A Meteorological Analogy in the Wycliffite Revised Versions of Richard Rolle’s 'English Psalter'

By Alexandra Barnes


When a textual work appears complete and holistic, it can be difficult to see that is the product of many transitions. Transitions are, by definition, processes. Since processes are characterised by material alteration and movement it is counterintuitive to see books as sites of transition. They may impart ‘live’ knowledge but, as objects, books seem like inanimate containers for ossified words. Scholars of medieval scribal culture have, on many occasions, attempted to counter this assumption by reclassifying manuscript books as sites of (re)making, variation, and mouvance.[i] The Wycliffite revised versions of Richard Rolle’s English Psalter, as they are tidily presented in their medieval manuscript contexts, are not obviously transitional works. It is only through the close comparison of these works to their sources that it is possible to reframe their production as a series of evolutionary processes, marked by points of transition and adaption. This study offers a close look at one such cluster of transitional images: the meteorological transformations examined in the revised commentary on Psalm 17. Comparative source analysis reveals that these images of change are themselves the result of changes made in the processes of translation and reinterpretation.


Just before his death in 1349, Richard Rolle, a Yorkshire hermit and prolific writer of devotional works and biblical commentary, translated the entire book of Psalms into English.[ii] He also penned a commentary on this English Psalter, which drew primarily on a Latin commentary on the Psalms by the twelfth-century scholastic theologian Peter Lombard. Around the end of the fourteenth century, a group of scholars, likely followers of the Oxford philosopher and reformist theologian John Wyclif (d. 1384), produced several revised versions of Rolle's English Psalter.[iii] The goals of the revisers are not always obvious. Some revisions direct the commentary towards explicitly Wycliffite concerns, including ecclesiastical opulence and the misinterpretation of Scripture, but some seem simply to shift Rolle's register by pointing to alternative sources and interpretations.


In his original text, Rolle does not attempt to disentangle his own additions from the parts of his commentary translated directly from Peter Lombard, and most subsequent scribes do not distinguish these voices through rubrication (the use of red ink, or underlining) as might be expected. The Wycliffite revised versions are similarly integrated works: there are no notable attempts to disentangle Rolle's voice from the Lombard's, or from the revisers’s own additions.


Figure 1: Richard Rolle’s English Psalter (Unrevised).[iv]

Figure 2: Richard Rolle’s English Psalter (Revised 1).[v]


A defining characteristic of the Wycliffite movement at the end of the fourteenth century was its transfer of academic methods and apparatuses into the vernacular.[vi] In texts produced by members of the movement, commentary is often visually distinguished from Scripture, while later glosses are separated from more authoritative commentary. Such apparatuses make visible each layer of interpretation involved in a text’s production as a unique transitional moment. Given that the revised versions of Rolle's English Psalter do not display this scholarly apparatus outwardly, are there other ways that they may be situated within the textual history of the Wycliffite movement? Are there other ways that they reveal the processes involved in their making?

The revisers’ approach to Rolle's interpretation of the rain and clouds of Psalm 17 may help answer these questions. Meteorological imagery can provide a natural venue for approaching complex epistemology (that is, the philosophy of knowledge). It is not surprising that the Psalms, replete with images of the brightness and clarity of sunlight and the obscuring powers of night and fog, interested Wycliffite writers concerned with the dissemination of scriptural learning.


Figure 3: Ship in a Storm, Joseph Turner, ca. 1826.[vii]


In his explication of Psalm 17:12 – 'And he made darkness his covert, his pavilion round about him: dark waters in the clouds of the air' – Rolle presents an abbreviated version of Peter Lombard's commentary on the verse.[viii] In the Lombard's commentary, darkness is associated with the epistemological uncertainty that separates God from humanity. The cover that surrounds God is the 'cloud of flesh' that God places around himself so that we may not know the secret of the Incarnation, and the darkness is the 'darkness of the sacraments' concealing Christ's presence. [ix]


While Rolle does not retain this complex approach to 'seeing' God, he does directly translate a striking passage of commentary: the Lombard’s 'inferioribus compluunt verbum Dei' [the word of God rains down to the lower ones] is retained as 'raynes dowen godes wordes.'[x] An overarching concern with the dissemination of knowledge remains, but without the added context of the Lombard's reference to the inscrutability of the Incarnation and Christ's presence in the sacraments, the meaning of 'priue lare [hidden knowledge]’ is rendered ambiguous in Rolle's version.


