Press "Enter" to skip to content

“The Northern Passion”: Not Your Average Devotional Text

I grew up glued to my Sunday School chair, eating up every bible story I could. When Dr. Camp said we would be reading about the Passion of the Christ, I was so excited to be able to breeze through this assignment. After all, stories of the Passion are all the same, right? Wrong. My first real experience with a medieval Passion account was in London, British Library, Egerton MS 1070, a Book of Hours made for use of Paris and owned by Rene D’Anjou (for more information on the manuscript’s history check out The Man Behind the Manuscript). Egerton MS 1070 contains Passion excerpts from each of the four gospels. When we were assigned more Passion readings, I assumed I would just encounter more of the same; I anticipated a highly formal liturgical text reciting the scriptures to which I had grown accustomed. Because of these expectations, I was taken aback when I started reading “The Northern Passion” in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 61. Where I expected Latin, I found vernacular English; where I looked for distinctly demarcated sections, I found a fluid and comprehensive narrative. My first thought was: this reads more like a medieval romance than a devotional text. This made me wonder what happens when we have devotional texts that utilize the structural and topical tropes of the romance genre? “The Northern Passion” demonstrates the creation of a new kind of devotional text that blurs the lines between the religious and romance genres and can serve as a substitute for scripture in lay reading communities through the adoption of popular romance characteristics.

Context Matters

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 61, fol 105v-106r Romance of the Passion, ‘Testamentum Domini,’ Lamentac[i]o b[eat]e M[ari]e
London, British Library, Egerton MS 1070, fol 134v John 18 Passion miniature and text
Egerton MS 1070, as a Book of Hours, is a purely devotional text. Books of Hours contain a range of texts including the Hours of the Virgin (the defining text in all Books of Hours), gospel lessons, miscellaneous prayers, offices, suffrages, and litanies; in short, Books of Hours only include religious material to provide “direct, democratic, and potentially uninterrupted access to God, the Virgin Mary and the Saints” (Wieck 434). It must also be acknowledged that Books of Hours were typically written in Latin, modeled after the liturgical texts used by the Church clergy. While Roger Wieck, Head of Medieval and Manuscript Studies at the Morgan Library, assesses that “most literate people had some working knowledge of Latin,” the typical lay reader of Latin would be limited primarily to the basic prayers, such as the “Ave Maria,” “Pater Noster,” “Credo,”  and “Confiteor” (Wieck 434). In order to understand the texts in Books of Hours, the reader would need to rely heavily on the imaginative use of illuminations and their own prior knowledge of scripture (as explored in French Passion Devotion and Imaginative Theology in Medieval Books of Hours). Rene d’Anjou, however, was Latin literate and would be able to engage with the texts; but don’t forget the manuscript was not made for him so there is still a high likelihood that the text was read by individuals (like myself) who have very basic to completely absent understandings of Latin.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 61, fol 105v-106r Romance of the Passion, ‘Testamentum Domini,’ Lamentac[i]o b[eat]e M[ari]e
Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 61, fol 105v-106r Romance of the Passion, ‘Testamentum Domini,’ Lamentac[i]o b[eat]e M[ari]e
Ashmole MS 61, on the other hand, is a “devotional miscellany containing romances,” and the differences between these kinds of manuscripts explains their different treatment of the Passion story (Blanchfield 66). Ashmole MS 61 includes texts from a wide range of genres including romances, exempla, prayers and meditations, didactic texts, and religious lyrics. As we consider the implications of a text’s context and form we may begin to wonder, can religious works be effective in this type of wide-ranging miscellany? Lynne Blanchfield, whose research brought this manuscript to the attention of scholars, categorizes the manuscript as a devotional miscellany above all else. She emphasizes that the manuscript is not a “romance manuscript which [the scribe] filled in with religious and didactic verse” (Blanchfield 66). The purpose of Ashmole MS 61, therefore, remains to “instruct in the devotional life using any popular means available” (Blanchfield 66). Some scholars believe that resorting to the “narrative impulse” can draw attention away from the religious purpose or elevation of the text’s content, but it is clear that Ashmole MS 61 uses the romance influences to more effectively convey the religious content to a lay audience (Boulton 6). Functioning similarly to illuminations on the page, the long narrative accounts are specifically designed for reader comprehension and affectation. Savannah Caldwell concludes that images in Books of Hours were the “means by which a lay person, no matter what his or her Latin literacy may be, could achieve both compassion for and unity with Christ.” The long narrative form of the Passion, as we will see, similarly attempts to help the reader internally process the suffering of Christ, leading to an affected understanding of the text.

Diving into “The Northern Passion”

It is one thing to say that Ashmole MS 61’s “The Northern Passion” is influenced by romances and still effective, but by now you are probably wondering how. While reading the narrative, I had to keep pausing to think wait, that’s not in the bible! I was under the impression that the text would reference all of the same basic plot points found in the gospels. Much to my surprise, as the Middle Ages progressed, there was an increased desire for devotional literature to draw from extra-biblical texts and it became common practice to include narrative details not found in the gospels (Bestul 26). “The Northern Passion” incorporates a range of sources including the Old French Passion which was derived from a combination of the Vulgate Gospels and the Historia Scholastica, as well as influential meditative works such as Dialogus Beatae Mariae et Anselmi de Passione Domine and Meditatio en Passionem. (Shuffleton “‘The Northern Passion’: Introduction”).  Once I figured this out, it struck me how similar this is to how people composed romances during the Middle Ages. Romances are often viewed as compiled works; the compiler would pillage sources “rather freely, combining elements from different sources to form new ‘works’” (Boulton 23). The author of “The Northern Passion,” therefore, approaches the Passion account as a compiler would approach a romance and combines the various works to create a text which provides a more comprehensive understanding of the Passion of the Christ.

