extended moral application that feature in the longer and later Vita Christi of Ludolph of Saxony, or John Fewterer's printed translation of Ulrich Pinder's Speculum Passionis, The Myrrour or Glasse of Christes Passion.

As a vernacular adaptation of the Meditationes vitae Christi, Privity follows its source very closely indeed. It retains the divisions into canonical hours and the subsequent chapters on Christ’s appearances to those associated with him. The long ‘compline’ meditation of the Meditationes is considerably abridged in the English and broken up into two shorter chapters with their own summary titles. The general tendency in the English adaptation is towards the abridgement of source material; for instance, the adaptor omits the alternative methods of Crucifixion, focusing only on the nailing to the Cross lying on the ground (see also Stephanie Day, ‘Critical Edition’, pp. 67-70, for more discussion about translation and abridgement processes). Only very rarely do expansions occur. In the few instances where they do, these are in the form of expanded prayers, repeated exclamations and imagined direct speech. The purpose of the few additions will be discussed below, and is quite clearly to intensify the affective appeal, and to detail the corporeal suffering of Christ, as well as the role of the Jews in his Passion.





Stephanie Day provides important discussion of narrative scope and omissions/additions to the Latin source in ‘Critical Edition’, pp. 56-62. She offers some evidence that the Crucifixion sequence and the post-Resurrection chapters are the works of different adaptors that have been brought together to make up the text of the Privity.

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Privity is a prose treatment of the Passion and post-Resurrection appearances of Christ. It is structured as a series of meditations on the Passion events, including the Burial, organised according to the canonical hours. The meditations on Christ's Resurrection, starting with his Descent into Hell, occur after the canonical hours and are divided by thematic headlines. The treatment of Christ's Resurrection runs to almost the same length as the Passion sequence.

The divisions are the same in all four manuscripts of Privity and replicate the divisions in the Meditationes.


  • Prologue and prayer for matins (?; no hour ascribed):
    'Here begynnes the Previte off the Passioune of owre lorde Ihesu'. Meditations begin at the end of the Supper 'whene he had endide his Sermone' (198); Christ's prayer to Father; the crossing of the Cedron; Judas' Betrayal; the Arrest; before Caiaphas; the mocking of the Jews; Mary's prayer to Father
  • Ad primam:
    Before Pilate; the Scourging; mocking by the Jews; the Crowning
  • The meditacione of vndrone:
    Mocking by the Jews; the Road to Calvary
  • The meditacione of Middaye:
    Christ naked before the people; the Nailing; the Crucifixion
  • The meditacyone off None:
    Christ's words on the Cross; Death on the Cross; reflection on Mary's sorrow
  • Also at None &c.:
    Mary's words to the dead Christ; the arrival of the soldiers; Mary's words to soldiers; Longinus
  • At the houre of Euensonge:
    Arrival of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus; Deposition from the Cross
  • Att Complyne:
    Mary holds Christ; Mary's farewell to Christ; the Burial
  • A meditacione off complyn; & other thynge3 of his beryeng:
    Mary's words to Christ, Father and the Cross; Mary's sisters prepare ointment
  • How oure lorde went to hell: fyrste aftire his ded:
    Christ's Descent into Hell; saving the thief and the holy fathers in limbo
  • The rysyng vp of owre lorde Ihesu, and how he apperid firste to his modire, oure lady saynte Marie amen:
    Mary's prayer to Father and Son; Christ appears before Mary
  • How Maudeleyne & hir systers com to the sepulcre:
    The three Marys recollect the Passion: worship at the bloody Cross; their arrival at the empty grave
  • Rynnyng to the graue &c.:
    Peter and John run to the grave; words between Mary Magdalene and Angel; Christ appears before Magdalene
  • How oure lord Ihesu appeared to Maudeleyne:
    Words between Christ and Magdalene; 'touch me not'; words between Christ and Mary
  • How oure lorde apperide to the thre Maries:
    Christ asks the three Marys to instruct his disciples to meet him
  • How oure lorde appered to Josephe of Aromathye:
    Christ releases Joseph from Jewish prison
  • How oure lorde apperid to Symone Petire:
    Peter repents and Christ forgives sins
  • How oure Ihesu appered to two disciples goand to the castell of Emaus:
    Disciples make confession to Christ; eating and Christ's blessing of the food; the joys of the three Marys; appeal to reader to feel joy in each of Christ's appearances; 'ilke of theis apperynges es calde a pasche'. (218)

