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Make We Merry More and Less

 | 
Jane Bliss
, 
Douglas Gray

Introduction

Texte intégral

  • 1 Ritson, Pieces of ancient popular poetry (1791); Hazlitt, Remains of the popular poetry of (...)

The nineteenth century saw the appearance of a number of anthologies of medieval English and Scottish popular literature, from Ritson’s Pieces of ancient popular poetry to Hazlitt’s Remains.1 There have not been many modern attempts, which suggests a waning of enthusiasm. There is probably no single simple explanation for this: in part it may be due to academic distrust of areas where the material seems to be uncertain, and its relationships and developments even more so; partly to the increasing specialism of literary studies and a growing separation between literary and folklore studies. Although there have been some very valuable contributions from the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, modern English departments rarely devote much time to popular literature in their medieval courses. Even ballads, ‘rediscovered’ in the eighteenth century, rarely appear in lectures on medieval English literature. But possibly an even greater problem has been the real difficulties which are presented by the notion of ‘popular literature’ and of attempts to define or illustrate it.

  • 2 Victor E. Neuberg, Popular literature (1977); and see Gray’s Simple Forms, p. 240.

1In making this anthology I have used, as a general definition, the following (boldly adapted from the suggestion offered in Neuburg’s Popular Literature, a fine study which runs from the beginning of printing to the year 1897): ‘popular literature is what the unsophisticated reader or hearer was given for pleasure and instruction’.2 Obviously there is much room for questioning or disagreement with such a very general description, and even more in deciding what we might include in popular literature, and with the criteria we use for inclusion or exclusion. Nor are the related questions — who wrote it? and who read or heard it? — without problems.

  • 3 Known as Vidua, this story is usually told against women; it is best known in the collecti (...)
  • 4 See first Gesta Romanorum, Swan and Hooper, pp. 259–99; where it is entitled ‘Of Temporal (...)
  • 5 Gerould, The Ballad of Tradition, p. 11.

2It is possible to give a general description of Middle English popular literature, but the details often remain uncertain. It is clear from many references in our surviving texts that there was an extensive oral ‘folk’ literature. This is now lost, except for what is preserved in scraps and snippets in those texts. Poets and moralists will occasionally give us the title of a popular song or a stanza from it; examples are to be found throughout this anthology. These can give us glimpses into this lost world; and moreover, we can find patterns and plots from oral folktales underlying some of our written narratives. But these ‘glimpses of ghosts’ are not really numerous or substantial enough to make an anthology from. However, they remind us of a very important point: that though this world is lost to us it was not lost to the literate writers of the period, and it continued for centuries. This world was not a static one: stories and songs were composed, handed on, revised and changed, and this probably had been the case for centuries. The ‘simple forms’ of this oral literature — folktales, narratives, wisdom literature (proverbs or riddles), and songs, dances and dramatic performances — had already left their mark on the literature of the ancient world: animal fables (from Aesop onwards), merry tales like the Widow of Ephesus,3 even ‘romances’ like Apollonius of Tyre (a favourite story in the Middle Ages)4 and Greek romances. Based on the findings of modern scholarship, on later examples from ‘traditional’ societies, and on the evidence of written Middle English texts which seem to be close to the oral literature (or perhaps conscious imitations of it), we can make an informed guess as to the stylistic characteristics of this oral literature, such as: a simple and direct vocabulary, an ‘anonymous’ objective style, the use of repetition and recapitulation for emphasis, with the oral performance rather than literary rhetorical arts controlling the audience’s emotions, and tending to produce a dramatic style of narration, ‘letting the action unfold itself in event and speech’.5 An oral poet or storyteller would usually have a close relationship with his or her immediate audience, and would be sensitive to local conditions, but not deeply influenced by prevailing ‘literary’ fashions. However, it existed alongside a growing body of written literature with which it could relate.

  • 6 The Songs of Rawlinson MS. C 813, eds Padelford and Benham.
  • 7 Richard Hills Commonplace-Book, ed. Dyboski.

