Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

Private Reading and the Rolls of the Symbols of the Passion

Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

Private Reading and the Rolls of the Symbols of the Passion

Article excerpt

British Library, Additional MS 22029 is a fifteenth-century parchment roll five inches in width and over four feet in length that contains just one text, a witness of the Symbols of the Passion, a lyric also known by its incipit "O Vernicle" (IMEV 2577, Figure 1). It was once quite sumptuous, containing many illuminations and wrapped in brown cloth attached to the roll with red and gold thread. Only shreds of the brown cloth now remain, and several of the opening illuminations have been worn by the rolling and unrolling of the manuscript. The Symbols of the Passion survives in twenty witnesses, ten of which are rolls--a truly striking number, since no other Middle English religious prayers or poems have more than one surviving witness in roll form. (1) The poem presents, through a series of twenty-four images and accompanying sections of text, the arma Christi--images and symbols of Christ's Passion popular in the later Middle Ages. (2) While the arma Christi seem often to have functioned as iconographic focal points for affective meditational practices, in the Symbols they are placed in a loosely narrated format. Each of the images and symbols is briefly described and then discussed in terms of what sin (or sins) it might provide protection against.

This essay considers how readers might have interacted with these rolls in both public and private settings and suggests that the prevalent use of the roll format for this text could indicate that a parity existed between how Christ's body and this late-medieval devotional text were read by devout audiences. While it is difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct with certainty how past readers might have interacted with these rolls, I suggest that the witnesses to the Symbols, through their material form and mise-en-page, invite readers to consult this poem--a text that is focused on the fragments of Christ's body and the fragmented events of his Passion--in a selective, discontinuous fashion. Just as late-medieval audiences displayed an intense fascination with the ways in which Christ's body could be partitioned, meditating on his specific wounds or the weapons used against him during his Passion, so, too, does it seem possible that the Symbols was read by a private reader or an intimate group of readers with a similar interest in the affective power of the part over the whole.

The poem opens with an image depicting the face of Christ imprinted on Veronica's veil (Figure 2). In BL Add. MS 22029, Veronica holds the veil in front of her body, completely covering herself except for her head and hands. Below this opening image, the poem reads:

   The vernacul--I honowre hym [and the]
   pat the made throwe hys pryuy[te];
   The clothe he set ovyr hys face,
   The prynte he lefte ther, of hys grace,
   Hys mowthe, hys nose, hys eyn too,
   Hys berd, hys here he ded also.
   Schyld me, lorde, for pat in myn lyffe
   That I haue synnyd with myn wyttys fyve,
   Namelyche with mowthe of stlawndrynge,
   Of fals othys and bakbytynge
   And makyng boste with tonge alsoo
   Of many synnys that I haue doo:
   Lorde of heuyn, for-zeue it me
   Throwe vertew of the fygure pat I here se. (3)

The poem does not begin with an image or description of the crucified Christ hanging on the cross, one of the most common representations of Christ during the late Middle Ages; nor does it begin with an image of the knife of Christ's circumcision, the chronologically logical point at which to begin this prayer sequence, since it was considered to be the symbolic first moment when Christ's blood was shed for mankind. Instead the poem subverts the narrative order of the events of Christ's life and the Passion as portrayed in the Gospels and forefronts a scene of imprinting, of Christ having transferred the impression of his facial features onto a cloth, thereby highlighting the potential for Christ's body to be transformed, reproduced, and fragmented. (4) It is not a representation of Christ's face that is shown in the opening image and described in the opening stanza, but instead a copy of that face, "the prynte he lefte ther. …

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