E is for Eleanor Hull

Dame Eleanor Hull (c.1390–1460) is primarily known for translating a French commentary on the penitential psalms. The original French work dates from the late twelfth century. Eleanor’s father, Sir John Malet of Enmore, in Somerset, was a retainer of John of Gaunt. Eleanor was well-connected not only by birth but in marriage too, as her husband, John Hull, was also a retainer of John of Gaunt. He later became ambassador to Castile during the reigns of both Henry IV and Henry V. In her last years, having been widowed and her only son Edward having died in 1453, she retired to the Benedictine nunnery in Cannington, Somerset, close to the family home. It was there that she made her translation of the penitential psalms text. More biographical information can be found in Barratt (2003).

Hull’s translation was part of a growing interest in the seven psalms in the medieval period. Psalm 51 occupies pride of place because it is not only the middle psalm of the seven, but its heading, or superscription, began to play an increasingly important role in the interpretation of all of the penitential psalms. We will let the opening words of Hull’s commentary of Psalm 51 explain part of the reasoning why this was the case.

This Middle English text is not as daunting as it first appears. It is best read aloud, noting that ‘þ’ is pronounced as the modern ‘th’, ‘y’ is frequently there as an ‘i’, ‘u’ is frequently said as ‘v’, and ‘Ʒ’ is pronounced ‘g’:

This tytyl seythe, ‘in þe end, of þe psalmis of Dauid.’ Here by-fore ye haue herd what a tytyl ys. The tytyl ys þe entre of þe techyng for-to vndyrstond þe psalme. Psalme, he seythe, ys þe preysyng of God with song that is browht forthe by suetnes of þe euerlastyng ioye, and for that Dauid had for-Ʒete the preysyng of God al-myghty for þe veyne pleasance of his flessche, he made þis psalme wher-of þe tytyl sownyth, ‘in þe end, of þe psalmis of Dauid’. And hit sownyth as moche as þer-of he seyd, ‘Y haue be wykkid and wrecchyd al my lyfe vn-to now, but now schal y drawe towards hym that is þe ende of al euelys, and in þis proffytable ende that is þe begynnyng of al goodness that euer were and euer schal be y schal begynne my presyng besechyng þe al-myghty that he make me worþy to preyǀse hym aftyr his gret mercy and that he forƷeue me my mysdedys. And þer-for with gret repentance y seye and with feruent dezyre of myn hert: Miserere mei deus secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.

Barratt, 1995

These opening words argue that the title of the psalm is the interpretive key to understanding it. It echoes the importance of King David noted in C is for Contrition and Compunction. It does this by considering two components of the title. The part rendered ‘in þe end’ defied translators of the original Hebrew for centuries but we recognise this today as meaning ‘for the leader’, i.e. that this is a performance directive. This part of the title is of only small account for Hull. More importantly, ‘of þe psalmis of Dauid’ is taken in the text above as a statement of Davidic authorship. Today we would render this ‘Of David’ and recognise the ambiguity of the ‘of’ as implicit in the Hebrew text—it could mean authorship, association, dedication, etc. Despite these recent developments the basic premise of reading through a Davidic lens is still one, among a number of, possible reading. For Hull such a reading dominated, although her work is interpretively complex and nuanced.

Hull’s work is part of a movement in the medieval period to read the penitential psalms, and in fact the whole Psalter, through the heading of Psalm 51 and King David. Much literature and poetry that followed Hull had a more singular focus on David. In a later post we will return to the heading of Psalm 51 and the story that it alludes to in its mention of Nathan and Bathsheba.

References
Alexandra Barratt (editor), The Seven Psalms: A Commentary in the Penitential Psalms Translated from the French by Dame Eleanor Hull, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Alexandra Barratt, ‘Dame Eleanor Hull: The Translator at Work’, Medium Ævum, 272 (2), 277-296, 2003.

