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Make We Merry More and Less

Jane Bliss
Douglas Gray

Chapter 5

Merry Tales

Texte intégral

  • 1 Gray called this chapter ‘Comic Tales’, but ’Merry’ in the table of contents. I retain Mer (...)

The short comic tale seems to have been a favourite form in medieval popular literature.1 Large numbers survive, and they show considerable variety, reflecting the variety of the wider medieval comic tradition. I will try to give some idea of this variety, in topic, form, and treatment. Medieval comedy is sometimes crude and vulgar, sometimes more detached and witty, offering some kind of entertainment or ‘game’. It may be genial, but sometimes seems darker and more cruel, finding entertainment in physical as well as in moral deformity. It makes enthusiastic use of cunning tricks and tricksters, adroit answers, ingenuity and intelligence. Some tales seem totally amoral, and would no doubt have needed the defence offered in Chaucer’s dictum, ‘men shal nat maken ernest of game’. And yet some are curiously similar to moral, exemplary tales (as in The Wright’s Chaste Wife).

  • 2 The Weeping Puppy, see chapter 4 number viii above.

Tales appear in both verse and prose and take many forms — too many for them all to be represented here. We have only one example of the fabliau (a word used of verse tales which flourished in France from the twelfth century, but part of a wider and much earlier tradition, and which were given highly sophisticated treatment by Chaucer). Fabliaux and fabliau-like tales characteristically give vigorous expression in terse and simple style to a decidedly non-idealistic view of life. The setting is non-courtly, the characters are often tradesmen, merchants, and their womenfolk, clerics and students. Plot and action are very important, as is direct speech and conversation. There is a combination of realism (especially in ‘local’ details) with a plot that is decidedly non-realistic — much more so than that of a romance, though not usually as extreme as the wild ‘eldritch’ fantasy of some Scottish comic tales. Much fun is had with stereotype: old men with young wives, lecherous clerics and monks, women as objects of desire and adept at fulfilling their own desires. Fabliaux in the narrow sense, like those in French verse, are rare in English before Chaucer; the Early Middle English Dame Sirith, a version of the story of the ‘weeping puppy’, is an early example.2 But many of the comic tales printed here have distinctly fabliau-like elements, such as the magically adhesive Basin in number i. To encourage a comparison in literary treatment I have included extracts from two examples of a popular comic tale, in which a ruler meets one of his subjects and is entertained by him, but not recognised. And to remind us of the long continuity of the merry tale I have included examples from a late flowering from the age of printing, examples of the jestbooks of the sixteenth and later centuries.

i) The Tale of the Basyn3

  • 3 The Tale of the Basin is in Ten Fifteenth-century Comic Poems, ed. Furrow, although it is (...)
  • 4 GrimmsFairy Tales (London, n.d; a previous owner has dated his copy 1896). This well-kno (...)

An example of a simple comic story with a happy ending, based on a folktale motif: ‘all stuck together’; a well-known example is Grimms’ ‘The Golden Goose’.4

‘Off talys and trifulles many man tellys; Summe byn trew and sum byn ellis [otherwise].’ There were two brothers: a parson, sensible, ‘a good clerke’ and rich; the other, his father’s heir, feckless and ‘a febull husbande’ ruled by his wife: ‘He durst not onys speke a worde When she bade be stille’. He and his wife spend all their money and he has to ask for money from his brother. That is soon gone, and he has to ask again. The parson agrees, but warns him and discovers why he ‘lyves in dispayre’: there is a merry priest, Sir John, who ‘harpys and gytryns [plays the gittern] and syngs… wresttels and lepis and casts the ston alsso.’ The parson instructs his brother to obtain ‘the vessell owt of the chambur — the same that thei make water in’, and bring it to him. This done, the parson performs a ‘prive experiment’ on it, and the brother takes it back home and places it beside the bed in the chamber. He rides away, to the delight of his wife, who prepares a feast for Sir John. [vv. 125–223]

… She sent after sir John
Prively at a posturne yate, as still as any ston.
  They eton and dronken, as thei were wonte to done
Till that thaym list to bedde for to gon,
Softly and stille.
Within a litull while sir John con wake,
And nedisº water he most make;
He wistº wher he shulde the basyn take,
Right at his owne wille.
of necessity
He toke the basyn to make watur in
He mught not get his hondis awey, all this wordeº to wyn;
His handis fro the basyn myght he not twyn.º
‘Alas! ’ seid sir John, ‘how shall I now begynne,
Here is sum wychcrafte!’
Faste the basyn con he holde,
And alle his body tremeldº for colde —
Leverº than a .c. pounde he wolde,
That hit were him rafte.º
Ryght as a chapmon shulde sell his ware,
The basyn in the chaumbeur betwix his hondis he bare.
The wyfe was agrevyd he stode so long thare
And askid why so, hit was a nyce fare, º
So stille ther to stonde.
‘What, woman, ’ he seid, ‘in gode fay, º
foolish behaviour
Thu must helpe, gif thou may,
That this basyn were away,
Hit will not fro my honde.’
Upstert the godewyfe, for nothyng wolde she lette, º
And bothe hir hondis on the basyn she sette.
Thus sone wer thai bothe fast, and he never the bette; º
Hit was a myssefelisshippe a man to have imette,
Be day or be nyght.
They began clepeº and crye
To a wenche that lay thaim bye,
That she shulde come on hyeº
To helpe yif she myght.
call out
Upstert the wench, er she was halfe waked,
And ran to hir maistrys all balyº naked.
‘Alas, ’ seid her maistrys, ‘who hase this sorow maked?
Helpe this basyn wer awey, that oure sorow were slakyd.º
Here is a sory chaunce!’º
To the basyn the wenche she raste,
For to helpe had she caste —
Thus were they sone alle thre fast,
Hit was a nyce daunce…
belly (= completely)
[They dance all night until sunrise. The priest’s clerk rings the ‘day-bell’ for his
master to say Matins, and he comes and sees the priest’s plight]
… Anon as sir John can se, he began to call;
Be that worde thei come down into the hall.
‘Why goo ye soo?’ quod the clerke, ‘hit is shame for you alle.
Why goo ye so nakyd? Foule mot yow falle.
The basyn shalle yow froo.’
To the basyn he made a brayde, º
And bothe his hondis theron he leyde —
The furst worde that the clerke seyde,
‘Alas! what shall I doo?’
tried to grab
The carter fro the halle-dureº erth can he throw, door of the hall
With a shevellº in his hande, to make it clene, I trowe
When he saw thaym go rounde upon a row.
He wende hit hade bene folysº of the fayre he tolde it in his sawº
He seide he wolde assay iwysse;
Unneth he durst go in for fere,
Alle save the clerke nakyd were —
When he saw the wench go there,
Hym thoght hit went amysse.
The wench was his special, º that hoppid on the rowte —
‘Lette go the basyn, er thu shalle have a clowte!’º
He hit the wenche with a shevell above on the [t] owte; º
The shevyll sticked then fast, withowte any dowte,
And he hengettº on the ende.
The carter with a sory chaunce
Among thaim all he led the daunce;
In Englonde, Scotllond, ne in Fraunce
A man shulde non sich fynde.
The godeman and the parson came in that stounde,
Alle that fayre feliship dawnsyng thei founde,
The godeman seid to sir John, ‘be cockisº swete wounde,
Thu shalle leseº thine harnesseº or a .c. pounde —
lose God’s
Truly thu shalle not chese.’º
Sir John seid, ‘in good fay, º
Helpe this basyn were awey,
And that moneº will I pay,
Er I this harnes lese.’
The parson charmyd the basyn that it fell thaim fro,
Every man then hastely on thaire wey can goo:
The preest went out of contre for shame he hade thoo,
And then thai levydº their lewtnesse, º and did no more soo,
gave up folly
  • 5 A reference to the Five (or other number) Joys of Mary, formulae used to aid meditation (...)
But wexº wyse and ware.
Thus the godeman and his wyfe
Levyd togeder withowt stryfe.
Mary, for her joyes fyfe,5
Shelde us alle fro care.

ii) The King and the Hermit

Jesu that is hevyn kyng,
Yiffº them all god endyng,
Yf it be thy wyll,
And yif them parte of hevyn gam, º
That well can calle gestes same, º
With mete and drinke to fylle.
heaven’s joy guests together
When that men be glad and blyth,
Than were solas god to lyth, º
He that wold be styleº
it would be a pleasure to hear quiet
Of a kyng I wyll yow telle.
What aventour hym befelle,
He that wyll herke theretylle.
It felle be god Edwerd deys,
For soth so this romans seys.
Herkyns — I will you telle.
The kyng to Scherwod gan wend…
  • 6 In Ten Bourdes, ed. Furrow.

The possibilities, usually comic or satirical, of the ‘unrecognised’ or disguised ruler forced to meet one of his subjects seems to have fascinated popular storytellers. Of the various examples, two are relatively well-known: ‘John the Reeve’ (in PFMS, vol ii, 550), and the Scottish Rauf Coilyear. We include extracts from the second (iii below); and from The Kynge and the Hermyt, a tale in which the author seems to enjoy the way in which the king’s curiosity reveals a certain ambiguity in this ‘hermit’ of Sherwood.6

[… to hunt the great hart. He asks his foresters where in the forest is the best hunting, and an old forester describes a very large deer: ‘so grete a hed as he bare Sych one saw I never are’.]

