THE GOLDEN EPISTLE OF S. BERNARD translated by Richard Whytford, the wretch of Sion. 1531 A.D.

This Scribe has long wished to transcribe the great Golden Epistle of S. Bernard which is found in numerous works of devotion throughout early modern England. It’s final and best form was to be the translation made by one Richard Whytford, the old wretch of Sion, Brigittine father and friend of St. Thomas More. A prolific devotional writer, Whytford is best known for his masterful translation of the Imitatio Christi. He was also the author of Certain devout and Godly petitions commonly called Jesus Psalter. As Wilfred Raynal O.S.B writes :

“The very titles of these books bespeak the troubles that had befallen him (Whytford), and also the truly apostolic vigour with which he patiently laboured at the sanctification of those who like himself needed the strength of grace to keep steadfast in the holy faith. His beautiful Jesus Psalter became widely spread amongst the Catholics of England during the persecution which they suffered for the Unity of the Catholic Church, and was to many a favourite daily devotion. Though many manuals of piety have been published within the last sixty years, still it is difficult to find in them devout aspirations so soul-stirring as those contained in Whytford’s Psalter. Had he done nothing more for English Catholics than compose this prayer, his name would still deserve to be held in benediction.”

Expect a transcription of the Jesus Psalter shortly. But here we pass over much to get to the heart of this post which is this Golden Epistle. Transcribed by Hieronymopolis from its final version which was published in A.D. 1585 with the assistance of the Syon Sisters in dispersion on the continent, and appended to the second edition of the author’s translation of the Imitatio Christi. At the head of it we find the title and under this stands a sixteenth century etching of our Blessed Lady and Child. On a label are the words :

Jesu Fili David, miserere mei.

O Mater Deo, memento mei.

Before commencing the text of the letter itself, Whytford gives “The exposition of the name of this lytle Booke.” The letter occupies twelve 12 mo pages, and at its conclusion the translator gives us a brief narrative of his labour and concludes by asking the prayers of his readers for his own soul.


and it is called a notable Lesson,

otherwise it is called the

golden Epistle.

The exposition of the name of this little Book.

¶ A right good and wholesome Lesson, profitable unto all Christians, ascribed unto S. Bernard, and put among his works, I think by some virtuous man, that would it should thereby have the more authority, and the rather be read, and better be born away : for doubtless, it is a good matter, and edificative unto all them that have zeal and care unto soul health, and desire of salvation. It is called in the Title (Notabile documentum) that is to say. A notable lesson : And some do call it the golden Epistle…

