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Make We Merry More and Less

Jane Bliss
Douglas Gray

Chapter 6

Animal Tales

Texte intégral

  • 1 See Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Sherley-Price, in Ch. 13 (pp. 129–30 (...)

There is a long and extensive medieval tradition of animal tale, which has its roots in antiquity, and also looks forward to the modern world. It is a tradition in which learned, popular, and folk elements are intertwined. In it the animals have a variety of functions: they offer moral examples, practical instruction, and entertainment. The idea that man can learn from the animals is a venerable one; a very early English example is Bede’s story of the sparrow, offered as advice to a Northumbrian king: ‘It seems to me that the life of man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall… ’.1 Later in the Middle Ages we find disapproving clerics recording popular superstitions concerning the possibility of learning the future from the behaviour of birds, as well as evidence in sophisticated writers like Chaucer, a knowledge that sometimes seems to come from observation. As in modern traditional societies, animals were not only ‘good to eat’ but also ‘good to think’.

  • 2 Langland, Piers Plowman, ed. Schmidt, p. 48, and see editor’s footnote for the extra line cited.

Again, as in modern traditional societies, people were very close to animals. This is evident from many references in the works of literary authors. Chaucer remarks that the cock is the orloge [clock] of small villages (Parliament of Fowls, v. 350), and in the House of Fame (v. 1516) observes that there are as many writers of old tales ‘as ben on trees rokes nestes’. He gives names to common animals in and around the house: a sheep called Malle (Molly); dogs called Colle, Talbot, and Gerland; horses Brok and Scot. He uses proverbial and colloquial locutions, ‘stynken as a goot’, etc, and refers to the behaviour of household animals: the hole ‘there as the cat was wont to crepe’ in the Miller’s Tale (another household cat is swept from its resting-place by a visiting friar, III. 1775). There is even an allusion to ‘pets’ or protopets: the lap dogs that the Prioress fed (vv. 146–9). In Langland we find an allusion to a less attractive household creature, in the description of Covytise’s tattered tabard (V 188 ff.), ‘al totorne… and ful of lys crepynge… But if that [unless] a lous couthe have lopen [jumped] the bette, She sholde nought have walked on that welche [Welsh flannel], so it was thredbare… ’.2 Household animals like the cat appear in carved misericords, and there is a ring with a figure of a cat devouring a mouse, with the legend ‘gret wel Gibbe oure cat’. This closeness could lead to knowledge and to some acute observation, reflected in some manuscript illustrations, although usually mingled with popular lore (as in proverbs, see below). Similarly, some ‘scientific’ material and observation has become embedded in traditional lore, as for instance in the guileful and treacherous nature of the fox, so firmly established that it can be symbolic; Criseyde can address Pandarus (Tr. 3, v. 1565) as ‘fox that ye ben’.

  • 3 There is no online version of Whiting, but it is widely available in libraries and very easy to use (...)

Medieval English proverbial lore is full of references to animals. Whiting’s collection of proverbs contains references to well over a hundred animals, birds, fish, and insects; some are exotic (chameleon, crocodile) but the majority are more local and familiar.3 And they include one or two which would have been more prominent in medieval town life than in modern, notably bears and apes. One proverb [Whiting B 102] alludes to bear-baiting, another [B 101] to the differing thoughts of the bear and its leader, which Chaucer uses in Tr. 4, vv. 1453–4: ‘for thus men seyth, ‘‘That on thenketh the bere, But al another thenketh his leder.’’ ’ Elsewhere, bears are traditionally black, fierce, and ‘boistous’; and rough and slow. Captive apes were obviously a source of interest and entertainment. Among the characteristics alluded to are their imitative behaviour (‘men sein commonly that the ape doth as he other seeth’ [Whiting A 136]), their grimacing and their foolishness. Ape seems sometimes almost synonymous with ‘fool’; see Chaucer’s ‘he made the person and the peple his apes’ (Tales, I, v. 706). People may be ‘drunken as an ape’ or ‘ape-drunk’.

The mixture of ‘scientific’ and ‘popular’ lore is an important element in the background of the very rich medieval literary tradition of animal tales, in which, in Britain, the achievements of Chaucer and Henryson are pre-eminent. Here we are in a wonderful fictional time when, as Chaucer says, ‘bestes and brides koude speke and synge’ (Tales, VII. v. 2881). Here beasts and birds engage in formal debate on matters significant to humans, or appear as actors in moral tales for their instruction and entertainment. The animal fable is a very ancient literary form, traceable back to the mysterious figure of Aesop and beyond, to the ‘wisdom literature’ of the ancient near East and the fables of the Old Testament. Animal fables, both Aesopic and non-Aesopic, lived on in the Middle Ages in versions in Latin and in the vernaculars. The ‘moralities’ which they engender are sometimes religious and high-minded, but not always. Sometimes the ‘morality’ seems rather to be advice on how to survive in a hostile world; and the fable, while not quite a ‘slave’ fable, often seems to be an expression of the views and attitudes of the lower classes of society. Here, cleverness, ingenuity, and cunning seem to be prized. An excellent (and extreme) example is to be found in the nefarious activities of Reynard the Fox, stories which moved through literary sources, but almost certainly against a background of popular storytelling, into a kind of beast epic, the French Roman de Renart. Reynard the Fox comes from a widespread folk interest in small animals who can by cleverness and cunning defeat the stronger and larger, but rather stupid, creatures; but he seems to have developed into a rather sinister and amoral comic Trickster figure, similar to Coyote in some North American Indian mythologies.

  • 4 Cited in Gray, Robert Henryson, p. 57 in the chapter ‘Beasts and Wisdom (i)’.

‘The overlapping of the human and animal worlds provides a powerful stimulus for the imagination’ says D. D. R. Owen in the Introduction to his translation of the Roman de Renart. It certainly does — and the creators of animal tales seem to have discovered (before literary theory) the ‘elasticity of mind’ and the capacity to find ‘equivalences in the most disparate phenomena, and for substituting one for another which lies at the mysterious heart of metaphor’.4

  • 5 See ‘Tales of Mother Maud’, in A Thomas More Source Book, eds Wegemer and Smith.
  • 6 Wyatt, Of the Mean and Sure Estate, in Poetical Works, ed. Clarke. The poem is available online (se (...)

While it is clear that both popular and learned elements coexist in the developed tradition of the written medieval animal story, we must not forget that at the same time animal tales were being told by oral story tellers. For example, Thomas More, speaking as Anthony in the Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, recalls a ‘Mother Maud’ who used to tell the children stories as she sat by the fire. One of her ‘fond childish tales’ was the story of how ‘the Ass and the Wolf came on a time to confession to the Fox’.5 And Wyatt’s ‘mothers maydes sang a song of the field mouse’.6 There was probably a large body of such tales, which have vanished, almost without trace, but if we have lost the exact words that Mother Maud and other mothers’ maids used in telling their tales, we sometimes feel close to the presence of an oral teller in the fables in exemplary stories. A realisation of this has led me, rather boldly, not to illustrate the animal tale in the sophisticated form given to it by Chaucer or Henryson, but in Caxton’s version, where in spite of the apparent ‘literary’ background of his Aesop and Renard (the first translated from Macho’s version of Steinhowel, the second from a Dutch version), and in spite of his own occasional verbosity, there is a striking simplicity of narrative.

A. Man and Animal, Animals in histories, Cats and adages

  • 7 In Brie ed, vol. 2 p. 316. The story continues (with the eagles) on p. 319.

Spectacular scenes involving animals are occasionally recorded in chronicles, sometimes associated with other ‘portents’. The Brut chronicle records (in the thirteenth century) ‘there fill so mich rayne in hay-tyme yhat it wasted and distroyed bothe corn and hey; and ther was suche a debate and fighting of sparows, by divers places in thes dayes, that men founden unnumerable multitudes of hem ded in feldes as they wenten… ’.7 There was also a very severe pestilence, and a sickness called ‘the pockes’. A little later eagles fought ‘oppon the sonde of the Scottyssh see, that meny a man hyt sye the iii dayes togedir there were ii egles, of the which the tone come out of the southe. And the tother out of the north, and cruelly and strongly they foughten togider and warstled togider; and the suth egle ferst overcome the northe egle, and al torent and tare hym with his bille and his clowes, that he shold not reste ne take no brethe; and aftir, the suth egle flye home to his owne costs’. This was followed by a cosmic disturbance.