Upon the morne thei ryden fast
With hundes and with hornes blast;
To wodde than are thei wente.
Nettes and gynnesº than leyd he,
Every archer to hys tre
With bowys redy bent…

[The king pursues a deer through the forest all day, until the light begins to fade. He is alone and does not know where he is, nor how to get out of the forest. He recalls that he has heard poor men call on Saint Julian to give them lodging, so he too calls on him…]

  • 7 Julian was the patron saint of travellers (and of their good lodging).
… as he rode whyll he had lyght,
And at the last he hade syght
Of an hermyte hym besyde
Of that syght he was full feyn,
For he wold gladly be in the pleyn, º
And theder he gan to ryde.
An hermitage he found ther,
He trowydº a chapel that it wer.
Then seyd the kyng that tyde,
‘Now, seynt Julyan a bonne hostel,7
As pylgrymes trow full wele,
Yonder I wyll abyde.’
A lytell yateº he fond ne [y], º
Thereon he gan to call and cry,
That within myght here.
That herd an hermyte ther within,
Unto the yate he gan to wyn,
Bedyngº his prayer.
And when the hermyt saw the kyng,
He seyd, ‘Sir, gode evyn [yng].’
‘Wele worth thee, sir frere, º
I prey thee I myght be thy gest,
For I have ryden wyllº in this forest,
And nyght neyghesº me nere.’
The hermyte seyd, ‘So mote I the,
For sych a lord as ye be,
Y have non herbour tyll, º
lodging ready
Bot if it wer for pore a wyght,
I ne der not herbour hym a nyght,
But he for faute schuld spyll.º
die of hunger
I won here in wylde [r] nes,
With rotys and ryndesº among wyld bests,
As it is my Lordes wylle.’
roots and bark

[So the king asks for directions to the town. But, hearing that it is five miles, and ‘a wyld wey’, he announces, ‘Ermyte, I schall harborow with ye this nyght’. ‘Sych gode as thou fynde here, take’, says the hermit — and there is little food on offer. With the remark ‘a nyght wyll sone be gon’ the king busies himself, hewing the wood and attending to the stable. When he relaxes in front of the fire, he begins to muse…]

… The kyng seyd, ‘Be Gods are, º
Andº I sych an hermyte were,
And wonyd in this forest,
When forsters were gon to slep [e],
Than I wold cast off my cope, º
And wake both est and weste,
Wyth a bow of hueº full strong
And arowys knyte in a thong,
That wold me lyke best.
The kyng of venyson hath non nede,
Yit might me hape to have a brede.º
To glad me and my gest.’

[Ignoring this, the hermit asks him where he dwells: ‘in the kyngs courte… many a dey’ says the king, and he describes the long and tiring chase of the deer. He asks for food: ‘thou take sych gode as we have, ’ says the hermit, and brings out bread and cheese and thin drink. ‘Hermit, ’ says the king, ‘You live in a merry place. And you should learn to shoot.’ But the hermit is worried about being imprisoned and in fear of being hanged. The king says he would keep it secret, and makes a direct request: ‘Now, hermyte, for thy profession, Yiff thou have any venison, Thou yiff me of the best.’ The hermit still demurs: ‘I eat no meat, and drink milk.’ But he seems to recognise something in his guest.]

‘Thou semys a felow, ’º seyd the frere.
‘It is long gon seth any was here,
Bot thou thyselve tonyght.’
a good chap
Unto a cofyr he gan go.
And toke forth candylles two,
And sone thei were ilyght.º
A cloth he brought, and bred full whyte,
And venyson ibake tyte.º
Ayenº he yede ful ryght, º
Venyson isaltº and fresch he brought,
And bade him chese; º wheroff hym thought
Colopysº for to dyght.º
Well may ye wyte inowº they had,
The kyng ete, and made hym glad,
And grete laughtur he lowghe,
‘Nere I had spoke of archery
I myght have ete my bred full dryghe!’º
The kyng made it full towghe, º
‘Now Crystes blyssing have sych a frere,
That thus cane ordeyn our soper,
gave him a hard ti
me about it
And stalke under the wode bowe.º
The kyng hymselve, so mote I the, º
Ys not better at es than we,
Andº we have drinke inowghe.’ if
  • 8 These nonsense phrases may or may not mean something like ‘This is good stuff!’ ‘Drink up! (...)

[The hermit produces a good supply, and teaches the king some ‘play’ appropriate to a ‘felow’, exchanging the drinkers’ cries of ‘fusty bandias’ and ‘stryke pantere’ as the cup goes round.8 The king is delighted, and promises to repay the hermit. ‘But’, says the hermit, ‘I will be forgotten when you come to your lord’s hall, or perhaps, if you think upon this play, it may amuse gentyll men.’ ‘No, ’ says his guest, ‘the king’s gate will be opened.’ ‘But do you expect me’, says the hermit, ‘to stand in the mire at the king’s gate?’]

‘… I have neyghbors here nyghhand;
I send them of my presente
[S] ydesº of the wyld dere,
Of my presantes they are feyn,
Bred and ale thei send me ageyn; º
Thusgatesº lyve I here.’
The kyng seyd, ‘So mote I the,
in exchange
in this way
Hermyte, me pays weleº with thee,
Thou arte a horpydº frere.’
I am well pleased
The kyng seyd, ‘Yit myght ye com sum dey
Unto the courte for to pley,
Aventourysº for to sene; º
Thou wote not what thee betyde may
Or that thou gon awey’…
adventures see
  • 9 Jack Fletcher, that is a maker of arrows.

[And he assures him that no one there will ‘missay’ him. The hermit assents to this, since his guest seems to be a ‘trew man’. ‘I schall aventore the gate’ [risk the journey]; but who is he to ask for? ‘Jake Flecher’9 is the answer; ‘all men knowys me at home’. The hermit begins to confide…]

‘Aryse up, Jake, and go with me,
And more off my privyteº
Thou schall se somthyng.’
Into a chambyr he hym lede.
The kyng saughe aboute the hermytes bed
Brod arowis hynge.
The frere gaff hym bow in hond,
‘Jake, ’ he seyd, ‘draw up the bond.’º
He myght oneth styreº the streng.
‘Sir, ’ he seyd, ‘so have I blys,
There is no archer that may schot in this,
That is with my lord the kyng… ’
scarcely move
… ‘Jake, seth thou can of flecher crafte,
Thou may me esº with a schafte.’
Then seyd Jake, ‘I schall… ’
‘Jake, and I wyst that thow were trew,
Or and I thee better knew,
Mour thou schuldes se.’
The kyng to hym grete othys swer,
‘The covenand we made whyle areº
I wyll that it hold be.’
Till two trowysº he gan him lede.
Off venyson there was many a bredeº
‘Jake, how thinkes thee?
Whyle there is dere in this forest,
Somtyme I may have of the best… ’

[They return to their ‘pley’, and sit with ‘fusty bandyas’ and ‘stryke pantere’ until it is almost day. In the morning they leave. The hermit accompanies the king for ‘a myle or two’. When they part, the hermit repeats his promise to come to the court before the following night, and the king rides homewards. His men are searching for him…]

… They cryghed and blew with hydoys bere, º clamour
Yiff thei myght of ther lord here.º
Wher that ever he were.
When the kyng his bugyll blew,
Knyghtes and fosters wele it knew,
And lystind to him there.
Many men, that wer masyd and made, º
The blast of that horn made them glad,
To the town than gan they fare.
amazed and disturbed

[Here the copy breaks off, without revealing what happened to the hermit at court.]

iii) Rauf Coilyear10

  • 10 ed. Herrtage.

This Scottish tale of the same type, a cross between rhymed and alliterative verse, is placed here, although it is often classified as a ‘Charlemagne romance’, a kind with which the author was clearly familiar. It was perhaps conceived as a burlesque Charlemagne romance. Whatever category we place it in, it is a fascinating and delightful work, contrasting the two main characters with some delicate irony and giving each a distinctive ‘voice’ and attitude.

