The Boy and the Mantle: Introduction

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The Boy and the Mantle: Introduction

from: Ten Bourdes  2013


The Boy and the Mantle is in the famous Percy Folio Manuscript (London, British Library, MS Additional 27879, p. 284–87), the collection of early poetry rescued by a young Thomas Percy from its fate: it was being used by housemaids to kindle the parlor fire in a house in Shiffnal, Shropshire, to which Percy had chanced to be invited. But since Percy had already begun a career of publishing older poetry by the time he chanced upon the manuscript in his friend’s house, it is possible that this version of the story is a romanticized one and that his friend Humphrey Pitt had invited him to the house with the idea in mind of introducing him to the manuscript. Percy’s publication of The Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in 1765 was an important precursor to the Romantic movement; Percy’s Reliques reproduced, among others, many poems from the manuscript, though heavily edited and even added to by Percy. The manuscript itself was compiled in the seventeenth century by someone with antiquarian interests, and many of the contents are sole surviving versions of medieval poems, as is the case with both The Boy and the Mantle and John the Reeve in the current collection. A version of Jack and His Stepdame also appears in the Percy Folio Manuscript, but it is probably transcribed from one of the early seventeenth-century print versions of The Friar and the Boy and so gives an interesting example of the intermingling of manuscript and print cultures for many decades after the introduction of print.


The Boy and the Mantle was published in the following early or otherwise useful editions:

1765. Thomas Percy, ed. The Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, vol. 3. London: J. Dodsley. Pp. 1–11. This had several editions.

1854. Francis Child, ed. The English and Scottish Ballads, vol. 1. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. This was the earliest of many editions by Child, the later ones incorporating successive additions to his scholarly prefaces. The earliest I have seen is the second edition of 1866 in which The Boy and the Mantle is the first of the texts, at pp. 3–16.

1868. John W. Hales and Frederick J. Furnivall, eds. Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript: Ballads and Romances. London: N. Trübner. 2:301–11.

1884. Francis Child, ed. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, vol. 1, part 2. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. Pp. 257–74. This is one of Child’s later editions and incorporates much research on the chastity test analogues.

1985. Melissa M. Furrow, ed. Ten Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems. New York: Garland. Pp. 293–311.


The Boy and the Mantle is not indexed in the NIMEV.

It is briefly mentioned by David C. Fowler in volume 6 (1980) of the Manual, section 15 Ballads [17], among “nine substantial ballads from the Percy Folio MS that probably have a medieval origin” (p. 1782).


The Boy and the Mantle is in common ballad form, with short two- or three-stress lines in four- or six-line stanzas rhyming abcb(db). But it is also influenced by late medieval alliterative long line, with each of the current lines representing a half line. The pattern is still clearly recognizable in sequences like lines 53–54:
She curst the weaver and the walker / That clothe that had wrought.
The long line shows abb ab alliteration. However, the alliteration is often purely decorative, not crossing the cæsura:
It was from the top to the toe / As sheeres had itt shread.
(lines 39–40)
And in most cases there is no alliteration.

Like many ballads, it is loose in its rhyming. Because so much time has elapsed between the poem’s composition and its recording in the Percy Folio Manuscript, some of the more startling inexactnesses of rhyme can be accounted for by changes in the language. This is most obviously true at line 72, where the manuscript says “buttockes” in a context where the racier fourteenth- and fifteenth-century synonym tout is called for by the rhyme with about. A scribe who did not blink at calling Guenever a “bitch” (line 147) and a “whore” (line 148) would not have declined to use the word tout, especially when the rhyme required it, except if it had fallen out of use so much that he could not expect his audience to recognize it. By the time that the Percy Folio Manuscript was written out, its scribe could no longer expect that recognition, and so he or she replaced tout with buttockes. Beyond such very general indications, the date of the original poem cannot be pinned down by the language. There is one hint as to the original dialect of the poem, and that is a rhyme of knee/eye/see at lines 184, 186, 188; this must depend on a form of eye ending in stressed -e(e), such as LALME shows in many locations across the map of the northern part of England (Q115, dot map 750).

No external medieval allusion to the poem is known.

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