Translating ""Clergie"": Status, Education, and Salvation in Thirteenth-Century Vernacular Texts

Translating ""Clergie"": Status, Education, and Salvation in Thirteenth-Century Vernacular Texts

Translating ""Clergie"": Status, Education, and Salvation in Thirteenth-Century Vernacular Texts

Translating ""Clergie"": Status, Education, and Salvation in Thirteenth-Century Vernacular Texts


In Translating "Clergie", Claire Waters explores texts in French verse and prose from England and the Continent that respond to the educational imperative implicit in the Fourth Lateran Council's mandate that individuals be responsible for their own salvation. These texts return repeatedly to the moment of death and individual judgment to emphasize the importance of the process of teaching and to remind teacher and learner of their common fate.

The texts' focus on death was not solely a means of terrifying an audience but enabled lay learners to envision confrontations or conversations with dead friends, saints, or even God. Such dialogues at the point of death reinforced the importance of the dialogue between teacher and learner in life and are represented in such varied works as doctrinal handbooks, miracles of the Virgin Mary, retellings of the Harrowing of Hell, and even fabliaux--tales of wit and reversal--in which it is possible to argue one's way into Heaven. Lively stories that featured minstrels dicing with saints, friends returning from the dead, and thieves teaching the prophets offered a model for laypeople considering how to put their Christian learning into practice and perhaps to teach others.

Rather than being seen as a challenge to ecclesiastical authority, lay learning in these texts is depicted as hopeful, comic, and affectionate. By examining informal works of Christian instruction used outside institutional teaching contexts to convey the learning of the schools to the parishes, Waters shows how lay learners could assume the role of disciple or student in a way previously available only to monks or university scholars.


This book centers on a tradition that has not always been recognized as such: medieval works in the vernacular—here, specifically the French vernacular, though the tradition itself is not limited to any one language—that not only transmit Christian teaching but reflect on its practices and participants. Didactic, homiletic, and narrative works that aim to inculcate and show the value of Christian instruction are, despite their variety, all deeply engaged with the pressing issue of what one needs to learn in the present life to be prepared for its end, and I argue here that they pursue this question by imagining, in various ways, how the scene of teaching, the interaction between teacher and student, is linked to the moment of death and the scene of judgment. in doing so they revivify and personalize medieval religious education, reminding us of the extensive informal education that lies behind the more visible institutional teaching of the later Middle Ages.

If the works considered here have not always received sustained attention, this is in part because, coming from different sides of the Channel, though all in various dialects of Old French, they have not been seen as a coherent part of the great wave of translation and cultural transmission that swept late medieval Europe. in addition, then, to arguing for their importance as texts that both practice and represent teaching in new ways, the chapters that follow present them as part of a shared culture that encompasses not only different social statuses and roles but readers of French on the Continent and in the British Isles. While not all the works considered here circulated on both sides of the Channel, as a group they are rooted in a broadly dispersed twelfthcentury monastic and scholastic culture, the biblical tradition, and preaching. They also form part of the rise of French as a privileged vernacular and a kind of European lingua franca—a role well recognized in secular literature but perhaps less acknowledged for religious works. Whether or not a given text circulated in both areas (and many of them did), the main genres I address here—handbooks of doctrine and theology, versified sermons, Marian . . .

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