General Introduction

1 The Feast of Tottenham is now available edited by Kooper in Sentimental and Humorous Romances, pp. 205–11; King Edward and the Shepherd, on the other hand, has not been readily available since 1930, in French and Hale’s collection Middle English Metrical Romances, 2:947–85.

2 She identifies nine single jests in verse, one compilation of jests in verse in 1525 (Twelve Merry Jests of the Widow Edith), and then six compilations in prose, in Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature, appendix B, English Renaissance Jest Books, p. 285.

3 See the edition of The Wright’s Chaste Wife by Eve Salisbury in her collection Trials and Joys of Marriage, pp. 61–84.

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General Introduction

from: Ten Bourdes  2013

Ten Bourdes is a fresh edition of the poems found in my earlier Ten Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems (New York: Garland, 1985), with one deletion (The Feast of Tottenham) and one addition (King Edward and the Shepherd).1 The edition is completely reconceived — that was a scholarly edition; this is designed in the first instance for students. That was done before the publication of the monumental Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English (LALME); this has been done since, with the consequence that many of the conclusions I reached earlier about place of origin of poems have had to be modified in the face of new information. In that edition two poems (The Freiris of Berwik and Jack and His Stepdame) were edited from multiple source texts by recension; in this edition all poems are based primarily on a single source, manuscript or print, and emendations even for sense or rhyme are more cautious. Like other METS texts, this edition has marginal glosses to make it more accessible to student readers, as well as the glossary at the end, and explanatory and textual notes. The earlier edition had more extensive textual notes and more information on the manuscripts and early printed versions, but that information is apt to be of interest only to scholarly researchers. This edition aims to put funny (or would-be funny) Middle English poems under the eyes of a much broader readership.

What to call this edition became an interesting conceptual problem. There are still ten poems, although two of them are incomplete. But research on King Edward and the Shepherd persuaded my research assistant Peter Chiykowski and me that it could be dated quite precisely to the period 1345–47, not the fifteenth century by anyone’s reckoning. At the other end of the time span, poems that are preserved only in late manuscripts like The Boy and the Mantle in the Percy Folio Manuscript are impossible to date to the fifteenth century with complete conviction unless there are corroborating external references, as there are for John the Reeve, another Percy Folio poem. And “comic poems” is not medieval termi­nology. French had of course the genre term fabliau for its comic poems of the twelfth and thirteenth century, a term that is transferable readily to those of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that are clearly imitating them and what they do. But an acquaintance with the ten poems in this collection will quickly reveal that unlike a fabliau they all conclude with morality triumphant, provided they still have a conclusion. Wandering spouses are returned to marriages; adulterous clergy are punished and barred from returning to their adultery; at the very least, as in the Arthurian bourdes, adultery at court is exposed; a cruel stepmother is humiliated; and on the rewards side of justice, a little victim is made secure, virtue triumphs, hospitality is rewarded, and money, gifts, and food flow to the good. Fabliaux do not necessarily oppose morality — in them, sometimes the wicked are punished as much as the foolish are — but many a fabliau derives its humor from defrauding the innocent. Not so in these comic poems.

Unfortunately, if this is a genre, what is left of it is scant (perhaps a score of poems at the outside) and contemporary commentary on them is apparently nonexistent: there is no one I can find who wrote “comic poems like The Tale of the Basin or The Freiris of Berwik are a waste of time,” a piece of genre criticism that would be immeasurably useful. And certainly “comic poems” is a label that would not have been used by those who wrote them. Bourdes, however, is potentially such a label. Three of our poems actually use the term. The earliest, King Edward and the Shepherd, uses the term eight times in reference to the entertaining customs of the shepherd in the poem, or to the enjoyment of others in learning of that behavior, but not in a way that makes it refer to the whole poem (see lines 214, 223, 323, 478, 487, 612, 633, and 699). John the Reeve describes its origins:
As I heard tell this other yere,
A clarke came out of Lancashire;
A rolle he had reading.
A bourde written therein he found
That sometime fell in England
In Edwardes dayes our king.
(lines 7–12)
Sir Corneus proclaims
Of a bowrd I wyll you schew
That ys full gode and trew,
That fell sometyme in Ynglond.
(lines 4–6)
The word is first attested in English in the Auchinleck Manuscript c. 1330, according to The Middle English Dictionary, and already there it has several related meanings: an amusing story, fun, an amusing incident. As a small genre, the bourde is the immediate predecessor of the merry jest, a type discussed by Linda Woodbridge as existing for a short while during the early years of printing, from 1510 to 1534.2 Two of our tales, Jack and His Stepdame (in its print version The Friar and the Boy), and Dane Hew, Munk of Leicestre, were published as A Mery Jest (“Here begynneth a mery geste of the frere and the boye,” “Heere beginneth a mery Iest of Dane Hew Munk of Leicestre, and how he was foure times slain and once hanged”). Like the term bourde, the term merry jest was used both to label the kind of poem and to describe its content, the practical joke, revealing deception, or humiliating exposure that the poems are built upon and that the reader, if not all the characters, is invited to enjoy. Though not all the poets whose work is included here have used the term bourde to label their work, it seems possible that all ten would have recognized it as an appropriate one. Ten Bourdes, then, is what we have here.

