In This Article John Mirk

  • Introduction
  • John Mirk’s Life
  • Pastoral Literature
  • Scholarship on Pastoral Literature, Preaching, and Medieval Liturgy
  • The 14th-Century Literary Context

Medieval Studies John Mirk
by
Beth Allison Barr, Lynneth J. Miller
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0259

Introduction

In many ways, John Mirk (fl. c. 1382–c. 1414) embodies the concerns and currents of late medieval Christianity. Marked by an emphasis on reform in the years following the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 and in the wake of the devastation caused by the Black Death, 1347–1350, late medieval piety focused on cultivating believers who understood and practiced their faith. Pastoral care and preaching played a key role in helping ordinary men and women navigate their spiritual lives from cradle to grave. Although medieval sermons and religious literature proliferated during the 14th and 15th centuries, John Mirk’s sermon compilation Festial stands out as the most popular preaching text, second only to the English Wycliffite sermons (in terms of surviving manuscript copies). An Augustinian canon and later prior of Lilleshall Abbey, Mirk lived and probably died in the far west of England. The geographical boundaries that framed his life, like the Severn River that encircled Shrewsbury—the medieval town most closely associated with Mirk—did not limit the circulation of his pastoral texts. From the Midlands to Lincolnshire, Norfolk, and even Ireland, his writings circulated widely throughout the British Isles. Festial was copied in more than forty 15th-century manuscripts and later, between 1483 and 1532, it was picked up by the London-based printers William Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde and printed in more than twenty further editions. An orthodox figure who was integral participant in 14th-century movements touching on clerical education, pastoral care, lay piety, and the institution of reform, John Mirk also engaged with heterodox movements such as Lollardy. Indeed, although Mirk wrote to help pastoral clergy fulfill their spiritual duties, he may also have written to combat Lollardy itself. Mirk’s orthodoxy stood at the forefront of the religious movements of his time, and both his pastoral manuals and his sermons reflect innovative approaches to pastoral care and gender. Thus, John Mirk, himself a product of late medieval reforms, is one of the key individuals who also drove reform and helped to teach the practice of piety to clergy and ordinary parishioners alike.

John Mirk’s Life

A scholarly biography of John Mirk is long overdue. While it is true that there is much we do not know about John Mirk, it is also true that we know more about Mirk as an author, Augustinian canon, and priest than we do about any other author of late medieval English sermons. Susan Powell is the leading authority on John Mirk’s life and works. She has written several biographical sketches and introductions to Mirk within her scholarship and as stand-alone articles. Powell 2004, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, should be the starting point for all researchers. Both Fredell 1994, an extensive biographical sketch, and Powell 2006 put “flesh to [Mirk’s] dry bones” by situating him within the religious world of Lilleshall Abbey and the parochial world of St. Alkmund’s, Shrewsbury. A recent sketch of Mirk’s life, Powell 2017 illuminates his concern for pastoral care and demonstrates how he targeted specific audiences with each of his texts. An introduction to John Mirk within the author’s critical edition of Festial, Powell 2009a encapsulates what is perhaps the most important point about Mirk: we know John Mirk only because of his writings and it is only through his writings that we know about his life.

  • Cross, F. L., and E. A. Livingstone, eds. “Myrc, John, also spelt Mirc (fl. c. 1400), religious writer.” In The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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    Very brief overview of John Mirk and reference to his manuscripts, including the printed editions.

  • Fredell, Joel. “John Mirk.” In Old and Middle English Literature. Dictionary of Literary Biography 146. Edited by Jeffrey Helterman and Jerome Mitchell, 283–291. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 1994.

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    Outlines brief knowledge of Mirk’s life, connecting it especially to his major writings and the larger social and political context of late medieval England. Provides a brief discussion of both Lilleshall Abbey, including its distinction as a royal foundation with a flourishing library, and St. Alkmund’s Church in Shrewsbury, which was connected to Lilleshall Abbey and where Mirk probably preached.

  • Powell, Susan. “Mirk, John (fl. c. 1382–c. 1414), Augustinian Author.” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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    Tracing the (few) known details of Mirk’s life to the known pastoral texts produced by Mirk (Instructions for Parish Priests, Festial, and Manuale Sacerdotis), Powell provides an insightful starting point for researching John Mirk. Several of her suggestions point toward future work on Mirk, including a possible connection between Mirk and Archbishop John Thoresby, an overview of the forty-three known manuscripts of Festial and twenty-six editions printed between 1486 and 1532, and a brief discussion of Mirk’s source material.

  • Powell, Susan. “The Festial: The Priest and His Parish.” In The Parish in Late Medieval England: Proceedings of the 2002 Harlaxton Symposium. Edited by Clive Burgess and Eamon Duffy, 160–176. Donington, UK: Shaun Tyas, 2006.

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    Out of all of Powell’s scholarship, this article adds the most “flesh to [Mirk’s] dry bones.” It places Mirk within Shrewsbury, Lilleshall Abbey, and the community of Augustinian canons. It contextualizes his writings within the sources from which Mirk drew, including Vitas Patrum and Glossa Ordinaria. Most importantly, it paints Mirk as a well-educated and pastorally minded cleric.

  • Powell, Susan. “Introduction John Mirk: His Life and Works.” In John Mirk’s Festial: Edited from British Library MS Cotton Claudius A II. By Susan Powell, xix–xxv. Early English Text Society Original Series 334. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009a.

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    Summary overview of Mirk’s life with specific connections made to the surviving manuscripts of his three works. Since most of what we have gleaned about Mirk stems directly from internal references within the manuscripts of Festial, Instructions for Parish Priests, and Manuale Sacerdotis (no external writings about Mirk exist), Powell identifies each of these references and explains how scholars have used these sources to extrapolate about Mirk’s life. Published for the Early English Text Society.

  • Powell, Susan. “John Audelay and John Mirk: Comparisons and Contrasts.” In My wyl and my wrytyng: Essays on John the Blind Audelay. Edited by Susanna Fein, 86–111. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2009b.

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    Comparison of the lives and works of two Augustinian canons who lived within a generation of each other and within fifteen miles. John Mirk, a canon and prior of Lilleshall Abbey who lived and worked during the late 14th century, and John Audelay, chaplain to the chantry of a lord in Haughmond Abbey and formerly household chaplain to the same lord who lived during the early 15th century. It connects the writings of Mirk and Audelay specifically with respect to the circumstances of their lives.

  • Powell, Susan. “John Mirk.” In The Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature in Britain. Vol. 3. Edited by Siân Echard and Robert Rouse, 1364–1366. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017.

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    This most recent biographical sketch of John Mirk by Powell is more focused on his writings (as appropriate for this particular reference book). It provides greater detail about the Latin Manuale Sacerdotis, which stems from Powell’s current project with James Girsch to create a critical edition and translation. It also emphasizes how Mirk adapted each of his works to a targeted audience.

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