 

D is for Dante

Dante Alighieri is known for his poetic work Inferno. This work is not just famous, it is infamous. Nevertheless, infamy rarely means well understood. This epic fourteenth-century Italian poem recounts a journey through hell and is one of three poems that form a whole: The Divine Comedy or Commedia, to give it its simple Italian title. The three parts are Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. A journey through hell, purgatory and paradise might seem a long way from Psalm 51. There are, however, a number of connections between our psalm and Dante’s work. This post will explore just part of this wider relationship.

Dante (1265–1321) wrote his Commedia whilst in exile from his city of birth, Florence. There’s not time to go into how he came to be banished from his home city, but we can note, with some amusement, that the details are still potentially the subject of a court case, some seven hundred years after his death, see this recent newspaper article:

Daily Telegraph February 2021

For many years the little I knew of Dante’s work meant that I wrote it off as an unhelpful dwelling on the worst kind of over-literalisation of the afterlife. More recently, I have discovered that a number of people that I hold in high regard value Dante’s work—indeed they seem to prize it, as not only worthwhile literature, but claimed it has a spiritual, even transformative potential.

That Dante has a richer and more nuanced intent than macabre speculation on the afterlife is evident at the outset. The opening three lines refer to the proverbial midlife crisis or, to put it another way, lost soul. Here they are:

At one point midway on our path in life,
I came around and found myself now searching
Through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost. [Kirkpatrick, 2012, p.3]

We soon discover that Dante is not just lost but that he is being pursued by beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a wolf. It becomes apparent that these three animals represent specific sins that Dante is struggling with. The three respectively represent lust, pride and avarice. At line 65 in the first of 34 Cantos we meet Psalm 51 crystallised in one word—Miserere—such was its medieval importance. In context we have:

Seeing him near in that great wilderness,
To him I screamed my ‘Miserere’: ‘Save me,
Whatever—shadow or truly man—you be.’ [Kirkpatrick, 2012, p.5]

This call of mercy, arising from fear, will in fact be answered. Our interest is that for Dante  his hope of an answer to all of his desperate mid-life sin and fear can crystallised in a single psalm—Psalm 51. Even more remarkable is the fact that the fame of Psalm 51 is such that it is called to mind for Dante, and his readers, in a single word. He calls miserere centuries before Allegri celebrates this same psalm in his own musical cry for mercy.

It turns out that Dante is not beset by a shadow but that this is none other than Dante’s hero poet Virgil. Virgil has been sent on an act of mercy by Dante’s departed love Beatrice. Dante does not yet know it but his prayer, his cry for mercy, has already been answered.

Psalm 51 features in both Purgatorio and Paradiso but that story must await another time and place.

Reference
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Robin Kirkpatrick (translator and editor), London: Penguin Books, 2012.

C is for Contrition and Compunction

In English translations of Psalm 51 the word contrite is often used, for example as here in the NRSV:

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:17, NRSV

In the Hebrew text the ‘contrition’ centres on brokenness—it is the person who has experienced brokenness that is ready to ask God for forgiveness. The term contrition conveys a steady attitude of awareness of one’s frailty and wrongdoing before God. The use of Psalm 51 in church liturgy is meant, among other things, to provide space for the worshipper’s self-examination as to their contrition.

Such an attitude is the foundation on which being penitent is built. As Psalm 51 claims this is the sort of sacrifice that God looks for. The word compunction is a much more dramatic experience than contrition. It is the sudden awareness of one’s moral fragility and need for repentance. This term for such an experience and the theological idea originated in Acts 2:37, its only direct biblical precedent. There we read:

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”
Acts 2:37, NRSV

The phrase ‘cut to the heart’ was translated from the Greek into Latin as compuncti sunt corde. In later medieval theology the term become very popular as an experience of the piercing of the heart. This is watered down in modern English parlance as the derivative notion of the pricking of one’s conscience. In the Middle Ages both the terms contrition and compunction became central to personal faith. This became centred on Psalm 51. We have already seen that it mentions contrition (broken-heartedness) so where does compunction come in?

