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Van der Weyden, Descent from the Cross


The Mirror to Devout People (Speculum Devotorum)

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

Approximate Date, Sources, Provenance






(The following textual profile uses Paul J. Patterson's doctoral thesis 'Myrror to Devout People (Speculum Devotorum): An Edition with Commentary' (2006). Citations below refer to page and line numbers in this edition. I note some instances below where my analysis coincides with, or draws on, points made by Patterson in his edition. I wish to thank Paul Patterson for sharing his work in progress with the Geographies of Orthodoxy research project.)


The two manuscripts that contain A Mirror to Devout People (A Mirror) are dated between 1430-1460 (for details of dating and general codicological description, see Ryan Perry's manuscript descriptions accompanying this textual profile). The text itself is composed probably not very long after Nicholas Love's Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, a text to which the author alludes in his preface.

A Mirror is a Middle English gospel harmonisation recounting the life of Christ from the Nativity to the Crucifixion and post-Resurrection appearances. Unusually for such late-medieval English accounts, it includes two opening chapters, written 'vnder the forme of meditacion', on the Creation and the Fall. The text is divided into 33 chapters, alluding to the lifetime of Christ, and it follows the conventional method, represented for instance in the popular pseudo-Bonaventuran Meditationes vitae Christi, of dividing the account of Christ's Passion into the canonical hours of the divine office.

A Mirror recommends meditation on the humanity and Passion of Christ over that on saints and holy fathers as the most profitable 'matere' and the sovereign way to moral and virtuous reform. To facilitate the discipline of meditation, A Mirror mobilises the full rhetorical repertoire of imaginative amplification of gospel events, exhortation, imagined speech and dialogue, moralising accounts, close visual focus, etc. Frequent injunctions to reflect on the significance of the sacrifice, to be present imaginatively at Christ's Passion and to meditate with empathy and compassion from the perspective of those witnessing the events are part of a process intended to bring about lasting character transformation and moral reform. Through such vivid re-imaginings of New Testament events, typical of the pseudo-Bonaventuran Meditationes and its many adaptations, the text seeks to establish meekness, contrition and compassion as permanent virtues and emotional configurations within the soul.

A Mirror, however, sets itself apart from other Middle English lives of Christ by virtue of its extensive exegetical and contextualising exposition. Throughout, the author provides a literal sense exegesis designed to offer a contextual and historical gloss and provide a basis on which moral lessons and spiritual 'utilitas' may be extrapolated. While his ambition is to produce a harmonised account of the four gospels, it is equally to offer a harmonised exegetical gloss (derived from an impressive array of sources but predominantly from Nicholas of Lyra and Peter Comestor), which adds a layer of authority and mimetic detail to a familiar, conventionalised narrative.

Although the modus operandi of A Mirror is exegetical in the sense of explicating the literal sense of canonical texts and following prevalent opinions of theologians, the text does not exclude allegorical exposition or figurative language, and it shows some interest in apocrypha and issues of textual authenticity. This will be discussed further in the section on theology and textual authority.

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A carefully theorised preface incorporating terms and a rhetorical discourse found in medieval academic prologues establishes the text's 'matere' (a meditation of 'the manhode and the Passioun of oure Lorde' [74, 82], the ground of which is 'the gospel and the doctores therapoun' [75, 103]), its 'ordinatio' (33 chapters to the worship of the years of Christ's life with 'the tytles of hem all in a table eftre this prefacioun of the booke' [72, 12-13]), and the spiritual 'utilitas' ('a trewe waye withouten disceyte to virtues and gostely knowing and trewe louyng of God and swetnesse in grace' [73, 64-65]).

In parallel to this, the preface establishes a paratext for A Mirror, which reveals its provenance, together with the readerly and authorial agencies that occasioned it. The text is a product of the personal and textual interrelationships between the silent, ascetic and eremitic Carthusian charterhouse of Sheen and the neighbouring Birgittine Abbey of Syon. We may assume some familiarity between the anonymous Carthusian author and the 'gostely sustre in Ihesu Criste' whom he addresses throughout his A Mirror. The work is thus one of a number of request works with connection to Syon Abbey. Later examples include several works of Richard Whitford, A Looking Glass for the Religious and John Fewterer's translation of Ulrich Pinder's Speculum Passionis. This ties in well with the Carthusian and Birgittine ethos of offering preaching and private ministry through the production and circulation of devotional works.

There can thus be little doubt about the milieu within which A Mirror was composed. It suggests the trafficking of books that took place between the neighbouring Carthusian and Birgittine houses; an exchange that often appears to have taken place on the basis of personal acquaintance, private spiritual guidance, and a view of book production as a form of active preaching. By drawing on a proliferation of sources from academic, devotional and mystical theology, A Mirror is also indicative of the rich textual culture and extensive library resources of Sheen and Syon. We find in it the conservative leaning on authority so typical of the stringent orthodoxy of the fifteenth century. But we find also the adherence to sources and methods of textual explication commonly associated with the Lollards and found in e.g. the Prologue to the Wycliffite Bible.

Bearing in mind the unique combination characteristic of Syon of religious order, royal patronage and an affiliated pious aristocracy and landed gentry, books often circulated beyond the confines of monastic walls. Although we are probably most correct in assuming the intended audience to be an enclosed religious woman (or women?), the Carthusian author of A Mirror seems to be aware that his work may be, or is to be, passed on to others, perhaps to pious laypeople, at a later stage of its transmission as part of Syon Abbey's mission of extramural, active ministry. The opening statement that the author intends his work 'to your profyte or of ony other deuoute seruant of oure Lorde' (72, 5-6), develops into appeals to both male and female readers in subsequent chapters.

This point being made, the contents and meditations of A Mirror do not address in any direct way pious lay readers, and it does not seem to intend to claim the status of Nicholas Love's Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ which achieved considerable circulation among wealthy and erudite gentry audiences.
Significantly, A Mirror contains no instruction on how best to combine the active, worldly life with the desire for meditative concentration. Unlike, for instance, the author of the Latin pseudo-Bonaventuran Meditationes vitae Christi, The Prickynge of Love and several of Walter Hilton's writings, the author of A Mirror is not interested in developing the idea of the applicability of his meditations to the realm of secular obligations.

In spite of the conventional humility topoi of authorial insufficiency and lack of learning, the Carthusian author appears unusually independent and assured in his handling of sources as he offers his reader an accessible and highly selective presentation of theological authority.

In the preface, A Mirror does proclaim its Bonaventuran heritage, and the tone and arrangement of material bear witness to the pervasive influence of the Meditationes vitae Christi. However, A Mirror is not, strictly speaking, a pseudo-Bonaventuran work, and to term it as a vernacular translation or adaptation of the Meditationes is problematic. While the author clearly states his awareness of both the Meditationes and Nicholas Love's Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, there is no certain evidence that he made substantial use of, or indeed had access to, any of these two texts. The skeletal structure of meditations and the division of the Passion sequence into the hours of the divine office which the author of A Mirror seems to borrow from Meditationes (though often with much freedom) had become normative by the fifteenth century and available to the author from multiple other sources than the MVC.

What is clear is that the Carthusian author conceives of his work as independent and certainly distinct from Bonaventura, but within the genre of Passion meditation. The preface states twice that Bonaventura's 'booke' and A Mirror share 'the same matier' (72, 21; 73, 46), but they are two separate works.
The relationship between A Mirror and the related works of Bonaventura and Nicholas Love will be discussed in more detail in the section on textual authority. Here we may note that the relationship between A Mirror and Meditationes is that of complementarity rather than adaptation. The rationale for such a project is stated also in the preface and is the same as that which underlies the author's handling of gospels and commentary, namely to provide what others omit; 'that one leueth another supplyeth' (73, 48-49). In other words, just as a harmonisation of evangelists is desirable for the full narrative of Christ's life, and biblical commentators usefully supplement each other in offering an authoritative gloss on this life, so a supplementation of meditative lives of Christ offers author and reader important material for devotional purposes. The author's determination to produce a work that differs significantly from Meditationes and Nicholas Love's adaptation of it is only subtly suggested in the preface as will be discussed below.

