Edmund of Abingdon’s Mirror of Holy Church

Edmund of Abingdon, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1234 until his death in 1240, was canonised soon after his death and a Life of St Edmund was written by Matthew Paris, but it is for his work, Speculum religiosorum (the only extant work apart from a ‘stray sermon’ [Lawrence, p. 27] and his Moralities on the Psalms, both of which remain unedited) that he is now known.  Edmund was a theologian educated in Paris and Oxford in the early days of both universities, and taught at Oxford before being appointed treasurer and canon of Salisbury cathedral.  It is generally believed that he wrote the Speculum religiosorum during the period of the suspension of the Oxford schools when Edmund spent a year, between 1213 and 1214, at Merton priory.  This original Latin text is no longer extant, although a copy believed to be close does exist, as do other Latin versions, known as the Speculum ecclesie, which were translated back into Latin from French.  It was the Anglo-Norman version, the Mirour de Seinte Eglyse, that gained greatest popularity; A. D. Wilshere’s edition lists eighteen full texts, of both ‘religious’ and ‘lay’ versions in manuscripts dating from the middle of the thirteenth to the fourteenth centuries.

English translations, Mirror of Holy Church, appeared from the late fourteenth century and are found alongside works by Richard Rolle and Walter Hilton in famous manuscripts such as Vernon and Thornton.  Edmund’s Mirror, thus, is an example of the rise of vernacular theology and describes its trajectory from academic Latin work, influenced by Paris theology, through translations for secular clerics, canon and (possibly) nuns to vernacular versions for semi-religious groups and devout lay people.  Although originally written for a religious readership, the Mirror was an adaptable work, containing a lot of basic catechetical material, detailing the mortal sins, the ten commandments, the seven virtues and twelve articles of faith etc.; this allowed it to appeal to a growing readership of devout laity and the clerics charged with their care.  The Middle English versions have been described as reflecting a work that ‘has become a comprehensive manual of the spiritual life, encompassing elementary doctrinal instruction, meditation, and contemplative prayer’ [Lagorio and Sargent, 3116].  ‘Vernacular theology’ acts as both concept and category for this important area of faith and devotion in the later Middle Ages.

The vernacular spiritual writings produced in England in the fourteenth century include the writings by the ‘English mystics’ (though the term ‘vernacular theology’ has largely supplanted this term and usefully extended the category, challenging ‘the segregation of contemplative writings’, [Gillespie, p. 405]).  Valerie Lagorio and Michael Sargent have pointed out that ‘English mysticism has its roots in such earlier insular spiritual writings as St Edmund of Abingdon’s Speculum Ecclesie, the Ancrene Riwle, the affective meditations of St Anselm of Canterbury’, and others [Lagorio and Sargent, 3049].  Edmund’s Speculum was influenced by the writings of Hugh of St Victor, and he can be seen as forming a bridge between Victorine spirituality and English mysticism, as well as between Paris academic theology and vernacular theology.

Understanding this process of vernacularisation and laicisation it is essential to consider the act of translation – cultural and spiritual as well as linguistic.  As Vincent Gillespie has pointed out, ‘very few acts of translation into medieval vernaculars are what could be called “simple”.’  He continues:

They invariably involve complex editorial acts of selection, reordering, lexical choice, and responsiveness to the needs and abilities of a real or imagined audience.  Issues of manuscript context, genre, register, and style are often as important as issues of content or theology.  Vernacular theology is ultimately more about the pragmatic and devotional literacies of different target audiences than about the status or cultural worth of the different languages in which it is performed. [Gillespie, p. 402]

Given the current interest in vernacular theology and the multi-linguality of England in the Middle Ages, it seems anomalous, to say the least, that modern scholarly editions exist of the Latin and French versions of this important work, but not the English.  I am embarking on an edition of the Mirror, and hoping to publish parallel texts, one a translation from the Latin and one from the French, choosing manuscripts that were intended for different readerships, in line with the editions of the Latin and French versions which present texts that were probably read by monastic and devout lay readers.

Latin texts: Forshaw, Helen. Edmund of Abingdon. Speculum religiosorum and Speculum ecclesie (London: Oxford University Press, for The British Academy, 1973)

French texts: Mirour de Seinte Eglyse ed. by A. D. Wilshere (London: Anglo-Norman Text Society, 1982)


Gillespie, Vincent.  ‘Vernacular Theology’ in Middle EnglishOxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature, ed. Paul Strohm, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 401-420

Lagorio, Valerie and Michael G. Sargent (with Ritamary Bradley).  XXIII ‘English Mystical Writings’ in A Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1950-1500, ed. A. E. Hartung, vol. 9 (New Haven, Conn.: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1993)

Lawrence, C.H.  The Life of St Edmund by Matthew Paris, trans. ed. and with a biography (Stroud: Alan Sutton in association with St Edmund Hall, 1996)


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