Introduction to Fabula Duorum Mercatorum

Introduction to Fabula Duorum Mercatorum: FOOTNOTES

1 The title is scribal, appearing in London, British Library, MSS Harley 2251 and Additional 34360. Since the edition of Schleich and Zupitza, the poem has been known as the Fabula duorum mercatorum.

2 On the relationship of the Fabula to Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, see Farvolden, “‘Love Can No Frenship,’” and Stretter’s response, “Rewriting Perfect Friendship.”

3 Under MacCracken’s still useful classification of Lydgate’s works, the other short narratives are “The Churl and the Bird,” “Guy of Warwick,” “The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep,” and “Isopes Fabules” as well as the Fabula. See MacCracken, ed., Minor Poems, 2:v.

4 Only one other recent article focuses specifically on the Fabula, L. Cooper’s “His guttys wer out shake.” L. Cooper examines the merchants’ relationship as mercantile and commercial, and compares the Fabula to Lydgate’s “Letter to Gloucester.” Earlier criticism of the poem is scarce and brief: Schirmer treats the poem briefly and somewhat inaccurately in his 1952 study John Lydgate: A Study. Ebin is also brief, and focuses on the poem’s digressions, which “emotionalize the action and give the simple plot a new intensity [and] . . . magnify the characters’ sense of loss and their dilemmas in an uncertain and transitory world” (John Lydgate, p. 112). Pearsall is even-handed; though he feels the story “sinks” beneath the weight of its digressions and is “lost from sight,” he goes on to note that “as an exercise of style it is superb . . . [and] must stand . . . as a warning against any underestimation of the range of Lydgate’s skills” (John Lydgate, p. 204). For an earlier view of Pearsall’s, see his “English Chaucerians.”

5 According to Ormrod, Baldac is Old French for Baghdad. See “John Mandeville,” p. 337.

6 Moses Sefardi, who took the name Petrus Alfonsi when he converted to Christianity in 1106. See Hermes, ed., Disciplina, especially pp. 36–43, and Schwarzbaum, “Folklore Motifs,” p. 268. For an overview of Petrus Alfonsi and his works, see also Tolan, Petrus Alfonsi. Tolan does not mention, however, Lydgate’s or other adaptations of this particular tale. See also Jones and Keller’s useful introduction to Scholar’s Guide.

7 See Hermes, ed., Disciplina, p. 5.

8 Schwarzbaum, “Folklore Motifs,” p. 269.

9 Also known as “The Whole Friend,” in contrast to the first tale, “The Half Friend.” This tale with its motif of perfect male friendship has ancient origins; it combines two folktale motifs which can be found separately or together in numerous analogues in Classical Greek, Roman, and Arabian literature. See Thompson, Motif-Index, P315 (“Friends offer to die for each other”) and P325 (“Host surrenders his wife to his guest”). H1558.2 (“Test of friendship: Substitute as murderer”) is also relevant. See also Lee, Decameron, pp. 334–38, for a particularly full list of ancient analogues to Alfonsi’s tale as well as Hermes, ed., Disciplina, p. 180n25, and Schwarzbaum, “Folklore Motifs,” pp. 288–90.

10 For example, the principals are named, the setting is Athens, and the two parts of the tale are more closely connected, the poverty of the original lover being caused by his yielding the woman to his friend.

11 The first English appearance of the tale of Titus and Gisippus was either William Walter’s poem Tytus and Gisyppus, which may have been published in the 1530s, or Sir Thomas Elyot’s prose version, inserted in his Boke Named the Governour, published in 1531 (Chapter 12, Book 2). Other versions of this popular tale include, for example, Edward Lewicke’s “The most wonderful and pleasaunt History of Titus and Gisippus . . .” (1562), Edward Jenynges’ “Notable Hystory of two faithfull Louers named Alfagus and Archelaus . . .” (1574), Thomas Deloney’s “of the faithfull friendship that lasted betweene two faithfull friends” in Garland of Good Will (1631), Thomas Durfey’s “Titus and Gissippus” in Stories, Moral and Comical (1706), Oliver Goldsmith’s story of Alcander and Septimus (The Bee 6 October 1759), Charles Lloyd’s “Titus and Gisippus” in Desultory Thoughts on London, Titus and Gisippus, with other poems (verse, 1821), and Gerald Griffin’s Gisippus (drama, produced at Drury Lane 23 February 1842). See Wright, Boccaccio in England.

12 It is #57 in Alphabet of Tales. See Banks, ed., Alphabetum Narrationum, pp. 126–27. For Caxton’s version, see Lenaghan, ed., Caxton’s Aesop, pp. 194–95.

13 See Herrtage, ed., Early English Versions of the Gesta Romanorum, pp. vii–xxviii, for an explanation of the complex textual history of the several versions of the Gesta. For analogues to this tale, see #47, #28, #11, and #55. Although Herrtage thought that Lydgate was “probably indebted” (p. 482) to the Anglo-Latin Gesta, the differences in narrative detail and overall approach clearly indicate that this is an analogue and not a source. Schleich and Zupitza show that Lydgate knew Petrus Alfonsi’s version directly (see Fabula Duorum Mercatorum, pp. lxxx–vi). And we know that there was a Latin text of the Disciplina in the Bury library, now London, BL, MS Royal 10 B XXII (for a list of contents, see the British Library’s online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts: catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=5373&CollID=16&NStart=10021). See also Warner and Gilson, Catalogue of Western Manuscripts, 1:322. Two other of Lydgate’s short poems, “Stans puer ad mensam” and “A Ballade of Jak Hare” (MacCracken, ed., Minor Poems 2:739, 445) are also adapted from the Disciplina, as is “The Churl and the Bird,” although in this case Lydgate tells us that he got it from a “Frenssh . . . paunflet” (MacCracken, ed., Minor Poems 2:468, lines 34–5). Wolfgang’s “Out of the Frenssh,” posits a different source for “Churl.”

