A Dialogue of the Seven Cardinal Virtues and the Seven Deadly Sins in British Library MS Harley 2399

By Wheatley, Edward | The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

A Dialogue of the Seven Cardinal Virtues and the Seven Deadly Sins in British Library MS Harley 2399


Wheatley, Edward, The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History


The online Manuscript Catalogue of the British Library describes MS Harley 2399 as a "composite miscellany relating to philosophy, theology, medicine, and poetry" with material from the late twelfth to the early seventeenth century. (1) Among the texts in the manuscript is a fifteenth-century copy of an infancy gospel of Christ in Middle English verse that begins "Almighty God in Trinity/That bought man" (fols. 47v-6lr). (2) Two undiscovered poems in the margins of the manuscript, a dialogue of the seven cardinal virtues and the seven deadly sins along with a moralizing quatrain ornamented with crude drawings, appear to be the work of a different fifteenth-century hand which is generally clear and legible. (3) On folio 54r, the poem's first line is adjacent to line 436 of the infancy gospel, which is part of the episode in which Jesus has gone to school with other children and Master Juby asks him about his ABC's; the placement of the poem seems unrelated to the larger text. Although the poet is obviously not a master of style, he seems to be aiming for octosyllabic couplets in most lines. Severe discoloration at the edge of folio 54r has made some words at the ends of lines illegible. The poem follows:

   Mekenys
   Thu man consider wat pu ert
   And mekenys take on to py hert
   Prede rydyng
   apon a iyon

   My hert to mekenys ye shal never ...
   For al Jie worle to me shal ...
   Charyte
   Yf pu wyle heve blys ...
   At charyte frist ...
      Envy rydyng
      apon a wolfe

   Yf hevne y lese and pe ioy peryn
   My hert and envy wyl never ...

   Chastyte (& continens)
   py flayshly lustys wyl sone [ende]
   perefore lofe chastyte and now pe am [ende]
      Lechery rydyng
      apon a gote
   As long as my tyme doth here ...
   My lustys y wyl not leve ...

   Abstynens
   A pu glotyn pat pyngs doyst devowre
   Remember me abstynens for py sokowr
      Gloteny rydyng
      apon a foxe
   Socor, nay, do way, pereof no worde
   For we ii. togeder may never acorde
   (f. 54v) Pacyens
   py wrath py sylve evyr will [wrie?]
   perefore have pacyens er pu dye
      Wreth rydyng
      apon a bore
   Y shal kylle and slee wipout more delay
   Al pat ever agaynst me wyl say nay

   Largynys
   py golde and sylver pat so moche dost love
   Geve some for the love of god above
      Covetys rydyng
      apon a sowe
   Wat shulde y geve sum of pys good away
   And y laber for hit nyght and day

   Ocupacion
   Awake pu slomberer of py sclepe
   And occupye py sylve lest pu hit wepe
      Sclowthe rydyng
      apon a nasse
   How schuulde y awake and my sylve occupye
   Lo evyn for sclowth lo her y dye.

The poem gives few clues as to its provenance. Neither the orthography nor the lexicon suggests a particular dialect, and the characterization of the vices and virtues is fully orthodox. The parenthetical addition of "(& continens)" to the stanza on chastity may suggest a lay audience, because the poet is apparently attempting to differentiate between sexual abstinence and sexual fidelity in marriage. (4)

This brief dialogue exemplifies two fifteenth-century conventions relating to the vices and virtues: nearly equal emphasis on the two groups of allegorical figures, and the representation of the vices riding animals. Richard Newhauser has recently studied the history of what he calls the "contrary virtues" in homiletic and other types of religious discourse. After the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 which began the codification of confession by Christians, the seven deadly sins received a great deal more attention in penitential literature than did their corresponding virtues. Newhauser points out that the virtues "do not have a place among the catechetical pieces assigned for instruction in the Church's program of education of, first, the clergy and, then, the laity that were developed as a response to the canons of the Fourth Lateran Council." (5) However, in the later Middle Ages, the virtues began to receive more attention as the positive counterbalances to the sins. …

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