The Floure of the Commandements

‘The Floure of the Commandments’ was printed in 1521 by Wynken de Worde who was the assistant of Caxton and eventually took over the business. There are more details regarding Wynken de Worde in another blog post, ‘Pages From Wynken de Worde Edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales’ 2017.

I am interested in ‘The Floure of the Commandements’ as it is the first English language text printed of the Ten Commandements – before Coverdale’s Bible in 1535. ‘The Floure of the Commandements’ appeared in three 15th-century editions, all of which are very rare. Originally the text was in French and had been printed in France in 1494. Andrew Chertsey, a native of London, translated it into English but little is known of him other than the fact that he translated several devotional works for Wynkyn de Worde.

 

The bookplate, including Chertsey’s name. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

There are two parts to the book, the first being the translated Ten Commandments with some analysis and how the faithful should apply the commandments to their lives, with the addition of a list of the seven deadly sins and the cardinal virtues. The second part shows some examples of where the virtuous are rewarded and the sinful punished. A lovely example is that of the monk who fell asleep in the Choir at Lauds and dreamt of a devil offering him a spoonful of molten pitch, whereupon he jerked back and woke himself up by banging his head on the stall. Many other stories are taken from Christian lore, the Bible and the lives of saints, creating an instructive work.

The book is distinguished by its title page, which features a woodcut of Aaron and Moses together with the words of the Ten Commandments paraphrased in rhyming form—their first appearance in English. The verso is a full-page woodcut of the crucifixion of Jesus. A later illustration in the book depicts Jesus teaching the Apostles with the words of the Lord’s Prayer in English above their heads.

 

Example of a woodcut. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

Example of a woodcut. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

‘The Floure of the Commandements’ met the needs of confessors, priests, preachers of sermons, and literate lay readers. The book provides an explanation of what each commandment requires of the faithful. This is followed by a list of the seven deadly sins and cardinal virtues together with a long collection of exemplars illustrating the benefits of virtuous behaviour and the damning effects of sin. These colourful stories draw from the Bible, the lives of saints and Christian lore. De Worde printed many devotional works, and ‘The Floure of the Commandements’ is one of finest and most substantial of these publications. It was reprinted in 1521 after a successful run of the 1510 edition. The 1521 edition is the one we have here in Worcester.

There are some interesting medieval doodles throughout the book; one in particular is rather good showing a man in chains located next to the section of text “whiche had a chayne a bout his necke”. Many other doodles show a hand with a finger pointing – a stereotypical 16th century addition in the secretarial hand.

 

An extract from Folio CIX with the doodle of the man in chains. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

An extract showing an illustrated letter and a doodle of a pointing finger. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

We do not know how the book entered the Cathedral collection. It was obviously privately owned by 1657 when Stephanus Batman wrote two pages of notes on the theology of the book with detailed musings on the nature of purgatory. It is dated to the middle of the Protectorate (1657) so the idea that Stephanus Batman was writing notes on Catholic ideas shows how well this book must have been hidden at this time.

 

One of the back note pages of the book. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

‘The Floure of the Commandements’ is one of the rarest early printed copies in our collection and shows that throughout its history it has been well used as a devotional and educational work. Its beautiful woodcut drawings and decorative borders show the transition between handwritten manuscripts and the printed works of future generations.

 

Rachael Hall

 

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