14 The Fabula may in some ways be seen as Lydgate’s answer to The Knight’s Tale. See Farvolden, “‘Love Can No Frenship,’” p. 27. Stretter also takes up this idea, although his purpose and argument differs from mine; see “Rewriting Perfect Friendship,” and Stretter’s “Engendering Obligation” in which he elaborates on the relationship between the ideals of brotherhood and friendship in Middle English romance.

15 D. S. Brewer, ed., English Gothic Literature, p. 77. Other useful discussions include H. Cooper, English Romance in Time; Finlayson, “Definitions of the Middle English Romance”; Pearsall, “Development of Middle English Romance”; and Strohm, “Origin and Meaning.” Useful studies and collections of articles include (but are not limited to) Aertsen and MacDonald, ed., Companion to Middle English Romance; C. Brewer, ed., Traditions and Innovations; Fewster, Traditionality and Genre; Kreuger, ed., Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance; Meale, ed., Readings in Middle English Romance; Mehl, Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries; Purdie and Cichon, ed., Medieval Romance, Medieval Contexts; Radulescu and Rushton, ed., A Companion to Medieval Popular Romance; and Stevens, Medieval Romance.

16 The Knight also refers to a time long past and a tale found in books: “Whilom, as olde stories tellen us, / Ther was a duc that highte Theseus” (CT I [A], 859–60). Compare also The Squire’s Tale: the kyng of Tartarye was “hardy, wys, and riche, / And pitous and just, alwey yliche; / Sooth of his word, benigne, and honurable; / Of his corage as any centre stable” (CT V[F], 19–22).

17 An excellent overview of the development of friendship ideals and a survey of recent scholarship can be found in the introduction to Lochman, Lopez, and Hutson’s Friendship in Early Modern Europe. Two other particularly useful surveys of philosophical and literary traditions of friendship are Langer’s Perfect Friendship and Hyatte’s Arts of Friendship. Interestingly, neither Langer nor Hyatte mentions Lydgate’s Fabula, though both take note of Boccaccio’s tale, particularly Hyatte, who discusses Titus and Gisippus at some length (Arts of Friendship, pp. 146–63). See also Jaeger’s Ennobling Love, in which he argues for a tradition of male friendship that was an ennobling, aristocratic, and social ideal long before the twelfth-century emergence of what is traditionally called courtly love. Also useful are Purdy’s “Friendship Motif” and Mills’s One Soul in Bodies Twain.

18 For a useful survey and discussion of these see Leach’s introduction to his edition of Amis and Amiloun.

19 But not, it must be noted, in Lydgate’s Guy, which treats only the last part of the narrative. See the Introduction to Lydgate’s Guy in this volume.

20 For Gower, see Mirour de l’Omme. For Rose, see Dahlberg, ed., Romance of the Rose. This section, like so many others in the Rose, is heavily indebted to Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Lydgate himself wrote a short didactic poem on friendship built on the “friend at need” theme, drawing together a series of commonplaces and mentioning a number of famous friends, including Amis and Amiloun; it makes an interesting comparison with the Fabula. Chaucer’s poem “Fortune” is also relevant. The connection between fortune and friendship — the idea that one only comes to know one’s true friends when fortune turns against one — is fundamental to the Fabula and is discussed below. See Lydgate, “Freond at Neode” (MacCracken, Minor Poems 2:755), and Chaucer, “Fortune” (Bensen, Riverside, pp. 652–53).

21 The connection between virtue and friendship was articulated in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics but Cicero’s De amicitia was the locus classicus for the ideal. For articulations of classical friendship ideals and their transmission to the medieval period, see Jaeger, Ennobling Love, pp. 28–31; as well as Langer, Perfect Friendship, pp. 18–25; and Hyatte, Arts of Friendship, Chapter 1, especially pp. 16–21 on Aristotle and pp. 26–33 on Cicero. See also Mills, One Soul in Bodies Twain, especially Chapters 1 and 2; Purdy, “Friendship Motif,” pp. 113–15; and Mathew, “Ideals.” See also Mathew and Purdy, especially for a correlation of Ciceronian ideals with the writings of, for example, St. Augustine (“Friendship Motif,” p. 120), St. Thomas Aquinas (“Ideals,” pp. 47–48), St. Aelred of Rivaeaulx (“Friendship Motif,” pp. 120–21), and Richard Rolle (“Friendship Motif,” p. 127).

22 That virtue can create friendship and love across a distance is a Ciceronian idea. See Explanatory Note to lines 48–49.

23 Hyatte, Arts of Friendship, pp. 4–5. Hyatte’s last point here, that this sort of friendship is rare, is also emphasized at the end of the Fabula, when the king marvels at the strength of the love that has saved not one but two lives, and wishes that there were more in his “regioun” who could display “an obligacioun / of such enteernesse” (lines 858–60) to one another.

24 Some of what Jaeger points to in his study of the historical, literary, and philosophical tradition of passionate male friendship is relevant to the merchants’ love for each other. For example, he characterizes this “ennobling love as ‘primarily a way of behaving, only secondarily a way of feeling . . . Its social function is to show forth virtue in lovers, to raise their inner worth, to increase their honour and enhance their reputation’” (Jaeger, Ennobling Love, p. 6). He also points out that love both comes from and creates virtue as well as noble manners (p. 116).

25 For example, compare the Egyptian’s words to the Syrian when he arrives: “Wolcom my feithful freend so deere! / Now have I found that I so longe have souht” (lines 140–41), with those of Bertilak to Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: “3e ar welcum to welde as yow lykez / þat here is; al is yowre awen, to haue at yowre wylle and welde” (Tolkien, lines 836–37).

26 See Wack, Lovesickness, p. 189. Wack’s work is an essential source for medieval conceptions of love and lovesickness. Also essential is Wells, Secret Wound, especially pp. 1–51; and Lowes, “Loveres Maladye.”

27 Wack, Lovesickness, p. xiii.

28 Wells, Secret Wound, p. 22.

29 See Wack, Lovesickness, p. 60.

30 Wack, Lovesickness, p. 203. See also Wells, Secret Wound, pp. 22–23.

31 See Andreas Capellanus, Art of Courtly Love, p. 28. For a comparison of Andreas’s and Gerard of Berry’s definitions of love, see Wack, Lovesickness, pp. 61–62.