To realise this ambition, the author teams up with an impressive range of exegetical 'auctoritates' (notably Nicholas of Lyra and Peter Comestor), offering a mix of meditation and quasi-clerical knowledge deemed appropriate for a reader in the liminal space between lay and clerical, and possibly tailored to a Birgittine cycle of liturgical observance. Here, affectivity and extensive exegesis are not dichotomies or readerly options, but a complete package designed to educate the reader in the act of reading and in the process of moral application.

It seems likely that, in the process of composition, the existence and pervasive influence of Meditationes become less a source of authorial anxiety and inadequacy, than an opportunity to produce a new and distinct work in a way that implies some criticism and redefinition of what it means to write 'vnder the forme of meditacion'. What is clear is that the complex and theoretically inflected preface raises the possibility of an inter-textual debate conducted within houses of stringent orthodoxy over how to represent the holiest of lives so as best to enable an improving reading and provide a mirror for moral reform. It is the argument here that at the heart of such exchange is a debate about the role of the faculty of imagination in moral reform and the efficacy of learned commentary to generate meditation and increase devotional 'utilitas'.

A Mirror differs from the tendency in earlier Middle English pseudo-Bonaventuran works like Meditations on the Supper and the Hours of the Passion and Privity of the Passion, which all draw on the Passion sequence of the Meditationes vitae Christi (known as Meditationes de passione Christi) and which claim Bonaventura's authorship. Instead, A Mirror (like Nicholas Love's work) renders the entire life of Christ, augmented with a continuous authoritative gloss designed to be morally formative more than performative or concentrated on sustained affective imagining.

It might be said that A Mirror suggests a new orientation or tradition in Middle English lives of Christ towards contextualising exposition and that it represents tendencies other than the sustained affective immersion and imaginative re-creation that characterise earlier meditations. Its quasi-clerical, harmonising drive looks forward towards the more encyclopaedic compilations of Ludolph of Saxony's Vita Christi and John Fewterer's Myrrour or Glasse of Christes Passion, both of which are extravagant in their eclecticism, offering a 'summa' of explanatory, moralising material, rather than sustained affective elaboration. The sometimes rather abrupt transitions between discourse types (gospel narrative, allegory, exegetical contextualisation, prayer, moral extrapolation) that we find in A Mirror foreshadow the complex ordering of material, demarcation of discourses and marginal referencing represented structurally and typographically in Fewterer's later Syon Myrrour.



A Mirror consists of 33 chapters, alluding to the 33 years that Christ lived on Earth. The material can be divided as follows:

1-2: Creation, Original Sin.

3-18: Nativity, Circumcision, the three Kings, the Virgin's Purification, the Flight into Egypt, Christ in the Temple, Baptism, Temptation in the Desert, Preaching and Miracles, Last Supper, Entry into Jerusalem, Judas' Betrayal.

19-26: (the Passion sequence arranged into the canonical hours) Arrest, Disciples abandon Christ, Christ before Annas and Caiaphas, before Pilate and Herod, Mocking by the Jews, Scourging, Crowning, the Way to Calvary, Crucifixion, Mary's Prayers, Deposition from the Cross, Burial.

27-32: Descent into Hell, Resurrection and Christ's five appearances, Ascension.

33: the sending of the Holy Ghost, a commendation of St. John, on the Lord's special love of John, the 'essencyable' and 'accidental' joys of Heaven, John's perfection, on the prayer 'O Intemerata' and its association with miracles (this prayer follows the final chapter).

Lengthy additional interpolations occur throughout A Mirror and treat of subjects such as topography, Jewish customs, the etymology of names, the discernment of spirits, degrees of the virtue of meekness and the errors of heresies. Also, the author draws on Birgitta's Revelations to provide further apocryphal detail (for example the deeds of Christ between the ages 12 and 30).

Between preface and text is a table of chapters. This is clearly an integral part of the full work, and the correspondence between chapter titles in the table and as they appear in the main text is exact. As the author states in the preface, the table is intended to provide ease of reference and to facilitate a process of close selective reading. Its inclusion chimes with the 'entent' and devotional 'utilitas' sketched out in the preface to provide spiritual and moral edification by enabling the reader's 'diligent' concentration on specific meditations (74, 96-101).

Rhetoric and Manner of Exposition



In the attempt to integrate a wide array of sources and discourses, we see the author frequently shifting from his narrative thread into historical exegesis and then resumes his narrative with phrases such as 'than after this turneth a3eyne to the story of Kynge Herode' (119, 57), 'bot nowe lete vs go to our purpose a3ene' (190, 186).

The same structural ordinatio is repeated in almost all chapters, and commences with a retelling of gospel events, often but not always close in tone and structure to Meditationes vitae Christi. Following this recapitulation, the author proceeds to elaborate his narrative with commentary matter, before moving to the reflective stage where biblical 'sentence' becomes applied meaning in order to reform reader's conduct and stir affectively to the love of God.

Chapter 13 serves as a clear example of this structure, and it demonstrates the author's use of Lyra and Comestor for contextual gloss, while patristic authority is invoked mostly for purposes of moral edification. The subject of the chapter is 'how oure Lorde Ihesu Criste was ledde of a spiryte into deserte that he myghte be tempede of the fende, and how he fastede xl dayes, with other edificatyve maters accordynge therto after the seyynge of doctors' (132, 1-3), and its organisation can be represented thus:

  • Narrative: Christ fasting in the desert
  • Lyra and Comestor on the geographical location of the desert and the temple in Jerusalem
  • On the necessity of solitude for preachers and teachers
  • Narrative: The Devil tempts Christ. Words exchanged between the Devil and Christ. Christ overcomes the Devil
  • Christ as example of how we should suffer temptation and tribulation with patience
  • Gregory on the necessity of Christ overcoming our temptations by his own temptation and overcoming our death by his own
  • On the three types of temptation
  • Gregory on Christ's exemplary use of the commandments of scripture against the Devil - an example of how we should be stirred to teaching instead of vengeance
  • Concluding reflection on the contrast of human impatience with Christ's patience and inward suffering.


The following are some of the rhetorical features and discourse types used in A Mirror.



Direct exhortation and imperative occur throughout Mirror, directing an ordered sequence of carefully circumscribed meditations, appropriate emotional responses and moral teaching. Repeated injunctions to 'beholde', 'see now', 'thenketh', 'taketh gode hede', 'vnderstonde', etc. are found in each chapter.


Nowe yhe may thynke friste how grete godenesse it was of God to make man (80, 39-40)



Forthermore, yhe shall vnderstonde that Seinte Gregory seyth apon that texte of the Gospell of this same daye (111, 214-15)



Nowe I pray yow, considreth diligentely howe our Lorde Ihesu Criste meekly goth thurgh the cite of ierusalem with the seide heuy crosse on his shuldre (182, 113-14)



Lo, gostely sustre, here considereth what shame it shude be to vs that bene bot synfull wrecches to forsake to do lowe seruice to our euen Cresten (157, 57-8)



Beholdeth also deuoutely with a gode auysemente and a diligente consideracioun howe the louely Lordes hede hangede downwarde as it were to kysse (196, 51-3)



Exclamation and apostrophe

Notably, the many spontaneous exclamations or prayerful apostrophes, which are a characteristic feature of earlier pseudo-Bonaventuran meditations, are not found in A Mirror. The only meditative exclamations in the text occur in imagined and direct speech in connection with Mary's prayer.


