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Stephen Gordon writes:

‘The style of these drawings is beneath contempt’: these are the words of the famed medievalist and cataloguer M. R. James, whose strong opinions of the images found in Latin MS 69 have coloured recent perceptions of one of more curious items from the Rylands collection. In some respects James has a point. Not only are the illustrations sketchy and pen-drawn, but the text itself is written in a rough cursive hand that is difficult to decipher. However, despite its unprepossessing appearance, Latin MS 69 is certainly not without merit. The image of the sweeping woman on fol. 34r (fig. 1) provides a keen insight into the beliefs and fears of a populace for whom attack by evil spirts was an everyday, tangible threat.

Latin MS 69 fol 34r

Fig. 1: Woman using a broom to sweep four demons from her house. Latin MS 69, f. 34r (detail).

Erroneously recorded in the Rylands library catalogue as the Speculum Salutis, the manuscript is in fact a fragment of a late fifteenth-century copy of Ulrich von Lilienfeld’s Concordantiae caritatis (‘Concordance of Charity’, c. 1350s). The Concordiantae belongs to the typological picture book tradition that increased in popularity in the later Middle Ages. Building on the idea expressed in the Bible verse Matthew 5: 17 – “think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy but to fulfil” – such books juxtaposed images from the Old and New Testaments to express the concept of prefigurement. Scenes, figures or statements from the Old Testament (‘types’) were said to anticipate (or prefigure) the actions of Christ in the New Testament (the ‘antitype’).  Unusually, allegories from natural history were also included in the Concordiantae pictorial schema.

The image of the sweeping woman belongs to the typology of the Parable of the Unclean Spirit, which was often used in sermons on the first Wednesday after Invocavit Sunday (the first Sunday of Lent). In full, the parable reads:

When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation

The moral message of the tale is clear enough: sins committed after baptism (or penance) are much worse than before.  On a further level, warning is given to those who indulge in lechery, with the expulsion of the ‘impure spirit’ symbolising the expulsion of earthly desire. The placement of the Old Testament antitype of the destruction of Sodom in the middle register certainly highlights this point, as does the inclusion of a scene from the reign of Asa who, in old age, also began to embrace his carnal desires and neglect the authority of God. Similar allegories of the rejection of Divine Grace can be detected in the image of the kites eating flies, birds and mammals (i.e. an escalation of sinfulness), and the depiction of a group of stalks fighting to the death. Portraits of biblical figures, some with explanatory labels, frame the left and right-hand sides of the central diagram (fig. 2).

Latin MS 69 fol 34r full page

Fig. 2: Typology of the Parable of the Unclean Spirit, beginning with top register: sweeping woman; Christ explaining parable; Lot flees Sodom, with wife as a pillar of salt; King Asa; kites eating flies, birds and mammals; fighting stalks. Latin MS 69, fol. 34r.

Where the illustration of the sweeping woman is concerned, the artist of Latin MS 69 seems to have taken a more literal approach to the parable’s message. Broom in hand, the woman is pictured trying to remove four animal-like demons from the roof of her household. The lack of space may be the reason why the full number of spirits/sins was not included in the final design. Nonetheless, the image would have definitely provoked an emotional response in the manuscript’s intended audience. The mystical, protective qualities associated with the act of sweeping were a fundamental part of local medieval life. Shrove Tuesday was seen as a traditional time to sweep the house clean, a practical manifestation of the act of being ‘shriven’ (i.e. spiritually cleansed) the day before the start of Lent.

The act of sweeping could also have negative connotations, especially where its use by suspected witches was concerned. In a story from Rothenberg, Germany (c. 1652) – which, pointedly, was said to have taken place on Shrove Tuesday – a woman named Margaretha Horn was accused by her neighbour of causing his home to be infected by pests, having swept the waste from her own house onto a dung heap that was adjacent to his. By tapping her broom on the dung heap, she ‘activated’ the magical transference of vermin.

Crude as they may be, the illustrations in Latin MS 69 demonstrate that manuscripts need not be aesthetically pleasing to be socially useful. To preach to the rustics, churchmen needed moral stories that spoke to the immediate circumstances of their audience. What better way to articulate the Lent sermon of the Parable of the Unclean Spirit – specifically, the dangers of turning away from God and being infiltrated by demons – than an image of the ‘magical’ cleansing of the household? And yet, the belief that witches could use sweeping magic to torment their neighbours may have added an extra sense of fear, uncertainty, to the drawing’s moralistic message.

Acknowledgements

Thanks must go to Berthold Kress, for providing his research on the Concordantiae Caritatis, and to Elizabeth Gow, for originally directing the manuscript to the attention of the ‘Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World’ project team.

Find out more

Stephen Gordon is a Postdoctoral Research Associate on Jennifer Spinks’ Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project ‘Magic, Diabolism, and Global Religion in European Print Culture, 1500–1700’ (grant number AH/L015013/1). One of the major outcomes of the project will be the exhibition ‘Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World’ at the John Rylands Library, from late January to June 2016. The exhibition will be co-curated by Jennifer Spinks and Sasha Handley, who both lecture in early modern history at the University of Manchester, and it has also been supported by The John Rylands Research Institute. It will feature the Concordantiae Caritatis alongside other works from the Rylands collection.

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Further links

Dr Stephen Gordon’s Webpage

Dr Jenny Spinks’s Webpage

Dr Sasha Handley’s Webpage