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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 A.D. The poem summarizes the history of the world as described in the Christian Bible and other sources, with additional material drawn primarily from the Historia Scholastica. It is found, either complete or as a fragment, in ten manuscripts, and in two distinct versions: a so-called "Northern" original and a southern adaptation. The southern adaptation has been described as "an attempt to tailor an older text to a changing market."
The Cursor Mundi is divided in accordance with the seven ages of salvation history.
It was originally written somewhere in northern England. This has been determined by analysis of peculiarities of construction and vocabulary. However, nothing has been learned about the author except that he was a cleric. This is offered in the text, itself. 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-syllable couplets, except in the account of the Passion of Christ, where the author adopts a new meter of alternately rhyming lines of eight and six syllables. The poet considers the Bible to be one of many sources of the history of the church. He focuses on characters: 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 written in five volumes (The Ottawa Project) simply because of the size of the text. Both of these versions are mere adaptations of the original Northern version.
Although the poem deals with universal history, the author contrives to give unity to his work by grouping it around the theme of man's redemption. He presents himself as a chosen shepherd because of his talents. He explains in an elaborate prologue how people like to read old romances relating to Alexander the Great, Julius Cæsar, Troy, Brutus, King Arthur, Charlemagne etc., and how only men who love "paramours" are esteemed. 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 nevertheless
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, the patriarchs, Christ's coming, His birth, His public life, His Passion, 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 devotional appendix, the author also proposes to deal with Mary's mourning beneath the Cross and of her Conception.
Þis ilk bok es translate into Inglis tong
This book is translated into the English tongue
This is carried out with literary skill and a devotional feeling. 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 acquainted himself 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. This may be because St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, was reputed to have been of British birth and was 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 and 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.
- Laurence M. Eldredge and Anne L. Klinck, eds., The Southern Version of Cursor Mundi Vol. 5, University of Ottawa Press, 2000, p. 11, p. 13-14.
- Ernest Mardon, The Narrative Unity of the Cursor Mundi, Golden Meteorite Press, 2012, p. 9.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.
- full text, University of Ottawa here: Vol. 5, southern version (vol. 1-4 also online, look for Cursor mundi)
- Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1911. .