3We can apply the term ‘popular’ to a large body of literature occupying an intermediate position between the lost oral literature and the sophisticated literature written by literate ‘learned’ writers for society’s élite readers. This popular literature was for the entertainment and instruction of humble folk, some partly literate, some not at all. Our knowledge of it is dependent on surviving manuscripts and printed books. Perhaps we may sense some general stylistic changes over time, from the Early Middle English Rawlinson songs (which seem very close to their oral antecedents)6 to the sometimes more literary style of some items in the early sixteenth-century manuscript of Richard Hill,7 but it is difficult to generalise about ‘development’. The spread of literacy during the period seems to have encouraged the development of what was to become the ‘reading class’ of later times. However, most popular literature was for a long time enjoyed through performance — by reading aloud, reciting, or singing — in streets, halls, and meeting places. It was performed by a large number of ‘entertainers’: mostly anonymous, like the ballad writers and singers of later centuries, written by some of them, and by others who recorded stories and songs, and retold or recreated works from the literary élite. Some of them were capable of translating works from French; some were probably clerics, but in close touch with their layfolk and with popular culture, parish clerks or preaching friars; some perhaps scribes or others who worked at the edges of manuscript production. Others, no doubt, were would-be authors, professionals or semi-professionals, sometimes hacks (like their successors in modern times), but sometimes writers with genuine literary talent. Many of them were, no doubt, more aware of élite literary trends and fashions than the makers and performers of oral folk literature. This intermediate body of literature is ‘popular’ by destination, intended for the entertainment and the information of simple folk, and also ‘popular’ by origin, coming from the ‘people’, from writers within that group or close to it.

  • 8 See, for example, Simple Forms, pp. 8 and 10–14.

4Who read or heard it? The unsophisticated, who were not part of the literary, intellectual, or social élite, were probably a large part of the audience. ‘Listneth lordings’ is a polite call for attention, but some carols suggest a less deferential view. The audience must have been very varied in composition and behaviour. We need also to remember that medieval society, though stratified, was a class system which allowed contact and communication between the classes. Stories originating in both lower and higher levels could migrate upwards or downwards. So most members of the literary élite were exposed — in various ways, and in some part of their lives — to popular literature, and sometimes remembered or made use of it. Both Geoffrey Chaucer and Robert Henryson must have read (and perhaps heard) popular romances. Literacy was spreading throughout the period; but the categories of ‘literate’ and ‘illiterate’ are not straightforward or self-contained groups set in opposition, but were rather a series of gradations. And the illiterate or partly literate could — and did — have books read to them.8

  • 9 Burke, Popular Culture, cited in Simple Forms (p. 4).

5When we try to define the parameters of the large and heterogeneous body of writing, further difficulties arise. The literary culture of the Middle Ages is full of overlaps and interactions. Social historians are very aware of this. Peter Burke, for instance, distinguishes a ‘great’ learned tradition and a ‘little’ popular tradition.9 The élite had access to both, but the ‘folk’ had only the ‘little’ tradition. We have already had a hint of this when we claimed that alongside an oral folk literature there was a written literature, and that popular literature flourished beside a sophisticated learned or courtly literature. These apparently distinct concepts often have vague or uncertain boundaries. This is the case even with the apparently distinct categories of ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ literature. It therefore seems to me unprofitable to think of two clearly marked and opposed divisions of ‘popular’ and ‘learned / courtly / sophisticated’ literature. Rather we should think of a spectrum, running from the (lost) oral literature through those popular texts which seem close to it, to those popular texts which are close to the undoubtedly sophisticated courtly poetry, and to that élite writing itself.

  • 10 On texts such as ‘Erthe toc of erthe’ (in chapter 7, F, xxi, below) see Boklund-Lagopoulou (...)
  • 11 Gray does not include any of these ‘lais’, which are in French, in this anthology. Readers (...)
  • 12 In Rymes, Dobson & Taylor. Robin Hood and many others can be found, with narratives and re (...)
  • 13 Rauf Coilyear, ed. Herrtage.

