Liuis firist ant licumes hele



Introduction to the Edition
Works Cited
Liuis firist ant licumes hele

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Introduction to the Edition

Contents and genre

The text describes how one should live a good life by healing sins, counselling children, and gladdening friends. If one does this, Christ will send him to an endlessly blissful heaven. Based on this content, this poem could be classified among religious lyrics.

Sources and Tradition

‘Liuis firist and licames hele’ describes how people should mend their sins. The speaker of the poem reminds the listener or reader that God turns them away from sin and that they should trust in him. ‘Liuis firist and licames hele’ is similar to ‘Ubi Sount Qui Ante Nos Fueront?’, which is from manuscript Digby 86. These two poems are similar because both hint at the transitory aspect of life and stress that focus should be put on heaven rather than on the material world [1]. Another similar poem is ‘An Orison to Our Lady’; both poems emphasize the need to leave sins behind and to follow God’s advice [2]. However, while Mary is an important figure in ‘An Orison to Our Lady’, she does not appear at all in ‘Liuis firist and licames hele’.


This particular poem might be useful for the laity, since it reminds the reader/audience to live a good life in order to ascend to heaven, and presumably the laity needed more guidance about this than the clergy. The beginning of the lyric mentions more secular elements (lives and bodies) instead of immediately presenting religious elements. At first glance, one might not notice that this more secular introduction disguises a religious text. Lines 5 and 7, mention “C[ri]st” and “God” respectively and in this way the poem clearly reveals itself to be a religious lyric.

This technique, of opening a religious lyric with a more secular image, was often employed in the Middle Ages. It can be seen in other poems from the same manuscript, such as ‘Of One That Is So Fair and Bright’ [3]. In this text, the opening line, which starts with ‘For on þat is so feir ant brist’ (l. 1) [‘of one that is so fair and bright’], does not mention any religious themes. This line describes what seems to be a beautiful person – a seemingly secular theme. Yet, it becomes evident in line 9 that the person in question is actually the Virgin Mary—or “Maria” as the author refers to her. The poem’s focus on the Virgin Mary is accentuated in the last stanza, and the poem therefore functions, like the poem edited here, as a religious lyric with a secular beginning.



The text is laid out neatly on the folio, about 2 inches from the left and upper hand margins. It is highly probable that the scribe drew a set of lines first before he wrote down the poem, as was the custom in medieval scribal culture [4]. The text has a paragraphus mark before the first line; this mark generally indicates the beginning of a new paragraph or section.


The text edited here was copied by two scribes, which we refer to here as scribe A and scribe B. Scribe A wrote most of the lines, but scribe B seems to have added a half-line in line 2, starting after the comma: “(ant) þine soule to sal[i]uen”. Scribe B seems to have used a thinner quill (the width of the down strokes are thinner than the ones of scribe A) and has a smaller hand than scribe A’s. Scribe B also appeared to have worked with ink that is less dark than scribe A’s.

A punctus is the primary form of punctuation in the text (it occurs at ll. 1, 3, 6, 7), but there is also a subdistinctio in line 2. This mark, which resembles a comma, is likely to have been added by scribe B as well. It could have been added to mark a line-break, but scribe A did not utilize such line break marks anywhere else, so it would be inconsistent with his writing style for him to have put a subdistinctio there alone [5].
There seems to be no clear rule for the use of capitalisation in the text. The beginning of the text does not begin with a capital; after carefully analysing the other instances of ‘l’ in the text, we concluded that the ‘l’ in “liuis” is written with a lower case. Lines 2, 3, and 6 start with thorns, which are also not in upper case, despite being in the onset position and, in the case of line 2, coming after a punctus. There are only two capitals found in the text: in lines 5 and 7. Line 5 starts with “To”, with a capital ‘t’. The ‘t’ here is clearly different from the lower case form used in the text, in the words such as “beten” ([to] amend) in line 2 or “frent” in line 4. References to the Christian God usually starts with a capital ‘g’, and this is true of this text, which capitalises “God”  in line 7.
Another case where there is no capitalisation used occurs at line 4. This line begins with ‘7’, the abbreviation for “ant” or “ond”. This character is also employed in lines 1, 2, and 7. Another abbreviation is found in line 3: “þine children to 9sailen”; here the 9-symbol stands for ‘con-‘ which changes the word into “consailen” [6]. This particular abbreviation is interesting; it is probably not used here to save space, as there is enough space for the whole word. It might have been used here because the scribe wanted to show off his abbreviation knowledge or, more likely, to save the scribe’s hand from fatigue.


Versification and Language

The verse pattern of the text is ABBBCCD. The second, third and fourth line rhyme due to the fact that the verb is in the infinitive. The poem also makes use of alliteration; in line 1 there is alliteration between ‘liuis’ and ‘licumes’, and in the second line ‘sinnes’, ‘soule’ and ‘sal[i]uen’. The third line is special compared to the other lines because the alliteration is in the abbreviated ‘con-‘ sign (so ‘children’ and ‘(con)sailen’ alliterate). In line 6 ‘blisse’ and  ‘bouten’ alliterate. The combination of rhyme and alliteration in this poem is notable.