King Charles and his splendid retinue ride out from Paris, but on the moor they encounter a fierce tempest, and the company is scattered. The king finds himself alone in the mountains. Night is falling, and he can see no sign of any shelter. Then ‘ane cant carl’ comes riding along, ‘with ane capill [horse] and twa creillis [baskets] cuplit [coupled] abufe’. He is Rauf Coilyear, so-called because he sells coal and charcoal. The king, who is not recognised by Rauf, asks him to bring him to some ‘harbery’. However, the nearest seems to be Rauf’s own house. The king gratefully accepts his offer of ‘harbery’, however simple, and they set off together. But Rauf prophetically remarks, ‘Thank me not over airlie [early], for dreid that we threip [quarrel]’. Rauf’s manner of speaking is direct and sometimes abrupt, and it turns out that he has a short temper to match. There is a small contretemps when they come to Rauf’s dwelling, and they each insist that the other should enter first. This is resolved by Rauf grabbing the king by the neck ‘twa part in tene’ [half in anger], and reading him a brief, tough lesson in ‘courtesy’: ‘gif thow of courtasie couth, yhow hes foryet it clene.’ ‘Now is anis [the first time]’ he says ominously, as they go in — Rauf confidently and overbearingly, like an ‘imperious host’ of legend, the king uneasily and cautiously. Supper is made ready [vv. 144–234]

Sone was the supper dichtº and the fyre betº prepared kindled
And thay had weschin, º iwis, the worthiest was their. washed
‘Tak my wyfe be the hand in feir, º withoutin let, º together delay
And gang begin the buird, ’º said the coilyear. go take the place of honour
‘That war unsemand, º for suith, and thy self unset, ’º unbecoming not seated
The king profferitº him to gang and maid ane strange urged
fair, º
‘Now is twyse, ’ said the carl, ‘me think thow hes foryet.’º
He leit gyrd toº the king, withoutin ony mair,
And hit him under the eirº with his richt hand,
let fly at
Quhill he stakkeritº thairwithall
Half the breidº of the hall,
He faindº never of ane fall,
Quhillº he the eird fand.º
until he staggered
until fell to the floor
Heº start up stoutly agane, uneisº micht he stand, (Charles)
For anger of that outrayº that he had their tane.º insult
Heº callit on Gyliane his wyfe, ‘Ga, tak him be the hand
And gang agane to the buirdº quhair ye suld eir have gane.
Schir, thow art unskilfull, º and that sall I warrand; º uncouth
Thow byrdº to have nurtourº aneuch and thow ought
hes nane.
Thow hes walkit, iwis, in mony wyld land,
The mair vertew thow suld have to keip the fra blame,
good manners
Thow suld be courtes of kindº and ane cunnand courtier courteous by nature
Thochtº that I simpill be,
Do as I bid the.
The hous is myne, pardie.
And all that is heir.’
The king said to him self, ‘This is ane evill lyfe,
Yit was I never in my lyfe thusgaitº leird, º in this way taught
And I have oftymes bene quhair gude hes bene ryfe, º frequent
That maist couthº of courtasie in this Cristin eird.º knew earth
Is naneº sa gude as leif ofº and mak na mair stryfe, nothing leave off
For I am stonischit at this straikº that hes me thus
In feir fairlie he foundis, º with the gude wyfe, together courteously he goes
Quhairº the colyear bad, so braithlie he beird.º where loudly he shouted
Quhenº he had done his bidding, as him gude thocht, º when seemed
Doun he sat the king near
And maid him glaid and gude cheir
And said, ‘Ye ar welcum heir, º
Be him that me bocht.’º
Quhen thay war servit and set to the suppar,
Gyll and the gentill king, Charlis of micht,
Syneº on the tother syde sat the coilyear;
Thus war thay marschellit but mairº and matchitº that nicht.
without more ado set
Thay brocht breid to the buirdº and braun of ane bair, º table brawn of a boar
And the worthiest wyne went upon hicht, º
Thay beirnesº as I wene, thay had aneuchº their
Within that burelie bigging, º byrnandº full bricht.
Syne enteris their daynteisº on deisº dicht dayntelie.
Within that worthy waneº
Forsuithº wantit thay nane.º
With blyithº cheir sayis Gyliane,
‘Schir, dois glaidlie.’º
on high
people plenty
rough building glowing
delicacies high table
in truth lacked nothing
set to merrily
The Carll carpitº to the king cumlie and cleir, º spoke handsome and
‘Schir, the forestaris, for suith, of this forest,
Thay have me all at invyº for dreid ofº the deir.º
Thay threipº that I thring dounº of the fattest,
Thay say I sall to Paris their to compeerº
Befoir our cumlie king, in dule to be drest.º
Sic manassing thay me makº for suith ilk year, º
And yit aneuchº sall I have for me and ane gest.
Thairfoir sic as thow seis, spend onº and not spair.’º
Thus said the gentill Charles the Maneº
envy because of fear for deer
complain bring down
treated painfully
thus they threaten me each year
yet sufficient
set to spare
To the colyear agane,
‘The king himself hes bene faneº
Sum tyme of sic fair.’º
would have been glad
such fare
Of capounis and cunningisº thay had plenty,
With wyne at their will and eikº vennysoun,
Byrdisº bakin in breid, º the best that may be;
Thus full freschlie thay fure into fusioun.º
The carll with ane cleir voce carpit on he, º
Said, ‘Gyll, lat the cop raikº for my bennysounº
And gar our gaistº begin and syneº drink thow to me;
Sen he is ane stranger, me think it ressoun.’º
Thay drank dreichlieº about, thay woscheº and thay rais.º
birds bread
fared in abundance
spoke loudly
cup go round blessing
make our guest then
it seems to me proper
copiously washed
The king with ane blyith cheirº demeanour
Thankit the coilyear,
Syneº all the thre into feirº
To the fyre gais.º
then together
Quhen thay had maid thame eisº the coilyear tald
Mony sindrie taillisº efter suppair.
Ane bricht byrnand fyre was byrnand full bald, º
The king held gude countenance and company
settled comfortably
various tales
And ever to his asking ane answer he yald, º
Quhillº at the last he began to frane farther mair, º
‘In faith, friend, I wald wit, tell gifº ye wald,
Quhair is thy maist wynning?’º said the coilyear.
‘Out of weir, ’º said the king, ‘I waynditº never to tell.
With my lady the queen
behaved companionably
until question further
habitual dwelling
without doubt hesitated
In office maistº have I bene,
All thir yeiris fyftene, º
In the court for to dwell.’
these fifteen years

Further questioning leads to the king giving his name as ‘Wymond of the Wardrop’, in the queen’s chamber, and inviting Rauf to come to the court, remarking that he will find it a profitable market for his fuel. Rauf says that he does not know where the court is, and that he is reluctant to go to a place where he is unknown. The king attempts to reassure him, and in the morning when they part Rauf announces that he will indeed try to sell his coal at court. The king goes his way, and is reunited with his retinue and his knights. They return to Paris with great ceremony and festivity. Rauf fills two baskets and, rejecting a warning from his wife about the stranger’s ‘gentrise’ (‘Lat me wirk as I will, the weird [fate] is mine awin’), also sets out in search of ‘Wymond’. On the way he has an encounter with the knight Sir Roland, and finally forces his way into court. In a brief ‘recognition scene’ he glimpses Wymond: ‘Yone is wymond, I wait… I ken him weill thocht he be cled in uther clothing.’ He is very alarmed, especially when the king tells his nobles how he was treated in Rauf’s house. They laugh, but say he deserves to be hanged. The king, however, will not allow such treatment to the man who ‘succourit my lyfe in sa evil ane nicht… that carll for his courtasie salbe maid knicht.’ And so he is and, after a further battle with a Saracen, Magog, he becomes Marshal of France.

iv) The Freiris of Berwik11

  • 11 Also in Ten Bourdes, ed. Furrow (a revised version of her Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems). (...)

A Scottish fabliau, formerly attributed (without solid evidence) to William Dunbar. The anonymous author has produced a literary gem. It is one of the most enjoyable fabliaux in the English language: the action moves swiftly in its rather complicated route to a comic conclusion, with characters being nicely differentiated. The author obviously delights both in the everyday setting, and in the traditionally exaggerated turns of the plot. The comedy is sharp and satirical, but not overly dark and destructive.

In Berwick, ‘a nobill toun’, are two Jacobin friars, Allane and Robert. ‘Rycht wondir weill plesit thai all wyffis And tawld thame tailis of haly sanctis’. Friar Allan was old and tired, but Friar Robert is young and hot of blood. Returning to the town when night is falling they are worried that they will find the gates closed, and decide to find lodging outside the town. They come to the house of one Symon, who had a fair wife — ‘bot scho wes sumthing dynk and dengerous’ [dressy and haughty]. Alesone receives them, tells them that her husband is away in the countryside, and gives them drink. As they are telling their merry tales, they hear the prayer bell of their own abbey and know that they cannot return. They ask for lodging for the night. The wife, at first reluctant, finally agrees that they can stay up in the loft. In fact, the wife is pleased ‘that thay wer closet ther’, because she has a tryst with her lover, a rich and powerful grey friar, and she dresses up for the occasion, ‘als prowd as ony papingo’. Up in the loft friar Robert makes a little hole with his bodkin so that he can see what is going on. The grey friar is sitting in his chair like a prelate, and the wife is whispering in his ear. Then there is a sudden commotion, a knocking on the gate and a cry: Simon the husband has returned unexpectedly. The wife is annoyed that her plans for the evening have been brought to nothing, and the grey friar is filled with alarm… [vv. 204 to end]

… ‘Quhat sall I do, allace?’ the freir can say,
‘Hyd yow’, scho said, ‘quhill he be brocht to rest,

