By: Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu
During her years as a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania, Clare Costley King’oo found herself drawn to a collection of dusty volumes in Penn’s Van Pelt Library. Little did she know that these obscure archives would ultimately lead her to write a book that would earn the 2012 Book of the Year award from the Conference on Christianity and Literature.
The book, Miserere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England (University of Notre Dame Press, ReFormations series, 2012), was selected as the work that “contributed most to the dialogue between literature and the Christian faith” during 2012.
King’oo, an associate professor of English, received the award at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association in Boston last month. Previous winners include literary critic Northrop Frye and creative writers Umberto Eco and Madeleine L’Engle.
King’oo’s work was cited for combining “a meticulous study of a small body of scriptural texts with an illuminating exploration of their reception and influence over the course of centuries.”
King’oo educates her readers lucidly and advances scholarship in striking ways.
In Miserere Mei, King’oo examines the critical importance of the Penitential Psalms in England between the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 17th century. These seven biblical prayers, which express the individual’s sorrow for sins committed and ask for God’s forgiveness, are still part of Christian religious observances today. The book takes its title from Psalm 51, which begins in Latin “Miserere mei,” or “Have mercy on me.”
The Psalms have had a profound influence on Western culture, and inspired a wealth of creative and intellectual work during the period covered by King’oo’s book.
James Simpson, co-editor of the University of Notre Dame Press ReFormations series, says of Miserere Mei, “The project is perfectly designed and expertly executed. King’oo educates her readers lucidly and advances scholarship in striking ways.” Simpson is chair of the English department at Harvard University.
The book had its genesis when King’oo, then a graduate student, began exploring some bound volumes of microfilm printouts of early English books on the shelves of a “closetlike space” in the library at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Most scholars go to modern editions of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton,” she says. “I was looking at representations of Bibles, prayer books, and catechisms in the form they were originally circulated.”
As she browsed these materials, the Penitential Psalms kept showing up, in various forms. “They seemed ubiquitous in early modern printing,” she says.
“Not only were they reproduced (sometimes with quite sexy illustrations) as prayers for repentance in the primers, but they were also expounded in sermons and commentaries, dilated in meditations, translated and paraphrased in verse, and converted into song,” King’oo notes in her book. That led her to question just why these psalms received so much attention.
The project called for her to acquire language skills in Latin, Middle English, and 16th-century German, and took her to rare book and manuscript collections in the U.S. and the U.K., including the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, where she had earned her undergraduate degree.
What emerged over the decade that followed is a study that illuminates the history of Christianity and religious plurality; the history of books and material texts; the periodization of Western culture; and even the history of sexuality – because, as King’oo observes, most instances of repentance in the Christian tradition have to do with sexual transgressions.
The central psalm (No. 51 in the Protestant tradition), and the one that gives the book its title Miserere Mei, is traditionally associated with King David and his adulterous liaison with Bathsheba. “This is the quintessential Penitential Psalm,” says King’oo.