For four weeks this past summer, Associate Professor Kevin Gustafson (English) worked with a 600-year-old copy of Richard Rolle’s English Psalter.
Gustafson, who is also Associate Dean of the Honors College and Director of the Center for Service Learning, was awarded a short-term residential fellowship at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., where he worked with research partner Jill C. Havens (Texas Christian University) to examine and transcribe the manuscript. The two are preparing a three-volume critical edition of Rolle’s influential work.
“Rolle was a well-known writer in the 14th century, actually the best-known one before Chaucer, and he was a noted religious contemplative,” Gustafson said. “But he didn’t fit neatly into church structure; he was a renegade in some ways. The English Psalter includes the Latin text, an English translation, and a commentary for each verse of the Psalms. It is a massive project. It is interesting to see what a 14th-century writer thought about the Psalms and what he thought people should understand about them.”
According to Gustafson, there are 23 known copies of Rolle’s English Psalter, with manuscripts housed in a number of major libraries, notably in the Vatican, Oxford, Cambridge, and London. He and Havens have determined that the manuscript at the Huntington is the best one to use as a copy text for their edition, since it offers a complete text of the work in Rolle’s dialect and seems to have been made by a very careful scribe, one given to self-correction.
“We worked with the manuscript and compared it to other manuscripts,” he said. “You are ultimately trying to figure out what Rolle’s original looked like. Since we don’t have a copy from his lifetime, it’s a sleuthing game. Beyond trying to understand what Rolle wrote, we are also trying to understand the reception of the work. We know that these manuscripts were used in very different ways and by different kinds of readers. The one at the Huntington, for example, was likely used in a monastic context, while others were commissioned by secular patrons.”
Gustafson said the research provides a number of answers about Rolle and other authors from the 14th century. Scholars know that Rolle wrote some of his English works specifically for a female audience, most famously the anchoress Margaret Kirkby. But the research also generates a host of questions. For instance, some of the 23 copies of Rolle’s original work contain the full Latin translation of the Pslams; others contain only abbreviations of the Latin. Such differences suggest that while some scribes and readers may have been using the English Psalter to gain a better understanding of the Latin Psalms, others may have been primarily interested in the English for its own sake.
The English Psalter was the first major vernacular translation of scripture following the Norman Conquest, and for this reason has a special status in the history and development of the language. “English was in many ways a backwater language before the 14th century; Latin, French, and Italian had much more prestige,” Gustafson said. “I’ve been interested in the process by which a language acquires authority for literary and religious use. By the middle of the 14th century, it is clear English that is emerging as a literary language, and it is doing so, at least in part, because of works like the English Psalter.”