6It is not, of course, a scientifically exact spectrum. The overlaps and interactions complicate matters enormously. Many literary historians would echo the remark of Boklund-Lagopoulou: ‘when dealing with material of this sort, the distinction between popular and learned culture breaks down’;10 and we can glimpse some remarkable interactions and transformations. Marie de France apparently based some of her elegant literary lais on Breton stories and folktales, producing a very sophisticated narrative form;11 the Middle English popular versions of these seem to simplify them, even to bring them back into something not unlike their original form. But the awareness of courtly literature which we may sometimes sense in popular writers can also be problematic. The Gest of Robyn Hood begins with a motif apparently similar to that found in Arthurian romances, where the hero will not eat until some wonderful event occurs: ‘Than bespake hym gode Robyn, To dyne have I noo lust, Till that I have som bolde baron, Or som uncouth gest’ (stanza 6). Is this a hint of gentle parody, or is the author simply using a proven effective narrative device to excite anticipation?12 Similarly, one could argue over the nature of the relationship of the tale of Rauf Coilyear to the Charlemagne romances with which the author was certainly familiar.13 Sometimes we have popularised versions of courtly narratives.

  • 14 Gray has not included anything by John of Ireland, or Bishop Pecock; their work may be con (...)
  • 15 The Kingis Quair of James Stewart, ed. McDiarmid. All Chaucer references have been checked (...)
  • 16 The Owl and the Nightingale, ed. Stanley; Sir Orfeo and The Tournament of Tottenham are in (...)

7It seems well-nigh impossible to place our specimens in a fixed place on that spectrum, beyond a general statement that some seem to be closer to the élite, sophisticated work of ‘literary’ authors, and some closer to the lost oral folk literature. Close to the élite pole, inhabited by French courtly romance but not, presumably, by the Middle English ‘popular’ versions of them: books of serious theology, written by theologians for other theologians (though these would usually be written in Latin). Some vernacular theological works, written for laymen, like John of Ireland’s Meroure of Wysdom, or possibly the writings of Bishop Pecock, would probably qualify as ‘popular’, though close to the élite pole.14 At this pole we would place the sophisticated literary writers of England, like Chaucer or Gower, or Lydgate, and James I of Scotland, probable author of the Kingis Quair (one of a few works, like Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, which are remarkable for the paucity or absence of ‘popular’ elements).15 The case of Langland is more problematic: he is undoubtedly in touch with popular idiom and concerns, but his theology is perhaps less ‘popular’ and his work seems to have been transmitted through (numerous) manuscripts. I have not included him, but have included the talented anonymous authors of Sir Orfeo and The Owl and the Nightingale. I have included the Tournament of Tottenham,16 a fine, hearty burlesque, but not Chaucer’s sophisticated pastiche in Sir Thopas. However, I would not be surprised or unduly distressed if others disagreed with my decisions. Pieces close to the ‘oral’ end of the spectrum do not at first sight raise so many questions, but there is one large complicating factor to consider before we start talking about the ‘voice of the people’: the possibility of imitation. It is certainly possible that learned ‘clerkly’ writers may have consciously or unconsciously imitated the style of some oral poems, perhaps sometimes in the case of bawdy songs? And sometimes we can see the widespread mixture of popular and learned ideas and style.

  • 17 The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Meech et al. In ch. 45 she asks Christ to delay punishing h (...)
  • 18 In The Paston Letters.
  • 19 In the chapter Ballads, below.
  • 20 Emaré is in Six Middle English Romances, ed. Mills. The previous scene is cited from Sir O (...)
  • 21 Gray, Simple Forms, pp. 79–80 and passim. See Rymes for Adam and his fellows.
  • 22 In Two English Border Ballads, ed. Arngart, but Gray more probably used the five-volume Ch (...)
  • 23 Baugh, ‘Improvisation in the Middle English Romance’.