¶ If you intend to please God, and would obtain grace to fulfill the same, two things be unto you very necessary. The first, you must withdraw your mind from all worldly and transitory things, in such manner, as though you cared not whether any such things were in this world or no. The second is, that you give and apply yourself so wholly to God, and have yourself in such a way, that you never do, say, or think, that you know, suppose, or believe should offend or displease God, for by this mean you may soonest and most readily obtain and win his favor and grace. In all things esteem and account yourself most vile and most simple, and as very naught, in respect and regard of virtue : and think, suppose and believe, that all persons be good and better than you be, for so shall you much please our Lord. Whatsoever you see, or seem to perceive in any person, or yet hear of any christian, take you none occasion therein, but rather ascribe and apply you all unto the best, and think or suppose all is done or said for a good intent or purpose, though it seem contrary : for mans suspicion and light judgements be soon and lightly deceived or beguiled. Despise no person willingly, nor ever speak evil of any person, though it were never so true that you say. For it is not lawful to show in confession the vice or default of any person, except you might not otherwise show and declare your own offense. Speak little or nothing unto your proper & self laud or praise, though it were true, and unto your familiar fellow or faithful friend, but study to keep secret and privy your virtue, rather than your vice : yet were it a cruel deed for any persons to defame themself. Be more glad to give your ear and hearing unto the praise, rather than unto the dispraise of any person, and ever beware as well of hearing as speaking of detraction : and when you speak, take good deliberation, and have few words, and let those be true and good, sadly set and wisely ordered. If any words be spoken unto you of vice or vanity, as soon as ye may, break off, and leave that talk or communication. And ever return, and apply yourself unto some appointed good and godly occupation, bodily or ghostly. If any sudden chance fall or happen unto you, or unto any of yours, lean not too lightly thereunto, or care much therefore. If it be of prosperity, rejoice not much therein, or be over glad thereof : If it be adversity, be not overcast or overthrown therewith, or brought to sorrow or sadness, thank God of all, and set little thereby. Repute all things transitory as of little price or value. Give ever most thought and care unto those things, that may profit and promote the soul. Fly and avoid the persons and places of much speech, for better it is to keep silence, than to speak. Keep the times and places of silence precisely, so that you speak not without reasonable & unfeigned cause. The times of silence in religion be these. From collation unto Mass be ended after the hour of tierce : from the first grace in the fratour unto the end of the later grace. And from the beginning of evensong, unto grace be ended after supper, or else (Benedicite) after the common hour. The places of silence be the church and the claustre, the fratour and the dortour. If you be slandered, and do take occasion at the fault or offense of any person, then look well upon your self, whether you be in the same default sometime your self, and then have compassion upon your brother or sister. If there be none such default in you, think verily, and believe there may be, and then do as (in like case) you would be done unto. And thus, as in a glass ye may see and behold yourself. Grudge not, nay complain upon any person for any manner cause, except you see and perceive by large conjecture, that you may profit and edify thereby. Neither deny, nor affirm your mind or opinion stiffly or extremely, but that your affirmation, denigration, or doubt be ever powdered with salt, that is to say, wisdom discretion and patience. Use not in any wise to mock, check, or scorn, nay yet to laugh or smile but right seldom. And that alway to show reverence or loving manner, light countenance or loose behavior becometh not a sad person. Let your communication be short, and with few persons, alway of virtue, learning, or good and Christian edification, and ever with such wariness, that no persons in things doubtful may take any authority of your words or sentence. Let all your pastime be spent in bodily labours, good and profitable, or else godly in study, or that passeth all, in holy and devout prayer, so that the heart and mind be occupied with the same you speak. And when you pray for any certain persons, remember their degree, estate and condition. For a form and order of your prayer, this may be a good and ready way, to follow the order of the six grammatical cases : The nominative, the genitive, the dative, the accusative, the vocative, and the ablative. The nominative, that is, first to pray for your self, that you may have ghostly strength and constancy, that you fall not into any deadly offense by frailty, and that you may have right knowledge of God by faith, and of your self by due consideration of your estate and condition, and of the laws of God for your conduct and countenance : and thirdly, that you may have grace and good will, according to the same strength and knowledge, and that having unto God a reverent dread, you never offend in thought, word or deed, but that you may ever love him for himself, & all his creatures in due order for him, and in him. The second is the genitive case. Then must you pray for your genitors, your progenitors and parents, that is to say, your fathers and mothers spiritual and carnal, as your ghostly fathers or spiritual sovereigns, your godfathers, your godmothers, your natural father and mother, your grandfathers and grandmothers, your brothers and sisters, and all your kin. In the third place is the dative case. There must you pray for benefactors, good doers, of whom you have received any manner of gifts spiritual or temporal, unto the wealth of your soul or body. In the fourth place is the accusative case, where you should pray for your enemies, such persons as by any means have annoyed, hurt, or grieved you, either ghostly or bodily, that is to say, in your soul or manners by any suggestion, enticing, evil counsel, or evil example. In your fame or good name by detraction, backbiting, or slandering, or yet by familiar company. For a person commonly is reputed and supposed to be of such condition, as they be, with whom he hath conversation and company. And for them that hurt your body, either by strokes, or by any other occasion have hindered the state and health thereof. And likewise of your worldly goods or possessions. For all these manner of enemies must you pray, that our Lord God would forgive them as you do, and as you forgiven would be, and that they may come to right charity and peace. The fifth case is called vocative, that is to say, the calling case, where you conveniently may call, cry, and pray unto our Lord for all manner of persons that be out of the state of grace, either by infidelity, as Turks, Saracens, and such other : or else by error, as all manner of heretics : or else by any deadly sin or offense to God. Pray for all these manner of persons, that they may come unto the right way of their salvation. In the sixth and last place is the ablative case, where thou must pray for all them that be taken out of this