The Middle Ages had developed quite an impressive learned tradition of natural history, but it is very difficult to know how far this impinged upon popular lore. We give two possible examples: a passage on the fox from the Middle English Physiologus, and one on the cat from Trevisa’s fourteenth-century translation of the encyclopedia of Bartholomew the Englishman.

i) The Fox8

  • 8 The Physiologus is in Selections from Early Middle English, ed. Hall (text in vol. 1, notes in vol. (...)

A wilde derº is that is ful of feleº wiles —
Fox is hire to name for hire qwethsipe.º
Husebondesº hire haten for hire harmdedes: º



The coc and te capon she fecchethº ofte in the tun, º



And te gander and te gos, bi the necke and bi the nos.º


Haleth isº to hire hole — forthiº man hire hatieth,
Hatien and hulenº bothe men and fules.º

drags them therefore
drive off with shouts birds

Listneth nuº a wunder that tis der doth for hunger

— hear now

Goth o felde to a furghº and falleth tharinne,


In eriedº lond er in erth-chine, º for to bilirtenº fuyeles.

ploughed crack deceive

Ne stereth she noght of the stede a god stund deiesº

good while in the day

Oc darethº, so she ded were, ne dragheth she non onde.º

but lies nor draws

The raven is swatheº redi, weneth that she rotieth, º
And other fules hire fallen biº for to winnen fode.º
Derflikeº withuten dredº he wenen that she ded beth,

is rotting
alight beside her get food
boldly fear

He wullenº on this foxes felº and she it wel feleth; º
Lightlike she lepeth up and letteth hem sone, º
Yelt hem here billing ratheº with illing, º

wish (to come) skin feels
quickly stops them
repays their pecking quickly

Tetoggethº and tetirethº hem mid hire teth sarpe,
Fretº hire fulle and goth than therº she wille.

tears apart tears in pieces
devours where

[It is followed by its Significacio: it is the devil, and the wicked man.]

ii) The Cat9

  • 9 In Batman uppon Bartholome his booke [1582], Bk. 18, Ch. 76, De Murilego.

The catte… is a beste of uncerteyn here and colour. For som catte is whyte, som reed, and som blak, and som scowed and splenked [spotted and dappled] in the feet and the face and in the eeren, and is most yliche to the lepard. And hath a gret mouth and sawe teeth and scharpe, and longe tonge and pliaunt, thynne, and sotile. And lapeth therwith whanne he drynketh, as othere bestes doon that haven the nether lippe schorter than the over, for bycause of unevenesse of lippes suche bestes souken nought in drynkynge but lapeth and likketh, as Aristotil seith and Plinius also. And he is a ful leccherous beste in youthe, swyfte, plyaunt, and mery. And lepeth and reseth [pounces] on alle thing that is tofore him and is yladde by a strawe and pleyeth therwith. And is a wel hevy beste in eelde [old age] and ful slepy. And lith sliliche [lies slyly] in awayte for mys and is ware where they ben more by smelle than by sight. And hunteth and reseth on hem in privey place. And whanne he taketh a mous he pleyeth therwith and eteth him after the pleye. And is as it were wylde and goth aboute in tyme of generacioun. Among cattes in tyme of love is hard fightynge for wyves, and oon craccheth [scratches] and rendeth the other grevousliche with bytyng and with clawes. And he maketh a reweliche noyse and horrible whan oon profreth to fighte with another. And is a cruel beste whanne he is wilde and wonyeth in wodes and hunteth thanne smale wilde bestes, as conynges [rabbits] and hares. And falleth on his owne feet whanne he falleth out of highe place and is unnethe [scarcely] yhurte whanne he is ythrowe doun of an high place. His drytte [droppings] stynketh ful foule and therefore he hydeeth it under erthe and gadereth thereupon coverynge with feet and clawes. And whanne he hath a fayre skynne he is as it were prowde therof and goth faste aboute; and whanne his skynne is ybrende [burnt] he abydeth at home. And is ofte for his fayre skynne ytake of the skynnere and yslayne and yhulde [skinned].

iii) Animals in Adages

  • 10 Keywords in Whiting can easily be found, for example C for Cat.
  • 11 See below in chapter 8, our footnote to Henryson on medicine identifies a reference to this belief.

We give a very small selection from a large mass of material (quotations and references are from Whiting).10 The long and complicated background to medieval animal lore produced traditional similitudes and common proverbial comparisons (a good many of which have survived), and a great range of traditional animal attributes and behaviour, and of human attitudes to them. Some animals seem to have become especially significant or almost symbolic: the lamb is gentle, chaste and humble, meek and mild (as is the dove, which has no gall).11 At the other extreme are hostile, dangerous or wicked animals like the serpent. There are foolish animals, like the ass (variously described as dull, ignorant, rude, slow), and animals which are traditionally mad or crazed, like the March hare. Some are unpleasant, like the stinking brock (badger), the ‘rammish’ goat, or the foul pig wallowing in its sty. Occasionally we can glimpse the hierarchies of the animal world: the cowardly kite may not fly with the royal eagle, whose eye pierces the sun. Some creatures are more ambiguous. In animal tales and fables the fox is the supreme example of wiliness and cunning, but one sometimes senses a barely-hidden admiration for its ingenuity. Can we perhaps catch a hint of this even in the fox proverbs, with their apparently ‘objective’ accounts of its behaviour: ‘the fox feigns dead till the birds come to his tongue’, ‘when the fox preaches keep well the geese’? The cat, in its nature an even more ambiguous creature, associated with the house but also with the world outside it, is found in many adages, but is not confined to them: ‘a cat falls on its feet’, ‘the cat would eat fish but would not wet its feet’, ‘see like a cat in the night’, ‘who shall find a cat true in keeping milk?’, and so on. We have already met two Chaucerian cats. Of a third (an example of its often noticed passionate hunting of its ‘contrary’ the mouse) it is said that even if given milk and exquisite food, ‘Lat hym seen a mous go by the wal, Anon he weyveth [refuses] milk and flesh and al… Swich appetite hath he to ete a mous’ (Tales, IX. 176–80). But for all its ambiguity, the cat could have a moral function.

The most obvious result of this proverbial animal lore was the development of a large number of proverbial similitudes of an almost formulaic kind: ‘busy as a bee’, black as any crow / raven’, ‘swift as the hind / doe / falcon / swallow’, ‘proud as a peacock’, grey as a goose’, etc., or expressions of the worthlessness of something: ‘not worth a bee / fly / flea / gnat / haddock / plucked hen’, and so on. Some seem clearly observed: ‘as tattered [shaggy] as a foal’ or ‘be cocksure’ [C 358], even if sometimes unexpected: ‘yt ys as clen as a byrdis ars’. And sometimes the proverbs give a miniature picture of animal behaviour ready-made for a poet or a moralist: ‘a cony covers her head and weens all is well’ [C 416], ‘the cuckoo sings only of himself’ [C 601], ‘where asses get lordships there is seldom good rule’ [A 230], ‘it is a foul bird that fouls its own nest’ [B 306], ‘the crow thinks her own young are white’ [C 568].

iiia) Animal Proverbs

And summe other elder [children] whanne thei desiren and asken to be leid in bed to slepe, thei seie, ‘lete the cat wynke, ’ or sum othere inpertynent resound [C 96]

Wele wotith [knows] the cat whos berde she likkith [C 108]

Grete fyssches are takyn in the net and slayn, smale fyssches scapen through the net into the watyr, and liven [F231; and the very common ‘the great fishes eat the small’, F 232]

Now find I weill this proverb trew… ‘Ay rinnis the foxe als lang as he fute hais’ [F 592]

  • 12 Tales, I. 4367, Perkyn ‘the reveller’ at the start of the Cook’s Tale.

Gaillard he was as goldfinch in the shawe [G 319, Chaucer ]12

As wytles as a wylde goos [G 377]

Masid [crazed] as a Marche hare [H 113, H 110, H 116]

A man maie well bring a horse to the water, but he can not make him drinke without he will [H 541]

  • 13 Tr. 3. 764.

