Middle English manuscripts and early printed books

Academic Introduction

Dr William Marx

William Marx’s work in this area centres on the investigation and editing of previously unpublished and for the most part previously unknown texts in Middle English that survive in manuscripts and early printed books.  These are texts of ‘vernacular theology’, that is the literature of religious devotion and instruction in the language of those not educated in Latin.  They frequently have their basis in specific Latin devotional and instructional writing. The Middle English texts are not, strictly speaking, translations, but sophisticated adaptations and interpretations of the Latin originals for a lay audience.  The audience for such vernacular works was not clerical, but those responsible for the translations and adaptations of the Latin texts were no doubt members of the clergy, and through these vernacular texts drew lay people into communities of popular devotion and piety. The late fourteenth and early fifteenth-century was a period of tension between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and vernacular texts of these kinds may reflect the pressures of orthodoxy or, in some instances, the attractions of heterodoxy. 

William Marx, ed., The Middle English Liber Aureus and Gospel of Nicodemus, edited from London, British Library, MS Egerton 2658, Middle English Texts, 48 (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2013)

This volume contains an edition of a Middle English devotional and instructional text that bears a complex relationship to its Latin sources. The Introduction analyses the variety of strategies of translation and adaptation that the compiler used to produce a vernacular text that in effect is a new version that exhibits an ideology distinct from its main Latin source. The text survives in four manuscripts, each of which provides clues as to how the text was used and read by different lay communities.


William Marx, ‘The Devil as Narrator of the Life of Christ and the Sermo Literarius’, in Preaching the Word in Manuscript and Print in Late Medieval England, ed. by Martha W. Driver and Veronica O'Mara, Sermo, 11 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013), pp. 63–81.

This essay uses a selection of conventional Middle English sermons and versions of the literary sermon known as The Devils’ Parliament, to highlight different treatments of the medieval tradition of the Devil as narrator of the life of Christ. These range from the restrained and unadventurous approach of conventional sermons to the innovative strategies of the sermo literarius that pushed orthodoxy to the limits in order, it would seem, to provoke in the audience a dramatic reaction. The essay argues for a lay readership that was increasingly sophisticated and able to negotiate the subtleties of theological argument.