‘Festial’ by John Mirk – the Most Popular English Book in the Late Middle Ages

This is a page from a very early printed book that is one of the many treasures of Worcester Cathedral Library – the Liber Festavilis (Book of Feasts) or Festial of John Mirk, canon of Lilleshall Abbey near Newport in Shropshire:

The Saint Bartholomew Page. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Although the page heading “De Sancto Bartholomeo” is in Latin, the actual text is all in English. The Festial was a hugely popular book, which was printed in twenty-three different editions between 1483 and 1532. The few pages held by Worcester Cathedral Library are probably from an edition produced around 1499 by Robert Pynson, King’s Printer to Henry VII.

About 1380 John Mirk wrote a collection of sermons based on the celebrations of the church year, beginning with the first Sunday in Advent and interspersed with tales of the saints on their annual remembrance days, from Saint Andrew the Apostle to Saint Catherine of Alexandria. The good plain English of the sermons made them popular with both educated lay people and the many parish priests who ministered to mostly English-speaking congregations.

The Worcester pages include St Lawrence (10 August), Mary the Virgin (15 August), Saint Bartholomew the Apostle (24 August) and the Birth of Mary (8 September). Each section begins with a life of the Saint and continues with stories told about them that would be both familiar and entertaining to contemporary audiences. The first Festial manuscripts, hand-copied from John Mirk’s original, included at this point a commemoration of Saint Alkmund, an eighth-century Northumbrian prince who was killed in battle in the Midlands. His bones were interred in Derby but were later transferred to John Mirk’s Lilleshall Abbey. The later, printed copies omitted this feast-day, perhaps because Alkmund was not thought to be important enough!

Below is a short extract from the page about Saint Bartholomew which describes how the Apostle came to the rescue of Saint Guthlac in his Crowland Monastery in the East Anglian Fens:

The extract about Saint Guthlac. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Also it is wryten in the lyf of saynt gothlake . that fyrste Inhabited Crowlonde in the fennes . and the first day that he come thyder was on saynt Barthylmewes daye Than he prayed to this holy apostle to be his patrone agaynst the wicked spyrytes that were in that place

Crowland is an island in the Lincolnshire fens, and the story is that Saint Guthlac moved there on St Bartholomew’s Day in the year 699 to dedicate his life to God as a hermit. The Apostle commanded the devils to leave Crowland, which they did with “a great horrible noise” lamenting the loss of their power in that place and facing eternity in Hell instead!

Another page opens the sermon on the Birth of Mary the Virgin as follows:

The extract about the Birth of Mary. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Goode frendys suche a daye ye shalle have the Natyvyte of oure lady / that is whan she was borne / & ye shall faste the even & come to god & holy church in the worshyp of our lady saynt mary  Joachym was hyr fader / & anne hir moder . Ther can no man tel the joye that Joachim and anne had in their hertes whan our lady was born

This shows how John Mirk’s friendly conversational style attracted ordinary readers and made him so popular, reminding them to fast – eat only one meal – on the day before the Feast Day. Joachim and Anne had prayed for thirty years to be blessed with a child, and it was only as they approached old age that it happened.

Mirk’s decision to write in English may seem obvious to us nowadays but in the late fourteenth century it was a bold step and might have cast him among the Lollards, meaning on the one hand that he was just an idle beggar, but much worse that he might have been a follower of the heretical John Wycliffe who had begun translating the Bible into English.

However the Festial made it plain that John Mirk was no Lollard: “And þerfor roodes and oþyr ymages ben necessary in holy chirch whateuer þes Lollardes sayn.” Mirk makes it clear that there is nothing wrong with crosses and pictures in a church whatever the Lollards might say!

Lilleshall Abbey was an Augustinian foundation of some standing in its heyday. It was visited by King Richard II and John of Gaunt in the late fourteenth century, probably about the time that John Mirk was composing his Festial. The Abbey surrendered to King Henry VIII in 1538. The abbot and ten canons received pensions and other gifts. In the Civil War it was garrisoned and held for the king, but in 1643 it was forced to capitulate after a devastating siege by parliamentary forces. The remains can still be seen today near the National Sports Centre in Shropshire.

The Reformation made the Festial much less popular, and there were no further printings after 1532. But in 2009 a new edition was printed for the Early English Text Society, based on the British Museum’s Cotton Claudius II manuscript, copied between 1425 and 1450, and the most complete of the early versions.

Tim O’Mara

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