J.A. Burrow

  • The Mirour of Mans Salvacioune: A Middle English Translation of ‘Speculum Humanae Salvationis’ edited by Avril Henry
    Scolar, 347 pp, £35.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 85967 716 8

A German scholar has listed as many as 385 Medieval books which carry ‘mirror’ titles: The Mirour of Alkemy, Miroir de l’Ame, Spieghel Historiael, Speculum Ecclesiae, and so on. If titles such as these have since gone out of fashion, it is perhaps because readers no longer expect books simply to ‘reflect’ reality. Another reason may be that mirrors themselves are no longer convex, as they usually were until the 17th century, so that the word has ceased to carry the attractive promise of a larger reality compressed into a small and manageable compass. One of the most widely read of all Medieval ‘mirrors’ was the Speculum Humanae Salvationis or ‘Mirror of Man’s Salvation’, which offered its readers nothing less than the whole history of the redemption in little. Its method is to treat each main episode in the life of Christ along with three other episodes, most of them from the Old Testament, which ‘prefigure’ it. All four episodes, in each case, are illustrated by a picture. Thus the picture of Lamech being beaten by his two wives illustrates one of three Old Testament prefigurations of the flagellation of Christ. The original Latin Speculum was translated into several vernaculars, including English; and it is the English version, made about the year 1400, that is edited in the handsome book under review here. Unfortunately, the sole surviving manuscript of the Middle English version has no illustrations, so the editor has had to look elsewhere for these. She accordingly reproduces woodcuts (168 of them) from a 15th-century print of the German version, each so far as possible opposite the relevant section of the English text. The result, as Dr Henry confesses, is a bibliographical bastard: but it is hard to see what else she could have done. For the Speculum, like its equally popular predecessor the Biblia Pauperum or ‘Poor Men’s Bible’, is essentially a picture-book, albeit with an extensive text, and it is as such that it is presented here.

The author of the Latin Speculum makes the pictorial character of his book clear in his Prologue: ‘I think nothing is more useful in this present life than for a man to learn to know God his creator, and understand his own condition. Men of letters can gain this knowledge from Scripture, but the uninstructed must be taught in the books of the laity – that is, in pictures. So for the glory of God and the instruction of the unlearned I have decided to compile, with God’s help, a layman’s book.’ The idea that pictures are ‘the books of the laity’ (libri laicorum) is a Medieval commonplace, often invoked by modern writers on stained-glass windows and the like: but the analogy is far from exact. It is very hard to read a story in a picture, unless one knows it already. Images (or at least single images) are as bad at telling stories as words are at conveying pictures. An observer who had not already heard the story of David and Goliath would see in the Speculum picture nothing more specific than a king who has just cut off the head of a giant (the latter identified not so much by his size as by his club). Indeed, even if one does already know a story, it is by no means always easy to identify representations of it. A burning bush in a stained-glass window, or a man sticking out of a whale’s mouth, or a baby in a stable, will be recognised for what they are, no doubt: but even learned church visitors commonly need a guidebook to identify the majority of the scenes. And there is no reason to think that things were different in the Middle Ages, when the man-in-the-street knew much less about the Bible than modern talk of an Age of Faith may suggest. In one anonymous continuation of the Canterbury Tales (the Tale of Beryn), the author imagines how Chaucer’s pilgrims might have spent their time once they arrived at Canterbury (which in Chaucer they never do). On a visit to the Cathedral, the Pardoner, the Miller, and ‘other lewd sots’ wander about staring up at the stained-glass windows, trying to work out the heraldry and also puzzling over the stories represented there. ‘That man there is carrying a quarter-staff or else a rake handle,’ says one. ‘Don’t be silly,’ says the Miller, ‘it’s clearly a spear’:

‘He bereth a balstaff,’ quod the toon, ‘and els a rakis ende.’
‘Thow faillist,’ quod the Miller, ‘thow hast nat wel thy mynde;
It is a spere, yf thow canst se, with a prik tofore.’

In short, as the author himself remarks, they get it ‘as straight as a ram’s horn’ – much like most modern tourists, in fact.

