Chapter 3

Agency: When Christ as “Doer” Is Also the “Love Deed”

Mi self I was þe chartre rede

—“Long Charter,” l. 92, BL Add. 11307

For bloed may suffre bloed bothe afurst and acale

Ac bloed may nat se bloed blede bote hym rewe

—Piers Plowman, 20.437–38 ~ B.18.394–95

The pretious plenty of his dereworthy blode ascendid up into hevyn to the blissid body of our lord Iesus Christe, and there is in him bleding and praying for us to the Father—and is and shall be as long as it nedith. And evermore it flowith in all hevyns enioying the salvation of al mankynde that arn there and shal ben, fulfilling the noumber that failith.

—A Revelation, 12.28–33

LINGUISTIC DILATION, AS I have argued, exemplifies what can happen when language gains enough agency to achieve near-personification. This elasticity in the linguistic system momentarily draws the focus away from a previous center of attention and then releases it again. Linguistic dilation relies on a fleeting shift in agency; agency is key to the rhetorical strategy even when not the primary center of attention. In his 1997 exploration of the importance of the Incarnation for vernacular theology, Nicholas Watson noted how in certain vernacular texts, including Piers Plowman and A Revelation of Love, “the act of kenosis itself, Christ’s extravagant gift of his divinity in humility and love, is seen as a revelation of God’s essential nature, which is more fully understood through Christ’s incarnation than by any other means.”1 According to Watson, the texts of which he speaks model “another way of thinking about Christ’s humanity” (beyond Passion meditation) by placing an emphasis on God’s nature as expressed through kenotic action, most especially through Christ’s Incarnation. Kenosis, giving of a gift, revelation, incarnation: all are divine actions that further human understanding of the divine nature. This chapter examines agency and action within narrative, particularly the kenotic agency of God’s language of love, as fourteenth-century authors see it. Each of the textual examples in this chapter investigates the nature of the hypostatic union by complicating the way in which agency is portrayed within narrative, whether in metonymy that turns out not to be metonymy after all, as in Julian’s quasi-embodiment of blood, or in the salient quality of emanative metaphor, such as Langland’s depiction of the Incarnation as love’s leap from heaven. What happens when the Second Person of the Trinity is figured simultaneously as agent and action, particularly when the act in question is, in itself, at least partially linguistic? In the catch title for this section, act and action coincide grammatically in one punning noun (“deed”) as well as in the incarnate body of Christ. The conceit of the “love deed,” as put forward in the “Long Charter,” presents the kenotic gift of salvation through the lens of the kenotic gift of the hypostatic union. The poet envisions Christ writing a land grant, or deed of gift, on the parchment of his skin and rubricating it with his bloody wounds. Agency of this sort is both grammatical and, in an Incarnational poetic,personal: Christ both is and does the “love deed,” as words and deeds coalesce in action. Such extreme compression of substantive and verb offers an especially helpful way into the issue of how agency and action in narrative may model the conceptual or abstract, in this case, a theological understanding of the Incarnation.

“Mi self I was þe chartre rede”: The Love Deed of the “Long Charter of Christ”

All versions of the poems known as the Charters of Christ exploit both senses of the word “deed”: an act, a land grant.2 Here I am interested in the A-text of the English-language “Long Charter” as a striking and straightforward instance of an Incarnational poetic in a relatively brief narrative poem, where agency and action are key to a theological claim grounded in twinned metaphors of lordship.3 In this poem, “the Word made flesh” speaks from the Cross the words of the charter of salvation he describes as being written by and on his human body. Within the poetic fiction, the words spoken replicate two facets of “deed”: the act of conveyance itself and the document attesting that act. The “Long Charter” poet envisions Christ’s skin as proclaiming his lordship heraldically by livery (as if his skin were cloth, his côte armure or coat of arms) as well as by seisin (his physical possession of his little bit of earth, humanity, where his physical body is thought of as dust, or earth). The poet then reimagines Christ’s skin as if it were parchment for the charter. As the underlying vehicle for the metaphors of skin as cloth (côte armure of the lord of the fief) and of skin as medium for writing (the parchment on which the charter is inscribed), “the Word made flesh” is situated at a deictic center unusual even for an exceptionally subject-oriented, semi-epistolary literary form such as a charter poem. In this instance, the Word is the speaking origo for both poem and salvation.

In the “Long Charter,” the text of the charter itself is embedded in a narrative framework in which Christ, hanging on the Cross, addresses passersby to tell the history of salvation from the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise to the end of time, with particular emphasis on the period of his earthly life and the Last Judgment.4 All of this takes place within the space of only 234 lines. Within the narrative, Christ writes the charter to grant mankind the gift of eternal life in heaven on condition that the grantee pay the grantor the rent of properly performed penance.5

Here I trace first the poem’s charter metaphor and then its côte armure metaphor in order to draw out the agency involved—intertwined—in these twinned metaphors of lordship. In relating the circumstances of the gift, Christ explains that he decided to write this charter in order to make the conveyance of his gift as secure as possible; however, he was too poor to afford parchment. Instead, he says, for this task he gave his own skin, suitably stretched and dried (on the Cross) “as parchment ought to be”:

Ne my3te I fynde no parchemyn


ffor to laston wel and fyn

last; excellently

But as loue bad me do


Myn owne skyn y 3af þer-to


. . . . . . . . . .

To a pyler I was ply3t

pillar; pinned

I tugged and tawed al a ny3t

And waschon in myn ovne blod

[was] washed; own

And streyte y-streyned vpon þe rod

tautly stretched; cross

Streyned to drye vp-on a tre


As parchemyn oveth for to be


The figure of Christ’s skin stretched and dried as if it were parchment, a specifically imagined, painful reminder of the cruel reality of his suffering on the Cross, heightens the emotional intensity of this vivid first-person narrative. The poet lingers deliberately over the shocking notion that Christ offered his skin as parchment. The passage relies for effect on the strong and immediate contrast between the overwhelmingly sickening wetness of “waschon in myn ovne blod” and the unendurable stretch and desiccation of “streyned to drye vp-on a tre.”6 Anyone who has been cut suddenly and deeply can identify with the instinctive horror experienced at the first gush of blood and drop in blood pressure; similarly, the poet relies on his readers having experienced sharp pain from pulling or even touching badly dried-out skin. In the “Long Charter,” the activity of “tugged” (76), “tawed” (76), “washon” (77) gives way to the apparently passive pain of “streyned” (78), “streyned” (79). The appearance of passivity is deceptive, however, as the poem makes clear repeatedly (“Myn own skyn y 3af þer-to” [54]): this is a case of active sufferance.7 After the initial setup in lines 51 (he had no parchment) and 54 (he gave his skin), line 78 picks up the sound from its adverb “streyte” (“tautly”) in its verb “y-streyned” (“stretched”).8 Line 79 reiterates both verb and sound (“streyned”) for emphasis, adding “to drye” in painful contrast to “waschon in myn ovne blod” just two lines back. The shift from “vpon þe rod” in line 78 to “vpon a tre” in line 79 suggests a movement from particularity (this skin at this time on this cross) to generality (any skin at any time on any parchment maker’s wooden frame). Then the matter-of-fact tone of line 80, achieved largely through the approval implicit in “oveth for to be” (ought to be), ironically points to the special suitability of this particular skin for this particular task. The gift of the donor’s own skin, which would seem to necessitate his death, paradoxically reiterates the largess of this grantor’s gift of eternal life. It thus reinforces the notion, expressed early in the poem, that the kenotic act of Incarnation (a deed) initiates the gift of salvation (a deed). From its inception within the narrative, the charter metaphor reinforces Christ’s lordship, his aristocratic heritage, and his concomitant lordly responsibilities. Conveying a gift via the security of a written deed is figured, in the poem, as a noble act of generosity undertaken despite the lord’s financial poverty.

Christ next makes his own agency clear by indicating how the charter itself was written and what it says. Writing the charter was his idea, he explains (“Another help was in my þou3t / . . . / To make a chartre of feffement [conveyance of land]” [38, 42]), and as lord he is the one who gives the gift (“heuene and erthe in present” [41]). He does not write the charter with his own hand, however; the Jews act as his scribes, as it were, writing out his intent: their scornful spitting is the ink, their scourges the pens, the red wounds from scourging the rubrication:

Hereþ now and 3e shulle weton

hear; understand

Hou þis chartre was y-wryton


Vpon my neb was mad þe enke

face; made; ink

Of iewes spotel on me to stynke

Jews’; spittle

The pennes þat þe lettres wryton

Weron scories þat I wiþ was smyton

were; scourges

Hou many lettres þer on ben

Red and þou maist weton and sen

Read; know; see

ffive thousand CCCC fifty and ten


Woundes on me boþe rede and wen

fair (shading toward wan, ashen)

To shew 3ou alle my loue dede


Mi self I w[ill]9 þe chartre rede

3e men þat gon forþ by the weye

Abideth and lokeþ with 3oure ye


And redeþ on þis parchemyn


3if eny serwe be lyk to myn


O uos omnes qui transitis per viam attendite10

Wiþstondeþ and hereþ þis chartre rad

Whi I am wounded an al for-blad (81–98)

He then he goes on to read the charter. This passage invokes a traditional rebuke that occurs repeatedly in devotional lyrics: whose suffering could compare to Christ’s? Coming after “Woundes on me boþe rede and wen,” that rebuke is particularly intense here in BL Add. 11307, where the aberrant reading of “was” for “will” in line 92 underscores a central message of the poem: that Christ’s humanity both enables and embodies the poem’s poetic conceit of the “love deed.” Indeed, his wounded human body serves as a centering pivot for the poem’s form, physically voicing the words of the narrative enacted both by and on itself.

