From Medieval Brilliance to Modern Beauty

Natalie Jones on the Melody of Love

Richard Rolle's Melody of Love: A Study and Translation with Manuscript and Musical Contexts
Andrew Albin (ed. and trans.). Richard Rolle’s Melody of Love. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2018. 467pp. $90.

One of the most defining characteristics of medieval mystical writing is its use and style of language. Even readers who are less familiar with the medieval mystical tradition will be aware of the figurative, highly metaphorical language deployed by mystical writers in their attempts to express not only the wonders of mystical experience, but the ineffable sweetness of divine encounter. The Melos amoris, a highly intricate Latin prose work written by the fourteenth-century English mystic, Richard Rolle, undoubtedly stands out as one of the most linguistically and rhetorically complex examples of mystical writing in the later Middle Ages.

Andrew Albin makes this text available for the first time to a new audience as he authentically and impressively conveys the highly alliterative, sonorous, and rather hypnotic style of the original in his Modern English translation, Richard Rolle’s Melody of Love. It is Albin’s faithfulness to the intricate style of Rolle’s original Latin text which stands out as the edition’s most important and striking feature, one which ensures that the work will resonate with audiences beyond those who have a specific scholarly interest in Rolle. Albin’s bold methodology eschews a literal word-for-word translation in favor of remaining true to the alliterative style of the original Latin. Albin’s remarkable feat not only captures the essence of Rolle’s work but, through the translation’s tone and careful use of language, reveals much about the workings of the medieval mystical tradition. Although Albin’s volume may primarily be aimed at those who have a specialist interest in Rolle’s work, his sophisticated and sometimes challenging translation promises a stimulating read for both those who wish to know more about medieval theology and mystical writing, as well as those with an interest in translation and translation theory.

Richard Rolle is one of the most significant of all medieval English mystical writers and his works were widely influential and much imitated throughout the later Middle Ages. Born in Thornton Dale, Yorkshire, around 1300, Rolle went on to be educated at Oxford but, following his religious conversion, he left his studies before completing his degree in order to pursue the life of a hermit. It is during his sometimes wandering, eremitic existence that Rolle composed not only the Melos amoris, but a sizeable body of other works in both English and Latin. In addition to a number of scriptural commentaries and other religious works, he composed three major Latin treatises which focused on the pursuit of the spiritual life and, as is the case in the Melos, often had an autobiographical bent. Of these Latin treatises, the Melos amoris is, as Albin stresses, the most difficult. Its difficulty has often led modern critics to dismiss the work but, as Albin notes, the challenges posed by the text may also have been felt by Rolle’s contemporary readers too, given the small number of manuscripts in which the work survives. For instance, Albin explains that in contrast to Rolle’s more famous Latin treatise, the Incendium amoris, which is extant in at least 42 copies, the Melos amoris survives complete in only ten manuscripts, as well as a small number of fragments. Yet, in spite of its challenges, Albin’s study shows that the Melos is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious and sophisticated of Rolle’s works; indeed, although it was traditionally considered to be an early and clumsily flamboyant text, critics now generally agree that the Melos shows Rolle to be at the height of his spiritual maturity and in full command of his material.

The Melos resists a single, straightforward classification in terms of subject matter and theme. But according to Albin, it takes as its principal overarching subject “the qualities, effects, experience, and expressive modes of love,” specifically the divine love that exists between God and the soul and that manifests itself in multiple ways. In order to elucidate his subject, Rolle shows a particular interest in a number of other, more discrete themes, including predestination and the elevated status of God’s elect, the workings of divine justice, and the powerful, religious fervor made possible through the Holy Spirit, which is presented consistently as the source of Rolle’s own mystical and devotional inspiration. In addition to these subjects, Albin notes that one of the most important threads to run through the Melos is its focus on “the trio of spiritual sensations for which [Rolle’s] mysticism is so well known”: calor (heat), dulcor (sweetness), and canor (song). Of these three, it is canor which is celebrated most fully in the Melos, as not only does Rolle emphasize repeatedly the idea of angelic praise and the elect’s participation in the heavenly choir, but the work’s highly alliterative style and form can also be seen to replicate the gift of celestial song achieved through mystical contemplation and prayer.