8What are the criteria for placing any Middle English work in the category of ‘popular literature’? I think the honest answer is that they are ultimately subjective, but are based on generally rational (but not absolutely watertight) guidelines. Some are stylistic. The vocabulary is usually simple, plain and direct; there is not usually anything like the ‘aureate diction’ of Lydgate and others. Sometimes we find rather down-to-earth colloquial speech: ‘crack thy crown’ in the Gest of Robyn Hode (stanza 158), or Margery Kempe’s words to Christ.17 But there are some examples of linguistic ‘game’, like Paston’s doggerel verse,18 or the apparently meaningless drinking exclamations ‘fusty bandias’ and ‘stryke pantere’ in The King and the Hermit (in our chapter 5). Sometimes a discourse sounds sententious or semi-proverbial. And some texts (like The Owl and the Nightingale) make extensive use of popular proverbs. Popular texts do not have the elaborate formal rhetoric of some courtly writings; sometimes, as in oral literature, the emphasis seems to be given by the words and the ‘performance’ of the narrator. Only the simplest figures and devices are used: exclamations from the ‘narrator’, frequent use of direct speech, and repetition: the ballad of Saint Stephen and Herod has a clear hint of the ‘incremental repetition’ which is characteristic of later ballads (in the repeated phrase ‘I forsak the, kyng Herowdes and thi werkes alle’).19 There is much use of emphatic repetition, as in the sad scenes of Orfeo’s departure from his kingdom where ‘wepeing’ is repeated (cf. Emaré: ‘the lady fleted forth alon… The lady and the lytyll chylde Fleted forth on the water wylde’;20 or Adam Bell ‘ ‘‘Set fyre on the house!’’ saide the sherife… they fyred the house in many a place’;21 or the Battle of Otterburn:22 ‘ “Awaken, Dowglas!” cryed the knight’). Recapitulation becomes a kind of echoic narrative device. And we should note the way in which old ‘formulaic’ adjectives can be brought to life and given a new power (like the ‘proude sherrif’ of Nottingham). There is much use of formulae, not always simple clichés or filler phrases, which seem to derive ultimately from the lost oral works where they could have been useful for improvisation. A sensitive ear can detect these formulae and repetitions even under the elegant stylistic surface of Sir Orfeo. Narratives often use common themes (‘a recurrent element of narration or description in traditional oral poetry’),23 such as the arming of the hero, combats, feasts, prayers, and so on. There is a liking for simple metrical forms such as couplets or quatrains, both eminently suitable for recitation, reading aloud, or singing. But the popular writers show that they can cope with alliterative verse and with quite complex stanza forms.

  • 24 See our chapter 4, Tales, number xvi.
  • 25 In Middle English Verse Romances (Sands gives other references).
  • 26 For the Loathly Lady, see inter al. Bliss, Naming and Namelessness (index references).
  • 27 The Turke and Sir Gawain, in Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, ed. Hahn.
  • 28 In Six Middle English Romances, ed. Mills.
  • 29 In PFMS.
  • 30 For Thomas, see first the index and references in Gray’s Simple Forms. Helen Cooper treats (...)
  • 31 The Tale of the Basyn is in Hazlitt, and elsewhere (the text is given in our ch. 5, below)

