The form of the Lay Folks’ Catechism

The Lay Folks’ Catechism, alliterative verse, and cursus [abstract]

The Lay Folks’ Catechism is an English rendering of injunctions issued in 1357 by John Thoresby, Archbishop of York, setting forth the elements of Christian belief. Ever since W. W. Skeat’s treatments, the Catechism has been placed in the general orbit of alliterative verse, yet closer identifications have proved elusive. The text is now recorded in both The Index of Middle English Verse and The Index of Middle English Prose; the principal stylistic study proposes that John Gaytryge, the author of the English text, may have been influenced by the system of Latin prose rhythm known as cursus. Renewed treatment must begin by establishing an accurate and authoritative text. Collation of the two best copies, York, Borthwick Institute, MS Abp Reg 11 and Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Don.c.13, confirms the general authority of the York copy. Recent studies of alliterative metre allow Gaytryge’s composition to be distinguished with confidence from that English verse form. Affiliations to Latin cursus are more difficult to assess, but doubtful: more likely influences are the Latin of the Creed, Pater noster, and other pastoralia, and the plain style that preachers were instructed to adopt in preaching to the laity. The form of the Catechism may have been a deliberate innovation: a new plain style in the vernacular, aiming to embody the priorities of pastoral instruction.

This article will appear in a future issue of the Review of English Studies.

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