"Documentum Roberti Grosehede": An Unpublished Early Lollard Text

Article excerpt

Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O.1.29, but for one of its texts, might be described as an almost boilerplate mid-fifteenth-century religious miscellany. More or less pocket-sized (about 195 mm x 140 mm overall), it provides a succession of standard prose tracts of instruction, with a strong Northern and Rollean emphasis. The volume begins and concludes with Rolle's epistles: at the head a relatively unusual isolated copy of "The Commandment" (fols. 1-8), at the end, the ubiquitous "Form of Living" (fols. 99v-117v). About forty percent of the book is devoted to the explicitly yet inauthentically ascribed "Pater noster of Richard Ermyte" (fols. 18-66v). The collection also includes the companion pieces "The Abbey of the Holy Ghost" and its "Charter" (fols. 77-99). (1) Given the placement of the scribal language in east central Lincolnshire by the Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English, the book would appear in most respects to represent the familiar southward spread of Northern texts into Humberside and thence into the East Midlands more generally. (2)

There is, however, one exception, a single textual item, one of the volume's three unpublished texts, an omission this note will seek to rectify. (3) At fols. 73-74v, the compiler presents a text he identifies as "Documentum Roberti Grosehede episcopi Lincolniensis." This brief work, enjoining priests not to harass poor parishioners for their tithes, would appear to be of origins quite distinct from the remainder of the book. In its argument, it relies upon what is relatively easily identifiable as Wycliffite "cant," e.g., associations of post-apostolic "innovative" behaviors with Satan and Antichrist (lines 6-7, and following), use of the phrase "pore mennes godes" as a more relevant term than "tithes" (lines 15-16, etc.), and a passing reference to worldliness as a form of "mamentrie" (i.e., idolatry, the worship of a false god, line 99). (4)

Moreover, like a good many similar polemics, the text is presented as a series of excerpts from materials deemed authoritative. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the opening move that provides the slightly misleading title for the piece. Robert Grosseteste here stands for a local English tradition of clerical concern. The great bishop of Lincoln replaces the orthodox and conventional model, Thomas Becket, who is anathema in these contexts because of his steadfast vindication of clerical rights.

At the same time, one should probably insist that, within a range of Lollard invective at abuses perpetuated by the established church, the brief tract strikes a relatively conciliatory note. It is not addressed simply, or indeed primarily, to sectarians, as a muckraking revelation of abuse. Rather, the author directs his comments to the "villains," grasping priests themselves, and he imagines that he offers, through his citations, a case that his audience should recognize as compelling--and that should lead to self-reform. In the context of Trinity O.1.29, one might imagine this to be a priest's book that includes not just basic catechetical information, but an admonition about how its owner should behave.

Any doubts one might have about the sectarian origins of the "Documentum" will be vitiated by a second, and partial, record of the text. This occurs added at the end of a booklet, on a blank leaf (and on part of a supplied extra leaf), in Bodleian Library, Bodley MS 647. (5) This manuscript represents the collaborative work of four scribes, all of whom write English in comparable Derbyshire languages. (6) The Bodley manuscript has been recognized, ever since John Bale handled it in about 1550, as a central exhibit of early vernacular Wycliffism. Virtually all its contents (once again, the exception is this unpublished text) are well-known, for Bodley 647 provided materials for the two early anthologies, edited by Thomas Arnold and F. D. Matthew, through which vernacular Wycliffite interests have always been known. …