John the Reeve
JOHN THE REEVE: EXPLANATORY NOTES
title The manuscript has John de Reeve, and the poem throughout refers to the central character as either John de Reeve or John Reeve, as if Reeve were only his surname, rather than indicating his station as well. I have changed the title since contemporary references are to John the Reeve (Douglas, Dunbar, and Lyndsay; see the introduction to the poem) but left the name unaltered elsewhere: it seems to me likely that the poem was originally inconsistent on this point.
9 A rolle he had reading. That is, he was reading a manuscript in the form of a long roll of parchment, rather than leaves folded and sewed together like a book. Formal documents tended to be kept on rolls, so the implication is that a story read by a clerk from a roll has historical authority.
17 But Edward with the long shankes was hee. Edward I (reigned 1272–1307), called “Longshanks.”
33 gan they say. gan is a past tense marker in this poem. Gan they say means “they said.”
34 Itt is a folly, by St. John. The probable reference is to St. John, the apostle said to be particularly loved by Christ in the account in the Gospel of John; medieval tradition considered John the apostle, John the evangelist, and John the author of the Book of Revelation to be the same person. But there were many other saints named John, including John the Baptist.
92 Oft men meete att unsett steven. A proverb, Whiting M210: “Men may meet at unset steven,” people can meet at appointments that they have not set up.
94–104 The carle is clearly afraid of brigands and does not recognize the king, much like Adam the shepherd in the previous poem.
119 My hood or that I wold vayle. John refuses to show deference to lords by taking off his hood in their presence. True to his word here, he continues to resist doffing his hood, and the line “Hee vayled neither hatt nor hood” is a repeated comment on his later progress through the court (at lines 689, 770, 797). The doffing of the hood is an explicit point of contention in this poem, as it is in King Edward and the Shepherd.
126 Thereof I have good likinge. For a serf, the best owner was the king. The king’s bondmen were subject to fewer taxes and restrictions.
132 by St. Jame. Probably St. James the Greater, the apostle, brother of John, whose shrine in Santiago de Compostela in Spain was one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the Middle Ages (see “James [Son of Zebedee], St.,” NCE). But there are several other men named James mentioned in the New Testament.
134 Marry. A mild oath by the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus.
140–41 Ale that is both sower and cold — / I use neither braggatt nor bere. “Until the introd[uction] of hops from the Low Countries (a1440), ale and ber are synonymous in M[iddle] E[nglish]” (from MED ale, def. 1). The distinction is that beer would be hopped, but ale would not. John drinks only the old-fashioned homemade ale.
143 I dare eate noe other meate. The obvious question is why John does not dare eat better food, especially since it is clear that he has a productive farm. Edward asks the question but gets an answer that does not help readers outside the historical context much. As a bondman, he would have been required to mill his wheat at a manorial mill and perhaps brew at a manorial brewing-house, and to pay for the privilege; perhaps he does not dare eat wheat bread because he ostensibly cannot afford to have his meal ground at the mill and will not risk being caught with a handmill. An alternative explanation is that John has run afoul of regulations fixing the prices of both bread and beer, if he has been selling them (see lines 148–49), and the fines incurred have persuaded him to have nothing to do with brewing or baking.
170 St. Jollye. St. Julian the Hospitaller, the patron saint of hospitality, whose tale is told in the Legenda Aurea and other medieval collections of saints’ lives such as the South English Legendary. Briefly, as a boy he ran away from home in the hopes of escaping the prophecy that he would kill his parents. When they came seeking him years later, his wife hospitably housed them in the couple’s own bed, and Julian, told that his wife was in bed with another man, returned home in a rage and killed the pair sleeping in their bed, only to discover that he had fulfilled the prophecy. He expiated his sin by founding hospitals and houses for travelers.
193–98 John is denying that he has been cutting fuel. He apparently lives in Windsor Forest, an area under Forest Law: penalties both for poaching deer and cutting wood in areas designated as the king’s forest were severe.
