Art. 27, Middelerd for mon wes mad: Introduction

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Art. 27, Middelerd for mon wes mad: Introduction

ABBREVIATIONS: AND: Anglo-Norman Dictionary; ANL: Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts (R. Dean and Boulton); BL: British Library (London); Bodl.: Bodleian Library (Oxford); CCC: Corpus Christi College (Cambridge); CUL: Cambridge University Library (Cambridge); IMEV: The Index of Middle English Verse (Brown and Robbins); IMEV Suppl.: Supplement to the Index of Middle English Verse (Robbins and Cutler); MED: Middle English Dictionary; MWME: A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050–1500 (Severs et al.); NIMEV: A New Index of Middle English Verse (Boffey and Edwards); NLS: National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh).

The Three Foes of Man delivers an alliterative, penitential homily against humankind’s three chief temptations: Flesh, World, Devil. In the first stanza the poet preaches that private sin is always exposed in the soul, a message that inverts the virtues of secrecy between lovers, which was exalted in Lesson for True Lovers (art. 26). This final item in quire 6 introduces the subject of God’s all-seeing judgment, creating a decisively moral ending for the texts gathered here, which begin with Ethelbert’s martyrdom (art. 18) and then offer memento mori portraits of other worldly men cast down (arts. 23, 24, 25). The theme of Judgment Day rounds out, as well, the quire’s earlier enactments of the Harrowing of Hell and the body and soul in debate (arts. 21, 22), both events being steps within salvational history (one for humankind, the other for the individual).

Explaining how secret sin will slay the soul, the poet edges his message with pessimism and more than a little misogyny, for woman is identified with Flesh. In the fourth stanza, worldly marriage is analogized to the warring of soul (man) with body (woman), and the likeness dramatizes how all of life is a conflict for the sinner who may never rest easy. An anxious weariness over having to struggle against relentless temptation animates the poem’s aesthetic seriousness. The preacher’s rhetorical stance deftly shifts from admonition to personal remorse, and then to a final communal bowing before the Lord, who will enable “ryhtwyse men to aryse” (line 77). The poet adopts a style that is densely alliterative, frequently doubling lines upon one alliterative sound. Verbal repetition links the last and first lines of adjacent stanzas. The 11-line alliterative stanza is unique among Middle English poems, and some scholars have called it a precursor to the 12-line form of Pearl. Among Harley’s penitential poems, The Three Foes of Man and An Old Man’s Prayer (art. 45) most resemble the secular Harley lyrics in metrical and lexical complexity. For treatments of similar themes, see The Sayings of Saint Bernard (art. 74) and Jesus, Sweet Is the Love of You (art. 58), line 72.

For commentary on this poem, see Kuczynski 2000, pp. 144–45; Revard 2007, pp. 111–12; and the bibliography in MWME 11:4318–19.

[Fol. 62v. IMEV, NIMEV 2166. MWME 11:4172 [2]. Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 6. Meter: Seven 11-line stanzas with strongly alliterative ornament, abababab4cbc3, linked by concatenation. Layout: No columns, two lines per manuscript line, bob written to the right (compare art. 25a). Editions: Wright 1842, pp. 22–25 (no. 4); Böddeker, pp. 181–84; Brown 1932, pp. 134–36 (no. 75); Brook, pp. 29–31 (no. 2). Other MSS: None.]

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