The Northern Homily Cycle, composed in its original form circa 1300, extends to approximately 20,000 lines in each of its three versions, making it one of the most compendious and important homiliaries in Middle English.(1) Saara Nevanlinna completed in 1984 an edition of the "expanded" collection, which nevertheless omits significant parts of the "original" collection, edited by John Small in 1862.(2) The third collection, which Nevanlinna also calls "expanded," follows the original version closely where it does not add material.(3) In discussing the homily for the fourth Sunday in Advent in this collection (Vernon/ Simeon) and in the original collection, I wish to address the issue of highway sanctuary in medieval England and to argue that both the homily and passus XVII of the B text of Piers Plowman preserve an echo from the native legal tradition. Readers may thus appreciate how literature and law intersect in fourteenth-century England, how the homilist composed, and lastly how moderns need to read these texts.
The text for the homily is John 1:19-28, where the priests and Levites ask John the Baptist who he is. In denying that he is the Christ, John identifies himself by quoting Isaiah: "Ego vox clamantis in deserto: Dirigite viam Domini, sicut dixit Isaias propheta" (John 1:23, Isaiah 40:3). The homily paraphrases the gospel passage and explains that John is the exemplar of meekness for having denied that he is Christ: his role is "To graithe the gat of rihtwisnes ... That ledes man til joi and pes."(4) The homily in the original collection enlivens this conventional exposition with the following warning against crossing any wrong stiles or going by any wrong ways. I quote from the Edinburgh and Vernon manuscripts for purposes of comparison: it should be noted that where they share material Vernon follows closely an exemplar of the original collection. The differences manifest here constitute some of the very few substantive variations, at least in this homily, made by the West Midland adapter:
Edinburgh MS: Vernon MS: This gat es stany and thornye is wei is stony and borny Wit couaitys, and glotounye, Wi couetyse and gloteny, Wit prid, and nithe, and licherye, Wi pryde envye and lecheri And mani foles gas thar bye, And mony folyes gon er bi. 5 And forthi I red wel that we leete erfore I rede at we lete This gat, and tak the hey strete is wey and take e strete.
That ledis god men (ful euen)
Wit penanz to the blis of heuin.
Bot Satenas our wai will charre,
10 Forthi bihoues us be waire [omits these lines]
That we ga bi na wrange sties,
For Satenas ful gern us spies.
For ef this thef mai us met
Out of this forsayd hey stret,
15 He bes ful redi, als outlawe, ei ben ful redi as outlawe To harl us in to wod schawe, To drawe us in to wode schawe And mak us bathe nakid and nais, And make us ere uuel a teys. Als sain Gregorie us says, As seint Gregori us seis, Ilk dai mak we a iorne Uche day make we a journe 20 Till heuin, ef we god men be, To heuene if we gode men be, Bot in our gat lis Satenas But in ur wey lyth Sathanas Wit his felawes, als thef in pas, Wi his felawes as eef in plas, And spies ful gern ef we straye, And spye 3erne if we stray And haldes noht the riht way.(5) And holde not e rihte way.(6)
The reference to Gregory may be to his commentary on Job 39:19 in his Moralia where Dan (Genesis 49:17) is likened to a serpent in the way; or perhaps to his commentary on Job 19:12, where the devil's servants are "latrones" who impede the spiritual progress of the righteous.(7) Satan's lurking along the highway of life in order to ensnare sinners is conventional enough. More interesting is the substitution of one idiom for another in line 17: the Northern "nakid and nais" may not have been familiar to the West Midland adapter (cf. how "envye" takes the place of "nithe" [l. 3] and "wey" of "gat" [ll. 6, 21]). He rewrites the line as "And make us ere uuel a teys," which seems to require "uuel" being taken substantively as "evil creature" and "teys" being derived from the Old French verb teser, "to hunt, to drive through brush." Thus I would translate the line: "And they make us their [or perhaps simply "there"] evil …