1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cursor Mundi

CURSOR MUNDI, an English poem in the Northern dialect dating from the 13th century. It is a religious epic of 24,000 lines “over-running” the history of the world as related in the Old and New Testaments. “Cursur o werld man aght it call, For almast it over-rennes all.” The author explains in his prologue his reasons for undertaking the work. Men desire to read old romances of Alexander, Julius Caesar, Greece, Troy, Brut, Arthur, of Tristram, Sweet Ysoude and others. But better than tales of love is the story of the Virgin who is man’s best lover, therefore in her honour he will write this book, founded on the steadfast ground of the Holy Trinity. He writes in English for the love of English people of merry England, so that those who know no French may understand. The history is treated under seven ages. The first four include the period from the creation of the world to the successors of Solomon, the fifth deals with Mary and the birth and childhood of Jesus, the sixth with the lives of Christ and the chief apostles, and with the finding of the holy cross, and the seventh with Doomsday. Four short poems follow, more in some MSS. The bulk of the poem is written in rhyming couplets of short lines of four accents, and maintains a fair level throughout. The narrative is enlivened by many legends and much entertaining matter drawn from various sources; and the numerous transcripts of it prove that it was able to hold its own against profane romance.

The chief sources of the compilation have been identified by Dr Haenisch. For the Old Testament history the author draws largely from the Historia scholastica of Peter Comestor; for the history of the Virgin he often translates literally from Wace’s Établissement de la fête de la conception Notre Dame; the parables of the king and four daughters, and of the castle of Love and Grace, are taken from “Sent Robert bok” (1.9516), that is, from the Chasteau d’Amour of Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln; other sources are the apocryphal gospels of Matthew and Nicodemus, a southern English poem on the Assumption of Our Lady, attributed by the writer of Cursor mundi to Edmund Rich of Pontigny, the Vulgate, the Legenda aurea of Jacobus de Voragine, and the De vita et morte sanctorum of Isidore of Seville. The original of the section on the invention of the holy cross is still to seek. In its general plan the work is similar to the Livre de sapience of Herman de Valenciennes.

Of the author nothing is known. In the Cotton MS. Vespasian (A III.) the name of the owner William Cosyn is given (for particulars of this family, which is mentioned in Lincolnshire records as early as 1276, see Dr H. Hupe in the E.E.T.S. ed. of Cursor mundi, vol. i. p. 124 *). The date of the book was placed by Dr J. A. H. Murray (The Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland, 1873, p. 30) in the last quarter of the 13th century, and the place of writing near Durham. Dr Hupe (loc. cit. p. 186 *) gives good reasons for believing that the author was a Lincolnshire man, who wrote between 1260 and 1290, although the Cotton MS. probably belongs to the late 14th century. In the Göttingen MS. there are lines (17099–17110) desiring the reader to pray for John of Lindbergh, “that this bock gart dight,” and cursing anybody who shall steal it. Lindberg is probably Limber Magna, near Ulceby, in north Lincolnshire. Dr Hupe hazards an identification of the author with this John of Lindberg, who may have been a member of the Cistercian Abbey of Lindberg; but this is improbable.

Cursor mundi was edited for the Early English Text Society in 1874–1893 by Dr Richard Morris in parallel columns from four MSS.:—Cotton Vespasian A III., British Museum; Fairfax MS. 14, in the Bodleian library, Oxford; MS. theol. 107 at Göttingen; and MS. R. 3.8 in Trinity College, Cambridge. The edition includes a “Preface” by the editor, “An Inquiry into the Sources of the Cursor mundi” (1885), by Dr Haenisch, an essay “On the Filiation and the Text of the MSS. of Cursor mundi” (1885), by Dr H. Hupe, “Cursor Studies and Criticisms on the Dialects of its MSS.” (1888), by Dr Hupe and a glossary by Dr Max Kaluza.