It is nought good a slepyng hound to wake [H 569, Chaucer]13

Thai al fled from hym as schep from the wolfe [S 215]

One swallow maketh not somer [S 924]

He hath… as many braynes as a wodcok [W 565]

B. Fables, and Stories of Reynard

Aesopic fables produced large and interesting literary tradition in the Middle Ages in both Latin and the vernacular. Caxton’s version (1483–4) is based on the French translation by Macho of Steinhowel’s extensive collection. Beside the various literary versions there was almost certainly a body of oral versions, known to the likes of ‘Mother Maud’. Caxton follows Macho fairly closely. Sometimes he tries to heighten his style, but many of his fables are simple and unsophisticated in form. It is in these, and in the many retellings of fables in moral tales, that we come probably as close as we can to the style of the oral taletellers. We begin with an Anglo-Norman example in Bozon (who quotes a couple of English proverbs), followed by examples from Caxton, and finally (nos xiii ff.), by examples in moral tales.

iv) Bozon: the Goshawk and the Owl14

  • 14 In the Contes Moralisés, no. 17 (le Huan et le Ostur): Quod ignobiles, licet educati, gestus habent (...)

The owl asked the goshawk to bring up her son; the other agreed, and said that she should bring him and put him with her own nestlings. As soon as the little bird arrived among the others, the hawk told him to behave like her young and learn their ways. When the goshawk flew off to seek their food, she returned to find her nest disgustingly soiled. ‘What is this, ’ she said, ‘which I find contrary to good upbringing? Who has done this?’ ‘Your nursling, ’ said her children. ‘Indeed!’ said she, ‘it is true what is said in English: ‘‘Stroke oule [owl] and schrape [scratch] oule, and evere is oule oule.’’ ’

  • 15 Whiting A 169.

So it is with many people who are born of low lineage. Although they have risen high, often instructed and informed in religion or in the ways of the world or in noble positions, they always revert to their estate or to the ways to which they were born. For this reason it is said in English: ‘trendle the appel never so fer [no matter how far the apple rolls], he conyes [makes known] fro what tre he cam.’15

Examples from Caxton16

v) The Rat and the Frog

Now it be so that as the rat wente in pylgremage he came by a river, and demaunded helpe of a frogge for to passe and goo over the water. And thenne the frogge bound the rats foote to her foote, and thus swymed unto the myddes over the river. And as they were there the frogge stood stylle, to th’ende that the rat shold be drowned. And in the meane whyle came a kite upon them, and bothe bare them with hym. This fable made Esope for a symylytude whiche is prouffitable to many folks, for he that thynketh evylle ageynst good, the evylle whiche he thynketh shall ones [one day] falle upon hymself.

vi) The Eagle and the Fox

How the puyssaunt and myghty must doubte the feble Esope reherceth to us suche a fable. Ther was an egle whiche came theras yong foxes were, and took awey one of them and gaf hit to his yonge egles to fede them with. The fox wente after hym and praid hym to restore and gyve hym ageyne his yong foxe. And the egle sayd that he wold not, for he was over hym lord and maister. And thenne the foxe fulle of shrewdness and of malice beganne to put togider grete habondaunce of strawe round aboute the tree whereupon the egle and his yonge were in theyr nest, and kyndeled it with fyre. And whan the smoke and the flambe began to ryse upward, the egle ferdfulle and doubting the dethe of her lytylle egles restored ageyne the yonge foxe to his moder. This fable sheweth us how the mighty men oughte not to lette [harm] in ony thynge the smale folke, for the lytyll ryght ofte may lette and trouble the grete.

vii) The Lion and the Rat

The mighty and puyssaunt must pardonne and forgyve to the lytyll and feble, and ought to kepe hym fro al evylle, for oftyme the lytyll may wel gyve ayde and help to the grete — wherof Esope reherceth to us suche a fable of a lyon whiche slepte in a forest and the rats disported and playd aboute hym. It happed that the rat wente upon the lyon, wherfore the lyon awoke, and within his clawes or ongles he tooke the rat. And whanne the rat saw hym thus taken and hold sayd thus to the lyon, ‘My lord, pardonne me, for of my deth nought ye shalle wynne, for I supposed not to have done to yow ony harme ne displaysyre.’ Thenne thought the lyon in himself that no worship ne glorye it were to put it to dethe, wherfor he graunted his pardone and lete hym goo within a lytell whyle. After this it happed so that the same lyon was take at a grete trappe. And as he sawe hym thus caught and taken, he beganne to crye and make sorowe. And thenne whan the rat herd hym crye he approached hym and demaunded of hym wherefore he cryed. And the lyon ansuerd to hym, ‘Seest thow not how I am take and bound with this gynne?’ Thenne sayd the ratte to hym, ‘My lorde, I wylle not be unkynde, but ever I shal remembre the grace whiche thou hast done to me, and yf I can I shall now helpe the.’ The ratte beganne thenne to byte the lace or cord, and so long he knawed it that the lace brake, and thus the lyon escaped. Therfore this fable techeth us how that a man myghty and puyssaunt ought not to dispraise the lytyll, for somtyme he that can nobody hurte ne lette [hinder] may at a nede gyve help and ayde to the grete.

viii) The Cat and the Rat

He which is wyse, and hath ones hath ben begyled, ought not to truste more hym that hath begyled hym, as reherceth this fable of a catte whiche wente into a hows where as many rats were, the whiche he dyd ete one after other. And whanne the rats perceyved the grete fyersnes and crudelyte of the catte, held a counceylle togyder where as they determined of one comyn wylle that they shold no more hold them ne come nor goo on the lowe floore. Wherfore one of them moost auncyent proffered and sayd to al the other suche words, ‘My bretheren and my frendes, ye knowe wel that we have a grete enemye, whiche is a grete persecutour over us alle, to whom we may not resyste, wherfore of nede we must hold our self upon the hyghe balkes [beams] to th’ende that he may not take us.’ Of the whiche proposycion or wordes the other rats were wel content and apayd, and bylevyd this counceylle. And whanne the kat knewe the counceylle of the rats, he hynge hymself by his two feet behind at a pynne of yron whiche was styked at a balke, feynynge hymself to be dede. And whanne one of the rats lokynge dounward sawe the katte, beganne to lawhe and sayd to the cat, ‘O my frend, yf I supposed that thow were dede, I shold goo doune, but wel I knowe the so fals and pervers that thow mayst wel have hanged thyself, faynynge to be dede — wherfore I shall not go doune.’ And therfore he that hath ben ones begyled by somme other ought to kepe hym wel fro the same.

Fox Tales

ix) Tybert the Cat is tempted by Reynard17

  • 17 Caxton, The History of Reynard the Fox, ed. Blake, p. 21.

… ‘O dere Reyner, lede me thyder for alle that I may doo for yow!’ ‘Ye, Tybert, saye ye me truth? Love ye wel myes?’ ‘Yf I love hem wel?’ said the catte, ‘I love myes better than ony thyng that men gyve me! Knowe ye not that myes savoure better than venison — ye, than flawnes or pasteyes? Wil ye wel doo, so lede me theder where the myes ben, and thenne shal ye wynne my love, ye, al had ye slayn my fader, moder, and alle my kun.’ Reynart sayd, ‘Ye moke and jape therwith! ’ The catte saide, ‘So helpe me God, I doo not! ’ ‘Tybert, ’ said the fox, ‘wiste Y that verily, I wolde yet this nyght make that ye shuld be ful of myes.’ ‘Reynart!’ quod he, ‘Ful? That were many.’ ‘Tyberte, ye jape!’ ‘Reynart, ’ quod he, ‘in trouth I doo not. Yf I hadde a fat mows, I wold not gyve it for a golden noble.’ ‘Late us goo thenne, Tybert, ’ quod the foxe, ‘I wyl brynge yow to the place er I goo fro you’…

[Unsurprisingly, disaster ensues, much to the gleeful delight of Reynard]

x) The Fox and the Wolf in the Well18

An example of a Reynard narrative from the Early Middle English: The Vox and the Wolf

A hungry fox finds a building with hens in it, but is driven off by the cock. He sees a pit filled with water, with two buckets, one going up, the other down. Jumping into one he finds himself at the bottom, to his great distress…

… The fox wep and reuliche bigan.º
Ther com a wolf gon, º after than,
Out of the depe wode blive, º
For he wes afingret swathe.º
Nothing he ne founde, in al the nighte,

lamented piteously
came walking
really starving

Wermideº his honger aquencheº mightte.
He com to the putte, º thene fox iherde; º
He him kneu wel bi his rerde.º

by which quench
pit heard

For hit was his neighebore
And his gossip, º of children bore.


