Murdoch Brian - The apocryphal Adam and Eve in medieval Europe

Author : Murdoch Brian
Title : The apocryphal Adam and Eve in medieval Europe Vernacular translations and adaptations of the Vita Adae et Evae
Year : 2009

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Preface. The story of the fall and the expulsion from Eden as related in Genesis leaves open a range of questions concerning the life of Adam and Eve in paradise and thereafter. Their story, however, is of enormous importance, given the historical and theological position afforded to Adam and Eve not only as the progenitors of humanity, but as the originators of sin. The gaps in what the Bible tells us of their lives were filled in early and medieval times partly by Jewish and Christian commentary according to the sensus litteralis, and also by - to use a whole range of sometimes interchangeable designations - midrashim, apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, or legends. One sequence (Christian in its full form) contains details of the postlapsarian life of the first couple such as their attempt to return to paradise by undertaking a formal act of penance and cleansing by fasting whilst immersed in a river (which sometimes stands still as a gesture of support), and from which Eve is tempted a second time by the devil (disguised this time as an angel). It also gives information on the ways in which Adam and Eve coped with such novelties of human existence as childbirth and death. These Adam narratives exist in many versions, and were widespread in the Middle Ages and even beyond the Reformation. They are part of a very broad tradition, with extant material in many of the early languages of Christianity, such as Greek, Syriac, Armenian, or Ethiopic, and there is also (late) material in Hebrew. For western Europe, the most significant texts are first of all a Greek Life of Adam and Eve, and in particular its related Latin version, the Vita Adae et Evae. However, this is not really a single text, but rather a more or less flexible accumulation of episodes grouped around a core, and there are very many variations within the substantial number of extant versions. The earliest stages and putative origins of this whole tradition have been examined in some detail, but studies in Old Testament apocrypha rarely take into account the continued development in vernacular writings which are not just descended from, but which develop and augment the Latin. If we add the iconographical tradition, the range widens still further. This can contribute to the study of the apocryphal tradition as such, and it can at the same time throw light on what was a very widespread European tradition, an aspect of European culture that disappeared to a large extent (though it did not die out completely) at the time of the Renaissance and Reformation, with their renewed insistence on canonicity and on the establishment of a foundation text for works of antiquity. The present investigation looks in detail at the ways in which the Latin Vita Adae et Evae continues its development in different vernacular cultures, adapting and varying the content, as it places the material into different contexts and changes the form from prose narrative to verse or to drama. It thereby extends the already varied life of the apocryphon in a truly protean manner. The Latin text - although there is really no single basic text even in Latin - was especially well known in most (though not all) areas of western Europe, and there are also some translations or adaptations into eastern European languages of the Latin Vita Adae et Evae, even though there is a separate Slavonic tradition with variant motifs not represented in the Latin. The question, which is already by no means straightforward even with canonical Bible books, of precisely what constitutes an apocryphal or pseudepigraphic text, can thus be opened further. The usual backward-searching procedures for establishing a definitive (usually a synonym for original) medieval or pre-medieval text are not necessarily appropriate for the Latin Vita Adae et Evae, which does not have a single stable form. To an extent the problem is already there with the Greek text. Source study for the vernacular works is correspondingly difficult, given that variations found in such works might have appeared at any stage, might have been in the source, might be deliberate on the part of the vernacular writer, or might simply be errors. Chronology, too, is problematic, given that the extensive manuscript tradition of the Vita Adae et Evae is not particularly early (nor, once again, is the Greek tradition). The limitation in the study of the Adambooks to versions preserved only in the ancient Christian languages is artificial, and the ongoing reception of the work requires consideration of the vernacular texts just as much as the Latin ones. Attention must be paid, too, to the general concept of apocrypha itself, and to the extent to which these stories are integrated with canonical biblical narrative, and whether the material was felt or shown