It was originally written, as certain peculiarities of construction and vocabulary clearly show, somewhere in northern England, but of the author nothing can be learnt except the fact, which he himself tells us, that he was a cleric. He must have lived at the close of the thirteenth and at the beginning of the fourteenth century, and his poem is conjecturally assigned to about the year 1300. In form it is written in eight-syllabled couplets, but in his account of the Passion of Christ the author adopts a new metre of lines of eight and six syllables rhyming alternately.
The poet considers the Bible to be one of many sources in the history of the church. He focuses on characters more than anything else where Jesus and Mary are the central figures. According to preface of The Early English Text Society the Cursor Mundi is a collection of poignant and vivid versions of stories arranged “in an orderly, encyclopedic yet fundamentally digressive manner” .
A modern scholar rarely would find an encyclopedia with the size and vast content of the Cursor Mundi. In fact, two modern undertakings of the project add up to over seven volumes The Early English Text Society and a Southern version of the text done in five volumes The Ottawa Project simply because of the immense nature of the text. Yet, both of these versions are mere adaptations of the original Northern version. Although the poem deals with universal history, the author contrives to give some sort of unity to his work by grouping it around the theme of man's redemption.He presents himself as a chosen shepherd; a shepherd who was chosen because of his talents. He explains in an elaborate prologue how folk desire to read old romances relating to Alexander the Great, Julius Cæsar, Troy, Brutus, King Arthur, Charlemagne etc., and how only those men are esteemed that love "paramours". But earthly love is vain and full of disappointments.
After commending the author's "keen eye for the picturesque", a critic in the "Cambridge History of English Literature" remarked "The strong humanity which runs through the whole work is one of its most attractive features and shows that the writer was full of sympathy for his fellow-men."
The poem is written in early Middle English. Its nearly 30,000 lines of eight-syllable couplets are linguistically important as a solid record of the Northumbrian English dialect of the era, and it is therefore the most-often quoted single work in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Cursor Mundi interpolates material from hagiographic sources, including The Golden Legend, various Latin legendary cycles. Its description of the origins of the Tree of the Cross incorporates two different legendary sources.
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