32 Some fourteenth and fifteenth century writers who treat of lovesickness are Jacques Despars, William of Corvi, Gerard de Solo, Arnald of Villanova, John of Gaddesden, and Bernard of Gordon. See Lowes, “Loveres Maladye”; Wack, Lovesickness; and Wells, Secret Wound.

33 Bernard appears in Chaucer’s General Prologue (line 434) as part of a long list of medical writers with whose work the Physician is said to be well acquainted. See CT I[A] 429–34. For a brief but useful account of Bernard, see Demaitre, “Bernard de Gordon,” pp. 84–85. Bernard was considered an authority on “various baffling diseases” including lovesickness. Seaton cautiously suggests that Lydgate’s source was Bernard. See Seaton, Roos, p. 275.

34 Translation by D. W. Robertson, Preface to Chaucer, p. 458. For the original Latin, see Lowes, “Loveres Maladye,” p. 499. Gerard of Berry, the thirteenth-century glossator of Constantine, seems to have been the first to articulate this particular view of the causes of lovesickness. Bernard’s description here can be profitably compared to Gerard’s, quoted and translated by Wells, Secret Wound, pp. 38–39. See also Wack, Lovesickness, pp. 56–58, whose useful summary is also quoted in the Explanatory Notes to lines 338–43.

35 See Seymour, ed., Properties, 1:98. See also Winny, “Chaucer’s Science,” pp. 177–78; Thorndike, History, 1:660; and the helpful diagram in Wack, Lovesickness, p. 57. For a detailed account of the physiology of lovesickness, see Ciavolella, “Medieval Medicine.”

36 Also known as the “fantastical” (line 56) or the “celle fantastik” (CT I [A], 1376).

37 Thorndike, History, 1:660. Both Wells, Secret Wound, pp. 40–42, and Wack, Lovesickness, p. 56, point out that Avicenna is the ultimate source for this picture of the brain’s physiology.

38 Wack, Lovesickness, p. 58.

39 Giles de Corbeil, sometimes called “the medical poet” (Thorndike, History, 1:737), was a twelfth-century medical scholar and teacher who produced medical texts in poetry. See Wallis, “Giles de Corbeil,” pp. 198–99. Zupitza was at first unable to determine the source of Lydgate’s lines on the various kinds of fever but he apparently later traced them to Giles. Neither Zupitza nor Schleich, however, note Giles’ Viaticus as the source. See Schleich and Zupitza, ed., Fabula Duorum Mercatorum, pp. lxxxvii–viii and n1. Seaton, however, determined the source as Giles’s Viaticus: De signis et symptomatibus aegritudinum, a compendium of symptoms and causes of illness. See Seaton, Roos, p. 275.

40 For Giles’s original, see Rose, ed., Egidii Corboliensis, lines 1919–24, 1950–60, 2185–90 (pp. 78, 80, 90). The remaining 168 lines of the Viaticus (there are 2358 in all) also provide a relevant background to Lydgate’s discussion of Putrida.

41 “Medical writers traditionally maintained that the brain was the seat of sensation and emotion, but Aristotle claimed that [emotions] . . . originated in the heart” (Wack, Lovesickness, p. 78). The commentaries on Constantine of “Giles” (probably, Giles of Santarem, says Wack, Lovesickness, p. 74) and Peter of Spain both question Constantine’s view that love was a disease of the brain. See Wack, Lovesickness, pp. 78–79, 94–95.

42 Winny, ”Chaucer’s Science,” p. 177.

43 See Seymour, ed., Properties, 1:379.

44 Variations of this phrase appear in Troilus and Criseyde, 1.420, and the Fabula, line 222.

45 Fragment B of the Middle English Rose cannot be attributed to Chaucer. See Benson’s introduction to The Romaunt of the Rose (Riverside, pp. 685–86).

46 The Fabula includes a number of other allusions to Troilus and Criseyde. Both Troilus and the Syrian give voice to their suffering in an artistic complaint, although the merchant’s differs in content and quality from the “Canticus Troili,” which Chaucer translated from Petrarch’s Sonnet 88. See Troilus, 1.400–20. Lydgate probably also owes several turns of phrase to Troilus; like Troilus, the merchant has been stricken with love through “the castyng of an ye” (Fabula, lines 229–30, Troilus, 1.305–06), takes to his bed and begins to “sike and groone” (Fabula, line 205, Troilus, 1.360), and suffers from extremes of heat and cold (Fabula, line 222, Troilus, 1.420).

47 For the sake of clarity, I will refer to the first-person speaker in the Consolation as Boethius although as Frakes, for example, points out, the speaker should perhaps more properly be referred to as the Prisoner to ensure that we do not read the Consolation as autobiography. See Frakes, Fate of Fortune, p. 5n13.

48 Fortune was often personified as a blind goddess who, in turning her wheel, threw down the high and sometimes raised the low. Perverse, mutable, and often hostile, she rules the sublunary world and assails those who place too much importance on the worldly and the material. For a useful introduction to the figure of Fortuna, see Frakes, Fate of Fortune. Also still useful is Patch, Goddess Fortuna. For recent discussion of Lydgate’s treatment of fortune and tragedy, see Nolan, John Lydgate and the Making of Public Culture, especially pp. 120–83; and John Mortimer, Narrative Tragedy, especially pp. 153–216. Pearsall’s chapter on the Fall of Princes (John Lydgate, pp. 223–54), is also still useful.

49 On the medieval popularity of Boethius, see Richard Green, Poets and Princepleasers, pp. 145–49; Minnis, “Aspects”; and Minnis and Machan, “The Boece.” See also Cropp, “Livre de Boece,” who notes that there were “at least twelve distinguishable French translations” completed between the thirteenth- and fifteenth-centuries (p. 64).

50 Boece survives in ten manuscripts and Walton’s in twenty-one. See Minnis and Machan, “The Boece as Late-Medieval Translation,” who point out that the Boece was one of Chaucer’s most popular works (p. 167) and that Walton’s superseded Chaucer’s in popularity (p. 186).

