Centre for Regional Literature and Culture

The Lay Folks' Catechism

by Pamela Greig

I am editing a late fourteenth century Middle English text known as the Lay Folks’ Catechism, or Sermon of John Gaytrydge, a manual of elementary religious instruction.

The text survives in 28 manuscripts, of which eight contain ‘expanded’ or ‘reworked’ texts, and a further eight are only fragments or extracts.  However, 12 manuscripts contain ‘complete’ texts, and it is upon these that my project will focus.

I am currently working on a full critical edition of those 12 complete witnesses, and this will include extensive introductory material, textual analysis, full variant apparatus, and glossary.

I will also produce a fully illustrated electronic edition of the witness in Nottingham University Library MS WLC/LM/9.  This early fifteenth century manuscript contains the Catechism together with the Speculum Vitae, a lengthy devotional poem which is a Yorkshire translation of Loren’s Somme le roi. The Catechism and Speculum Vitae share very similar subject matter.  Indeed, both texts demonstrate the emergence of an important regional literary culture emanating from Yorkshire during the later medieval period.

The Catechism clearly defines six basic tenets: fourteen articles of faith; ten commandments; seven works of mercy; seven deadly sins; seven virtues; and seven sacraments.

These tenets are similar to the Ignorantia sacerdotium, disseminated in 1281 by John Pecham, archbishop of Canterbury.  Pecham’s program of instruction required priests in his southern province to correctly instruct their parishioners in the faith.  In the northern province, some 75 years later, John Thoresby, archbishop of York, was equally concerned with what he saw as the ignorance of clergy and laity, and began a similar program of education.

Thoresby intended the Catechism to be learned by every priest, and then taught to all their parishioners – men, women and children – who would be tested on their knowledge at Easter.  The continuing theme is simple: without this basic knowledge of the faith, salvation is unattainable.

The Catechism was produced locally.  According to a schedule (now lost), Thoresby requested a Benedictine monk at St Mary’s Abbey, York, to compose the treatise in the vernacular.  That monk was John de Gaytryge, and his work played an important part in establishing English as equal in status to Latin or Anglo-Norman French, and therefore suitable for the transmission of pastoral works to all Christians.

Gaytryge’s tenets continued to circulate into the late fifteenth century. And while the text was originally intended for clerical use, it also appears in manuscripts owned by private households.  It was disseminated throughout Thoresby’s province, and also beyond - being copied across the midlands, into East Anglia, and as far south as Sussex.


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