Christian Cato: A Middle English Translation of the Disticha Catonis
Horrall, Sarah M.
Florilegium, Vol. 3 (1981)
Item number 169 of Brown’s Index of Middle English Verse lists two manuscripts of Cato’s Distichs in six-line stanzas: MS Bodl. 3894 (Fair fax 14), fols. 122r-123v, and MS Bodl. 29003 (Add A. 106), fols. 1 5 V – 2 7 V . The Fairfax version is a fragment of only two leaves, coming at the end of one of the manuscripts of Cursor Mundi. The version in MS Bodl. Add. A 106 is, in fact, an entirely different translation, unrelated to that in the Fairfax manuscript. Wells recognised this,and Forster demonstrated the difference by printing a few sample verses of the present poem. Brown’s error persists,however. In one of the most recent discussions of the English versions of Cato, I.A. Brunner neglects to mention the Bodleian translation at all, although she discusses the Fairfax version. Furthermore, a mistake in the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature obscures the information given there as well.
MS Bodl. Add. A. 106 is a quarto volume of the fifteenth century, measuring 13.5 cms. x 20.5 cms. Six separate paper manuscripts are preserved together in the original fifteenth-century binding of leather over boards. The book is mainly a miscellaneous collection of medical and scientific information, but it also contains the Quatrefoil of Love.
The translation of the Distichs occupies the present fols. 15v-27v. The hand is a secretary, with the initial capitals outlined in red. The rhyme scheme, aab ccb, is indicated by red pen lines connecting the rhyme words. The dialect of the translation is a northern one.
This version of the Distichs of Cato is translated, as Forster noted, directly from the Latin, without the aid of any of the French texts available at the time. The epigrammatic Latin of each distich has been expanded to fill six lines of English verse. The work was done by a translator who was not particularly competent at writing Middle English verse, and whose Latin, furthermore, appears to have been somewhat shaky. The result is a translation with a great many line fillers, and some very strained syntax. It is possible that this translation is the result of an exercise by a not very gifted schoolboy.