This uncertainty becomes a site of transition for the Wycliffite revisers, who re-shape Rolle's commentary to accord with their own scripture-focused epistemological models. Generally, the revisers's commentary on Psalm 17:12 follows Rolle’s translation of the Lombard, but they replace 'prechours [preachers]' with 'apostles' in its first appearance and insert a further indictment against 'coueytous [covetous] prechoures and false gloseres [glossers].'[xi] This addition, which may initially be dismissed as a common Wycliffite criticism, actually serves to mould the vagueness of Rolle's text. It is a turn away from the Lombard's focus on the mysteries of the Incarnation and sacraments, as administered by priests, towards the 'mystery' and sacramental quality of the scriptural text itself.[xii]


Figure 4: Fox preaching from pulpit to chickens and geese, representing a false preacher.[xiii]


While the Wycliffite commentary on Psalm 17 is significantly longer than Rolle's text, its alterations are, on an ideological level, quite subtle. The vocabulary is largely rooted in Rolle's translations of Peter Lombard and the psalm text. There is a preference for continuation, not interruption, of Rolle's allegorical readings. Instead of proposing their own models entirely, the revisers seem content with the intellectual challenge of adapting the register of their source-text. Their purposes may be primarily educational, but the revisers’s artfulness is evidenced when their commentary is set alongside its source texts. Acknowledging these layers of borrowing, alongside instances of inventiveness, reveal a text characterised by an amalgamation of small changes and the weaving together of various scriptural interpretations.


Alexandra Barnes

University of Oxford



Alexandra Barnes is an MSt student at the University of Oxford, studying English literature. With a focus on the writings of the followers of John Wyclif, an Oxford theologian, she is interested in the production, contexts and patterns of exegetical thought. You can find her on twitter at @thisishowirolle


References: [i] For example, Paul Zumthor, Essai de poétique médiévale (Paris: Seuill, 1972); and Bernard Cerquiglini, Éloge de la variante (Paris: Seuill, 1989). [ii] See Nicholas Watson, Richard Rolle and the Invention of Authority (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 242-48. [iii] Anne Hudson identifies three distinct revisionary texts: RV1, RV2, and RV3, in Anne Hudson, Two Revisions of Rolle's English Psalter Commentary and the Related Canticles Volume 1, English Early Text Society (Oxford: Oxford Universit

y Press, 2012), p. 340. [iv] Bodleian Library MS Bodley 953, f. 87r. Via Digital Bodleian. [v] Richard Rolle’s English Psalter (Revised Version 1). Bodleian Library MS Tanner 16, f. 2r. Via Digital Bodleian. [vi] See Kantik Ghosh, The Wycliffite Heresy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 2; and Anne Hudson, The Premature Reformation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), pp. 174-277. [vii] Ship in a Storm, Joseph Turner, ca. 1826. Image via Yale Center for British Art, [online] Available at: https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/catalog/tms:39447 [accessed 1st September 2022]. [viii]Et posuit tenebras latibulum suum; in circuitu ejus tabernaculum ejus, tenebrosa aqua in nubibus aeris.’ I have simply quoted from the Vulgate version that forms the basis for the Douay Rheims translation, with an English translation that has been taken from the Douay Rheims Bible. [ix] ‘nube carnis’ and ‘incarnationis mysterium’ in Peter Lombard’s commentary on Psalm 17, in Petri Lombardi Pariensis quod episcopi sentiarum magistri in totum Psalterium commentarii, PL 191: Col. 0191A (1854); ‘obscuritatem sacramentorum.’ PL 191: Col. 0192B (1854). [x] ‘rains down God’s words’, H.R. Bramley (ed.), The Psalter: or Psalms of David and Certain Canticles with a Translation and Exposition in English by Richard Rolle of Hampole (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1884), p. 61. Checked and altered based on the text in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Hatton 12. [xi] Hudson, Two Revisions, p. 196, line 242. [xii] Also, see Stephen Pink’s 2011 doctoral dissertation: “Holy Scripture and the Meanings of the Eucharist in Late Medieval England, c. 1370-1430” (unpublished, University of Oxford). [xiii] Fox preaching from pulpit to chickens and geese, representing a false preacher. Morgan Library, MS M.485 fol. 40v. [online] Available at: http://ica.themorgan.org/manuscript/page/5/112396 [accessed 1st September 2022].

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