Rhetoric and Manner of Exposition





Consistently, the appeal in the text is intimate and to the individual Christian reader, with repeated injunctions to 'beholde' and 'see' the event's of Christ's Passion in the imagination.
As is the case with the verse treatment The Meditations on the Supper and the Hours of the Passion, Privity concludes with a communal/congregational prayer, adapting the words of I Pet. 4:14:

For the appostell sais: 'if we be felawes of Cristes passione, haueuyng pete & compassione of his pyne and disese that he suffered here for vs, than one the same manere sall we be felawes of gostely comforthe and endles Ioye the wilke he has ordeyned to al tho that here hertly luffes hym with all theire myghte. The whilke Ioye & comforthe he graunt vs that with his precious blode boghte vs, Ihesus Christus Amen. Amen. Amen. Pur charite'. (218)

Here the Latin has merely ‘maxime dicente Apostolo: si fuerimus socii passionum, erimus et consolationum’. (Meditationes, ed. by Peltier, p. 621)


The prose style of Privity is relatively simple in comparison with most other meditative lives of Christ. The syntax is uniform, with the majority of narrative passages begin with 'then', and the cadenced repetitions of 'behold', and 'see' occurring throughout the text.

The structure of the meditations remains the same throughout, and progresses from an account of Christ's torment or re-appearance, via exclamation, apostrophe, brief interrogatives addressed to the reader or injunctions to 'be-holde', and concludes by drawing out the relevant lesson of pity, compassion and meekness.

The following are some of the notable rhetorical features and discourse types found in the text.



Direct exhortation and imperative occur throughout Privity, and direct a string of carefully circumscribed imaginative exercises and emotional responses. Repeated injunctions to 'beholde', 'see now', and 'lo' occur throughout the text 42 times, but with a clear concentration in the first half of the text, with its description of the scourging and Crucifixion. These repeat rather closely what is found in the Latin source.


Be-holde hym here meekly & habondandly, and if thou can haue here no compassione of thi lorde Ihesu, wete thou wele thi herte es hardere thane the stone. (203)


Be-holde here that the mayster of meekness calde his disciples brethire; this vertue of mekenesse dwelles euer-more with hyme. (216)


Beholde here nowe oure lorde Ihesu and se how paciently and how benyngly he resayuede the haylsyng & the kyssynge of the traytoure; and how he suffirde hym-selfe to be takene & betyne & dispoyllede, be ledde as a theeffe or as a mysdouere that no powere hade to helpe hym-selfe; ffor he hade more pete & compassione of his disciples that flede awaye for ferde, thene he hade of hym-selfe. (201)


Exclamation and apostrophe

Regularly, the injunctions to 'behold' and to focus on particular details of the agony lead directly into emotional outburst and apostrophe. The accumulative effect is a vivid sense of participation and direct address.


A, lorde Ihesu, what made the to suffire all this hard penance, tourmente3, and payne3 Sothely thynne vnmesurabyll luffe that thou hadde to vs, and owre grette wikkidnes, that myghte not be weschene awaye bot with the precyouse licoure of this precyouse blode. (203)


O whate sorowe & woo trowestowe that his modire hade when echo sawe hym thus farene with? Scho had sorowe with-owttyne mesure and also gret schame, whene cho sawe hym thus stande nakede. (205)


A, Iosephe, wele was the that so myghte holde the blyssede body of Ihesu! (210)


Imagined speech and dialogue

Privity makes extensive use of direct speech and dialogue. The Middle English author follows the tendency in the Latin source text to provide hypothetical extensions of dialogue. While all of the instances of dialogue in Privity are derived from the Latin, there are a few occasional additions that give added nuance to the emotional responses of Christ's followers, notably the case with Mary.

Examples of sustained direct speech include.

