John Mirk Criticism - Essay

W. A. Pantin (essay date 1955)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Pantin, W. A. “Manuals of Instruction for Parish Priests.” In The English Church in the Fourteenth Century, pp. 189-219. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1955, Pantin discusses how Mirk's work was significant in providing religious instruction for parish priests.]

In some respects, as in ecclesiastical politics, for instance, the fourteenth century, when viewed as the outcome of the thirteenth century, may seem disappointing, something of a misfit or an anticlimax; thus we may ask whether the episcopal appointments of the fourteenth century were what men like Innocent III had intended. But in the realm of religious literature we can see, in the clearest and most satisfactory way, the achievement of the fourteenth century as the logical outcome of forces at work in the thirteenth century and earlier.

There were three factors at work, which were closely interconnected. In the first place there was the disciplinary legislation of the Church; this was the product of the great movement for ecclesiastical reform, which had been going on from the eleventh to the thirteenth century, culminating in the Lateran Council of 1215 and in the synodal constitutions of the English bishops in the thirteenth century, which followed the lead of the Lateran Council.1 These constitutions provided, among other things, an elaborate programme of religious instruction for the laity; and this was all the more necessary because of the great social and economic phenomenon of the age, the revival of town life and the consequent rise of an educated laity. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the educated layman in late medieval ecclesiastical history.

Secondly, there was the development of a technical literature, especially through the compilation of various Summae, dealing with in the Regimen animarum, but with greater prolixity. The Pupilla oculi became popular; there are many manuscript copies, and it was printed at Rouen in 1510, the only one of these fourteenth-century treatises to be printed at that period. It is uncertain how far it superseded the earlier treatises like the Oculus sacerdotis or the Regimen animarum.

Finally, at the end of the century, there are several works composed by John Mirk, the Prior of the Augustinian Priory of Lilleshall, Salop, c. 1400.


This consists of 1934 lines of English verse, suitable, like Gaytrick's catechism, for learning by heart. On some manuscripts it is described as a translation of the Pars Oculi, i.e. of Part I of the Oculus sacerdotis, but it is in fact not a complete or literal translation of that work. Its structure is as follows. There is a short prologue dealing with the behaviour of the parish priest, his clothing, and so forth. The next section deals with what the parish priest should teach his parishioners (corresponding to Part II of the Oculus sacerdotis); this includes lay-baptism in case of necessity, the duties of midwives, the care of children, regulations concerning marriage, reverent behaviour in church and churchyard, tithe-paying, witchcraft and usury; there are English versions of the Lord's prayer, the Hail Mary and the Creed; the fourteen articles of faith and the seven sacraments are also included. The last section explains what the priest ought to do in the administration of the sacraments (cf. Part III of the Oculus sacerdotis). The section on confession (over 1000 lines, more than half the whole poem) includes instruction on how to hear confessions with interrogation of the penitent as to his religious knowledge and as to his sins under the headings of the ten commandments, the seven sins and the five senses (cf. Part I of the Oculus sacerdotis).


This treatise is written in Latin and is much more elaborate and learned than Mirk's Instructions; indeed, it is very interesting to see one man writing in two completely different styles, though both intended for parish priests. The Manuale is addressed to a certain ‘I. de S., vicar of A.’, a kinsman of Mirk. Mirk apologizes for his ‘rustic speech’, rather self-consciously, I think, or conventionally, because the work is obviously written in the ‘elegant’ style of the period. The Manuale is primarily a treatise on the responsibilities and duties of the priestly state. In some ways it may be regarded as the medieval equivalent of a book like George Herbert's Priest to the Temple, while from another point of view it perhaps has some affinities with medieval books of courtesy and instructions for household servants, with a great deal of moral advice and religious reflection thrown in.

The Manuale consists of five books. Book i is on the priestly state. The priest is reminded that ‘the Gospel is the rule of priests’; there is much about the evils of frivolity and ignorance among priests, but Mirk points out that an unlearned but humble priest is better than a learned but presumptuous one. There are two interesting sketches, not unlike the ‘characters’ of the seventeenth century, of the ‘life [conversacio] of the good priest’ and the ‘life of the bad priest’. It should be noted that both of these sketches, among other things, imply that the acting parish priest or ‘curate’ is normally not beneficed, but a salaried employee, working as an assistant or a substitute for an incumbent, or as chaplain to a lord. This...

(The entire section is 2345 words.)

Alan J. Fletcher (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Fletcher, Alan J. “John Mirk and the Lollards.” Medium Aevum 56, no. 2 (1987): 217-24.

[In the essay below, Fletcher considers Mirk's intentions for writing the Festial, placing emphasis on its relation to the period in which it was composed.]


The Festial of John Mirk, Augustinian canon of Lilleshall Abbey in Shropshire, is, in spite of everything its prologue avows, finally a work of undeclared intention. Certainly, although Mirk's prologue offers his work for general use, he could not have foreseen that it would become the most widely read vernacular sermon cycle of the fifteenth century, to judge both by the...

(The entire section is 4169 words.)

Alan Fletcher (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Fletcher, Alan. “The Manuscripts of John Mirk's Manuale Sacerdotis.Leeds Studies in English 19 (1988): 105-39.

[In the following essay, Fletcher examines the diversity of the manuscripts of Manuale Sacerdotis in an attempt to determine its audience and success.]

John Mirk, an Austin canon active in the late-fourteenth century and, as we know only from his Manuale Sacerdotis, a prior of the abbey of Lilleshall in Shropshire, has left three known works. Two of these are written in English; his sermon cycle generally known as the Festial and his Instructions for Parish Priests. His third work, in Latin, remains...

(The entire section is 14278 words.)

Susan Powell (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Powell, Susan. “John Mirk's Festial and the Pastoral Programme.” Leeds Studies in English 22 (1991): 85-102.

[In the following essay, Powell contends that Mirk's motivation for his texts was as “teaching aids” for priests.]

Within a century of John Mirk's writing his sermon collection, the Festial, it had been copied in whole or part many times, it could be found in two separate versions as well as a major revision, and it had been printed by Caxton as his first sermon collection. Indeed, it was to remain in print until 1532 and to retain its popularity even later. This paper will demonstrate that Mirk's original aim, that the work should...

(The entire section is 7541 words.)

Judy Ann Ford (essay date summer 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Ford, Judy Ann. “The Autonomy of Conscience: Images of Confession in Mirk's Festial.Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme 23, no. 3 (summer 1999): 5-27.

[In the essay below, Ford provides an analysis of Mirk's descriptions of confession in the Festial, exploring what they reveal about the roles of parishioner and priest in the late medieval period.]

For þus I rede of a woman þat had done an horrybull synne, and myght neuer, for schame, schryue hyr þerof. And oft, when ho come to schryf, scho was yn purpos forto haue ben schryuen; but euer þe fend put such a schame yn hur hert, þat scho had neuer grace to...

(The entire section is 9960 words.)