The Chastising of God’s Children

From Martin Kauffmann

With very significant help from the Friends of the Bodleian, the Library has been successful in acquiring an important Middle English manuscript at auction (now shelfmarked MS. Don. e. 247). Written in northern England in the mid-15th century, it contains ‘The Chastising of God’s Children’ and other mystical treatises.

The text, composed around 1390, circulated widely amongst a cosmopolitan readership in the late Middle Ages in England, and is an important witness to the growing vernacular appetite for advanced spiritual guidance. It provides us with unprecedented evidence for the circulation and appropriation of continental, near-contemporary mystical writings in England, as well as affording us insights into the ongoing popularity of earlier medieval native devotional material. It also offers one of the earliest vernacular guides to discerning true contemplative visions from false, using translated Latin materials developed to support the canonisation of Birgitta of Sweden.

Eleven manuscripts containing full versions or close derivatives are already known: many have close textual and codicological links to English Charterhouses or to the Birgittine House at Syon. The emergence of this new manuscript is of real significance to scholars of medieval vernacular literature and thought. Of particular interest is its collocation in this copy with other devotional texts which were known to have appealed to a shared audience of nuns and devout laity: the book therefore becomes an important witness to this complex reading community. Of the existing versions, five are already in Oxford. Taken together with the Bodleian’s manuscript holdings of other Middle English religious texts, this makes Oxford a very suitable centre for further study on the text.

Oxford also has a large concentration of scholars working on materials of this kind. Current members of the English Faculty are active in the field of ‘vernacular theology’, with particular expertise in studies of heterodoxy, contemplative writing, and didactic and devotional texts; several also work closely on Carthusian and Birgittine books and on London metropolitan book production. The Library is particularly grateful to Vincent Gillespie, J. R. R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language and Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, for his inspiration and advice in the acquisition of the manuscript.