  • Christ's prayer to the Father following the Last Supper (199)
  • Words between the archangel Michael and Christ (200)
  • The Jews' mocking of Christ (201, 202, 206)
  • Mary's prayers to the Father and to the Cross (202, 212, 213)
  • Christ's words on the Cross (206-7)
  • Mary's words to the soldiers (208)
  • Mary's farewell to Christ (210-11)
  • Joseph of Arimathea to Mary (211)
  • Words between Mary and the risen Christ (213, 215)
  • The words of the three Marys (214)
  • Words between Mary Magdalene and the angel (215)
  • Words between Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ (215, 216)
  • The prayer and confession of the disciples (217)


In accordance with the source, Privity frequently offers direct prayer and speech as exemplary forms of dialogue. They are followed by imperatives to 'be-holde' in the sense of to fully understand the emotional constitution of those speaking.


Narratorial voice

The narratorial 'I' voice is not used to chart a series of personal emotional responses in Meds as is the case for instance in many Crucifixion lyrics and the Pseudo-Bonaventuran The Prickynge of Love.

Often the voice of the author dictates the answers to the recurring rhetorical questions; 'Thynke the nott here a gret comforthe? Sothely I trowe 3is, if thou haue any lufe of deuocyone'. (218)

The author operates in the text as a strong guiding and didactic presence, outlining normative, exemplary responses to the Passion narrative.


Bot if thou will haue vndirstandynge and gostely comforthe of this that I haue saide, the nedis to be present in euery stede and euery dede in thy saule as if thou where there sothefastely in body; and one the same manere in that I sall say. (216)


I trow sothfastly that if thou couthe pete & compassione of his passione, and had thi herte and thi mynd gedirde to-gedire & nott distracte abowte in the werlde abowte oter thynges & other fantassies, that thou sulde fele in euerylkone of thes apperynges a newe feste gostely and a new pasche. (218)


Visual evocation

Occurs throughout the text. Typically prefaced by the imperatives 'behold', 'see' and 'loke'. The reader is constantly reminded to form mental pictures of the gospel events and to see Christ directly and vividly with the eye of the mind.

However there are no prolonged passages of visual focus, for instance on the instruments of the Passion, such as found in other meditations.

Privity follows the Latin Meditationes closely in suggesting how the aim to facilitate visual imagining of the gospel account legitimizes the invention of supplemental events. 'And thofe-all these wordes be noghte pleynly contenede in the gosepell, neuer-the-lesse the gosepell beris witnesse that oure lorde Ihesu dyd many thynges that the Euangeliste3 wrote noghte'. (212-13)

The reader is not offered the choice between two different meditative imaginings of the concrete manner in which Christ was crucified, as is the case in the Latin source.


Glossatory, contextualising exposition

Privity repeats the passage on the conflicting wills of Jesus from the matins prayer of the Meditationes vitae Christi (this is not found in Meditations on the Supper). As we note, the English reiterates the Latin fairly accurately, but in characteristic economy of phrase, the Middle English adaptor omits the brief biblical reference:

For thou sall vndirstande that there were many and dyuerse willis in hym, as doctors say: there was in hym the will of the fflesche and that wolde one no manere suffyre dede; ther was also in hym the will of sensualite and that gruchede and was afferde to suffire dede; ther was also in him the will of the resoune and that was obedient & consentande to dye, ther was also in hym the will of the godhead & that commandedyd and ordaynede hym to dye. (199)

Fuit enim in Christo tunc quadruplex voluntas, scilicet voluntas carnis, et haec nullo modo volebat pati; voluntas sensualitas, et haec remurmurabat, et timebat; voluntas rationis, et haec obediebat, et consentiebat, nam juxta Isaiam dicitur: Oblatus est, quia ipse voluit. Et fuit in eo voluntas divinitatis, at haec imperabat, et sententiam ipsa dictabat. (Meditationes, ed. by Peltier, p. 602)


Privity often elaborates the exemplary emotional responses of women, What in the Latin is a brief remark about Mary as the first to worship the cross (‘Cogitare namque potes, quod ipsa fuit, quae crucem adoravit’, Meditationes, ed. by Peltier, p. 611), is put into the context of Church calendar in the English:

