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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

II. Religious Movements in the Fourteenth Century

§ 3. William Nassyngton; Rolle and Religion

Rolle thus deserves a high place among the many poets of the religious life; and the forms he used, or, at times, elaborated, have a beauty answering to their thought. Intense personal feeling, sympathy and simplicity are their chief features, and thus, apart from their language, they appeal to all ages alike. Beginning with alliteration only, the author worked into rime. But followers, such as William Nassyngton, imitated him in poems hard to distinguish from Rolle’s own; some versified editions of his prose works—such as that of the Form of Living (or Mending of Life)—were probably also due to Nassyngton. We thus come to a cycle of sacred poems, at once mystic and practical, all grouped around Rolle. At first purely local, they spread beyond south Yorkshire; copies were made in southern English, “translated” (says one MS.) “out of northern tunge into southern, that it schulde [char]e better be understondyn of men of [char]e selve countreye.” the Psalms had been to Rolle himself a source of inspiration and comfort; he had come to that constant intercourse with God, to that sense of personal touch with Him, in which even their most exalted language did not seem unreal or too remote. He could write: “grete haboundance of gastly comfort and joy in God comes in the hertes of thaim at says or synges devotly the psalmes in lovynge of Jesus Crist,” His labour at the Psalter had a wide-reaching influence, and appears in many forms; a Latin commentary upon it is one of his most original works; and, in another of them, the Latin version is followed by an English translation, and a commentary; the last has been widely used and highly praised by pious writers of very different schools, but it is really a translation of Peter Lombard’s commentary, and is, therefore, devoid of originality and personal touches. This commentary may not have been his only attempt at translation, as the English version of The Mirror of St. Edmund may also be his work. His own prose is marked by flexibility and tender feeling fittingly expressed. A metrical Psalter—apparently earlier in date—also exists, and this, again, was largely copied, but it cannot be ascribed with absolute certainty to Rolle himself.

From the date of the miracles at Hampole—1381 and there abouts—a revival of Rolle’s fame seems to have taken place, just before the great Peasants’s Revolt, and just when Lollard influence was spreading. To this coincidence is due the reissure of the commentary upon the Psalter with Lollard interpolations and additions. From various doctrinal inferences the date of this reissue has been tentatively fixed as early as 1378, and its authorship has been sometimes ascribed—although without reason—to Wyclif himself. Against these Lollard interpolations the writer of some verses prefixed to one MS. complains:

  • Copied has this Suter ben of yvel men of Lollardy,
  • And afterward hit has been sene ymped in with eresy;
  • They seyden then to lewde foles that it shuld be all enter
  • A blessyd boke of hur scoles, of Richard Hampole the Sauter.
  • The writer of this particular MS. claims that his copy, on the other hand, is the same as that kept chained at Hampole itself. The quarrel raised over Hampole’s Psalter, and the use made of it, illustrates its value. But originality cannot be claimed for it.

    Rolle’s activity was due to the wish to benefit his fellows, and hence come a number of plain, practical treatises with religious ends in view. His commentary upon the Psalms was written for the edification of the same Margaret of Ainderby for whom he wrote, in prose, The Form of Living; his beautiful Ego dormio et cor meum vigilat, a prose work which shows the influence of those pseudo-Dionysian writings that markedly affected both Grosseteste and Colet, was written for a nun of Yedingham; explanations of the Canticles, the Lord’s Prayer and Commandments and some prayers in The Layfolk’s Mass book, had the same object. His mysticism still left something practical in his character—so much so that, at times, he gave advice which, in spite of his assured orthodoxy, must have seemed, to some, unusual. Thus, he speaks of the error of taking too little food, in avoiding too much—and he never tries to impress upon all others the contemplative life he sought for himself. He saw that, for most of them, life must be active; he merely sought to teach them the spirit in which to live.