Adoun bi the putte he sat;
Quod the wulf, ‘Wat may ben thatº
That ich in the putte ihere?º
Ertou Cristine other mi fere?º
Say me sothº — ne gabbeº thou me nout,

what can that be?
are you a Christian or my friend
truly deceive

Wo haveth the in the putte ibrout?’º
The fox hine ikneu wel for his kun, º

brought you

And tho eroustº com wiitº to him;
For he thoute mid sommne ginne, º

then first idea

Himself oupbringe, º thene wolf therinne.º
Quod the fox, ‘Woº is nou there?
Ich weneº hit is Sigrim that ich here.’

bring up put in it

‘That is soth, ’ the wolf sede.
‘Ac watº art thou, so God the rede?’º
‘A!’ quod the fox, ‘Iche wille the telle —

but what help

On alpi wordº ich lie nelle.
Ich am Reneuard, º thi friend;
And yif ich thine comeº hevede iwend, º
Ich hedde so ibedeº for the

one single word
coming had expected
would have prayed

That thou sholdest comen to me.’
‘Midº the?’ quod the wolf, ‘warto?º

with wherefore

Wat shulde ich ine the putte do?’
Quod the fox, ‘Thou art ounwis! º


Her is the blisse of Paradiis —
Her ich mai evere wel fare,
Withouten pine, withouten kare.
Her is mete, here is drinke;

Her is blisse withouten swinke.º
Her nis hounger nevermo,


Ne non other kunnesº wo —
Of alle gode her is inou!’º

of any other kind

Midº thilke words the wolf lou.º

at laughed

‘Art thou ded, so God the rede.
Otherº of the worlde?’º the wolf sede.
Quod the wolf, ‘Wenne storve thou?º
And wat dest thouº there nou?
Ne beth noutº yet thre daies ago

or alive
when did you die?
are you doing?
it is not

That thou, and thi wif also,
And thine children, smale and grete,
Alle togedere mid me ete!’
‘That is soth, ’º quod the fox,
Gode thonkº nou hit is thus
That I am to Criste wend! º
Not hitº non of mine frend;

thanks be to God
knows it not

I nolde, º for al the worldes gode,
Ben ine the worlde, therº ich hem fond.º

would not

met them

Wat shuld ich ine the worlde go
Ther nis bote kare and wo,
And livie in fultheº and in sunne?º
Ac her bethº joies fele cunneº —
Her beth bothe shep and get.’º
The wolf haveth hounger swithe gret, º

very great

of many kinds

For he nedde yare i-ete;
And tho he herde speken of mete,
He wolde blethelicheº ben thare.
‘A!’ quod the wolf, ‘gode ifere, º
Moni gode melº thou havest me binomeº

good friend


Let me adoun to the kome,
And al ich wole the foryeve.’º
‘Ye! ’ quod the fox, ‘Were thou ishrive, º
And sunnenº hevedestº al forsake,
And to kleneº lif itake, º
Ich wolde so biddeº for the


had you
committed yourself

That thou sholdest comen to me.’
‘To womº shuld ich, ’ the wolf seide,
Be iknoweº of mine misdeed?

be confessed

Ther nis nothing alive
That me koutheº her nou shrive.


Thou havest ben ofte min ifere —
Woltu nou mi shrift ihere, º


And al mi liif I shal the telle?’
‘Nay! ’ quod the fox, ‘I nelle.’º
‘Neltou?’ quod the wolf, ‘thin ore! º
Ich am afingretº swathe sore —
Ich wot, tonight iche wortheº ded.
Boteº thou do me somne reed.º

will not
thy mercy!
I shall be


For Cristes love, be mi prest!’
The wolf beyº adoun his brest
And gon to sikenº harde and stronge.


‘Woltou’, quod the fox, ‘shrift ounderfonge?º


Tel thi sunnen, º on and on, º
Thatº ther bileveº never on.’
‘Sone, ’º quad the wolf, ‘wel ifaie! º
Ich habbe ben quedº al mi lif-daie;
Ich habbe widewene korsº —

sins one by one
so that remains
at once gladly
widows’ curse

Therfore ich fare the wors.
A thousent shep ich habbe abitenº
And mo, yef hyº weren written; º
Ac me ofthinketh sore, º

they written down
I regret it bitterly

Maister, shal I tellen more?’
‘Ye! ’ quod the fox, ‘al thou most sugge, º
Other elleswerº thou most abugge.’º

or elsewhere pay for it

‘Gossip!’ quod the wolf, ‘foryef hit me,
Ich habbe ofte seid qued bi the.º

evil things about you

Men seide that thou on thine live
Misferdestº mid mine wive.
Ich the aperseivede one stounde, º

saw you once

And in bedde togedere you founde:
Ich wes ofte you ful neyº
And in bedde togedere you sey.º
Ich wende, also other doth, º
Thatº ich iseieº were soth, º
And therefore thou were me lothº —

thought as others do
what saw true

Gode gossip, ne be thou nout wroth! ’
‘Wolf! ’ quad the fox him tho,
‘Al that ihou havest herbiforeº ido, º

before done

In thout, in speche, and in dede,
In euch otheres kunnes quede, º
Ich the foryeveº at thisse nede.’º
‘Crist the foryelde! ’º the wolf seide,
‘Nouº ich am in clene live,
Ne reccheº ich of childe ne of wive!
Ac sei me wat I shal do
And hou ich mai comen the to.’

every other kind of wickedness
forgive necessity
now that

Tho quod the fox, ‘Ich wille the lere.º
Isiistº thou a boket hongi ther?
Ther is a brucheº of hevene blisse!
Lep therinne, mid iwisse, º

seest thou

And thou shalt comen to me sone.’
Quod the wolf, ‘That is lightº to done!’
He lep in — and way sumdelº —
(That westeº the fox ful wel)

weighed a certain amount

The wolf gon sinke, the fox arise —
Tho gon the wolf sore agrise! º
Tho he com amideº the putte,
The wolf thene fox opwardº mette.

was afraid
in the middle of
the fox going up

‘Gossip, ’ quod the wolf, ‘wat nou?
Wat havest thou imunt?º Weder wolt thou?’º

in mind where are you going?

‘Weder ich wille?’ the fox sede,
‘Ich wille oup, º so God me rede! º
And nou go doun with thi meelº —
Thi biyete worthº wel small!

up help
for your food
profit will be

Ac ich am therof glad and blithe
That thou art nomenº in clene live.
Thi soule-cnulº ich wile do ringe.’º
The wrecche binetheº nothing ne find,
Bote cold water and houngerº him bind.º
To colde gistningeº he wes ibede: º
Froggenº haveth his dou iknede! º

death-knell cause to be rung
at the bottom
hunger makes helpless
banquet invited
frogs kneaded his dough

[The wolf’s tribulations are not yet over. When he is rescued by a friar, the other friars come and beat him severely.]

Foxes in Songs

xi) A Fox Carol19

  • 19 In The Oxford Book of Medieval Verse, no. 240.
  • 20 See Green, ‘The Ballad and the Middle Ages’, in Cooper and Mapstone eds, The Long Fifteenth Century(...)

This carol, or the idea behind it, seems to survive in a modern folksong, The Fox and the Goose,20 though the exact route of its transmission remains uncertain.

Pax vobis, ’º quod the fox.
‘For I am comyn to toowne.’

