Clare Costley King’oo, Miserere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame Indiana, 2012.

Clare Costley King’oo, Miserere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame Indiana, 2012. $38, ISBN-13: 978-0-268-03324-8, pp. xix + 284

 Reviewed by: Julie Finnerty, independent researcher, May 2013

The intention of this book is to examine the fate of the seven Penitential Psalms in England both before and after the Reformation period. The book is organised as an introduction followed by five chapters (which may be read individually). The introduction explains the origins of the Penitential Psalms, first explicitly referred to as a group in the mid-sixth century in Cassiodorus’sExpositio Psalmorum. It then outlines the various uses of the Penitential Psalms from Augustine’s time up to the Reformation. In the final pages of the introduction, the author gives an outline of the chapters to follow, and indicates a number of ways in which her work may contribute to current scholarship.

The first chapter studies illustrations that accompanied the seven Penitential Psalms in late medieval and early modern Books of Hours. The author examines how the Penitential Psalms were represented and received during this period, noting the change in focus from David’s repentanceto David’s sinin the images accompanying the Penitential Psalms. Towards the end of the 1400s, representations of David spying on a naked Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12) became popular, leading Costley King’oo to reflect on the association made, via these illustrations, between sexuality and sin.

Chapter 2 focuses on works by John Fisher (This Treatise concernynge the fruytfull saynges of Dauyd in the seuen penytencyall psalmes, 1508) and Martin Luther (Die sieben Bubpsalmen, 1517). What is particularly interesting in this chapter, demonstrated most convincingly by Costley King’oo, is the rejection by both Luther and Fisher of the Penitential Psalms as either part of a sacrament of penance or as intercessory prayers. They prefer instead to universalize the psalmist’s experience to all Christians, with Luther focusing on original sin (requiring inward repentance), and Fisher paying particular attention to committed sins (which necessitate outward repentance).

Chapter 3 examines Wyatt’s Certayne Psalmes, a work written around 1541 but whose posthumous publication in late 1549 is linked to three key figures associated with evangelicalism. Costley King’oo contrasts Wyatt’s rendering of the Penitential Psalms with three other paraphrases of these same psalms (by Maidstone, Brampton and Croke) that were circulating at that time. To this end, she uses the phenomenological schema outlined by Roland Greene in Post-Petrarchism: approaching lyric texts in either fictional or ritual modes. Costley King’oo makes good use of this binary to answer the question posed at the beginning of the chapter: “what kind of effectcould Wyatt’s Penitential Psalms be relied upon to produce?” (p. 98).

In chapter 4, Costley King’oo considers the use of the seven Penitential Psalms, not only for the purpose of repentance but also for social and/or political goals, in two sixteenth-century devotional manuals. She deftly combines analysis of text and image to demonstrate that Christian prayers and meditations (1569) was ‘perhaps the most crucial marketing effort of the early years of [Queen Elizabeth I’s] reign’ (p. 135-7). She also looks at Stubbs’s translation (1582) of Theodore Beza’s Christian meditations upon eight psalmes.

The final chapter is a series of reflections on the continued popularity of the seven Penitential Psalms in England in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Costley King’oo examines a number of different approaches to this set of psalms, uncovering several innovative or modified interpretations. Gascoigne’s De Profundisin The posies of George Gascoigne esquire (1575) presents psalm 130 as belonging to the realm of entertainment; Harington’s translation of the Penitential Psalms proves original and irreverent; and Verstegan’s Odes. In imitation of the seaven penitential psalmes, in its attempt to reclaim the seven Penitential Psalms to the Catholic tradition, “diverges significantly” (p. 185) from the Vulgate translation.

Costley King’oo consistently refers to early printed and manuscript sources throughout these chapters, elaborating on publication details where necessary in the notes at the end of the volume. These notes also develop other details, and show the extent of Costley King’oo’s secondary sources. This can also be seen in the wide bibliography, which is divided into manuscripts (including many Horae), printed works from the STC (A Short Title Catalogue) and other printed works.  Costley King’oo does not hesitate to weigh in on arguments relating to historical issues, and the appendix is an example of this as she defends her decision to appropriate to John Harington of Stepney the publication of Wyatt’s paraphrase of the Penitential Psalms. The chapters also contain numerous figures, which give a deeper understanding of the representations of the Penitential Psalms. The index is well laid-out, comprehensive and accurate.

Costley King’oo states that the purpose of this study is twofold: to examine the vital role of penance in the development of Reformation thinking, and to investigate the fate of the seven Penitential Psalms across the contrived dividing line of the late medieval and early modern eras. She has very much succeeded in both of these aims, as she convincingly shows the many ways in which the Penitential Psalms were wielded by both Catholics and Reformers to defend and promulgate their definition of penance or repentance. This contributes to demonstrating her second objective, that the Reformation was ‘a period, not so much of extensive invention and originality […] as of subtle change amid a great deal of continuity’ (p. 191).

We come away from this book wanting to know more; and although we have an incomplete picture of the Penitential Psalms over this period, the author has shown us the many ways in which these seven psalms were represented and used. Miserere Meiis, then, an excellent indication of what remains to be done and of the many ways in which to proceed. Indeed, the interdisciplinary approach used by Costley King’oo is one of the book’s great strengths: we study manuscripts, early printed works and illustrations; Bible commentary, paraphrase and translation; lyric poetry, political parody and devotional song. These approaches mean that Costley King’oo’s careful reading of these sources will have a broad appeal to scholars of the Bible (and the psalms in particular), scholars of art history and religious history, literary scholars and those interested in early modern sexuality.

A quibble for a general reader might be the lack of a chronology: it would have been useful to see the composition and publication dates of the works mentioned (particularly for chapters three and four which deal with sixteenth-century works) in order to situate them in the tumultuous religious and political history of their time. This would perhaps be unnecessary for the principal readership of this book, mainly literary and religious scholars. Indeed, the numerous quotations in contemporary language (with modern clarifications where necessary) will please this principal readership, but risk alienating a wider public audience. As for the readership of this forum, they will have to be content with some recurring mentions of Dame Eleanor Hull, fifteenth-century translator of an Old French commentary on the Penitential Psalms: the majority of works studied and cited were inevitably written and published by men.

Readers will find much to engage them in this comprehensive examination of the seven Penitential Psalms; what comes through in particular is Clare Costley King’oo’s mastery of and passion for her subject. We learn in the afterword that the book originated in the Short Title Catalogue Room of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library at the University of Pennsylvania, among dusty shelves, abandoned prosthetic devices and even a skull! It is easy to imagine the author stacking up the various books on desks in order ‘to see just how much physical space the Penitential Psalms occupied in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries (a lot)’ (p. 188). In bringing this skilful study to fruition, she is to be congratulated on her perseverance and her erudition.