Project Description

(Image from Jesus College MS 39, by kind permission of Jesus College, Oxford)

SNFR Project

Late Medieval Religiosity in England: The Evidence of Late Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century Devotional Compilations

The last decades have witnessed extensive developments in the field of late medieval religious literature in England. While initial interest was devoted to the writings of five mystical writers, including Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, new perspectives have allowed the exploration of a far larger corpus. As a consequence, our understanding of late medieval culture in England has drastically changed. We are now much more aware of late medieval reading trends and practices and begin to understand late medieval sensibility in much more nuanced ways. An exploration of the corpus of devotional compilations will allow a more sophisticated understanding of authorial roles, reading practices and patronage among religious and secular individuals and communities.

As attested by Chaucer’s narrator in The Canterbury Tales, compilatio is a popular literary activity playing an essential role within late-medieval culture. A compilation consists of a series of texts or extracts of texts that have intentionally been put together to constitute a new single and unified text. However clear this definition may be in theory, the manuscript evidence shows that in practice several categories (anthology, compilation, miscellany, etc.) may be called upon to define the particular form of a succession of texts in their manuscript context. This research project deals with sequences of texts that are clearly designed to function as compilations.

More specifically, it limits itself to a study of devotional compilations, i.e. works that invite readers to develop a personal relationship with the divine at a fairly advanced level. It aims to understand and explicate late medieval religiosity by an investigation of the ways in which compilers translated, adapted, and eventually compiled older texts to satisfy and/or to generate changes in religious sensibility. These compilations are significant literary and theological productions providing evidence of the lively religiosity of this period. The Chastising of God’s Children, Of Actyf Lyfe and Contemplatyf Declaration and Via ad Contemplationem, The Holy Boke Gratia Dei, Of the Knowledge of Ourselves and of God, The Pore Caitif and The Tretyse of Loue, are some of the compilations this project seeks to investigate. They are extant in a large number of manuscripts that will receive detailed attention as to the information they provide with regard to the choices of the compiler, the intended audience and the readership of the manuscript, as well as possible lay or religious patronage. Following careful analysis of the modes of, and causes for, the „composition‟ of these texts, the project assesses and discusses receptivity that marked the religious and intellectual landscape of England in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.

Groundbreaking work produced by some of the best medieval scholars in the field of medieval English literature makes it possible now to investigate the field on a larger scale by a consideration of the role and impact of a substantial corpus of devotional compilations. Medieval English studies are thriving in Lausanne. Two doctoral students are currently engaged in areas of research that deal with late medieval religious culture. The chair of medieval English language and literature is a recognised scholar, with his most significant research input in the field of religious literature. His expertise and competence make him an ideal team leader for such a research project.

The project will yield new and groundbreaking evidence on the devotional compilations. It will be possible to have new information on the way they are designed, on the literary role of the compiler and his authorial strategies, on readership, on the manuscript context and affinities with other texts. Manuscript annotations will provide information about reading practices, reading communities and patronage.

The content, form, impact and circulation of a compilation are determined by a variety of factors that this project seeks to explore: a) manuscript context, b) choice of base text, c) slight changes (minor cuts, stylistic changes, grammatical modifications), d) major cuts, e) major additions.

a) The manuscript contexts of devotional compilations are going to be minutely scrutinised. An analysis of the content of the manuscript provides information about the textual milieu in which the compilation was read and circulated. It may also contain reader’s annotations and therefore provide information about modes of reading the compilations.
b) The choice of a base text, or base texts, is one of the major decisions reached by the compiler. That decision is of course dependent upon several factors, such as availability of base texts, linguistic competence of the compiler, or demands of specific patrons.
c) Slight changes in the compilation arise due to the new context and new readers. Linguistic changes may be brought to the new text according to the dialect and language register of the intended readers. Stylistic changes are brought to the compilation according to the stylistic agenda of the compiler, and the literary sophistication of his audience.
d) Major cuts are revealing of the taste and competence of a new audience. Biblical quotes in Latin may be cut for a secular audience, and theological passages found in the original may no longer be relevant in the new context of the compilation.
e) Similarly, major additions, original to the compiler, are revealing of new demands caused by new trends in devotional practice, either by lay or religious practitioners.

A systematic analysis of these activities over a certain number of compilations will provide evidence for the establishment of trends that will yield information as to the particular religiosity that marked the late-fourteenth- and early fifteenth centuries.

This project is funded by the Fonds National Suisse.

We are proud to annouce that the project is also part of COST Action Research Network. For further information see