Miniature from Cantigas de Santa Maria, Alfonso X the Wise, thirteenth century
In her maiden bliss
An edited version of a review by J. R. R. Tolkien of Hali Meidenhad: An alliterative prose homily of the thirteenth century, edited by F. J. Furnivall and O. Cockayne, first published in the TLS of April 26, 1923
This is one of an interesting group of legends and homilies (including beside the present text Sawles Warde and versions of the legends of Saints Juliana, Katherine and Margaret) which are closely associated in both subject and language, and are all contained in MS. Bodley 34. The Rev. O. Cockayne’s edition, from a version in MS. Cotton Titus D. 18, has long been out of print, and the re-issue is welcome, especially since it orbits for the first time the Bodley version beside the other, and is provided with a glossary by Lieut.-Colonel H. P. Lee. It is, however, much to be regretted that before his death Dr. Furnivall did not, apparently, complete his work, which is here published without alteration as he left it. As is justly said in the prefatory note, his gifts to English scholarship were plentiful indeed; but it may be doubted whether, even though it has been done out of respect for a great name, the best service has been rendered to that name, or to English scholarship, by publishing work that might have been revised and supplemented at many points without very great labour. There is no introduction; the reference to Wells’s Manual is an unsatisfactory substitute, for only meagre information is given there, and the existence of the Bodley version is not mentioned. The notes consist of remarks on 36 words which occupy barely two pages, and which further inquiry would in some cases have modified. The text, except for modern punctuation, is a transcript of the manuscripts, but there are one or two points where it may be suspected that the manuscripts are misrepresented. The translation is in several instances faulty. Though Cockayne’s version has been frequently improved, and most of his peculiarities of spelling and “Saxonisms” of vocabulary have been eliminated (we note the retention of profet for prophet, which possibly appealed to Furnivall’s own sympathies with spelling reform), the translation is probably not to be regarded as such a revision as the founder of the Early English Text Society would himself have sent to press. These errors are, apparently, all repeated in the glossary, which contains many other errors of its own in addition to some minor misprints and several wrong or omitted reference-figures (e.g., there are no references given for the entries from Walh to Warde inclusive). Etymologies are in many cases given, but apparently at random, since several important words are not thus explained; while some common words, such as Dede deed, are superfluously provided with their West Saxon equivalents (sometimes in early, sometimes late form); a large number of the derivations are inaccurate or wrong.
It is probably a mistake that the Cotton version has been chosen as the basis of translation and glossary. This is in accordance with the generally received opinion, but we are not convinced that a careful comparison would have upheld this preference, at least as far as the present homily is concerned. While the language of C. is mixed, B. shows a language that is grammatically and phonologically one of the most regular and self-consistent to be found in Middle English, and is consequently of much greater importance for linguistic students. At several points also C., by the substitution of less archaic or more colourless words, or by the apparent misunderstanding of words that are correct in B., may be suspected of being less near the original in its vocabulary. To this choice of C. are due the only omissions of importance that we noted in the glossary, since under the forms of C. are wrongly included without cross-reference several forms of B. that represent distinct words. In any case it is difficult to understand the statement in the head-note that C. is the “less provincial” of the two. The word provincial, borrowed from the vocabulary of modern London, is scarcely applicable to the period about 1200, when London had not as yet any literature in English, and when its local Southern dialect (probably, as far as anything is known about it, at least as near to the language of B. as to that of C.) had not yet any claim to be a standard of comparison.
With the possible exception of Sawles Warde, which approaches the liveliness and picturesqueness, if not the humanity, that make the Anchoresses’ Guide so justly praised, these edifying prose-pieces are probably seldom read even by those interested in the history of English prose. Hali Meidenhad is the one that offers the least appeal to modern readers, presenting as it does an extreme example of that ruthless mediaeval concentration on one virtue to the exclusion, for the sake of argument, of all other considerations, which is most widely familiar in the Clerk’s Tale. From the nature of its subject—an exhortation to perpetual virginity addressed to young women—this homily is often more repulsive to modern feeling than anything in Chaucer’s tale, and is in some passages repulsive to the saner feeling of its own period. While there is a tendency to exaggerate the inhumanity of this piece in modern notices of it (it does not, for instance, picture the inevitable opposite to virginity as Hell, as is implied in Wells, but as a much lower status in Heaven), it is true that all men here appear as bestial tyrants, all women that have anything to do with them as pitiable or contemptible. Only a passing concession (we ne edwiten nawt wiues hare weanen Þat ure alre modres drehden on us seluen) is made to show that the writer was aware of other aspects which the convention of the theme forbade him (or her) to treat. So successful, indeed, is the author in exposing the evils, minor and major, of married life, and in depicting the comparative bliss, even in this world, of maiden singleness, that in the end the conventional allotment of fruit a hundredfold to maidenhood in Heaven, but to wedlock only thirtyfold, is hardly felt to have been justified. Ruthless and contemptuous, however, as is the treatment of the trials of matrimony, it is always forcible, and is here and there graphic. We are given a picture of the busy housewife returning home to find the cat at the bacon, the saucepan boiling over, the cake burning (like Alfred’s) on the hearth, and her husband (unlike Alfred) swearing. The modern wife’s troubles, sickly babies, midnight bottles, troubles with nursemaids and monthly nurses, the loud and noisy habits of husbands, all here find their earlier equivalents; even the danger in which all wives stand of becoming exasperated with their treatment and of seeking relief in poisoning their husbands is touched upon.
Apart, however, from the matter, the form of these pieces, and of Hali Meidenhad no less than the others, is worthy of attention. The argument, granted certain conventional limitations, is very well conducted; the transitions from point to point well managed. The vehicle is a rhythmic and highly alliterated prose that has tempted editors of other pieces to see in it a loose verse-form, but which defies such analysis as much as does the rhythmic, alliterative, and highly finished prose of late Old English. In the rhythm and beat of it when read aloud, in its declamatory rhetoric, and in the general character and idiom of its speech, it is apparent that the early Western prose of this type is in the main derived from that Old English tradition, and through it connected with the tradition of Old English alliterative verse, and with the survival of alliterative verse into Middle English in the West. Occasional alliterative formulae, such as heanen and hatien (Juliana, p. 51; cf. hatode and hjnde, Beowulf 2,319), hint at this, while formulae belonging to Scandinavian tradition, such as gold & gersum (Kath. 797; cf. O.N. gull ok gersimi), suggest influences that may have modified it. In spite, however, of the alliteration the style is usually free from obscurities and is vigorous and idiomatic; in none of the pieces, even where Latin or French originals are being drawn upon, does it degenerate into the translation-jargon so frequent in early English. This technical excellence is not easy to match from Middle English prose of other regions until a much later period, and is rare at any time in early writings; nor does it depend only on a tradition lingering on from pre-conquest days. Not only is the language of this group, and of other works closely related linguistically, such as the Ancren Riwle, full of archaic words inherited from Old English, but it is enlivened with local idioms and picturesque words that occur only here; while many words and turns of speech, afterwards familiar in Middle or Modern English, here make their first recorded appearance. This language was in its day no mere archaic survival of a dying tradition, but was in the closest touch with the living colloquial speech, and in addition to its great interest for linguistic students is well worthy of attention from students of literature—but they will probably wait until texts are offered them more pleasing to the eye than any that have yet been made.