Fasiculus Morum: A Fourteenth-Century Preacher’s Handbook

Harris Manchester College. Unknown copyright.
Harris Manchester College. Unknown copyright.

Last night I went with (actual Historian) Andy to hear our friend Elizabeth give her first DPhil paper to Oxford’s Medieval Church and Culture Seminar. Tagging along to support Elizabeth, I was delighted to find her research subject both interesting and accessible (in other words, it had been pre-translated from the Latin). Fasiculus Morum is a preacher’s handbook [see here] dating from the early part of the reign of Edward II. Incidentally, he’s also the founder of our college. We do quite a lot of praying for his soul.

Written by an anonymous Franciscan, it’s basically a conduct manual with a great deal to say on the subject of raising children – Elizabeth’s particular research interest. The paper went very well indeed – the test being that it was simultaneously interesting & clear to people like me (i.e. ignorant, underinformed, only there for the biscuits and to beam encouragingly if blankly whenever she looked my way) and to the various academics who’d turned up. Andy informed me the latter group included Michael Clanchy and Chris Wickham, i.e. The Great and The Good. There was also a jolly old man with a beard who sang medieval lyrics. Twice (how did he know the tunes??). Another guy (rather younger, unplaceable accent, black curls and Harry Potter glasses) memorably used the phrase ‘like a dog returning to its vomit’ when prefacing his third or fourth question, and other highlights included —

  • Reference to the Polish priest who’s recently written a sex manual for his parishoners, Seks (at this point, Elizabeth went very, very red),
  • Debate as to whether or not the archetypal mother of Fasculus calling her son  ‘”Bishop” or “king” and such’ was weird or classist or what – I thought yes, Harry Potter Guy noted there were ‘no references to “my little sheet-metal worker”, then?’, and
  • the perils of being related to saints. Apparently one of the St Angelas prayed for her family to die and stop impeding her vacation: they did. St Hilary also prayed that his daughter would die in order to avoid the zomghorror of losing her virginity. It seems God heard that one, too.
  • My favourite part, though, was about Henry VI. Henry of course succeeded during his minority (cf Holinshed or, if you’re me, the first act of 1 Henry 6 where everyone stands around discussing just how stuffed they were). With Henry V dead, there was nobody around with sufficient authority to give little Harry the MANY BEATINGS that our Franciscan & co. deem essential to his moral formation. Instead, the job was given to Warwick. Little Harry was displeased. A nervous Warwick ended up going to the Council (hopefully with big beating stick in hand, this is how I like to think of him) and saying, look, guys, back me up here, that king needs a thrashing. Poor old Warwick had two main worries; firstly, that if the Council didn’t protect him, in a decade Warwick would get his head chopped off by a stroppy, misery-memoir writing, adult king, and secondly, that were Warwick to give up the MANY BEATINGS, Henry would be tragically deprived of the essential moral formation necessary to kingship and only obtainable by repeated strikings on the bottom.

The seminar took place in Harris Manchester College, Oxford’s only college devoted to mature students and much, much prettier than anywhere else in Oxford. They have a fountain and a medicine garden. Everything that’s best in Oxford architecture – beautiful Cotswold stone, red brick that make Keble and Somerville look sunburnt and gaudy – on a miniature scale. Forget Christ Church (huge and cavernous) and even forget New College (any college with a car park in the middle wins no prize for beauty). Perhaps it can’t quite beat the indvidual delights of Magdalen’s deer park, Exeter’s chapel, the Newman Oratory in Oriel or Hertford’s Bridge of Sighs, but for consistent beauty, HMC definitely outshines all the other colleges. Not least because it’s managed to avoid the cancerous 60s growths of stained concrete that disfigure St John’s, Somerville and Jesus (amongst others). I wish I could spend more time there, but, like Andy said, it’s the one college in Oxford we definitely can’t apply to!

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