Cursor Mundi (Latin for "Runner of the World") is an anonymous Middle-English historical and religious poem of nearly 30,000 lines written around 1300 AD. The poem summarizes the history of the world as described in the Christian Bible and other sources, with additional legendary material drawn primarily from the Historia scholastica. It was extremely popular in its time, as the large number of manuscripts in which it is preserved proves.
The Cursor Mundi is divided in accordance to the seven ages of salvation history.
It was originally written, as certain peculiarities of construction and vocabulary clearly show, somewhere in northern England, but of the author nothing can be learnt except the fact, which he himself tells us, that he was a cleric. He must have lived at the close of the thirteenth and at the beginning of the fourteenth century, and his poem is conjecturally assigned to about the year 1300. It is mostly written in eight-syllabled couplets, except in the account of the Passion of Christ, where the author adopts a new meter of lines of eight and six syllables rhyming alternately.
The poet considers the Bible to be one of many sources in the history of the church. He focuses on characters more than anything else where Jesus and Mary are the central figures. According to the preface of The Early English Text Society the Cursor Mundi is a collection of poignant and vivid versions of stories arranged “in an orderly, encyclopedic yet fundamentally digressive manner”.
A modern scholar would rarely find an encyclopedia with the size and vast content of the Cursor Mundi. In fact, two modern undertakings of the project add up to over seven volumes: The Early English Text Society, and a Southern version of the text done in five volumes (The Ottawa Project) simply because of the size of the text. But both of these versions are mere adaptations of the original Northern version.
Although the poem deals with universal history, the author contrives to give some sort of unity to his work by grouping it around the theme of man's redemption. He presents himself as a chosen shepherd; a shepherd who was chosen because of his talents. He explains in an elaborate prologue how folk desire to read old romances relating to Alexander the Great, Julius Cæsar, Troy, Brutus, King Arthur, Charlemagne etc., and how only those men are esteemed that love "paramours". But earthly love is vain and full of disappointments.
- Therefore bless I that paramour [i. e. Our Lady]
- That in my need does me soccour
- That saves me on earth from sin
- And heaven bliss me helps to win.
- Mother and mayden never-the-less
- Therefore of her took Jesu flesh.
He goes on to say that his book is written in honour of Mary and purposes to tell about the Old and the New Law and all the world, of the Trinity, the fall of the Angels, of Adam, Abraham, and the patriarchs, then of Christ's coming, of His birth, and of the three kings, etc., of His public life and of His Passion and Crucifixion, and of the "Harrowing of Hell". Thence he will go on to the Resurrection and Ascension, the Assumption of Our Lady, the Finding of the Cross, and then to Antichrist and to the Day of Doom. As a sort of devotional appendix he also proposes to deal with Mary's mourning beneath the Cross and of her Conception.
- Þis ilk bok es translate into Inglis tong
- to rede for the love of Inglis lede,
- Inglis lede of Ingland,
- for the commun at understand
(This book is translated into the English tongue as advice for the love of English people, English people of England, for all to understand)
This ambitious programme is faithfully carried out with considerable literary skill and a devotional feeling quite out of the common. The author shows himself to have been a man of wide reading. Although his main authority is the "Historia Scholastica" of Peter Comestor he has made himself acquainted with a number of other books in English, French, and Latin, and his work may be regarded as a storehouse of legends not all of which have been traced to their original sources. Special prominence is given throughout the work to the history of the Cross which for some reason (possibly because St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, was reputed to have been of British birth) was always exceptionally popular in England.
After commending the author's "keen eye for the picturesque", a critic in the Cambridge History of English Literature remarked "The strong humanity which runs through the whole work is one of its most attractive features and shows that the writer was full of sympathy for his fellow-men."
The poem is written in early Middle English. Its nearly 30,000 lines of eight-syllable couplets are linguistically important as a solid record of the Northumbrian English dialect of the era, and it is therefore the most-often quoted single work in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Cursor Mundi interpolates material from hagiographic sources, including The Golden Legend, various Latin legendary cycles. Its description of the origins of the Tree of the Cross incorporates two different legendary sources.
- Geoffrey Shepherd English Versions of the Scriptures Before Wyclif, in The Cambridge History of the Bible, ed. G.W.H. Lampe,Cambridge University Press, 1969, p. 393.