51 See James, On the Abbey of St. Edmund, p. 76, and Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 37.

52 These are in the Troy Book (Bergen, 4:652, lines 3008–13) and “A Thoroughfare of Woe”(MacCracken, ed., Minor Poems 2:822–23, lines 9–12). “Boys” is mentioned in connection with music in “A Pageant of Knowledge” (MacCracken, ed., Minor Poems 2:729, line 127) and in “Henry VI’s Triumphal Entry into London” (MacCracken, ed., Minor Poems 2:638–39, lines 244–46).

53 Prologue, line 291 (Bergen, ed., Fall of Princes, 1:9). The tragedy of Boethius is at 8:897, lines 2626–60.

54 See Bergen, ed., Fall of Princes, 4:326. Eleanor Hammond, too, despite her identification of Lydgate’s translation of the lines from Boethius, also doubted how much Lydgate had used or cared about Boethius. See “Boethius: Chaucer: Walton: Lydgate,” p. 534.

55 Robert Ayers noted some years ago that the Siege of Thebes is “essentially Boethian” (“Medieval History, Moral Purpose,” p. 465) in connection with the more general “moral and philosophical framework” of the poem. David Lawton’s important article on fifteenth-century Boethianism (“Dullness”) includes several of Lydgate’s major poems in his discussion. While the Fabula shares in a “pervasive Boethianism” (Lerer, Chaucer and His Readers, p. 14), in its attention to Fortune and its brush with the de casibus theme, it demonstrates beyond these a more specific influence from the Consolation itself. See also the General Introduction, n1.

56 Duke Humphrey commissioned Lydgate’s translation of Boccaccio’s De casibus virorum illustrium probably in 1431. Working from Laurence de Premierfait’s French translation of Boccaccio, Lydgate spent eight years on the 36,365-line work. See Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 223; see also Mortimer, Narrative Tragedy, pp. 53–61, and Petrina, Cultural Politics, pp. 281–312.

57 Chaucer, Boece, 2.pr2.67–70 (Bensen, ed., Riverside, p. 409). On the significance of the “unwar strook” and how it relates to Lydgate’s conception of tragedy, see Nolan, Making of Public Culture, especially pp. 124–30, and Mortimer, Narrative Tragedy, especially pp. 165–68.

58 Lydgate, Prologue, lines 159–61 (Bergen, ed. Fall of Princes, 1:5).

59 Chaucer, Boece, 2.pr8.45–48 (Bensen, ed. Riverside, p. 420).

60 Chaucer, Boece, 2.pr4.7–9 (Bensen, ed. Riverside, p. 411).

61 See Explanatory Notes to lines 603–09 and 610–16.

62 Hammond, English Verse, p. 185. Hammond first made the observation in her short article “Boethius: Chaucer: Walton: Lydgate.”

63 “Mors hominum felix quae se nec dulcibus annis / Inserit et maestis saepe vocata venit,” The Consolation of Philosophy, 1.m1.13–15 (Stewart, et al., trans. Theological Tractates, p. 130).

64 “Thilke deth of men is weleful that ne comyth noght in yeeris that ben swete, but cometh to wrecches often yclepid.” Boece 1.m1.18–20 (Bensen, ed., Riverside, p. 397).

65 See Troilus 4.501–04.

66 Alessandra Petrina asserts without equivocation that Lydgate translated the lines (Cultural Politics, p. 310).

67 Chaucer, Boece, 4.m5.1–9 (Bensen, Riverside, p. 450).

68 Chaucer, Boece, 4.m6.11–18 (Bensen, Riverside, p. 454).

69 See Chaucer, Boece, 2.pr2.73–76 (Bensen, Riverside, p. 410).

70 Chaucer and Jean de Meun, for example, both borrowed it from Boethius. See Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue (CT III (D), 170–71) and Roman de la Rose (lines 6813–29). Though Boethius is the medieval locus for this topos, the ultimate source is Homer’s Iliad (Lattimore, trans., 24:527–533, p. 489).

71 For a recent edition, see Sponsler, ed., Mummings and Entertainments. Also known as the “Mumming at London” (see MacCracken, ed., Minor Poems 2:682), this dramatic performance text demonstrates how Fortune can be overcome by the four cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance.

72 Nolan, Making of Public Culture, especially pp. 120–54.

73 Nolan, Making of Public Culture, p. 187.

74 See Nolan, Making of Public Culture, pp. 139, 141, and throughout her discussion. The “Disguysing” bears some interesting additional similarities to the Fabula in its treatment of Fortune, its de casibus section, and its promotion of virtue as a way to overcome Fortune’s depredations.

75 Ebin (John Lydgate), perhaps following Pearsall, does not address questions of date, nor does Stretter (“Rewriting Perfect Friendship”). L. Cooper mentions that the Fabula is “believed to have [been] composed in the same period” as the “Letter to Gloucester” but offers no evidence (L. Cooper, “His guttys wer out shake,” p. 305).

76 This is the title of the chapter in which Pearsall considers such works as Isopes Fabules and The Churl and the Bird as well as a number of Lydgate’s shorter moral and didactic poems (John Lydgate).

77 Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 192.

78 According to Schirmer, Lydgate’s later work “is characterized by verbose dialogues and monologues that could almost be called humanistic, mysterious flourishes, and a delight in obscure language. Even where he introduces a simile drawn from nature he uses far-fetched phrases suggestive of the style of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (John Lydgate: A Study, p. 238). Schirmer’s example from the Fabula of one such simile is itself problematic and mis-contextualized. He tells us that lines 193–94 (“her ioiful somer is tapited al in greene / Of stable blew is her bothen hewe”) illustrate the “meeting of the two friends” (p. 238). In fact, the merchants have already met and the lines depict the strength of their already established relationship.

79 For example, Schirmer writes that the merchants become acquainted through a third person (John Lydgate: A Study, p. 237), that they “compete honorably” (p. 237) for the hand of the woman they both love, and that the poem “closes with a panegyric to divine justice” (p. 238).