The French and English comic genres are best contrasted by how they fail to be funny. A fabliau fails by being excessively violent or excessively disgusting in either physical or moral ways: if the reader cannot tolerate the extremes to which a fabliau goes, the tale will not strike that reader as amusing. But considering the number of provocations in the genre — the rapes, beatings, castrations, and feculence — it is evident that a fabliau is supposed to derive its humor from being shocking enough. A bourde, however, fails by being too morally corrective. A good example would be The Wright’s Chaste Wife, which involves a similar sort of fleecing of the predatory male to what we see in Dane Hew, Munk of Leicestre. But whereas there is a good deal of slapstick humor and misplaced horror in Dane Hew, in which no tears are shed for the lascivious monk’s death, in The Wright’s Chaste Wife there is a tedious abundance of lesson-teaching. Three lecherous men are one by one dropped through a trap door and forced to do women’s work in order to earn anything to eat. They emerge into the custody of the lady married to the highest ranking of the three. Nothing is left concealed, nobody is blackmailed, the chaste wife still gets to keep the enormous amounts of money given to her in anticipation by her three lustful suitors, and the wright ends unscathed and indeed benefited. In a romance, let alone a fabliau, he would have been the sort of aged roué married to a young and beautiful woman who deservedly gets cuckolded for shutting her up in a structure that protects her from the attentions of other men. In this story he ends with a virtuous and wealthy wife.3

A signal of the genre of bourde can be understood to be the demand for laughter, expressed either as an opening signaling that laughter or merriment is expected or an internal observation that some of the characters “laughed and had good game” at others. It is there, for example, in The Wright’s Chaste Wife, where at the end the wife of the lascivious lord reacts to the plight of her husband and his two fellows:
The lady lawghed and made good game   
Whan they came owte alle in-same
From the swyngylle tre.
(lines 601–03)


The lady is, however, probably the only one who laughs. Other genre signals are “Make you mery all and som” (Lady Prioress, line 15); “Ever they lough and had good game” (Jack and His Stepdame, line 175); “Ever the boye blewe and lewh amonge” (Jack and His Stepdame, line 253); “Tho that at souper satte / They had good game and lough therat” (Jack and His Stepdame, lines 346–47); “In feyth this was the meryest fytte / That I hard this sewyn yere” (Jack and His Stepdame, lines 413–14); “A man may dryfe forth the day that long tyme dwellis / With harpyng and pipyng and other mery spellis” (Tale of the Basin, lines 3–4); “When that men be glad and blyth, / Than wer solas god to lyth, / He that wold be stylle” (King and the Hermit, lines 7–9); “All that wyll of solas lere, / Herkyns now and ye schall here, / And ye kane understond. / Of a bowrd I wyll you schew / That ys full gode and trew, / That fell sometyme in Ynglond” (Sir Corneus, lines 1–6); “And ye wil listyn how hit ferd / Betwene Kyng Edward and a scheperd, / Ye shalle lawgh of gyle” (King Edward and the Shepherd, 10–12), and the king’s promise to his nobles, “Ye shall have gode bourd, in certayne, / Yif that ye will be stille” (King Edward and the Shepherd, lines 612–13); “Best is mirth of all solace; / Therfore I hope itt betokenes grace, / Of mirth who hath likinge” (John the Reeve, lines 4–6); “The laughed, without doubt, / And soe did all that were about, / To see John on his steede” (John the Reeve, lines 778–80); “Heere beginneth a mery Iest of Dane Hew Munk of Leicestre” (Dane Hew, title; see Textual Note); “Then every knight / That was in the kinges court / Talked, lauged, and showted / Full oft att that sport” (The Boy and the Mantle, lines 73–76). There is no such overt generic signal in The Freiris of Berwik, which is rather more like a fabliau in the gratuitous harm done the innocent husband in the poem, who accidentally knocks himself out in the flurry of violence as the adulterous friar leaves the building, but more like a bourde in its putting a stop to the ongoing adultery between Alison and Friar John.