In the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, however, the pictures are accompanied by words – words which identify their content and which could be read out, and if necessary translated, for any unlettered user of the book. The function of the pictures is to illustrate the stories, of course, and to provide a focus for pious meditation on known events: but they also serve a more specific purpose. This is to enforce the typological message of the work, according to which Old Testament and other events are recalled only inasmuch as they offer ‘types’ of this or that episode in the life of Christ. The author explains his selective method: ‘I shall show how God freed us by his Incarnation, and with what prefigurations he earlier foreshadowed the Incarnation. However, it must be noted that in this little work various stories are mentioned that are not presented word for word in every detail, because a preacher is not obliged to expound anything of a story that is not relevant to his argument.’ The fact that a single picture can normally represent only a single moment in a story becomes a positive advantage here, since the artist can select the moment most ‘relevant to the argument’ – the moment richest in figural meaning, that is. So, in the story of the calling of Rebecca to be Isaac’s wife (Genesis, Chapter 24), the figural moment is when Abraham’s servant addresses Rebecca at the well. As the English translator puts it, in a typically laboured couplet:

So sent the Fadere of heven to this werld Gabriel,
To seke for his dere Son a modere and virgine lele.

The picture of this moment, accordingly, provides one of the three figural illustrations of the Annunciation (along with the burning bush and Gideon’s fleece). The messenger’s raised right hand matches that of Gabriel in the Annunciation picture; and the well behind Rebecca provides another figural touch – for did not Mary open the well of life to men?

The raised hands of Gabriel and Abraham’s messenger suggest another distinctively pictorial way in which images can serve the typological imagination. They can manifest the relationship between the Old Testament type or figura and its New Testament fulfilment by matching shapes and spatial relations. This is something which words cannot do. The picture of Lamech beaten by his wives, for instance, forms part of a set of four pictures in each of which a prominent central figure is seen suffering at the hands of two other figures flanking him. The first picture shows Christ bound to a pillar with a flagellator on each side of him; the second shows a character from the Book of Judith, Achior, bound to a tree by two of Holofernes’ men, one on each side; the third shows Lamech between his two wives; the fourth has Job in a similar position, being flogged by Satan on one side and his wife on the other. It may be noticed that, in the interests of formal or figural symmetry, these pictures take considerable liberties with their Biblical sources. Neither Christ nor Achior is said in the Bible to have been bound by two adversaries; Lamech did indeed have two wives, but it is not in the Bible that they are said to have beaten him; and Job was beaten only metaphorically by Satan (with affliction) and his wife (by scolding). So when the author says that the stories ‘are not presented word for word in every detail’, he understates the matter.

Perhaps one should not quibble about such details – it is not unreasonable, after all, that Job should be seen as prefiguring the sufferings of Christ – yet the liberties taken in this particular case raise questions about the whole typological method, so reverently spoken of by most modern scholars. In a masterly essay entitled ‘Figura’ (reprinted in his Scenes from the Drama of European Literature), Erich Auerbach emphasises the essentially historical character of this way of reading the Bible: ‘Figural interpretation establishes a connection between two events or persons, the first of which signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second encompasses or fulfils the first. The two poles of the figure are separate in time, but both, being real events or figures, are within time, within the stream of historical life. Only the understanding of the two persons or events is a spiritual act, but this spiritual act deals with concrete events.’ There are many powerful examples of such spiritual understanding in the Speculum: the great cluster of grapes brought back by Moses’ spies from the promised land, for instance, is vividly represented as a type of Christ on Calvary. Yet not all the images seen in this mirror are ‘real’ or ‘concrete’: Job was not really beaten, and the Prodigal Son (a type of the penitent Magdalen) is not real at all. One certainly has to reckon, as Auerbach maintains, with a profoundly theological and profoundly strange vision of history, in which God, himself outside time, ‘foreshadows his Incarnation’ in time; but there is also, in works such as the Speculum, a considerable degree of playful ingenuity – albeit devoted, no doubt, to a serious end. It is not for nothing that Rosemond Tuve traced much of what readers regard as ‘metaphysical wit’ in George Herbert’s religious poetry back to the Speculum and other similar typological books.

Rosemond Tuve would certainly have welcomed the present volume. Admittedly, the text makes somewhat painful reading, for the Middle English translator was certainly no poet. I found only one felicity in his more than five thousand lines:

That Oure Lord Jhesu Crist was knyght noble and worthy
Shewed in his cicatrices and in his clothing blody:
Fore rede sangvinolent was alle ouer Cristis clothing,
Like to clothes of the men of rede wyne grapes treding.

‘Sangvinolent’! Here, in a single lurid compound, the writer seemed to have captured the whole ancient mystical identification of Christ’s blood with the juice of the vine, celebrated by Tuve in her Reading of George Herbert. But I was wrong. Reading ‘u’ for ‘v’, as one regrettably must, one is left with nothing but a pompous derivative of the Latin sanguinolens ‘bloody’. Yet it is not the text itself, but the combination of text and pictures which makes Dr Henry’s book so valuable.