Here may thowe thynke that oure lady was the fyrste body that wirchippede the crosse, righte as scho was the firste telling and reherseynge of the wordes and dedis of theire swete lorde Ihesu. Oure lady was euer-more pesefull & quiete in sperite, ffor scho hade euermore certayne hope that he sulde sone ryse up agayne, and in that saterday was all the faythe of holy kyrke in hir alone, and therefore es the saterday specyaly wirchepde in the honoure of owre lady. (212)


Typological allegory


Metaphoric elaboration

Very limited. The remark in the Latin that 'Here is the crucified Lord Jesus: so stretched out on the cross that all his bones can be counted', is developed in the English.


He was thus sprede o-brode one the crosse more straite than any parchemyne-skyne es sprede one the harowe, so that mene myghte tell all the blyssede bones of his body. (206)



S-alliteration occurs a number of places as a striking aural effect in connection with the 'stabat mater' motif of Mary crucified in her heart together with her son.


And all this they did in presence of his sorowfull modir, whas sorrow & compassione was gretly the cause of encressyng of hir dere sones passione, and the sones passione ekede the modire sorowe. (206)


Than syghede scho and be-helde hir sone so dispetousely wondede. Than dyede scho neghe for sorowe. How ofte, thynke the that oure blyssede lady suffrede payne of dede? Sothely, as ofte as scho sawe any new payne or passione done to hire sonne. And therefore was fulfillide the prophecy of holy Semyone, that said the swerde of sorowe sulde thurghe-perse hir herte. (209)


Rhetorical questions

Privity departs stylistically from its source by its frequent use of interrogatives and rhetorical questions. Where the Meditationes has straightforward descriptions or exclamations, Privity often employs a direct, interrogative style that alternates with directions to 'beholde' and spontaneous exclamations. This feature construes rhetorically a link between an account and the emotional response to it. It is yet another way of drawing the reader into the narrative and of outlining a didacticism of normative responses.


Thynke the nott that all this that he suffered in the owre of matins, prime, & vndrone, with-owttyne any more doynge one the crosse had bene sorowe & payne inoghe, bitternes, sorowe & angwyse to here? Certes, I trowe 3is, & mekill sterynge to petouse compassione, 3a & bryngynge in to tendir and loueande hertes gret matere of pacience. (205)


And what trowes thow that Marie Maudeleyne dyde that so mekyll loued Ihesu? What dyd sayne Iohn, moste byloude of Ihesu of all his disciplys? And what trowes thou that the tother two systyrs of oure lady dyd? What myghte they do? They were slokende and fulfillide with bitternes of sorrow and made dronkene with sobbynge and sygheyng, ffor all they wepide with-owwtyne mesure. (207)


A, how blysseful was thene that house, in the whylke satt bothe god & man, with his modire qwhene of heuene, & all hos other dere derlynges! Gret ioye was thene to be with theme. Thynke the nott here a gret comforthe? Sothely I trow 3is, if thou hafe any lufe or deuocyone. (218)


Reading instructions

In a brief preface explaining aim and method, the reader is instructed to 'besy hyme with all his herte and all his mynde and vmbethynke hym of this gloryus Passione and all the circumstance thare-off'. (199). The complete concentration required to enter imaginatively into the torment of Christ, and thus to initiate the process of moral transformation in Christ, is underscored repeatedly.

The reader is presented with a series of carefully circumscribed meditations, in which repeated imperatives instruct in the intended forms of emotional engagement. Yet the possibility of some flexibility in the discipline of meditation is suggested.


Begynne nowe thy meditacyone at the be-gynnynge of Cristes passyone and pursue it feruently to the laste ende; of the wilke I sall towche to the a littill; bot thow may vse theme more largelye, after god gyffes the grace (198).


Textual Authority and Theological Position






Ascription to Bonaventura occurs as the title to the work: 'Bonaventura de mysteriis passionis Iesu Christi', and again at the end 'Explicit Bonauenture de mysteriis Passionis Ihesu Christi'.