196 Thou getteth noe other of John de Reeve. Getteth is the wrong form of the verb to go with the pronoun thou; the line should read Thou gettest. But the scribe of the Percy Folio manuscript is writing much later than the poem’s time of composition, and I preserve his presentation of the poem except where it has to be corrected for rhyme or understanding.
199–202 Here John is apparently worried that he will be found to be too wealthy and suspected of skimming off the profits of the king’s estate, as Chaucer’s Reeve did to his lord.
210 In twentye-naine devilles way. The usual phrase is “in twenty devils’ way.” John’s phrase is a humorous intensification of the expletive. The spelling naine for nine is unusual. It could represent a pre-seventeenth-century Scottish form nayne, it could simply be a mistake, or it could be a pseudo-archaism.
217 They served him honestly and able. Here able is being used as an adverb; this is a usage not attested anywhere else.
218 And his horsse to the stable. A verb of motion seems to be understood: “And they led his horse to the stable.”
224–25 Her head was dight all bydeene: / The wiffe was of noe pryde. The point here seems to be that the goodwife did not spend a long time primping but instead came promptly to look after the guests.
226-31 Like conventional descriptions of a lovely heroine, the poem uses set comparisons and associations: silk, white as milk, lovesome hue, made in comely fashion. But it is quite unusual in applying them to a plump little old woman, whose hair rather than skin is white as milk. And it is very unusual in giving such a description of an elderly peasant woman in terms that are not the hideous inverse of descriptions of the young and courtly lady. John’s wife Allice (named at line 598) is a pleasant-looking, well-dressed, but not ostentatious old woman.
260 Peeres Pay-for-all. Looked at from a sufficiently royalist point of view, the king is the one who pays for all, as taxes are collected for and disbursed by him.
265–67 The king’s very rich clothing is the subject of John’s comment here. John sees him as out of place, someone dressed so magnificently that it is surprising that he humbles himself to serve as a falconer.
311 Travelled you never beyond the sea? The implied question is “Have you been to war?”
342 “Yett watter,” quoth John, “lettes see.” Bringing water in for washing the hands was a regular ceremony before courtly meals but not to be expected in a serf’s house.
346 John sayd, “For want of a marshall I will take the wand.” Because John’s household, unlike that of a great lord or the king, does not have a marshal experienced in protocol to seat those who are to dine, John will do it himself. A wand would be the marshal’s symbol of office.
392 Salt bacon, rusted and redd. The bacon may be simply discolored (metaphorically rusted) or the scribe may not have recognized the word reested. Reested would mean either that the bacon was cured (and thus be a neutral term) or that the bacon was rancid (and thus contribute to the gathering sense that the meal is unpleasant).
412 Swere to me by booke and bell. Swearing “by book and bell” was in reference to those used in the Mass.
419 “Therto,” quoth John, “hold up thy hand.” John is getting his guests to swear not to tell on him, and they raise their hands to confirm their promise. See MED hond(e (n.)1c. (a).
433 paymen bread. Pandemain (OED) or pain-demeine (MED), a white bread made with refined flour, more expensive than wholegrain breads and therefore far more apt to be on a noble’s or prosperous merchant’s table than a peasant’s. Here it is probably being used for trenchers, slabs of bread, sometimes toasted for greater firmness, to serve as dinner plates.
473 Elkis, flaunes, with frumentye. Frumenty was a dish made of wheat simmered in milk, sweetened and spiced. Elks were probably not the large animal now called elk but a smaller member of the deer family (OED elk¹). Of the foods mentioned from lines 464 to 473, the boar and venison would have been poached illegally from the forest; the wildfowl were not protected by Forest Law but would have been poached from some lord’s warren.
527 “Wee must have powder of ginger therein.” It was customary in courtly circles to take wine with spices in it after a meal.
535 The galliard was a dance popular in the sixteenth century but possibly too late to be the one originally mentioned in this poem. The brawl (or bransle) too was a popular dance in the sixteenth century.