Obviously contemporary readers cannot have expectations of a genre unless it exists. But if the genre of bourde did exist when Chaucer wrote, one important implication is the expectation readers would have brought to his comic tales. The Miller’s and Reeve’s Tales would have seemed by contrast to bourdes startlingly retro, a revisiting and remaking of a genre that had existed in Anglo-Norman a hundred years in the past. Creative forms of humiliation and violence affect the cuckold, the would-be cuckolder, and the actual cuckolder in The Miller’s Tale, and the swiving of Simkin the miller’s wife and daughter in The Reeve’s Tale is presented as a means of getting revenge on Simkin. But the Summoner’s and Friar’s Tales might have been experienced as tales that fit into the genre of bourde instead, a more comfortably English genre, and one in which comeuppance is highly valued and lack of compassion for the innocent is a punishable offence: a predatory summoner is sent off to hell by the poor widow’s curse, a greedy and insensitive friar is given a very noisy fart by a sick peasant whose child has recently died. The Friar’s Tale even has a similar generic signal (“I wol yow of a somonour telle a game” [III(D)1279]), though The Summoner’s Tale rather conspicuously does not claim “they all laughed” but rather provides an amusingly deadpan reception for Jankin’s solution to the problem in ars-metrik. Perhaps that pair of tales could best be considered as belonging to an English rather than a French genre, and meeting the expectations of that genre (indeed helping to shape it) rather than not fitting the other one, or any genre, very well at all. It seems more prudent, because potentially productive of fresh and more accurate insight, to assign a different generic label than fabliau to the comic poems of the fifteenth century in English and to follow up the implications of the different expectations such a genre would entail. It is a matter of more doubt whether the genre should be extended backwards into the fourteenth century in our current state of knowledge, given the dating of King Edward and the Shepherd but the lack of other similar poems from such an early date.

Readers interested in the comic tale as a genre in Middle English will find the following of use:

Brewer, Derek. “The International Medieval Popular Comic Tale in England.” In The Popular Literature of Medieval England. Ed. Thomas J. Heffernan. Tennessee Studies in Literature 28. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985. Pp. 131–47.
———. “Introduction” to Medieval Comic Tales. Second ed. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1996. Pp. xi–xxxiv, especially pp. xxxii–xxxiv.
Busby, Keith. “Conspicuous by its Absence: The English Fabliau.” Dutch Quarterly Review 12 (1982), 30–41.
Cooke, Thomas. “Middle English Comic Tales.” In A Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050–1500. Vol. 9, gen. ed. Albert E. Hartung. New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1993. Section 24 Tales, pp. 3138–3328, 3472–3592, especially pp. 3151–58.
Furrow, Melissa. “The Middle English Fabliaux and Modern Myth.” ELH 56 (1989), 1–18.
———. “Comic Tales.” In Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Paul E. Szarmach, M. Teresa Tavormina, and Joel Thomas Rosenthal. New York: Garland, 1998. Pp. 203–04.
Goodall, Peter. “An Outline History of the English Fabliau after Chaucer.” AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Language & Literature Association 57 (1982), 5–23.
Hines, John. The Fabliau in English. London: Longman, 1993.
Robbins, Rossell Hope. “The English Fabliau: Before and after Chaucer.” Moderna Språk 64 (1970), 231–44.
Wright, Glenn. “The Fabliau Ethos in the French and English Octavian Romances.” Modern Philology 102 (2005), 478–500.

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