Thow sall vndirstande that the apparecione made to owre lady es noghte wretyne in the gospel, & therefore I sett it be-fore all other, & so semys it that holy kyrke holdes it, as it es more fully schewede in the legent of his resureccione. (217, the reference here presumably to the Legenda aurea)


Privity omits the references to the writings of Origen, Bernard and Jerome that are found in the Passion sequence of the Latin Meditationes.


Paschal mystery

The Middle English author retains the emphasis in his source on the paschal mystery and allusion to the sacrality and efficacy of the sacrament of the altar. There are three references to Christ's blessing of bread and meat before Joseph of Arimathea and the disciples ('and he blew one theme and gafe theme the holy ghoste' 217, 218) Meditation on Christ's miracles and appearances is a re-presenting of the paschal mystery as a truth still unfolding.

And oure lorde Ihesu tolde hys modire how he had delyueride his pepyll owt of helle, & all the miracles & the wonders that he had done thire thre dayes. Lo this es now a ioyfull gladsumnes & a merye paske! (214)

Thow may se now how oft thou hase had this daye pasche ffor ilke of theis apperynges es calde a pasche I trow sothfastly that if thou couthe pete & compassione of his passione, and had thi herte and thi mynd gedire to-gedire & nott distracte abowte in the werlde abowte other thynges & other fantassies, that thou sulde fele in euerylkone of thes apperynges a newe feste gostely and a new pasche. And euery sononday suldes thou hafe so, if thou wolde one ffryday before with hole mynde & feruent deuocyone hafe sorowe and pete of Cristes passione. (218)


Affective meditation and the process of visual imagining

Privity underscores the need for lasting character transformation and moral reform in the process of conforming the will to Christ. The process of meditating on the details of the Passion and being imaginatively and affectively crucified with Christ, is the crucial transformative discipline for the meditator.


It sulde bring hym and chaunge hym in to a new state of lyfynge. For he that incerches it with depe thoghte and with all hys hert lastandly, he sall fynde full many thynges thare-in styrande him to newe compassione, newe luffe, newe gostely comforthe, and so sall he be broghte in to a newe gostely swettnesse (198)

Nam profundo cordis et totis viscerum medulie eam perscrutanti, , multi adsunt passus insperati, ex quibus novam compassionem, novum amorem, novas consolations, et per consequens novum quemdam statum susciperet, quae sibi praesagium et participation gloriae viderentur. (Meditationes, ed. by Peltier, p. 500)


Practice and complete concentration is required in the discipline of meditating on the Passion, wherein is contained the epitome of 'the lufe & charite, the wilke aughte to bryne all oure hertes in luf to hym'. (198)


Rayse vp all the scharpenes of his mynde opyne whyde the inere eghe of the soule in to be-holdynge of this blesside passione, and forget & caste be-hynd hyme for the tyme all other ocupacyouns & besynes; and that he make hym-selfe present in his thoghte as if he sawe fully with his bodily eghe all the thyngys that be-fell abowte the crosse and the glorious passione of oure lorde Ihesu; and that noghte schortly & passandly, bot lufandly, besely, habundandly, & lastandly (198)


Through vivid re-imagining of the Passion and post-Resurrection events, the reader is to experience a stimulus to love, compassion and contrition, all understood as lasting emotional configurations within the human soul. The reader is advised that meditation on Christ's Passion is more important and efficacious than other events of Christ's life as they are singularly 'ful of matere of pete & compassione'.

The following example of Christ walking with his disciples after the Supper shows the typical progression from recapitulation of events, through visual re-imagining and close meditative focus, to reflection on the significance of the sacrifice and an appropriate responsive state of compassion and pity of Christ in his humanity. The passage follows the Latin source to the letter, and, like it, sets out directives in the imperative form.


Goo thow amange theme, & be-holde how lufandly, how felandly he gose with theme and spekes, & steres theme to praye. Be-holde also how he hym-selfe gose fro theme a caste of a stone, and meekly and reuerently he knelyde down, prayand to his ffadir. Abyde now a littill and see the wonders of thy lorde god. Now thi lorde Ihesu prayes. We rede that he ofte-tyms prayede, bot than he prayede for vs as oure advocate: bot now he prayes for hym-selfe. Haue therefore pete & compassyone , and wondire of the vnmesurabill meknesse of hym. For of-all it be soothe that he be bothe gode and man, euene to the fadir of heuene, neuer-the-lesse he forgettes as it were his godhead, and prayes meekly as a man (199)


In this process of visualising, the nuances of the verb 'be-holden' are unfolded, meaning both to view, understood as the active voluntary discipline of the sense of vision, but also the original sense of considering the significance of something, retaining and keeping something in regard. In this meditative model, to view the events of Christ's Passion always means to recollect, memorise and internalise them as lasting traits within the personality.

