The Charter of the Abbey of the Holy Ghost and Its Role in Manuscript Anthologies

Article excerpt


The Middle English prose texts known as The Abbey of the Holy Ghost and The Charter of the Abbey of the Holy Ghost keep company in a number of late-fourteenth-century and fifteenth-century manuscripts, and are often erroneously assumed to be related parts of one whole. This essay examines their origins and their separate circulation before exploring the range of means by which they were drawn together in certain manuscript contexts, and investigating the precedents that prompted their collocation and abridgement in an edition printed by Wynkyn de Worde.

The Abbey of the Holy Ghost and The Charter of the Abbey of the Holy Ghost, which keep company in many manuscripts, are often assumed to be two related parts of one whole. The Abbey offers a programme of spiritual 'building', figured allegorically as the construction of an abbey, and itemizes the constituent parts and personnel necessary for the project in ways that are designed to help readers towards some apprehension of true 'religion of the heart'. (1) The Charter purports to be one of the documents associated with the building, confirming the grant of the Abbey and its lands from God; it is couched at the start in the terms of the legal document that would technically offer proof of the grant in material form, although its later sections abandon this mode. (2) Both texts survive in a large number of manuscripts, usually together, and both appeared together in printed form, in at least three editions, before the end of the fifteenth century. 3) In relation to the processes by which anthologies come into being, these texts are of some interest. Their collocation in both manuscript and printed forms is in itself proof of an impulse to anthologize, and the various means used to effect and announce their attachment to each other repay some study. Their appeal to a wide range of readers also gave them a breadth of circulation that led to their inclusion in larger compilations of many kinds. The forms of their collocation, and the manuscript and printed contexts in which they survive, will be the subjects of this discussion.

The Middle English version of the Abbey seems to have originated in the second half of the fourteenth century as a translation of a French text that survives in a number of manuscripts and in at least three distinct versions. (4) Hope Emily Allen's assumption was that 'it must have been originally written for women, since the personages are all women, and the original French text was perhaps composed for lay women of high position', a hypothesis apparently supported by the early ownership of some of the French manuscripts, although not matched by the generally more inclusive forms of address found in copies of the English version. (5) An ascription to Rolle included in some manuscripts of the English translation seems implausible both on lingustic grounds and in the face of a surviving original French text, although both Abbey and Charter appear in manuscripts with other texts by Rolle and related to his writings. (6) Whatever its authorship, the English translation seems to have been undertaken to serve the needs of a variety of readers: men and women, laypeople and religious. Its opening address, present in most manuscripts, invokes the needs of all those that 'wolde ben in religioun but they mowe nowt for poverte or for awe or for drede of her kyn or for bond of maryage' (ll. 3-5), but the rest of the text and the Charter alone in a further six (see n. 10 for details of these). The printed editions (all of which contain both, in abbreviated form) are listed in A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, makes no attempt at exclusivity, and in fact contrives an effective blend of elements of both contemplative and secular traditions. (7)

The Charter bears no signs of any relationship to a French original, and indeed seems to have grown directly out of the English translation of the Abbey, making particular reference to a section towards its conclusion in which the new foundation, 'in al thyng wel ordeynt and God wel served in reste and in lykynge and in pes of soule' (ll. …


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.