“Was” is almost certainly a scribal error here, although an appealing one given its suitability for the charter metaphor. BL Add. 11307 alone attests “was” for “will,” forcing the reading “To show you the extent of my love deed,11 / I myself was the charter red” rather than the more probable version “I myself will [now] read the charter [out loud].”12 That rhyming line, “To shew 3ou alle my loue dede” (91), capitalizes on the two meanings for “deed” in this poem: an action (i.e., what I did for love, “my love deed”) and a deed of gift (the charter, written out of love, “my love deed”). Although in the poetic fiction Christ does go on to read the charter out loud (“Mi self I will þis chartre rede,” as Rawl. poet. 175 and other manuscripts have this line), the poem is properly an investigation of the implications of Christ physically being the charter. Whether intentionally or not, in line 92 the BL Add. 11307 scribe points significantly toward a central paradox of the poem. “Myself I was the charter read [out loud]” recalls Christ as the Word, a key idea for the concept of poem as charter and charter as body. The name “the Word of God” (Rev. 19:13) is reiterated obliquely by the red roses of the Lord’s côte armure in lines 221 and 222. I shall come back to the charter text itself in the next section of this chapter; here it will suffice to say that the charter confirms the gift of eternal life in heaven provided that mankind “be kynde / And my loue dedes haue in mynde” (113–14). The gift is otherwise unrestricted except that it requires “a four leued gras” (120) as rent. This herb is “a trewe loue” (126) and consists of open confession, contrition, determination not to repeat sin, and fear of God.13

After reciting the text of the charter, Christ notes that the deed was sealed with the five wounds, impressed on the sealing wax of flowing blood:

The selus þat it was seled wiþ


They weron grauon on a stiþ

incised; anvil

Of gold ne seluer ne ben þei no3t


Of styl and yron þey weron wro3t

steel; iron

Wiþ spere of stil myn herte þei stongon

steel; pierced

Thorw myn herte and my longon


Iron nailes thrilledon me


Thorw fet & hand to þe tre

The selyng wax was dere abou3t

dearly bought

At myn herte rote it was sou3t


And tempred al wiþ vermylon

Of my blod þat ran a doun

ffactum est cor meum tanquam cera liquescens &c(etera)14

ffyue seles weron set þeran

Of fader and sone god and man

The fifte þat is to leue most


That I cam of þe holy gost

In playn power stat to make

condition/right to property

By initially highlighting the rigid materiality of the seal’s metal matrix (“grauon on a stiþ,” l. 136) rather than the impression it makes in wax, the poet draws attention to the unyieldingness—the hardness—of Christ’s tormentors, as well as to God’s handcraft and skill in turning such torment to good. The context indicates that the seals are the wounds in Christ’s hands, feet, and side, the “wax” impressed to make these seals coming directly from his heart (144). The seals also serve as a mnemonic for two important theological concepts, the Trinity (Father and Son [148] and Holy Spirit [150]) and the hypostatic union (God and man united in the person of Christ [148]). The poet presumes that the reader brings a certain knowledge (Christ was wounded in five places: we can find this in the poem in lines 139 to 144 only if we know to expect it) and layers new theological symmetries onto that knowledge (we can use the five wounds to think about the Trinity and the hypostatic union). The Psalms quotation seems so suited to the metaphor of blood streaming as if it were sealing wax that it could be easy to overlook the care with which the poet has set up the comparison, capitalizing on the salvific liquidity of blood-as-wax by noting the source of the blood (“herte rote,” 144, to correspond to “cor meum,” 146a) before he introduces the Psalms text.15 In this way, the crucifixion as told within this narrative takes on a quality of being timeless yet within time, its historical-but-ahistorical nature justified by scripture. Christ, the teller, appears thoroughly to inhabit scripture that both tells and foretells his story.16

Christ goes on to say that because the charter was written on his skin, he must journey to hell in person to show the charter to the devil.17 In an ingenious extension of the charter metaphor, he explains that he will leave an indenture (copy for the grantee) on earth in the form of the Eucharist:

On endenture I lafte with þe

indenture; left

That euere þou sholdest syker be

safe, secure

In prestes hond my flesch and blod

That for þe dyed vpon þe rod (205–8)

died; cross

The metaphor of Eucharist-as-indenture ensures that all Christians, living and yet-to-be-born, may obtain an efficacious copy of Christ’s body, the charter.18 Here, too, the poet has found an unusually suitable alignment between his metaphor and the theological point he wants to make. Just as there is no limit to the number of indentures possible and each indenture retains the power of the original without diminishing that original, so too each Eucharistic host “in prestes hond” bears the efficacy of the original hostia (“my flesch and blod”) without diminishing that original, and so long as wheat is available, hosts may readily be made. To enable the charter metaphor, Christ’s body, his skin, becomes the vehicle for the message of salvation, while his body, the Eucharist, is the infinitely replicable form available to Christians throughout time. The original grantor’s copy, his crucified body, is preserved archivally in heaven until needed as a witness at the end of time.

The metaphor of skin-as-côte armure, while less persistently presented within the narrative than the charter metaphor, nevertheless similarly structures the poem from beginning to end, in tandem with the charter metaphor. By the end of the poem, the Incarnation again is described in terms of lordship, but this time Christ’s humanity, as exemplified by his skin, is figured as cloth, the coat of arms by which the lord of the fief is known:

A cote armure I bar wiþ me


ffor þat I tok of þy leuere

took from your livery

The cloþ was ryche and ry3t fyn

very fine

The chaumpe it was of [white]19 camelyn

field; wool/silk blendfabric

A wel fayre mayde to me it wro3t

Out of hure bour I it brou3t

her bower

I-poudred with fyue roses rede


Wiþ woundes þat I deled ded

to which I dealt a death blow

The dried parchment of the charter thus becomes supple cloth, a sign by which his beneficiaries will know him. The seals, previously described as “grauon on a stiþ” (“forged/engraved on an anvil,” 136), are still visible but now transformed by divine power into his armorial bearings, the five roses spangled (“i-poudred”) across a red field (221–22). He will wear the côte armure, the device by which he may be recognized, as lord of the fief when he comes to collect his rent:

Whan I com eft a3eyn to þe

back again

Ther by my3t þou knowe me

Tho þat ben of rente be hynde

those who are

An þuse dedes haue no3t in mynde

And those deeds

Sore may þeyer ben adrad

they; afraid

Whan þis chartre shal ben rad


Alle þey shulle to helle pyne

the pain of hell

With me to blisse shulle go myne

Pay rente kep þe fro gylt


Come and cleyme whan þou wylt


The blisse þat loste our former frende

Crist vs sende wiþouten ende

While the source of the clothing imagery is scriptural (Rev. 19:13: “And he was clothed with a garment sprinkled with blood; and his name is called, The Word of God”), the “Long Charter” adds the transformation into roses, in the late Middle Ages popularly associated with Christmas as well as with Christ’s wounds, making the cloth visually a simultaneous symbol of Christ’s Incarnation, birth, death, atonement, and resurrection. Coming at the end of the poem as a whole, this retelling of the Incarnation layers the imagery of the côte armure onto the “seisin” of the opening lines as well as onto the seal aspect of the charter metaphor. For a reader of devotional lyrics, such heraldic and chivalric imagery would have been implied even in those opening lines describing Christ’s seisin: the maiden who keeps him in secret (“Wel dernely sho kepte me,” 17) recalls the topos of the lover-knight, whose maiden cherishes his arms and keeps them privately, either before a battle or after his death. This topos is clearly invoked here at the end of the poem, with the maiden weaving a fine cloth côte armure, which he bears out of her bower [the womb] (215–20).

In the “Long Charter,” then, the twinned lordship metaphors of charter and côte armure organize the poem from start to finish as a compressed retelling of salvation history from the conception of Christ to the end of time. By comparison, it may be useful to recall the poem “Loue that god loueth,” which, as I noted in Chapter 2, engages the Truelove tradition much as the “Long Charter” does. Like the “Long Charter,” “Loue that god loueth” links “true love” to the charter metaphor. Both poems number the leaves of the true-love and associate them with the body of Christ. In the “Long Charter,” enumeration of the leaves is a mnemonic device to remember the stages of penance and prompt the search for salvific “true love.” In “Loue that god loueth,” the leaves are associated with Christ’s wounded hands and feet, but not mnemonically. Instead, the poet emphasizes the plant’s medicinal properties (“What soule is syk, lay þat herbe aboue, / Hit makeþ hool al y-fere [altogether well]” [191–92]), continuing to extend the advice, repeated in various ways throughout the poem, that one should seek one’s own advantage, in this case by applying true love (the wounds of Christ) as if it were a poultice.

In “Loue that god loueth,” the true-love plant’s healing properties extend into the charter metaphor:

His herte blod wrot oure hele,


And Ihesus body, þe parchemyn is;

Wiþ trewe loue he prented our sele,

printed; seal

Þat is heritage of oure blis. (181–84)

M. E. J. Hughes has discussed how “our sele,” the seal of the charter, makes possible the “sele,” or bliss, of the heavenly heritage.20 Here also there is a sort of paradox in the revelation that the wounds are medicinal: as Helen Phillips has noted, the four leaves and central berry of this healing plant symbolize the five wounds of Christ’s body, wounds that also seal the charter.21 The extreme physicality of the act of printing, or rather imprinting, the seal with the spiritual quality of true love, here figured in material terms as the true-love plant, draws to mind the physicality of Christ’s wounding, much as the “Long Charter” does with “grauon on a stiþ.” The joyfulness implicit in the paradox of health from death begins, in this stanza, with a salvific act of writing.

Although “Loue that god loueth” is interesting for its sophisticated use of true love and parchment imagery, the metaphors are localized in their effect, being confined to the last four stanzas of a poem otherwise primarily based on economic language of profit and meed (e.g., “Mannys loue was hym so dere” [190] with its use of “dear” as both “valued” and “costly”). The metaphors of true-love plant and parchment do not extend otherwise through the poem, nor do they govern its poetic form except within the relatively small arena of the concluding stanzas, although they do tie in with a larger system of meanings that repeatedly refer to health and (sometimes economic) well-being. In this respect, they differ sharply from the treatment of the same metaphors in the “Long Charter,” where the imagery links sections of the poem from beginning to end by reference to the Incarnation. The “Long Charter,” then, capitalizes on its own formal structure as manifested in the interlocking presentation of these two Incarnational metaphors. As in John 1:14, the form of expression encodes meaning in a way that draws conspicuous attention to its conceptual nature.

