Richard Rolle’s Melody of Love: A Study and Translation with Manuscript and Musical Contexts
For England’s late medieval faithful hungry for licit embodied pieties as much as for modern scholars keen on constructing an English literary tradition, the Yorkshire hermit Richard Rolle (d. 1349) looms large. Famed for the spiritual sensations of inward heat, fragrant sweetness, and angelic song that characterize his mysticism, Rolle’s writings in Latin and English, prose and verse, found enthusiastic and sustained readership across England and on the Continent from the 1370s onward. Nearly 500 surviving manuscripts afford a virtually complete record of Rolle’s literary output, attesting to his rapid elevation to the status of auctor that saw his writings ratified under Archbishop Arundel’s supervision, cited in university lecture halls, and sought out by foreign monastics. New texts emulating the hermit’s literary style spuriously acquired his name; the English mystics who succeed Rolle all respond to his influence, often explicitly, in their writings.
Excepting Nicholas Watson’s magisterial Richard Rolle and the Invention of Authority (Cambridge, 1991), it is Rolle’s vernacular works, and those of his Latin works translated into Middle English in the 1430s, that have received nearly all modern scholarly attention. This has led to the neglect of some of the hermit’s most singular texts, chiefly his autobiographical sequence of biblical postils in alliterative, rhythmic Latin prose, the Melos amoris. A pendant to Rolle’s much better known Incendium amoris, the Melos was dismissed by its first modern readers as a flamboyant extravagance of Rolle’s youth. Despite the work’s 1957 Latin edition by E. J. F. Arnould, 1971 French translation for Sources chrétiennes, and Watson’s convincing dating of the work to Rolle’s maturity, the Melos amoris has long languished in obscurity.
Andrew Albin’s Richard Rolle’s Melody of Love: A Study and Translation with Manuscript and Musical Contexts aims to redress this neglect with a comprehensive study of the Melos amoris, the first full translation of the text into English in alliterative prose that mirrors the Latin original, a quintet of appendices opening access to key aspects of the work’s manuscript contexts, and a companion website enlarging on these resources. Together, these materials seek to prompt a re-evaluation of the Melos amoris as Rolle’s “crowning literary achievement, an unmatched mannerist experiment whose matter is as profound as its language is pyrotechnic” (xvi).
The book’s opening study identifies ten critical pathways for approaching Rolle’s Melos. The first three sections of the study focus on the Latin text proper. Section 1 assesses the Melos’s form and content. Section 2 reflects on the work’s rhetorical and alliterative style. Albin resolves that the text does not stand in genetic relationship to prose cursus or to the Alliterative Revival and refutes the standard interpretations of the Melos’s alliteration as mimetic of Rollean mystical song, instead terming it “a playful work of late medieval English sound art” (36). Section 3 traces textual citations, allusions, and broader literary sources and influences.
The next section inventories surviving, fragmentary, and attested Melos amoris manuscripts, some newly identified, providing detailed descriptions for each witness and observations on ownership and circulation. Section 5 provides historical and biographical background on Rolle’s Yorkshire heritage, education, eremitic practices, and notoriously idiosyncratic lifestyle. The next four sections offer sustained studies of Rolle’s anthropology and angelology, his embeddedness in late medieval musical practice, and the entwined relationship he constructs between the Melos amoris and Scripture. In the final section, Albin comments on the ethos informing his translation of Rolle’s Latin text. His translation of the fifty-eight chapters of Rolle’s Melos amoris follows, amply footnoted to trace references, highlight interpretive cruxes, and supply the original Latin for challenging passages.
The five appendices with which Albin’s book concludes invite readers to return to the Melos amoris’s manuscript contexts. Appendix 1 edits and translates a spurious fifty-ninth chapter, pastiched from Rolle’s Incendium amoris, as it appears in three witnesses. The second and third transcribe lengthy marginal annotations and music from a gathering of fifteenth-century sacred polyphony found in one outstanding manuscript witness, Lincoln College MS Latin 89. Appendix 4 supplies texts and translations for an audio recording based on MS Latin 89’s music. The final appendix lists unusual or specialized Latin terms Rolle employs in his text. Richard Rolle’s Melody of Love’s companion website (https://pims.ca/article/melos-amoris) expands on these appendices with the aforementioned audio recording and semi-diplomatic transcriptions of the entirety of MS Latin 89, text and music. The site promises open-access publication of Albin’s translation soon.
Richard Rolle’s Melody of Love offers a full complement of materials for igniting new interest, readership, and scholarship on Richard Rolle’s alliterative mystical treatise, the Melos amoris. Conceived with both student and scholar in mind, this multidisciplinary, multimedia project will reward the attention of researchers of medieval literature, music, embodiment, theology, popular spirituality, biblical exegesis, and cultural history. (AA)