In brief, Psalm 51 has a heading which mentions the terrible story of how King David committed both adultery and murder. When this heading is taken as a lens with rich to read Psalm 51 then the importance of David’s contrition becomes even more apparent. In the Middle Ages, David through the Psalms which are traditionally attributed to him, became a model of penitence and an exemplar of contrition. This became a lens through which all seven of the penitential psalms were read at this time. In Psalm 32:4 the Latin translation has a phrase:

Conversus sum in aerumna mea dum configitur mihi spina.

Or

I am turned in my anguish, while the thorn is fastened in me. [After Kuczynski, 1995]

Via this thorn, David was understood to show compunction as well as contrition. We will return to David in several future posts on Psalm 51, including the next.

Reference
Michael P. Kuczynski, Prophetic Song: The Psalms as Moral Discourse in Late Medieval England, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

B is for Bones

Psalm 51 is one of seven psalms that have been grouped together and known as the penitential psalms since the sixth century. These seven psalms frequently touch on what today is often judged to be an unsavoury and unwelcome idea—the notion that God not only exhibits anger but shows his divine displeasure as wrath. In verse 8 of Psalm 51 we read:

Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Psalm 51:8, NRSV

The psalmist either has experienced, or they think they have experienced, God’s hand against them. The wider context of the psalm, in which they are asking for forgiveness, suggests a causal link between sin and wrath. This post is not going to unravel this knotty theological issue, although other posts in this A-to-Z will return to this subject. For the moment we are going to explore one thread of this matter—a concern crystallised in the very bones of the psalmist.

Three of the other penitential psalms also mention the psalmist’s bones. In the first penitential psalm we read:

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
Psalm 6:2, NRSV

In this psalm the shaking bones are part of a wider range of symptoms. It is unclear, however, just what ailment the psalmist is experiencing. There is here, and elsewhere, in the Psalter an ambiguity as to whether the ailments are literal or metaphorical. It is possible that this contributed to the preservation of such psalm as they are so readily appropriated by others. Whether this ambiguity aided its preservation, or not, it is undoubtedly an asset to have a readily re-readable prayer as part of a Prayerbook. The previous verse of Psalm 6 indicates that the cause of bones shaking with terror could be fear of God’s anger. Such a possibility is even more clearly found in Psalm 38, the third of the penitential psalms:

There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones because of my sin.
Psalm 38:3, NRSV

The fifth penitential psalm also makes mention of the psalmist’s bones. Here they are burning like a furnace:

For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
Psalm 102:3, NRSV

What we make of this depends on a decision as to how we read this psalm. If we see it as a penitential psalm, then like in the other cases we can see this as being the result of sin, or at least understood in this way by the poet. If we read the psalm on its own terms we could come to several alternative conclusions: extreme loneliness, illness, oppression by the community, depression. Each, perhaps all of these, could each account for the psalm’s content. Such categories are arguably anachronistic given the two and half millennia between the psalmist and us.

Such orthopaedic prayer language is far from the beauty of Allegri and yet, make no bones about it, it is likely to have touched even more lives than the Italian priest’s glorious composition. One wonders how many people have found strength in bringing their assorted troubles to God in these prayers.

A is for Allegri

This is the first bitesize post of a series of twenty-six. The series will be an A to Z for two reasons. The first reason is that I am joining the #AtoZChallenge which is an event in which participants blog their way through April in twenty-six acrostic posts. The second reason is that our topic, Psalm 51, though not itself an acrostic poem, is part of the Psalter in which nine of the 150 psalms are acrostics.

Why is Psalm 51 the subject of these 26 posts? The primary reasons are to showcase this truly amazing psalm, and to celebrate what can only be termed its incredible legacy. This psalm has been, with good reason, named The Psalm of Psalms by some. The reader will need to decide whether this and other superlatives we will encounter along the way are just hyperbole. I hope that many might agree with me that these are well deserved appellations.