Deixis and Power in Charter Poems: The “Short Charter,” Cooling Castle, the “Long Charter” Revisited

Like “Loue that god loueth,” other charter poems share with the “Long Charter” certain formal features and imagery but fall short of the complex integration of literary form and salvific act that underlies the Incarnational poetic of the “Long Charter.” Other poems written in the form of a charter can thus help to elucidate how the “Long Charter” poet takes advantage of the charter format’s unusual suitability for exploring the relationship between the Incarnation and salvation. By contrasting examples that fall short of an Incarnational poetic, we may perhaps see the more clearly how the “Long Charter” poet highlights the issue of agency relative to act. For this purpose, I will examine in detail two poems that present themselves as if they were legal charters without being embedded within a larger work or a narrative framework. As poems that purport to be charters, the “Short Charter of Christ” and Cooling Castle’s charter poem demonstrate ambiguities that poetical treatments of this diplomatic format may exploit in order to raise questions about agency and action, ambiguities that remain largely unresolved in the case of the Cooling Castle poem.22 The “Long Charter,” by contrast, embeds the notion of Christ’s charter within a larger narrative framework and aligns these sites of potential ambiguity. It thus situates agent and act at the center of the charter form in the person of Christ, who serves as donor, action, and legal conveyance. The Cooling Castle poem and the “Short Charter,” then, provide a useful counterpoint to the complex negotiation of form and format that makes the play on the word “deed” in the “Long Charter” so effective.


Figure 1. Outer gatehouse, Cooling Castle, Cooling, Kent. Photograph Cristina Maria Cervone, December 2005.

Cooling Castle’s unusual charter poem consists of four lines only.23 The poem’s ambiguous deictics raise an important question about agency and action: who, having what power, is granting what to whom?

Knouwyth that beth and schul be

are [living] and shall be [living]

That i am mad in help of the cuntre

made; countryside

In knowyng of whyche thyng


Thys is chartre and wytnessyng

Two features of the poem support the bold statement in its closing line (“thys is chartre”). First, the initial line renders in English the standard opening phrase of a charter: “Sciant presentes et futuri...,” words that similarly initiate the “Short Charter”:

Sciant presentes futuri

Wete now al þat ar here


And after sal be lefe & dere (1–3)24

shall; beloved


Figure 2. “Inscription on the Eastern Tower of Cooling Castle Gateway.” Published in Archaeologia Cantiana 11 (1877), between pp. 134 and 135, and credited to Whiteman & Bass, London. Perhaps based on a drawing made by John Green Waller ca. 1864–66.


Figure 3. “The South View of Cowling-Castle, in the County of Kent.” Copper engraving, 1735. From Samuel Buck and Nathaniel Buck, Buck’s antiquities . . ., 3 (London, 1774), unpaginated.

Second, the poem’s visual presentation, with the attached seal of the castle’s owner, John de Cobham, mimics a real-life, nonpoetical charter. These formalistic elements, on their own, do more to draw attention to the issue of the poem’s charter-ness than they do to establish it as an authentic charter. Its emphasis is on form, form that only alludes to but does not seek to replicate function. If we accept the poem as a much abbreviated literary version of a diplomatic charter, however, three issues immediately arise: who is the “I” of the poem? To what, exactly, does “thys is chartre” refer? Most importantly, whose agency is highlighted by the poem’s claim to be a charter?25

Who says, “Knouwyth that beth and schul be / That i am mad in help of the cuntre”? Presumably, the fictive speaker of the word “I” does. In a nonpoetical charter, the “I” is the donor, the same “I” whose pendant seal authenticates the document. However, the Cooling Castle poem proffers three potential “I” referents, Cobham, the poem, and the castle, none of which satisfy all points of proximal subjectivity and each of which satisfies at least one. While the seal is clearly Cobham’s (his heraldic device is reproduced on one of the poem’s enameled plates), the “I” cannot be Cobham; he is not “made in help of the countryside.” The poem is “made,” but to say it is “made in help of the countryside” would require some explaining. The most likely “I,” in this instance, is the castle, but even though the poem’s “I” can reasonably be settled on the castle, that reading clashes with the seal’s “I,” Cobham. That disjuncture does not appear to be accidental. The poem’s presentation, including its expensive wroughtness and unusual location on the castle wall, indicates that the interpretative incongruity situated in “I” is deliberate.26 Cooling Castle’s charter poem highlights the power dynamic encoded in charters and uses contradictory deictics to raise questions about agency.

In the case of the “Short Charter,” by contrast, the “I” of the poem and the “I” of the charter are one and the same, as they would be in a nonpoetical charter. By comparison with the Cooling Castle poem, the alignment of “I” makes the “Short Charter” seem more straightforward, even didactic:

Sciant presentes &futuri

Wete now al þat ar here

know; here

And after sal be lefe & dere

shall; beloved

Þat I Ihesus of na3areth ffor luf of man has sufferd deth


Opon þe cross with woundes fyfe

Whils I was man in erth on lyfe

Dedi & concessi

given and granted

I hafe gyfen & made a graunt

To al þat asks it repentaunt

Heuen blis with-outen endyng

Als lang as I am þair kyng


The poet takes advantage of the deictics of the charter format to draw attention to Christ’s agency in bringing about salvation. The “I” is Jesus of Nazareth (3), who also gives and makes a grant (6a, 7), precisely as charter format would lead us to expect.27 The initial phrase of the poem and of any charter, “Sciant presentes et futuri,” “Know, those present and to come,” presupposes the existence of a time and a place when the donor will not be present, a distal point along all three deictic axes. At that time, the written word of the donor, the charter itself, will fill the void, acting in place of the donor to express his intent. This quality of a presence replacing an absence is encoded more generally into the act of writing itself, of course, both because that which is written may circulate with a sort of life of its own apart from the writer while acknowledging by its very materiality that someone must have written it down, and because the moment of writing is fixed in time while the writer’s existence ticks inexorably toward inevitable death.28 The charter format brings to the fore subjectivity, time, and space with unusual self-reflexivity, however: a charter both requires and acknowledges the absence of its agent.29 Other formats, such as a letter, also presuppose an absent writer with something to say and some disjuncture between the moment of writing and the moment of reading, but a charter necessarily acknowledges the absence in its text while a letter might or might not do so.30 Although the charter is not the only epistolary form that capitalizes on self-reflexivity, then, it does so to an extent and in a manner that makes it particularly suitable for exploring the paradox of the Incarnation.

The “Short Charter” demonstrates such Incarnational self-awareness in succinct form by the way in which the materiality of the charter and the materiality of Christ’s body coincide. Christ donates to mankind eternal bliss in heaven, here written in the form of a land grant. Unlike the Cooling Castle poem, the seal of the “Short Charter” carries metaphorical significance beyond its authentication of the document:

My awne seal þerto I hynge


And for þe more sikirnes


Þe wounde in my syde þe seal it is (30—32)

Because the “Short Charter” was copied widely with varying refinements of the charter premise, its readings differ sharply from manuscript to manuscript: the metaphorical nature of the seal is not indicated in all cases. BL Add. 37049 (quoted above) mentions the seal twice, the second time emphasizing the seal’s special efficacy by means of a metaphor, Christ’s wounded side. On the bottom of the page the scribe obligingly sketches a seal emblazoned with wounded heart, five drops of blood, and the sacred monogram “IHS,” along with the tabs attaching the seal to the poem, in imitation of documentary practice. Other witnesses agree in highlighting the metaphorical meaning of the seal as the wound in Christ’s side but neither mention that the seal is attached nor replicate it on the page. Yet others require special attention to work out the seal’s significance.31

In all versions of the “Short Charter,” nevertheless, three personas coincide in the person of Christ: the “I” of the poem, the donor confirming his gift by means of the charter, and the owner of the seal. The “Short Charter” carefully and deliberately follows the format of a charter, varying from the form only by giving names rather than seals of witnesses.32 Written on a page, the “Short Charter” firmly announces itself as a charter by both format and presentation without further exegesis, without any need to proclaim its character as charter.

By contrast, the Cooling Castle charter poem replicates the first Latin tag only (Sciant presentes et futuri), in English. While “thys is chartre” may prompt the reader to expect elements of the charter format, the poem eludes the sort of formal correspondence played out so well in the “Short Charter.” In addition, just as the “I” of the poem remains ambiguous, the poem’s proximal “this” is inherently confusing. Because the poem’s presentation layers deictic markers, we cannot know precisely whether “this” refers to the fortification (“this is” the castle), the inscription on the castle wall (“this is” the poem), or the seal affixed to both poem and castle (“this is” Cobham’s seal, standing in for Cobham himself, who is not present in the flesh). The subjective ambiguity of “this is” points out that the agency guaranteeing the castle’s power is physically absent from all proximal points, even as the castle’s crenellation appears to confirm Cobham’s commitment to defend the countryside and is authenticated by his seal affixed simultaneously to both charter poem and castle.33 This issue of agency, particularly the absence or presence of the agent who is the source of the charter’s warranty, is of central importance in the “Long Charter,” especially insofar as the poem extends the charter metaphor into sacramental theology by means of the further metaphor of Eucharist-as-indenture. In the “Long Charter,” the indenture of the Eucharist presumes a distal time and place when only the indenture will be available, although at the moment of speaking it the originating Word himself is present in the flesh. This Eucharistic indenture is infinitely replicable for those present and to come, the living and the yet to be born, available throughout time wherever and whenever a priest celebrates mass. In this way, the indenture in the “Long Charter” offers a remarkable alignment between metaphor and theological point, where agency and the power that guarantees it are central to that point.