And than may ye thence how our Lady, full of sorowe and heuynes, aryseth vpp and stondeth between the thefes crosses and oure Lordes, and with mykel lamentacioun she lyftede vpp her hondes, haply seyynge siche maner wordes or like: A suete sonne, alas that euer I seeghe this day. Why ne hadde I dyde er I sawgth thys daye and the in this plite? I wote wele, blyssede sonne, thou deseruede neuer this peyne (193, 84-9)



After this yhe may thence howe she lyfte vp hir herte and handes to the Fader in heuen, seyynge suche maner wordes or like: Almyghty God, Fader in heuene, that wolde your owne Sone take flesshe ande blode of me, your seruaunte (193, 104-6)



Imagined speech and dialogue

There are several instances of direct speech and dialogue, although sustained speech is rare. Examples of speech in the text include


  • the Angel to Mary (Chapter 5)
  • the Angel to the shepherds (Chapter 5)
  • the Angel to Joseph (Chapter 9)
  • Elizabeth to Mary (Chapter 5)
  • Herod to the Three Kings (Chapter 7)
  • Words between Peter and Christ (Chapter 19)
  • Words between Pharisees and Christ (Chapter 21)
  • Caiaphas to Pharisees (Chapter 16)
  • Words between Judas and Christ (Chapters 17, 19)
  • Words between Christ and Annas (Chapter 19)
  • Words between Christ and Pilate (Chapter 21)
  • Words between Pilate and Jews (Chapter 21)
  • Pilate's Wife to Pilate (Chapter 21)
  • Words between Christ and Thieves on the Cross (Chapter 22)
  • Words between the Christ resurrected and Thomas (Chapter 31)


Occasionally the author provides his own running gloss on spoken words, as is the case in the exchange between Pilate and Christ


Bot thi peple and thi byshoppes haue ytake the to me, accusynge the therof. What haste thu doo? As who seyth, it semeth wele that thou ert somewhat gylty, seethe thai that bene of thyne owne peple and of so grete autorite as bisshoppes haue accusede the. And than our Lorde seide a3ene: My kyngdome is not of this worlde, as who seyth, I seche not to reigne temporally in this worlde, bot I am comen to dye for helth of mannes soule. (174, 77-83)



Narratorial voice

The narratorial 'I' voice dominates throughout A Mirror, functioning as a strong personal, guiding and didactic presence. It is not used to chart a series of personal emotional responses, as is the case for instance in the Latin Pseudo-Bonaventuran Meditationes, in many Crucifixion lyrics and in the The Prickynge of Love. Instead, it establishes the textual connection between author and reader by dictating exemplary responses and carefully preparing the reader for the individual meditations and the discursive shifts that occur within them.


Relygiouse sustre, in the begynnyng of thies simple meditacions, I pray yow firste to withdrawe your thought from all other thoghtes that might lette yowe, and than to lyfte vp your hert to God and saye deuotely thre Pater Noster; (79, 4-7)



'Now yhe shall vnderstonde that mekenesse of spirite hath diuers degrees, of the whiche foure I shal tell yowe here by rowe' (91, 60-61)



Nowe it were gode here, I trowe, to haue some informacioun or techynge howe a man or a woman might knowe a gode visione from ane euyle, and when reuelaciouns or visions bene of God or of the enemy (88, 85-87)



Gostely syster, now here cometh to mynde the beheste that y behette yow in the two and twenty chapitle of this boke, that is, that I wolde telle yowe more of the commendacioun of the worthy apostell Seynte Iohn Euangeliste, to the worship of God and to the encresynge of your deuocioun or of ony other deuote seruante of God, to God and to the same holy apostell. (230, 111-15)



Visual evocation

Conventionally, injunctions to 'beholde' occur in A Mirror particularly in the Passion sequence to facilitate vivid visual imagining of events.


Nowe than beholdeth howe his precyouse blode renneth downe on euery side, and howe thei louse hym fro the piler and than thei knytte a crowne of resshes of the see, the whiche bene sharpe and harde as thornes. (176, 166-68)



And than yhe may beholde howe the prikkes of the crowne rynnes into his hede that the blode rynneth downe by his suete face and all his hede, and this may be a peynfull sighte to a deuoute soule. (177, 181-83)


However, such affective visual imaginings are comparatively rare in A Mirror. The author rarely develops his meditations in the direction of sustained close meditative visual focus. Because the author seeks to integrate the affective mode of reading with the intellectual/exegetical mode within each meditation, the process of 'beholdynge' never exists apart from the more intellectually reflective disciplines of 'thenkynge' and 'considerynge'. To 'beholde' the details of a meditation primarily means to memorise (in the literal sense) and to consider and absorb the deeper significance of the Crucifixion events.


Then after this beholdeth diligently howe our Lorde Ihesu Criste in the sopere also ordeynede the worshipfull sacramente of his owne precious fflesshe and blode, and communede his disciples, the whiche he wolde be vsede in Holy Chirche in mynde of hym. (158, 68-71)


Glossatory, contextualising exposition

Explanatory glossing features prominently in each chapter in A Mirror. The text makes frequent and selective use of exegetical commentary to provide a running gloss on the literal/historical sense of scripture absent from other earlier meditative lives of Christ. For discussion, see the section on textual authority and theological positioning.

The contextualising exposition pertains especially to issues of topography, genealogy, etymology, and Jewish customs and laws. The following are some examples.


God and man was borne of the virgin our Lady Seing Marye, and that place was at the ende of the street the whiche was called that tyme the Couerde Strete. Ffor, for grete hete of the sonne, as it is yit the manere there, hit was couerde aboute with blake clothes and suche other thynges. And at the ende of the street was a litell cote before a denne in a rokke ymade in the maner of a litell selere, and in that denne Ysaye, Dauid fader, and other men afterwarde, for hete of the sonne, putte vp some necessaries. (97, 28-35)



Here I wol tel yow firste what this Estre was amonge hem, ffor yhe shal vnderstonde that it was a grete festyuall day amonge the Iewes, and it is als mykill to seye as a passynge. This feste, yhe shal vnderstonde, was vsed amonge hem in mynde of the grete benfete that God shewede hem, when by hys angele he delyuerde hem oute of the lond of Egipte fro the orbbell bondage of Kynge Pharaho. (152, 11-17)



And yhe may beholde that he [Christ] goth happely barefote or elles werynge sandals, the whiche were as it hadde be soles off shone, and hem he werede vnder his fete for hete of the erthe, ffor it is seide that it is full hote in that contrey, and thei were festenede aboue the fote with a maner of festenynge to holde hem faste. (129, 16-20)


Moral exposition

Moralising exposition is found in each chapter of Mirror, and usually follows after the literal account of New Testament events. Often the author signposts and dictates the moral lesson to be derived from each story.


And taketh diligentely ensample of the virtues before-seide, thynkynge howe grete shame it shulde be to vs 3ife we kan not take meekly dispites and wronges of our euen Cristen, when oure Lorde toke so mykel despite and wronge of wykkede peple, the which he might haue made forto haue sunken downe into helle 3ife he hadde wolde anone forthwith. Mikell more than shame confusyoun shulde it be to vs, 3ife we cannot take meekly and pacyentely corrections rightfull of hem that bene aboue vs, and specialy of hem that correcte vs for the profite of oure soules. (170, 238-171, 246)


Particular emphasis falls on conforming human will and moral perspective to Christ, whose Passion serves as the key to moral reform. Chapter 24 urges an imitation of Christ's Passion in which 'he suffrede a3enste thre thynges that men and wymmen setten her loues moste on in this passynge worlde, that is to seye, worshippes and dignites, lustes and lykynges, and worldly riches'. (197, 95-97)

Where the historical and contextualising exposition is mainly derived from the commentaries of Lyra and Comestor, a wide range of other sources are frequently excerpted (most often with reference to author) to provide a deeper, moralising gloss to the gospel meditations.


