December 7, 2018, by Harry Cocks

Reading the Holy Name of Jesus in the 15th Century

At some point between 1420 and 1450 the Yorkshire gentleman Robert Thornton of Ryedale copied a number of English and Latin texts on devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus into his own book (now called the Lincoln MS 91). As Rob Lutton shows in a new article (see link), for Thornton and other medieval Christians who followed the cult, worshipping the Holy Name could ensure one’s salvation. Early Christian writers had first promoted personal attachment to the name “Jesus” through prayer, worship and meditation, arguing for its benefits of healing, protection and salvation. Up to end of the thirteenth century such devotion was largely confined to religious orders and elements of nobility, but began to be promoted by the mendicants in the last half of that century, receiving papal backing in 1274.  At that time many of its texts were translated into the vernacular. In England, the fourteenth-century popularization of the devotion was largely due to the Yorkshire hermit and mystic, Richard Rolle, who, up to his death in 1349, was a strong advocate of the Name of Jesus. The first text that Thornton acquired was probably the Middle English translation of Richard Rolle’s Oleum effusum, the fourth section of his Super Canticum Canticorum, his commentary on the Song of Songs.  The Oleum urges constant meditation on the name of Jesus as a source of piety and consolation: “This name es in myn ere heuenly sowne, in my mouthe honyfull swetnes. Wharefore na wondire, I luf þat name, the whylke gyffes comforthe to me in all angwys.  I can noghte pray, I cane noght hafe mynde [think/meditate] bot sownnande [without resounding] the name of Ihesu.” Rolle goes on to describe how this devotion to Jesus’ name leads to a longing and love for his person that brings a “delycyouseste swettnes” into the mind, and ravishes with joy and inflames the heart and mind with the heat and fire of love. He goes on to list the many benefits of holding the Name in the mind and of coveting unceasingly to love it: “Sothely nathynge slokynns sa [so extinguishes] fell flawmes, dystroyes ill thoghtes, puttes owte venemous affeccyons, dos awaye coryous [unduly fastidious] and vayne ocupacyons fra vs. This name Ihesu lelely [unfailingly] haldyn in mynde drawes by þe rote vyces, settys vertus, insawes [infuses] charytee, in ettis sauoire [pleasure] of heuenly thynges, wastys discorde, reformes pese, gyffes inlastande [inwardly persisting] ryste, dose awaye greuosnes of fleschely desyris, turnes all erthely thynge to noye, fyllys þe luffande [lover, lit. ‘the inclining’] of gastely ioye ..” The third theme of Oleum effusum is the Name’s apotropaic qualities: its effectiveness against temptation and, explicitly, the assaults of demons, notably temptation that followed the appearance of the devil in the shape of a beautiful young woman.  More than once the Oleum emphasizes that righteousness and salvation can be attained only by those who truly love the Name. Moreover, the joy that springs from love of the name in this life will continue and be fulfilled in the next, where the righteous will join with the angels in forever beholding Jesus.  To argue that salvation and other material effects could be achieved through the pious worship of the Holy Name was controversial and unorthodox. But in his manuscript Thornton did not only include Rolle’s radical remarks on the effects of Jesus’ name. He also copied Of Angels’ Song, and an extract from Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection, which argued in a more orthodox fashion that to love Jesus and his Name was not sufficient for salvation in itself, but was better understood to mean loving one’s salvation by living a Christian life – the true source of redemption. What can the juxtaposition of these texts tell us?

The inclusion of both texts in one manuscript, Lutton argues, gives us both a case study of a pious medieval reader and an example of the intensely dialogic nature of such devotional reading in fifteenth-century England. The Hilton text, Lutton suggests, potentially works to control the Rolle’s extravagant claims. Thornton may also have sought out, or indeed have been supplied with, the more moderate statements because of his or other’s anxieties about the dangerous implications of Rolle’s charismatic argument, or he may have copied the Hilton in order to legitimize his possession of the Rolle. By providing a conservative counterpoint to its extravagance his growing booklets of religious writings represented an expanding dialogue, which left open a range of possible interpretations and devotional practices for the pious reader. Thornton’s gathering of both controversial and conservative texts, some of which were very unusual, suggests a more open process of acquisition than we might previously have imagined.  Lay–clerical agents probably collaborated in bringing together divergent statements on the same subject to create the potential for practices of dialogic pious reading from devotional miscellanies and anthologies within the household. Though many historians have argued that reading of this kind was dictated by a combination of the clergy and the uncertain literary marketplace, the dialogic nature of Robert Thornton’s Holy Name devotions suggests that his literary tastes and collecting instincts were not as conservative or as naive as some scholars have suggested.

Rob Lutton, “‘But Have You Read This?’ Dialogicity in Robert Thornton’s Holy Name Meditations”, English 67, 257 (2018), pp. 119-140 doi: 10.1093/english/efy021

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