The first main section of Albin’s edition, entitled “The Melody of Love: Ten Ways In,” serves as a detailed introduction that provides the reader with a framework through which to approach and study the translation that follows. As the title suggests, this section is broken down into ten, clearly-organized and easily-navigable parts, which cover everything from the work’s style, sources, and recurrent themes, to the historical context in which Rolle was writing. Designed to fill the gap left by the Melos’s sustained scholarly neglect, Albin’s discussion is essential reading and not only reveals much about the work and Rolle’s style, but serves to open up new avenues of investigation that are worthy of further study.

Throughout this section, Albin’s approach to his material is sharp and detailed and his analysis offers much critical insight; the discussion is constantly grounded in textual examples and it is sensitive to both the contextual and critical history of Rolle’s works. A notable highlight in this section is the examination of the Melos’s style, which covers the work’s grammar, rhetoric, and use of alliteration. In contrast to the views of early critics, who often found the work’s lofty rhetoric and use of alliteration extreme and off-putting, Albin defends the Melos’s style by placing it in relation to the English literary traditions of the fourteenth century and, more particularly, to the form and function of the mystical text. It is argued, for instance, that the Melos’s complex web of imagery and metaphor, particularly its use of what Albin terms “metaphorical play,” often serves to draw attention to the novelty of Rolle’s language and imagery and thus subtly recalls the transformative, mystical experience that the work describes. Yet although the work’s language and imagery are striking, undoubtedly the most distinctive stylistic feature of the Melos is that it is written in highly alliterative Anglo-Latin prose. Rolle’s commitment to this ornate form is sustained throughout the work, but it reaches a particular height in chapter 21, where he presents the reader with an alliterative pattern of no less than forty c-initial words. According to Albin, Rolle’s pattern of alliteration is not designed to enhance word meaning; rather, much like the work’s use of imagery and metaphor, it serves to heighten the reader’s experience of the Melos by drawing attention to the prose’s aural quality and rhythmic effect.

Other topics engaged with in the edition’s opening discussion include a consideration of the manuscript context of the Melos amoris, as well as Rolle’s use of sources. Although Rolle does not generally cite his sources outright, it is clear that the Bible, the liturgy, and the works of the major patristic writers, were all significant influences and shaped the style and tone of the work. Scriptural verses taken from the Psalms and the Song of Songs are everywhere quoted in the Melos, especially, although not exclusively, at the beginning of chapters, where they serve as thematic markers and introduce the discussion that follows. Beyond this, however, identifying the influence of specific works or writers is difficult; in fact, as Albin observes, after the Bible, “the texts to which Rolle owes his greatest debts are his own.” If our understanding of Rolle’s use of sources remains unavoidably elusive, Albin’s discussion of the manuscript context of the Melos provides much sharper detail. Revising and updating the earlier material included in the Latin edition of the Melos edited by E.J.E. Arnould in 1957, Albin presents a new handlist that details the ten manuscripts in which the Melos is extant, as well as the nine fragments. Particularly helpful for those who might seek to do future scholarly work on the Melos, Albin notes the date, origin, and provenance of each manuscript, and also details any interesting marginalia or glosses that accompany the text.

Albin’s Modern English translation of Rolle’s Melos amoris is based on the Latin edition produced by Arnould, which in turn was based on the copy of the Latin work preserved in Dublin, Trinity College MS 159 (included in Albin’s manuscript handlist). The most obviously remarkable feature of Albin’s translation is its commitment to remain true to the highly alliterative style of the Latin original. Albin points out early on, in the Preface to his edition, that his is not a word-for-word translation, but one that “prioritizes style over lockstop fidelity to the original.” In Albin’s view, this decision results in a translation that is closer to the design and intentions of Rolle’s original work, which places its most meaningful emphasis on the aural and rhythmic effects of its prose. Yet although Albin’s commitment to alliteration impressively captures the mood and style of the Melos, his translation, as is inevitably the case with all translations, poses its own set of challenges.