9In narrative the figures are strongly differentiated, but are not usually given detailed description (as is sometimes the case in courtly romances) but are presented simply and emphatically, often using repetition of a telling detail. There is a liking for direct speech and dialogue. Sometimes a narrative will consist of a series of expressive scenes given emphasis by exclamations from the narrator. A modern reader needs to remember that these texts are meant to be heard. Many are in a kind of ‘performative’ style. There are many examples to be found in our ballads, romances, and tales like The Childe of Bristowe.24 There is not much interest in psychological elaboration. We find sudden changes of attitude, rather than the self-conscious ‘interiority’ of courtly French romance, with a character debating within his mind what action he should take. Often there will be only a limited number of characters involved. ‘Characterisation’ is usually very simple, and usually revealed through a character’s speech and deeds. Nor is there much ambiguity: characters tend to be ‘black’ or ‘white’; so, Godard is totally evil in contrast to Havelock or Goldeboru in the romances of Havelock.25 They range from the highest in society to the humblest (like the fisherman Grim). But the high usually talk and behave like ordinary people, as in later Scottish ballads, like Herod in Saint Stephen and Herod, or Orfeo, a ‘high lording’ and a harper (although his harp has magical power), who shows a simple fidelity and love. But there are some grotesque figures, such as the Turk or the Loathly Lady,26 and sudden (sometimes violent) changes of emotion or circumstances, or extreme requests, as when the Turk asks Gawain to cut his head off — which produces a typically ‘gentil’ reaction from Gawain.27 This is followed by a magic transformation: ‘And whan the blod was in the bason light, He stod up a stalworth knight’. In Sir Gowther a disguised fiend suddenly reveals himself: ‘A felturd [shaggy] fende he start up son And stod and hur beheld’.28 Here the supernatural and the world of magic is very close at hand — and, interestingly, almost without any immediate reaction from the human figures involved (a technique which suggests the traditional folktale or Märchen). More usually, there is some reaction, as in a tale or legend (German Sage), as with the entry of the beautiful fairy mistress in Sir Lambewell.29 Magic can be impressively eerie: Thomas of Erceldoune went his way ‘whare it was dirke als mydnyght myrke and ever the water till his knee’.30 Demons and spirits are close to humans, even in comic tales, like that of the Basin.31 And animals talk and act like humans.

  • 32 In Chevelere Assigne, ch. 3 below.
  • 33 Fytte 3, stanza 191.

10Medieval English popular literature may not have the subtlety of the best work of the literary élite. But it has its moments of delight, often in touches of comedy: young Enyas being prepared for battle,32 or the moment when the truth is suddenly revealed to the Sheriff in the Gest of Robyn Hood: ‘Whan the sheriff sawe his vessel For sorowe he myght not ete.’33

  • 34 In the verse where it appears (see ch. 9), ‘more and lesse’ means ‘both high and low’. But (...)
  • 35 In Richard Hills Commonplace-Book, p. 15, Carol number 27 (number 6 begins similarly: ‘No (...)

11The title of this anthology deserves an explanatory note. The phrase ‘make we mery, bothe more and lasse’ is not meant to evoke or endorse a sentimental view of ‘Merry England’.34 There is plenty of evidence for extreme misery and hardship in this period. The ‘folk’ suffered continuously: there were wars, rumours of wars, strife and violence, sickness and plague, as well as lesser troubles. And some of the suffering is reflected in popular literature; the texts in our Chapter 1 give more than a hint of this. We find examples of violence, murder or riots, quarrels in the streets, and a lynching in which was shown ‘neither mercie nor pite’. The phrase in question comes in fact from the ‘burden’ of a carol from MS Balliol 354, the early sixteenth-century commonplace book of Richard Hill, grocer of London, the source of several pieces in this anthology: ‘Make we mery bothe more and lasse, For now ys the tyme of Crystymas’.35 Perhaps in performance this burden would have been sung by a group, and the three stanzas by a single singer, who sounds like a master of the festivities: he is dismissive of whoever says he cannot sing, and the man who claims that he can do no other sport is to go to the stocks. It seems to be good evidence for a passionate desire for ‘game’, which is not limited to this great festive season.

  • 36 Meaning: although things have turned out badly for you. Whiting M 513.
  • 37 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. Burrow, vv. 1681–2.

12Sometimes, it seems, these calls to make merry sound like heroic attempts to find merriment in harsh circumstances. One proverb urges: ‘Be thou mery, thow thou be hard betid’.36 Of course sentiments like this are not confined to popular culture; cf. the Green Knight’s sententious remark: ‘Make we mery while we may and mynne upon joy, For the lur [sorrow] may mon lach [have] whenso mon likes.’37 But perhaps the harshness of life helped to accentuate one quality in popular merriment: a liking for successful ‘tricksterism’, as witnessed by the cunning tricks of Reynard or the disguises and deceits of Robin Hood or Little John, or the merry stratagems of the comic tale or fabliau. So some proverbs instruct you to look after yourself rather than be altruistic to others.

  • 38 Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p. 1.