557 Their liveryes were served them up soone. Their allotment of something is being given to them just before bed, but it is not clear from the context what. It might be candles, or perhaps it is the voidee, the service of wine and spices at the very end of a social occasion, just before heading home or to bed. But the voidee is more or less implied above, at line 527.
561 A masse he garred them to have. John’s household lacks very little that a royal or baronial court would have, including apparently a chaplain and a chapel in which he can have Mass said on the premises.
565 If ever wee come to our abone. Abone is a northern form of above.
600 Is made of Millayne plate. Milan was famous for its steel and armor.
601 A pitchforke and a sword. As a bondman, John is not entitled to carry a sword.
604 Allice feitched downe his acton syde. But the context calls for her to fetch him his sword, not his “jacket long.” There must be some corruption in the text here. Compare line 607 and its use of "scaberd."
637 “Feitch me downe,” quoth he, “my mittons.” Rather than an armed knight’s chainmail gloves, John’s mittens are heavy cloth ones, used to protect a workman’s hands from thorns and brush when he is hedging and the like.
668 Thee beseemeth full well to weare a horne. That is, like the devil, but also like a forester. The men of the court, seeing John’s mittens, and his gear, take him for a forester, responsible for both trees and game in the king’s forest. John responds, at line 677, by offering to prune them. Legally, John is not allowed to carry bow and arrows in an area under Forest Law, but as we see below, he is carrying them.
676 By my faith, that can I lead. John can show from his experience how harmful the courtiers are to the peasantry.
749 And John sayd, “Nay, by St. William of Yorke.” William Fitzherbert, consecrated archbishop of York in 1143, deposed in 1147, restored in 1153, and dead within weeks, perhaps poisoned. The party opposed to him accused him of simony. Miracles were said to have occurred at his tomb, and he was canonized in 1227 (see “St. William,” NCE). The oath by St. William of York, not a widely venerated figure like the apostles or St. Julian, suggests that the origins of the poem are not far from York.
764 for Godes fast. The queen is swearing by Christ’s fast of forty days (Matthew 4:2).
819–21 Full oft I have heard tell / That after a coller comes a rope: / I shall be hanged by the throate. This is an earlier use of the proverb (after a collar comes a rope) than those cited in the proverb dictionaries. The saying implies that those raised to knighthood (with the collar signifying their rank) are then in danger of a halter taking the place of the collar because of their eminence: obscurity is safer.
838 By my Lady. That is, by the Virgin Mary.
860 Be God, I shall reave their hood. The porters at the king’s castle would likely be armed; John may be threatening to take their hoods off (as people have been urging him to take off his own), but in this case their hoods are probably chain-mail.
875 John’s sons are introduced here, though we met his two daughters at the feast. The bishop proposes to educate them so that they may eventually become beneficed priests, each eventually with a parish of his own. This is his way of compensating John for his kind wishes at lines 371–76 that the bishop, apparently a poor chaplain, might receive a benefice.
880–882 Here the bishop proposes to address the other major issue of the well-being of John’s family. The daughters must be married to provide for their futures, and the bishop promises that the king will sponsor their marriages, thus ensuring that the women will marry well and be set for life financially.
JOHN THE REEVE: TEXTUAL NOTES
ABBREVIATIONS: MS: manuscript, here referring to the copy-text; OED: Oxford English Dictionary.
title MS: John De Reeue. Below the title is written: --in 3 parts--.
1The opening word God appears in large letters, the same size as the title, in the left margin.
22 MS spelling the has been changed to they for the pronoun here and in lines 76, 182, 211, 217, 539, 556, 741, 756, and 778.
24 MS: The country they out cast. Emendation for sense.
38 MS: A bishopp from his coste to be cast. Emendation for sense.
41 MS: All night wee may ryde vnskill. Emendation for grammar.
95 MS: I am affraye of you eche one. Emendation for grammar.
115 MS: Of lordes sayet hee speake no more. Emendation for rhyme (more to moe) and sense (sayet to sayeth).
137 MS: With beffe and bread you shall beginne. Emendation for sense, to correspond to line 391 below. Probably in a prior MS beue was misread for original bene.