Into yon troich, º I think it for the best —
It lyis mekleº and huge in all yone nuke, º
It held a bollº of meill quhen that we buke.’º
Than undir it scho gart him creip in hy, º
And bad him lurk their verry quyetly;
big corner
boll (6 bushels) bake
Scho closit him and syne went on hir way.
‘Quhat sall I do, allace?’ the freir can say.
Syne to hir madin spedyly scho spak,
‘Go to the fyre, and the meitis fra it tak.
Be bissy als, and slokkin outº the fyre,
Ga clois yn burd, º and tak away the chyre, º
And lok up all into yone almery, º
put out
board chair
Baith meit and drink with wyne and aill put by, º
The mayneº breid alsº thow hyd it with the wyne,
That being done, thow sowpº the hous clene syne,
finest also
That na appearance of feistº be heir sene, feasting
Bot sobirly our selffis dois sustene.’
And syne, withowttin ony mair delay,
Scho castis of hailº hir fresch array.
off completely
Than went scho to hir bed annone,
And tholitº him to knok his fill, Symone.
Quhen he for knoking tyritº wes and cryid,
Abowt he went unto the udirº syd,
And on Alesone fast coldº he cry,
And at the last scho anserit crabitlyº
‘Ach, quha be this that knawis sa weill my nam e?
Go hens, ’ scho sayis, ‘for Symon is fra hame,
And I will herbry no gaistisº heir parfey.
Thairfoir I pray yow to wend on your way,
shelter no guests
For at this tyme ye may nocht lugitº be.’ lodged
Than Symone said, ‘Fair dame, ken ye nocht m e?
I am your Symone and husbandº of this place.’ owner
‘Ar ye my spous Symone?’ scho sayis, ‘allace!
Be misknawlege I had almaist misgane, º
made a mistake
Quha wenitº that ye sa lait wald haif cum hame ?’ expected
Scho stertisº up and gettis licht in hy, º jumps quickly
And oppinit than the yetº full haistely, gate
Scho tuk fra him his geir at all devyis, º completely
Syne welcomit him on maist hairtly wyis.º manner
He bad the maddin kindillº on the fyre, kindle
‘Syne graith me meit, º and tak ye all thy
prepare me food
The gudwyf said schortly, ‘Ye may trow
Heir is no meir that ganandº is for yow.’ suitable
‘How sa, fair deme, º ga gaitº me cheis and breid lady get
Ga fill the stowp, º hald me no mair in pleid, º flagon argument
For I am very tyrit, wett, and cauld.’
Than up scho rais, and durst nocht mair be bau ld,
Cuverit the burde, º thairon sett meit in hy, º table quickly
Ane sowsit nolt-futeº ane scheipheidº soused cow’s foot sheep’s head
And sum cauld meit scho brocht to him believe,°
at once
And fillit the stowp. The gudman than wes blyth° h, º happy
Than satt he doun, and swoir, ‘Be all hallowº saints
I fair richt weill, andº I had ane gud fallow; º if companion
Dame, eit with me and drink, gifº that ye may.’ if
Said the gudwyf, ‘Devill in the timº may I, not at this ungodly hour
It wer mair meitº into your bed to be, fitting
Than now to sit desyrand company.’
Freir Robert said, ‘Allace, gud bruder deir,
I waldº the gudman wist that we wer heir,
Quha waitº perchance sum bettir wald he fair — knows
For sickerlyº my hairt will ay be sairº
Gif yone scheipheid withº Symon birneistº be,
Sa mekill gud cheir being in the almerie.’º
certainly ever sorrowful
by burnished
And with that word he gaif ane hoistº anone.
The gudman hard, and speirit, º ‘Quha is yone?’
The gudwyf said, ‘Yone ar freiris tway.’º two
Symone said, ‘Tell me quhat freiris be thay.’
‘Yone is freir Robert and sillyº freir Allane,
good, poor
That all this day hes travellit with grit pane.
Beº thay come heir it wes so very lait,
Curfiwº wes rung and closit wes thair yait, º
curfew gate
And in yond loft I gaif thame harbrye.’
The gudman said, ‘Sa God haif part of me,
Thaº freiris twa ar hairtly welcome hidder,
Ga call thame doun, that we ma drink togidder.’
The gudwyf said, ‘I reidº yow lat thame be,
Thay had levirº sleip norº sit in cumpanye.’
The gudman said unto the maid thone, º
rather than
‘Go, pray thame baith to cum till me annone, ’
And sone the tropº the madin oppinit then,
And bad thame baith cum doun to the gudman
Freir Robert said, ‘Now be sweit sanct Jame,
The gudman is very welcome hame,
And for his weilfair dalie do we pray;
We sall annone cum doun to him ye say.’
Than with that word thay start up baith attone,º
And doun the tropº delyverlyº thay come,
Halsitº Symone als sone as thay him se,
And he agane thame welcomit hairtfullie.
ladder quickly
And said, ‘Cum heir, myne awin bredirº deir,
And sett yow doun sone besyd me heir,
For I am now allone, as ye may se;
Thairfore sitt doun and beir me cumpanye,
And tak yow pairt of sic gud as we haif.’
Freir Allane said, ‘Ser, I pray God yow saif,
For heir is now annuchº of Godis gud.’
Than Symon anserit, ‘Now be the rud, º
Yit wald I gifº ane croun of gold for me,
For sum gud meit and drink amangis us thre.’
Freir Robert said, ‘Quhat drinkis wald ye craif, º
Or quhat meitis desyre ye for to haif?
For I haif mony sindryº practikis seir,
Beyond the seyº in Pareis did I leir, º
That I wald preveº glaidly for your saik,
And for your demys, º that harbry cowd us mai
I tak on hand, º and ye will counsale keip.º
That I sall garº yow se, orº ever I sleip,
sea learn
k.º lady’s provide
undertake keep it quiet
cause before
Of the best meit that is in this cuntre,
Of Gascone wyne, gif onyº in it be,
if any
Or, be thair ony within ane hundredth myle,
It salbe heir within a bony quhyle.’
The gudman had grit mervell of this taill,
And said, ‘My hairt [will] neir be hailº
Bot gif ye preve that practik or ye pairte, º
never be whole
To mak ane sport.’ And than the freir upstart;
He tuk his buk and to the flureº he gais, º
He turnis it our, º and reidis it a littill space,
floor goes
And to the eist direct he turnis his face,
Syne to the west he turnit and lukit doun,
And tuk his buk and red ane orisoun —
And ay his eyneº wer on the almery, eyes
And on the trochº quhairº that freir Johine did l y. trough where
Than sat he doun and kest abak his hude,
He granit, º and he glowrit, º as he wer woid, º
And quhylisº still he satt in studeing, º
And uthir quhylis upoun his buk reding;
groaned glowered mad
sometimes studying
And quhylis with baith his handis he wald clap
And uthir quhylis wald he glour and gaip;
Syne in the sowth he turnit him abowt
Weill thryisº and mair, than lawlyº cowd he lowt, º
thrice lowly
Quhen that he come near the almery.
Thairat our dame had woundir grit invy, º
For in her hairt scho had ane persavingº
That he had knawin all hir govirning.º
Scho saw him gif the almery sic a straik, º
Unto hir self scho said, ‘Full weill I waitº
such a blow
I am bot schent, º he knawis full weill my thocht ; ruined
Quhat sall I do? Allace, that I wes wrocht! º
Get Symon wit, º it wilbe deir doing.’º
Be thatº the freir had left his studeing,
And on his feit he startis up full sture, º
gets to know a fine mess
by then
And come agane, and seyit all his cure
‘Now is it done, and ye sall haif playntie
Of breid and wyne, the best in this cuntre;
Thairfoir, fair dame, get up deliverlie, º
And ga belyfeº unto yone almerie,
And oppin it and se ye bring us syne
Ane pair of boissisº full of Gascone wyne,
Thay had ane galloun and mair, that waitº I wei
And bring us als the mayne breidº in a creill, º
Ane pair of cunyngis, º fat and het pypand, º
leather bottles
ll; know
fine bread (wicker) basket
rabbits piping hot
The caponis als ye sall us bring fra hand,
Twa pair of pertrikis, º I wait there is no ma; º
And eikº of pluverisº se that ye bring us twa.’
The gudwyf wist it wes no variance, º
Scho knew the freir had sene hir govirnance,
partridges more
also plovers
Scho saw it wes no buteº for to deny
With that scho went unto the almery
And oppinit it, and than scho fand their
All that the freir had spokin of befoir.
Scho stert abak, as scho wer in afrayº
And sanyt hir, º and smylandº cowd scho say,
‘Ha, banadicite, quhat may this bene?º
Quha evir afoirº hes sic a fairlyº sene?
Sa grit a mervell as now hes apnitº heir,
Quhat sall I say? He is ane haly freir;
He said full suthº of all that he did say.’
Scho brocht all furth, º and on the burd cowd lay
crossed herself smiling
before wonder
Baith breid and wyne, and uthir thingis moir,
Cunyngis and caponis, as ye haif hard befoir,
Pertrikis and pluveris befoir thame hes scho bro
The freir knew well and saw thair wantit nocht,
Bot all wes furth brocht evin at his devyis, º
And Symone saw it appinnitº on this wyis.º
He had grit wondir, and sweris be the moneº
according to his wish
happened manner
That freir Robert weill his dett had done,
‘He may be callit ane man of grit science, º
Sa suddanly that all this purvianceº
Hes brocht us heir, throw his grit subteltie
And throw his knawlege in filosophie —
In ane gud tyme it wes quhen he come hidder;
Now fill the cop that we ma drink togidder.
And mak gud cheir eftir this langsumº day,
For I haif riddin ane wonder wilsomeº way.
Now God be lovit, º heir is suffisanceº
praised sufficiency
Unto us all throw your gud govirnance.’
And than annone thay drank evinº round abowt
Of Gascone wyne; the freiris playit cop owt.º
(= drained the cup)
Thay sportit thame, and makis mirry cheir