As I have argued elsewhere, the charter-ness of Cooling Castle’s poem represents more than a simple literary imitation of the conveyance of a gift: it becomes a key component in a rhetorical strategy to inform our reading of a physical object, the castle, in relation to a man of power, Lord Cobham, who is not mentioned by name but whose authority is indicated by his seal.34 In this respect, the issue of agency in the Cooling Castle poem encapsulates the paradox more fully exploited in the “Long Charter,” where the salvific act, the deed, of the Incarnation and subsequent Crucifixion is also the salvific gift, the land grant or deed, of eternal life in heaven, inscribed in the words of the metaphorical charter written on the body of Christ. The charter interprets the act: the words physically imposed on a body give instructions for how a viewer should read that body. Just as the Cooling Castle poem declares that the castle is both militarily effective and of great benefit for the community, the land grant in the “Long Charter” asserts that an apparently ignoble death is in reality a true triumph, both for Christ himself and for the reader/viewer.

The key to both acts of reading lies in acknowledging the source of power that makes the gift possible. In the “Long Charter,” the Incarnation and Crucifixion become means for securing and confirming a gift freely given, a gift guaranteed (the “warranty” clause of the charter) by the power of God himself. The lordship language of seisin and livery, which governs the clothing imagery, emphasizes the underlying power that secures this gift. While the “Short Charter” refers to kingship only briefly, the charter in the “Long Charter” is suffused with imagery of kingship as well as lordship, imagery that confirms Christ’s parentage and his ability to give a gift free of encumbrances:

Sciant presentes & futuri &c(etera)

Witeth 3e þat ben and shul betyde

know; are and shall be

I ihesu crist with blody syde

That was born in bedlem


And offred in to Iherusalem

Þe kynges sone of heuene a-boue

Wiþ my fader wille and loue

Made a sesyng whan I was born


To þe mankynde þat was for lorn

Wiþ my chartre here in present

I make heron confirmament

That I haue granted and y-3eue


To þe mankynde with me to leue


In my revme of heuon blisse


To haue & to holden withouten mysse

In a condicioun 3if þou be kynde

And my loue dedes haue in mynde


ffre to haue and fre to holde

Wiþ al þe purtinaunce to wolde

Min erytage þat is so fre


ffor homage ne for fewte


No more wole I aske of þe


But a four leued gras to 3elde me

four-leaved herb, “true-love”

. . . . . . . . . . .

ffyue seles weron set þeran

five seals

Of fader and sone god and man

The fifte þat is to leue most


That I cam of þe holy gost

In playn power þi stat to make

condition/right to property

A corone on myn hed haue I take


Of thornes in token þat I am kyng

And frely may 3yuon my þyng

freely; give

This witnessen þe iewes alle


On knes to me þey gonne doun falle

And loude cryede in hure scornyng


Heyl be þou lord of Iewes kyng

The heritage offered as gift is “fre” (117) both because it is unencumbered (“ffre to haue and fre to holde / wiþ al þe purtinaunce to wolde” [115–16]) and because it is noble, a gift from “þe kynges sone of heuene a boue” (103), a gift guaranteed here by the power of all three members of the Trinity (100–104, 147–51). Once again the “Long Charter” poet incorporates a scriptural citation (Matt. 27:29, Mark 15:18, John 19:3: “Hail, king of the Jews”) by making it integral to the metaphor at hand; not only do the Jews testify ironically to Christ’s kingship, as in the Gospels, but also they act as witnesses to the charter, just as the evangelists and Mary do (“Hijs testibus Matheus and Iohan / Luk Mark and many on / And namely my moder swete” [169–71]).35 “Þe iewes” thus become inscribed within the charter and subject to its terms, should they choose to take them up in earnest. The poet’s integration of scripture continues as the charter is finished with Christ’s final words from John 19:30: “Consummatum [est] [it is finished]” (187).

By contrast, such interweaving of scriptural and poetic narrative does not occur in the “Short Charter,” where there is no poetic narrative. The “Short Charter” does not focus attention on the Trinity or the hypostatic union, as the “Long Charter” does, nor on Christ’s parentage. The “Short Charter” works within the parameters set by the charter form to portray the Crucifixion as a salvific act in historical time, with Christ as the agent. The “Long Charter,” however, shifts focus to the Incarnation as integral to salvation history, an action in time undertaken not by the Son alone, and to the ever-replicating potential of salvation in present and future time for those now living and yet to come. Broadly speaking, this may be seen as one difference between a charter as a singular act in time by a singular actor, and a charter embedded within a larger narrative over time. The issue of narration, however, is symptomatic of a larger difference between the two: the “Long Charter” is structured around an Incarnational poetic while the “Short Charter” is not. The opening lines of the “Short Charter” and of the charter within the “Long Charter” demonstrate the distinction succinctly:

Sciant presentes et futuri

Sciant presentes & futuri &c(etera)

Wete now al þat ar here

Witeth 3e þat ben and shul betyde

And after sal be lefe & dere

I ihesu crist with blody syde

Þat I Ihesus of na3areth

That was born in bedlem

And offred in to Iherusalem

Þe kynges sone of heuene a-boue

Wiþ my fader wille and loue

ffor luf of man has sufferd deth

Opon þe cross with woundes fyfe

Whils I was man in erth on lyfe

Made a sesyng whan I was born

To þe mankynde þat was for lorn

(“Short Charter,” oa–6)

(“Long Charter,” 98a–106)

The “Short Charter” focuses on the metaphor of Christ’s crucified body as charter, narrowly confining attention to the moment of gift, shifting immediately from its opening statement (lines 1–4, emphasis on charter format) to the Crucifixion (lines 4–6, death on the Cross, five Wounds, a man). The charter embedded in the narrative of the “Long Charter” also opens with an emphasis on the charter format and a quick reference to the Crucifixion (“with blody syde,” 100) but expands the time frame, as the poem proceeds, to encompass the whole of Christ’s human life from conception to the end of time. Here the first lines of the charter provide more extensive information on Christ’s paternity and status (born in Bethlehem, offered in Jerusalem, king’s son, made a seisin when born). The “Long Charter” lingers on the beginning of Christ’s human life (“that was born . . . when I was born . . .”), situating the moment of gift within the larger framework governed by the twinned metaphors of livery and charter, both driven by a re-imagining of Christ’s incarnate flesh. Christ is not the only agent, in the “Long Charter,” nor is the Crucifixion the only act. The “Short Charter” isolates agent and action; in the lines I have quoted, aside from the implied audience (“al þat ar here . . .” [1]), Christ is portrayed in isolation. Even his crucifixion, an act that requires agents other than himself, seems devoid of audience or, more tellingly, community. By contrast, the “Long Charter” begins by evoking social communities: familial community (he is a “sone” [103] with a “fader” [104] who is also an agent, having both “wille” and “loue” [104]), ecclesiastical community (he is “offred in to Iherusalem” [102]), nationalistic community (he is “þe kynges sone” [103]), and aristocratic community (“made a sesyng” [105]). The “Long Charter” also reiterates the notion of a communal audience hearing Christ’s words through continued direct address (“to þe mankynde” [106]); Christ is explicitly not alone, even within the text of the charter itself. Actions, too, abound in the “Long Charter,” some of them expressed as substantives rather than verbs (“was born” [101], “offred” [102], “wille,” “loue” [104], “made a sesyng” [105]).

By noting these differences in their structural frameworks, I do not mean to imply that the “Short Charter” is the earlier form, that the “Long Charter” simply expands on the “Short Charter” by surrounding it with a narrative. In fact, for a number of reasons it seems more likely that the “Long Charter” came first, although a definitive chronology has not been determined.36 The “Long Charter,” however, is of greater interest for a study of Incarnational poetics because it places Christ’s incarnate body at the center of the poem in a most unusual and specific way, capitalizing on the alignment between agent, act, and conveyance to create a skeletal structure for the poem as a whole. In this respect, the Incarnational poetic of the “Long Charter” validates the error of BL Add. 11307’s reading for line 92, discussed earlier, because this one line, “Mi self I was þe charter rede,” contains within it the very deictic paradox at the heart of the charter metaphor. Simultaneously pointing toward both senses of “love deed,” the “Long Charter” encapsulates in the speaking, rubricated “charter rede” both Incarnation and Crucifixion, salvific acts of the Word, undertaken for love.

The Incarnational poetic of the “Long Charter” relies for its effect, then, on the extreme compression of agent and action inherent to the poetical conceit of the “love deed.” Other fourteenth-century writers also experiment with agency and action, envisioning the Incarnation as the kenotic action of leaping. The roots of this strain of Incarnational experimentation may be found in a topos first developed in writings of the early Church, “the leaps of Christ.” By the late fourteenth century, the Leaps tradition comes to be mapped onto the Truelove tradition as imagery of springing, and sprouting in a botanical context takes on increasing Christological and Incarnational significance.37 Perhaps the best-known example, Langland’s masterful depiction of the Incarnation as love’s leap, offers a useful base text for examining agency in the botanical branch of the Leaps tradition, as it developed in the fourteenth century.

The Leaps of Christ and Linguistic Agency

In passus 14 of the C-text of Piers Plowman, Imaginatif’s telling of the story of the Incarnation emphasizes the establishment of the Church through highly evocative language in which actions predominate. Placing love’s leap in the midst of Imaginatif’s debate over the relative values of clerical learnedness and innate or natural knowledge, Langland seems to be aware not only of the Christological significance of the Leaps topos but also of its early association with the strength and growth of the Church:38

For the hey holi gost heuene shal tocleue

high; cleave

And loue shal lepe out aftur into þis lowe erthe

And clennesse shal cach hit and clerkes shollen hit fynde:

purity/virginity; catch

Pastores loquebantur ad inuicem &c.39

Hit speketh þer of ryche men riht nouht ne of ryche lordes

not at all

Bote of clennesse of clerkes and kepares of bestes:


Ibant magi ab Oriente &c.40 (14.84–88a ~ B.12.139–44a)

The piercing of heaven by the Holy Ghost, love’s leap to the earth, the catching by cleanness and finding by clergy: these dramatic actions all enhance the otherworldly character of a future action that has already taken place. Imaginatif’s account is notable for bursting on the scene unexpectedly in the midst of a lackluster exposition of the cosmic significance of learning, focusing on the “clerkes” who “fynde” love and the oblique reference to the clergy as pastors or shepherds (“pastores”) as well as magi. The active, verbal quality of Langland’s linguistic style throughout Piers Plowman is well known.41 Here, coming in the midst of a discourse on learning and the clergy, Langland’s poetic “leap into sublimity,” as A. C. Spearing has aptly called it,42 is all the more remarkable for combining powerful poetic virtuosity with a reference, recognizable as such only by learned clerks, to the topos of the “leaps of Christ.”