Privity outlines a devotional psychology of intense and sometime conflicting emotional configurations, where hatred and compassion, pleasure and pain, guilt and thanksgiving all co-exist as the reader recollects and re-presents the horrific events of the Passion in the imagination. Just as the author begins his meditations with the passage from his source describing the different and conflicting levels of will in Christ (199), so the reader is urged to pursue a multi-perspective understanding of Christ's Passion, something which will entail varied and contradictory forms of response. In this process, the transformative experience consists in being both crucified with Christ and to feel compassion for him in his suffering.

The following paragraph is repeats the Latin accurately and closely, but with very minor addition, to provide meditative focusing on the position of victim identification and from the viewpoint of Mary as co-sufferer.


When his modire and seyn Iohne & theire felawes come tymly at morne to see Ihesu, they mett hym in the waye, and when they sawe hym so vnlawefully and so dispetousely lede with so grett multitude, thare myghte no tonge telle the wo, the sorowe, that they hade ffor hym. In this metynge to-gedire, was gret sorowe one bothe the partyese, ffor owre lorde Ihesu hade gret sorowe for compassione that he hade of all his, & principally to his dere modire, ffor he knewe wele that hire sorowe was vnspekabill as towchynge hyme. Be-holde therefore besyly to euery poynte, fore they are full of sorowe & bytter compassione. (202)


Female sorrow and interaction with Christ

The closest witnesses to Christ's Crucifixion and Resurrection are female. Not quite satisfied that Christ first appears to the thief and holy Fathers in limbo, the author of Privity departs from his source of the Latin Meditationes in offering an alternative meditation. This part has no equivalent in the Latin, and occurs before the separate meditation on Christ’s first appearance to his mother:

Thou may also thynke that oure orde Ihesu aperid firste to his blischide modir oure lady aftire his resurrecione; and in sich meditacione3, aftire the gret compassione that thou had of his dede & his bitter passyone, sall thi saule be fede with swettnes of his glorious resureccione. (213)


Another apocryphal passage focusing on female proximity to Christ's body, but this time one which reiterates the source, concerns Mary Magdalene's vision of Christ in his divinity. Following Christ's instruction to Mary that she should not touch him but instead 'lufe hym gostely be gostely affeccione, be-haldyng hym as god in mane' (215), Privity nonetheless speculates that fervent desire must have led to physical touch.


Thare was thene a ioyefull standynge ffore if-all oure lorde bad hyr scho sulde nott touch hyme, I may nott trowe bot that scho aftyrwarde towched hyme full tenderly or scho 3ede, bothe kyssand his hende & his fete. (216)


It is women who stand as models of faith and compassion. The extravagant suffering and pity they manifest through their actions, tears, exclamations and prayers becomes a process of dying with Christ, which in turn is to be emulated by the meditative reader. The total absorption they demonstrate and which leads them to disregard all outward things and even the words spoken by the angels (this latter point is reiterated four times 214, 215), becomes a parallel to the meditative concentration initially required of the reader in the author's prologue (and again in the epilogue; 198, 218)

In a passage retained from the Latin, and clearly anticipating the reader's meditative engagement with the Passion story, Mary Magdalene and her sisters recollect the Passion events on the way to the Sepulchre.


With-owtyn the 3ates of the cete they vmbethoghte them of the paynes & affliccyounes & passions of theire maystere, and in euery place that they knewe that he had suffered any specyal payne they knelyde doune kyssyng the grownde, sorowynge & sygheynge to-gedire. (214)


Then follow a sustained direct speech by the sisters recapitulating the events of the road to Calvary and the Crucifixion itself. As the original and directly efficacious re-living of the events, this can be seen as the institution of the discipline of Passion meditation.