With sangis lowd, baith Symone and the freir.
And on this wyis the lang nicht thay ourdraf; º
drove away
Nothing thay want that thay desyrd to haif.
Than Symon said to the gudwyf in hy,
‘Cum heir, fair dame, and sett yow doun me by,
And tak parte of sic gud as we haif heir,
And hairtly I yow pray to thank this freir
Off his beningº grit besines and cure, benign
That he hes done to us upoun this flure, º floor
And brocht us meit and drink haboundantlie,
Quhairfoir of richt we auchtº mirry to be.’ ought
Bot all their sport, quhen thay wer maist at eis, º ease
Unto our deme it was bot littill pleisº pleasure
For uther thing thair wes intoº hir thocht; º in mind
Scho wes so red, º hir hairt wes ay on flochtº fearful flutter
That throw the freir scho sowldº discoverit be, should
To him scho lukit ofttymes effeiritlieº fearfully
And ay disparitº in hart wes scho, despairing
That he had wittº of all hir purveanceº to.º known provision too
Thus satt scho still, and wist no udir wane; º other alternative
Quhatevir thay say, scho luteº him all allane, º let alone
Bot scho drank with thame into company
With fenyeitº cheir and hert full wo and hevy. pretended
Bot thay wer blyth annuche, º God watt, and san g, happy enough
For ay the wyne was rakandº thame amang, going
Quhill at the last thay woixº richt blyth ilkone.º grew each one
Than Symone said unto the freir annone,
‘I marvell mikillº how that this may be, greatly
Intillº schort tyme that ye saº suddanlye in so
Hes brocht to us sa mony denteis deir.’º exquisite dainties
‘Thairof haif ye no marvell, ’ quod the freir.
‘I haif ane pegeº full prevyº of my awin, º page confidential own
Quhenevir I list, will cum to me unknawin.º unknown, secretly
And bring to me sicº thing as I will haif; such
Quhatevir I list it neidisº me nocht to craif.º is necessary desire
Thairfoir be blyth and takº in pacience, accept
And trest ye weill I sall do diligence.º exert myself
Gif that ye list or thinkis to haif moir, º more
It salbe had and I sall stand thairfoir,
Incontinentº that samynº sall ye se. immediately same (= just that)
Bot I protestº that ye keip it previe, º insist secret
Latt no man wit that I can do sic thing.’
Than Symone swoir and said, ‘Be hevynnis king,
It salbe kepit prevy as for me, º as far as I am concerned
Bot, bruder deir, your servand waldº I se, would
Gif it yow pleis, that we may drynk togidder,
For I wait nocht gifº ye ma ay cum hidderº know not if may always
come hither
Quhen that we want our neidis sic as this.’
The freir said, ‘Nay, so motº I haif hevynis blis, may
Yow to haif the sichtº of my serwand sight
It canº nocht be — ye sall weill understand, must
That ye may se him graithlyº in his awin kynd, º readily own form
Bot ye anone sowldº go owt of your mynd. immediately should
He is so fowll and ugly for to se.
I dar nocht awnterº for to tak onº me venture undertake
To bring him hidder heir into our sicht,
And namelyº now so lait into the nicht, especially
Bot gif it wer on sic a maner wyisº in such a kind of way
Him to translaitº or ellis disagyisº transform disguise
Fra his awin kind into ane uder stait.’º other form
Than Symone said, ‘I mak no moir debait, º argument
As pleisisº yow so likis it to me, pleases
As evir ye list, º bot faneº wald I him se, ’ wish gladly
Freyr Robert said, ‘Sen that your will is so,
Tell onto me withouttin wourdis mo,
Intill quhat kyndº sall I him garº appeir?’ form cause
Than Symone said, ‘In liknes of a freir,
In quhytº cullour, right as your self it war, º white were
For quhyt cullour will na body deir.’º harm
Freir Robert said that swa it cowld nocht be,
For sic causis as he may weill foirse, º foresee
That he compeirº into our habeitº quhyt: appear monastic dress
‘Untillº our ordour it wer a grit dispyte, º unto insult
That ony sic unworthy wichtº as he creature
Intillº our habeit men sowld behald or se. in
Bot sen it pleissis yow that ar heir,
Ye sall him se in liknes of a freir,
In habeit blak it was his kind to weir,
Into sic wyis that he sall no man deir.º
Gif ye so do, and rewll yow at all wyis
To hald yow clois and stillº at my devyis, º
hidden and quiet according to
my wish
Quhatevir it be ye owdirº se or heir,
Ye speik no word nor mak no kynd of steir, º
Bot hald yow clois, quhillº I haif done my cure.’
Than said he, ‘Semon, ye moneº be on the flure,
Neirhandº besyd, with staff intoº your hand;
º must floor
close in
Haif ye no dreid, I sall yow ay warrand, ’º protect, be surety for
Than Symone said, ‘I assent that it be swa.’
And up he start, and gat a libberlaº
Into his hand, and on the flure he stert,
Sumthing effrayit, º thocht stalwart was his hart.
somewhat afraid
Than to the freir said Symone verry sone, º quickly
‘Now tell me, maister, quhat ye will haif done.’
‘Nothing, ’ he said, ‘bot hald yow clois and still.
Quhatevir I do, tak ye gud tent thairtill, º
And near the durº ye hyd yow prevely, º
And quhen I bid yow stryk, strek hardely, º
Into the nek se that ye hit him richt.’º
heed therto
door secretly
strike boldly
‘That sall I warrand, ’ quod he, ‘with all my mic
Thus on the flure I leifº him standand still,
Bydand his tyme, and turne agane I will,
Howº that the freir did take his buke in hy, º
And turnit ourº the levis full besely,
[to tell] how quickly
Ane full lang space, º and quhen he had done sw a, very long time
Towart the trochº withowttin wordis ma
He gois belyfe, º and on this wyisº sayis he,
‘Ha, how! Hurlybas, º now I conjure the,
That thow uprysº and sone to me appear
In habeitº blak in liknes of a freir;
Owt of this troch, quhair that thou dois ly
quickly manner
(the fiend’s name)
rise up
Thow rax theº sone, and mak no dyn nor cry.
Thow tumbill ourº the troch that we may se,
And unto us thow schaw theº oppinlie,
And in this place se that thow no man greif, º
Bot draw thy handis boith into thy sleif, º
And pull thy cowll doun owttourº thy face.
rouse yourself
tumble over
show yourself
Thow may thank God that thow gettisº sic a grace
Thairfoir thow tursº the to thyne awin ressett, º
make off
own abode
Se this be done and mak no moir debait; º
In thy depairting se thow mak no derayº
Unto no wicht, º bot frely pas thy way;
And in this place se that thow cum no moir,
Bot I command the, or ellis the charge befoir,
And our the stairº se that thow ga gud speid; º
Gif thow dois nocht, on thy awin perrell beid.’º
across the stairs
be it
With that the freir, that under the troch lay,
Raxit him sone, bot he wes in afray, º
And up he rais, and wist na bettir wayn,
Bot of the troch he tumlit ourº the stane
state of alarm
stumbled over
Syne fra the samynº quhairin he thocht him lang same (trough)
Unto the dur he preisitº him to gang, hurried
With hevy cheir and drery countenamce,
For nevir befoir him hapnit sic a chance.º
And quhen freir Robert saw him gangandº by, going
Unto the gudman full lowdly cowdº he cry,
‘Stryk, stryk herdely, for now is tyme to the.’º
With that Symone a felloun flapº lait fle.º
With his burdounº he hit him on the nek;
He wes sa ferceº he fell owttour the sek, º
And brakº his heid upoun ane mustard stane.º
now is your time
fierce blow let fly
fierce over the sack (of corn)
broke stone (for grinding
Be this freir Johine attourº the stair is gane
In sic wyisº that mist he hes the trap, º
And in ane myrº he fell — sic wes his hapº —
Wes fourty futis of breidº undir the stair,
such a way missed the ladder
mire fortune
forty feet in breadth
Yeit gatº he up with clethingº nothing fair,
Full drerelieº upoun his feit he stude,
And throw the myre full smertlyº than he yude,º
And our the wall he clamº richt haistely,
Quhilkº round abowt wes laid with stanis dry.
Of his eschapingº in hairt he wes full fane, º
I trowº he salbe laithº to cum agane.
yet got clothes
quickly went
escape glad
believe will be loath
With that freir Robert stert abak and saw
Quhair the gudman lay sa woundir lawº
Upoun the flure, and bleidandº wes his heid; º
He stertº to him, and wentº he had bene deid,
And clawchtº him up withowttin wordis moir,
And to the dur delyverlyº him bure; º
And fraº the wind wes blawin twyisº in his face,
wondrously low
bleeding head
hurried thought
quickly carried
when blowntwice
Than he ourcomeº within a lytill space,
And than freir Robert franyt at him fast, º
Quhat ailitº him to be so soir agast.
came to
asked him earnestly
what ailed
He said, ‘Yone [feynd had maidº me in effray]’ made
‘Latt be, ’ quod he, ‘the werst is all away —
Mak mirry, man, and se ye morne na mairº —
Ye haif him strikinº quyt owttourº the stair.
I saw him slip, gif I the suthº can tell,
sorrow no more
knocked quite over
Doun our the stair. Intill a myr he fell.
Bot lat him go, he wes a graceles gaist, º
And bounº yow to your bed, for it is best, ’
Thus Symonis heid upoun the stane wes brokin,
And our the stair the freir in myre hes loppin, º
And tap our tail; º he fyldº wes
woundir ill, º
top over tail defile
wondrously badly
And Alesone on na wayis gatº hir will.
This is the story that hapnit of that freir,
No moir there is, bot Chryst us help most deir.º
no ways got