13Like the sophisticated literature of the time, popular literature enjoys the mingling of ‘game’ and ‘ernest’. This is not usually done with the delicate touch of a Chaucer, although there is perhaps a hint of it in the uneasy jesting relationship between the main figures in The King and the Hermit or in Rauf Coilyear. Huizinga argued that play is of central importance in culture itself. Indeed his study opens with the statement: ‘Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society. And animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing’.38 But, it might be argued, mankind finally caught up with them in the fiction that animals can not only talk and act like humans, but also instruct them.

  • 39 ‘Notes towards a Theory of Medieval Comedy’, Medieval Comic Tales, ed. Brewer (1972).
  • 40 In Early Middle English Verse and Prose.
  • 41 Homo Ludens, p. 10.

14‘Game’ was of great importance in medieval culture, both popular and sophisticated; see the excellent Afterword to Medieval Comic Tales:39 it was deep-seated, going well beyond simple explanations like ‘letting off steam’. Parody sometimes seems to have been part of life: the courtly praise of the lady’s beauty seems to produce, almost automatically, detailed descriptions of her ugliness. A fine example is the Early Middle English Land of Cokaygne,40 where the world of monasticism and the description of the joys of the Earthly Paradise are turned completely upside down. It has, on the one hand, affinities with the world of ‘nonsense’ writing and, on the other, it demonstrates how play can create its own order (as Huizinga said, within a playground ‘an absolute and peculiar order reigns’).41 Play was important in all levels of medieval culture and literature, but in popular literature it has a special intensity, and shows a remarkable variety.

  • 42 Ibid. chapter ‘Play and Contest as Civilizing Functions’.
  • 43 For a full chapter on ballads, see Simple Forms (pp. 71–88).
  • 44 Chapter I Section A, Snatches and Snippets (iii) below.

15Contests are an important setting for ‘play’ in early societies, as Huizinga pointed out.42 And they were still widespread in Middle English popular literature, from the bird debate in the Owl and the Nightingale to the Mystery Plays. We have examples of the ancient riddle contest in the ballads of the Devil and the Maid and King John and the Bishop (and they still contain the ancient forfeit of death).43 They are found in the outlaw ballads; and in festival games (see one of the earliest fragments in our anthology, ‘atte wrastlinge… ’).44 Besides the seasonal folk festival there were flytings and slanging matches in the streets. Contests are important in narratives, in ballads (Stephen and Herod), in merry tales, and in romances. There we find contests and confrontations in plenty: violence in earnest, as in the ballads of Otterburn, or murder (Sir Aldingar), and in game (the Robin Hood ballads, plays and games).

  • 45 It seems clear from Simple Forms that Gray probably used the first edition (1972) of Medie (...)

16‘Variety’ and ‘intensity’ are words very hard to avoid in any discussion of ‘mirth’ in popular literature. Medieval comedy is often cruel — it will make fun of the old, the malformed, and the unfortunate — but there is much evidence of its joyous involvement in the sheer fun of ‘play’. There are examples of what Bernard O’Donoghue has aptly called ‘cheerful indecency’, which occasionally seems close to Rabelaisian heights of obscenity (as Brewer remarks,45 ‘because there was more faith there was also more blasphemy’) although a modern reader is more likely to be shocked by the apparent brutality and callousness to suffering often found in medieval ‘humour’.

  • 46 In Rymes, Introduction, p. 39.
  • 47 Cited in Gray’s Later Medieval English Literature, p. 37.
  • 48 In chapter 8, below.
  • 49 Later Medieval English Literature, p. 149.

