Conditions of use. Anyone may download or print out this document for personal use, or may link to this document on the University of Michigan web server. No one may post this document on another server without permission of the translator, or distribute it in print form without the permission of Cornell University Press. Distribution of this introduction in print form (aside from fair use) is governed through April 2004 by an exclusive license held by Cornell University Press, who publish a version of it in the anthology Cultures of Piety (1999).

Life of Soul is a short anonymous prose tract written in the English midlands about 1400 or a little earlier.


Version L of Life of Soul (the version partially translated here) appears to have been addressed to a lay audience, version A perhaps adapted for "religious" (i.e., those who, like monks, live under a rule). Two featuress of the tract would suit it for a monastic audience: the constant use of the words "brother" and "brethren" to describe fellow Christians; and the subject matter of the work: Christian perfection, especially as that is laid out in the so-called "counsels to perfection" found in Christ's Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-6). According to a considerable tradition, these "counsels," too demanding to be imposed on the ordinary believer, are the preserve of those with a calling to the monastic life. But the counsels to perfection were embraced by many individuals and movements that were not monastic; and there is nothing specifically monastic about their interpretation here: the work inculcates faith, good works, and the avoidance of such universal faults as anger, pride, and malicious gossip. Even poverty and chastity are recommended in universal terms. The social class of the audience is similarly difficult to specify. The author addresses remarks to both the poor, who are warned that material poverty in itself is valueless, and the rich, who are warned that wealth used selfishly damns the possessor. These warning could well be directed toward contemporary society (e.g., toward friars and prelates respectively), rather than toward actual members of the anticipated readership.


The tract takes the form of a catechetical dialogue, or at least begins that way, one interlocutor falling silent about halfway through; of the three surviving versions, version L represents itself as a conversation between two "friends in Christ"; versions A and H replace this pair with a sister and brother and a father and son respectively. Life of Soul consists of six questions together with the corresponding answers. The first five questions are introductory, the sixth provokes a lengthy reply that forms the bulk of the tract. It begins with the eternal question, "How does one get to heaven?"; answers, "Through Christ who is the life of our soul" --identifying that life with faith and renunciation of sin--; and proceeds to the final question that forms the structural motif for the tract: "What are the food and drink that nourish the life of soul?" The rest of the text explicates the answer: the soul's bread is faith in Christ and its drink is adherence to his words. Faith in Christ is divided into faith in his divinity and faith in his humanity, the relevant tenets of the creed being listed under each. Christ's words are explained as being summarizable as the two commands of love: to love God and one's brother. These two words, it is explained, comprise all ten of the Mosaic ten commandments (duly listed and accounted for); they combat the seven deadly sins (each duly listed, its defeat by love explained); they inspire their adherents to perform the corporal works of mercy (duly listed); and they nourish and are nourished by six virtues: peaceableness, patience, meekness, poverty in spirit, truth, and chastity (each exemplified, largely from the Sermon on the Mount; meekness by, among other things, the Lord's Prayer as the exemplarly prayer of the meek).


Traditional Features

Most of the materials of which Life of Soul is composed associate it with the large and diffuse category of catechetical manuals, basic manuals of religious instruction, in which annotated lists of this sort are a staple. Seven such enumerations formed the basis of Archbishop Peckham's plans in the previous century to educate the English laity and secular clergy. According to the canons of the Council of Lambeth (1281), every parish priest was to explain these seven to his parishioners four times a year. In 1357, Archbishop John Thoresby issued a similar set of instructions to the clergy of the Province of York, commissioning this time a vernacular version (the so-called "Lay-Folks' Catechism") which became the religious best seller of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.{NOTE 01} A similar set of lists was popularized through the extremely influential contemplative manual by Edmund of Abingdon, the so-called "St. Edmund's Mirror," widely distributed in Latin, French, and English versions.{NOTE 02} The Mirror contains chapters, for example, on the seven deadly sins, the seven evangelical virtues (based, like the virtues in our text, on the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount), the twelve articles of the creed, the seven works of mercy, directions on the contemplation of God in his humanity and in his divinity, the seven petitions of the Lord's Prayer, and the ten commandments, of which "the first three pertain to the love of God, the latter seven to the love of one's brother."{NOTE 03} Life of Soul falls somewhere within the vast tradition of devotional manuals which flows from these influential headwaters. According to the taxonomy of the manual tradition proposed by C.A.Martin, Life of Soul is of type 5: instructional manuals that combine the catechetical enumerations with moral and devotional material so as to provide guides to a more perfect way of life.{NOTE 04} The devotional material in Life of Soul supports its didacticism, and consists of an affective presentation of good works as the fruit of love. The work insists on connecting motive and behavior and on enumerating commandments and virtues not as duties to be performed or habits to be formed but as manifestations of an underlying ardent love for God.

Distinctive Features

Given the bulk and inaccessibility of the comparative material, it is difficult to be sure how distinctive Life of Soul is. Most unusual, perhaps, are its structure and manner of argument. The structure is based on an elaborate set of associations that link every basic aspect of Christian dogma and practice, with the notable exception of the seven sacraments (penance in particular being notable for its absence), with the inner spiritual life of love and faith. The association of the ten commandments with the two gospel precepts of love was made already by Jesus and by Paul, and is a constant feature of treatises on the commandments. But the expansion of this scheme that Life of Soul employs, managing to stretch the precepts to subsume the evangelical virtues (idiosyncratically listed), the works of mercy, the seven deadly sins, and even the Lord's Prayer, is probably unique, as is its identification of works (as expressed in the two gospel precepts) and faith (as expressed in the creed) with the "drink" and "bread" that nourish the life of soul.