The Leaps tradition is not well known today. For understanding how Piers Plowman and the botanical lyrics make use of the Leaps, differences between the fourteenth-century treatment of the topos and earlier ones are important. By the fourteenth century, the Leaps topos becomes intertwined with language of springing and sprouting, as in the Truelove tradition. Furthermore, the fourteenth-century poets are drawing from the insular version of the topos, which focuses on the harrowing of hell, as well as the botanical aspect (rooted in the vernacular English word spring). An insular history of the leaps has not been published elsewhere in detail. Before probing Langland’s text more deeply, then, a closer look at the early church writings that develop the notion of love’s leap will reveal that their homiletic and poetic afterlife informs later elaborations of the topos.

The compression of abstract and concrete by means of action, so effective here in Imaginatif’s treatment of the Incarnation, is a salient feature of the shorthand compressed retelling of Christ’s life comprising the Leaps. Three scriptural passages serve as base texts for the idea:

behold he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping over the hills

ecce iste venit saliens in montibus, transiliens colles (Cant. 2:8)

he, as a bridegroom coming out of his bride chamber, hath rejoiced as a giant to run the way

et ipse, tamquam sponsus procedens de thalamo suo, exultavit ut gigans ad currendam viam suam (Ps. 18:6 [19:5])43

For while all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her course,

Thy almighty word leapt down from heaven from thy royal throne, as a fierce conqueror into the midst of the land of destruction.

Cum enim quietum silentium contineret omnia, et nox in suo cursu medium iter haberet, omnipotens sermo tuus de caelo a regalibus sedibus durus bellator in mediam exterminii terram prosilivit. (Wis. 18:14–15)

In the leaps of Christ, the ardor of the bridegroom in Psalm 18 and the leaps of Canticles 2:8 and Wisdom 18:14–15 are conjoined to take on specifically Incarnational significance: the Second Person of the Trinity leaps from heaven into the womb of the Virgin in his eagerness to save humanity. That initial leap emanatively sets in motion further leaps that mark out salvation history, each leap corresponding to an event in the life of Christ. Although the number of leaps and the events they denote vary as the topos develops, the Incarnation (leap into the womb), the Crucifixion (leap onto the Cross), and the Ascension (leap to heaven) are always enumerated.44 As the first leap, the Incarnation carries special significance in the scheme: the other leaps are to be understood in relation to the first, and the agency of the Trinity enacting salvation is very much the point. Presented in series as eager outpourings of love, the leaps offer a way of considering salvation history in light of the Incarnation.

The topos of the leaps of Christ originated with Hippolytus, in his third-century commentary on the Song of Songs.45 However, his Greek is unlikely to have been a direct source for insular writers of the eighth through the fourteenth centuries.46 He poses the question, what does it mean to say regarding the Bridegroom, “behold, my brother came leaping”? He sees the leaps of Christ as one among several possible answers:

Oh, dispensation of new grace! Oh, tremendous mystery! “Behold, my brother47 approaches and comes leaping.” What, then, is the leaping word? He leapt down from heaven into the womb of the virgin; he leapt from the holy womb onto the tree; leapt from the tree into hell; sprang up from there to earth in this human flesh. Oh, the new resurrection! Then he sprang from earth to heaven; here he sits at the right hand of the father and again he shall leap down to earth to pay out the price of punishment.48

While the manuscript history of this text makes it difficult to say what Hippolytus’s original words might have been, his attention to the serial quality of the topos is manifest: the first leap leads naturally and effortlessly to the next, and so on. The focus here, as for later writers as well, is on the procession of the Son from the Father, on the agency that sets into motion that eager leaping. Hippolytus envisions the leaps of Christ as outpourings of the Word, each one giving rise to the next. In this respect, the topos necessarily locates the Incarnation at its fundamental core. Hippolytus’s listing includes the harrowing of hell and Christ’s earthly ministry after the harrowing. This point is important, because while the harrowing does not appear in the listing of leaps offered by Ambrose or Gregory, early vernacular insular writings do include it.49

Like Hippolytus, Ambrose presents the leaps in the context of an allegorical interpolation of Cant. 2:8. In Isaac, or the Soul, he explicitly distinguishes among figurative interpretations according to Solomon’s “threefold wisdom,” as he calls it, noting the moral, natural, and mystical senses (the leaps occur in the mystical sense):

And so the Church, which loves Christ, is wounded with love. And so he rouses her and rouses her again, until she hears his voice and invites his presence, because, when he is sought, he not only comes, but he comes leaping, “leaping over the mountains and bounding across the hills.” He leaps over souls which have more grace, bounds over those which have less. Or it may be taken this way: How did he come leaping? He came into this world in a kind of leap. He was with the Father, he came into a virgin, and from a virgin he bounded into a manger. He was in a manger and he shone in heaven, he went down into the Jordan and up onto the cross, he went down to the tomb, rose up from the tomb, and sits at the right hand of the Father. Like the hart who longs for the fountains of water, he went down to Paul and shone around him and leapt up over his Church, which is Bethel, that is, the house of God. For the calling of Paul is the strength of the Church.50

Following Hippolytus, Ambrose here explicitly ties the Leaps topos to the Church as a vital institution (“leapt up over his Church”; “the strength of the Church”), a point important for Langland’s use of the leaps, as well.

That association of leaps and Church is also taken up by Gregory in his Ascension Day homily.51 Because the earliest known English vernacular Leaps passage (in Cynewulf’s Christ) is based directly on Gregory’s treatment, this homily is of special interest for understanding later developments in the insular Leaps tradition. In his sermon, Gregory first situates the leaps as a key element in the growth of the Church and then offers them as a model of an exemplary way of life, pointing the way to salvation. He presents the leaps in list form, sandwiched between his citations of two of the three key texts that provide scriptural sanction for the topos, Cant. 2:8 and Ps. 18:6:

Until the Lord ascended into heaven, His holy Church feared the adversities of the world in every way . . . when the Lord sought heaven, His holy Church grew in the authority of her preaching. Hence Solomon speaks concerning the voice of this same Church, “Behold, He comes leaping upon the mountains and springing across the hills” (Cant. 2:8). For Solomon was referring to the high points of the Lord’s great works when he said, “Behold, He comes leaping upon the mountains.” For coming to our redemption, the Lord gave, as it were, certain leaps. Dearest brothers, do you want to understand His “leaps”? He came from heaven into the womb; from the womb He came into the manger; from the manger He came onto the Cross; from the Cross He came into the sepulchre; from the sepulchre He returned into heaven. Behold, so that we would run after Him, the Truth, manifested in flesh, gave certain leaps for us, because “He rejoiced like a giant to run his race” (Ps. 18:6); and so we might say to Him from the heart, “Draw us after you; we will run in the perfume of your ointments” (Cant. 1:3).52

So when Langland situates the leap of love within Imaginatif’s consideration of the value of clerical learning, he is following a juncture of leaps and Church that may be found at least as early as Gregory and, in less pronounced form, even in Ambrose. Gregory presents the leaps themselves as a little exemplum to provoke an imitatio Christi. He suggests an appropriate, actively vocal response on the part of the monks listening to his word (“. . . so we might say to Him from the heart . . .”). The activity inherent to the leaps, as he describes it, should spur a corresponding eagerness for salvation, he goes on to say—a complementary and equally active response: “Therefore, dearest brothers, we should follow Him there with our hearts where we believe He ascended with His body.” Gregory’s technique is, appropriately, homiletic; he wants to lift his listeners into action following on a chain of imaginative and suggestive imagery. As he relates them, the leaps themselves are starkly unelaborated; the very simplicity with which he enumerates them stresses the teleology of Christ’s mission. In the context of the Ascension, the extreme spatial displacement from heaven to earth and back again heightens the intensity of the response Gregory advocates. The juxtaposition of the conceptual (“follow Him there with our hearts”) with the material (“where we believe He ascended with His body”) calls attention to the vastness of the gulf between heaven and earth, suggesting the benefit of having the way forged and a model to follow.

Cynewulf, writing in the late eighth or early ninth century, expands Gregory’s listing considerably, devoting an entire twenty-three lines of verse to enumerating the leaps.53 He also adds the harrowing of hell, which he treats with particular emphasis and at greater length than most other leaps. While his source for the leap into hell is unknown, he could not have gotten it from Gregory, at least not directly. Whether he knew some other version of the leaps, one that did include the harrowing, or whether he himself decided the harrowing was important enough to deserve a place in the scheme, we cannot say.54 Unlike Gregory’s brief account, Cynewulf’s more meditative poetical treatment lingers on the site of each leap—on the event in Christ’s life and in salvation history marked by that leap—while not impeding forward momentum inherent to the reiterated concatenation of leaps and bounds:

Wæs se forma hlyp þa he on fæmnan astag,

mægeð unmæle, ond þær mennisc hiw

onfeng butan firenum; þæt to frofre gewearð

eallum eorðwarum. Wæs se oþer stiell

bearnes gebyrda, þa he in binne wæs,

in cildes hiw claþum bewunden,

ealra þrymma Þrym. Wæs se þridda hlyp,

Rodorcyninges ræs, þa he on rode astag,

Fæder, frofre Gæst. Wæs se feorða stiell

in byrgenne— þa he þone beam ofgeaf—

foldærne fæst. Wæs se ffa hlyp

þa he hellwarena heap forbygde

in cwicsusle, cyning inne gebond,

feonda foresprecan, fyrnum teagum, gromhydigne, þær he gen ligeð in carcerne, clommum gefæstnad, synnum gesæled. Wæs se siexta hlyp, Halges hyhtplega, þa he to heofonum astag

on his ealdcyððe. Þa wæs engla þreat

on þa halgan tid hleahtre bliþe

wynnum geworden. Gesawen wuldres Þrym,

æþelinga Ord, eþles neosan,

beorhtra bolda. Þa wearð burgwarum,

eadgum, ece gefea Æþelinges plega.

