The twelfth-century La vie d’Edouard le Confesseur written in Anglo-Norman verse by a Nun of Barking Abbey is an important hagiographical work that has attracted growing scholarly attention in recent years.  Jane Bliss here presents the first translation of La vie into modern English. Scholarly interest in this text has largely focused on its significance as the work of a female author from one of the most influential and important abbeys in post-conquest England. Bliss’s translation should serve to make this Life–one of a very small number of Anglo-Norman hagiographies composed by a woman–available to a wider audience, including students, who have no Old French. Although clearly a work of hagiography, La vie also sheds valuable light on Edward’s times and on the Nun’s own twelfth-century context. Bliss contends that this version of Edward’s life “can claim to be historical biography” (4). In contrast, in his standard work on Edward, Frank Barlow writes that “the hagiographical tradition [derived from Osbert of Clare via Aelred of Rievaulx] can be disregarded as an historical source for Edward’s earthly career.”  One of Bliss’s main arguments in presenting this translation of La vie is that this work develops that hagiographical tradition in new, independent, and even historically illuminating ways.
The translation itself is preceded by a lengthy and informative introduction that addresses numerous pertinent questions. Although she briefly discusses the three principal manuscripts containing La vie, Bliss does not, in this context, provide an analysis of Östen Södergård’s critical edition published in 1948.  Rather, critical comments on this edition are dispersed throughout the introduction and the translation itself.
Bliss next identifies the poem’s main themes: the depiction of Edward, the portrayal of female figures; the characteristics of Edward’s marriage; the mystical nature of the Nun’s work; and the significance of the Nun’s translation from Latin to medieval French. A few points in this discussion deserve comment. First, Bliss highlights the depiction of Edward as an imitator of Christ–something one might expect in a Christian hagiographical work. Second, she notes that “all the female figures in the poem are enhanced to a greater or lesser extent” (6). As others have also observed,  in this work Edith, Edward’s wife, has a unique role; she even has “a voice of her own” (7). Third, Bliss refers to the “mystical quality in the Nun’s writing” (10). This, too, is an element that others, including Bliss herself in a previous article,  have addressed. To make this quality clearer, one might like some definition of “mystical” or “mysticism” that distinguishes these terms from “deeply-felt devotion…to God” (10). Finally, when Bliss treats the Nun’s move from Latin to medieval French, she anticipates her subsequent discussion of the poem’s sources. As is well-known and as the Nun herself famously acknowledges, La vie is, in a sense, a translation of Aelred of Rievaulx’s Vita s. Edwardi (ca. 1163). However, another principal argument of Bliss’s book is that the Nun’s poem (Aelred’s is a prose work) is much more than a mere translation of Aelred’s Vita. Although this argument is not new,  it is forcefully made and well-documented. According to Bliss, the Nun has made significant “alterations and additions to her main source” (13); she handles biblical references differently from Aelred; and her treatment of dreams and dreaming differs as well. In this context, Bliss is also able to indicate that the Nun’s version of Aelred’s Vita differs from that preserved in Migne (PL 195: 737-790).
In addition to Aelred, Bliss suggests that the Nun drew upon other sources, including perhaps Old English sources. Much this of this discussion (22-26) is necessarily speculative, but Bliss concludes that “taken all together, these items add up to strong evidence that the Nun had several sources” (26).
In turning to La vie’s author and her context, Bliss addresses four key points. First is Barking Abbey itself. Bliss’s brief history of the abbey shows it to have had a series of formidable abbesses and close connections to the highest levels of royal and ecclesiastical power. Second is the question of the poem’s date. Since it relies on Aelred’s Vita, the terminus post quem (1163) is generally acknowledged, but the terminus ante quem remains disputed. Bliss sides with those who prefer an early date, probably during or soon after the abbacy of Adelidis, that is the late 1160s; and her arguments seem sound. Third, Bliss makes a persuasive case for the Nun rather than Clemence of Barking as the author of La vie. Here she presents new evidence (mainly lexical and syntactical) that reinforces the case made in her 2012 article. Finally, Bliss discusses the poem’s audience observing that “addresses to the audience are frequent” (48). The Nun’s occasional use of the term seignurs for her readers/hearers might suggest a noble or clerical audience, but Bliss also envisions a lay audience, even one outside Barking itself. Why the “Nun’s tendency to suppress or alter Bible references” should constitute “further evidence that the proposed audience included lay visitors” (49) is, however, not entirely clear.
Bliss’s comments on her own translation are clear and valuable. She notes that the translation “aims to reproduce the Nun’s voice as closely as is consistent with readable modern prose” (52). Here she indicates that she has relied mainly on Södergård’s edition but has also consulted online “versions” of the poem.  As regards presentation, the translation inserts chapter divisions that do not appear in the edition in precisely this form but that do closely parallel the capitula in Aelred’s Vita. Each such chapter is preceded by a brief but illuminating introduction.
Bliss’s translation can indeed be characterized as “readable modern prose.” A comparison of random passages with Södergård’s edition suggests that it is also quite accurate. Where relevant, Bliss usually identifies dubious words or uncertain passages, as well as variant readings, in her notes (e.g., p. 81, n. 4, n. 6 and n. 7). Indeed, the notes are an especially valuable source of textual, historical, and bibliographical information. But one might still quibble with certain translations. For example, at p. 66 “grew in bravery and bounty” should read “grew in bravery and goodness” (see Bliss’s own note at p. 212). At p. 98, despite Bliss’s explanations and especially in light of the similarity between sene and sené (see AND), in this context “synod” is still better than “Senate” for sené. At p. 112, einz de lui is better read adverbially than prepositionally, so “I dedicated it before he did” rather than “I dedicated it before him.” And at p. 131, for l’ure…del mangier, “meal-time” is preferable to “dinner-time,” especially for an American audience. One might cite other such examples, but they would likely all be minor as these are.
Bliss’s book, which also includes a brief appendix on dreams and prophecy and a short glossary of Anglo-Norman terms, has made this important text available in an admirable translation. Her introduction assumes substantial familiarity with English history, with hagiographical writings, and with the scholarly literature pertaining to the Nun’s poem, and thus might be challenging for newcomers or beginning students. However, her translation and accompanying notes give a new English voice to this anonymous but dynamic female author.
1. See, e.g., Jennifer N. Brown, “Translating Edward the Confessor: Feminism, Time, and Hagiography,” Medieval Feminist Forum 43 (2007): 46-57; and the articles by Delbert Russell, Thelma Foster, and Jennifer N. Brown in Barking Abbey and Medieval Literary Culture: Authorship and Authority in a Female Community, eds. Jennifer N. Brown and Donna Alfano Bussell (York: York Medieval Press, 2012).
2. Frank Barlow, Edward the Confessor (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1970), xxiv.
3. Östen Södergård, La vie d’Edouard le confesseur: Poème anglo-normand du XIIe siècle (Uppsala: Almquist-Wiksells, 1948). This was the author’s doctoral thesis.
4. See, e.g., Brown, “Translating Edward the Confessor,” 53.
5. Jane Bliss, “Who Wrote the Nun’s Life of Edward?,” Reading Medieval Studies 38 (2012): 77-98.
6. See, e.g. Brown, “Translating Edward the Confessor,” 47.