Peace be with you

It fell ageynsº the next nyght
The fox yede to with all hys myghte,
Withoouten cole or candelight,
Whan that he cam unto the toowne.
Pax vobis

happened on

Whan he cam all inº the y [e] rde,
Soore te geys wer ill aferde; º
‘I shall macke some of yo [w] lerdeº
Or thatº I goo from the toowne.
Pax vobis…

right into
better instructed

Whan he cam all in the croofte, º
There he stalkyd wundirfull soofte —
‘For here have I be frayedº full ofte
Whan that I have come to toowne.
Pax vobis

croft, enclosed ground

He hente a goose all be the heye, º
Faste the goos began to creye; º
Oowte yedeº men as they might heyeº
And seyde, ‘Fals fox, ley it doowne!’
Pax vobis

cry out
went as fast as they could

‘Nay, ’ he saide, ‘soo mote I the, º
Sche shall goo unto the wode with me;
Sche and I wntherº a tre.
Emange the beryis browne.
Pax vobis

may I thrive

‘I have a wyf, and sche lyeth seke;
Many smale whelppis sche have to eke
Many bones they muste pike
Willº they ley adowne!
Pax vobis… ’


xii) The False Fox21

  • 21 Ibid. no. 239.

The fals fox came unto our croft,
And so our gese ful fast he sought.
With how fox, how! with hey fox, hey!
Come no more unto our howse to bere our gese aweye!

The fals fox came unto our stye, º
And toke our gese ther by and by.º
With how, fox…

one by one

The fals fox cam into our yerde,
And ther he made the gese aferde, º
With how, fox…


The fals fox came unto our gate,
And toke our gese ther wher they sate,
With how, fox…

The fals fox came to our halle dore,

And shroveº our gese ther in the flore.
With how, fox…

heard confession

The fals foxe came into our halle,
And assoiledº our gese both grete and small.
With how, fox…


The fals fox came unto our cowpe, º
And ther he made our gese to stowpe, º
With how, fox…

bow down

He tok a gose fast by the nek,
And the goose thoº began to quek.º
With how, fox…



The goodwife came out in her smok.
And at the fox she threw her rok.º
With how, fox…


The goodman came out with his flayle,
And smote the fox upon the tayle.
With how, fox…

He threw a gose upon his back,
And furth he went thoo with his pak.º
With how, fox…


The goodman swore yf that he myght,
He wolde hym slee orº it wer nyght.
With how, fox…


The fals fox went into his denne,
And ther he was full mery thenne.
With how, fox…

He came ayene yet the next weke,
And toke awey both henne and cheke.º
With how, fox…


The goodman saide unto his wyfe,
‘This fals fox lyveth a mery lyfe.’
With how, fox…

The fals fox came upon a day,
And with our gese he made affray.º
With how, fox…


He tok a gose fast by the nek,
And made her to sey ‘wheccumquek! ’
With how, fox…

‘I pray the, fox, ’ seid the goose thoo,
‘Take of my federsº but not of my to.’º
With how, fox…



C. Animals in Exempla or Moral Stories

Aesopic tales and others; examples mainly from the Alphabet of Tales

xiii) Adulators rewarded, Truth Tellers condemned22

  • 22 Tale number XXXIII, Adulator.

Esopus tellis in his fables how ther was ii men, ane a trew man and a noder a lyer. And thai come togedur into the region of apis [apes]. And emang thaim was a chiefe ape, that satt in a hye sete that was ordand for hym emang all the toder apis. And he askid thaim many questions; emangis all other he said unto thaim, ‘Quis sum ego? Who am I?’ And this lyer ansswerd agayn and sayd, ‘Sur, thou erte ane emperour, and thies abowte the er [these around you are] thi dukis and thine erlis and thi barons.’ And onone as he had thus said, this ape commandid hym to hafe a grete reward. And than this trew man saw how this lyer was rewarded, and said privalie unto hym selfe, ‘Now, sen he this at [that] did bod [but] ma [k] e a lye hase had suche a grete reward, I mon hafe a grete reward for my suth saying.’ And than this ape askid this trew man and said, ‘Who am I?’ And he ansswerd ageyn and said, ‘Thow ert bod ane ape, and all thies other apis er like the.’ And onone as he had thus said, he commandid all the toder apis for to bite hym and skratt hym with ther tethe and ther naylis; and so thai did, to [until] he unnethis [scarcely] gatt away with his life. This tale is gude to tell agayn flaterers, and agayns thaim that wull here no thing bod at is to ther plesur.

xiv) The World’s Glory23

  • 23 Tale number CCCXLII, Gloria mundi parum durat.

Esopus in Fabulis tellis how ther was a hors that was arrayed with a brydyll of gold, and a gay saddyll, and he met ane ass that was ladyn; and this ass made hym no reverens, bod held evyn furth his way. So this prowde hors was wrothe therwith, and said, ‘Bod at I will not vex my selfe, els I sulde sla the with my hinder fete, becauce thou wolde not voyde the way, and giff me rowm to pass by the.’ And when this ass hard hym, sho made mekyll sorrow. So within a little while after, this hors, that was so gaylie cled, was wayke and lene, and had a sare gallid bakk; and the ass met hym undernethe a carte, ledand muke unto the felde — and the ass was fayr and fatt. And the ass said unto hym, ‘Whar is now thi gay aray at thou was so prowde of? Now blissid be God, thou erte put to the same occupacion at I use, and yit my bak is haler [more whole] than thyne. And therfor now thi gay gere helpis the nott.’

xv) Saint Jerome’s Lion and the Ass24

  • 24 Tale number CCCCXXXVIII, Leo custodiebat asinum.

On a day when Sant Jerom satt with his brethir, sodanlie ther come a haltand [limping] lion and went into the abbay. And onone as the brethir saw hym thai fled all, and Saynt Jerom rase and met [him] as he had bene a geste. And this lyon lifte up his sare fute and lete hym se it, and he callid his brethir and garte [made] one of thaim wash it, and layd salvis and medcyns therto, made of herbys, and onone this lion was hale [restored] and was als meke as a hors. And Saynt Jerom chargid hym that he sulde evure day take charge of and kepe ane ass that broght hym and his brethir fewell [fuel] fro the wud, and he wolde everilk day at dew tyme hafe this ass of [from] the felde and bring it hame, and kepid hur surelie. So on a day as this ass was pasturand, this lyon liste wele slepe, and layde hym down and fell apon a sad [deep] slepe; and ther come merchandes with camels be this ass away, and saw at no bodie was stirrand, and thai tuke this ass with thaim. And when thai war gone, this lyon wakend and myssyd his fellow, and soght here and ther romyand [wandering] and couthe not fynde hit. And when he saw he cuthe not fynd it, he went home all hevylie unto the abbay, and stude at the yate oferrom [at a distance] and durste com no ner becauce he broght not hame the ass; and he durste not com in as he was wunt to do. And the monkis, when thai say [saw] hym at he come home and broght not the ass with hym as he was wunt to do, and thai trowed he had etyn hur, and herefor withdrew his meate fro hym at thai war wunte to giff hym and wold not giff hym it, bod bad hym go and ete the hynder-end of the ass as he had etyn the for-end. And than Saynt Jerom charged this lyon to do the ass offes, and to bring home wod [wood] on his bak daylie to the kychyn as it was wunt to do; and mekelie he did it as he was commandid and gruchid nothing therwith. So on a day as this lyon was walkand be his one [alone], he was war of thies merchandis com of ferrom [afar] with ther camels ladyn, and this lyon ass at he kepid emang thaim. And with a grete romyng [sc. rounyng = roaring] he ran opon thaim, and all the men fled and war passand ferd, and all thies camels and this ass bothe with merchandis as thai war ladyn, he broght unto the abbay. And when Saynt Jerom saw, he commawndid his brethir to giff thies catell meate, and than to abyde the will of God. And than this lyon come into the abbay as he was wunte to do, and wente to Saynt Jerom and syne [then] fro monk to monke, and fawnyd thaim and lowtid [bowed] unto the erth, evyn as he had askid thaim forgyfnes. And than the merchandis come and knew [acknowledged] ther fawte and askid Saynt Jerom forgyfnes; and he forgaff thaim when thai confessed how thai did, and lete thaim hafe all ther gudis agayn. And thai gaff the abbay to amendis a messur of oyle, and band thaim and ther successurs for evurmore yerelie to giff unto that abbay the same messur, and so thai do yerelie unto this day.

xvi) Silent Bribes: the Cow and the Ox25

  • 25 Tale number XCIX, Balliui frequenter munera recipiunt.

