In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle discusses a little-known medieval poem
Here’s a question for you. Which single English text provides the Oxford English Dictionary with the most new words? By ‘new’ words I mean words which were unknown before they appeared in that particular text. So, what would you go for? One of Shakespeare’s plays, perhaps? Milton’s Paradise Lost? Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales?
The answer is none of these. Instead, it’s a little-known poem – indeed, more or less completely unknown outside of medievalist and lexicographical circles – called Cursor Mundi. This poem, whose Latin title means ‘runner of the world’, was written in Northumberland by an unknown poet in around 1300, nearly half a century before Chaucer was born. In a whopping 30,000 lines, the poem retells biblical history.
Over 1,000 words appear for the first time in Cursor Mundi. They include such indispensable words as anyway, anywhere, backward, bark (as in tree bark), Bible, blister, briefly, brimstone, chastise, chess, Christianity, crumpled, daunting, downfall, dreamer, entreat, fornication, gentleness, ghostliness, grievance, hairy, harsh, income, irregularity, jurisdiction, leisure, linger, loathsome, lodger (originally, as in this poem, a dweller in a tent before it was applied to other types of dwelling), manful, maybe, misshapen, olden days, oversight, peaceful, pithy, shapeless, sick-bed, smile, soldier, sorcery, tenderness, testament, turtle-dove, ugly, unbroken, uncertain, undying, unease, unheard, unsightly, unwieldy, vain (as in futile), virginity, weakness, wickedness, willing, written (fittingly), yonder, and zealot. All of these words make their (known) debut in English writing within Cursor Mundi. There are, of course, many more. And although words like ‘doomster’ (an archaic word for a judge) can’t be described as indispensable, the history of the English language would be poorer without them. Cursor Mundi even contains the first known reference to ‘half an hour’.
Then there are the words that debut in Cursor Mundi but have since fallen out of use, such as the glorious ‘many-where’ (i.e. found in many places) or ‘through-bear’ (meaning to pierce or transfix). And what about ‘toomsome’ (leisurely, free from haste), a word whose sole citation in the OED is from this poem? And perhaps in our times of fake news and deliberate misinformation, perhaps we need the word ‘unknowledge’ (a noun denoting denial of the truth).
Cursor Mundi is written in Middle English – more specifically, the northern English dialect of the time. One of the reasons Cursor Mundi appears so frequently among the citations in the Oxford English Dictionary is that it provides many valuable instances of northern English dialect words. For instance, it provides the OED with ‘ferdy’ (meaning fearful), while ‘theirself’, a regional variation of ‘themselves’, also makes its debut here. This is a long poem, running to almost 30,000 lines. Here are the first fourteen:
Man yhernes rimes for to here,
And romans red on maneres sere,
Of Alisaundur þe conquerour;
Of Iuly Cesar þe emparour;
O grece and troy the strang strijf,
þere many thosand lesis þer lijf;
O brut þat bern bald of hand,
þe first conquerour of Ingland;
O kyng arthour þat was so rike,
Quam non in hys tim was like,
O ferlys þat hys knythes fell,
þat aunters sere I here of tell,
Als wawan, cai and oþer stabell,
For to were þe ronde tabell;
30,000 lines make for a long poem. To put that in perspective, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, itself not exactly a short work and running to around 500 pages in many editions, is just over 17,000 lines. There isn’t a good scholarly edition of Cursor Mundi available, probably because its interest is more narrowly scholarly than Chaucer’s work; in this regard, Cursor Mundi is closer to John Gower’s Confessio Amantis or the anonymous long poem The Pricke of Conscience (which I wrote about in my literary travelogue, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape), than to Chaucer or the Gawain poet, whose fourteenth-century Middle English works are more universal in scope.
Nevertheless, the scope of Cursor Mundi is considerable, too, covering everything from the Creation to the End of the World and the Day of Judgement. The poem is divided into seven colossal sections, following the Venerable Bede’s model for his History. It begins like a sort of prototype to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, recounting the war in heaven, the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the subsequent Fall of Man. The Old Testament story is then followed by the account of Jesus’ life in the Gospels. This is a religious poem, but was it meant merely for religious scholars, or was it, like The Pricke of Conscience, a poem which was designed to entertain the general populace in order to spread good Christian teachings?
It’s difficult to say. Cursor Mundi was clearly popular with someone, since it survives in a number of manuscripts from the Middle Ages, and the original Northumberland text was later translated into the southern dialect of London. But who has read Cursor Mundi, or even heard of it? It remains a lexicographical curiosity because of the vast number of words which first appeared in its (substantial) pages. Yet the unknown author of Cursor Mundi is an accomplished storyteller who knew that the best way to convey religious ideas to uneducated people was through the concrete example of stories. You can read the full poem, in its original Middle English, online for free here.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.