v) Kynd Kittok12

  • 12 For Kynd Kittok (Kittie), as well as The Freiris of Berwick, see The Poems of William Dunb (...)
  • 13 See Gray’s Later Medieval English Literature (on Scottish writing, headed Robert Henryson) (...)

Scotland produced a remarkable tradition of popular comic tales: Colkrelbie Sow, Sym and his Bruder, and some which find comic entertainment of a weird ‘eldritch’ kind, as in Lichtoun’s Dreme or The Gyre Carling (the ‘mother witch’ of Scotland).13 Sadly, there is no space to celebrate this varied tradition here in the manner it deserves. We must be content with the lively Freiris of Berwik (above) and the following little tale of how Kitty found an alehouse close to the gate of heaven.

My gudameº wes a gay wif, bot scho wes right gend.º
Scho duelt furth fer into France upon Falkland Fell;
Thay callit her Kynd Kittok, quhasaº hir weill kend.º
Scho wes like a caldron crukeº clerº under
kell, º
Thay threpitº that scho deit of thrist, º and
maid a gud end.
beautiful headdress
Efter hir dede, º scho dreditº nought in hevin for to duell, death feared
And sa to hevin the hie way dreidles scho wend.
Yit scho wanderit and yeidº by to ane elricheº well.
Scho met thar, as I wene,
went fairy
Ane askº rydandº on a snail, newt riding
And cryit, ‘Ourtaneº fallow, hail! ’ overtaken
And raidº ane inche behind the tail,
Till it wes near evin.
Sa scho had hap to be horsit to hir herbryº shelter
Att ane ailhous near hevin, it nyghttit thaimº thare;
night fell on them
Scho deit of thrist in this warld, that gertº hir be so dry, made
Scho never eit, bot drank ourº mesur and mair. over
Scho sleipit quhillº the morn at none, and rais airly; º until rose early
And to the yettisº of hevin fast canº the wif fair, º gates did go
And by sanct Petir, in at the yet scho stall prevely, º
God lukitº and saw hir lattinº in and lewchº his hert sair.
stole secretly
looked let
And thar yeris sevin
Scho levit a gud life,
And wes our Ladyis hen wif,
And held sanct Petir at strif,
Ay quhillº scho wes in hevin.
ever while
Sche lukit out on a day and thought right lang
To se the ailhous beside, intill ane evill hour;
And out of hevin the hie gait coughtº the wif gaingº
did go

For to get hir ane fresche drink — the aill of hevin wes sour. Scho come againe to hevinnis yet, quhen the bell rang,

Saint Petir hatº hir with a club, quhill a gret clourº
Raisº in hie heid, º because the wif yeid wrang.

1Than to the ailhous agane scho ran the pycharis to pour.

And for to brew and baik.
Frendis, I pray yow hertfully
Gifº ye be thirsty or dry,
Drink with my guddame, as ye ga by,
Anysº for my saik.
just once

vi) The Wright’s Chaste Wife14

  • 14 Adam of Cobsham: The Wrights Chaste Wife, ed. Furnivall.
  • 15 ‘Brunain, la vache au prêtre’ is one of Jean Bodel’s fabliaux. This Old French poet wrote (...)

An example of how a comic tale can also be a moral tale. Similarly, stories which appear in the pages of moralists and preachers, like that of the poor man and his cow, which illustrates how mercy increases temporal goods, can also appear in fabliaux — like the French ‘Brunain’.15

Allmyghty God, maker of alle,
Save you my sovereynns in towre and halle,
And send you good grace!
If ye wyll a stounde blynne,
Of a story I wyll begynne,
And telle you all the cas.
Meny farleyes that I have herde,
Ye would have wondyr how yt ferde —
Lystyn, and ye schall here…

[An honest, hard-working wright is slow to enter marriage, but finally chooses the fair daughter of a widow in the area. The widow says that the only marriage portion she can give him is a garland of roses. However, it has a marvellous property: if his wife is faithful the roses will retain their colour, but if she is fickle the colour will change. They are married and return home after the festivities. Then the wright is struck by the thought that his wife is so beautiful that other men will desire to have her ‘and that hastly and sone’. And so he plans and builds a crafty room from which no one can escape, ‘wyth wallys stronge as eny stele And dorres sotylly made and wele’. It has a cunningly-made trapdoor with a ‘pit’ beneath it: ‘whoso touchyd yt ony thing, Into the pytt he schuld flyng.’ The wright is summoned by the lord of the town to work on the construction of a wooden hall which will take two or three months…]

The lord seyd, ‘woult thou have thi wyfe?
I wyll send after her blyveº
That sche may come to the.’
The wryght hys garlond hadde take wyth hym.
That was bryght and no thing dimme,
Yt was feyre on to see.
The lord axyd hym as he satt,
‘Felowe, where hadyst thou this hatte
That ys so feyre and newe?’
[And when he hears of its marvellous nature…]
The lord thought ‘By Godys myght,
That wyll I wete thys same nyght
Whether thys tale be trewe.’
To the wryghtes howse anon he went,
He fonde the wyfe therin presente
That was so bryght and schene,
Sone he hayled her trewly,
And so dyd sche the lord curtesly,
Sche seyd, ‘Welcome ye be! ’
Thus seyd the wyfe of the hows,
‘Syr, howe faryth my swete spowse
That hewyth upon your tre?’
‘Sertes, dame, ’ he seyd, ‘wele,
And I am come, so have I hele,
To wete the wylle of the.
My love ys so upon the cast
That ne thynketh my hert wolle brest, º
It wolle none otherwise be!
Good dame, graunt me thy grace
To pley with the in some prevy place
For gold and eke for fee.’º
‘Good syr, lett be your fare,
And of such words speke no mare
For hys love that dyed on tre —
Hadde we onys begonne that gle,
My husbond by his garlond myght see,
For sorowe he would wexe woode.’º
‘Certes, dame, ’ he seyd, ‘naye.
Love me, I pray you, in that ye maye —
For Godys love change thy mode,
go mad

Forty marke schall be youre mede
Of sylver and of gold [e] rede,
And thay schall do the good.’

[‘Syr, that deede schall be done’, she says, and asks for the money. She takes it and says…]

‘… into the chambyr wyll we,
That no man schall us see;
No lenger wyll we spare.’

Up the steyer they gan hye;
The stepes were made so queyntlyº
That farther myght he nott fare.
The lord stumbyllyd as he went in hast,
He fell doune into that chasteº
Forty fote and somedele more.
The lord began to crye,
The wyfe seyd to hym in hye, º
‘Syr, what do ye there?’
‘Dame, I cannot seye howe
That I am come hydder nowe
To thys hows that ys so newe;
I am so depe in thys sure flore
That I ne can come owte att no dore —
Good dame, on me thou rewe! ’
[But she refuses, until her husband will return…]
… The lord arose and lokyd abowte
If he myght enywhere gete owte,
Butt yt holpe hym ryght noght,
The wallys were so thycke wythyn,
That he nowhere myght owte wynne
But helpe to hym were brought…

[Angrily he threatens the wife, but she says she does not care: ‘I recke nere While I am here and thou art there, I schrewe here that the doth drede.’ Putting him out of her mind, she retires to her loft and carries on with her own tasks. On the next day he asks for some food, but that will not be forthcoming unless he is willing to ‘swete or swynke.’]

‘… I have both hempe and lyne, º
And a betyngstockeº full fyne,
And a swyngyllº good and grete.
If thou wylt worke, tell me sone.’
‘Dame, bring yt forthe, yt schall be done,
Full gladly would I ete.’

[She throws the tools down to him in the pit ‘wyth a grete hete’. ‘Syr lord… have thou that And lerne for to swete’, and he begins to beat. So he carries on working, and the wife gives him food if his work is satisfactory, but ‘hys men knewe nott of hys woo Nor of ther lordes pyne.’ But his steward notices his absence.]

The stuard to the wryght gan saye,
‘Sawe thou owte of my lord todaye,
Whether that he ys wen [t]?’
The wryght answerde and seyd ‘Naye —
I sawe hym nott syth yesterday;
I trowe that he be schent.’
The stuard stode the wryght by,
And of hys garlond had ferly
What that yt bemente…
[When he learns of its power…]
The stuard thought, ‘By Godes myght,
That schal I preve thys same nyght
Whether thou blys or banne.’
And into hys chambyr he gan gone,
And toke treasure full good wone,

And forth he spedde hemº than. him

Butt he ne stynt att no stone
Tyll he unto the wryghtes hows come
That ylke same nyght.
He met the wyfe amydde the gate,
About the necke he gan her take.
And seyd, ‘My dere wyght,
All the gode that ys myne
I wyll the geve to be thyne
To lye by the all nyght.’