17The folk were certainly very attached to their festivities. In 1545 the reformer Latimer records that his offer to preach a sermon was rejected: ‘Syr, thys is a busye daye wyth us, we can not heare you, it is Robyn Hoodes day. The parishe is gone abrode to gather for Robyn Hoode.’46 These were probably not quite the Bacchanalian revelry described with horror by the Puritans: ‘their pipes playing, their drummers thund’ring, their stumps dauncing, their bels jangling, their handkerchiefs swinging about their heads like madmen, their hobbie horses and other monsters skirmishing about the rout’,47 but rather festivities intended to collect money for the parish and to celebrate the parish community, but there was real merriment, and sometimes abandonment. We find moments of exhilaration even in hostile satires (cf. Minot’s attacks on the Scots);48 and other examples in our chapter on Satire. This can rise to an extreme intensity of emotion: the nonsense poems, the drinking cries in the King and the Hermit, or the Scottish ‘eldritch’ poems. And there is even a parallel to this in popular religion, when enthusiasm leads some devotees to become ‘fools for Christ’.49

  • 50 In the romance of Havelok.
  • 51 Grim belongs in the Havelock story, the Child is ‘of Bristowe’.

18It is not surprising to find matters of ‘ernest’ in the midst of apparently total game. ‘Game’ was not simply mindless ‘misrule’ in the ballads and romances. Among scenes of misery and chaos we can find positive qualities, such as the simple faithfulness and human goodness of the fisherman Grim against the wickedness and violent cruelty of Godard.50 Characters like Grim or the ‘child’ of Bristol seem to bring us close to the ordinary people of this period.51 And it is arguable that the pervasive presence of ‘game’ reinforces the brisk and direct style of popular narrative.

19This leads to a final point: to emphasize the range and the variety of this popular literature. In some areas we are very conscious of a body of ‘lost literature’: we have little direct evidence of popular drama, for instance. On the other hand, we are fortunate in having texts of a mass of songs and carols of many kinds, some probably written by clerks in imitation of the oral songs they could hear. Narrative is an area particularly well represented in the surviving popular literature. It is tempting to suppose that the tales and legends found in oral literature carried within them the seeds of the more literary genres which appear in antiquity and the Middle Ages: the romance weaving together the adventures of a hero in a quest (or the simpler shorter ‘lais’), ballads or ballad-like poems, sometimes long, sometimes brief, often making the adventures into a series of dramatic moments, and the simpler, shorter tales in verse or prose, moral or merry. The literary achievement of these popular forms certainly varies considerably, but at its best popular literature is a fascinating and delightful area.

20This anthology is designed to illustrate its variety and quality as extensively as can be done in limited space, to give the reader some idea of its range, in various genres and kinds, and of the nature of medieval popular literature. My examples in general come from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but occasionally I have gone back to earlier Latin chroniclers, and quite often have come forward to the mid-seventeenth century PFMS (which almost certainly contains some late medieval pieces). I have been concerned to make the selection not too long, and not too forbidding; I doubt whether modern readers (let alone publishers!) would be at ease with a collection of texts which extends, as does Hazlitt’s, to several volumes. I have attempted to give a fairly wide coverage by mixing many short extracts with some longer or complete texts. I have tried to offer both pleasure and instruction, as does Middle English popular literature itself. The Appendix gives some evidence in support of the view that medieval popular literature did not suddenly disappear but that many of its forms (romances, ballads, including those which pass on ‘news’ — of battles, executions and wonderful events — tales, and so forth) lived on, sometimes being transformed, and that medieval popular literature is in a real sense the ancestor of the popular literature which flourished in the following centuries.

Notes

1 Ritson, Pieces of ancient popular poetry (1791); Hazlitt, Remains of the popular poetry of England (4 vols, 1864–6).

2 Victor E. Neuberg, Popular literature (1977); and see Gray’s Simple Forms, p. 240.

3 Known as Vidua, this story is usually told against women; it is best known in the collection Seven Sages of Rome. See the Midland Version, ed. Whitelock; there are several versions), pp. 70–4.

4 See first Gesta Romanorum, Swan and Hooper, pp. 259–99; where it is entitled ‘Of Temporal Tribulation’.

5 Gerould, The Ballad of Tradition, p. 11.

6 The Songs of Rawlinson MS. C 813, eds Padelford and Benham.

7 Richard Hills Commonplace-Book, ed. Dyboski.

8 See, for example, Simple Forms, pp. 8 and 10–14.

9 Burke, Popular Culture, cited in Simple Forms (p. 4).

10 On texts such as ‘Erthe toc of erthe’ (in chapter 7, F, xxi, below) see Boklund-Lagopoulou, I have a yong suster.

11 Gray does not include any of these ‘lais’, which are in French, in this anthology. Readers may consult the copious scholarly literature on this writer (or writers), and namely the Lais, ed. Ewert.

