Help the Historian! – MS “History Mystery” solved!

On Monday, I mentioned how I’ve been reading a lot of interesting documents lately, including some very cool and very old Clark House related manuscripts, and I was puzzled by this bit of manuscript marginalia, found in an old religious book, a real History Mystery:

I noted that this handwriting may (or may not) be a variation on the English writing style known as Secretary hand. I was stumped, and asked you readers to Help the Historian! with this mysterious passage. And although I didn’t have any prizes to award—except eternal fame and glory throughout our vast Clark House Historian readership—I hoped someone would step forward and claim their virtual laurel wreath. Well, the week is over, and the winner is…

Google search!

Unfortunately, none of our readers submitted any guesses. So I went (back) to Google search, and entered my messy, partial attempt at transcribing the first line of our text, which read:

The man is blest that hath [???] in the [Lord?], he shall be like not bent to [???] of god the Lord

And wouldn’t you know it? I got a hit. It turns out that this is—more or less—the beginning of Psalm i, in the metrical English translation by Thomas Sternhold (d. 1549).

Thomas Sternhold

Sternhold is solely remembered as the originator of the first metrical version of the Psalms which obtained general currency alike in England and Scotland. […] Sternhold and Hopkins’s version has had a larger circulation than any work in the language, except the authorised version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer […].

His first edition undated, but, as being dedicated to Edward VI, not earlier than 1547, contains nineteen psalms (i–v, xx, xxv, xxviii, xxix, xxxii, xxxiv, xli, xlix, lxxiii, lxxviii, ciii, cxx, cxxiii, cxxviii). It was printed by Edward Whitchurch, and is entitled ‘Certayne Psalmes chosē out of the Psalter of Dauid and drawē into Englishē Metre by Thomas Sternhold, grome of ye Kynges Maiesties Roobes’ (Brit. Museum).

The second edition, printed after his death—apparently by John Hopkins, who adds seven psalms of his own in order to fill in a blank space, deprecating comparison with Sternhold’s ‘most exquisite doynges’—added to those of the former edition eighteen new psalms (vi–xvii, xix, xxi, xliii, xliv, lxiii, lxviii). It is entitled ‘Al such Psalmes of Dauid as Thomas Sternhold, late grome of the Kinges maiesties robes, did in his lyfetime drawe into English Metre,’ and is printed by Edward Whitchurche in 1549 (Cambridge University Library). Three more psalms (xviii, xxii, xxiii) are added to these in a very rare edition of the growing Psalter printed by John Daye in 1561, and the complete number (40) appears in the full editions of 1562, 1563, and all subsequent ones. […] The text of his psalms, as found in all editions subsequent to 1556, follows the Genevan revision of that year.1

Sternhold and Hopkins’s metrical (i.e., singable) translations of the Psalms were immensely influential in the history of the English protestant church, as well as the history of book publishing and of the English language itself. Their versions of the Psalms were reprinted many times. Here is the title page of an early edition of Sternhold and Hopkins’s “Whole Booke of Psalmes,” published in 1584, only 35 year’s after Sternhold’s death.

Sternhold, Thomas, John Hopkins, et. al, The Whole Booke of Psalmes, collected into English metre, London, John Daye, 1584, title page. Complete pdf text of this Princeton University copy via

Deciphering the text

Now that I had a plausible solution to our mystery text, I needed to compare Sternhold’s metrical translation of Psalm i with our MS text. One of the key issues in reading our MS text was deciding how many paragraphs we have. Is it one big paragraph, occupying the entire left-to-right available space (i.e., the red rectangle, here)?

Or did the MS author use the book’s pre-printed vertical lines as paragraph breaks, to write three shorter MS paragraphs (i.e., the red, blue and dark green rectangles, here)?

My initial impression was that the MS author wrote one big paragraph, spanning the width of the page from left to right. But I was wrong. It turns out that the MS is organized into three shorter paragraphs after all.

An accurate transcription

So with the three-paragraph structure in mind, here is an accurate transcription of our MS text. The three paragraphs encompass all of Psalm i, verses 1 through 3. The left paragraph (red line numbers), contains all but the last two words of verse 1:

1. the mane is
2. blest that hath
3. not bent to wic[-]
4. ked red his ear
5. nor led his life
6. as sinar[blurred “s” ] doe
7. nor sset in his [sic]
[8. missing/cropped: scorners chaire]

The middle paragraph (blue line numbers) gives us all but the final two words of verse 2:

1. but in the Law
2. of god the Lord
3. doth set his hol
4. delight and in
5. that law doth
6. exersise him
7. self both day
[8. missing/cropped: and night]

The rightmost paragraph (green line numbers) ends our MS example with most of verse 3:

1. he shall be lyke
2. the tre that
3. groweth fast
4. by the riversid
5. which bringeth
6. forth most
7. [p]lesant frut
[8. missing: in her due tyme and tyde.]