80 See Pearsall, Bio-Bibliography, pp. 28–31. J. Alan Mitchell dates the Temple of Glas to between 1427 and 1432 (“Secret of Lydgate’s Temple of Glas,” p. 63). On the date of “A Complaynt of Lover’s Life,” see Symons, ed., Dream Visions and Complaints, p. 83.

81 On the audience for these texts, see Pearsall, Bio-bibliography, pp. 28–31; Warren, “Lydgate, Lovelich,” especially pp. 114–19; and Sponsler, “Lydgate and London’s Public Culture,” especially p. 19. Both Warren and Sponsler describe the intended audience of these public texts as including members of London’s civic elite, including merchants and members of craft guilds. James Simpson suggests that the Fabula may have been written for the Goldsmiths (“Energies,” p. 58).

82 The word treason could mean anything from traitorous behavior to falseness, duplicity, or general wickedness (see MED treisoun).

83 For the connection between seals and heraldry, see especially Keen, Chivalry, pp. 132–33 and Thrupp, Merchant Class, pp. 250–54.

84 On the inter-connections between seals, heraldry, and social aspiration, see Keen, Origins of the English Gentleman (especially pp. 23–24, 99, 128–31, 155–58) and Thrupp, Merchant Class, pp. 249–309. See also Coss’s Origins of the English Gentry, especially pp. 216–54, for a useful overview of the emergence of the gentry class.

85 First discussed by Hammond in “Two British Museum Manuscripts” (pp. 1–28), these manuscripts are linked in a variety of ways in terms of content, scribe(s), and provenance. Many of the manuscripts containing one or both of the poems edited in this volume belong to this group; in addition to the five noted above, these include Cambridge, MA, Harvard University, Houghton Library MS Eng. 530; BL MS Harley 7333; Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.3.21; and Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 683. There are a number of discussions and descriptions of the larger group and sub-groups: for Shirley-related manuscripts, see especially Linne Mooney, “John Shirley’s Heirs” (pp. 182–98) and Margaret Connolly, John Shirley, pp. 173–89. Other useful discussions are those of Julia Boffey, “Short Texts in Manuscript Anthologies” (pp. 70–72) and A. S. G. Edwards, “Fifteenth-Century Middle English Verse Author Collections” (pp. 103–04).

86 See Manly and Rickert, Text of the Canterbury Tales, 1:242; Hammond, “Two British Museum Manuscripts,” p. 27; and M. C. Seymour, Chaucer Bibliography, 1:140–43.

87 See Hammond, “Two British Museum Manuscripts” and “A Scribe of Chaucer,” pp. 27–33. Since Hammond’s articles, a number of scholars have added to the list of manuscripts copied by this scribe. For excellent summaries of this scholarship and recent discoveries and discussion, see Linne Mooney, “More Manuscripts Written by a Chaucer Scribe,” pp. 401–07; and Mooney, “A New Manuscript,” pp. 113–23. See also Daniel Mosser, who suggests paper stocks as a way of sequencing and dating these manuscripts in “Dating the Manuscripts of the Hammond Scribe,” pp. 31–70, especially pp. 31–45.

88 See Pearsall, ed., The Floure and the Leafe and The Assembly of Ladies, p. 8.

89 The two Chaucer poems are counted as one item by both Robinson (“On Two Manuscripts,” p. 191) and the cataloguer of the Lansdowne manuscript. For good descriptions of this manuscript, see Hammond, Bibliographical Manual, pp. 331–32; Reinecke, ed., Saint Albon and Saint Amphibalus (pp. xi–xiii); and Withrington, “Arthurian Epitaph,” pp. 232–33.

90 See Van Dorsten, “The Leyden Lydgate Manuscript,” p. 320; the entire article contains a good description of V. See also Robinson, “On Two Manuscripts,” pp. 186–94. The texts of both the Fabula and Guy in L and V are very similar and often — but not always — share the same or similar variants. See the Textual Notes to both poems in this volume, which sometimes correct MacCracken’s collation. (To compare, see MacCracken’s textual apparatus for the Fabula and for Guy in Minor Poems, 2:486–516 and 516–38.)

91 Madan, Summary Catalogue, 3:290. For more information on R, see my unpublished dissertation, A Critical Edition of John Lydgate’s Fabula Duorum Mercatorum, University of Alberta, 1993, pp. 27–31. (This dissertation contains fuller descriptions of all the Fabula manuscripts, though some have been superceded since then, notably that of Harley 2255.)

92 For a description and discussion of this manuscript, see Boffey, “Short Texts in Manuscript Anthologies,” pp. 76–81. See also Mooney, Horobin, and Stubbs, “Cambridge Hh 4.12,” Late Medieval English Scribes. Available online at manuscripts&id=20&nav=off.

93 For a complete description of this manuscript, see Reimer and Farvolden, “Of Arms and the Manuscript,” especially pp. 241–43. Eleanor Hammond was the first to describe the manuscript, briefly, and dated the hand to the early fifteenth century. See Hammond, “Two British Museum Manuscripts,” p. 24. For two excellent studies of the contents and themes of Harley 2255, see Joseph Gross, “Where Ioye is ay Lasting” and “Cloistered Lydgate, Commercial Scribe.”

94 This idea, based on Eleanor Hammond’s suggestion in “Two Manuscripts,” (pp. 24–25) that the coat of arms in the first capital of the manuscript might represent a combination of the Bury coat of arms and those of Curteys, was accepted for a number of years. However, as Steven Reimer and I have shown, we can no longer accept without question either this interpretation of the coat of arms or the dating of the manuscript to the early 1440s. See Reimer and Farvolden, “Of Arms and the Manuscript.”