All the lines are of equal length, except for the second and the last lines. The deviation in the last line, which holds the moral of the poem, works to emphasize this message by drawing attention to it. The same does not hold true for the second line, however. Here an extra phrase was added by scribe B: ‘(ant) þine soule to sal[i]uen’, meaning ‘and to heal your soul’. This does not change the rhyme of the poem because ‘sal[i]uen’ has a similar ending to ‘beten’, but it is remarkable to see these extra words added in another hand. Perhaps scribe B did this because he felt the need to emphasize the importance of the soul.


The Middle English dialect used for this poem can be determined using two different angles. The first angle is by looking at the context of the manuscript. It is important to note that the manuscript was most likely produced in a religious house in the West Midlands [7]. It is therefore likely that the dialect of the manuscript, and by extension our poem, should be in a West-Midlands dialect, since this was where the scribes were working. The other angle is by looking at the text itself and more specifically at various language features, such as verb endings.

However, it is difficult to use verb endings to identify the poem’s dialect in this case; almost all the verbs in the poem are in the infinitive, which means there are few distinctive inflectional ending present. One inflectional ending, ‘turneþe’ (l. 7), provides some evidence. According to Simon Horobin the -eth ending on 3rd person singular present tense indicative verbs is a feature of more southern dialects [8]. Therefore the location of the manuscript, considered alongside this inflectional ending, suggests this is a poem, like the others in the manuscript, is written in a Southern West-Midlands dialect.

Word Endings and Spelling

Curiously, the scribe ends words that end with an ‘e’—such as ‘þine’ in ll. 1-3—with a flourish. Another distinctive word ending is the abbreviation for ‘st’ in ll. 1, 5.

A few words in the poem stand out with respect to spelling. For example, in line five the word for heaven is written ‘heowene’. The use of a w in the middle is an irregular spelling form of the word, since heaven as usually spelled with a labiodental fricative in the middle, namely an f or a v [9]. Another example of a spelling peculiarity occurs in the first line with the word ‘licumes’, which means body. Indeed, this spelling is not attested in the MED entry for this word; the MED instead provides only examples with an a or o [10].

Annefleur Donk, Bregje Duinhof and Gessica Sastrosoedjono

Leiden University
Middle English Literature Seminar

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1 Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby 86. Edited and translated by Elaine Treharne. In Old and Middle English c.890-c.1450: An Anthology, 413-414, 3rd ed. Oxford:
Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. [Back]
2 Lyrics from Cambridge, Trinity College B.14.39. Treharne, pp. 510-511. [Back]
3 Lyrics from Cambridge, Trinity College B.14.39. Treharne, pp. 406-407 [Back]
4 Department of Medieval Studies, “Materials and Techniques of Manuscript Production”.
Medieval Manuscript Manual. Accessed March 03, 2019.[Back]
5 Everson, Michael, Baker, Peter, Grammel, Florian, & Haugen, Odd E. (2016), “Proposal to add Medievalist punctuation characters to the UCS.” UC Berkeley: Department of
Linguistics. Accessed on March 4, 2019. [Back]
6 Reimer, Stephen R. “ Paleography: Scribal Abbreviations.” Manuscript Studies,
Medieval and Early Modern. Last modified May 30, 2015. Accessed March 30, 2019. [Back]
7 K. A. Murchison, “The Effects of the Seven Sins”: A Critical Edition”. Scholarly Editing, 38 (2017), 6 [Back]
8 Simon Horobin, Chaucer’s Language (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), 31. [Back]
9 Lewis, R.E., McSparran, F. et al. eds., “hē̆ven,” Middle English Dictionary, Online
edition in Middle English Compendium, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan
Library, accessed march 4 2019,
dictionary/dictionary/MED20700/track?counter=1&search_id=384408. [Back]
10 “lī̆chame,” Lewis et al., Middle English Dictionary, Online. [Back]

Liuis firist ant licumes hele

Trinity College Cambridge, MS B.14.39, fol.42v

Used with kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge.

Liuis firist. (ant) licumes hele.
þine sinnes heir to beten, (ant) þine soule to sal[i]uen
þine children to (con)sailen.
(ant) þine frent to gladien
[5] To heowene c(ri)st þe sende
þer blisse is bouten he(n)de.
God turneþe to þen ilke þinke þat þe is best to lif (ant) to soule.

Annefleur Donk, Bregje Duinhof and Gessica Sastrosoedjono

Leiden University
Middle English Literature Seminar

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First reform your lives and bodies

Trinity College Cambridge, MS B.14.39, fol.42v

Used with kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge.

First the health of the soul and body,
to amend your sins here, and heal your soul
to counsel your children
and to relieve your friend.
May Christ send you to heaven
where bliss is without end.
God turns you towards the behaviour that is best for you, for life and soul.

Annefleur Donk, Bregje Duinhof and Gessica Sastrosoedjono

Leiden University
Middle English Literature Seminar

Back to the Introduction
Back to The 2019 Middle English Lyrics