Jack and His Stepdame: Introduction

1 Other useful analyses of the manuscript are Griffiths, “Re-examination,” and Boffey, Manuscripts of English Courtly Love Lyrics, pp. 125–26.

2 See Ohlgren, “‘Pottys, grete chepe!’: Marketplace Ideology in Robin Hood and the Potter and the Manuscript Context of Cambridge, University Library MS Ee.4.35,” in his Robin Hood: The Early Poems, pp. 68–96.

3 See Smith, Catalogue of the Manuscripts, p. 93, column a.

4 Boffey and Meale, “Selecting the Text,” p. 156.

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Jack and His Stepdame: Introduction

from: Ten Bourdes  2013


The earliest versions of the story of the little boy Jack and his unkind stepmother are in fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century manu­scripts. This edition is based on one of them, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson C.86 (MS Bodley 11951), hereafter called MS R, in which the poem appears on fols. 52 r–59 r. But it does not have the authority of the original text — we do not have a manuscript that has that authority — and it is by no means the final version of the story, either. The story, especially its ending, changes as it moves from manuscript into the early printed versions and their contemporary manuscripts. The title changes too. The Tale of Jak and His Stepdame is wording from MS R. MS Q (Oxford, Balliol College, MS 354) calls it Jak & His Stepdame & of the Ffrere. MS E (Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, MS Ee.4.35) calls it The Cheylde and hes Stepdame. MS P (Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS Brogynton 10, formerly Porkington 10) does not give it a title at all, and the early printed editions (C, M, D, A, and F) and MS B (the Percy Folio Manuscript, London, British Library, MS Additional 27879; see the introduction to The Boy and the Mantle for more information on it) all have variants on the title of edition C from ca. 1510–13: The Frere and the Boye. “Frere” was then still the normal version of what has since become “friar”; the switch from one form of the word to the other can be traced in the history of publication of this poem, which by the time of Edward Alde’s edition ca. 1584–89 had the spelling “frier.” The major change in later versions is to the ending. All the complete versions run as far as line 414 and the end of Jack’s playing on his magic pipe to his father and others. MSS R, P, and Q all end shortly there­after, with two shared stanzas, then two additional moralizing stanzas in P, and a different two tying-up stanzas in R and Q. The other early texts, E, C, M, D, A, F, and B, have an additional episode in which the stepmother and friar complain about Jack as a necromancer to the “offycyall” at court (implicitly an archdeacon presiding over an ecclesiastical court). The official asks Jack to play his pipe to confirm that it compels all hearers to dance uncontrollably. Jack does play, with the predictable chaotic and violent results, until he can negotiate his release in exchange for stopping the music. The additional episode, with its second defeat of the stepmother and friar, is redundant and repetitive.

Julia Boffey and Carole Meale’s discussion of MS Rawlinson C.86 (“Selecting the Text”) gives interesting context for the early circulation of Jack and His Stepdame.1 The manuscript as it now stands is a combination of four more or less independent parts, but even considering only booklet II, which contains Jack and His Stepdame, there are names written into the margins that Boffey and Meale have “tentatively traced” to particular merchants and citizens of London of the early sixteenth century (pp. 157–58). They use Jack and His Stepdame to argue that “Rawlinson C.86 may be seen as typifying the tastes of middle-class, usually mercantile, readers. The anti-feminist and anti-fraternal tale of Jack and his Stepdame in booklet 2, for instance, evidently held considerable appeal for this audience” (p. 160). They point to the tale’s presence in two other merchant-owned manuscripts with Jack in them: Richard Hill, a grocer and citizen of London, owned MS Q (Oxford, Balliol College MS 354); Richard Calle adds his merchant’s mark to his manuscript, MS E (Cambridge University Library MS Ee.4.35) (pp. 160–61). MS E also contains the notation “Iste liber constat Ricardo Calle” (This book has been compiled by Richard Calle). In my previous edition of Jack and His Stepdame, I argued that this Richard Calle could not be the late fifteenth-century steward of the Paston family in Norfolk because the spelling of the manuscript is quite distinctive and different from that of the steward. Thomas ineOhlgren has since made a convincing argument that the manuscript nevertheless probably belonged to that Calle, even though it was not written by him.2 Boffey and Meale point out that the Calle family too was mercantile — they were grocers, perhaps in Framlingham in Norfolk (see pp. 160–61n54). These three manuscripts then give the researcher an unusually well localized set of contexts for the poem: it was collected in mercantile families, in household miscellanies, homemade rather than professional productions.