95 The latest addition to the Edmund-Fremund group is a manuscript in two fragments of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, identified by Simon Horobin. See Horobin, “The Edmund-Fremund Scribe Copying Chaucer.” Horobin here also provides an excellent summary of scholarship to date on the Edmund-Fremund scribe, including such essential articles as Kathleen Scott’s “Lydgate’s Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund” and A. S. G. Edwards’ “The McGill Fragment of Lydgate’s Fall of Princes.” For Harley 2255 specifically and its relationship to the E-F group, see Reimer and Farvolden, “Of Arms and the Manuscript.”
Print Copyright Info Purchase

Introduction to Fabula Duorum Mercatorum

Lydgate’s Fabula duorum mercatorum [The Tale of Two Merchants]1 is a 910-line poem that exemplifies the extraordinary friendship between two merchants. Lydgate’s source is a short, straightforward twelfth-century exemplum which becomes in Lydgate’s hands a courtly and philosophical romance shot through with allusions — both implicit and explicit — to Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, and Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale.2 Although the poem stands apart from Lydgate’s other short narrative poems3 in its narrative sophistication, and its survival in seven medieval manuscripts suggests some contemporary popularity, it has received little critical attention.4 Yet it is one of the best medieval treatments of the popular theme of male friendship, and in its rhetorical complexity and overall quality, it deserves to be better known.

The tale centers on two merchants, one from Egypt and the other from Baldac (in Syria),5 who become acquainted through trade. Knowing each other only by hearsay, they are delighted to meet when the Syrian travels to Egypt on business. After eight days of entertainment and socializing, the visitor falls ill. All the doctors of the land are summoned, who, after much deliberation, diagnose love sickness. After bringing forth all the women in his household, the Egyptian finally summons a woman he has brought up in his house with the intention of marrying her, and his guest confesses that she is the woman he loves. The Egyptian unhesitatingly gives her to the Syrian, along with her dowry and the gifts he had intended for her when she became his wife.

Some years later, the Egyptian, having lost all of his wealth, travels to Baldac, seeking his friend’s help. Arriving in the middle of the night, ashamed of his penury and afraid of being turned away, he spends the night in a mosque where, during the night, a man is murdered. In despair, the Egyptian confesses to the murder. As he is led to the gallows, his friend recognizes him and seizes the opportunity to repay the Egyptian’s previous kindness by crying out that he himself is the murderer. As the Egyptian is taken to the scaffold, the real murderer feels such contrition and guilt that he confesses, and all three are brought before the king, who marvels at this extraordinary display of loyalty, love, and friendship. The Egyptian, after receiving half his friend’s goods, then chooses to return home, although his friend has offered him a home in Baldac.


Lydgate’s narrative source is the second tale from the Disciplina Clericalis, a collection of exempla compiled and translated from Arabic to Latin in twelfth-century Spain by Petrus Alfonsi, a Jewish doctor and scholar.6 This collection of thirty-four didactic tales is, according to Eberhard Hermes, the “oldest collection of novelle in the Middle Ages,”7 and it became well known throughout Western Europe, serving, as “a sort of bridge or literary medium through which Eastern, predominantly Arabic popular stories, proverbs and sayings, [were] transmitted or transplanted to Europe.”8 The Fabula is based on the second tale of the collection, “The Perfect Friend.”9

This tale became the source for a number of continental and English tales of friendship, which developed along two different but analogous lines. One of these is represented by Boccaccio’s prose tale of Titus and Gisippus in the Decameron (eighth day, tenth story). While Alfonsi’s tale remains at the core, Boccaccio made some significant changes and additions to plot details and setting,10 and his version of the story became itself a source for many subsequent retellings. In fact, English writers treated it in verse, prose, and drama up until the nineteenth-century,11 and it seems still to be the best known version of Alfonsi’s story. The other line of development, to which Lydgate’s poem belongs, contains tales that more closely follow the narrative details of Alfonsi’s tale, and examples can be found in many early European and Middle English exempla collections, for example, in the Alphabet of Tales and Caxton’s Aesop (the first of the “Fables of Alfonce”).12 The version of the tale closest to Lydgate’s is contained in the Gesta Romanorum, a collection of exempla probably compiled in the late thirteenth-century that circulated throughout Western Europe.13


The difference between these very short, didactic, exemplary works and Lydgate’s poem is profound. Lydgate’s thematic concerns go beyond simply illustrating a perfect friendship and extend to an examination of the linked themes of fortune, love, and friendship. The first part of the Fabula — for it falls neatly into two parts, each anchored by a test of friendship — shares with The Knight’s Tale an examination of the claims of friendship and those of love but offers an alternative to the potential clash engendered when two men fall in love with the same woman. In the case of Palamon and Arcite, the clash is deadly, but in the Fabula it is averted when the Egyptian relinquishes to his friend the woman they both love.14 In the second part of the poem, an even more severe test of the friendship mirrors the first. The Egyptian merchant, finding himself friendless and impoverished, seeks death in his misery and despair. Confessing to a murder he has not committed, he is saved by the Syrian, who offers his own life for that of his friend. There are many Boethian echoes in this part of the Fabula, as the Egyptian merchant moves from despair to consolation and understanding that only true friendship can provide stability in an unstable world. Both parts of the poem are also steeped in allusion to Chaucer’s great romance Troilus and Criseyde, which elevates the doomed love of Troilus to tragedy and provides, like The Knight’s Tale, a Boethian framework within which to understand human experience.

While Lydgate sticks to the basic narrative details of his original, he elevates it significantly with the addition of a variety of material. He infuses the first part of the poem with romance convention, casting the merchants as noble lovers and the object of their affection as a courtly lady, and creating, then solving, a conflict between the duties of love and friendship that was not present in Alfonsi’s version. He also adds a good deal of contemporary medical lore, mainly on the symptoms and diagnosis of the Syrian merchant’s illness, that may seem out of place. Yet the merchant’s malady, lovesickness, is at the heart of this part of the poem, and the very experience of falling in love and nearly dying from the condition, as well as the noble friendship that allows the Egyptian to relinquish the object of his affection, contribute to the elevation of the poem to romance. In the second part of the poem, Lydgate’s expanded descriptions and additions of detail impart a clear Boethian sensibility to the whole, contrasting worldly instability with the enduring quality of the merchants’ friendship: in the face of sublunary change and the fickleness of fortune, true friendship is the only thing that can be counted upon. Lydgate’s skilful synthesis of a variety of materials — romance and courtly love convention, classical and medieval friendship ideals, medieval medical lore, and Boethian ideals — effectively transforms the original short, simple exemplum on perfect male friendship into an elaborate and complex narrative linking the themes of friendship, fortune, and love.