life, and that died or passed the same life in charity, and that now have need of prayer. In the which you may keep a form of the same order that is before, that is to say : Instead of the nominative, where you prayed for yourself, you may now pray for all those that do bide in pain for any default or offense done by your example or occasion : and for the genitive in the second place, for your parents and all your kin departed this life. And in the third place for the dative, pray for your benefactors passed. And for the accusative in the fourth place, you may pray for them that live in pain, for any occasion or example that they gave unto you. And in the fifth place for tyhe vocative, pray for all them that have greatest pains in purgatory, and least help here by the suffrage of prayers. And for the ablative in the sixth and last place, pray for all souls in general. And that you may be the more apt to pray, call three things oft times to remembrance, that is to say, what you have been, what you be, and what you shall be. First, by reason of your body, you were conceived of the most filthy abominable matter of man, shameful to be spoken, far more vile than the sludge or slime of the earth, and after born in a sinful soul, & purged only by grace. And now (as unto thy body) you be a muckheap or dunghill of filth, more vile than any upon earth, if you remember what doth issue daily, and come forth out of the meats of your body. And your soul is daily in some sin, or (at the least) full like to be. What you shall be as unto your body, you may see in experience, worms meat, and earth again. And what shall become of your soul, no man in this world can assure you. To remember then the joys of heaven, and pains of hell, and that both be infinite, endless, and without rebate, but both ever increasing and never ceasing, never have ease nor rest, but ever continue & everlasting. To remember then, I say, these things may greatly move you to have your self in a good way, and to study how you may avoid the one, & obtain the other. Remember specially how great a loss it is to lose heaven, and how uncomfortable gains to win hell, and how soon and how lightly either of them may be gotten or lost. When any thing then of adversity, hurt, or displeasure happen unto you, think then or imagine, that if you were in hell, you should have the same displeasure and many worse. And so to avoid those, you shall here the better suffer, and for our Lord the more particularly bear all these that now be present, or any that may come hereafter. And in like manner, if any good prosperity or pleasure happen unto you, think then that if you were in heaven, you should have that pleasure and many more excellent joys. And so for the fervent desire of those joys, you shall set little by any worldly comfort or pleasure. A good contemplation therefore may it be unto you in feasts of holy Saints, to think and record how great pains they suffered here for the love of our Lord, and how short these were, and how soon passed : and then again how marvelous reward they had therefore in joy and bliss everlasting. So the trouble and torments of good persons be soon and shortly gone and ended, and the joys and pleasures of sinful persons do soon fade and fly forever. The good persons for their troubles suffered here upon earth, do get and win eternal and everlasting glory, which the evil persons do lose. And contrary, these evil and sinful persons for their joy and pleasures here, do receive by exchange eternal and everlasting shame & rebuke, with pain and woe unspeakable. Whensoever then you be disposed to sluggishness, or to be drowsy, remiss in prayers, or dull in devotion, then take this little work, or else some other good Treatise, and read therein, and ever note well the contents thereof, then shift unto some other work or occupation, so that ever you avoid idleness, and all vain pastimes, which indeed is loss of time. And then remember, that those that now bide in pain, either in hell, or yet in purgatory, for such times so passed or lost, had rather than all the world have such time to redeem their pains by, as you may have if you will. Time then unto all persons well occupied, is very precious and dear. Beware well therefore, how you spend it or pass it, for you can never revoke it nor call it back. If the time pass you by trouble & vexation, think they be happy and gracious, that be past this wretched life, and now in bliss, for they shall never have any such misery. And when you feel a comfort or consolation spiritual, thank God thereof, & think the damned souls shall never have any such pleasure. And thus let this be for your exercise in the dative. At night when you go to rest, first make account with yourself, and remember how you have spent or passed the day and time that was given you to be used in virtue, and how you have bestowed your thoughts, your words, & your works. And if you find no great thing amiss, give the whole laud and praise unto our Lord God. And if you perceive contrary, that you have misspent any part thereof, be sorry therefore, and beseech our Lord of mercy & forgiveness, and promise, and verily purpose to make amends the next day. And if you have opportunity thereupon, it shall be full convenient for you to be confessed on the next morrow, and specially, if the matter done, said or thought by deliberate consent, do grievously weigh & work with a grudge in your conscience, then would I advice you never to eat nor drink, till ye be discharged thereof, if you may conveniently get a ghostly father. Now for a conclusion of this work, put before you, as by case or imagination two large Cities, one full of trouble, turmoil and misery, & let that be hell. The other City full of joy, gladness, comfort and pleasure, and let that be heaven. Look well on them both, for in both be many dwellers and great company, Then cast and think within yourself, what thing here might so please you, that you should chose the worse city, or what thing should displease you on the other part, whereby you should withdraw yourself from that virtue that might convey and bring you unto the other city. And when you have studied well hereupon, and can nothing find, I dare well assure you, if you keep well the precepts and counsels of this little lesson, you shall find the right way, for the holy ghost will instruct & teach you, where you be not sufficient of yourselves, so you endeavour and give diligence to bear away and follow that here is taught. Read it every week once or twice, or oftener if you will. And where you profit, give the thanks, laud, and praise unto our Lord God, and most sweet Saviour Jesu Christ, who send you his mercy and grace, that alway liveth God world without end. Amen.

¶ This lesson was brought unto me in English of an old translation, rough and rude, with request to amend it. I thought less labor to write new the whole, which I have done according to the meaning of the author, though not word for word : and in divers places added some things following upon the same, to make the matter more sententious and full. I beseech you take all unto the best, and pray for the old wretched brother of Sion, Richard Whitforde.


1 Comment

Filed under Recusant History

One response to “THE GOLDEN EPISTLE OF S. BERNARD translated by Richard Whytford, the wretch of Sion. 1531 A.D.

  1. Golden Epistle is now attributed to William of St. Thierry, not St. Bernard.

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