The first leap was when he descended within the virgin,

the maiden unspotted, and there the form of man

took on without sin; that would become consolation

for all earthly men. The second springing was

the child’s birth, when he was in the manger,

in the form of a child, wrapped in clothing,

the Glory of all glories. The third leap was,

running of the King of the heavens, when he ascended the cross

the Father, spirit of comfort. The fourth springing was

into the sepulchre—when he relinquished the tree—

closed in the earth-house. The ffh leap was

when he the host of the helldwellers abased

in hell-torment, the king bound [him] within,

the fiends’ advocate, with fiery fetters, malignant, where he yet lies

in prison, held fast by chains, by sins confned. The sixth leap was, joyful play of the holy One, when he ascended to heaven

to his former dwelling. Then the host of angels

at that holy time, happy with laughter, became joyous. They saw the Majesty of


the Chief of nobles, seek the ancestral home,

the bright dwellings. Then became for the citizens,

the blessed, perpetual joy the Prince’s play.

[Then the Prince’s play became a perpetual joy for the blessed citizens {of heaven}.]55

Cynewulf continues with the same exhortation that Gregory had expressed more succinctly: as Christ repeatedly leapt, so must we leap within, “in the meditations of our hearts” [“heortan gehygdum,” 747], and do holy works in order to ascend with Christ. Cynewulf’s description of the Incarnation in this passage is particularly noteworthy for its initial emphasis on form (OE hiw), a word he lingers over twice: “took on the form of man” (“þæsr mennisc hiw onfeng,” 721–22) and “in the form of a child” (“in cildes hiw,” 725). The first two leaps, as he tells them, focus strong attention on Christ’s humanity and the hypostatic union of God and man. In part, perhaps, because the vocabulary available to him in the vernacular necessarily compresses into this one word (hiw) concepts for which distinct words exist in Latin, Cynewulf encodes within his diction a brief meditation on both divine and linguistic form conjoined in a word (hiw), conjoined in the Word incarnate.56 Cynewulf goes well beyond Gregory’s line of thought here, not only in elaborating what in Gregory’s listing was spare, but in the emphasis he lays on Christ’s humanity as manifest in his incarnate form, his “mennisc hiw” and the “cildes hiw” that swaddles him in the same line as he is “claþum bewunden.” Cynewulf anticipates Langland’s similar attention to the form love takes in the hypostatic union.

In the twelfth century, the leaps are enumerated in Middle English in an Ascension Day sermon in Cambridge MS Trinity Coll. B.14.52 (“The Trinity Homilies”), written by a homilist whose diction indicates his interest in and knowledge of earlier forms of English. His enumeration differs slightly from Cynewulf’s by including the leap back to earth before the culminating leap back to heaven. Before the leaps passage, the homilist quotes the abbreviated version of the leaps in Ambrose’s famous Advent hymn, Veni redemptor gentium, naming Ambrose as his source.57 He quotes Cant. 2:8, then translates it into English. Next he offers a Latin gloss, which he similarly translates:

Ecce uenit saliens in montibus et transiliens colles. here he cumeð stridende fro dune to dune. and ouer strit þe cnolles. Septem igitur ut ita dicam saltus dedit. De celo in uirginis uterum. Inde in presepium. Inde in crucem. Inde in sepulcrum. Inde in infernum. INde [sic] in mundum. Et hinc in celum. Seuen strides he makede. On of heuene into þe maidenes inneðe. Oðer þenne in to þe stalle. Ðridde in to þe holi rode. feorðe ; þanne in to þe sepulchre. fifte ; into helle. Sixte ; into þis Middenerd. þe seueðe ; eft into heuene.58

Diverging from Gregory but agreeing with Cynewulf, the homilist includes the harrowing of hell. Much like Gregory’s, the homilist’s listing of the leaps is spare; unlike Cynewulf’s, his vernacular translation of saltus emphasizes lengthening and elongated strides, as in the Psalm text, rather than the bounding exaltation of the Canticles verse. With the repetition of inde, the Latin of this sermon offers a parallelism not taken up fully in its Middle English translation, where the effect is more of a progression (“the first . . . ,” “the second . . . ,” “the third . . .”).

As we have seen, Hippolytus and Ambrose included the leaps in commentaries on the Song of Songs; Gregory, Cynewulf, and the homilist responsible for the Trinity Homilies offered it in the context of a homiletic tradition for Ascension Day. With an Irish bardic poem of the thirteenth or fourteenth century, Aithrighe sunn duid a Dhé, attributed to Donnchadh Mór Dálaigh, comes a shift in poetic treatment of the leaps to a penitential rather than a homiletic vein, and perhaps to composition by laymen rather than clerics.59 It is the first case I know of where the leaps occur without reference to the scriptures, and also the first outside a homiletic setting. Donnchadh Mór’s source for the leaps is unknown. Like Cynewulf, he treats his topic with considerable care, in a meditative tone. Context here is particularly intriguing: the poem is fully vernacular in topic and presentation. It is neither exegetical nor homiletic: it does not situate the leaps within the Bride’s thought from the Song of Songs nor in the context of the liturgical celebration of the Ascension. It does not call explicitly for a response from the reader or listener; rather, it implicitly invites a shared subject position, whereby the reader or listener may inhabit the thought and petition of the speaker as if they were her own. The poem begins in direct address to God rather than to a bardic patron: “This is my confession, O God, / of all the sins of my body” (1a–b).60 Early stanzas dwell on the contrast, expressed in stark opposition, between the speaker’s actions in following desires of the body and Christ’s noble action in allowing the piercing of his body for the effusion of salvific bodily fluid: “A narrow rain-bow came from your side / for the saving of the peoples / a dark stream was poured forth to save us; / it filled Heaven and emptied the earth” (8a–d). After a brief apostrophe, the poet returns to praise of God, this time in terms that emphasize God’s generative power as evident in all created things: “You make branch from nut, / O craftsman of craftsmen, King of kings” (16c–d). When the poet moves on to his consideration of the leaps, it is clear that he is turning to a new topic. It is equally evident that he is deriving that topic from some source, although that source is neither named nor hinted at:

Rugais ocht léimeanna lúidh géir-reanna tréd chorp do chím do gheinealach garg an réim ard62 an léim deireannach dhíbh.

(18a) Eight great leaps you leapt—

I see the sharp points piercing you!— your begetting rough the course,61 and high/exalted was the last of those leaps.

Léim a nimh fa naomhdha an teach is aobhdha do chin a chruth

(19a) Your leap from heaven, hallowed house— The appearance of your portion is beautiful.63

léim i Muire réidh an rioth

The leap into Mary’s womb—smooth passing!

léim san mbioth suidhe fan sruth.

The leap into the world “a sitting ’neath the cataract.”64

Léim san gcroich do ba65 cuairt tinn

(20a) The leaping of the Cross for him66— painful journey!

léim fan gcloich fa cuairt do chloinn

The leap under the stone was a visit of your family.67

do loisg léim na huaighe inn gidh cruaidhe linn céim an chroinn.

The leap into the grave has afflicted me, although harder for me the step onto the Cross.68

Rugais léim oile as an uaigh gloine ioná gach léim do léim

(21a) Again you leapt from the grave, purer/more complete/more whole than all leaps;69

maith maise th’anbhfaise i n-úir

good the goodness of your plunging into soil,70

glaise it shúil cladh-chlaise id chéibh.

with your blue eye and curling hair.71

Léim i nIfearnn uch do bhroid bith-shearbh do chruth is do chuid

(22a) The leap into hell—what a foray!— Your appearance and that of your followers was bitter.72

fuarais gliaidh is tóir ’mun troid gus an mbruid móir ’n-a dhiadh dhuid.

You fought and pursued after the fight the force of the great captivity for yourself.73

It is tempting to read in this encomiastic and penitential poem a shift from the learned use of the topos, as in commentaries and homilies, to a more personal, even meditational, evocation of the Incarnation as a way in to understanding God’s relationship to humanity.74 What the poem definitively shows, in any case, is lively and imaginative engagement with the topos, not mere iteration of a theme or exemplum. Like Cynewulf, Donnchadh Mór applies considerable poetical skill to transform the leaps into much more than a mere listing.

This, then, is a brief history of the Leaps tradition in the British Isles to (and perhaps into) the fourteenth century, a history that lies behind Langland’s leap of love. Langland places the leap in the midst of Imaginatif’s discussion of the relative values of clerical learnedness and innate or natural knowledge. In doing so, he draws on not just the idea of leaping but also the longstanding association of the leaps with the vitality of the Church. Yet Langland does not recount the leaps in series.75 Instead, he focuses on the first leap alone, in spectacular and singular glory:

For the hey holi gost heuene shal tocleue

high; cleave

And loue shal lepe out aftur into þis lowe erthe


And clennesse shal cach hit and clerkes shollen hit fynde:

virginity/purity; catch

Pastores loquebantur ad inuicem &c.76

Hit speketh þer of ryche men riht nouht ne of ryche lordes

not at all

Bote of clennesse of clerkes and kepares of bestes:


Ibant magi ab Oriente &c.77 (14.84–88a ~ B.12.139–44a)

Imaginatif’s account zeroes in on the “clerkes” who “fynde” love; the clergy are, of course, shepherds (“pastores”) as well as learned men (“magi”). In the paratactic style of Imaginatif’s associative discourse, love’s leap comes as a happy surprise, seemingly out of nowhere, the next thought in a developing response to an issue raised several passus earlier: what are the relative values of “clergy” (both clerical learning and clerics themselves) and “kynde knowing” (innate understanding, particularly as noted in a person without clerical training, where that lack of learnedness may make the individual an especially attractive or likely recipient of grace)?78 That issue itself is part of a larger project of the Visio section of Piers Plowman, Will’s search for Do Wel, Do Bet, Do Best. As such, a prime focus is the activity of discriminating among life choices on a comparative, not just a qualitative, scale.