There were other ways in which this project on Psalm 51 could have started. For example, the letter A could have been for Augustine, the North African theologian from Hippo, but I have only recently explored Augustine and his sermon on Psalm 51.

Gregorio Allegri (c.1582–1562) was both a Roman Catholic priest and an Italian composer. His most famous work today is his musical setting of the Latin text of Psalm 51. It is known by the shorthand name of Miserere because in Latin this is the first word of Psalm 51. Miserere means mercy in English. The full liturgical title of Psalm 51 and Allegri’s work is Miserere mei, Deus, which means ‘Have mercy on me, O God’. Psalm 51 was so famous for many centuries that the single word, Miserere, would bring it to mind in all sorts of cultural and religious settings.

Allegri’s choral Miserere is the stuff of legend—fitting for a post with so many superlative claims for Psalm 51. Allegri composed his Miserere for use in what are known as Tenebrae services in Holy Week. When Pope Urban VIII heard the work, he was impressed and wanted to preserve Allegri’s work for the Vatican’s use. So, he decreed that it should only be sung in the Sistine Chapel and only at the close of Holy Week. Its beauty would have been all the more startling in this context as it was (and indeed still is) performed by two choirs as a rich polyphonic work, and it followed services in which only plain chant was used. Here is a link to an excellent version of it, sung by VOCES8:

Allegri’s original work evolved after its ‘escape’ from the Sistine Chapel. The full story of its escape, courtesy of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart around 1770, can be found in a BBCFOUR documentary.

So far, Psalm 51 is living up to our earlier superlatives, at least in terms of a remarkable musical legacy—I hope you agree that Allegri’s work is as hauntingly beautiful as its story is remarkable.

#AtoZChallenge Theme Reveal

I am looking forward to posting 26 posts this April. This is what it means to do the #AtoZChallenge. I’ve done it before and you can see the results by starting here with A is for Aleph to Tav.

This year I will be blogging on Psalm 51 and its legacy in literature, liturgy, music, poetry and theology. I hope to show that this psalm deserves the accolade of psalm of Psalms. This is all part of an ongoing project on the penitential psalms where Psalm 51 is the centre psalm of the seven.

This really is a challenge! All encouragement and questions welcome—these both lighten the journey.

George Herbert and the Psalms

Regular readers of this blog will probably be aware that the penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143) have featured prominently here over the past year, or so. This is because of an ongoing project on these psalms. As I have spent time with these seven psalms I have become increasingly surprised at their generative potential in literature, liturgy, poetry, music, politics, and preaching. George Herbert (1593–1633) was an Anglican poet-priest and contributed, in his short life, to most of the aforementioned arenas. The Psalter appears to have been a major source of inspiration. More specifically, the language of the penitential psalms, and the traditional penitential lens through which they are read, seems lie behind much of his work too.

This short post is an encouragement to reflect on one poem and one poetic verse from Herbert’s pen which both respond to the Psalms. The aim is primarily to celebrate his poetry, albeit in just 83 words, on the day he is remembered in the liturgy. A second aim is a nod to the profoundly generative spirit of the psalms that has provided us with such a cloud of witnesses—an unceasing testimony of praise to celebrate and perpetuate the two testaments to Christ.

At the risk of straying from delight to dissection I will say a little about Hebert’s two pieces of verse. The first, Bitter-sweet, captures the life of faith and its two poles of complaint and praise. Whilst scholars have spilt much ink over such matters none can match this short poem’s sublime portrait of psalmic trust. It is a sublime microcosm of the Psalter in both form and content.

Bitter-sweet.
Ah my deare angrie Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sowre-sweet dayes
I will lament, and love.

