and soul debates garnered enormous interest beginning in the twelfth
century and maintained their popularity well into the fifteenth
century. One can see evidence of this wide readership in the fact
that over 132 copies still exist of a thirteenth-century Latin version,
Visio Philiberti, and almost every major vernacular language
in Europe can boast at least one surviving manuscript version of
this debate. The Middle English translation (and re-working) of
the Visio Philiberti, entitled "þe Desputisioun
bitween þe Bodi and þe Soule," exists in seven
manuscripts, the earliest of which dates from the late-thirteenth
century. This version also demonstrates an affiliation with an earlier,
twelfth-century Latin rendering of this text, entitled the Royal
debate since it is preserved in MS Royal 7 A III in the British
While the Middle English version presented in this site was originally translated from earlier Latin renditions, the subject of this debate had been previously explored in other Old and Middle English works. Some of the theological and philosophical concerns expressed within the body and soul debates developed out of a homiletic tradition that originated before the twelfth century. These antecedent homilies developed momento-mori (literally "remember death") themes to exhort the audience to live a virtuous life, warning that death could descend at any moment.(1)
Several Old English poems also explore the relationship between the body and soul after death. In the Vercelli and Exeter versions, the soul returns weekly to address its decomposing corpse, and in the Vercelli Homily IV and the Assmann homily, the soul berates the body on Judgment day when they are rejoined. In these texts, the basic theme of the relationship between the body and the soul resembles that of the later debate poems, but the earlier works do not give the body a voice with which to respond to the soul's accusations. Though this theme, then, has its roots in earlier homiletic traditions, not until the twelfth century translation of the Visio Philiberti did the body actively enter into dialogue with the soul in a vernacular work, transforming their relationship into an argument between two equivalent sides.
1. Heningham, Eleanor Kellogg. An Early Latin Debate of the Body and Soul. Menasha, WI: George Banta Publishing Company, 1937. 52. In Ackerman, Robert W. "The Debate of the Body and the Soul and Parochial Christianity." Speculum 37.4 (Oct., 1962): 541- 65, it is also asserted that the ideas that "all men should bear constantly in mind the hideousness of the corpse on the bier and that they should also remember that true contrition destroys hell – were perhaps the admonitions most frequently and vehemently urged by mediaeval clerics both in moral tracts and in sermons" (562).