The other notable feature of the tract is its extreme reliance on the Bible to carry its argument. The Bible is cited frequently, at length, and to the exclusion of all other authorities, to the extent that over half of the book consists of Biblical quotations. The translation is usually accurate and idiomatic. Although it cannot be identified with any of the extant Middle English translations, it does often bear a close resemblance to the southern prose version of ca. 1388 edited by Anna Paues.{NOTE 05} That the biblicism of Life of Soul affects not only its outright quotations but also most of its diction and metaphor will be apparent to most readers. The audience is certainly expected to recognize allusions to the "wedding garment" or the "house built upon a foundation of stone."


The text edited by Anna Paues provides also one of a number of specific parallels with other tracts that may help in tracing the affiliations of Life of Soul. The Bible translation is preceded by a "Prologue" in dialogue form that contains some of the same arguments as those used by Life of Soul to ask and answer the question: is it right to share the mysteries of theology with laymen? Both questioners, for example, cite the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servants, the faithful servant being the one who did not clutch his lord's treasure to himself but put it out for trading, buying and selling: so should the theologian do with his theological treasure.{NOTE 06} Even closer parallels have been noted between the ten commandments section of Life of Soul and the corresponding section of the compendious tract called Poor Wretch (Pore Caitif).

Finally, it is hard to avoid comparison of Life of Soul with the idiosyncratic and personal treatise called Book to a Mother.{NOTE 07} Both stress the importance of personal devotion and a life of perfection, both incorporate the catechetical lists, and both are heavily Biblical in content.


The emphasis on lay piety and Biblical translation together have caused some to doubt the orthodoxy of both books; indeed, Pore Caitif, Book to a Mother, and Life of Soul have all aroused suspicions of sympathies with the Lollard movement. Certainly, after the 1407 prohibition by Bishop Arundel of lay ownership of the Scriptures in English, possession of either Life of Soul or Book to a Mother could have been grounds for suspicion or even prosecution. Moreover, three other features of Life of Soul raise suspicions of heterodoxy:
  1. Oaths. In explicating the virtue of "truth," Life of Soul issues a blanket dismissal of oath-taking: "among true men there is no need for oaths." The host in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales was not the only one able to scent "a loller in the wynd" when oath-taking was condemned.{NOTE 08} The statement is unelaborated, but as stated, the position of our tract is that of the Lollards.{NOTE 09} It is worth noting, too, that "true men" was evidently the Lollards' own favorite name for themselves.{NOTE 10}

  2. A memorial view of the eucharist. If the author held an orthodox view of the eucharist, he is remarkably reticent about it. Both the words of institution ("This is my body") and the more explicit words of John 6 about eating the flesh of Christ are quoted, but are consistently interpreted symbolically, or so it would seem; and the events of the Lord's Supper itself, when mentioned, are referred to as something done in order that we might remember. There is nothing explicitly heterodox, but like many Lollard confessions, the tract is "more significant for what it did not say than for what it did."{NOTE 11} A more or less spiritualized or memorial view of the eucharist was certainly prevalent among the Lollards; as late as 1499 we find words in a Lollard's confession that echo our text: "Whosoever receive devoutly God's word, he receiveth the very body of Christ."{NOTE 12}

  3. Dominion. Among the potentially most revolutionary of Wyclif's ideas was that "dominion"--the right to rule and own--depended on the righteousness of the ruler and owner; and a truly righteous owner would be inclined to give his wealth away. "Lords of this world who do not truly serve God, steal God's goods, for the things that they possess they have without his leave--and then they are thieves."{NOTE 13} Lollardy derived from this theory a political program of disendowment for the clergy and a personal ideal of simple poverty divested of all wealth beyond that needed for survival. The interpretation of "poor in spirit" given by Life of Soul is certainly in harmony with those views.

None of these points is conclusive, but together they strongly suggest an author at least sympathetic to Wycliffite views.

Text and Manuscript Context

The three versions of Life of Soul appear each in a single manuscript: version L in the Bodleian Library (Oxford) manuscript Laud Misc. 210, folios 114r-132v; version A in the British Library (London) manuscript Arundel 286, folios 115r-129r; and version H in the Huntington Library (California) manuscript HM 502, folios 35r-60v. All three manuscripts are orthodox compilations of devotional material, in L and H often material of lay interest.

The Translation

Life of Soul has been edited only once, by Helen M. Moon (aka Sister Mary Leonella, O.S.F., neé Helen M. Pimpl), an edition unfortunately plagued by errors. Though consulting this edition, I have translated version L of the Life of Soul directly from a microfilm reproduction of the manuscript.

Every explicit, and more than one implicit, Biblical quotation has been identified in the notes. When two or more Biblical passages are equally likely sources of the Middle English translation, they are both (or all) given, separated by virgules ("/"); when the Middle English author has merged or conflated the text of two passages, both are given, separated by a plus sign ("+"); when the numbering or text of the passage as cited is unique to the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible and to the English translations derived from it (such as the Douay/Rheims version), the citation is followed by "Vulg."

Further Reading

So far as I have discovered, no studies devoted to Life of Soul have appeared. Interested readers should look first to the edition, despite its limitations, then to the comparative material mentioned above.


The Lyfe of Soule: An Edition with Commentary. Ed. Sister Mary Leonella Pimpl, O.S.F. Ph.D. Diss. Fordham University, 1963. DAI 25.4 (Oct. 1964): 2498-99. UMI 64-2408.

The Lyfe of Soule: An Edition with Commentary. Ed. Helen M. Moon. Salzburg Studies in English Literature. Elizabethan & Renaissance Studies, 75. Salzburg: Institut für englische Sprache und Literatur, Universität Salzburg, 1978.


Copyright © 1997-1999 Paul F. Schaffner
Revised 15 March 1999. See the conditions of use at the head of this document.