Typological allegory

Literal sense exposition dominates in A Mirror but there is some elaboration of anagogical and typological meanings.

The author provides some typology for the appearance of Christ in chapter 2 of A Mirror.


All this was betokened before be signes, figures, and prophecyes, for it was worthi that so excellente a werke shulde be betokenede before. And firste by sygnes and figures in patriarkes, of the whiche I shall tel yow one to your comforte that was shewede longe before the lawe by the holy patriarke Abraham and his sonne Ysaak. (84, 38-42)


Figurative meanings of selected gospel elements are often clarified. An example is the Circumcision done 'in a ful tendere place of a mannes body with a knyfe of stone' (103, 14-15), and allegorized as a token 'that he had take verrey flesshe and that he wolde commende to vs by his ensample the vertue of obediens in kepynge of the lawe that he was nought bounde to' (104, 47-48, 60-61).

The author maintains the co-existence literal and figurative levels of meaning in the exposition of the significance of the kingdom of Israel.


Thys some doctors expounden gostely of the kyngedome that is to come in the blysse of heuen, the which shall be fully in all chosen, both in body and soule, after the generall day of dome. Some vnderstonden it of the temporele kyngedome of the peple of Ysrael, and so expoundes it Lire as to the lytterall vnderstondynge, for it may be vnderstonde in both maners. (222, 30-223, 2)


Reading instructions

The author underscores the importance of concentrated, absorbed reading, which selects specific meditations for close reading and does not necessarily follow the chronological sequence of the Passion narrative. The table of contents that accompanies the two manuscript copies of the text might facilitate ease of reference for readers who would have at their disposal a large number of English and Latin texts. By means of it, readers could locate specific events in Christ's life or explanatory digressions and conduct the concentrated, meditative reading encouraged.


Also, the meditaciouns folowynge bene noght to be redde necligently and with hastynesse, bot diligently with a goode auysement that the reder maye haue the more profite therof; for hit is better to rede one chapitle diligently and with a goode deliberacioun than thre with necligence and hastynesse, for 3e shall noght consider how mykill 3e reede, butt how wele. (74, 96-101)


As is found elsewhere in comparable devotional literature, the reader is given freedom to choose between two accounts of the Crucifixion; 'whiche of hem may stere yowe beste to deuocioun, that taketh' (185, 22-23). And the reader's willingness and competence to amplify the meditations beyond those briefly outlined in A Mirror are anticipated.


Ffor it were to longe to make a meditacioun of yche werke that the euangelistes tellen of oure Lorde. And als I trowe, it nedeth noght, ffor a deuote soule may, be grace of God, drawe this that is shortely seyde into longe meditacioun, 3if he woll and be disposede therto be grace. (142, 47-51)


There are frequent directions to participate imaginatively in the narrative: 'kepeth yourselfe presente als thoffe yhe hadde sene all this done affore youw' (102, 185-86).'Ye moste thenke in your ymagynacioun yourselfe as thoffe yhe were presente with hem and one of hem' (183, 140-41). Other recurring imperatives urge the absorption of gospel events and their moral content: 'taketh gode hede of his merueylouse charite, mekenes and pacyence' (181, 96-97); 'here conceyueth deuoutely how mykell we bene bounde to thonke and loue this louely Lorde' (208, 57-58); 'here considereth inwardely the merveylouse charite of oure suete Lorde' (208, 49-50).


A number of directions have the effect of pausing the narrative to urge moral reflection and prepare the reader for what follows.


And therefore taketh ensample of hym and lerneth to suffer meekly and paciently dispites, wronges and other aduersitees in this worlde for his loue and the profite of your soul, that thus mykille suffrede for yow. Bot all that that is before-seid is bot litell in rewarde of that that yhe shall here folewynge, and therefore I pray yow taketh gode hede. (175, 115-20)


Textual Authority and Theological Position







Textual authority

A Mirror draws on the rich textual culture of the Carthusian and Birgittine houses in the first half of the fifteenth century. What enabled the author to produce his work and also to suggest a new direction in the composition of meditative lives of Christ was a library up-to-date on current trends in Continental spiritual writing and rich in theological and exegetical works, hagiography, mysticism, para-mysticism, meditative, pastoral and preaching materials, and treatises of 'discretio spirituum' and spiritual self-scrutiny.

The Bible is the primary text, and the author quotes from it approximately 130 times (Paul J. Patterson, ed. 39), mostly from the four gospels, but also from Old Testament sources and the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. It should be noted that A Mirror makes no mention of the activity of Bible reading or of vernacular biblical translation.

The modus operandi of A Mirror is that of harmonising gospel account with exegetical exposition and moralising commentary. For commentary, the author relies chiefly on Nicholas of Lyra's Postilla super totam bibliam (Lyra is referred to in 28 of Mirror's 33 chapters, and with approximately 60 separate references to his name) and Peter Comestor's Historia Scholastica (referred to in 16 chapters). Other chief non-biblical sources (included 'as to morall virtues' 75, 111) are works by Gregory (mentioned in 13 chapters) and Jerome (in 9 chapters). Crucial is also Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda aurea (referred to by its title in 5 chapters) and many sources are accessed second-hand via this work. Notable is that the number of quotations from the main sources of Lyra, Comestor and Gregory respectively greatly exceeds those from Augustine.

Other sources include the Church Fathers Ambrose, John Chrysostom, and later theologians such as Adam the Carthusian, John of Caulibus (the most likely author of the Latin Meditationes vitae Christi), Walter Hilton, Bede, Henry Suso, Bernard of Clairvaux, Leo the Great, Richard of St Victor. A number of hagiographical sources are also included, e.g. Miracles of the Virgin Mary, Mandeville's Travels, and others via the Legenda Aurea. The visionary works of the female mystics Mechtild of Hackeborn, Birgitta of Sweden and Catherine of Siena also find their way into A Mirror. (This list of sources is not complete. For more detail, see Paul J. Patterson, ed., 38-39. Vincent Gillespie provides a full list of chapters and the textual sources used in each in 'The Haunted Text', 158-60.)

Like Love's Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, A Mirror contains one reference in the first chapter (81, 101) to Walter Hilton, who was much copied and valued in the Carthusian community. Unsurprisingly, bearing in mind the audience for A Mirror, Hilton is not here invoked as an authority on mixed life as with Love. Instead he is used in the context of the Fall to provide a reflection on human will and the Fall as an epistemological fall 'fro the clerenesse of knowynge that was in the resoun into the derkenesse of ygnorance and error'. (81, 88-89)

The impression is thus of an impressive, accessible and highly selective use of commentaries. The author demonstrates a confident handling of sources as he applies to each meditation his exemplary hermeneutics, progressing from gospel account and exegesis to moral reform. Reliance on Lyra as his chief authority for the context of Christ's humanity does not prevent the author from correcting him, as happens in chapter 10 which tells of the boy Jesus teaching in the temple.


Than after this yhe may thenke howe at the laste after thre dayes thai founden him in the temple, not, as Lyre seythe, in the merkett, ne in pleiynge as children bene wonte to be founden, bot in one holy place yordeynede to holy prayer and doctrine, syttynge in the myddes of doctoures. (123, 48-51)


The author's ambition to render quasi-clerical knowledge accessible to what we must assume to be a coterie of elite spirituals, results in a text motivated in large measure by the commentary itself.