The early manuscripts with Jack and His Stepdame are also like each other in their miscellaneousness, with a wide variety of types of text included that give fascinating glimpses of the tastes, needs, and opportunities for collection of the households in which they were assembled. Boffey and Meale call MS R “A miscellaneous late medieval collection of secular texts and minor devotional writings, the contents ranging from The Northern Passion and religious lyrics, to a unique English translation of the Polychronicon and other items concerned with the history and geography of England; and from two unique copies of Arthurian romances, extracts from Chaucer and Lydgate, and Gilbert Banester’s courtly adaptation of Boccaccio’s tale of Guiscardo and Ghismonda, to anti-feminist and scatological verses and tales” ("Selecting the Text," p. 145). MS Q has recipes, remedies, information on the values of goods and exchanges of money, samples of business correspondence in English and French, lists of English fairs, of Lord Mayors of London, and of feast days in that city, rules for movable feasts, and notes on the necessary qualities of a priest and the functions of popes and bishops. There are no romances in it but many lyrics, and a large collection of short and mostly moral tales, including a number from Gower’s Confessio Amantis, The Seven Sages of Rome, The Siege of Rouen, How the Wise Man Taught His Son, Stans Puer, Little John, The Churl and the Bird, and The Nutbrown Maid. MS E has short moralizing and pious tales and lyrics, an account of “The Expenses of flesche at the Mariage of mey ladey Marget þat sche had owt off Eynglande” (probably the marriage of Margaret, sister to Edward IV, in Bruges in 1468), Robin Hood and the Potter, and The King and the Barker. MS P, which is associated with gentry families near and in Wales, has some scientific tables and tracts, practical instructions on planting trees and making ink, some saints’ lives, The Siege of Jerusalem, the lyric “Timor mortis conturbat me,” several carols, a burlesque, and Syre Gawene and the Carle of Carelyle. This miscellany format is quite different from the anthology format of the last late manu­script in which the poem appears, the Percy Folio Manuscript (MS B) from the seventeenth century, a manu­script that is entirely filled with a collection of narrative poems and ballads. Among them are The Boy and the Mantle and John the Reeve, which are included in the current volume. The version in MS B is most closely related to the printed editions A and F, which precede it chronologically. All of the manuscripts, though, even the earliest ones, were written in the age of print; the miscellanies created for and probably in particular households were one alternative, and the cheaply made single text chapbook was another, in which Jack and His Stepdame (or The Friar and the Boy) was acquired.

The chapbooks that we have remaining are the tip of the iceberg for the numbers that once must have been in print. Manuscripts were not so easily replicated, but there is one other manuscript version that we know for certain to have existed. “The tale of the little boy and the Friar; in old English verse,” in MS Cotton Vitellius D.xii, appears in a catalogue of the Cottonian library, but the fire at Ashburnham House in 1731 left that manuscript in fragments.3 The circulation of the poem must have been large; this was a popular poem.

The chapbooks are all cheap quarto or smaller volumes with woodcuts. The ones I consulted are C, printed by Wynkyn de Worde ca. 1510–13, now article Sel.5.21 in the Cambridge University Library, RSTC 14522; M, a fragment printed by William Middleton ca. 1545, now article C.125.dd.15 (7) in the British Library, RSTC 14522.5; D, printed by Edward Alde ca. 1584–89 article S.Seld.d.45 in the Bodleian Library, RSTC 14522.7; A, printed by Edward Alde ca. 1617, now article Arch.A.F.83 (7) in the Bodleian Library, RSTC 14523; and F, printed by Elizabeth Alde under the name of Edward Alde in 1626, now article C.57aa.13 in the British Library, RSTC 14524.3. Although the chapbooks were published individually, C, D, and A were subsequently bound with others in a collection. C is part of a collection of twenty-six early chapbooks, all but one printed by de Worde, and that one printed by Richard Pynson ca. 1513. D is part of another collection of twenty-six, one of which was Dane Hew, Munk of Leicestre, included in the current edition; the chapbooks that are dated run from 1528 to 1605. A is part of a bound collection of twelve, which was in turn part of the larger library belonging to Robert Burton, who bequeathed it to the Bodleian at his death in January of 1640 (new style).