The potential drawbacks of his approach are carefully outlined by Albin in his discussion of the methods which underpin his translation process. For instance, it should be noted that, in order to retain the pattern of alliteration, the precise sense of some Latin words is not always clearly communicated through the Modern English “equivalent” term chosen by Albin in his translation; a good example of this is the Latin word cor, which is used by Rolle to mean “heart,” but is translated by Albin as “core” throughout. In order to overcome this difficulty, Albin provides a helpful checklist of those Latin words which, when translated, might puzzle readers; the fact remains, though, that some may still find the translation of certain words less than clear. A second aspect of Albin’s translation worth noting is his choice of phrasing which can, very occasionally, veer towards the colloquial. While, again, this choice of language has typically been made in order to sustain the original work’s pattern of alliteration, the effects of this can sometimes be rather jarring and seem out of keeping with the tone and mood of the larger work. Overall, however, these drawbacks are decidedly minor and they do not at all detract from the significance of Albin’s edition. Translating alliterative Latin prose into alliterative Modern English is certainly no easy task, and thus Albin’s finished work is one that cannot fail to impress its readers.

The comprehensive and scholarly nature of Albin’s edition is further confirmed by the material supplied in the edition’s five appendices. Focusing largely on material found in those manuscripts which preserve a copy of the Melos, these additional sections usefully shape and enhance our knowledge of how the work was read and understood by audiences in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Appendix One provides a critical edition of an additional, spurious chapter which, in some manuscripts, has been added on to the end of the Melos. This fifty-ninth chapter, most likely written in the mid-fifteenth century, combines extracts from another of Rolle’s work, the Incendium amoris, and may have been written in order to confirm the orthodoxy of the Melos at a time when spiritual and religious writings were coming under greater scrutiny. The second and third parts of the appendices concentrate on material contained within Oxford, Lincoln College MS Latin 89, a late fourteenth or early fifteenth century manuscript which preserves an imperfect copy of the Melos. One of the remarkable features of this manuscript is that its copy of Rolle’s work is accompanied by a large number of glosses and marginal notes, the most significant of which are reproduced (in the form of a facing-page transcription and translation) in Appendix Two. These notes, most likely added by the scribe who copied the main text, are useful for those interested in finding out how a contemporary reader responded to Rolle’s difficult work. In addition to its copy of the Melos, the Lincoln manuscript also contains, rather unusually, a single gathering containing musical notation for a number of English polyphonic Kyries; these are set out in full, with musical notation and lyrics, in Appendix Three. The final two sections of the appendices contain, lastly, a wordlist of some of the more difficult, or semantically dense, Latin terms that Rolle deploys throughout his work and, prior to that, a series of extracts, often taken from the original Latin text of the Melos, which accompany the audio recordings available via the edition’s useful companion website.

Andrew Albin’s Richard Rolle’s Melody of Love is an impressive and thoroughly scholarly edition that offers much critical insight to both the new and informed reader. Although, as noted, the challenging nature of the Melos amoris has meant that it has traditionally fared less well with scholars over the years, Albin’s translation will certainly encourage those readers to look again at this text, as it renders the original’s difficult, highly ornate, and alliterative Latin prose into an accessible Modern English text which captures much of the style, spirit, and mood of the original. By celebrating with great freshness the complexities of the Melos and by opening up this difficult text, Albin’s edition is undoubtedly a hugely important contribution to the study of Rolle’s works and medieval mysticism more broadly. Yet, in addition to this, the value of Albin’s edition also extends beyond the academy and will no doubt engage and inspire a new and wide-ranging audience, serving as a captivating read especially for those with a general interest in theology, mysticism, language, and translation theory. However, it is clear that all readers, and perhaps especially those new to Rolle’s work, will find the act of reading Albin’s translation a uniquely hypnotic and memorable experience as, through his faithful rendering of the work’s alliterative style and tone, Albin grants his reader a privileged access to the sweetness of mystical bliss described by Rolle in the original.

Natalie Jones is a lecturer in Medieval Literature at University College London. Her research focuses primarily on Middle English religious literature, iconology and medieval theology, and she also has a particular interest in the relationship between text and image throughout the medieval period. She has published on the use of religious iconography in the Middle English carols and is currently completing a monograph on the Middle English religious lyric.