The representation of female desire contrasts starkly with the opposite desire of Christ's human tormentors to impose a maximum of pain on the body. Both desires lead to physical exhaustion as the Jews scourge Christ's body till the point where they grow weary and can proceed no longer, and Mary, in the conventional 'stabat mater' depiction, becomes weak with sorrow and bereavement and is unable to support herself.

Capable of unique compassion, and demonstrating the intense desire for physical contact that we see so often in male-authored accounts of the Passion, it is women who achieve unique intimacy with Christ's body. The Marian lament becomes a model of suffering to be emulated through the response of the reader/viewer - ideally the two coincide. Using the text regularly for meditative purposes and as a re-applicable tool for emotional absorption means undergoing the ritual infliction of pain seen as necessary in conforming the mind to the virtues inherent in Christ's Passion.

Anti-semitism and affectivity

Privity elaborates on the role of the Jews in the role of Christ's Passion, and is far from muted or subtle in its association of depravity and profanity with the Jews. Privity offers us some revealing insight into the development of anti-Semitism in late-medieval in lives of Christ.

While Privity leaves out much material from the Passion sequence of the Meditationes, it never omits mention of the acts of the Jews against Christ, and occasionally elaborates on it. Thus the Latin Meditationes has

Spoliatur etiam, et nudus est nunc tertia vice coram tota multitudine, renovantur fracturae per pannos carni applicatos. (Meditationes, ed. by Peltier, p. 605)

which in the Middle English becomes

Thane they nakynde hym ageyne be-for all the pepill and rafe of bustously his clothes that were drye & bakene to his blessed body all-abowte hyme in his blyssede blode, and so they drew ofe the flesche & the skyne with-owttyne any pete. And sekerly this was a gret payne and a vnsufferabill, ffor there they renewede all his olde bryssynges & his drye wondes, and the skyne that be-fore was lefte one hym, then was it alto-gedire rente of & cleuyde by hys clothes. (205)


Additions in Privity which are not found in the Latin include the remark that 'as some doctors says, one euery knott was a scharpe hok of Iryne, that with euery stroke they rofe his tendyr flesche (203), and the elaborations that the crown of thorns pierce through his blesside brayne and ofte-tyme they smote hyme with the septure one the heuede for scorne & dispite'. (204)

The Jews occur as one group; we hear of 'all the multitude of Iewes' (204) and 'the thronge of the Iewes' (202). The action against Christ is a mob action of abject horror described in graphic detail and with a new level of specificity. Recurring remarks about the incessant nature of he mocking and the physical exhaustion of Christ's tormentors in his Scourging further intensify the horror (201, 203).

Privity creates a strong sense of opposition between, on the one hand, the group of compassionate Christians who suffer and desire with Mary and the other witnesses to Christ's Passion, and, on the other hand, the alien hoard of the Jews whose ethical and emotional otherness set them apart.

As unrestrained, voyeuristic profaners of the sacred body they are presented as deriving sadistic gratification from imposing a maximum of suffering. Again a point is made which is not in the Latin.


The fyfte worde was: 'I thryste'. This was a bitter worde full of compassione bothe to his modir & to seynt Iohn & to all his frendis that louede hym tenderly, and to vnpeteouse Iewes it was comforthe & grete gladnes. (207)


A contrastive juxtaposition is produced between the Jews and Christ - between the impious mob, taking delight in torment and being incapable of compassion, and Christ as the epitome of meekness and passivity. 'They are noghte styrede to pete thof-all he be bot ane inncent & clene of lyfyng'. (204)


And thus they trauelde hym all that nyghte now one now an other. Be-holde now thi lorde gode how meekly he stode & paciently sufferand all that that they dide, & ansuers noghte bot stode styll with-owttene any excusynge, & as he has bene gilty meekly enclynande his eghene downewarde and haue here grete compassione of hym. (201)


The contrast between Christ's passivity and the physical action and noise of his tormentors is often reflected in Christ's bowing his head. This gesture is repeated several times: 'his face enclynede to the erthewarde' (203) meekly bowynge his heued be-fore so grete a mutitude of folke roreynge and cryenge' (204).