The technique of integrating sources and discourses finds it finest articulation in the final chapter original to A Mirror, in which the author delivers what he has promised earlier, namely an epilogue rich in legendary material on Mary and St. John, and the extended prayer O Intemerata.

It is difficult to discern one consistent method of quoting sources in A Mirror. The author occasionally (especially in the first chapters of A Mirror) quotes in Latin and then provide English translation immediately after. But the majority of scriptural quotations occur in English only. As regards non-biblical sources, the author sometimes provides paraphrase with reference only to the author and not to the work. At other times, an author is quoted nearly verbatim, but again with no reference to the title (e.g. Walter Hilton from Ladder of Perfection, 81,102-82, 106 and Catherine of Siena from Dialogues, 88, 95-89,126). And finally, some sources are included with full reference to author and title (e.g. 'Also Seinte Gregore seyth in the Morales vpon Iob, in the thirtenneth boke' 139, 107-8)


St. Birgitta in A Mirror

The Revelations of St Birgitta are cited three times in A Mirror, the first time for her account, received by vision from Mary, of 'howe our Lorde was borne and all the manere thereof' (99, 68), secondly for her vision of Christ's acts between ages 12 and 30, and finally for her eyewitness account of the Crucifixion. Remarkably, the author chooses three different ways of citing from Birgitta in what seems a conscious effort to offer the reader multiple discourses and perspectives on Birgittine authority. Thus a first-person account by Birgitta herself relates the Nativity, while Mary's first-person narration as delivered directly to Birgitta in vision offers details of Christ between 12 and 30. Finally Birgitta's visionary account of the Crucifixion is completely reworked by the author 'into the fourme of meditacioun' and into third-person narration with directives to the reader to 'beholde' and 'thenke'. In this latter instance, the author is careful to stress that the visionary and meditative accounts constitute two different discourses; Birgitta's experience of seeing in the form of a mystical revelation is to find a parallel in the nun's meditative practice, but always with the awareness of the ontological distinction between vision and meditation.

Crucially, Birgitta's visions are used as authority for the two seminal events of the Nativity and the Crucifixion. Birgitta is invoked as a textual authority with her visionary account of the Crucifixion as preferable ('sykerer') to the other version offered, and she occurs in a tradition of inscrutable orthodoxy alongside 'auctoritates' like Lyra, Bernard and Legenda Aurea.

In what is perhaps a textually embedded polemic, A Mirror, in effect, performs its own canonization of Birgitta. A Mirror's handling of Birgitta as a recipient of approved visions can be seen in the light of an ongoing canonization process (possibly contemporaneous with the composition of A Mirror) and considerably international controversy. The question of the ratification of Birgitta's canonization, and the general criteria of 'discretio', were hotly disputed topics at the Council of Constance 1414-18, at which Jean Gerson among others vehemently opposed the approval of Birgitta. A Mirror demonstrates concerns similar to those we see in Alphonse of Pecha's Epistola solitarii ad reges, a key text of 'discretio spirituum' and one that is extracted in The Chastising of God's Children, namely to defend the authenticity of Birgitta's revelations and assert her spiritual ambition as a cultural and religious model. Such efforts chime well with the characteristic Carthusian concern with approval, and particularly well with the interests of Syon Abbey as a community sensitive to procedures of verification and with a liturgy grounded in female textual authority.


A Mirror's relation to Meditationes vitae Christi and Nicholas Love's Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ

The relationship of A Mirror to the Latin Meditationes is not to be viewed so much in terms of translation or direct adaptation, but more in terms of development and the reconfiguration of a genre to address a specialised audience.

The ideas that A Mirror suffers from competition with the earlier Meditationes and Love's Mirror, or that the author is in awe of his predecessors to the point where he nearly aborts his project 72, 19-23), are not very helpful to understand the sophisticated processes of compilation and translation that take place. The pervasive influence of earlier meditations is the necessary backdrop that provides the Carthusian author with the opportunity to produce a new and independent work.

The author may very well have looked to Meditationes, or any other ps-Bonaventuran meditation, for skeletal structure and occasionally some narrative sequence, but when he talks about 'he that wrote friste the meditacions folowyng' (73, 52), he refers to himself and not to Bonaventura. When he anticipates criticism from his readers 'that I that am bot a simple man shulde doo suche a werke eftre so worthi a man as Boneauenture was, seth he wrote of the same matier' (73, 44-46), the implication is that he writes after Bonaventura in time, not in imitation or translation of him. While they share 'matier', we have two independent authorial agencies and two separate productions within the genre of vita Christi.

It is the drive towards harmonisation that serves as the justification and guiding theoretical principle in A Mirror. Turning to the subject of Christ's actions from the ages of 12 to 30, the author is motivated by the opportunity to fill in the gaps by drawing on the revelations that St Birgitta received on this subject.


Ffor what was done aboute hym till he were twelfe yhere olde as in the persone of man, and what he dede when he was twelfe yhere olde, yhe haue herde sufficiently, I trowe, in other meditacions before. (126, 17-20)


In this and other instances the author is assuming not just a reader well versed in meditative writing, but also the co-existence of different meditations in a programme of reforming reading such as that conducted in the Birgittine Syon Abbey. Similarly, it would constitute a 'meditative superfluity' to rehearse Christ's words on the Cross as these are available in multiple other sources fully glossed for meditative purposes. The author of A Mirror omits this and instead, unusually, offers an explanation of the meaning of the sign above Christ on the Cross.

If it is the case that the author relied on the Latin Meditationes for the skeletal structure of his work, we should also note that he adds opening and concluding chapters found nowhere else, and generally re-organises material substantially for purposes of thematic unity and possibly to suit a Birgittine liturgical ritual. Occasionally, the author promises his reader to treat of a particular subject in a later chapter, which he then does, in effect constructing his very own 'ordinatio' of material arranged in coherent thematic clusters. (e.g. 122, 15-16)

From the beginning of the Passion sequence in chapter 19, Mirror follows the structure of the canonical hours as these occur in the Meditationes. But the following examples give some idea of how A Mirror departs structurally from the Meditationes.

  • Peter's denial of Christ (mentioned very briefly in the 'Compline' of Meditationes) is included in the 'Matins' and given lengthy treatment in a chapter which concentrates thematically on betrayal and abandonment, and which concludes in a long moralising lesson on human presumption. This is Chapter 19 in A Mirror.
  • The long meditation of 'Terce' (chapter 21) considers the end of the city of Jerusalem, the motives of Pilate, the attempts at persuasion by his wife, and St. John's comfort of Mary, all absent from Meditationes.
  • Where Meditationes combines the meditations of 'Sext' and 'None', Mirror provides much augmentation and treats these separately in two of the longest meditations, Chapters 22 and 23. A Mirror omits the words of Christ on the Cross, but has an explanation of the sign above Christ (absent from other pseudo-Bonaventuran meditations). The choice of meditations on the Crucifixion in Meditationes is reversed in A Mirror, so that Christ is first crucified lying down and then crucified upright (the meditation on the upright Crucifixion adapted from Birgitta's Revelations).
  • The Opening of Christ's side is given a separate chapter in A Mirror, Chapter 24, and augmented with much reflection on heretical belief and 'imitatio Christi'. The Deposition from the Cross (which differs greatly in precise detail from Meditationes) then becomes 'Vepers'. Meditationes treats both events in the meditation of 'Vespers'.
  • The 'Compline' meditation of A Mirror, Chapter 26, is much abbreviated in comparison with Meditationes. Whereas the account of Christ's Descent to Hell is included in the 'Compline' of Meditationes, this is given the separate Chapter 29 in the English.


As is the case with the Passion cycle, there is also considerable re-organisation of the accounts of Christ's post-Resurrection appearances.

