Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The 'Short Charter of Christ': An Unpublished Longer Version, from Cambridge University Library, MS Add. 6686

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The 'Short Charter of Christ': An Unpublished Longer Version, from Cambridge University Library, MS Add. 6686

Article excerpt

The poem known as the 'Short Charter of Christ' (IMEV 4184),1 printed from thirteen manuscripts by M. C. Spalding in 1914, has since received intermittent but increasing attention.2 It has usually been treated as an adjunct to the so-called 'Long Charter of Christ', also printed from several manuscripts by Spalding in the same volume, in which the narrative setting, and the central imagery, are much more fully developed. This imagery is that of the grand metaphor of the body of the crucified Christ as a charter, in which is written the agreement that the recipient - all of humanity - is to receive eternal bliss, in return for the 'rent' of loving Christ. In the 'Long Charter' the metaphor is fully, and perhaps for modern tastes excessively, developed such that Christ's skin has been stretched on the cross to make the parchment, the scourges of his attackers the pen, his blood (and sometimes also the spittle of the Jews) the ink, the wound in his side the seal.3 For Rosemary Woolf, the simpler and briefer 'Short Charter', usually consisting of 32 lines of Middle English verse couplets, is denuded of the appeal of the 'Long Charter' - which appears in three versions, of 234, 418, and 618 lines - such that it is rendered 'scarcely more attractive than the dry legal document that it parodies'.4

I should like to begin by arguing that an understanding of the 'Short Charter' as a 'greatly shortened and tidied up', not to say denuded, version of the 'Long Charter', in which 'there remains nothing' of the affective imagery, is in fact a misrepresentation of the relationship between the two poems.5 One might argue that the spare and legalistic style of the 'Short Charter' is not necessarily inferior, and that the association and comparison of the two versions in this way is in any case almost entirely arbitrary, and derived from their grouping by Spalding. Their relationship is one of material coincidence rather than compositional inheritance: both poems can be dated to the fourteenth century, though all the manuscripts of the 'Short Charter' date from the fifteenth.6 The shorter poem, rather than being a less successful version of the longer, is evidently engaged in a different task: as such, it seems necessary to elucidate this task.

The phenomenon of the literary charter is relatively rare in Middle English, and it is worth distinguishing the different ways in which texts use the metaphor. As Spalding remarked, there are only two other commonly recognized instances of the legally imitative, allegorical charter: the 'Charter of Favel to Falsehood' in Piers Plowman, and the Charter of the Abbey of the Holy Ghost, to both of which I return below.7 Among the other texts of the tradition, the short poem 'Knowyn alle men that arc & shuln ben' (IMEV 1828) is regarded as 'one form of the "Charter of Christ"', though its wording is almost entirely different. Known (from the explicit) as the 'Carta Dei', witnessed only by Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Kent Charter 233, it is interesting for having been written on the back of a legal charter, and has not been studied as a text in its own right.8 The other two texts known as literary charters are the 'Charter of Pardon' and the 'Charter of Heaven'. The former is a poem of fourteen seven-line stanzas, which appears in the English translation of J. Gallope's French prose version of Guillaume de Deguileville's Pelerinage de l'ame. Furnivall attributed it to Hoccleve, though without great assurance.9 It is distinct from the various charters of Christ not only in its versification and appearance, but also in its overtly rhetorical and discursive character, in which it departs from the structure of a legal charter.10 Finally, the 'Charter of Heaven', which appears as one of the tracts in the fourteenth-century prose compilation The Pore Caitif, is an allegorical explication of the Passion in terms of a charter's characteristics, and is not itself the text of that charter: a commentary on the metaphor, rather than an example of it. …

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