146 MS: ffor dare not eate that I gett. Emended for sense.
155 MS: That makes such statuinge. Emendation for sense.
161 MS: Tell mee where is your recreate. Emendation for sense.
174 MS: ffor ought that
178 MS: The Bishopp of Durham this towne oweth. Emendation for sense.
192 MS: With bright a ffeare and bold. Emendation for sense.
199 MS: If thou find in my house payment ffine. Emendation for sense.
215 MS: They halted them ffull swift. Emendation for rhyme.
232 MS: Then ^ calld his men all. In the margin: John.
233 MS: Sayes build me a ffore in the hall. Emendation for sense.
239–41 These lines are missing in the MS; no gap.
242 MS: ffor courtyes comonly wold be Jollye.
247 MS: Curtesye I learned ne<..>r none. Blot in MS.
276 MS: I say you withouten miste. Emendation for rhyme and sense.
277 MS: You are ffresh ffellowes in your appay. Emended for idiom.
284 MS: ffor courtyes comonlye are att large.
326 MS: And a handffull a thyttille syde. Emended for sense.
335 MS: A charcole ffyer burning bright. Emendation for sense.
338 MS: there bordes werer covered on euerye syde.
339 MS: There mirth was comanded. Emended for sense and rhyme; for form compare line 648.
344 MS: Hobkin Long and Hob alsoe. Hodgkin is his name elsewhere in the poem.
heading In the MS, the large heading 2nd Parte appears extending from the margin into the text area, beside bracketed and indented lines 346—54 (a complete stanza).
370—71 MS: Then Peres thou might beare the prize
Yett I wold this chaplaine had a benefize
The scribe has not recognized the older idiom to bear the price, “to surpass all others,” and has changed the last word of line 370, then altered the word benefice in line 371 to give a pseudo-rhyme.
372 MS: As mote I tharve or thee. Emendation for sense.
381 MS: ffor there shalbe no more. Emendation for rhyme and sense.
385 MS: Att side end bord wee will bee. Emendation for sense.
393 MS: And brewish in a blacke dish; added above the line: ice.
398 This line is missing in the MS, no gap.
400 MS: Such service nerest I see. Emendation for sense.
416 MS: He shall nott witt our service. Conjectural emendation for rhyme.
426 MS: For itt is for thy power. Emendation for sense and rhyme.
427 MS: Take this away, thou Hobkin Long. Compare note to line 344.
429 MS: a
433 MS: by then came in the payment bread. Emendation for sense.
441 MS: I goe you to understand. Emendation for sense.
455 MS: Infaith quoth John soe had leever I did. Emendation for sense and rhyme.
456 MS: Then live ay in woe and payne. Emendation for sense and rhyme.
462 MS: others will broake itt ffine. Emendation for sense.
466 MS: Capones both baked and rosted. Emendation for rhyme.
470 MS: Coneys curleys well I wott. Emendation for sense.
473 MS: Elkis fflounes with froterye. Emendation for sense and rhyme.
480 MS: Such ffreindshipp wee haue ffounde. Emendation for rhyme.
485 MS: Therefore I beshrew the soape. Emendation for sense.
486 MS: That shall come in his mouth. Emendation for rhyme.
491 MS: Infayth quoth John and yee greeve mee <….>. Emended for rhyme.
493 MS: speake English everye eche one. Emendation for sense.
497 MS: therin noe reason ffind I can. Emendation for rhyme.
499 MS: rowing I loue itt neither young nor old. Emendation for sense.
505 MS: That man can of curtesye. Emendation for sense.
514 MS: Sirrah sayth John sithe wee are mett. Emendation for sense.
519 MS: Now is no time to thrine. Emendation for sense.
535 MS: Yee dance neither gallyard nor hawe. But there is no medieval dance called the hawe known to me. Emendation for sense and approximate rhyme (with probable form trawe).
