This book is not meant for the scholar. For him Rolle's own versions are accessible in numerous MSS.; and Misyn's Middle English translation has been printed by the Early English Text Society. But there are many who find in Misyn's curious spellings and constructions a serious obstacle to the sense, and it is for such that this edition has been prepared. My aim has been to make Rolle's meaning clear to the modern reader with as little alteration of Misyn's text as possible. I have modernized the spelling, have simplified long and involved constructions, and have tried to elucidate the meaning by careful punctuation. But I have dealt very sparingly with the vocabulary, keeping as many of the old words as seemed likely to be understood, and especially those which still linger in Scottish dialect, as being a reminder to the reader of the Northern origin of the book. Where the text appears to be corrupt and emendation has been necessary, I have used for this purpose, for The Fire of Love the Cambridge MS. Dd.5.64 (which I call L), and for The Mending of Life the printed editions; comparing them with the MSS. referred to in the notes at the end of this book, where I have given the Latin and Middle English originals. A short passage has been omitted as unsuited for modern readers; and, on the other hand, where obvious omissions occur in Misyn's text, they have been supplied from the MSS. mentioned. When I have altered an obsolete word I give such, the first time it occurs, in a foot note. Any words of difficult meaning will be found in the Glossary, and I have in this case also added a footnote on their first occurrence in the text. Other points I have gone more fully into under the section Treatment of Words.
It has been, and very probably may again be contended, that a better result would have been obtained by translating straight from the original. This would in many ways have been easier, but the insuperable objection to such a course lies in the fact that the Latin MSS. of these works of Rolle have not yet been collated; and no satisfactory translation can be made until we have discovered which is Rolle's autograph. Moreover there is a certain charm in this early translation of Misyn's which no modern one, however excellent, could reproduce. Rolle died in 1349, but the Office for his canonization was not prepared until 1381, and still later the Miracula were collected. His memory must have remained fresh in men's minds; indeed this is born out by the fact that so many extant copies of his works date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The influence of his spirit was still a living one; and this translation has embodied and preserved for us the simple faith and enthusiastic love of the generation for which it was written. Read and meditated upon by English men and women of long ago although it has been lost to sight nearly five hundred years it deals with a theme that is ever fresh. It will be an interesting experiment to see whether it can yet appeal to us -- whether a genuine English book of piety can hold its own with those of other nations.
In my modernization I am aware that I have laid myself open to criticism in many directions. I have not striven after consistency, but have tried solely to retain as far as possible the simplicity and charm of the original translation. Misyn has been called a slavish translator; certainly he has not avoided the faults of his master. Repetitions, especially of words and phrases, are even more constant in this version than in the original, while some of the forms and spelling he employs make the modernizer's task by no means an easy one. Dr. Horstman, in his interesting preface to the collection of the English writings of Richard Rolle, after laying stress upon his originality and lyric gift, thus sums up his defects: |His defects lie on the side of method and discrimination; he is weak in argumentation, in developing and arranging his ideas. His sense of beauty is natural rather than acquired, and his mind is too restless to perfect his writings properly. His form is not sufficiently refined, and full of irregularities; his taste not unquestionable; his style frequently difficult, rambling, full of veiled allusions -- much depends on the punctuation to make it intelligible; his Latin incorrect and not at all classic -- . . . But all this cannot detract from his great qualities as a writer, the originality and depth of his thought, the truth and tenderness of his feeling, the vigour and eloquence of his prose, the grace and beauty of his verse; and everywhere we detect the marks of a great personality, a personality at once powerful, tender and strange, the like of which was perhaps never seen again.|
This criticism is perhaps a little severe for a part of Rolle's charm lies in his restlessness of thought. His mind moved rapidly, and he loved to play with a word. His writings are full of antitheses and balance and rhythm -- in this respect anticipating Lily -- which Misyn's translation well reproduces. If to us his repetitions appear wearisome and monotonous, we must at least remember that they were written not to be read as a continuous whole, but aloud, in chapter or refectory; for one copy had probably to do service for the community.
I have therefore aimed at reproducing Misyn's translation with all its irregularities, only endeavouring to make his meaning clear. My method of doing so will be more fully explained in the following section.