[As with the lord, she demurs, but the steward presses twenty marks on her. She remarks…]

‘Syr, andº I graunt that to you, if

Lett no man wete butt we two nowe.’
He seyd, ‘Nay, wythowtyn drede.’
The stuard thought, ‘Sykerly
Women beth both queynte and slye… ’
… Up the sterys sche hym le [d] de
Tyll he saw the wrightes bedde —
Of tresoure thought he none;
He went and stumblyd att a stone,
Into the seller he fylle sone,
Downe to the bare flore.
The lord seyd, ‘What devyll art thou?
And thou hadest falle on me nowe,
Thou hadest hurt me full sore!’
The stuard stert and staryd abowte

If he might owerº gete owte anywhere

Att hole lesse or mare.
The lord seyd, ‘Welcome, and sytt be tyme,

For thou schalt helpe to dyght this lyneº flax

For all thy fers [e] fare.’
The stuard lokyd on the knyght.
He seyd, ‘Syr, For Godes myght,
My lord, what do you here?’

[The steward, who seems to have a high opinion of himself, is very reluctant to work: ‘rather would I dy for hungyr Wythowte hosull or shryfte’. The lord’s rejoinder, ‘Thowe wylt worke, yf thou hungyr welle. What worke that the be brought’, is soon proved true: ‘The lord satt and dyd hys werke, The stuard drewe into the derke, Gret sorowe was in hys thought’. When the lord is given his dinner, he will not share it with the steward.]

The stuard satt all in a stody,
His lord had forgote curtesy.
Tho seyd the stuard, ‘Geve me some.’
The lord seyd, ‘Sorowe have the morsel or sopeº
bread soaked in liquid
That schall come in thy throte!
Nott si much as o crome! º
Buttº thou wylt helpe to dyght this lyne,
Much hungyr yt schall be thyne
Though thou make much mone.’

[The steward capitulates. Meanwhile, back in the town, the lord’s people are increasingly worried about his fate. The proctor of the parish church approaches the wright, hears of the power of his garland, and immediately reacts in the same way as the lord and the steward: ‘in good faye That schall I wete thys same daye Whether yt may so be’. He goes to the wife and makes his proposition, which is received in the same manner as those of his predecessors. He offers twenty marks, and this is accepted.]

Nowe hath sche the treasure tane, º
And up the steyre be they gane,
(What helpyth yt to lye?)
The wyfe went the steyre beside.
The proctoure went a lytyll to wyde —
He fell downe by and by.
Whan he into the seller felle
He wenteº to have sonke into helle,
He was in hert full sory.
The stuard lokyd on the knyght,
And seyd, ‘Proctoure, for Godes myght,
Come and sytt us by.’
The proctoure began to stare,
For he was he wyst never whare,
Butt wele he knewe the knyght
And the stuard tht swyngelyd the lyne.
He seyd, ‘Syres, for Godes pyne,
What do ye here this nyght?’
The stuard seyd, ‘God geve the care,

Thowe camyst to loke howe we fare,
Nowe helpe this lyne were dyght.’

[The proctor pleads lack of training: ‘I lernyd never in lond For to have a swyngell in hond By day nor be nyght’. But the need for food begins to make itself felt: ‘the proctoure stode in a stody Whether he might worke hem by’. Finally…]

The proctoure began to knocke,
The good wyfe rawteº hym a rocke, º
For therto hadde sche nede,
gave distaff
Sche seyd, ‘Whan I was mayde at home,
Other werke cowed I do none
My lyfe therwyth to lede.’
Sche gave hym in hande a rocke hynde, º
And bade hem fast for to wynde
Or ellys to lett be hys dede.
‘Yes, dame, ’ he seyd, ‘so have I hele,
I schall yt worke bothe feyre and welle
As ye have taute me… ’

[The lord criticises his workmanship, but the three of them sit and toil away ‘tyll the wekedayes were past’.]

Then the wright, home came he,
And as he cam by hys hows syde
He herd noyse that was nott rydeº
Of persons two or thre…

[‘What ys thys dynne?’ he asks, and his wife tells him it is workmen who have come to help them. When the wright sees his lord there he is very alarmed, but the knight apologises and asks for mercy…]

The wryght bade hys wyfe lett hym owte.
‘Naye, then sorowe come on my snowte
If they passe hens todaye
Tyll that my lady coome and see
Howe they would have done with me… ’

[So the lady is brought, ‘for to fett home her lord and knight… therto sche seyd noght.’ She is glad that her lord is alive, and…]

Whan sche came unto the steyre aboven,
Sche lokyd unto the seller downe,
And seyd — this is nott to leyne —
‘Good syres, what doo you here?’
‘Dame, we by owre mete full dere,
Wyth gret travayle and peyne;
I pray you helpe that we were owte,
And I wyll swere wythowtyn dowte
Never to come here agayne.’
The lady spake the wyfe untylle,
And seyd, ‘Dame, yf yt be youre wylle,
What doo thes meyny here?’
The carpentarys wyfe her anserd sykerly,
‘All they would have leyne me by,
Everych, in ther manere.
Gold and sylver they me brought,
And forsoke yt, and would yt noght,
The ryche gyftes so clere.
Wyllyng they were to do me schame —
I toke ther gyftes wythowtyn blame,
And ther they be all thre!’
The lady answerd her anon,
‘I have thynges to do att home
Mo than two or thre —
I wyst my lord never do right noght
Of no thing that schuld be wrought,
Such as fallyth to me.’
The lady lawghed and made good game
Whan they came owte all insame
From the swyngyll tre…
… And when they cam up aboven
They turnyd abowte and lokyd downe,
The lord seyd, ‘so God save me,
Yet hadde I never such a fytte
As I have hadde in that lowe pytte —
So Mary so mutt me spede!’

[The lord and the lady return home, and the steward and the proctor ride off, vowing not to return. All the treasure that the suitors brought is given by the lady to the wright’s wife. And the wright’s garland remains ‘feyre of hewe.’]

I take wytnes att gret and small,
Thus trewe bene good women all
That nowe bene on lyve… .

vii) ‘Noodle’ Stories16

  • 16 Simple Forms, pp. 146–7 (where he calls them Numskull stories). Three of these four are in (...)

This little sub-category of the comic tale, in which a fool demonstrates his own folly, was obviously popular. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries this kind of folly was attributed especially to the inhabitants of Gotham in Nottinghamshire.

The Man who had a Goose

… Som tyme ther was a man that had a guse. And sho warpyd everilk day ane egg. And on a tyme he umthoght that he wold hafe all thies eggis at ons, and he slew his guse and oppend hur, and he fand bod one egg in hur. And so for grete haste that he had of that at was for to com, he loste all.

Penning the Cuckoo

On a tyme the men of Gotam wold have pynned the Cockow that she should sing all the yeare and in the myddest of the towne they dyd make a hedge (round in compass), and they had got a cocow, and put her in it and sayde, ‘Singe here all the yeare, and thou shalte lacke neyther meate nor drincke.’ The Cocow, as soone as shee was set within the hedge, flew her waye. ‘A vengeaunce on her! ’ sayde they, ‘We made not our hedge high ynough.’

Runaway Cheese

There was a man of Gotam the which went to the market to Nottingham to sell cheese. And as he was goynge downe the hyll to Nottingham bridge, one of his cheeses dyd fall out of his poake, and did runne downe the hyll. ‘A horsons, ’ said the fellow, ‘Can you runne to the market alone I will sende the one after the other of you.’ He layde downe hys poake, and tooke the cheeses, and dyd trundle them downe the hyll one after another; and some ran into one busshe, and some into another. And at the laste he sayde, ‘I charge you all meete me in the market place.’ When the fellowe dyd come into the market place to meete hys cheeses, hee dyd tarie tyll the market was almoste done. Then he went about, and dyd enquire of hys neighboures, and other men if they did see his cheeses come to the market. ‘Who shoulde bringe them?’ sayd one of the market men. ‘Marye! themselves, ’ sayd the fellow, ‘They knew the way well ynoughe.’ He taryed still tyll it was nyght. At nyghte he said, ‘A vengeaunce on them al! I dyd feare to see that my cheeses dyd runne so faste, that they runne beyond the market. I am sure that they be almoste now at Yorke.’ He hyred a horse to ryde after to Yorke to seeke hys cheeses wheare they were not. But to thys daye, no man coulde tell hym of hys cheeses.

A Demonic Grasshopper

On a tyme theare was one of Gotam mowynge in the meads, and found a great gras-hopper. He dyd caste downe hys sythe and dyd runne home to his neighbours and sayde that there was a devill in the fyelde that hopped in the grasse. Then there was everye man readye wythe clubbes and staves, wythe holbardes [halberds] and other weapons, to go to kill the grasshopper. Whan they did come to the place where that the Grashopper shoulde bee, sayde the one to the other, ‘Lette everye man crosse hymselfe from this devil, for we wyll not meddle wyth hym.’ And so they returned home againe and sayde, ‘Wee weare well bleste thys daye that we went no further.’ ‘A! cowardes! ’ sayd he that had the sythe in the mead, ‘Helpe me to fetch my sithe.’ ‘No, ’ saide they, ‘It is good to sleap in a whole skynne. Better it is to leese [lose] thy sithe, than to mar all.’

German Merry Tales Translated

viii) How that Howleglas would fly from the Town House of Maybrough17

  • 17 This anti-hero is also known as Till Eulenspiegel, a German folk hero or anti-hero. In A H (...)