Imaginatif presents love’s leap as a self-contained story comprising Incarnation, Nativity, Annunciation to the Shepherds, and Visit of the Magi. It is a discrete narrative set within his argument, and while he does not frame it as an exemplum, he indicates immediately afterward that he has offered it with a point in mind (“Why y haue tolde þe al þis,” 14.99). While his lead-in (“For the hey holi gost . . .”) suggests that he thinks the story clinches his previous point (that innate knowledge has its value but clerical learning should not be dismissed), the simple conjunction “for” scarcely suffices to explain how the Incarnation and Christ’s birth are linked to what he has been saying. His point is embedded not in the logic of the connection but rather in the way he tells the story, with its strong focus on the integrity and value of (clerical) learning. Form is an important aspect of meaning, here. Rather than characterizing the shepherds as unlearned innocents whose rusticity and practical knowledge bring them close to God, he associates them with the book learning of the magi, most strongly in line 88a. To further his argument, he goes on to imagine oblivious rich men who, snoring in their beds, miss out on all the action, an image he contrasts with the attentive shepherds and learned men, who hear about or discern Christ’s birth and act appropriately:

Ryche men rotte tho and in here reste were

snored then; their

Tho hit shoen to shepherdes, a sheware of blisse.

when; shone; shower

Clerkes knewe þe comet and comen with here presentes

And deden here homage honerably to hym þat was almyhty.


Why y haue tolde þe al þis, . . . (14.95–99 ~ B.12.151–55)

In light of the topic of agency in action, it may be helpful to compare Imaginatif’s recounting of the Incarnation with Holy Church’s description of Christ coming as “the plonte of pees” in passus 1, a passage also informed by the Leaps topos. Here, too, the central issue under discussion is how one comes to knowledge of God, and what the role of ecclesiastical instruction might be. In response to Will’s complaint that he has “no kynde knowyng [innate understanding]” (1.137) of her meaning, Holy Church indicates that he is taught in his heart to love God before all others. In partial confirmation of his “kynde knowyng,” she relates the coming of the “plonte of pees,” perhaps the best-known Incarnational image in Piers Plowman. Love transforms itself with astonishing swiftness through an extraordinary series of actions:

Loue is þe plonte of pees,79 most precious of vertues,

For heuene holde hit ne myghte, so heuy hit semede,

heavy; seemed

Til hit hadde of erthe y3oten hitsilue.80


And when hit hadde of þe folde flesch and blode taken


Was neuer lef vppon lynde lyhtere theraftur

leaf upon linden tree lighter

And portatif and persaunt as þe poynt of a nelde

agile; piercing; needle

That my3te non Armure hit lette ne none heye walles.

armor; stop; high

(1.148–54 ~ B.1.152–58)

The weight of love that cannot be contained sets into motion Christ’s ministry on earth. Here the leap back to heaven seems inevitable, the lightness of a leaf suggesting both the natural propensity of plants begotten in the earth to reach for the sky and the ease with which an eager God accomplishes what cannot be done by any human. Resonances of the Advent liturgy, Augustine’s pondus amoris, Gregory’s gravitational pull of the universe toward God, and the lightness and ease of action in this passage have already been pointed out by others.81 But the “plonte of pees” seems notable for another reason as well: in an alliterative poem, a form that thrives on specific detail (“linden leaf,” for example, rather than simply “leaf”), why the generic word, “plant”? This word fits in with a larger pattern of Incarnational thought epitomized by the Leaps tradition. “Plonte” (1.148), while here used as a noun, evokes an action (“planting”) as well as a vegetative body. “Plonte” germinates poetically until needed when the metaphor of begetting in the earth two lines later recalls Christ’s human flesh generated in the womb of Mary. Langland’s Incarnational imagery is particularly striking in its relative lack of focus on Mary’s humanity—her qualities, her response, her exemplary nature. In love’s leap, he reduces Mary to one of her qualities (“clennesse” [14.86]); similarly, in the “plonte of pees” passage she is “erthe” (1.150). That level of abstraction, complementing “loue” that leaps (14.85) and “loue” that is a plant (1.148), shifts attention from grammatical agents, or “characters” (God and Mary), to the theologically crucial processive action of the Son, most strongly to the central action of descent that leads to other action. As in the Leaps topos itself, in both passages one action flows smoothly and naturally to another, from “tocleue” (14.84) to “lepe” (14.85) to a happy “cach” (14.86) to “fynde” (14.86). In both passages, too, Langland makes careful use of negation for an emphatic, heightened, comparative effect, most strongly noticeable with regard to the series of actions in passus 1: “holde hit ne myghte” (1.149), “semede” (1.149), “y3oten” (1.150), “was neuer . . . lyhtere” (1.152), “my3te non . . . hit lette ne none . . . [hit lette]” (1.154). Both jointly and severally, the two passages capitalize on strong contrasts (“hevene” [1.149, 14.84] and “erthe” [1.150, 14.85]; “hey” [14.84] and “lowe” [14.85]; “heuy” [1.149] and “lyhtere” [1.152,]) as well as complementary imaginative imagery (“persaunt as þoynt of a nelde” [1.153] and “shal tocleue” [14.84]). In passus 1 in particular, ascent and descent are treated as complements and as actions fundamental to the nature of the substance involved: the descent of love to earth is portrayed as being as natural and inevitable as the leap to heaven.82

The strong compression of action and abstraction in both passages highlights the power of imaginative language, of language in action; that technique, as is well known, is one of Langland’s great strengths. The very generality of the word “plant” emphasizes the action first taken by the “plonte of pees,” a planting in humanity’s “earth,” while enabling a botanical metaphor fixed on no particular species. Further actions of the “plonte” (Christ’s ministry on earth, Christ’s ascent to heaven) are common to the Leaps tradition. The key link between the “plonte of pees” and love’s spectacular leap lies in English vernacularity, in a word Langland does not use in either passage: “spring.” By the late fourteenth century, poets writing in English mapped the leaps of Christ onto botanical imagery of springing and sprouting, playing off the double meaning of “spring” as a bodily leap and organic growth, enabling an emphasis on the greenness of Christ’s efficacious and salvific vitality.83 I noted earlier that Imaginatif tells love’s leap as a little narrative embedded within a larger discursive argument. Lady Holy Church does something similar, as befits the homiletic nature of her discourse. Narrative form is part of what makes love’s leap so striking, in Piers Plowman. Coming in the midst of argumentative discourse, the strong compression of action and abstraction highlights the power of imaginative language, of language in action.

Linguistic Dilations Revisited: Narrative Agency in Synecdochic Action and Anaphoric Pronouns

From the verbal, active nature of compression in love’s leap, I would like to turn briefly to the verbal nature of certain near-personifications, or what I earlier termed linguistic dilation. I am interested in linguistic dilation as a regular feature of language, not just an ornamental “add-on” or poetical effect. As I noted earlier, the dilatatio of linguistic dilation both defers the prevailing narrative and momentarily draws forth an abstraction in and through time, generating a proto-narrative that, with further development, could become personification allegory, then re-subsumes the abstraction. This momentary shift in agency is apparent even in everyday conversation, as in the example I gave earlier (“your love sustains me”). Because of its elasticity, linguistic dilation readily enables meditation on abstract concepts as expressed in and through language. In particular, linguistic dilation offers attractive possibilities both for exploring the nature of personhood and for modeling the processive flow of divine emanation, which Langland exploited for theological purposes in love’s leap. As dilatatio implies, the action of drawing out or spreading forth governs the rhetorical force of the near-personification; both action and the agency that sets it in motion are important focuses of attention. Two linguistic dilations from Julian’s Revelation highlight agency in the context of repetition with variation, an important strategy in Incarnational poetics (I discuss this topic in Chapter 5). In the first case, a near-synecdoche draws attention to the nature of the hypostatic union; in the second, anaphoric pronouns enable an understanding of the work of the soul as something of a cooperative or collective venture. Both cases rely for effect on a cognitive shift that is not strongly signaled or rhetorically marked within a repetitive pattern that is strongly marked.

The first of these linguistic dilations has a specific and obvious connection with Christ’s body as well as with fluidity: the near-synecdoche of Christ’s blood in Julian’s Revelation. In her fourth revelation, just after she has described how the blood she perceived flowing from Christ’s crucified body would have soaked her bed had it not been part of a showing, Julian stresses both the bounteousness of the blood and its serviceable character, comparing it to water created by a loving God as a help for his creatures:

And than cam to my minde that God hath made waters plentivous in erthe to our service and to our bodily ease, for tender love that he hath to us, but yet lekyth him better that we take full homely his blissid blode to washe us of synne; for there is no licor that is made that he lekyth so wele to give us; for it is most plentivous as it is most pretious, and that be the vertue of his blissid Godhede. And it is our kinde and alblissfully beflowyth us be the vertue of his pretious love. The dereworthy blode of our lord Iesus Criste, as verily as it is most pretious, as verily it is most plentivous. Behold and se. The pretious plenty of his dereworthy blode descendid downe into helle and braste her [burst their] bands and deliveryd al that were there which longyd [belonged] to the curte [court] of hevyn. The pretious plenty of his dereworthy blode overflowith al erth and is redye to wash al creaturs of synne which be of gode will, have ben and shal ben. The pretious plenty of his dereworthy blode ascendid up into hevyn to84 the blissid body of our lord Iesus Christe, and there is in him bleding and praying for us to the Father—and is and shall be as long as it nedith [is necessary]. And evermore it flowith in all hevyns enioying the salvation of al mankynde that arn there and shal ben, fulfilling the noumber that failith. (12.13–33; emphasis mine)

