Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Religious and Didactic Literature

Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University

Relatively accessible because of the focus here on Middle English texts, we have:


Sermons have been assembled to serve as materials for other preachers. There are “ancient” and “modern” sermon constructions. The old style was essentially formless. The new style was associated with the universities and scholasticism — more intellectual than emotional. The “architecture” is ponderous: theme, subtheme, introduction, division (subtopics confirmed by biblical authority), subdivision (for more material), discussion (fleshing out with the use of quadruplex exposition — see Patristic Exegesis). Since these sermons were for lay audiences, the citing of authorities is careless. In content, these tackle religious attitudes and attack contemporary life. There are “exempla,” but not with any interesting characters — just worn-out bare plots. (An exemplum — plural: exempla — is a story used by preachers to illustrate a moral. Such stories enliven the usually dull sermonizing. The assumption is that “lewed” folk are attracted to stories. The morals are sometimes forced.)


The Prologue to the South English Legendary says that men like to hear of battles of kings and knights. So similarly are constructed stories of apostles and martyrs. The legends are usually lurid tales of miracles and sadistic violence: healings, voices, blindings, bleedings, boilings, and beheadings.


The Rule of St. Benedict lists the kinds of monks there are, good works, and describes a ladder of humble actions. Monks should have separate beds, younger monks should be supervised by older ones, and all should sleep clothed but with no knives. Guests, especially churchmen and pilgrims, should be received like Christ, but with minimal associating with them and no free speaking. The Ancrene Rule is another hefty example.


These include St. Edmund’s Speculum Ecclesiae (The Mirror of Holy Church); Bonaventure’s The Mind’s Road to God; the mystical The Cloud of Unknowing; Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love (which manifests itself in sickness and wounds); Meditations on the Life of Christ (translated by Robert Mannyng of Brunne from Bonaventure); Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection. Most of these were influenced by scholasticism, so they divide the contemplative and the active lives, delineate the 7 cardinal virtues, the 7 deadly sins, the 3 parts of contemplation, the 3 manners of prayer, the 4 dreads, the 3 degrees of bliss, the 10 commandments, the 7 sacraments, the 12 points of shrift, the 3 degrees of love, etc. You get the idea.

Robert Mannyng of Brunne wrote Handlyng Synne early in the 14th century. It’s over 12,000 lines of edifying entertainment regarding “handling sins” with penance. Little is known about Mannyng but that his Cambridge canon priory connection for 15 years. The work gives us a prologue, then discusses the 10 commandments, the 7 deadly sins, sacrilege, the 7 sacraments, the 12 points of shrift (good will, haste, heartlifting, meekness, frequency, sorrow of heart, etc.), and the 8 joys of grace.

Richard Rolle, the Hermit of Hampole (c. 1300-1349), became disillusioned with scholasticism when his father sent him to Oxford, so he returned home at the age of 18, improvised hermit’s garb (e.g., a cowl from his father’s rain hood; a gown from two of his sister’s kirtles). He told his sister he was mad and took off for the woods and moors for contemplation and study. A woman he had seen before and who loved him appeared in his bed anc clasped him. He knew this was the devil in the form of the woman, prayed, and she vanished. He felt a “merry heat” within him which he knew was divine. He tasted eternal sweetness. He retired to Hampole in south Yorkshire and was surrounded by a group of pious adoring nuns and recluses who practically worshipped him. He died probably of the black plague.

The English Psalter gives Psalms and expounds upon them.

Meditiations on the Passion is poetic and ecstatic in style.

Some of the Middle English lyrics are certainly religious literature.

The Forme of Living (? 1348).

John Gower’s Confessio Amantis tells of a lover who walks in May to lament in the woods. He prays to the god and goddess of Love. She calls Genius, her chief confessor priest, who expounds the nature of every vice. The seven deadly sins are subdivided and exempla are provided.

Ancrene Riwle

The Anchoress’ Rule, or Guidebook, written by an unknown author for three wellborn ladies undertaking the lives of anchoresses (an anchorite is a person who lives apart for the purpose of spiritual contemplation), also follows the scholastic tradition — more methodical subdivisons, classifications, and methodical distinctions and the use of stories for argumentative support. To encourage the pursuit of virtue and the avoidance of sin, or even the opportunity of sin, the Rule discusses 1) the observance of divine services (with directions on vocal prayer), 2) mortifying the senses, 3) regulating inward feelings, 4) remedies for temptations of the seven deadly sins, 5) confession, 6) penance even when not sacramental, 7) the Christian philosophy of the highest form of love, 8) practical suggestions. This last is appended and is an external or outer rule.

It’s interesting to ask in a case like this: why does this text have to be written? What are these women doing? In this case it seems not as if they are too lax but that they are too severe: beating themselves and fasting too much, not washing — in other words, too fanatical in their style. The author insists that men are a threat, but instructs them to go to their confessor who decides how much you flagellate yourself — oh, and listen to me. The author also dwells on the Mary/Martha catch-22 — you must be contemplative and not Marthas, but you also must look busy or the devil sees your idleness.

The Seven Deadly Sins:

Wrath (Ire)
Covetousness (Greed)
Lust (Lechery)