- Miserere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England by Clare Costley Kingoo
In the afterword to her fascinating and impressively composed monograph, Miserere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England, Clare Costley Kingoo describes the seeds of the project sown in her early years of graduate study, when, through her reading and research, “the age of Shakespeare started to turn into the age of Fisher, Joye, Wyatt, Croke, Stubbs, Gascoigne, Hunnis, and Verstegan. Rather than playscripts,” she reflects, “I began to see primers and prayer books, Psalters and commentaries” (188). That transformation of scholarly vision, rendered so succinctly here, finds eloquent expression in Costley Kingoo’s book. In this well-structured study, composed in clear and engaging prose, she examines the appropriation and adaptation of the seven Penitential Psalms, an important historical, liturgical, and devotional grouping, from the end of the fourteenth to the beginning of the seventeenth century, “from … Richard Maidstone … to …Richard Verstegan” (2). Costley Kingoo’s study focuses on a carefully chosen set of psalm adaptations used both to shape individual chapters and to buttress a broader argument cast in terms of what she calls “penitential hermeneutics.” As she herself notes, Costley Kingoo proceeds by “put[ting] the concerns of the history of the material text into conversation with the resources of literary close reading” (189), joining the good company of scholars such as Jennifer Bryan, Jessica Brantley, Nicole Rice, Heather Dubrow, Hannibal Hamlin, and Brian Cummings, who, in recent years, have worked to elucidate the entanglement of late medieval and early modern textual and religious history.
Miserere Mei’s close readings center around visual illustrations of David accompanying the Penitential Psalms across the period; theological reflections on the Penitential Psalms by John Fisher and Martin Luther; adaptations by Thomas Wyatt, Richard Maidstone, Thomas Brampton, and John Croke; the Penitential Psalms in Queen Elizabeth’s prayer book of 1569; John Stubbs’s translation of Theodore Beza’s meditative penitential prayers; and appropriations of the Penitential Psalms by George Gascoigne, John Harington, and Richard Verstegan. Costley Kingoo breaks her analysis into five chapters, framed by a very sound and interesting introduction and an afterword that, while engaging in itself, might be augmented by more sustained summary of the arguments and conclusions preceding it. The afterword is followed by an appendix that serves as something of a historical footnote, where Costley Kingoo argues for the identification of John Harington of Stepney as the John Harington tied to the publication of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s verse paraphrase of the Penitential Psalms in 1549.
The concept of a “penitential hermeneutics” undergirds each chapter and is discernible in (or subverted by) each of the examined adaptations of the Penitential Psalms; that hermeneutics is, as Costley Kingoo articulates it, a “relatively systematic reading practice that foregrounds the concept of God’s wrathful (and simultaneously righteous) judgment and consequently interprets the psalmist’s multiple afflictions … in an almost wholly spiritual light” (8). Cost-ley Kingoo argues that the application of that hermeneutics can be traced across her chosen period: broadly, “penitential hermeneutics” are applied in earnest in [End Page 290] both ritual and fictional readings of the psalms through the Reformation and into the late sixteenth century, then are challenged by appropriators like Gascoigne and Harington, but embraced again by the recusant and counter-reforming impulses of adaptors like Verstegan. Costley Kingoo’s arguments and use of her guiding concept are very effective within each chapter. Indeed, her careful selection of texts serves her claims quite well within those chapters, though that same selection makes the broader historical argument perhaps too dependent on a rather small collection of texts drawn from across a two hundred year period of ecclesiological, liturgical, devotional, social, and political dynamism.
Costley Kingoo’s study is at its finest and most compelling in her analysis of individual adaptations of the Penitential Psalms, where close reading merges richly with attention to historical context and textual details. Her analysis of illustrations of David...