Som tyme ther was a ballay [bailiff] of a grete lordshup, that made a feste grete and costios unto the weddyng of a son of his. So ther was a tenand in the lordship, that had a grete cauce ther in the cowrte to be determynd befor the Stewerd. And agayn this baillay son sulde be wed, he com unto the baillay and said, ‘Sur, I pray you stand for me befor the stewerd in the courte, at I may hafe right, and I sall giff yow a fatt cow to your son weddyng.’ And he tuke the cow and sayd that he suld. So this mans adversarie harde tell hereoff, and he come unto this baillay wyfe and gaff hur a fatt ox, and besoght hur at sho wold labur unto hur husband that he wold answer for hym agayns his adversarie in the courte. And sho tuke the cow and laburd unto hur husband, and he promysid hur at he suld fulfil hur entent. So bothe the parties come into the courte afor the stewerd, and put furth ther cawsis, and the baillay stude still and spak not a wurd for nowdur of thaim, unto so mekyll at he that gaff the ox was like to be castyn [defeated]. And the man that gaff hym the ox said unto the baillay, ‘Sur, whi spekis nott the ox?’ and the baillay ansswerd hym agayn and said, ‘For suthe! The ox may nott speke, for the cow is so fayr and so gude that sho will nott latt hym speke.’

xvii) Swallows26

  • 26 Tale number CCCLV, Hirundo singulis annis eadem loca repetit.
  • 27 O swallow, where do you live in winter?
  • 28 In Asia, in Peter’s house.

… somtyme ther was a husbandman, that had bygand [dwelling] in his howse everilk yere many swallows. So at tyme of the yere when thai wer bown [ready] att [to] goo, he tuke ane of the old swallows, and he wrate a bill with thir wurdis therin, ‘O Irund [o], ubi habitas in yeme?’27 and he band it unto the fute therof, and lete hur goo, for he knew be experiens that sho wold come agayn the next yere. And so sho flow hur wais with other into the lande of Asie; and ther sho biggid in a howse all wynter. And so this gude man of the howse on a tyme beheld hur. And he tuke this burd, and lowsid the bill, and lukid whatt was therin; and he tuke it away, and wrate anoder, of thies wurdis, ‘In Asia, in domo Petri.’28 And he knytt [fastened] it unto hur fute, and lete hur go. And sho come agayn att sommer unto this husband howse, whar sho had bred befor; and he tuke hur and lowsid this bill, and redd it. And he told the storie therof unto many men, evyn as it had bene a miracle.

xviii) Malevolent Mice29

  • 29 Tale number DXLV, Mures eciam homines aliquando inuadunt.

… a riche man on a day satt at his meate. And sodanlie he was umlappid with a grete flok of myce, and sodanly thai lefte all at was in the howse, and pursewid uppon hym. And men tuke hym and had hym unto a ship on the water at he mot so [might thus] esskape the myce, and void thaim fro hym. And thai lepid after hym into the watyr, and come to the shupp and gnew [gnawed] it thurgh. And so he mott on no wyse kepe hym fro thaim, unto so muche [until such time] att he was had to land agayn; and ther the myce fell on hym and kyllid hym, and ete hym up evere morsell unto the bare bonys.

xix) A Mouse and a Cat30

  • 30 In Gesta Romanorum, tale XLV (fable of a cat and a mouse). Very well known, it also appears among S (...)

A mowse on a tyme felle into a barell of newe ale, that spourgid [was fermenting], and myght not come oute. The cate come beside, and herde the mouse crie in the barme [froth], ‘Pepe! pepe!’ for she myght not come oute. The cat seide, ‘Why cries thou?’ The mouse seide, ‘For I may not come oute.’ The catte saide, ‘If I delyver the this tyme, thou shalte come to me when I calle the.’ The mouse seide, ‘I graunte the, to come when thou wilte.’ The catte seide, ‘Thou moste swere to me’, and the mouse sware to kepe covenaunte. Then the catte with his fote drew oute the mouse, and lete hym go. Afterward, the catte was hungry, and come to the hole of the mouse, and called and bade hire come to hym. The mouse was aferde, and saide, ‘I shall not come.’ The catte saide, ‘Thou hast made an othe to me, for to come.’ The mouse saide, ‘Brother, I was dronkyne when I sware, and therfore I am not holdyn to kepe myn othe.’

xx) A Theft cannot be Hidden31

  • 31 In Alphabet of Tales, number CCCXXXV, Furtum non potest celari.

… Som tyme ther was a man at [that] stale his neghbur shepe, and ete it; and this man that aght [owned] this shepe come unto saynt Patryk, and told hym how a shepe was stollen from hym, and he chargid oft sithis that who somevur had it sulde bryng it agayn, and no man wolde grawnte it. So on a haly day, when all the peple was in the kurk, saynt Patryk spirrid and commaundid, in the vertue of Jesu at this shepe sulde blete in his belie that had etyn itt, at all men might here. And so it did, and thus the thefe was knowen, and made amendis for his trispas. And all other that hard ever after was ferd to stele.

xxi) Animals Know that Theft is Sinful32

  • 32 Ibid. number CCCXXXVI, Furtum commitendo eciam bruta se peccasse cognoscunt.

… Som tyme ther was ane hermett that dwelt in wyldernes, and everilk day at meate tyme ther com unto his yate a sho-wulfe [she-wolf], and sho wulde never away or [before] he gaff hur somewhat at [to] eate. So on a day this hermett was with anoder bruther of his in occupacion, and come not home att meate-tyme of the day. And this wulfe come and fand hym not ther, and was war of a little bread in a wyndow, and sho brak in and tuke it, and eete it and went away. And when the hermett come home, he fand the crombis of the bread at the wyndow, and he demyd who had takyn it. And this wulfe knew hur deffaute, and wolde not com at this hermett a sennett [week] afterwerd. And when this hermet myssid this wulfe, at used to com daylie unto hym, he made his prayer unto God; and this wulfe com agayn upon the sennet day, bod sho stude of ferrom [far away], and durste not com nere hym. And sho layd hur down and held down hur head, as sho suld aske hym forgyfnes; and he tuke it for a confession, and bad hur com ner hym boldly, and he suld forgiff hur. And fro thensfurth evur after sho come at tyme of the day, and did hur offes as sho was wunt.

D. Some further Middle English Literary examples

These are not easy to find. One problem is that of all the types of Middle English popular literature, animal tales and poems are the result of a very intimate interrelation between the ‘learned’ and the popular tradition. Birds make brief but significant appearances in lyrics. The high points, especially the elaborate bird debates, are to be found in poets like Chaucer, Henryson, and Holland. I have preferred examples which seem to come from the popular end of the spectrum (of which but few have survived), in contrast to the merry tales.

xxii) Bird on Briar33

  • 33 In The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse, no. 64 (this well-known poem appears in numerous anth (...)

A love song, with music, apparently addressed to a bird, perhaps a confidant and the representative of Love.

Bryd on brere, brid, brid one brere,
Kyndº is come of Love, love to craveº
Blithfulº biryd, on me thu rewe, º
Or greith, º lef, º grei [th] thu me my grave.

make ready

have pity
dear one

[I] c am so blithe soº bryhit brid on brere
Quan I se that hendeº in halle —
Yheº is quit of lime, º loveli, trewe,
Yhe is fayr and flurº of alle.

as happy as
gracious one

white of limb

Mikte [i] cº hire at wille haven,

if I could

Stedefast of love, loveli, trewe,
Of mi sorwe yhe may me saven,

Joye and blisse were me newe.º


xxiii) Foweles in the Frith34

  • 34 In Medieval English Lyrics, no. 4 (another well-known poem).

Foweles in the frith, º
The fisses in the flod, º


And I monº waxe wod; º
For besteº of bon and blod.º

the best (lady)

grow mad
bone and blood (= alive)

xxiv) I have Twelve Oxen35

  • 35 In The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse, no. 250.