As for the version in MS R and its scribes in particular, two scribes are responsible for Jack and His Stepdame in this manuscript, with the principal scribe having written out the whole poem and the other having replaced the first leaf, running to line 58, after it became lost from the gathering. The principal scribe was from the southern part of England, using southern forms of the third person indicative present tense of verbs (e.g., gewyth, line 115; lokyth, line 118; aylith, line 220; LALME Q59), of the third person plural accusative pronoun (hem, lines 101, 125, 150, 152; LALME Q152) and of the third person plural possessive pronoun (her, line 371; LALME Q5). The replacement of v by w (and inversely of w by v) in syllable initial position in gewyth (line 115), sewyn (line 414), and vent (line 208) helps to locate this scribe in the east. Perhaps he did not come from the same area as the poet, given that he balks at reproducing the rhyme chere/fyre at lines 369–72 that is one of the more unusual features of the poet’s dialect. Boffey and Meale connect the manuscript to London: “In terms of audience, evidence of various kinds serves to connect each booklet of Rawlinson C.86 with London at an early stage of its existence.”4 But they do not comment on scribal dialect, which would at any rate be difficult to disentangle. They reproduce facsimiles of facing pages from Jack and His Stepdame, one by each of the scribes involved, on pp. 150–51 of “Selecting the Text.”


The Friar and the Boy, as the poem is known in its chapbook versions, was popular to a degree and for a length of time that are hard to imagine. The poem is alluded to in the Langham Letter, which purports to be by one Robert Langham and describes the entertainments for Queen Elizabeth I at Kenilworth in 1575; in The Life of Sir John Oldcastle, ca. 1600; by Arthur Dent in The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven, 1601; in a mock sermon of 1601 in Lincolnshire by John Cradock; and by Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621. In his edition of the poem, William Carew Hazlitt says Taylor the Water Poet alludes to it in 1622. Francis Kirkman, the seventeenth-century publisher and bookseller, implies that his own career as a lover of books began with “that famous Book, of the Fryar and the Boy” (The Unlucky Citizen, 1673), lending some anecdotal weight to the idea that the book appealed to young readers.

It was reprinted again and again, and further and further afield. While the printed chapbooks I consulted for this edition were all published in London, later editions originated from both London and elsewhere. We know of later seventeenth-century editions in London and Glasgow. A second part was printed from at the latest 1720 and onwards which was sometimes bound with, and sometimes separate from, the dozens of eighteenth-century editions of the first part from places as far afield as Dublin, Stirling, and New England. And there were even editions from the nineteenth century, as late as an 1831 edition from New York. These must be only the tip of the iceberg: many such chapbooks were read to pieces and disappeared, as is made clear by the fact that of the copies of The Friar and the Boy still extant, many are the sole survival of a printing run. So other printings may well have disappeared altogether from knowledge. There are even early instances in which the poem was registered for printing in the Stationers’ Register (see Arber, Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London), but we have no corresponding edition: J. Waley in 1557–58, J. Alde in 1568–69, and Edward White in 1586–87. Later editions of the chapbook have variations in title, such as Jack the piper, or the pleasant pastime of a fryar and boy (this is from the 1831 New York edition) or The friar and boy. Or the merry piper’s pleasant pastime . . . Part the first (from a late eighteenth-century Birmingham edition).

Popular chapbook editions were still being published when the first antiquarian editions began with Ritson in 1791. William Carew Hazlitt published the poem in original form from the first two printed texts in 1866, but he also rewrote it in modern prose and bowdlerized the third gift, making the stepmother subject to uncontrollable laughter; see “The Friar and the Boy,” in his Tales and Legends of National Origin or Widely Current in England from Early Times (New York: Macmillan, 1891), pp. 17–55. It is this bowdlerized version that Edmund Dulac rewrote and illustrated in Edmund Dulac's Fairy-book: Fairy Tales of the Allied Nations (London: Hodder & Stoughton, [1916], reprinted in 1988 by Portland House and 2008 by IndyPublish).