The second piece, the first of some thirteen verses, grasps the gasps of the penitential psalmist. Though as short as the above, it redolent with the seven psalms. We find the metaphorical travails of the penitent (Pss. 6:7; 32:3; 38:7; 51:8), their sense of distance from God (38:9; 102:2; 130:5–6; 143:7), and their all-encompassing day and night waiting for the living God of the penitential psalms (Pss. 6:6; 32:4; 130:6).

Home.
Come Lord, my head doth burn, my heart is sick,
While thou dost ever, ever stay:
Thy long deferrings wound me to the quick,
My spirit gaspeth night and day.
O show thy self to me,
Or take me up to thee!

Perhaps the choice of the 27th February to celebrate Herbert and its place in the season of Lent (most years at least) is a fitting one?

Malcolm Guite’s ‘David’s Crown’: A Review

Malcolm Guite, David’s Crown: Sounding the Psalms, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2021

Malcolm Guite conceived and wrote this book during the earliest months of the pandemic. There is an irony in this origin, for corona, a word that had eluded most of us until a year ago, can refer to a crown or coronet of poems. These 150 poems are a collection—one poem per psalm. They also combine to form a single poem. A 2,250-line epic which is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a majestic response to the biblical Psalter, the original Davidic corona.

 

The Psalter comprises poems of very different lengths. The longest, Psalm 119, is around 200 times longer that the shortest, Psalm 117. Here in David’s Crown Guite adopts a poetic convention such that each poem is the same length and of the same form. In honour of the canonical crown each of his responses has fifteen lines, a nod to the 150 psalms. He also adopts another convention in following John Donne who linked seven poems, each adopting as its first line the last one of the previous poem. This is more than a clever and arbitrary stylistic whim. This convention celebrates another feature of the Psalter, the pairing of each psalm with its neighbours. The resulting concatenation within the Psalter is achieved in more complex ways than in Guite’s response—it includes various devices such as keywords pairs, repeated phrases, alternating patterns of day and night, matching interests and/or theological progression. As Paula Gooder reminds us in the introduction to David’s Crown, the Psalms also have a narrative that ties and binds them together. This can be seen as a journey of petition down to, and through, the low of Psalm 88, followed by a gentling rising path of praise. This culminates with Psalm 150’s unabandoned doxology.

The story within the Psalter is also the narrative of the Davidic kings and God’s kingship. Guite’s response reveals this story with a thoroughgoing Christian reading—this might be David’s Crown but in the 150 episodes we find Christ eclipsing David. This interpretive lens is, of course, that made by the Second Testament and many of the Church Fathers, including most notably Augustine and his interpretive paradigm of the total Christ (totus Christus). As Guite puts it, his work forms ‘a chaplet of praise to garland the head of the one who wore the Corona Spinea, the crown of thorns for us, and who has suffered with us through the corona pandemic [p.xv].’

So far, so good, this collection has a form that both echoes the 150 psalms it celebrates and has a coherent and insightful form. Is the execution as good as the conception? In short, the answer is a resounding yes. Each response is a delight in its own right. Doubtless readers will have different favourites. I particularly enjoyed the reflection on Psalm 39 because of its playful allusion to Leonard Cohen’s famous proverb about light and cracks. The response to Psalm 118, despite its brevity before its subject, works with many of the ideas and words found there in a beautiful fresh way. The 125th meditation is poignant, it is a prayer dedicating the collection as a thanksgiving offering. If each poem is a delight, then the whole can only be described as sublime. The single-minded form does not wear thin but rather provides a sort of theological and Christological perpetual motion—one reaches the end only to find that the last line of Psalm 150 provides the opening to the collection.

Guite explains that this is a response to the Coverdale version of the Psalms from the Book of Common Prayer. This is evident in the Latin headings to each poem and frequently in the language of the compositions. Nevertheless, is very much a contemporary poetry collection, it just knows how to cherish light from the past. There are allusions, both explicit and implicit, to the likes of John Donne, Julian of Norwich, John Bunyan, William Blake, Gregorio Allegri and Robert Alter. This peppering of imbibers and interpreters reminds us that behind these poems lie not just the ancient Psalms themselves but an age of their inspirational legacy—more profoundly still we perceive the Spirit breathing across some three millennia.

