The Poetry of Penitence: Asenath of Genesis and the Fifteenth-Century English Reader

By Katy Wright-Bushman

At the moment of Augustine of Hippo’s famous conversion, narrated in his Confessions, the young protagonist throws himself at the foot of a tree, weeping. Invoking psalms 51 and 79, Augustine writes that his coursing tears were an “acceptable sacrifice” to God: “And thou, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Wilt thou be angry forever? Oh, remember not against us our former iniquities.” Augustine’s conversion narrative famously hinges on the audible answer to this prayer—“tolle, lege, tolle, lege,” “take it up, read it”—and on his doing just that: taking up “the apostle’s [Paul’s] book,” and reading from it. The narrative of Augustine’s conversion turns on the call he hears and on his response; but it turns, too, on the image of an unconverted penitent praying as one praying the psalms—praying in the form of ancient Hebrew poetry.

There is poetry in the narrative of Augustine’s conversion. There is poetry, too, in the narrative of conversion that is my subject here. The narration of religious conversion in literature did not begin with Augustine; nor did it end there.

In the early fifteenth century in England, one curious conversion narrative, translated anonymously from Latin into Middle English verse, was written into a manuscript alongside the religious and philosophical verse of medieval luminaries like Boethius and Chaucer (Ellesmere 26.A.xiii). This verse narrative tells the story of Asenath, the Egyptian wife of Joseph, named in Genesis. At the heart of Asenath’s narrative is a religious conversion—one that hinges, like Augustine’s, on the image of an unconverted penitent praying as one praying the psalms—praying through poetry.

The Storie of Asneth, as this Middle English text is known, recounts the marriage of Joseph, Jacob’s and Rachel’s firstborn, to Asenath, an Egyptian priest's daughter, and her conversion to Judaism, in about 900 alliterative English lines in rhyme royal stanzas—a stanza form popularized by Chaucer. The Middle English version of the narrative is a fairly close translation from its twelfth-century Latin source; the translator does, however, invent suggestive readings through language, form, and occasional expansion and omission. At the climax of the story, the wealthy young pagan Asenath retreats alone to her chamber, where she experiences a religious conversion that occupies about a third of the full text. She expresses that conversion in a long, nearly unbroken verse prayer. Asenath’s conversion is then illustrated sacramentally and mystically in an angelic visitation.

I want us to consider the Middle English Storie of Asneth  as a text in the hands of its fifteenth-century readers—readers who were part of the rise in English literacy and lay religious practice across the period.

The burgeoning of vernacular texts in the English fourteenth and fifteenth centuries corresponds to the simultaneous spread of the practices of reading among newly literate groups. Lay women in particular constituted an important addition to the ranks of English literacy in this period and came to play a key role not only as readers of certain kinds of vernacular texts (like hagiography), but also as fictionalized audiences represented within them and as characters in their narratives.  At the narrative heart of Asenath’s transformation, the Storie of Asneth places prayer—in the form of lyric poetry, and in the mouth of a lay woman not unlike the text’s presumed early readers. The central role of this lyric prayer gives us a window into the dynamic, literate religious culture in which this text circulated—a religious culture in which prayer in the form of poetry played no small part.

This peculiar verse narrative was read by English lay women at a historical moment when English religious lyric poetry was exceptionally prolific. At the physical and narrative center of the text is just such a poem—a long lyric prayer (339-407). That the crux of Asenath’s conversion would be represented through a lyric prayer, through her alliterative, rhyming, apostrophic address of God, befits the English text’s historical religious setting. If the poem’s readers were characteristic of the fifteenth century, they would have been familiar with such poems: they survive by the thousands in manuscripts of all varieties, including on the surrounding pages of the manuscript containing the Storie of Asneth. Hundreds of these poems take the form of prayers; dozens of them are penitential lyrics resonant with Asenath’s. These religious lyrics were copied and read to effect ethical, affective, epistemic, and volitional change in a growing array of medieval readers. Lyrics like the widely-proliferated “Nou goth sonne under wod” and “Let fal downe thyn ne and lift up thy hart” (the latter, carved across a fifteenth-century rood screen rail in a Yorkshire church) were believed to properly serve these formative functions by their authors, advocates, and readers. Alongside Asenath’s prayer, such lyrics attest to a period of profound religious transformation, of penitence and conversion through writing and literacy.