What begins as a simple comparison (plenteousness of the blood similar to plenteousness of the created waters) cascades into a description of blood so serviceable that it not only washes sinners clean but also harrows hell, ascends into heaven, bleeds and prays for mankind, rejoices in salvation of those already in heaven, and draws to heaven those who shall be saved.85 At the same time it unites all who shall be saved, whether under the earth, on the earth, or above the earth. The concept of Christ’s blood washing penitent sinners is a great commonplace of Passion devotion, its bounteous nature a related important and ubiquitous feature of late medieval theology, literature, and art. Julian’s treatment, however, is remarkable for the number and nature of the blood’s actions, as well as for the poetic economy with which she presents the concept.86 The special suitability of the blood for these tasks, to her mind, comes in part from its sharing human nature (“our kinde”). The grammatical agent she chooses is not simply “blode” but “the pretious plenty of his dereworthy blode,” yoking “plenty” with “blode,” linguistically suggesting the comingling of abstract and concrete, as if one might equate to the other.87

Several actions of “the pretious plenty of his dereworthy blode” initially might appear to be clarified by reading “blood” as a synecdoche for Christ himself: Christ harrows hell, ascends into heaven, bleeds and prays for mankind, rejoices in the salvation of the elect, and draws the elect into heaven. Julian’s usage turns from a synecdoche to a complex linguistic dilation, however, with the surprising phrase that momentarily suggests personification of the blood: “and there is in him bleding and praying for us to the Father” (12.30–31). Does the act of bleeding or the act of praying primarily trigger this shift? Blood that bleeds might or might not have its own (personified) body; perhaps one might say that blood bleeds by its very nature, after all, since when we see it, that is what it is doing.88 Prayer, a human cultural practice, is more difficult to explain away. When a feature of a body is imagined as engaging in an act usually associated with personhood, we may well perceive that feature as personified. Here, the imagined life is intercessory in nature, fitting in with Julian’s understanding of the Son as mediator between humankind and God. In the theological debate over the holy blood’s status during the triduum mortis, a debate taking place during Julian’s lifetime, the Dominican position similarly relied on the concept of mediation.89 They argued that the blood must retain the hypostatic union precisely because it brings about redemption in the process of being shed: if divinity were separated from humanity at the moment of bleeding, the sacrifice would not be complete. According to this view, in enabling salvation, Christ’s blood is intercessory by nature.90 In this respect, the linguistic dilation of bleeding and praying blood here in chapter twelve additionally recalls chapter six, where Julian describes “the goodness of God” as “the heyest prayer” (6.30). There “the blissid kinde that he toke of the mayd” is “the chiefe and principal mene” (6.25–26) for salvation; here, Julian indicates that “our kinde” (“our nature”) includes blood as well as body (“it is our kinde” 12.20): Christ’s blood and Christ’s body are correlative.

Julian’s linguistic dilation is particularly striking in that its layering of action makes synecdoche impossible once blood bleeds and prays within Christ’s body. Julian surely intends more than one reading here: on the one hand, the blood is Christ’s own, physically bleeding, blood; on the other, blood working as a “mene” to achieve “our salvation” points self-referentially both to Christ and to his saving act, the shedding of the blood through the Passion. The elision of actor and act works in a similar way to the “love deed” of the “Long Charter”: in Julian’s vision, Christ’s blood both is and does the “love deed” of salvation that begins in the Incarnation. Langland relies on a similarly quasi-metonymic construction (in which blood bleeds), in order to call attention to the common humanity shared by Christ and humankind. In Langland’s case, the notion of blood bleeding depends for effect on the shock engendered when the pun is discovered; the shift comes about because the noun “blood” turns into the verb “bleed”:

For bloed may suffre bloed bothe afurst and acale

Ac bloed may nat se bloed blede bote hym rewe (20.437–38 ~ B.18.394–95)

“A blood-relative may suffer a blood-relative to be both thirsty and cold, but a blood-relative may not see a blood-relative bleed without rueing it.” Here, too, the blood that bleeds is Christ’s.91

As a linguistic dilation, Julian’s “pretious plenty of his dereworthy blode” challenges conventional boundaries of embodiment, conceptually flowing outside and then back into its body as we imagine and then resist the notion of it having a figural body of its own. Because in this case the praying takes place within the body of Christ and the prayer is Christlike, the implied layering of mutual intent within the physical body of Christ resembles the multiple enclosings of the soul within the Trinity and the Trinity within the soul, much like “He is our clotheing” (5.7) and “We arn beclosid . . .” (54.25–30).92 The acts of bleeding and praying work together in this context to highlight the interlaced character of the Trinity itself and, with respect to the hypostatic union, of the Trinity with man.

In a different linguistic dilation, not specifically Christological, Julian’s syntax is so loose that the antecedents for “it” are unclear; does agency shift within this passage?

Thankyng is a new, inward knowing, with gret reverens and lovely drede [awe] turnyng ourselfe with all our myghts into the werkyng that our good lord steryth [guides] us to, enioyng and thankyng inwardly. And sometyme, for plenteoushede, it [thankyng?] brekyth out with voyce and seith: “Good lord, grante mercy [many thanks]; blissid mot thou be!” And sumtyme whan the herte is drey [dry] and felyth not, or ell [else] be temptation of our enemy, than it [herte or thankyng?] is dreven by reason and be grece [grace] to cryen upon our lord with voyce, rehersyng his blissid passion and his gret goodnes. And the vertue of our lords word turnyth into the soule and quicknith the herte and entrith it [the soul?] be his grace into trew werkyng, and makyth it [the soul?] prayen wel blisfully and trewly to enioyen our lord; it [not the soul—the heart’s prayer? the process of thankyng?] is a ful blisful thankyng in his syte. (41.56–68, emphasis mine)

If “thankyng” itself “brekyth out with voyce” and later perhaps “is dreven by reason and be grece to cryen upon our lord with voyce, rehersyng his blissid passion and his gret goodnes,” the passage operates much as blood bleeding did in chapter twelve, nearly personifying an abstraction. If, on the other hand, we may find other antecedents (heart, the heart’s prayer) for the pronouns in question, we might have a personification. When more highly developed linguistic dilations, such as the blood of Christ, also govern the structure of a literary work, minor linguistic dilations begin to stand out. Collectively, the linguistic dilations in Julian’s work become reassuringly representative of the Trinity, available to humanity, it seems, at every turn, as serviceable as Jesus, who “usith the office of a kinde nurse and hath not all to don but to entendyn abouten the salvation of hir child” (61.71–73). As a result, linguistic dilation in Julian’s writing emphasizes the unity of creation acting in concert with God and de-personalizes the actions of the cosmic drama. For Julian, Christological focus on a humanly individual saviour, the sort of Christ-lover embraced by Margery Kempe, becomes almost unimaginable. Jesus is at times indistinguishable from the Trinity as a whole. Eve and the devil drop out of the story of the Fall entirely, and Adam’s role is overshadowed by its transformation through the Son’s actions. Julian herself frequently stands in for all of mankind, or at least for her “even-Christians,” her fellow Christians, as her showings are for the most part to be understood as pertaining to all who shall be saved, not to her in particular.93 The body of Christ (mankind, even-Christians) acts as a collective; the Trinity (embodied in Christ) also acts as a collective; the Trinity and mankind together act as a collective.

Unlike “the pretious plenty of his dereworthy blode,” a conspicuous subject that draws more attention to itself with each repetition, here the innocuous “it” effaces itself in the process of Julian’s meditation on the form of prayer she calls “thankyng.” A more specific antecedent would detract and distract; the very ambiguity and shifting agency of “it” over the course of the passage instead produces the effect of linguistic dilation. The passage ideally models what Catherine Emmott has termed “a ‘cognitive discourse analysis’ approach to anaphoric theory,” which “discard[s] the idea that a pronoun refers back and that what it refers to is an antecedent.”94 Instead, the pronoun works to recall a mental construct or cognitive framework previously primed by the antecedent; the pronoun thus shifts focus:95

The antecedent becomes responsible for triggering the focusing inference about a particular character, but is not referred back to when a pronoun is interpreted because the mental representation of the character has been “brought forward” in the mind. The mental representation is activated during priming and focusing, for it is already in the reader’s consciousness, whether textually overt or textually covert. Decoding a pronoun no longer involves “searching,” “recalling” or, strictly speaking, “accessing” information. . . . Reference theory then becomes a matter of explaining how complex mental representations are constructed and held in consciousness, rather than of just discussing the proximity of anaphors to their antecedents.96

While Emmott’s application of this theory centers on character development in post-medieval narrative theory, her model works well to explain how the apparent shift in the antecedent for Julian’s “it” does not come across as jarring or problematical. The main subject of Julian’s attention is a process, “thankyng.” “It” does not track a single antecedent agent through the passage; in fact, the agent enacting that process is not, in this instance, the point.

With the actions of linguistic dilations, I have moved closer to issues treated in the voluminous body of critical work on personification and allegory. The important question of what allegory is, and does, and how we can recognize it when we see it, is well beyond the scope of my study. Here, in fact, I am primarily interested in what most people would not consider to be allegory at all, or even personification; as I have argued, linguistic dilation can nearly approach personification but falls short. If allegory tends to proffer itself as a puzzle, as Stephen Barney has suggested,97 or as lines of narrative to be decoded, linguistic dilation tends to efface itself, much as an Incarnational poetic does. In ordinary conversation, such linguistic dilations often pass unnoticed; they do not call attention to themselves as rhetorically marked.98 In Julian’s writing, agents may be effaced into pronouns; in Langland’s work, agents more frequently morph into actions.99 In both cases, the quiddity of an abstraction in action puts across the point. Such active agency is especially interesting to think about in the case of the “love deed” of the “Long Charter,” or of love’s leap, where leaping is what love both is and does. Both agent and action coalesce in leaping as a way of understanding divine emanation. As the writers who are the subject of this study see it, the processive flow modeled in love’s leap must be understood in and through time; it is in and through poetic time that they seek their understanding of the Incarnation. Time in narrative, then, is the subject of my next chapter. The full word Capgrave sought “to uttir pleynly in langage of oure nacion”100 may be revealed, it would seem, in “the fullness of time.”

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