Sir Corneus: Introduction

1 Codex Ashmole 61, ed. Shuffelton, p. 5, in reference to Lynn Blanchfield, “‘An Idiosyncratic Scribe’: A Study of the Practice and Purpose of Rate, the Scribe of Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 61,” D.Phil. dissertation, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, 1991, pp. 151–57.

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Sir Corneus: Introduction

from: Ten Bourdes  2013


Sir Corneus is one of many poems in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 61, the only manuscript in which it survives, and where it appears on fols. 59 v–62 r. The manuscript as a whole has been recently described and edited by George Shuffelton, Codex Ashmole 61. Many of the poems in the manuscript are “signed” by someone named Rate; Sir Corneus is not, but the poem immediately before it in the manuscript, Lybeaus Desconus, ends “Amen quod Rate.” Rate would be the name of the scribe rather than the poet. It should be noted that Rate uses abbreviations frequently and flexibly: a raised u can mean ou, ur, even nour, or just r; a raised a can mean ra or just a. He uses the grapheme y for both thorn and the vowel, sometimes distinguishing the vowel by an accent mark. I have represented his consonantal y with th. A fish and flower design that recurs, usually with Rate’s name, but by itself at the end of Sir Corneus, is not yet satisfactorily explained. Shuffelton accepts (as “highly conjectural” but “the most persuasive”) the argument by Lynn Blanchfield that it may be a representation of the badge of the Corpus Christi guild in Leicester,1 but the pictures by Rate are quite varied in the form of the flower (it usually looks something like a rose or roses) and do not look a great deal like the guild symbol to my eye. It may be that, as I speculated in my earlier edition, the picture is a rebus alluding to where Rate was living or where he was born. I suggested as an example a name like Rosgill in Westmoreland County, which has nothing to do etymologically with either roses or fish gills. But I have no evidence to support that solution to the riddle, and it remains an interesting puzzle to solve. The whole manuscript is in one hand, described in correspondence by Albinia de la Mare of the Bodleian Library as “a mixed cursive hand of probably the second half [of the]. . . fifteenth century, basically anglicana but containing secretary elements.” Since there are at least three batches of paper involved, with three different watermarks, the manuscript was probably compiled over a stretch of time, one man’s (perhaps a merchant’s) personal or household collection of romances and moral or religious pieces.

The scribal language of MS Ashmole 61 has been analyzed in the LALME (see vol. 3, Linguistic Profile 71, pp. 233–34 for details of the criterial features) and has been determined to come from Leicestershire. On the scribe Rate see Codex Ashmole 61, ed. Shuffelton, pp. 4–6, and Lynn S. Blanchfield, “Romances in MS Ashmole 61”; also Blanchfield, “Rate Revisited.” In the first of these two chapters Blanchfield reports records (a will, an entry in the First Hall Book of the Merchant Guild, 1447–1553, an arbitration agreement, a land grant) of a father and son William Rate in Leicester, and a William Rot(t)e who was an ironmonger in 1480 (see “Romances in MS Ashmole 61,” pp. 85–86). The paper of the manuscript is dated on watermark evidence between 1479 and 1488, according to Blanchfield (“Romances in MS Ashmole 61,” p. 79, citing notes by Bruce Barker-Benfield). Blanchfield is looking for an ecclesiast to be our scribe, since she contends that the manuscript is strongly religious and didactic in focus, but it is no more so than other merchants’ manuscripts (for example, Oxford, Balliol College, MS 354, compiled by Richard Hill, grocer of London in the years following 1500). An ironmonger or other merchant in Leicester in the last years of the fifteenth century would be a plausible candidate for our Rate.


Sir Corneus appears, with different names as noted below, in the following early or otherwise useful editions:

1829. The Cokwolds Daunce. Charles Henry Hartshorne, ed. Ancient Metrical Tales. London: W. Pickering. Pp. 209–21.

1854. The Horn of King Arthur. Francis Child, ed. English and Scottish Ballads, vol. 1. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. This was the earliest edition by Child. The Horn of King Arthur continued to be included in new editions of English and Scottish Ballads but was dropped in the later, more substantially revised English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The earliest I have seen is the second edition of 1866 in which The Horn of King Arthur is the second of the texts, at pp. 17–27. Child says the text “was furnished from the manuscript by J. O. Halliwell” (p. x).

1864. The Cokwolds Daunce. William Carew Hazlitt, ed. Remains of the Early Popular Poetry of England, vol. 1. London: John Russell Smith. Pp. 35–49.

1985. Sir Corneus. Melissa M. Furrow, ed. Ten Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems. New York: Garland. Pp. 271–91.

2008. Sir Corneus. George Shuffelton, ed. Codex Ashmole 61: A Compilation of Popular Middle English Verse. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications. Pp. 164–70.


Sir Corneus is NIMEV 219.

It is addressed by Thomas Cooke in volume 9 (1993) of the Manual, section 24 Tales [13], The Romance of Syre Corneus (also Sir Corneus or The Cokwold’s Dance).


We have no linguistic evidence to place the composition of Sir Corneus much earlier than the late fifteenth-century manuscript in which it appears, and nothing to identify its poet. Its treatment of cuckoldry (the implication of the horn in the title discussed above) suggests that the poet may be contemporary to Lydgate.

Some features of the poet’s original language are still discernible in rhyming position, where they could not be changed without ruining the rhyme. These include two features that together suggest the poem came originally from Lincolnshire or the West Riding or northwest of Yorkshire:

The rhyme sykerlyke/baskefysyke at lines 115–16 depends on the -lik(e) types of ending for -ly. LALME shows that these are to be found in the North and the east Midlands (Q278).

The rhyme senne/amen at lines 252 and 255 depends on -en forms of since. LALME shows that sen and sene forms of since are to be found in Lincolnshire, the West Riding of Yorkshire, and the North Riding of Yorkshire (Q39), all of these also being places where the -lik(e) types of ending are to be found.

These areas are also compatible with other dialectally restricted rhymes in the poem:

therby/sey at lines 28–29 depends upon the be form of by (Q92) and a se(e) form of the past tense of see (Q211).

yknow/saw at lines 9, 12 depends upon a past participle of a strong verb without an - n ending (Q160). (Y)know must also have an -aw form to rhyme with the noun saw.

One other rhyme might restrict the area of origin still further:

redd/glad at lines 121–22 probably depends upon a pronunciation of glad with -e-; in the etymology of glad, MED posits that Old English *gled is Mercian. Lincolnshire is within the territory that was Mercian, but Yorkshire is not.

The stanza of Sir Corneus is the six-line, aabccb stanza seen in John the Reeve and Jack and His Stepdame, usually with four stresses in the a and c lines, and three in the b lines. Half the length of the twelve-line tail-rhyme stanza of The King and the Hermit and King Edward and the Shepherd, it is otherwise similar in construction. The rhyming is usually exact, with small licenses in rhyming m/n (as in herme/wern at lines 111 and 114, and tyme/fyne at lines 184–85) and greater ones in rhyming stressed and unstressed syllables (e.g., thyng/lesyng at lines 15 and 18, lesyng/kyng at lines 61–62, and kyng/dansyng at lines 141 and 144).

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