This poem seems close to folksong — perhaps a nursery rhyme

I have xii oxen that be fare and brown.
And they go agraysynge down by the town,
With hay, with howe, with hay!
Sawyste thow not myn oxen, thou litill prety boy?
I have xii oxen, and they be fayre and whight,
And they go agrasyng down by the dyke, º ditch
With hay, with howe, with hay!
Sawyste thou not myn oxen, thou lytyll prety boy?
I have xii oxen and they be fayre and blak,
And they go a grasyng down by the lak.º pond, lake
With hay, with howe, with hay!
Sawyste not thou myn oxen, thou lytyll prety boy?
I have xii oxen, and thei be fayre and rede,
And they go a grasyng down by the mede.º meadow
With hay, with howe, with hay!
Sawiste not thou my oxen, thou litill prety boy?

Debates between animals, and especially between birds, were a favourite form of the sophisticated literary authors: like Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules; or Holland’s Buke of the Howlat, a Scottish poem in alliterative verse. One or two, however, seem possibly closer to the popular tradition. I give extracts from two thirteenth-century poems: firstly, from the Thrush and the Nightingale (in MS Digby 86), a somewhat stiff and uninspired debate on the nature of women.

xxv) The Thrush and the Nightingale36

  • 36 In English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century, ed. Brown, no. 52.

Somer is comen with love to toune, º
With blostme, and with brides roune, º
The noteº of hasel springeth,
The dewes darknethº in the dale;
For longing of the nighttegale,

the dwellings of men
song of little birds
grow dark or misty

This fowelesº murieº singeth.

these birds


Hic herdeº a strifº bitweies two —
That onº of wele, º that other of wo,
Bitwene two ifere, º
That on herethº wimmen that hoe beth
hende, º

I heard

pleasant, kind

That other hem wole with mighte shende.º
That strif ye mowen ihereº…

forcefully revile

[the Thrush speaks]
‘… I ne mayº wimen hereinº nout,
For hy beth swikeleº and false of thohut.º
Also ich am ounderstonde.º
Hy beth feire and bright on hewe, º
Here thoutº is fals, and ountreweº
Ful yareº ich have hem fonde’º…

am informed
their thought


The nightingale hoeº wes wroth: º
‘Fowel, me thinkethº thou art me lothº

it seems to me


Swiche tales for to showe;
Among a thousent levediesº itoldeº
Ther nis nonº wickede I holde
Ther hy sitteth on rowe.

is not one


Hy beth of herteº meke and milde.
Hemself hy cunneº from shomeº shildeº

are able

shame guard

Withinne bowres wowe, º
And swettoust thing in armes to wreº
The mon that holdeth hem in gle.º
Fowel, wi ne art thou hit icnowe?’º

a bower’s wall
why not acknowledge it

‘Gentil fowel, seistº thou hit me?
Ich habbeº with hem in boure ibe, º
I haved al mine wille.
Hy willeth for a luitel medeº
Don a sunfoiulº derne dede, º
Hereº soule forto spille.º

small reward

secret deed

Foel, me thinketh thou art les; º
Theyº thou be milde and softe of pes,
Thou seyst thine wille.
I take witnesse of Adam,
That wes oure furste man,
That fondeº hem wycke and ille.’º


wicked and evil

‘Threstelcok, º thou art wod, º
Otherº thou constº to luitel goed, º
Thisº wimmen for to shende.º
Hit is the swetteste driwerie, º
And mestº hoe counnenº of curteisie.
Nisº nothing al so hendeº… ’

or know
there is

little good
they know

[And so the argument continues, with the thrush citing further examples of the wickedness of women, and traditional examples of men (like Samson) brought down by them, until the Nightingale produces the Virgin Mary]

‘O fowel, thi mouth the haveth ishend! º
Thoru wamº wes al this world iwend?º

through whom


Of a maide meke and milde,
Of hire sprong that holi bernº
That boren wes in Bedlehem,
And temeth al that is wilde… ’


[Whereupon the thrush admits defeat, apologetically says that she will no longer speak ill of women, and that she will fly away out of this land.]

xxvi) From The Owl and the Nightingale [vv. 91–138]37

The Nightingale Attacks the Owl

  • 38 p. 32.

Our second debate is a much more lively affair, done with genuine wit and vivacity. The protagonists in their exchanges use exempla, fables, and proverbs, as well as rhetorical techniques of a less honourable kind. The poem’s editor says of the anonymous author that he was ‘a man of wide sympathies, a man who has seen something of the world and yet was not without the kind of learning valued among the religious.’38 He seems to have been well read in the literature of his day, but he was also deeply responsive to the popular tradition, as we can see in the way he uses traditional and proverbial animal lore.

The poem’s protagonists are introduced at the beginning. The Nightingale, sitting on a bough, looks down on the old stump which is the dwelling-place of the owl. She has a very low opinion of the Owl’s singing: ‘Me luste bet [better] speten [spit] thane singe Of thine fule yogelinge [wailing, hooting]’. Later, in the evening, the Owl does sing, and remarks triumphantly ‘Hu thincthe [do you think] nu bi mine songe? Wenst thu that ic ne cunne singe, Thegh ich ne kunne of writelinge [warbling]’, and ends with a threat: if I held you in my foot you would sing ‘in other wise’. The Nightingale replies that she will remain secure in her cover because she knows that the Owl is hostile to small birds, and in consequence is hated by them all; and they try to drive the Owl away. The Owl is ugly, unclean, and unnatural. And the altercation gets off to a fine start with a mixture of comedy, satire, deep-seated incompatibility, and outright hostility…

  • 39 ‘When you feed them, you feed very foul offspring’ (Stanley’s note to line 94, p. 107).

… Thu art lodlichº and unclene,


Bi thine neste ich hit mene,
And ek bi thine fule brode: º
Thu fedest on hom a wel ful fode.39

foul brood

  • 40 Whiting B 306.

[W] el wostu thatº hi doth tharinne:

you know what

Hi fuleth hit up to the chinne;
Hoº sitteth thar soº hi bo bisne.º
Tharbi men segget a vorbisne: º
‘Dahet habbe that ilke bestº
That fulethº his owe nest, ’

she as if be blind
bad luck may that creature have

That other yerº a faukun bredde; º

year falcon bred

His nest noght wel he ne bihedde.º

did not watch over

Tharto thu steleº in oº dai,
And leidestº tharon thi fole ey.º
Thoº hit bicomº that he haghteº
And of his eyreº bridesº wraghte, º
Ho broghte his brides meteº
Biholdº his nest, isey hi ete; º
He isey bi one halveº
His nest ifuled uthalve.º

stole one
placed foul egg
then happened hatched
eggs chicks were brought to life
looked at saw them eat
at one side
soiled on the outside

The faukun was wroth wit his bride, º
And lude yal, º and sterne chidde, º
‘Seggetº me, wo havet this ido?
Ouº nas never icundeº tharto.
Hit was idon ou a loth custe.º

loudly screamed chided
to you natural
loathsome way

Segge [t] me, yif ye hit wiste! ’
Tho quath that on, º and quad that oth

er, then said one

‘Iwis, hit was ure ogheº brother.

our own

The yond, º that haved that grete heve
Wai that he nis tharof bireved! º
Worp hit utº mid the alre wrste, º
That his necke him toberste! ’º
The faucun ilefdeº his brideº
And nom that fule brid a midde, º

d; that one there
what a pity he is not deprived of it
throw it out with the worst rubbish of all
that he breaks
left chicks
in the middle

And warp hit of than wilde bowe, º


Thar pieº and crowe hit todrowe.º

magpie tore to pieces

Herbi men seggetº a bispelº —
Thegh hit ne bo fuliche spelº —

say parable, tale
though it is not a full narrative

  • 41 Whiting A 169.

‘Also hit is biº than ungodeº

with wicked churl

That is icumen of fule brode
And is meindº wit froº monne,
Ever he cuthº that he com thonne, º
That he com of than adel eyeº
Thegh he a fro nest leie: º

is brought together noble
shows from there
the addled egg
in noble nest lay

Thegh appel trendli fron thon troweº

may roll from the tree41

Tharº he, and other mid, º growe,
Theghº he bo tharfrom bicumeº

where with him
though be escaped from there

He cuthº wel whoneneº he is icume.’

shows whence

xxvii) The Hare’s Lament42

  • 42 In The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse, no. 178.