Meditative process and reforming reading

A Mirror demonstrates the movement familiar from other meditative Christological meditations which progresses from recapitulation of events, through visual re-imagining and close meditative focus, to an appropriate responsive state of moral reflection. Repeated injunctions to 'behold' suggest a culture of reading trained in a process of graphic recollection of sacred history. In A Mirror directions to 'behold deuotely' and 'now think' are most often used interchangeably. The reader is urged at regular intervals to imagine herself as a co-participant in the Passion narrative.


And than yhe may thence how the shepehirdes wente ayeyne to here shepe, glorifyinge and preysynge God of that benefete done to all the worlde generally and specially shewede to hem. In all thies thynges kepeth yourselfe presente als thoffe yhe hadde sene all this done affore yowe. And ymageneth also what reuerence, worshippe and seruice yhe wolde haue doo there to our Lord and our Lady and to Ioseph, and howe hertly haue do thonkede oure Lorde for his grete benetefe ydo to mankynde, and also howe gladly yhe couthe suffer pouerte and penance for his loue. (102, 183-90; see also 220, 104-6)


The process of visual, affective evocation in the act of meditation is intended to bring about a variety of emotional configurations. Thus, the after re-presenting 'in your ymagynacioun' the appearances of Christ, we find these directions.


And so by his grace shulde yhe conceyue ioy and gladness with our Lady and the apostels of his Resurreccioun, righte as yhe haue had cause affore of heuynes with pite and compassioun in the beholdynge of his preciouse Passioun. Ffor suche maner of affecciouns bene ful profitable to a deuote seruante of God, specialy in his begynnynge. (221, 109-13)


Compared to other meditative lives of Christ, however, A Mirror contains little meditation in the sense of prolonged affective, imaginative passages. Its interest appears to be with moral edification and adding layers of contextual, glossatory commentary, and much less with remaining in the affective mode or exercising the faculty of the imagination for affective purposes. We see in A Mirror comparatively few extended reflections on the interior image of sin and few attempts to stir to an attitude or contrition and self-loathing, such as we see it in e.g. The Prickynge of Love or Meditations on the Supper.

This is not to say that the author of A Mirror is uninterested in the operation of sustained 'ymaginacions', or in fostering mental states of pity and contrition. Probably more correct is that he assumes the affective approach, rather than seeks to facilitate it. He outlines no imaginative process of dying with Christ, and does not offer any exploration of meditative perspectives that we see in other texts. Such elaboration is detailed elsewhere, and the author can assume the reader's competence in developing the material presented before her into interior imaginative re-enactments. This understanding is fully consonant both with the author's address to member of the Syon community who is advanced in devotional reading, and with his rationale of harmonising accounts and anticipating that specific meditative writings will be used in a continuum with other religious texts and devotional disciplines.

A Mirror offers material for meditation in the scripture-based and systematic way that appealed to Syon nuns. The author assumes that his reader practises a distinct form of life, anchored in reiterated liturgy, in practices with an institutional foundation, and always in a continuum with other texts and other acts of reading.

With A Mirror, the reader would have access to a formative model of biblical reflection, which does not require regular reading of the Bible itself. This model provides an exemplary progress towards moral application, with the structural 'ordinatio' of each chapter beginning with literal and contextualising exposition and then extrapolating the spiritual and moral 'utilitas' hereof. Each chapter, in other words, becomes a lesson in textual reflection with the same hermeneutic process re-applied, comprising stages of recollection, reflection and moral application.

This is a programme of further education in the act of reading, which integrates affective and intellectual ambitions, and would be readily applicable to other texts. It seems fairly safe to assume that many of the texts briefly excerpted in A Mirror could be consulted in the Syon library, and there is no evidence of any limits ever being imposed on the number of books to be accessed or owned by a Syon nun. In A Mirror the reader would find a 'hermeneutic grid' for the discipline of improving reading within the religious house - an exemplary 'modus operandi' for extracting and elucidating the profound, ethical meaning of the literal sense.

In this text-conscious environment, the process of 'discretio' applies not just to the discernment of spirits and delusion in spiritual sensations. It applies to reading itself and to a consideration of issues of textual authority and authenticity. This becomes clear in the author's mention of the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, which contains detail on Christ's Descent to Hell. At first the author invokes this source as an absent presence in his text - as an inauthentic source not appropriately used as a basis for meditation.


Bot for it is not autentike, and also for the seid doctor Lyre preueth it euydentely fals by autorite of Holy Wryte and sayynges of other doctors, I ouerpasse it and wolle not putte suche thynges here that is so vnsiker and myghte be cause of erroure to simple creatures. (208, 41-44)


Later the same apocryphal gospel is used as the source that the resurrected Christ appeared also to Joseph of Arimathea, with the qualifying statement that


this apperynge is redde in the gospel of Nichodeme, as it is aforeseide. Bot for it is not autentyke, as I haue tolde yowe before in the xxviii chapitle, I commytte it to the dome of the reder whether he woll admytte it or none. (217, 155-57)


Indicative of the erudite and institutional milieu for which A Mirror was intended, the author assumes an ability to discern between valid and deceitful visions, but also between canonical and apocryphal material. The interest throughout in approved writing and the correct handling of scriptural apocrypha would not be appropriate in Passion meditation intended primarily for lay audiences.

The focus in A Mirror on devotion to Mary and on female experience of Christ's resurrection is notable and hardly surprising, bearing in mind the text's gender-specific audience. Yet it is questionable if the role of gender is as significant in A Mirror as some scholarship has suggested. The highlighting of Mary's exemplary devotion for the reader to emulate is entirely conventional in the genre of life of Christ. Indeed it could be said that A Mirror offers less elaboration of the role and suffering of Mary than some pseudo-Bonaventuran meditations. This is the case, for instance, in the meditation of Prime (Christ before Herod and Pilate; the Scourging) in which the presence of Mary is far less prominent and the extravagance of her suffering is toned down in comparison to other meditations, e.g. Privity of the Passion.

A Mirror's (apocryphal) remarks that Christ allows Mary Magdalene to touch him, and that he appears first to the Virgin are standard and found in Legenda Aurea and Meditationes vitae Christi. Mary's worship of the Cross in the Compline meditation of the Burial, which may well have been particularly resonant for the Syon community as the event that instituted affective meditation and worship to the Cross, is also conventional and found throughout the pseudo-Bonaventuran corpus.


Literal sense exegesis


Specyally I haue followed in this werke two doctores, of the whiche one is commonly called the Maistre of the Stories, and his boke in Englissh the Scole Story; that other maistre, Nicholas of Lyre, the whiche was a worthi doctor of diunite and glosed all the Bible as to the leterale vnderstondyng. And therefore I take these two doctores moste specially as to this werke, ffor thei gone moste nerest to the story and to the letterale vnderstondyng of ony doctores that I haue redde. (75, 103-10)


As stated by the author at the outset, the literal sense is the predominant exegetical and hermeneutic mode in A Mirror. Through the technique of 'compilatio' and a consistent and assured handling of sources, each chapter of A Mirror offers meditations grounded in literal sense exegesis of canonical scriptural texts, but with some sporadic attention to apocrypha, figurative language, parable and typology.

In this project, the chief guiding authority is Nicholas of Lyra (1270-1340), whose authoritative manual of biblical exegesis worked from the Hebrew codices to eliminate obscurity and the proliferating allegorical, mystical meanings which he saw as obscuring the integrity of the Bible's literal sense. In Lyra's Postilla, the author of A Mirror finds concise expositions, which do not develop doctrine but offer detail of topography, historical setting, customs and laws, etymology and genealogy. Such insights are seen as beneficial to create the imaginative concentration of the meditative discipline.

