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Circulation, Fluidity, and Adaptation: The Case of the 'Mirror of Holy Church'

My thesis focuses on a devotional text composed of a guide on how to live a perfect spiritual life with accompanying contemplations written by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Rich (1174-1240). With its two earliest versions in Latin and Anglo-Norman and its fourteenth-century English translation, Mirror of Holy Church is a text that was in constant transition over the three centuries of its circulation in the medieval period – linguistically, textually, and materially. It was constantly being adapted and re-shaped by the different communities in which it circulated in late medieval England. Here, I explore the ways in which this text was transmitted and the possible changes in the way it was used by its many readers by focussing on three iterations of this devotional manual: two complete versions (London, Westminster School MS 3 and London, British Library Additional MS 10053) and one which was excerpted (Cambridge, Magdalene College, Pepys MS 2125).

Figure 1: Paris, BNF Francais 13342, fol. 28r.[i]

Let us first look at those complete versions of the Mirror of Holy Church; where did they originate from and where were they read? Westminster School 3 and Additional 10053 are London manuscripts, but their source text originated from the West Midlands, as determined by Ralph Hanna and my own dialectical analysis.[ii] My analysis also showed remnant dialectical layers from the East Midlands for both versions. So, we can assume that the journey to London was not a straightforward one, but one which passed through several communities over a period of time - a migrative and transformative trajectory that is not so unsurprising to find in devotional miscellanies of the time.[iii]

So why would this textual migration be a transformative journey? In passing through different communities, the text was received and read with different purposes in mind, depending on a community’s needs, and thus the way the text was used changed. In this context, we can again compare our two complete versions of the Mirror.

Additional 10053 is a miscellaneous compilation of devotional and pastoral texts. When it was put together, it was part of a specific environment: that of the community of the Holy Trinity Priory in Aldgate, London (also known as Christchurch). We know its compiler was the Prior John Pery in the fifteenth century, although, besides his name and his book, no trace of him remains. The addition of the Mirror of Holy Church is a turning point in John Pery’s compilation; the first half of Additional 10053 seems to have served the purpose of helping the personal spiritual growth of Pery as Prior with complex spiritual texts but, following the inclusion of the Mirror, the texts are more suited to the general spiritual education of the community that gravitated around the Priory. In this manuscript, the Mirror become the transitional element in the use of the manuscript; it served the personal need of its owner, as well as later being utilised for the community's spiritual well-being, thanks to its educational half.

We see somewhat of the opposite situation with Westminster School 3, which would have belonged to one of the two drapers sharing the name Richard Cloos in fifteenth-century London.[iv] While the Additional 10053 text would have been used in a communal framework, the composition of Westminster School hints towards private devotional practices of a spiritually ambitious lay household. The Mirror thus becomes a platform for the spiritual exploration of lay individuals, beyond its catechetical content. These readers could then get closer to the perfect spiritual life led by those in enclosed communities.

The Mirror in these cases was selected for its fluid nature which allowed it to pass easily across borders: from religious to lay hands, and from private to communal uses. These two copies of the Mirror are also the surviving witnesses of a compiling culture which by the fifteenth century extended to many layers of society with effervescence around the composition of devotional miscellanies - a manuscript production culture that lends to the constant reappropriation, reinterpretation, and adaptations of devotional materials by their readers and commissioners.

This text did not undergo solely environmental transitions, it was also directly ‘meddled with’. The version of the Mirror of Holy Church kept in the Pepys 2125 manuscript is one of the many shorter excerpts that circulated in the fifteenth century. These shorter excerpts are actually some of the most interesting versions of the Mirror. Often the extended excerpts are intricately integrated with their co-texts in the manuscript, providing a web of new interpretations for both the Mirror excerpt and its manuscript context.

Looking closely at the particular reinvention of the Mirror of Holy Church in Pepys 2125, you will only find the meditative half of our text! The contemplations from the Mirror are inserted between the first and second chapter of an instructional text on the benefits of meditation (the Form of Living) by the hermit and mystic Richard Rolle (1300-1349), another popular medieval writer of devotional texts.

The compiler of this manuscript probably decided that the instructional part of the Mirror was redundant and unfit for his purpose, preferring the Form of Living which could inform the understanding of those meditative and contemplative passages of the Mirror in a way more appropriate to the reader’s need. Little regard was given to the authority of the author, or of the text itself – what mattered was the need of its readers. For the late medieval commissioner or scribe, excerpting and remixing texts to their taste and bringing new life to them was part of the devotional culture, not a defect of compilation.

We are thus facing this creative culture of textual compilation, which bolstered the ambitions of the various people who aspired to lead an active life - the spiritually ambitious - by allowing them to tailor texts to their spiritual needs. However, the Mirror of Holy Church makes it easy too: its dual nature, how it can be easily reutilised and reinterpreted is probably the reason why this text survived for so long, through the many adaptions it went through, always in constant transition.

Univeristy of Kent

Segolene Gence is a PhD student at the University of Kent under the supervision of Dr. Ryan Perry. While her research focuses on the reception, transmission and translation history of the Mirror of Holy Church by Edmund Rich, Segolene also dabbles in Anglo-Norman and medieval French literature and takes an interest in digital humanities. Segolene’s achievements include being one of the co-founders of MEMS Festival in 2015, the director of the MEMS Festival 2021, and she is currently one of the administrators and curators of MEMSLib. To hear more about her work and interests, you can find her on Twitter at @SegoAG .

References: [i] Paris, BNF Francais 13342, fol. 28r. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24th October 2022). [ii] Ralph Hanna, ‘The Origins and Production of Westminster School Ms. 3’, Studies in Bibliography, 41 (1988), 197–218. [iii] Ryan Perry, ‘The Clopton manuscript and the Beauchamp affinity: patronage and reception issues in a West Midlands Reading Community’, in Essays in Manuscript Geography: Verncaular Manuscript of the English West Midlands from the Conquest to the Sixteenth Century, ed. by Wendy Case (Belgium: Brepols, 2007), 131-59. [iv] Amanda Moss, ‘A Merchant's Tales: A London Fifteenth-Century Household Miscellany’, The Yearbook of English Studies 33 (2003), 156–169.


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