The Fabula’s closest literary relative is the romance rather than the exemplum. Defining just what constitutes a romance is notoriously difficult, but this definition by D. S. Brewer remains one of the most helpful:

Romances are idealistic in moral tone and physical setting; they are usually about noble love and brave adventure concerning knights and ladies in exotic settings and culminating in marriage; and they are often elaborately written.15
In the Fabula, Lydgate creates a highly idealized tone and setting, elevating his merchants to the status of courtly lovers and noble friends, and placing them into an explicitly romance setting. The poem is peopled with noble characters who move within a courtly landscape, in evidence from the opening stanza, which places us immediately into the exotic and faraway land of Egypt, and indeed recalls the opening of both Chaucer’s Knight’s and Squire’s Tales:
In Egipt whilom as I reede and fynde,
Ther dwellyd a marchaunt of hih and gret estat,
Nat oonly riche but bounteuous and kynde,
As of nature to hym it was innat.
For alle vertues in hym wern aggregat,
Of vices voyd, pitous, and merciable
And of his woord as any centre stable.16
(lines 1–7)
once (long ago)


gathered together
kind and merciful
The merchants themselves are immediately characterized in noble terms: the Egyptian is wealthy, generous, and kind, and the Syrian too is honest and worthy. Further, this friendship is also idealized in terms that remind us of romance, particularly romances of male friendship. The theme of male friendship had some currency in medieval continental and English romance literature,17 as evinced by such works as Amis and Amiloun and its many analogues,18 Sir Amadace, Eger and Grime, and Guy of Warwick,19 and by its popularity as a subject for discussion in such works as Gower’s Mirror de l’Omme (13693–740) and de Meun’s Roman de la Rose (lines 4680–4762 and 4865–4974).20 The protagonists’ relationships in the romances are based on chivalric ideals of knightly brotherhood as well as classical friendship ideals, and although Lydgate’s merchants are hardly knights, they are nevertheless elevated beyond their bourgeois status by their virtue and innate nobility. They can be ideal friends because of their virtue, and the friendship in turn ennobles them. When this friendship is threatened first by a courtly love triangle and then by despair and imminent death, they choose friendship: each gives up that which is most valuable to save the life of the other.

Lydgate draws heavily on classical and medieval ideals to portray the relationship between the two merchants, invoking Aristotelian and especially Ciceronian ideals that emphasize virtue as the basis for friendship.21 In the Fabula, virtue is immediately emphasized in the opening stanza. The Egyptian is entirely free of vice, innately generous and kind. The equally virtuous Syrian is worthy, beloved, and honest (lines 43–44). Virtue draws them together (line 47) and they become fast friends without ever having seen each other:22
Withoute siht, ech is to othir deere Love hath her hertys so soore set affyre. (lines 90–91)
When they meet, it is as established friends: “Wolcom my feithful freend so deere!” (line 140) exclaims the Egyptian. In its development and subsequent testing, the two merchants’ friendship demonstrates several key components of the ideal, summarized usefully by Reginald Hyatte:
[P]erfect friendship exists only between virtuous men who love virtue in one another for its own sake; amici veri [true friends] are like a single soul in two . . . bodies; they have all possessions in common, and their affection is reciprocal; their characters, tastes, and opinions are in complete agreement; while growing closer to one another in intimacy, they also grow in virtue and wisdom that benefit others besides themselves; vera amicitia [true friendship] . . . is worth pursuing and even dying for; it requires a long period of maturation and testing; it lasts for a lifetime or even beyond life; and finally, there are exceedingly few, if any, living examples to which to refer.23
The merchants’ own virtues and their ennobling friendship24 elevates them from their bourgeois status and fits them for courtly romance. Their manners, their speech, their behavior, and the world within which they move conform to all the conventions that govern this world of romance. They conduct themselves nobly and courteously at all times, enacting patterns of gentil behavior that govern, for example, greeting and leavetaking,25 feasting and reveling, hawking and hunting — a particularly aristocratic pursuit — and, especially, falling sick with love.


The love-stricken Syrian merchant in Lydgate’s poem suffers from an illness that Lydgate, drawing upon a long medical and literary tradition, identifies as “Amor Ereos” (line 336). Suffered perhaps most famously by Arcite in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, “the loveris maladye / Of Hereos” (CT I [A] 1373–74) is the medical condition of lovesickness, an acute melancholia brought about by excessive love that, if left untreated, could be life-threatening.26 The conventional symptoms of lovesickness included a changed appearance, insomnia, and melancholy, and are well-illustrated by the love-stricken Arcite in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale:
His slep, his mete, his drynke, is hym biraft, That lene he wex and drye as is a shaft; His eyen holwe and grisly to biholde, His hewe falow and pale as asshen colde, And solitarie he was and evere allone, And waillynge al the nyght, makynge his mone; And if he herde song or instrument, Thanne wolde he wepe, he myghte nat be stent. (CT I[A] 1361–68)
Like Arcite, the Syrian merchant suffers so acutely from melancholy that his life is in danger. The first part of the poem is replete with medical details concerning the Syrian’s symptoms, the doctors’ struggles to identify the causes of his illness, their diagnosis of lovesickness, and the causes of this disease. Lydgate draws so heavily on medical terminology and current medical knowledge to describe the symptoms and diagnosis of this illness that this abundance of medical detail threatens at times to derail the poem. However, these details, in combination with numerous allusions, both explicit and implicit, to Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale and Troilus and Criseyde, place the Syrian firmly in the company of other noble sufferers like Arcite and Troilus.