If you love the Psalter and enjoy poetry you will cherish David’s Crown:

So come and bring him all your nights and days,
And come into his courts with joyful song,
Come to the place where every breath is praise [p.150].

 

 

 

Psalm 51 and Saint Augustine

Psalm 51, sometimes known as the miserere, has also been given the epithet ‘Psalm of Psalms’ by some. As I have studied it and reflected on its place in Church history over the last twelve months, or so, I am increasingly persuaded that such a claim might well be justified. The accolade owes something to its fundamental nature as arguably the purest and most profound plea for God’s mercy in all of Scripture. It also owes much to the psalm’s title and its reference to David’s double sins of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah—events that occupy 2 Samuel 11–12. This background to the psalm, and David’s confession to the Prophet Nathan also alluded to in the title, gave rise to the identification of this prayer as the penitential psalm par excellence. This recognition of Psalm 51 as chief of the seven penitential psalms was deemed appropriate not only because of its assumed dependence on the pivotal biblical narrative, but it also fittingly lies fourth, and so in the middle, of the sequence of Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143. It was also judged appropriate that in the Greek and Latin traditions that its identity as Psalm 50 could be conceived as a sort of a psalmic Jubilee.

It is possible that the identification of the seven penitential psalms originated with Augustine although the first extant identification of the specific seven, mentioned above, as belonging to a closed group is in Cassiodorus’ Explanation of the Psalms [1]. In any case, Augustine’s sermon on Psalm 51 (50 in his Bible), in his Expositions of the Psalms [2], set the tone for exegesis of this psalm throughout the medieval period.

His sermon has often been neglected as a homily because Augustine reflects on its doctrinal contribution to what is generally termed original sin. But setting this aside and embracing Augustine as a faithful and earnest preacher proves to be a refreshing delight. The sermon comes across as a thrillingly tangible event despite more than 1,600 years lying between us and Augustine’s delivery (it was probably preached in the summer of 411). It comes to life in its early sentences as we hear him ask for quiet because his voice is struggling after preaching to a large gathering the previous day. We might well laugh as we note his acknowledgement of the preacher’s prevenient dilemma, the balance between saying enough to benefit a congregation but not so much as to ‘try its patience’. We also find out that the circus is in town and many congregants are absent and sampling its dubious pleasures.

Augustine sounds troubled that so many absentees will not hear his call to health that comes with repentance. He even urges those present to pass on the message to those that are not there. When it comes to the text he also sounds a little embarrassed to have to speak of the great King David as a sinner of some magnitude:

This woman Bathsheba was another man’s wife. We say this with grief and trepidation, yet since God wanted the matter to be written about, he does not mean us to hush it up. [3]

He must overcome his coyness because this psalm provides not only words of repentance but teaches too:

The story is not put before you as an example of falling, but as an example of rising again if you have fallen. Consider it carefully, so you do not fall. [4]

Augustine suggests that there might be two ways to hear of David’s immense sin. Firstly, his story might be misused as an exemplar of sin. Or secondly, and appropriately, as a as a warning to avoid sin by fleeing temptation. He is also at pains to point out that if any his congregation have already fallen into temptation and grave sin that they can still know forgiveness:

But if any who hear this have fallen already, and study the words of this psalm with some evil thing in their consciences, they must indeed be aware of the gravity of their wounds, but not despair of our noble physician. [5]

In this way, for Augustine this psalm carries a double grace, both as an exhortation to avoid sin and as a means to find the grace of Christ:

But as this psalm warns the fallen to be wary, so too it will not leave the fallen to despair. [6]

Augustine goes on to point to David as exemplar to those who have fallen into temptation:

Listen to him crying out, and cry out with him; listen to him groaning, and groan too; listen to him weeping, and add your tears to his; listen to him corrected, and share his joy. If sin could not be denied access to you, let the hope of forgiveness not be debarred. [7]