Understanding and dating the text

Through other research, I know that our MS text was written on this page no earlier than 1579. (I’ll have more details on that in a future post.) And because the MS was written in Secretary hand, it was probably written before about 1700, or perhaps 1750 at the very latest.

Earlier, we noted that when transcribing and translating older English one should not be concerned with spelling variations (i.e., “wrong spellings”). Spelling was phonetic and non-standardized at this time. For example, it’s wise to ignore final “e” letters on words like mane (= man) and doe (= do).

“Now obsolete…”

Sometimes transcription becomes more difficult when we bump into obscure or completely obsolete words and phrases. The noun spelled “red” in our MS, is one such word. The more typical spelling of this archaic word is “rede” or even “read.” It’s pronounced “reed” and means “counsel.” Later editions of the metrical Psalms went as far as to substitute “counsel” for “rede,” even though that interferes with the poetic rhythm. So verse 1 might be translated into modern prose as “The man is blessed, that has not bent his ear to wicked counsel.”

The second half of this first verse includes another obscure item, the “scorner’s chair.”

Nor led his life as sinners do, nor sate in scorners chaire.

I’d never heard of the “scorner’s chair,” and after some research, I’m still not clear if the “scorner’s chair” (sometimes “scorner’s seat”) was an actual chair or not. Presumably, the “scorner” was a church member that was known to scorn or disdain the Scriptures (whether by word or deed). Was there once an actual seat in churches where the scorner had to sit, held up to ridicule, as a punishment for him or her and as an example for the rest of the congregation? Or is “scorner’s chair” simply a metaphor in the Psalm? I don’t know enough church and biblical history to tell which is correct.2

Sing along!

The title page of our 1584 edition states that this book of metrical Psalms was:

Newly set forth and allowed to be song of all the people together, in all Churches, before and after Mornyng and Evening prayer: as also before & after the Sermons, and moreover in priuate houses, for their godly solace and comfort, laying apart all ungodly songes and ballades, which tend onely to the nourishing of vyce and corrupting of youth.

And as our readers may enjoy singing—but neither wish to nourish vice, nor corrupt our youth—here is all of Psalm i, in Sterndale’s poetic translation, complete with an appropriate melody, as published on pages 30-31 of the same 1584 edition of the Whole Booke of Psalms, for use in any place, including your “priuate houses.”3

Coming up…

Now that we’ve solved our History Mystery!, I intend to wrap up our Alfred Bonniwell document series with a few more posts, and then get back to some overdue Clark family stories and documents.

Until then, keep singing!



  1. This information is excerpted from Henry Leigh Bennett’s entry for Sternhold in the UK’s Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, vol. 54., digitized and available through Wikisource; paragraph breaks added for ease of reading. Click the link for a more comprehensive look at Sternhold’s life, his work with John Hopkins, and the history of their metrical translation of the Psalms.

  2. Oxford Biblical Studies Online give the text of the first verse in this modern, presumably literal, translation:

    Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;

    The attached notes do not discuss the “seat of scoffers.” Other online sources consulted were also silent on the matter. For what it’s worth, I’m leaning towards the phrase as metaphor.

  3. The music for the Psalm is written what we now call tenor clef, which shows that the fourth line of the staff represents middle-C. There is one flat, a B-flat, in the key signature. Those of you that play the cello, bassoon, or read from older tenor trombone or tenor voice music will be right at home. For those that have never had the pleasure of playing from tenor clef, here’s a start: the notes on the first line of music are D-F-D-G-F-B-flat-A-A. Go for it!

    And yes, if you think the tune rambles a bit and is not very memorable, I agree. My guess is that this tune may have been adapted from a pre-existing Gregorian chant melody; it may have been familiar to 16th-century former-Catholic English worshipers. But it’s not as “tuneful” in the way that other contemporary Psalm tunes were, such as “Old Hundredth,” composed in Geneva by Louys Bourgeois.

    One useful element of Sternhold’s metrical translations is that they are almost all in the same poetic rhyme scheme, known as Common Meter. Knowing that, you can substitute any tune written for one common meter text with any other tune that fits any other common meter text. So, for example, you could sing Sternhold’s words for this Psalm to, say, the familiar tune of “Amazing Grace” (also a common meter text), and it works very well.

    Off-topic bonus: this tune-substitution trick has provided amusement for generations of choristers, who long ago noted that many common meter secular tunes work just as well as the sacred melodies for singing the text of the day. Along the same lines, many of the poems of Emily Dickinson are also written in common meter, including famous verses such as “Because I could not stop for death.” (You didn’t read it here, but the texts—and tunes—of “Old MacDonald” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas” are in common meter, and both melodies will work with either Sternhold’s or Dickinson’s texts.)

One thought on “Help the Historian! – MS “History Mystery” solved!

  1. Pingback: The Bonniwell Bible comes home to Mequon | Clark House Historian

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