The patchwork quality of “The Northern Passion” differentiates it so greatly from the Passion accounts in Egerton MS 1070. The additional legendary and apocryphal source materials allow for the inclusion of episodes which are not present in purely gospel-based texts like Egerton MS 1070. Because of this, “The Northern Passion” is able to add a detailed history of the Cross with descriptions of Christ’s body as it is stretched and bound to its frame, as well as the Harrowing of Hell, which are not strictly scriptural scenes (Shuffleton “The Northern Passion” lines 1236-1581, 1730-1745). The references to other texts wouldn’t shock medieval readers as they did me because they would be familiar with the legends and would even have grown accustomed to narratives that include them, such as “The Northern Passion.” I also noticed that whenever the text would include an episode not in the gospels, it usually worked to cause the reader to have some kind of emotional reaction. In the Harrowing of Hell, Christ is depicted descending into Hell and rescuing the righteous, instilling in the reader a deep sense of gratitude and awe at Christ’s power and bravery. The dealings with the Cross — the details regarding the construction of the Holy Tree and the gruesome depiction of Christ’s torture on the Cross — almost had me in tears, the intention of the passage clearly to make the reader more affected by the story.

The narrative still flows because of the author’s use of narrative intrusions to tie all of these disparate episodes together. As I was reading, I was consistently reminded that the text was being told to me because the narrator would pop in with comments such as, “of this I wyll no lenger duell;/ another thing I wyll you tell” (Shuffleton “The Northern Passion” lines 293-294). These instances employ a popular romance “invocation of authority” (Whetter 63). The narrator guides the reader through the passion, drawing attention to some details and dismissing others, but no matter what, the reader is aware that the narrator is an authority on the subject, especially with the use of references such as “the boke it says, welle I wote”(Shuffleton “The Northern Passion” lines 210, 439).

The author’s adoption of romance structure is not the only element of romance we can see in “The Northern Passion.” The vernacular narrative exploits the tropes of the romance genre which are inherent in the Passion of the Christ. The story naturally revolves around two regular themes in the romance genre: “loss and restoration” and the “role of the marvelous” (Whetter 63). If I know one thing from my Sunday School background, it is that the bible says Christ died on the Cross and rose again on the third day. And if I know one thing from my studies into medieval romances, weird episodes like this happen all the time in the genre. “The Northern Passion” manipulates the reader’s emotions through its detailed depictions of Christ’s death and resurrection. When Christ died in the gospels, we only see him cry out vaguely as he passes, but when Christ died in “The Northern Passion,” he monologues about his suffering and prays for God to have mercy on his tormentors’ souls. “The Northern Passion” emphasizes Christ’s sacrifice through loss of life while simultaneously adding dialogue which influences the reader’s emotions. The narrative does not simply rely on the Passion account’s inherent focus on loss and restoration; rather, it combines these themes with the romance tendency to use “imaginative retellings of the familiar events of Christ’s life” (Boulton 5). We do not simply hear that Christ has risen, but we see him rise from the dead and actively push away the boulder blocking his tomb (an action not directly attributed to him in the gospels). The narrative account allows for a more descriptive story where the reader can actually see the marvellous happen and they can better understand the “doctrinal subtlety” and “moral nuances” when they are presented so clearly aimed at the lay audience (Boulton 6).

Shifting Perspectives

As a modern reader, I have a distinct understanding of genre in my head that I inevitably draw on when I approach a new text. I left “The Northern Passion” understanding that genres can be blurred– religious texts can use popular forms and still convey the same narratives of the bible (plus a little extra). Ashmole MS 61 allowed me to see that there is so much more to devotional texts than the biblical format employed by Books of Hours like Egerton MS 1070. My findings in Ashmole MS 61 taught me to approach each Passion text with a fresh eye for form and to be prepared to be surprised by what I find.


[Featured Image: Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 61, fol. 105v-106r. Romance of the Passion, ‘Testamentum Domini,’ ‘Lamentac[i]o b[eat]e M[ari]e.’]



Works Cited

Bestul, Thomas H. “Medieval Narratives of the Passion of the Christ.” Texts of the Passion: Latin Devotional Literature and Medieval Society, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1996, pp. 26–68.

Blanchfield, Lynne S. “The Romances in MS Ashmole 61: An Idiosyncratic Scribe.” Romance in Medieval England, edited by Maldwyn Mills et al., D.S. Brewer, Cambridge, 1991, pp. 65–88.

Boulton, Maureen Barry McCann. Sacred Fictions of Medieval France: Narrative Theology in the Lives of Christ and the Virgin, 1150-1500, D.S. Brewer, Cambridge, 2015.

Shuffleton, George. “Item 28, The Northern Passion: Introduction.” Codex Ashmole 61: A Compilation of Popular Middle English Verse, edited by George Shuffleton, Medieval Institute Publications, Kalamazoo, 2008.

Shuffleton, George. “Item 28, The Northern Passion.” Codex Ashmole 61: A Compilation of Popular Middle English Verse, edited by George Shuffleton, Medieval Institute Publications, Kalamazoo, 2008.

Wieck, Roger S. “The Book of Hours.” The Liturgy of the Medieval Church, edited by Thomas J. Heffernan and E. Ann Matter, 2nd ed., pp. 431–468.

Whetter, K. S. “Redefining Medieval Romance.” Understanding Genre and Medieval Romance, Ashgate Publishing Limited, Surrey, 2008, pp. 25–95.