Anyone familiar with Augustine’s interpretative paradigm known as the totus Christus, that is the total Christ, might be surprised to hear how David eclipses Christ so completely in this homily. Elsewhere in his massive work on the Psalms he has no problem placing the words of sinners in Jesus’ mouth, for Christ can pray the words of his body the Church as well as words appropriate for him as Head of the Church. Augustine’s interpretation of Psalm 51 is an important reminder that Augustine is not a slave to one interpretative paradigm for the psalms. We can take comfort that the words of Psalm 51, though once David’s, can now be ours. In addition, when we pray them, in God’s mercy we can know the same bounteous grace that David experienced.

References
1. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms, three volumes, P. G. Walsh (translator), New York: Paulist Press, 1990.
2. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, six volumes, Maria Boulding (translator), John E. Rotelle (ed.), Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2000.
3. Expositions: Volume 2, p.411.
4. Ibid.
5. Expositions: Volume 2, p.413.
6. Ibid.
7. Expositions: Volume 2,p.414.

The Gospel of Eve: A Novel by Rachel Mann

Rachel Mann, The Gospel of Eve, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2020

I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy of The Gospel of Eve. It is set in Littlemore Theological College, a fictional Anglican seminary just outside Oxford. The story takes place in the late 1990s, but it is narrated by Catherine Bolton in the present. Kitty, as she is known by her friends, joined Littlemore after completing a PhD in Medieval History at the University of Lancaster. The story concerns the first few months of Kitty’s time at the college and her relationship with five fellow ordinands, including the almost titular Evie. The apparent suicide of Evie is revealed in the first line of the prologue. Right from the outset the reader knows that her death not only drives the narrative but that this terrible event has ongoing consequences for Kitty.

This review will not give away anything further concerning the plot—this is vital, as one of the delights of this novel is that as it unfolds the reader must continually adjust their assessment of where the narrative will take them. The Gospel of Eve is beautifully written. College life and the broader context of Oxford are both captured with engaging effortlessness. It is a small detail—and difficult to explain—but Mann has a real gift for naming characters, contributing to the ease with which the minor players crystallise in their respective roles. The main characters are thoroughly three-dimensional in their complexity. There is not so much character development, as a chapter-by-chapter revelation of who they are. All of this works to make the central, and it must be said remarkable, plot development credible.

So much for the form, what of the content? Whilst this is certainly a novel that can just be read as an engaging page-turner it offers rather more than this. Barely below the surface lie the serious challenges posed by human frailty, all brought to life in what can only be described as a rich intertextuality. There are literary connections to theology, Church history, famous literary Oxfordians, and Dostoevsky. The religious literature of the Middle Ages occupies pride of place, and it functions on a number of levels. The three parts of the book each open with a short quote from medieval literature, and we soon realise that the frequent mention of the likes of Piers Plowman, Margery Kempe and Chaucer are not just incidental details of Kitty’s life. The love of literature is felt profoundly throughout, only to intensify in the story’s denouement. The most impressive aspect of this prevalent intertextuality is that there is no artifice only effortless flowing prose.

If the intertextual insights cast light it is all too often on the darkness of human aspiration and desire. All the characters in the story have embarked on laudable quests. For Kitty and her friends this is the wish to become closer to God and to minister to others. Indeed, at times, they come across as set apart from the rest of the college in their priestly calling. In the case of Professor Albertus Loewe, a donnish key influence on the six ordinands, his task is the formation of the next generation of clergy which includes the inculcation of a love of religious literature. Yet, we find that these positive pursuits are all, without exception, tainted in very different ways by the hardening of virtue with human obsession. This novel offers no simple answers to the human condition. What good novel does? Instead the reader has to decide for themselves what to make of the rich interplay between the story of the first Eve, the fate of Evie, and the lives of so many other Eves.