12 In Rymes, Dobson & Taylor. Robin Hood and many others can be found, with narratives and references, in DMH.

13 Rauf Coilyear, ed. Herrtage.

14 Gray has not included anything by John of Ireland, or Bishop Pecock; their work may be consulted in Johannes de Irlandia, The Meroure of Wyssdome; and see Green, Bishop Reginald Pecock.

15 The Kingis Quair of James Stewart, ed. McDiarmid. All Chaucer references have been checked with The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Benson.

16 The Owl and the Nightingale, ed. Stanley; Sir Orfeo and The Tournament of Tottenham are in Middle English Verse Romances, ed. Sands.

17 The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Meech et al. In ch. 45 she asks Christ to delay punishing her till after she has got back to England (p. 110, lines 19–22).

18 In The Paston Letters.

19 In the chapter Ballads, below.

20 Emaré is in Six Middle English Romances, ed. Mills. The previous scene is cited from Sir Orfeo.

21 Gray, Simple Forms, pp. 79–80 and passim. See Rymes for Adam and his fellows.

22 In Two English Border Ballads, ed. Arngart, but Gray more probably used the five-volume Child Ballads.

23 Baugh, ‘Improvisation in the Middle English Romance’.

24 See our chapter 4, Tales, number xvi.

25 In Middle English Verse Romances (Sands gives other references).

26 For the Loathly Lady, see inter al. Bliss, Naming and Namelessness (index references).

27 The Turke and Sir Gawain, in Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, ed. Hahn.

28 In Six Middle English Romances, ed. Mills.

29 In PFMS.

30 For Thomas, see first the index and references in Gray’s Simple Forms. Helen Cooper treats this figure in The English Romance in Time (again, see index); for The Romance and Prophecies, ed. Murray, see especially the Introduction.

31 The Tale of the Basyn is in Hazlitt, and elsewhere (the text is given in our ch. 5, below).

32 In Chevelere Assigne, ch. 3 below.

33 Fytte 3, stanza 191.

34 In the verse where it appears (see ch. 9), ‘more and lesse’ means ‘both high and low’. But ‘more or less’ (depending on your status, the weather, your love affairs, and so on) is a good catch-all for an England that was not always Merry.

35 In Richard Hills Commonplace-Book, p. 15, Carol number 27 (number 6 begins similarly: ‘Now let vs syng, both more & lesse’).

36 Meaning: although things have turned out badly for you. Whiting M 513.

37 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. Burrow, vv. 1681–2.

38 Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p. 1.

39 ‘Notes towards a Theory of Medieval Comedy’, Medieval Comic Tales, ed. Brewer (1972).

40 In Early Middle English Verse and Prose.

41 Homo Ludens, p. 10.

42 Ibid. chapter ‘Play and Contest as Civilizing Functions’.

43 For a full chapter on ballads, see Simple Forms (pp. 71–88).

44 Chapter I Section A, Snatches and Snippets (iii) below.

45 It seems clear from Simple Forms that Gray probably used the first edition (1972) of Medieval Comic Tales; this was substantially rewritten for the next edition (2008) and is now rather hard to find. The later edition has no ‘afterword’, and neither of the citations above appears in the Introduction. However, this introduction is nevertheless a valuable commentary; and both remarks cited remain pertinent, whoever said them (or where). A further comment, that may be useful when reading what follows, is that ‘derision’ might be a better word than ‘satire’ for much of the medieval comic material (2nd edn, p. xix).

46 In Rymes, Introduction, p. 39.

47 Cited in Gray’s Later Medieval English Literature, p. 37.

48 In chapter 8, below.

49 Later Medieval English Literature, p. 149.

50 In the romance of Havelok.

51 Grim belongs in the Havelock story, the Child is ‘of Bristowe’.

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