Religion:Poema Morale

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The Poema Morale ("Conduct of life"[1] or "Moral Ode"[2]) is an early Middle English moral poem outlining proper Christian conduct. The poem was popular enough to have survived in seven manuscripts, including the homiletic collections known as the Lambeth Homilies and Trinity Homilies,[3] both dating from around 1200.

Content and form

The narrator, a wise, old man, reflects on his life and his many failures; the homily ends with a description of the Last Judgment and the joys of heaven.[4] Both personal sin and collective guilt (scholars have compared the narrator's stance to that of the Peterborough Chronicler) are of concern.[5]

The poem is sometimes referred to as a sermon,[6] sometimes as a homiletic narrative.[4] It contains, in its longest version, 200 rhymed couplets.[6]

The lengths of the different versions of the poem vary greatly: the shortest is 270, the longest 400 lines; different manuscript versions also differ in wording. The Lambeth version is considered the oldest.[5] In fact, there is so much "metrical, lexical and scribal variation" that it seems there is no "correct" version: "each copy represents a reshaping within an established rhythmical and metrical structure."[2]

Though a seventeenth-century identification between the Poema and The Proverbs of Alfred by Langbaine was proven erroneous (Langbaine was led astray because he had an expectation of finding the Alfredian proverbs in the manuscript known as Bodleian Library Digby 4). There are, however, connections between the Poema and the Proverbs: a couplet of the Poema was written (in the same hand as the main text) in the margin of a manuscript containing the Proverbs (Maidstone Museum A.13).[7] On that same page are marginal notes listing and glossing Middle English characters and their names, a list also found in McClean 123, which preserves a full version of the Poema; whether this is a gloss for the scribe or the reader is not clear.[8]

At least one echo of the Poema was noted in the Ancrene Wisse.[7] The twelfth-century Ormulum has the same meter as the Poema, but, in the estimation of at least one critic, the Ormulum lacks the occasional vigor and "personal feeling" found in the Poema.[9]


Following a Latin model, the Poema employs a septenary line,[10] "a seven-foot line usually in trochaic rhythm"; according to R. D. Fulk and others this is possibly the first example of that line in English.[11] According to Joseph Malof, this Latin-derived meter in subsequent instances is transformed into the looser seven-stress line (proving the dominance in English of stress over syllable) that became the English common metre, the standard line used in ballads.[12]


Seven manuscripts contain the poem,[2][13] six of which were used in the compilation of the Middle English Dictionary.[14]

  • Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, McClean 123 (M)
  • Cambridge, Trinity College B.14.52 (335) (T)
  • London, British Library, Egerton 613
    • contains two versions: fols. 7r-12v (E), fols. 64r-70v (e)
  • London, Lambeth Palace Library 487 (L)
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby 4 (D)
  • Oxford, Jesus College 29, Part 2 (J)

In addition, snippets are found in three other manuscripts.[2]


The first modern critical study and edition (which used six manuscripts) was Hermann Lewin's 1881 Das mittelenglische Poema morale.[15] Lewin did not yet have the version from Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum MS McClean 123, a manuscript given to the museum in 1904; the version of the Poema Morale in it was not described until 1907.[16]


  1. Conti, Aidan (2006). "The Gem-Bearing Serpents of the Trinity Homilies: An Analogue for Gower's Confessio Amantis". Modern Philology 106 (1): 109–16. doi:10.1086/597251. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Sciacca, Claudia di (2012). "For Heaven's Sake: The Scandinavian contribution to a semantic field in Old and Middle English". in Merja Stenroos. Language Contact and Development Around the North Sea. Martti Mäkinen, Inge Srheim. John Benjamins. pp. 169–86. ISBN 9789027248398. Retrieved 6 September 2012. 
  3. Treharne, Elaine (June 2012). "Cambridge, Trinity College, B. 14. 52". The Production and Use of English Manuscripts 1060 to 1220. Retrieved 5 September 2012. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Holtei, Rainer, ed (2002). "Poema Morale". A Companion to ME Literature. Heinrich-Heine-University, Düsseldorf. Retrieved 5 September 2012. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Dunn, Charles W. (1990). Middle English Literature. Garland. pp. 46–48. ISBN 9780824052973. Retrieved 5 September 2012. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Harsch, Ulrich. "Poema Morale, ca. 1170". Bibliotheca Augustana. Fachhochschule Augsburg. Retrieved 5 September 2012. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 The Proverbs of Alfred. New York: Haskell. 1931. pp. 10, 63. 
  8. Brown, Carleton (1926). "The Maidstone Text of the Proverbs of Alfred". Modern Language Review 21 (3): 249–60. doi:10.2307/3714778. 
  9. Daiches, David (1979). A Critical History of English Literature: from the beginnings to the sixteenth century. Allied Publishers. p. 42. ISBN 9788170230465. Retrieved 6 September 2012. 
  10. Myers, Jack; Wukasch, Don C. (2003). Dictionary of Poetic Terms. U of North Texas P. p. 329. ISBN 9781574411669. Retrieved 6 September 2012. 
  11. Fulk, Robert D. (2002). "Early Middle English Evidence for Old English Meter: Resolution in Poema morale". Journal of Germanic Linguistics 14 (4). doi:10.1017/S147054270200017X. ISSN 1470-5427. 
  12. Malof, Joseph (1964). "The Native Rhythm of English Meters". Texas Studies in Literature and Language 5 (4): 580–94. 
  13. Laing, Margaret (2000). "'Never the twain shall meet': Early Middle English--the East-West divide". in Irma Taavitsainen. Placing Middle English in Context. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 97–124. ISBN 9783110167801. Retrieved 6 September 2012. 
  14. "Entry for "Poema Morale" in Middle English Compendium HyperBibliography". Middle English Dictionary. University of Michigan. Retrieved 6 September 2012. 
  15. Lewin, Hermann (1881). Das mittelenglische Poema morale: Im kritischen Text, nach den sechs vorhandenen Handschriften zum ersten Male hrsg. von hermann Lewin. M. Niemeyer. Retrieved 5 September 2012. 
  16. Paues, Anna C. (1907). "A Newly Discovered Manuscript of the Poema Morale". Anglia: Zeitschrift für englische Philologie 1907 (30): 217–237. doi:10.1515/angl.1907.1907.30.217. ISSN 0340-5222. 

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