Lollards and Their Influence in Late Medieval England

By Fiona Somerset; Jill C. Havens et al. | Go to book overview

Lollardy and the Legal Document

Emily Steiner

And yet forto by man out of þe deueles þraldam, [God] sende [Christ] into þis world, and wyth his owne hert-blod wrot [man] a chartur of fredome, and made hym fre for euer, but hit so be þat he forfet hys chartur. So whyle þat he loued God, he kepeth his chartur, for God asket no more of a man but loue. 1

If one poem alone could stand for the traditional ideologies and pieties of late medieval English literature, it would seem to be what modern editors call the Long Charter of Christ, a well-attested and intriguingly versatile Passion lyric appearing around 1350 in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson poetry 175. The poem is essentially an apocryphal retelling of Christ's life, as might be found in any number of late medieval cycle plays or didactic poems. Christ as speaker recounts his life (the Incarnation, Temptation and Last Supper) and concludes with a brief description of post-Crucifixion events (the Resurrection, Harrowing of Hell, and the Celebration of the Mass). All these events are allegorized as the production of a land-grant: the Incarnation is the initial "sesyng" or formal occupation of heaven, the Crucifixion is the bloody inscription of the charter on Christ's body, the Harrowing of Hell is the re-negotiation of the contract, and the Eucharist is the indentured copy of the charter (for security and remembrance). The charter itself, the centerpiece of the poem, grants heavenly bliss to all readers and listeners in exchange for a "rent" of sincere and absolute penance. The Long Charter, which survives in at least twenty manuscripts, was copied continuously until the end of the fifteenth century, usually in collections of vernacular lyrics and pastoral miscellanies. Its popular appeal was such that, by the end of the fourteenth century, it had already generated an abridged version which modern editors call the Short Charter (surviving in at least twenty-five manuscripts), as well as a vernacular prose tract called the "Charter of Heaven” which circulated with the pious compilation called Pore Caitif (extant in forty-seven out of fifty-six manuscripts containing extracts from Pore Caitif). 2 Enthusiastic antiquarians called the Charters of Christ "curiosities," a term that rarely reveals much more about medieval texts than their unforgivable ordinariness.

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1
John Mirk (186, 172 ll. 15―19).
2
For a manuscript list, see Valerie Lagorio and Michael Sargent, "Bibliography: English Mystical Writings, ” in (33, 9.3470―71).

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