Antipathy towards Jews in Privity may reflect a general, socially ingrained hostility toward Jews, and contribute to mechanisms of social identity formation and exclusion. But it is also integral to the affective and devotional purpose of the meditations in Privity. The intensification of emotional absorption with Crucifixion narrative develops in parallel to intensified anti-Judaism.

A repeated structure of meditating on the crimes of the Jews recurs in Privity, and moves from a narrative account of the horrors, to the direct profane speech of the Jews, followed by a visual imagining of Christ's response or passivity and concluding in an appropriate emotional response of the reader. In this process, the reader experiences the mutual enhancement of empathy and antipathy, and may internalise the sins of the Jews as a negative example of the moral reform that is urged within him/her.

As Christ is made low and looks downward, the reader's affective involvement with the visual narrative account intensifies. Directing his gaze downward means implicating the reader as meditator, and establishing a connection perceived through the meditator's 'innere y3en', in which he/she beholds his idealised meekness and passivity.

Instructed to 'behold besyly from euery pointe' (202), the reader is to meditate also from the perspective of Christ. There is a considerable challenge in such instruction, as the reader will experience a conflict between immediate feelings of outrage and animosity towards Jews, and the exemplary pity and forgiveness demonstrated by Christ towards, not just his tormentors, but also the disciples who abandon him in his hour of need.

The capacity to arouse feelings of loathing and outrage is integral to texts like Privity, which seek to facilitate and intensify emotional involvement with the gospel narrative of Christ's suffering. But it could also be generated by other means than elaborating on the extravagant sadism of Christ's human torturers - themselves representations of human blindness and sin. In The Prickynge of Love we see virtually no interest in the role of Jews in the Passion. Here intense loathing is brought about by reflecting on the magnitude of sin within the reader, 'a man dipped al in stynke' (119, 2-3), 'a stynkande carioun and wrecche most vnkynde' (16, 9-10). Feeling the double pull of guilt and thanksgiving, the meditator is brought to a consciousness of an ongoing process of original sin. 'A whi madest thou me for to thus tormente the' (21, 20-21), 'A lord whi do I soche despite to the. for to keste the my precious lord in-to a fould pitte of my conscience. For sotheli ther is no gonge [privy] more stynkande. than my soule is'. (121, 13-16)

Dissemination and Reception Contexts


4, possibly 5 manuscripts (click to view descriptions):

Cambridge, Trinity College B.10.12; Durham, MS Cosin V.iii.8; Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 91 (Thornton MS); Yale University, Beinecke Library MS 660. Uncertain is Princeton University Library MS Taylor 11.


Durham, MS Cosin V.iii.8 contains Privity (fol. 1-16) together with The Prickynge of Love (fol 16-66). This is a significant pairing in which the longer sophisticated Prickynge can be seen to provide a tableau of themes and guidelines pertaining to the discipline of Passion meditation, and elaborates on the moral reform urged through the discipline of meditation. Prickyngedevelops conventional devotional topoi concerning Christ's humanity found in the more straightforward meditative lives of Christ. It provides various meditative instructions and exemplary prayers and affective responses that could offer useful perspective on the Passion meditations contained in Privity.

Bibliographical Materials





Carl Horstmann, ed. Yorkshire Writers. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1895-96. Vol. I 198-218.

Denise N. Baker, ed. The Privity of the Passion. In A.C. Bartlett and T.H. Bestul, eds. Cultures of Piety: Medieval English Devotional Literature in Translation. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1999, 85-107. (Baker translates extracts from Privity based on the edition by Horstmann)

Day, Stephanie M., 'A Critical Edition of the Privity of the Passion and the Lyrical Meditations’, University of York.

Peltier, A. C., ed. Meditationes Vitae Christi, S. Bonaventurae Opera Omnia, vol. XII (Paris, 1868) pp. 509-630.


George R. Keiser, ’Middle English Passion Narratives and their Contemporary Readers: The Vernacular Progeny of Meditationes Vitae Christi’, in The Mystical Tradition and the Carthusians, ed. by James Hogg. Analecta Cartusiana, 130, 10 (1996), 85-99.

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