After that, came Howleglass to Maybrough where he did many marvellous things that his name was there well known. Then bade the principal of the town that he should do something that was never seen before. Then said he that he would go to the highest of the Council House and fly from it. And anon that was known through all the town that Howleglass would fly from the top of the Council House in such that all the town was there assembled and gathered in the market place to see him. Upon the top of the House stood Howleglass with his hands waving as though he would have flown. Whereat he laughed and said to the people, ‘I thought there had been no more fools than myself. But I see well that here is a whole town full. For had ye altogether said that ye would have flown, yet I would not have believed you. And now ye believe one afore that saith he will fly, which thing is impossible, for I have no wings, and no man can fly without wings.’And then went he his way from the top of the Council House, and left the folk there standing. And then departed the folk from thence, some blaming him and some laughing, saying, ‘He is a shrewd fool, for he telleth us the truth.’

ix) The Parson and the Bishop’s Lady Paramour18

  • 18 In Gray’s Later Medieval English Literature, see pp. 223–4, where this story is described (...)

The parson of Kalenborowe perceyvynge that the bysshope wolde have hym with hym to every church-holowynge [hallowing], he sought a wile to byde at home and kepe howse with his servant or wenche, for it was moste his ease. And incontinent he went to the byssopes soverayne lady and prayed her that she wolde help hym that he might byde at home and nat go to no churche-halowynge, ‘And I wyll gyve you a gode rewarde’. She answered agayne and sayd, ‘That is nat in my power.’ The parson sayd, ‘Yes, ’ and sayd, ‘Holde here a purse with money for your labour, for I knowe well the bysshope wyll lay with you tonight; thus I pray you to shewe me the hour of his commyng that I may lay under the bed.’ She answered and saide, ‘Than come at seven of the clocke, for eight of the clocke is his houre.’ And in the meane season she prepared the chamber lyke an erthely paradyse and sett rownde about the wallis of it candellis burnynge bright against the bisshopes commyng, and at the houre assigned the parson came and crepte under the bedde in her chamber. Whan the bisshope com, he merveyled sore to se this sight and asked her what it ment. ‘My lorde, ’ she saide, ‘this is for the honoure of you, for this nyght I hope ye wyll halowe my lytell chapel standing benethe my navyll in Venus valaye and that by and by, or ellys from hens forth I wyll shewe you no point of love whilst I leve.’

  • 19 This is a dreadful place!

The bysshope went to bedde with his soverayn lady and he fulfilled all her desire and began to holowe her chapel to the best of his power. The parson laynge under the bedde herd this right well and began fore to singe with a hye voice lyke as they do at every church-holowynge in this maner, ‘Terribilis est locus iste’,19 wherof the bishop marvayled and was abashed and blessed hym with the signe of the holy crosse, and wenynge to hym that the devyll had bene in the chamber, and wolde have conjured hym. Than spake the parson laynge under the bedde with grete haste, saynge thus (and with that he crepte out), ‘Reverende fader, I fere so sore to breke your commaundement that I had lever crepe on hande and fote to fulfyll your mynde and wyll than to be absent at any of all your churche-holowinges, and for that cause I wolde be at this chapel also.’ The bysshope sayde, ‘I had nat called the to be at the holownge herof! I trowe the devyll brought the hether! Get the hens out of my sight and come nomore to me!’ ‘My lorde, I thanke you and also your lady paramours.’ Thus wente the preste on his way and thanked God that he was so rydde from the bysshope, and so come home and kepte house with his fayr wenche as he was wont to do, the whiche was glad of his commynge home, for she had great disease of suche thynges as he was wonte to helpe her of. And some that envied the preste shewed the bysshop that he had suche a fayre wenche. And because he had layde under the bysshops bedde and played hym that false touche, the bisshope sent a commission ento hym, that upon payne of curssinge he shold put awaye frome hym his yonge lusty wenche, and to kepe his house that he shold take an olde woman of xl yere of age, or ellys he sholde be put in pryson. The parson, hering this, made a gret mournynge complaint to his wenche and said, ‘Now must I wasshe and plasshe, wringe and singe and do al my besines myself’, wherof she gave hym gode comforte and said, ‘The whele of fortune shall turne ones againe’, and so departed for a seson. And than he toke gode hert a grece, and said to himself, ‘No force, yet shall I begyle hym, for I wyll kepe ii wenches of xx yere of age, and twise xx maketh xl! Holde thyne owne, parson!’

Early Sixteenth-Century Jests

x) Wedded Men at the Gates of Heaven20

  • 20 In A Hundred Merry Tales (ed. Zall), pp. 85–6.

A certain wedded man there was, which when he was dead came to heaven-gates to saint Peter, and said he came to claim his heritage which he had deserved. Saint Peter asked him what he was, and he said, ‘A wedded man.’ Anon Saint Peter opened the gate and bade him come in, and sayd he was worthy to have his heritage because he had had much trouble, and was worthy to have a crown of glory. Anon after that there came another man that claimed heaven, and said to Saint Peter that he had had two wives; to whom Saint Peter answered and said, ‘Come in, for thou art worthy to have a double crown of glory, for thou hast had double trouble.’ At the last there came a third claiming heaven, and said to Saint Peter that he had had three wives and desired to come in. ‘What!’ quod Saint Peter, ‘Thou hast been once in trouble and thereof delivered, and then willingly wouldst be troubled again, and yet again therof delivered; and for all that couldst not beware the third time, but entered’st willingly in trouble again! Therefore go thy way to hell, for thou shalt never come in heaven, for thou art not worthy.’

This tale is a warning to them that have been twice in peril to beware how they come therein the third time.

xi) No Welshmen in Heaven21

  • 21 Ibid. (p. 132), though judging by its spelling of (for example) ‘Cause Bob!’ Gray probably (...)

I find written among old jests how God made Saint Peter porter of heaven, and that God of his goodness, soon after his Passion, suffered many men to come to the kingdom of heaven with small deserving; at which time there was in heaven a great company of Welshmen which with their cracking [bragging] and babbling troubled all the others. Wherefore God said to Saint Peter that he was weary of them and that he would fain have them out of heaven. To whom Saint Peter said, ‘Good Lord, I warrant you, that shall be done.’ Wherefore Saint Peter went out of heaven-gates and cried with a loud voice, ‘Caws pob! ’ that is as much as to say ‘roasted cheese’ — which thing the Welshmen hearing, ran out of heaven a great pace. And when Saint Peter saw them all out, he suddenly went into heaven and locked the door, and so sparred all the Welshmen out.

By this ye may see that it is no wisdom for a man to love or to set his mind too much upon any delicate or worldly pleasure whereby he shall lose the celestial and eternal joy.


1 Gray called this chapter ‘Comic Tales’, but ’Merry’ in the table of contents. I retain Merry’ so as to match his chapter-title in Simple Forms.

2 The Weeping Puppy, see chapter 4 number viii above.

3 The Tale of the Basin is in Ten Fifteenth-century Comic Poems, ed. Furrow, although it is unlikely Gray used this edition; see also Medieval Comic Tales, where it is called The Tale of the Pot (sc. chamber-pot).

4 GrimmsFairy Tales (London, n.d; a previous owner has dated his copy 1896). This well-known and finely-illustrated edition does not give story-numbers; The Golden Goose (Grimms’ number 64) is pp. 197–200. The story is found in Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book (and elsewhere).

5 A reference to the Five (or other number) Joys of Mary, formulae used to aid meditation and prayer.

6 In Ten Bourdes, ed. Furrow.

7 Julian was the patron saint of travellers (and of their good lodging).

8 These nonsense phrases may or may not mean something like ‘This is good stuff!’ ‘Drink up!’

9 Jack Fletcher, that is a maker of arrows.

10 ed. Herrtage.

11 Also in Ten Bourdes, ed. Furrow (a revised version of her Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems). I have made sparing use of Furrow’s notes, only where Gray left a question-mark, because it is not certain he used this edition.

12 For Kynd Kittok (Kittie), as well as The Freiris of Berwick, see The Poems of William Dunbar, ed. MacKenzie.

13 See Gray’s Later Medieval English Literature (on Scottish writing, headed Robert Henryson), pp. 509 ff (book-list pp. 531–2).

14 Adam of Cobsham: The Wrights Chaste Wife, ed. Furnivall.

15 ‘Brunain, la vache au prêtre’ is one of Jean Bodel’s fabliaux. This Old French poet wrote chansons de geste as well as fabliaux; he lived c. 1165–c. 1210, in Arras.

16 Simple Forms, pp. 146–7 (where he calls them Numskull stories). Three of these four are in The Book of Noodles, ed. Clouston; I have not so far identified the first. Its analogues are, of course, the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs; and another about the wife who overfed her hen to get more eggs but ended up with only a fat hen.

17 This anti-hero is also known as Till Eulenspiegel, a German folk hero or anti-hero. In A Hundred Merry Tales (ed. Zall), the first story is on p. 167.

18 In Gray’s Later Medieval English Literature, see pp. 223–4, where this story is described (the English version is probably from a Dutch prose version of a Low German text; references on p. 228).

19 This is a dreadful place!

20 In A Hundred Merry Tales (ed. Zall), pp. 85–6.

21 Ibid. (p. 132), though judging by its spelling of (for example) ‘Cause Bob!’ Gray probably used a different edition.


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