Senate House Library treasures volume: featuring the Ten Commandments

Leaf 36r

Leaf 36r

Printed editions of a substantial French work called La fleur des commandemens de dieu are recorded from the 1490s until at least the 1540s. Wynkyn de Worde first printed an English translation on 14 September 1510. The Senate House Library copy is of the second edition, completed on 8 October 1521. This is the first edition to identify the translator, one Andrew Chertsey, who lived in the London parish of St Clement Dane and produced four other translations of French devotional works for de Worde’s press: Ordynarye of Crystyanyte or of Crysten Men (1502 and 1506); The Crafte to Lyue Well and to Dye Well (1505); The Passyon of our Lorde (1521) and a shorter work (“lytell treatyse”), the Elucidarius (1507 and ?1523).

            The work is in two parts, the first listing and analyzing the Ten Commandments, the second offering short exempla about the results of following or neglecting them. For example, a monk who, fond of sleep, was sleeping in the choir at lauds dreamed that he saw a terrible devil who offered him a spoonful of molten pitch; withdrawing his head suddenly, he banged and hurt it (fol. clviii). A woman was condemned to torture after death which included suffering a toad on her breast which spewed fire in her face, because in life she had exposed her neck and breasts and had worn make-up (fol. clxxxxvii). Rather less unpleasant than reading the text is looking at the woodcut initials, an intriguing mixture of styles: some are like the plainest of initials used in manuscripts, while others are surrounded by flowers in shaded borders, and others, such as the “I” of the commonly used phrase “It is wryten”, have a bird perched on the bottom horizontal stroke of the letter, twisting its head in the direction of the text. The initials provide a closer clue than the text to the reason for acquiring the volume: at the time of acquisition in 1951, the Library held no works by any of the triumvirate of early English printers – William Caxton, Richard Pynson, and Wynkyn de Worde – and was eager to acquire one.

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