to be apocryphal at all. Often the material is simply included with biblical narrative as part of the medieval popular Bible - what was presented as biblical, that is, to those unable to read it for themselves. The generic variety found in the vernacular texts adds a literary dimension to the study of the story. The Vita Adae et Evae is a Christian Old Testament apocryphon, concerned with the origins of human life, with penance, and with the prophecy of the redemption. Vernacular adaptations in particular provide occasion for an extended typology which links events of the New Testament with figures such as Adam, Eve, and Seth, even though their deeds as recorded here are not canonical. Both Latin and vernacular versions of Vita Adae et Evae append or include other religious legends, such as those of Adam’s formation from eight elements, or his naming from the four quarters, and where he was buried. But there is an especially strong link, already very clear in some versions of Latin text, with the equally widespread and equally flexible Latin legends of the Holy Rood, the story of the cross before Christ. The Vita Adae et Evae concludes with a journey undertaken by Eve and Seth to paradise, where in some versions they obtain the seeds that will grow into the wood of the cross. The Holy Rood stories effectively start with this, so that there is an overlap which is not always very clear. The resulting expanded apocryphon is found in contexts which include chronicles and narrative Bibles. A work of this nature requires a substantial authorial apology in advance. Although there are relevant texts known in most western European languages (there is a curious gap with the Iberian peninsula) and also some eastern ones, the texts discussed or noted here will hardly constitute a complete list. Furthermore, a few of those that are known have necessarily had to be considered principally through the works of others (the Old Bohemian versions are an example). Other versions remain unedited, and although attention may be drawn to them, we have perforce to wait for editions (and preferably translations) by specialists in the relevant languages. The timeconsuming nature of that exercise was made clear to me when I edited Hans Folz’s German prose text from his autograph manuscript, and later the English poem from the Auchinleck codex. A few early printed texts (some of them surviving only in a single copy), have also proved impossible to track down, but it is again to be hoped that bibliographical reference to them here will inspire others to investigate. There is, in fact, a particular gap in the study of early printed versions in Latin and in the vernaculars. It is equally patent that, while it is possible to cope with many of the major languages of western Europe, help (or good fortune) is needed with others. Luckily the Breton dramatic version has (mostly) been translated, and as far as the extremely important Irish Saltair na Rann is concerned, I was delighted to work on this together with David Greene and Fergus Kelly, for whose translation I supplied a commentary, which in its turn (and this was a salutary lesson) assisted with points in the translation. For texts not translated into a more familiar language - be they in Welsh or Polish - I have had to rely on the assistance of others to bolster my own sometimes extremely limited resources. I have also been privileged, however, to meet, work, or correspond over the years with a great number of those concerned with and interested in this complex of Adam motifs, especially (my long list is alphabetical, with apologies for any omissions): Linda Archibald, Michael Benskin, Andrew Breeze, John Carey, Graeme Dunphy, Hans-Martin von Erffa, Kurt Ga¨rtner, Ken George, Christoph Gerhardt, the late David Greene, Mary-Bess Halford-Staffel, Fergus Kelly, Gwenae¨l Le Duc, Martin McNamara, Bob Miller, Evelyn Newlyn, the late Friedrich Ohly, Oliver Padel, Jean-Pierre Pettorelli, Esther Quinn, Ute Schwab, Michael Stone, Jackie Tasioulas, Hildegard Tristram, Annette Volfing, Jon and Maı´re West. All credit goes to these colleagues, and no blame for any errors that I may make in using their work. I am also indebted to Kerstin Pfeiffer for practical help and for many discussions on the topic, as well as to Simon Gymer, whose guidance around the internet helped me to access works in the remotest of libraries. I began my university career with a doctoral dissertation in Cambridge suggested by and under the expert guidance of Roy Wisbey on the representation in early German verse of the canonical Adam and Eve narrative, and I have over the years been able to work on many of the vernacular versions of the Vita Adae et Evae. I find it fitting to enter upon emeritus status with a study of the apocryphal tradition which brings that material together and places it into a wider context. In this and every one of the earlier studies I have of course enjoyed the support, patience, and assistance of my wife Ursula. Stirling B.M. 2008. ...

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