Two Recently Discovered Fragments of Nassington and Rolle

Article excerpt

In April 1677, the minister Nathaniel Heywood traveled from Lancashire to Yorkshire to visit his brother, Oliver Heywood, a prominent nonconformist minister, and to send his son, also named Nathaniel, to study at Richard Frankland's academy. (1) While at his brother's house, Nathaniel delivered two sermons, the notes for which have been preserved in a slim volume recently acquired by the Beinecke Library and now shelved as Osborn MSS File Folder 19558. While the sermon notes may prove useful for early modernists, historians of the early book will be more interested in the manuscript's binding material, two vellum leaves used as a wrapper and cover. Written on the leaves are fragments from two fourteenth-century texts, which I have identified as the minor Middle English religious poem Tractatus de Unitate et Trinitate by William of Nassington (2) and Richard Rolle's Latin prose work De Emendatio Vitae. (3) The discovery of these fragments is important for two reasons: first, it increases the number of known copies of the Nassington poem from two to three, and provides a better reading for one of the lines; second, evidence shows that the single medieval scribe who copied the fragments was working in the same geographical area as the authors and within about fifty years of their deaths.

Richard Rolle is one of the major figures of fourteenth-century English mysticism. (4) Probably born between 1305 and 1310 in Thornton, North Yorkshire, he left school early and became a hermit, establishing a wide following. He died at Hampole in 1349. (5) A large number of works by this prolific writer survive, and he seems to have been quite popular with medieval English audiences. Our perception of Rolle has been confused, however, by an early tendency to attribute authorship of anonymous texts to him.

While modern scholarship has now discredited many of the attributions to Rolle, including the Pricke of Conscience, the authorship of the work found in the Beinecke fragment, the Emendatio Vitae, is not in doubt. It survives in over one hundred manuscripts, (6) as well as in seven contemporary vernacular translations; (7) its most recent editor, Nicholas Watson, has called it "one of the most copied texts in late medieval England." (8) The twelve chapters of the work, which alternate between intense passion and sober Biblical scholarship, are designed to guide the reader on a progression from "conversion to contemplation." (9) The Emendatio has not received much critical attention, probably because scholars have tended to focus on Rolle's vernacular works and also because there was no good edition of the Latin text available until Watson's edition of 1995.

William of Nassington (or Nassyngton), the author of the other text of which a fragment is here preserved, was also a fourteenth-century poet of northern England. We have much less information about Nassington's life than we do about Rolle's, a problem which was exacerbated by the fact that until Ingrid Peterson's 1986 study, it was thought that Nassington was actually anywhere from two to six separate people. A member of a prominent Yorkshire family of ecclesiastics, William was a lawyer and held church offices in Exeter and York. He died in 1359, ten years after Rolle. (10) If he is known to literary critics at all, it is as part of the debate regarding the authorship of the Speculum Vitae. While the work was once attributed to Rolle, it is now generally accepted as the work of Nassington, on the grounds that he is named as the author in some manuscripts. (11) Whether or not Nassington is the author of the Speculum Vitae, his association with it provides a striking link between the two fragmentary links in the Beinecke manuscript. The Speculum Vitae is based, at least in part, on Richard Rolle's Form of Perfect Living, (12) of which Nassington may have written a versification. (13) Furthermore, Rolle's Form of Perfect Living has been said to "closely correspond" to his Emendatio Vitae. …