A Lydgatian Christine de Pizan?: The Lytle Bibell of Knyghthod (c. 1450)
One would not expect that Christine de Pizan could be confused easily with John Lydgate, and yet the 1808 Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts identifies a work in British Library Harley MS 838 as “An old Peom [sic], upon Hector of Troy, with the Glose, & Moralite; perhaps by Lidgate.” About a century later (1909), Lydgate scholar and Troy Book editor Henry Noble MacCracken correctly identified the work as a Middle English translation of Christine’s Epistre Othea. James D. Gordon (1942) then edited the work and bestowed upon it the subtitle “A ‘Lytil Bibell of Knyghthod,’” a title I have adopted to distinguish this work from other versions of the Othea.
Christine’s Epistre depicts her invented goddess of prudence, Othea, advising Hector of Troy how to be a worthy and chivalric leader by transforming 100 classical myths into exempla illustrating worldly and spiritual virtues. Each chapter includes a poetic texte, a glose moralization with learned citations of philosophers, and a spiritual allegorie with quotations from Church Fathers and the Latin Vulgate. Along the way, Christine stakes her claim to intellectual authority and defends women against antifeminist stereotypes.
As humorous as it may seem initially to conflate proto-feminist Christine with the far more conservative and often antifeminist monk Lydgate, the Bibell in fact invites such a comparison. Although Christine wrote in couplets and quatrains, the Bibell translator composes all his poetic material in rhyme royal stanzas, the form invented and popularized by Chaucer and heartily embraced by Lydgate. For the Harley cataloguer, the Trojan content and prose moralizations must have recalled Lydgate’s Troy Book, which covers the Trojan saga and mentions Othea by name, and perhaps the Fall of Princes moralizations, as well.
That cataloguer also would have been confronted first with, not Christine’s Prologue or Othea’s exhortations to Hector, but instead with the Bibell translator’s original Proem, a 168-line rhyme royal composition that rationalizes the tripartite components of Christine’s exempla (texte, glose, and allegorie). That rationalization takes the form of meditation on Trinitarian systems – three hierarchies of angels, three estates of humanity, and three types of souls – with references to religious content such as God’s providence, the Old and New Testament, the Church as highest of the estates, and the reproof of sin. Gordon’s subtitle and my title draw on the translator’s own conception of the work as a “lytle bibell” directed at those who wish to acquire virtues to aid them in this world and the next (Pro.105). Alongside the religious matter, the Proem evokes the translator’s real or imagined dullness – laments of his “rude wytt,” his poor “makyng,” and his “symplenes” (Pro.127-40) – a popular topos but also one that Lydgate employed regularly.
At a glance, then, the poem does resemble Lydgate more immediately than Christine. Other content supports the cataloguer’s assumption, too. The Bibelltranslator emphasizes that the good knight must be “armed with prudent polecye” (Pro. 122), echoing Lydgate’s urging of his readers to exercise prudence and other virtues to forestall misfortune (e.g., Fall of Princes, 6.253-60). The translator also concludes the Proem by clarifying his desire to explain his material “oppynly / Unto the wlgar [vulgar], pleyn to understondynge / Of every wyght desyrous for to stye / The whele of Fortune to the suppreme wonnyng” (Pro.162-65). In other words, he wants to write clearly in order to arm every reader with the ability to stop Fortune’s wheel at its highest point. The notion of stopping Fortune’s wheel extends Lydgate’s concept and promises a reward for the diligent reader, and it recurs throughout the Bibell as an addition to Christine’s Epistre.
If the cataloguer dug further into the Bibell, he would also be confronted with Christine’s extensive citations of philosophers, Church Fathers, and the Vulgate. Neither Stephen Scrope (1397-1472) nor some scholars believed that Christine was personally responsible for her work, given all the learned authorities she cites, especially those in Latin and not the vernacular. While modern scholars have countered this skepticism effectively, the medieval translator Scrope suggests that Christine instead commissioned the work from famous doctors at the University of Paris, whose education would have granted them access to the French and Latin texts used. Lydgate may well function the same way for the Harley cataloguer. And, should anyone suppose that Christine’s sometimes-radical defenses of women might have given the cataloguer pause, alas! The Bibell translator restores expected antifeminist views of some women, like Circe, while leaving intact other positive interpretations if the woman distinctly exemplified virtue. By destabilizing one of the staples of Christine’s oeuvre, the Bibell translator made the clear identification of his source a bit more difficult.
Faced with an unrecognizable poem, the early cataloguer relied on what he knew of later Middle English literature to describe the work in Harley MS 838. It is amusing to imagine the cataloguer running off his list of known Lydgatian qualities: “Rhyme royal – check! Dullness – check! Troy – check! Long and moral – double check!” Of course, my joke elides the portions of the Bibell where the translator is inventive, clever, and attentive to his English audience’s knowledge (or lack thereof) pertaining to myth, alchemy, and hermeneutics. Yet even though the catalogue entry disguised the Bibell’s true identity for well over a century, the cataloguer’s mistake turns out to be a surprisingly astute observation, at least insofar as it characterizes the Bibell translator’s original contributions.
The METS edition that I am currently working on makes the Bibell available for analysis as not only a translation of Christine’s work but also an adaptation that situates her French original within English literary, religious, and political contexts, alongside Stephen Scrope’s independent translation.
University of Kansas