Examining Carmelite writing in general, and Richard Misyn in particular, allows conclusions to be made about the nature of medieval Carmelite literary activity in England.


The Whitefriars’ academic reputation was integral to their identity.[1] The movement of student friars established a textual network of communities. More study is needed on the circulation of texts by students, and the influence Carmelite scholasticism had upon vernacular writings.


The university environment influenced all the writers considered in this thesis. It is striking that the Cambridge-educated Fishlake rendered the respected and orthodox theology of Hilton into the formal language of Latin, whereas Misyn, probably an Oxford graduate who had experienced Arundel’s Constitutions, translated the more eccentric Incendium into English. Though the Carmelite order was renowned for its orthodoxy, Misyn translated a heterogeneous text so vague in its aims, broad in scope, and incoherent in discourse.[2] Carmelite authors were very conscious of language. Fishlake’s Latin translation made Hilton’s English theology internationally readable. Misyn wrote for those without Latin. Maidstone combined Latin and English.


The universities were not the only centres of Carmelite literary activity. Whitefriars served the governing classes as confessors and counsellors, courtiers and bishops. Despite this, the view pervades that in England the Carmelites ‘became more popular than elsewhere in Europe, but it was never an influential order’.[3] This does not concur with the contemporary criticism of one Lollard detractor: ‘Et Carmelitas tanquam falsos hermitas sunt confessores dominorum sententijs dominarum et seductores ipsorum sunt animarum’.[4] Carmelites are better known among medievalists through such antifraternal sentiment,[5] yet such criticism highlights the power Whitefriars are perceived to have wielded. Study of the Carmelites’ courtly activities would throw further light on their literary influence, particularly their political poetry. This thesis has focussed upon the universities and York as centres of Carmelite activity, but the London convent merits greater study. It housed the studia generalia, was the centre for much of Maidstone and Netter’s writing, and produced manuscripts such as the ‘reconstructed’ Carmelite missal and Doctrinale. Carmelite literary activity flourished in metropolitan environments such as London, York, and Lincoln.


As well as being involved in the affairs of church and state, Carmelites of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries engaged in the pastoral care of the laity at large. Whilst some reworked tried and tested genres – the vices and virtues, the penitential Psalms – others were attracted to contemporary vernacular theology. Lynn and Lavenham were interested in women’s visionary literature that had come to England from the continent from the 1390s,[6] though they never translated such texts into English. Misyn and Fishlake’s engagement with the writings of Hilton and Rolle shows a different Carmelite preoccupation with an insular, English model of (para-)mystical spirituality. The eclectic literary tastes of the English Carmelite province may be accounted for geographically. Whereas Carmelite writers from East Anglia (Lavenham, Lynn) were influenced by the continental contemplative tradition, those from the north-east (Fishlake, Misyn) were more interested in local eremitical and monastic traditions.


By meeting the demand for theological texts in the vernacular, Carmelite writers encouraged a certain democratization of spiritual experience.[7] As part of his evangelical calling to preach and teach, Misyn promoted theological reflection amongst the laity. By providing hospitality to religious confraternities, and literature to anchorites, Whitefriars opened the gates to greater lay involvement in the contemplative life of the church. Misyn’s translations are ‘evidence of the order promoting mysticism’,[8] or at least the encouragement of lay participation in the Carmelite charism. Educated and high-ranking Carmelites provided spiritual direction to women such as Kempe, Heslington, and Stapleton, the last two being evidence that the Carmelites had an interest in promoting the solitary contemplative life amongst women in the fifteenth century.[9] The literature of Misyn and Scrope shows a desire among later medieval Carmelites to keep alive the order’s contemplative roots.[10]


Carmelites engaged with vernacular theology in the full knowledge that to do so was potentially dangerous in their religious climate. Misyn followed the anti-heretical agenda set up by previous literary Whitefriars, and in this respect his writing was typically ‘Carmelite’.


Further study remains to be done into the mechanisms for commissioning and circulating Carmelite texts. The dissemination of Fishlake’s translation, and the copying of Misyn’s, reveals a movement of texts between Carmelites and Carthusians.[11] The partial reliance of the Carthusians on the literary activities of the Whitefriars should highlight, rather than detract from, their place in ‘the landscape of medieval religious books’.[12] More research also needs doing into the acquisition of Carmelite texts by orders other than the Carthusians.[13] Carmelites seem to have catered for both an internal and external bibliographic market, circulating books between houses, and accepting commissions from the likes of Heslington. Study into the activities of Carmelites as book collectors would also be invaluable.


Much work remains to be done on the practices and implications of Carmelite literature, even if Nicholas the Frenchman criticised ‘presumptious individuals, desirous of vainglory, who busy themselves prating to other people whatever they chance to find in the parchments’.[14]

[1] ‘For the four major orders of mendicant friars it remained as axiomatic in the fifteenth as it had been in the thirteenth century that successful participation in university learning at Oxford and elsewhere was crucial to their influence, their well-being and their self-regard’ [Dobson, in Catto & Evans, p. 539].

[2] Watson, Richard Rolle, p. 118; Deanesly, pp. 41-2.

[3] Cutts, p. 44.

[4] ‘And as for the Carmelites, those so-called false hermits, they are the confessors to lords and ladies, and the seducers of their souls’. Recorded by Bale, MS Bodley 73, f. 139v. This sentiment is echoed almost verbatim in the vernacular antifraternal poem Jack Upland, line 79.

[5] Contemporary criticism of the medieval Carmelites is found in Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede [(ed). Barr, pp. 75-8, lines 339-417], and the macaronic poem ‘Flen, flyys, and freris’ [IMEV, Entry 808]. It also occurs in Middle Scots writing such as Ane murelandis man of uplandis mak [Dunbar, p. 31, line 43 ff.] and Ane Satyre of The Thrie Estatis [Lindsay, p. 95, line 2621]. On antifraternalism see Szittya; Fleming, in Wallace, pp. 374-5; Hanna, ‘The Difficulty’, p. 333; Miller, pp. 235-68.

[6] Watson, ‘The Composition’, pp. 647, 653 ff. On the reception of continental mystics in England, see Voaden.

[7] ’One of the effects of the mendicant movement as a whole was to greatly expand, through lay associations and confraternities, the traditional conception of what a ”religious“ might be’ [Fleming, in Wallace, p. 356].

[8] Edden, ‘The Mantle’, p. 82.

[9] Sheppard, pp. 38-9.

[10] Edden, ‘The Mantle’, p. 82.

[11] Cré, pp. 22 n. 35, 70-1.

[12] Gillespie, ‘Dial M’, p. 242 n. 4.

[13] There is speculation that the Benedictine monks of Worcester Cathedral Priory commissioned a Carmelite compilation, now Oxford, Bodleian Library Auct. F. inf. 1.3 [Edden, ‘Marian devotion’, pp. 101-2]. Dr. Greatrex informs me that Scrope-Bradley gifted a copy of the Libellus de institutione fratrum Carmelitarum ordinis to the Benedictine John de Blakeney [Cambridge University Library MS Ff.6.11, f. 1 – Catalogue… Cambridge, II, p. 515] demonstrating the direct dissemination of Carmelite literature to other orders. Benedictines also circulated Netter’s Doctrinale (Harvey, p. 282).

[14] Certe sunt nonnulli ita praesumptuosi, vanam gloriam appetentes, ut quidquid repererint in membranis populo garrire satagant, alios docere volentes, quae et ipsi nesciunt etignorant [Ignea Sagitta, Capitulum IV].