'And What Schall Be the Ende': An Edition of the Final Chapter of 'Jacob's Well.' (Middle English Sermon Series)

By Carruthers, Leo | Medium Aevum, Fall 1992 | Go to article overview

'And What Schall Be the Ende': An Edition of the Final Chapter of 'Jacob's Well.' (Middle English Sermon Series)


Carruthers, Leo, Medium Aevum


Jacob's Well(1) is a late Middle English sermon series closely related to the Somme le Roi/Speculum Vitae group of Latin, French and English manuals of Christian doctrine. Highly wrought, its ninety-five chapters take the form of an elaborate and carefully constructed allegory, distinguishing it from all other texts in this group. The well of the title is compared to the human person - body and soul, heart and mind in quest of purification and spiritual perfection through the sacrament of Penance. The well-cleaner's tools, skeet, skavel and shovel, are interpreted to mean contrition, confession and satisfaction, and the whole range of the Church's official teaching for lay people, from the Seven Deadly Sins to the Ten Commandments, with much more besides, is made to fit into the allegorical scheme.(2) This very extensive work obviously, required careful planning in terms of content and style, and it is not surprising to find the author reminding us (and no doubt himself) early on of the need to keep the end in sight: |Lokyth in pe beginning of every werk pat e do, hox, it schal be perfourmyd, & what schall be pe ende!' (4/14-15).

|What schall be pe ende' is the justification for this first edition of the final sermon, chapter xcv of Jacob's Well. For, as anyone familiar with the work will know and regret, Brandeis's edition of 1900 gives only the first fifty chapters, actually less than half of the full text. It may be noted here that the |Part I' referred to on the title-page of the Early English Text Society edition is merely a practical division for publishing purposes and, though it ends with a convenient number of chapters, it bears hardly any relation to the internal organization of the series. |Part II' is not in any organic way separate or different from the earlier chapters; it simply happens to remain unpublished.(3) The full text may therefore be studied only by consulting the unique manuscript, Salisbury, Cathedral Library, MS 103, or the microfilm of it (available from the University of Southampton Library).

Chapter xcv will be of particular interest to all who do not have ready access to the full text, for, as its Latin title indicates, it is a recapitulation of the entire work. One is therefore granted a bird's-eye view of all that has gone before. Not, it will be readily admitted, that there are any major surprises, since the author has clearly outlined the main themes in chapter i, where he states his allegorical scheme and his intention to preach day by day for ninety-five days.(4) The Latin table of contents (pp. xiv xvi) also gives a good idea of what is to come, at least in terms of chapter headings, though certainly, not in terms of the allegory, since the headings refer only to the doctrinal points treated. The opening chapter, in fact, is exceptional in that its heading hints at the allegory: Qualiter de puteo concupiscencie fit fons Jacob. The English title, which is editorial (not in the manuscript), is based on the translation of this heading: |How the pit of lust becomes Jacob's Well'. The editorial title may be considered fully justified, as will be seen from the fact that the author himself uses this expression in English near the end of the series, just after quoting once again John iv.II, the source of the well image: |pis welle is pe welle of Jacob, pat is of hym pat doth penaunce' (see chapter xcv, f. [2i6.sup.r] below).(5)

Although the final chapter recalls and recapitulates all the themes announced in the first, it is not simply a repetition of the introductory sermon. In fact, it is almost exactly twice as long, because where the author had merely announced the bare bones of his scheme at the beginning of the series, at the end this is fleshed out and many details are given. It will thus be found useful to consult chapter i again before comparing it with chapter xcv. As would be expected from such a careful stylist, there is a circular movement in these two complementary sermons: the ending comes full circle and back round to the beginning. …

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