To use exegetical commentary in order to go 'moste nerest to the story', thus implies both an ambition of mimetic representation and of historical recovery, as well as a determination to employ mimetic detail as a facilitator for meditation and reform. Where A Mirror may share the spiritual 'utilitas' of other meditative treatments of Christ's life, it does what these do not, namely insist on the interdependence of extended exegetical education and interior reform.

In A Mirror, the adjective 'open' becomes a denominator of the method of literal exposition and accessible doctrine. To gloss 'as to the more open vnderstondynge' (137, 24) means to augment the gospel narrative in a way that always provides contextual explanation and indicates causes and motives.

In the prologue, the author claims to provide only that which is dictated by 'open resoun' (75, 113), and he expounds orthodox doctrine on the sacrament, asking himself 'how may it be said more openly' (158, 89). 'Openness' becomes the guiding principle when glossing the words from Psalm 15, 10 in unadorned, idiomatic English.


Non dabis sanctum tuum videre corrupcionem. This is in Englisshe, thus halt not 3eue thi seynte to se corrupcioun. This is to seye in more open Englissh: Thu shalt not suffre thi seynte (that is, the body of our Lorde Ihesu Criste, the which was holy and onede to the godhode vndepartable) to se corupcioun (that is to seye, to rote in the erthe as synfull mennys bodies done), and therefore it nedeth not suche an oyntemente to kepe it fro rotynge. (200, 38-44)


The priority is to provide clarity of exposition - with rendering the thought of the original accurately, into expansive form and idiomatic sentences.

With the appeal to openness and accessibility the author moves in contested space but within a specific institutional setting. There may perhaps be some deliberate bid in this insistence on openness to claim a mode of reading from the Lollards and restore it to orthodoxy. What seems clear, is that scriptural focus and literal sense interpretation were never entirely monopolised by Lollards. It is instructive to find a sophisticated textual hermeneutic that centres on literal, open meanings of scripture in the most orthodox setting imaginable in fifteenth-century England.


'Sikernesse' in Mirror

A Mirror frequently uses the term 'sikernesse' ('certainty', 'security') to delineate what are viewed as safe, normative and appropriate devotional attitudes.

The term 'sikernesse' occurs in much pastoral and devotional guide literature, where it is employed in numerous, sometimes contradictory, ways to outline ideal pious identities and practices. It often stands as the key denominator of sanctioned devotional practices and of what it means to be safe, 'orthodox' and responsible in devotion.

In A Mirror, 'sikernesse'/'siker' is unfolded in its many nuance of meaning. The text offers telling insight into what 'sikernesse' means in the context of writing and understanding the life of Christ in a specific religious and textual community. Typically of A Mirror, this key term reveals a concern with normative behaviour as much as with issues of text use and textual authority.

The author appeals to 'open resoun and goode conciens' in his decision to rely on exegetical and moralising commentary as well as, occasionally, adding own material. What underlies this, is a debate about what constitutes 'sikernesse' in writing the life of Christ, and about how this life is most beneficially represented. The priority of contextualising and liturgical exposition, and the ambition both to inform intellect and stir to affect, is distinguished from a model of sustained affective meditations relying on 'ymaginaciouns' for its emotional impact.


I haue broght in other doctores in diuers places, as to morall virtues, and also some reuelaciouns of approued women. And I haue putte nothing to of myne owne wytte both that I trowe may trewly be conceived by open resoun and goode conciens, ffor that I holde the sikereste. Ffor thof ther might haue bene putte to some ymaginaciouns that happily myght haue bee delectable to carnale soules, 3it that that is done after concience is sikerer. (75, 110-16)


'Sikernesse' implies the virtue of 'discrecioun' and the ability to discern properly between authentic and false spiritual sensations. The authorities invoked here are approved women such as Birgitta and Catherine of Siena, who recognised tokens 'vndeceyuable and siker' (89, 108) in their revelatory experiences (see also the discussion by Paul Patterson in his edition, pp. 53-56). Catherine of Siena outlines basic criteria in the establishment of 'sikernesse' in spiritual manifestations.


My visions begynnyn with a drede, bot euermore by processe thei 3iffen more sykyrnesse. They begynnyn with a maner of bitternesse bot alwaye thei waxen more swetter. The vision of the enemy hath the contrary, for he 3eueth in the begynnynge, as it semeth, a maner of gladness, sikernes, or suetnesse, bot alwaye by processe drede and bitternesse growen contynualy in the mynde of hym or hir that seeth. (88, 96-89, 102)


There is interesting overlap between A Mirror's rhetoric of 'sikernesse' and Walter Hilton's notion of 'discrecioun' and a 'siker standard' in contemplation. The caution with unitive mysticism and opposition to tendencies of spiritual autonomy so characteristic of Hilton appears to Inform A Mirror, as do Hilton's interest in the key virtues of meekness and obedience. A Mirror defines as 'the sikereste weye' for anyone 'to kepe himselfe in the loweste place, that is to seye, to meke hymselfe byneth all men and women' (93, 124-27). Specifically, the emphasis is placed on obedience and willingness to take advice which the author terms the '3oke of obedience', using a term also found in The Prickynge of Love attributed to Hilton.


Also a grete token of mekenes of spirite and of herte bothe is when a man or woman meekly will leue his owne wytte and will at the counseill of elder and wiser, and meekly aske counseill and do theraftre. And this is necessarie and profitable to yow and to other men and women that lyuen in religion and haue forsaken your owne wyll and holden hemselfe vnder the meke and siker 3oke of obedience. (95, 196-201)


Finally, A Mirror's rhetoric of 'sikernesse' entails knowledge of textual authenticity and the discernment of 'siker' and 'vnsiker' sources. The Syon sister is expected to be alert to this issue and she is partly trained through the text in the cautious handling of apocrypha such as Gospel of Nicodemus which is 'vnsiker and myghte be cause of erroure' (208, 44-45). With a characteristic focus on female textual authority, the Revelations of St Birgitta on the theme of Christ's Crucifixion is reworked into meditative discourse and offered to the reader as 'sykerer to leve to' (186, 41) than the most common meditative accounts.

Obedience and discipline

The 'dispositio' and 'entent' of the reader are a particular concern of the author, who repeatedly urges obedience to the Church, clerics and the observation of liturgical rites and sacraments. Unsurprisingly, the reader is cautioned about delusional spiritual manifestations, religious singularity and spiritual and intellectual presumption. This involves also a cautious approach to issues of prophecy and vision.


The 3ifte of prophecy or miracles wirkynge or visions or reuelacions or such other 3iftes that bene yeuen synglere to som, bene not mykell to be disirede, butt where our Lorde wolde freely 3eue hem withoute ony sekynge of vs, ffor thai may be had of otherwhile of euyl men and women as wele as of gode. (150, 99-103)


Though A Mirror draws regularly on female visionaries, it does so predominantly to establish the validity of female textual authority to an enclosed community of female religious and to elaborate on a familiar narrative, much less to exalt prophecy or paramystical experiences as an ideal to be aspired towards. Such mystical manifestations are not to be regarded as self-willed but as dependent on the operation of divine grace.

The exemplary obedience of Mary and Christ 'to the obseruaunces of her reules and the byddynges of her souereynes' and 'a3ens suche that bene synguler' (114, 35-36, 41) are frequently highlighted. In a passage that seems to suggest some anticipation of a possible lay readership, Mary is presented as an example of female subservience: 'by this ensample of our meke Lady, latte women lerne to be meke and noght to preferred hemselfe affore men in onythynge, and namely suche as haue housbondes' (124, 85-87).
In what are attempts to provide a check on any inclination to 'teche' or towards independent or bold theological speculation, the author stresses that Christ's visit to the temple was in order to 'here, aske, and lerne, and noghte teche'. (123, 55) Further, the reader is cautioned against what is seen as transgressive theologising regarding the nature if the Eucharist.