543 MS: His brow brast out of blood. Emendation for idiom.
544 MS: Ah ha Quoth John thou makes good game. Emendation for rhyme.
545 MS: Had thou not ffalled wee had not laught. Emendation for rhyme.
558 MS: With a merry cheere. Emendation for rhyme.
559 MS: And thus they sleeped till morning att prine.
566 MS: Wee shall thee quitt our varrison.
heading In the MS, the large heading 3rd Parte appears extending from the margin into the text area, beside bracketed and indented lines 571–79. This placement ignores the stanza form.
568 MS: The king took leave att man and mayde. Emendation for rhyme.
578 MS: To tell the queene of their harbor. Emendation for rhyme.
602 MS: Shee sayd shee was affrayd. Emendation for rhyme (probably on original swerd).
604 MS: acton
610 MS: gett lether and a nayle John can say. Emendation for sense (leather stitching is done using an awl, not a nail). OED awl: “In 15–17th c. a mistaken division of an awl as a nawl gave the form with initial n.” Second emendation conjectural: John can say makes sense and rhymes, but repeats the sense of line 609.
614 MS: hether itt will out lightlye. Emendation for sense.
619 MS: Allice held and John
632 MS: They supped itt all off as I wis. Emendation to restore idiom.
637 MS: Feitch me downe quoth he my gloues. Emendation for rhyme and sense (compare line 720). The rhyme on mittons/once was probably originally on eyns or anes forms of both words.
638 MS: They came but on my handes but once. Emendation for sense.
639 MS: 22. The normal way of expressing that numeral would have been “two and twenty” throughout the Middle Ages.
644 MS: I will drinke to thee once againe. Emendation for rhyme.
654 MS: till hodgkinn heave vp behind. Emendation for rhyme (although it is possible that there are lines missing after 654 and there should be two stanzas rather than one of unusual length).
682 MS: What shold such men as I doe [h]ere. The h is unreadable.
688 MS: To him he ffast ffull rode. Emendation for sense.
693 MS: ffor wrat I
699 MS: I pray thee tarry a while. Emendation for rhyme.
713 MS: His hood were made home browne. Emendation for sense.
715 MS: A thyttill hee hath fast in his hand.
716 MS: that hangeth in a peake band. Emendation for sense.
721 This line is missing in the MS; no gap.
730 MS: John tooke his forke in his hand. Emendation for sense and rhyme.
735 MS: And him had welnye slaine. Emendation for rhyme.
747 MS: I pray you, light downe heere. Emendation for rhyme.
754 MS: I shall hold your stirroppe. Emendation for rhyme.
759 MS reads: And alsoe
762 MS: Therfore I will itt weare. Emendation for rhyme (although it is possible that there are three lines missing after 762 and there should be two stanzas rather than one of unusual length).
766 MS: Such a fellow saw I never yore. Emendation for rhyme.
771 MS: He was a ffaley freake. Emendation for sense.
776 MS: For hee will frowte some in the face. Emendation for sense.
787 MS: But lord hee sayd my good itt thine. Emendation for sense.
790 MS: But lord thy word is honour. Emendation for sense and rhyme.
794 MS: When thou with me a night. Emendation for sense.
812 MS: I thanke you my lord as I haue soule. Emendation for idiom and rhyme.
816 MS: With worshippe when hee sayd. Emended for sense.
822 MS: Methinkes itt doth not well. Emended for sense.
829–34 The rhymes in this stanza (downe/home and wott/sortes) are poor and suggest corruption of the text.
838 MS: good
843 MS: was all berinnen with blood. Emendation for sense.
857 MS: When any man out of my countrye; out is added above the line, with a caret. Emended for sense.
858 MS: another lett them not be soe stout. Emended for sense.
861 MS: or goe on foote boote. Emended for sense and rhyme.
874 MS: Then they bishopp sayd to him thoe. Emendation for sense.
the. MS: they.
897 MS: to god serue night and day. Emended for sense.
903 MS: through the grace of the king hend. Emended for sense and rhyme.
904 MS: then thought on the bishopps word. Emended for sense.
“If my selfe,” quoth John, “be bonnd,
Go To The King and the Hermit: Introduction