Now, to the text. At the point of her conversion, beginning a third of the way into the poem, Asenath retreats to her chamber and meets the interior crisis of penitential guilt head-on: she mourns her sin in ashes, fasts, and weeps. And on the eighth day, as the dawn breaks, kneeling, Asenath turns to an east-facing window, towards the rising sun, and begins her long penitential psalm. The prayer Asenath offers begins with a cry of distress and desperation: “What schal I do? Were may I go? Were schal I have refute? / Desolate maide and deserte, of cumfort destitute,” she cries (340-41). After confessing both her sin and God’s character, Asenath declares, “He repreveth no maner man that turneth Hym with penance. / Therfore I wil returne to Hym and fro me synne chace; / … / For He is protectour and defendour of fadirles children alle. / Therfore to His grete mercy I schal clepe and calle” (356-57, 361-62).

After three unbroken psalmic stanzas in this style, the narrator interrupts only to describe Asenath’s devotional posture: she stands, still facing the east window, and addresses the God she’s confessed directly—“Lord God of al rightful, that madest land and flood, / That inspirest al wysdam in hertis that ben hard,” she cries (365-66), and proclaims her conversion ten lines beyond: “I flute [flit], Lord, to The, Thyn humble suppliant, / Cryinge to The with my prayere in Thyn hihe presence, / Confessynge to The my grete synnes, and schewe The my offence” (374-76). When her lyric prayer ends, Asenath sees the eastern star brighten through her window and receives it as a sign that her prayer has been heard. It is then that the sky itself parts with light and she falls on her face.

The sixty-eight lines of Asenath’s lyric prayer are interrupted just once, to describe her change in posture. It is otherwise continuous—a poem within the poem. Her long prayer of penitence and conversion is essentially psalmic: it takes the form of a verse prayer addressed emphatically to God, begun in penitential sorrow and with a recognition of God’s will and power. It builds to an appeal to God for transformation, sanctification, and deliverance, and concludes with a promise to serve God and his people. This progression modeled so poignantly in Asenath’s penitential prayer upon her conversion is not novel; it is the progression of several of the Seven Penitential Psalms—of the famous “Miserere mei” of Psalm 51,  and of the “De profundis” of Psalm 130; and in large part, of Psalms 32 and 143. The Seven Penitential Psalms were enormously popular in the late fourteenth-century English verse translations of Richard Maidstone and Thomas Brampton and they almost always appeared in Books of Hours and primers across the fifteenth century, so the form was a familiar one.

The devotional progression of Asenath’s prayer models religious practices familiar to the early readers of this text. Like the psalmist, she turns her body towards the symbolic dwelling place of God, she kneels, she stands, she holds out her arms, she lays her face on the ash-strewn floor. These devotional postures, choreographed to her lyric prayer, resonate with the experience of late medieval devotional and sacramental practices. In the Storie of Asneth, penitence and conversion happen through poetry. Faith is performed through language.

In one of her final short stories, “Parker’s Back,” Flannery O’Connor narrates the conversion of a man named O.E. Parker—a man who, like Augustine, like Asenath, finds himself flung to the ground, crying out to God. For Parker, this cry is no psalm, but the spontaneous yell of a man who’s driven his tractor into a tree—an ironic exclamation, “GOD ABOVE!” The source of Parker’s epithet, almost certainly unbeknownst to him, is ultimately the book of Job (31:2). Hebrew poetry has found its way to the heart of Parker’s conversion narrative, as well—but only by accident. Augustine and Asenath make their conversions through poetry; for Parker, another form of artistic representation, another aesthetic mode comes into play: he has, as O’Connor writes, “the haloed-head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes” tattooed over his whole back (235). What this means to Parker is not fully articulated, but it is penitential; it is devotional; it is a sign of conversion. To address God in these forms—through poetry, voiced by the broken-spirited penitent, through iconography, inscribed even on a canvas of human flesh—is not unique to medieval accounts of conversion, whether of the fifth or the fifteenth century. In the telling of the story of conversion, literature returns still to the image of the one who prays as one who recites poetry. Even if, in our own day, only by accident.

This post was written by the Managing Editor of Christianity & Literature.