I conseille yowe not to seche mony questions aboute this precyouse sacramente, bot to holde yowe payede with this litell that I haue seide to yow, and to putte your feythe generally in the feyth of Holy Chirche, and in that feyth, when yhe receyue it, to receyue with all the loue, drede, and reuerence that yhe kanne. (160, 142-46)



Heresy and sacramental theology

A Mirror displays very little overt engagements with heterodox sects, and is content to resort to established authorities on the topic of ancient heresies.

Following the story of the Adoration of the Magi, the author cites Gregory's Homily 10 for instances of heretical adoration of Christ:


There bene some heretikes than beleuen hym God, bot thei beleuen hym noght ouerall regnynge. Other there bene also that trowen hym kynge, bot thei denyen hym God. And some other there bene the whiche beleuen hym God and a kynge, bot thei denye hym to haue take deadly flesshe. (110, 150-55)


Such engagement with heresies is part of A Mirror's didacticism more so than of any integral polemicism, and after brief mention of such heretical tenets (with no naming of the actual heresies), the author provides the correct, orthodox understanding of Christ's divinity in brief outline.

Lyra is cited later for the fact that what flowed from the wound in Christ's side


Was not the flemmatyke humors, as some seyne, bot it was clene water, to shewe that Cristes body was made of trewe elements a3enste the errour of hem that seide that he hadde a fantastyke body, as the Manycheys were, the whiche were perlyouse heretykes some tyme a3enste Holy Cherche. (195, 25-28)


The author targets the intellectual heresy of the Manicheans who repudiated the historical Jesus, as well as the Jewish Saducees, characterised in A Mirror as 'men of on secte in Ierusalem that denyede that ther shulde be ony resurreccioun or aungell or spirite' (228, 59-60).

The impression is of a meditative work that offers correctives to past heresies as part of its didactic agenda to enforce orthodox positions on Christological devotion and sacramental theology. Moreover, A Mirror appears intentionally and comfortably detached from the scene of contemporary heterodox polemics. A Mirror is not preoccupied with, and (one might speculate) deliberately avoiding, updated polemical confrontation and the highlighting of one particular contemporary heretical sect. We are thus at the other end of the spectrum from the explicitly anti-Lollard, canonised, mandated Franciscan devotional meditation that is Nicholas Love's Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ; a text propelled by its determination to counter Lollard teaching with a discourse of sanctioned Christological meditation.

It cannot be ruled out that there may be some contemporary polemic embedded in A Mirror's rehearsal of an orthodox position on the sacrament of the Eucharist. Yet, to postulate an attack on Lollard heresy in A Mirror is not necessary to account for its inclusion of material on sacraments or of supplementary commentary material. This, again, is in contrast to Love's Mirror, whose understanding of what constitutes 'sikernesse' and orthodox discourse in the composition of a meditative life of Christ is a very different one.

Both A Mirror and Love's Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ steer clear of the question of the production and dissemination of vernacular Bibles.

Chapter 18 features A Mirror's inscrutably orthodox explication of the sacrament of the Eucharist (A Mirror's equivalent of Nicholas Love's Treatise of the Sacrament), which is inserted into the narrative of the Last Supper and Christ's words to his disciples. The account here rehearses the transubstantiation and institution of the sacrament of the altar; 'a grete and mercyfull dispencacyoun of the mercy of God for oure verrey and endeles profite' (158, 94-95). And the author repeatedly underscores the identity of sign and signified in a sacrament in which Christ is 'verely and bodily presente, and also the godhead by the whiche he is ouerall presente' (220, 90-91).

Interestingly, the author proceeds from discussion of real presence and sacramental efficacy to a consideration of access to the physical sacrament itself. Responding to the reader's query why 'suche folk that haue not the order and dignite of prestehode' (159, 129-30) receive the Eucharist only in the form of bread when priests receive both bread and wine, the author asserts the clerical privilege to receive Christ's body in the form of wine, while reassuring his reader that Christ is fully present under the appearance of bread alone: 'our Lordis body is there with all the members, by the vertue of the consecracioun, the blode, the soule, and the godhead felawshippynge' (159, 110-13). For non-clerics to receive the body in both forms is simply superfluous, and the danger exists that the host might be contaminated by being spilled onto the floor by those who do not receive it regularly (159, 122-131).

In all of these considerations, the author provides orthodox sacramental theology as well as general, 'open' didacticism, and he largely disregards searching questions about the nature of he Eucharist. Cautions against transgressive theologising and recurring qualifiers of the Eucharist such as 'fantastike', 'precyouse', 'worthi', 'wondirfull', 'meruaylouse', etc. may well be indicative of a determination to bypass metaphysical terminology and more advanced speculation and theologising on the topic of sacramental ministration.

Dissemination and Reception Contexts

For context regarding manuscripts and reception, I refer to the Introduction to Paul Patterson's unpublished PhD dissertation and to the codicological descriptions by Ryan Perry that are attached to this textual profile.


Bibliographical Materials



Hogg, James, The Speculum Devotorum of an Anonymous Carthusian of Sheen. Analecta Cartusiana 12-13 (1973-74).

Patterson, Paul J. ed. 'Myrror to Devout People (Speculum Devotorum): An Edition with Commentary'. Unpublished PhD dissertation (2006).

Brantley, Jessica, "The Visual Environment of Carthusian Texts: Decoration and Illustration in Notre Dame 67". The Text in the Community: Essays on Medieval works, Manuscripts, Authors and Readers. Jill Mann and Maura Nolan, eds. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. 217-37.

Edwards, A.S.G., "The Contexts of Notre Dame 67". The Text in the Community: Essays on Medieval works, Manuscripts, Authors and Readers. Jill Mann and Maura Nolan, eds. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. 107-28.

Gillespie, Vincent, "The Haunted Text: Reflections in A Mirror to Devout People". The Text in the Community: Essays on Medieval works, Manuscripts, Authors and Readers. Jill Mann and Maura Nolan, eds. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. 129-72.

Johnson, Ian, "Prologue and Practice: Middle English Lives of Christ". The Medieval Translator: The Theory and Practice of Translation in the Middle Ages. Roger Ellis, ed. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1989. 69-85.

-- "Vernacular Valorizing: Functions and Fashionings of Literary Theory in Middle English Translation of Authority". Jeanette Beer, ed. Translation Theory and Practice in the Middle Ages. Kalamazoo, Mi.: Western Michigan UP, 1997. 239-54.

Keiser, George R. "Middle English Passion Narratives and their Contemporary Readers: The Vernacular Progeny of Meditationes Vitae Christi". The Mystical Tradition and the Carthusians. Analecta Cartusiana 10 (1995) 85-100.

Phillips, Dianne, "The Meditations on the Life of Christ: An Illuminated Fourteenth-Century Italian Manuscript at the University of Notre Dame". The Text in the Community: Essays on Medieval works, Manuscripts, Authors and Readers. Jill Mann and Maura Nolan, eds. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. 237-83.

Sargent, Michael, 'Versions of the Life of Christ: Nicholas Love's Mirror and Related Texts', Poetica, 44 (1994), 39-70.

Selman, Rebecca, "Spirituality and Sex Change: Horologium sapientiae and Speculum devotorum". Writing Religious Women: Female Spiritual and Textual Practices in Late Medieval England. Denis Renevey and Christiania Whitehead, eds. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000. 63-81.

1 Comment

New version of the Gillespie article, very substantially revised and augmented, in a 2008 collection by Caie and Renevey, _Medieval Texts in Context_.

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