Jack and His Stepdame appears, with different names as noted below, in the following early or otherwise useful editions:

1791. A Mery Geste of the Frere and the Boye. Joseph Ritson, ed. Pieces of Ancient Popular Poetry from authentic manuscripts and old printed copies. London: T. and J. Egerton. Pp. 31–56. [Edition of C, D, and MS E; includes ending of E in addition to the ending of C and D.]

1836. The Frere and the Boy. Thomas Wright, ed. Early English Poetry, vol. 3: The Tale of the Basin and the Frere and the Boy. London: W. Pickering. [Edition of MS E, with emendations from Ritson’s edition. This printing does not contain page numbers.]

1855. [no title.] J. O. Halliwell, ed. Early English Miscellanies, in Prose and Verse. London: Warton Club. Pp. 46–62. [Edition of MS P.]

1866. A Mery Geste of the Frere and the Boye. W. Carew Hazlitt, ed. Remains of the Early Popular Poetry of England, vol. 3. London: John Russell Smith. Pp. 93–97. [Edition “a collation” of de Worde text (C) with Alde text D and Wright’s edition of 1836.]

1868. Fryar and Boye. Frederick J. Furnivall, ed. Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript. Vol. 4: Loose and Humorous Songs. London: published by the editor. Pp. 9–28. [Edition of MS B.]

1893. Jak and his step dame. Julius Zupitza, ed. Archiv für das Studium der neuren Sprachen und Literaturen 90, 57–82. [Edition of MS R, with reference to MS P.]

1907. Jak & his Stepdame, & of the Frere. Roman Dyboski, ed., in Songs, Carols, and other Miscellaneous Pieces from the Balliol MS. 354, Richard Hill’s Commonplace Book. Early English Text Society, e.s. 101. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Pp. 120–27. [Edition of MS Q.]

1907. Francis Jenkinson, ed. The Frere and the Boye. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Facsimile edition of C.]

1985. Jack and his Stepdame. Melissa M. Furrow, ed. Ten Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems. New York: Garland. Pp. 65–153. [MS R as copy-text; critical edition.]


The motif “boy receives magic object from beggar as reward” is listed in ATU as 592, under the heading “The Dance Among Thorns.”

Jack and His Stepdame is NIMEV 977.

It is addressed by Thomas Cooke in volume 9 (1993) of the Manual, section 24 Tales [18], The Friar and the Boy (also Jak and His Stepdame).

The RSTC numbers for the early editions are 14522–24.3.


The early versions of the poem are in six-line loosely accentual stanzas, aa4b3cc4b3. With so many versions of the poem, it is plain to see how loosely it was treated by its scribes and printers: there are only two lines in the whole poem that appear just the same in all ten of the earliest versions extant. Later versions (A, B, and F) are modernized in their language and regularized in their meter. Later versions still are further modernized and revised to an a4b3a4b3 variant of the ballad stanza.

Since scribes and printers are cavalier about revision, much of the residual evidence about the poet’s own dialect has undoubtedly been revised out of existence, and the waters muddied considerably. On the face of its manuscript history, the poem was most likely first written in the fifteenth century. As for the area from which the poet originated, there are some quite specific cues:

1. The poem rhymes the verb form wilte (wylte) with fytte twice (at lines 351, 354; and lines 412–13). This suggests an origin in East Anglia: forms of wilt without -l- are to be found in only a small area, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, and Suffolk. See LALME, Q24. The confusion around lines 88–89 of the poem may stem from the rhyme wilt/it; later scribes who did not share the poet’s pronunciation, as most, including the R scribe, would not, might have felt compelled to revise the lines.

2. The poet uses the form goos, or something similar, for the third singular present tense form of the verb to go: close/goos (lines 141, 144); arose/goos (lines 205–06). Goos and gos are spellings found in Norfolk, gos also in Hereford and Kent (LALME, Q138).
The combination of these two restricted forms pinpoints Norfolk as a probable area of origin, and this ascription is compatible with a number of other restricted forms: fyre rhymes with chere at lines 369, 372; the spelling fere is attested in Norfolk more than anywhere else. The rhyme wete/forgete at lines 199–200 is dependent on the form >i for the infinitive witen, to know, a form found frequently in Norfolk (LALME, Q257). Tho (at lines 169–70, rhymes with goo) is a form for then that was in use in Norfolk (LALME, Q30).

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