It is rare to find any expression of sympathy, however brief, in Middle English animal tales, for hunted animals like the fox or the hare.

Bi a forrest as I gan fare, º


Walkyng al myselven alone,
I hardº a morningº of an haare,
Rouffully schewº mad here mone.º

piteously she



‘Dereworthº God, how schal I leveº
And leyd my lyveº in lond?
Frouº dale to douneº I am idrevfeº —
I notº where I may syte or stond.

lead my life
know not

down d


I may notherº rest nor slepe
By no wallayº that is so derne, º
Nor no covertº may me kepe, º
But ever I reneº fro herneº to herne.


hiding place

Hontterisº wyll not heyre ther maseº
In hopeº of hunttyng for to wend; º


hear Mass

They cowpullythº ther howndes more and lase, º


large and

  • 43 Wat is a country name for a hare, cf. Tod for fox (it is called Coward, or Couart, in the Reynard s (...)

And bryngyth theme to feldysº ende.


Rochisº rennyn on every syde
In furrous that hoppeº me to fynd;


Honteris takythe ther hors and ryde,
And castº the conttrayº to the wynd, º
Anone asº they commyth me behynde,
I loke and syt ful styleº and lo [w] e —
The furst mane that me doth fynde

search country upwind
as soon as

Anonº he cryit, ‘so howe! so hoowe!

at once

‘Lo, ’ he sayth, ‘where syttyt an haare —
Aryse upe, Watte, º and go forth blyve! ’º
With sorroe and with mych careº
I schapeº away with my lyve,

Wat43 quickly
great grief

Att wyntter in the depe sno [w] e
Men wyl me seche for to trace, º
And by my steyppesº I ame iknowe; º
And followyth me fro place to place.

footprints recognised

And yf I to the touneº come or torne, º
Be hit in worttes or in leyke, º
Then wyl the wyffysº also yeorneº
Flec [h] eº me with here dogis heyke.º

town turn
whether for vegetables or leek (s)
women as eagerly
drive out also

And yf I syt and crope the koule, º
And the wyfe be in the waye, º
Anone schoweº wyll swere, ‘By cokesº soule!
There is an haare in my haye!’º

nibble the kale
she God’s

Anone sche wyle clepe forthº hure knaveº
And loke right we [l] werº I syte;
Behynd sche wyl with a stave
Ful wel porposº me to hette.º

call out


‘Go forthe, Wat, witº Crystus curse,
And yf I leve, º thou schalt be take; º
I have an hare-pypeº in my purce, º
Hit schal be set al for thi s [a] ke!’



Then hath this wyffe .ii. dogges grete,
On me sche byddyt hemeº goe;
And as a schroweº sche wyll me thret, º
And ever sche cryit, ‘Go, do [g] ge, gooe!’



But allway thisº most I goo,
By no banke I may abyde —
Lord God, that me is woo!
Many a hapeº hath me bytyde.º



There is no bestº in the wordº I weneº —
Hert, hynd, buke ne doweº —
That suffuris halfe so myche teneº
As doth the sylly Watº — go whereº he go.

buck nor doe
poor hare

world think

Yeyfeº a genttyllmane wyl have any game,
And fynd me in formeº where I syte,
For dredº of lossynge of his nameº
I wotº wel he wyle not me hyte.º


losing his honour

For an acuris bredº he wyll me leve, º
Orº he wyll let his hondes rene; º
Of all the men that beth alive
I am most behold to genttylmen!

acre’s breadth

hounds run

As sone as I can ren to the laye, º
Anon the greyhondys wyl me have;
My bowels beth ithroweº awaye,
And I ame bore home on a stavfe.º

open ground
are thrown

Als sone as I am come home,
I ame ihonge hye upon a pyne, º
With leke-worttesº I am eeteº anone,
And whelpes play with my skyne!




1 See Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Sherley-Price, in Ch. 13 (pp. 129–30).

2 Langland, Piers Plowman, ed. Schmidt, p. 48, and see editor’s footnote for the extra line cited.

3 There is no online version of Whiting, but it is widely available in libraries and very easy to use. Therefore I am not listing every single proverb or proverb-like sentence that Gray cites, and I have simplified the references; he often gives not only the Whiting number but also the source used by Whiting.

4 Cited in Gray, Robert Henryson, p. 57 in the chapter ‘Beasts and Wisdom (i)’.

5 See ‘Tales of Mother Maud’, in A Thomas More Source Book, eds Wegemer and Smith.

6 Wyatt, Of the Mean and Sure Estate, in Poetical Works, ed. Clarke. The poem is available online (see Bibliography, below).

7 In Brie ed, vol. 2 p. 316. The story continues (with the eagles) on p. 319.

8 The Physiologus is in Selections from Early Middle English, ed. Hall (text in vol. 1, notes in vol. 2). See also The Middle English Physiologus, ed. Wirtjes, p. 11 (Natura wulpis). There is only one manuscript, dated around 1300; the Early Middle English is not easy to read (commentary and glossary may be consulted).

9 In Batman uppon Bartholome his booke [1582], Bk. 18, Ch. 76, De Murilego.

10 Keywords in Whiting can easily be found, for example C for Cat.

11 See below in chapter 8, our footnote to Henryson on medicine identifies a reference to this belief.

12 Tales, I. 4367, Perkyn ‘the reveller’ at the start of the Cook’s Tale.

13 Tr. 3. 764.

14 In the Contes Moralisés, no. 17 (le Huan et le Ostur): Quod ignobiles, licet educati, gestus habent ignobiles. This means you can educate them as much as you like but you won’t change their nature.

15 Whiting A 169.

16 In Caxton’s Fables. The first section is the ‘Fable Collection Romulus’: Rat and Frog (1.3), Eagle and Fox (1.13), Lion and Rat (1.18). Finally, the Cat and the Rat is in a later section, ‘Fables of Esope not found in the books of Romulus’, no. 8.

17 Caxton, The History of Reynard the Fox, ed. Blake, p. 21.

18 This is printed in Early Middle English Verse and Prose (Bennett and Smithers, pp. 70–5); if Gray used this version, he normalized the spelling.

19 In The Oxford Book of Medieval Verse, no. 240.

20 See Green, ‘The Ballad and the Middle Ages’, in Cooper and Mapstone eds, The Long Fifteenth Century.

21 Ibid. no. 239.

22 Tale number XXXIII, Adulator.

23 Tale number CCCXLII, Gloria mundi parum durat.

24 Tale number CCCCXXXVIII, Leo custodiebat asinum.

25 Tale number XCIX, Balliui frequenter munera recipiunt.

26 Tale number CCCLV, Hirundo singulis annis eadem loca repetit.

27 O swallow, where do you live in winter?

28 In Asia, in Peter’s house.

29 Tale number DXLV, Mures eciam homines aliquando inuadunt.

30 In Gesta Romanorum, tale XLV (fable of a cat and a mouse). Very well known, it also appears among Spanish tales in Brewer’s Medieval Comic Tales.

31 In Alphabet of Tales, number CCCXXXV, Furtum non potest celari.

32 Ibid. number CCCXXXVI, Furtum commitendo eciam bruta se peccasse cognoscunt.

33 In The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse, no. 64 (this well-known poem appears in numerous anthologies).

34 In Medieval English Lyrics, no. 4 (another well-known poem).

35 In The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse, no. 250.

36 In English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century, ed. Brown, no. 52.

37 The Owl and the Nightingale, ed. Stanley (extracts from this poem are added to chapter 7, below).

38 p. 32.

39 ‘When you feed them, you feed very foul offspring’ (Stanley’s note to line 94, p. 107).

40 Whiting B 306.

41 Whiting A 169.

42 In The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse, no. 178.

43 Wat is a country name for a hare, cf. Tod for fox (it is called Coward, or Couart, in the Reynard stories, and the German word ‘Hase’ means both hare and poltroon).


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