As both Marion A. Wells and Mary Wack explain, the term “Amor Hereos” and the idea of acute lovesickness seem to have their roots in Arabic medical lore, transmitted to Western Europe in the eleventh-century by Constantine the African, whose chapter on lovesickness in the Viaticum “was the most widely-read text on the subject” until a translation of Avicenna’s Canon medicinae became available in the late thirteenth-century.27 It is not known how Constantine’s “amor qui et eros dicitur” became amor hereos, but the term seems to have arisen by a conflation of the words eros, erotic love, and hero. As Wells explains, “The conflation of [these] two distinct etymological lines . . . seems to have provided sufficient opportunity for the coining of the hybrid term amor hereos.”28 Wack notes that eros seems to have become heros very early in the tradition, and suggests that love and nobility were linked as early as the twelfth-century.29 Gerard of Berry’s twelfth-century commentary on the Viaticum, the earliest to survive, explicitly links the medical and the social in his description of the sufferers of “amor qui heros”: “Heroes are said to be noble men who, on account of riches and the softness of their lives, are more likely to suffer this disease.”30 The association between nobility, love, and love-melancholy had become firmly established not only in medical treatises but also in such literary works as Andreas Capellanus’s twelfth-century Art of Courtly Love, in which Andreas describes love as “a certain inborn suffering” and takes as a given that it is both noble and ennobling.31 At the same time, commentaries on the Viaticum as well as other numerous medical treatises32 discuss the causes, symptoms and treatment of lovesickness as they would any other disease. By the fourteenth-century, lovesickness as a specific medical condition that could be suffered only by the noble was well established.


Lydgate provides an abundance of sometimes bewildering medical detail to establish the diagnosis of lovesickness, drawing heavily on contemporary medical knowledge and terminology to describe in detail the causes and effects of the particular illness known as amor ereos. Though it is difficult to say whether Lydgate had an exact source for his lengthy description of the process whereby a lover falls prey to the malady (see lines 330–50), one close contemporary description comes from the Lilium Medicinae of Bernard of Gordon, a well-known fourteenth-century physician.33 This popular medical treatise contains a description of amor hereos which is very close to Lydgate’s:
The cause of this passion is a corruption of the virtus aestimativa on account of a firmly fixed form and figure. Thus when anyone is overcome by love [philocaptus], with reference to any woman, he so conceives her beauty and figure and manner that he thinks and believes that she is more beautiful, more venerable, more attractive, and more gifted in nature and conduct than any other; and thus he ardently desires her without method or measure, thinking if he could attain his end it would be his felicity and blessedness . . . .34
This description depends on our understanding of medieval theories of how the mind works. Mental activity was explained in terms of three main ventricles, or cells, in the brain, each given over to a particular task. According to John Trevisa, translating the work of the early encyclopedist Bartholomaeus Anglicus, the first cell is the ymaginativa, or imagination, which forms images delivered to it by sense impressions. The middle ventricle is where logic is found, wherein “Þe vertu estimatiue is maister”; and the third and last is memoratiua, memory.35 The imaginative faculty36 receives images which are examined and judged by the middle cell, the estimative, while the third ventricle “retains such forms as pass this examination and so is the seat of memory.”37

Lovesickness is caused when the estimative faculty malfunctions, overestimating an excessively pleasing form and judging it to be better and more beautiful than any other. The estimatyfe then orders the imaginative faculty “to fix its gaze on the mental image of the beloved” — it “ovirlordshipith / his imagynatif” (line 340) — and this faculty “in turn orders the concupiscible faculty to desire that person alone.”38 The process leads to melancholy solitude and can even result in madness (“manye,” line 344) as the lover’s soul becomes fixated on the object to the exclusion of all else.


The Syrian’s main symptom, a “brennyng fever” (line 202) is not usually the most prominent feature of the literary lover nor a well-attested symptom in medical treatises. But Lydgate may have found this detail in the work of Giles de Corbeil, or Aegidius Corboliensis, the “Gyles” of line 308.39 Lydgate’s description of the three different sorts of fevers the Syrian might have, Effymera, Putrida, and Etyk, closely resemble Giles’s discussion.40 An explanation for the connection between lovesickness and fever can be found in both the medical and literary traditions which fix the seat of emotions in the heart and not the brain.41 According to medieval physiology, the heart was not an organ which pumps blood but a furnace “from which heat and vital spirits spread outwards along the arteries, to warm and vivify all the members.”42 A fever is the natural heat of the body gone out of control, as Bartholomaeus explains: “Feuer cometh of distemperaunce of the herte, for as Constantinus seith, a feuer is an vnkynde hete that cometh out of the herte.”43 And this is the source of the Syrian merchant’s fever: Cupid’s arrow has stricken him in his breast (line 225), and he feels it “hoolly” in his “herte” (line 232).

Love is also conventionally described in literary tradition in terms of fire and heat. In the Middle English Romaunt of the Rose and Troilus and Criseyde, fever is connected with the pains of love. In the Romaunt, the God of love warns the young lover about the many pains of love he is bound to suffer:
Thou shalt no whyle be in o stat
But whylom cold and whilom hat,44
Now reed as rose, now yelowe and fade.
Such sorowe, I trow, thou never hade;
Cotidien ne quarteyn,
It is nat so ful of peyne. (Frag. B, lines 2397–2402)45
The comparison of love’s pains with those of “cotidien” or “quartan” fever is taken a step further in Troilus, when the young Trojan, in order to hide the pains of love by which he is suddenly smitten,
a title . . . gan him for to borwe
Of other siknesse, lest men of hym wende
That the hote fir of love hym brende,
And seyde he hadde a fevere and ferde amys. (Troilus and Criseyde, 1.488–91)
Troilus’s choice of fever as an appropriate cover for his illness would be a natural one, since both fever and love are hot. It would have been a small leap from the consideration of fever as an appropriate disguise for lovesickness to the treatment of it as an actual manifestation of the disease.

Book 1 of Troilus may have provided Lydgate his inspiration for the Fabula’s explicit connection of lovesickness and fever. Lydgate would have recognized the similarity between the situations of Troilus and the merchant, who both suffer from a love which they feel compelled to keep secret. Both suffer alone and in agony, and both are wounded by the “fyr of love” (Troilus, line 436), but while Troilus feigns fever to cover his symptoms, the Syrian merchant actually experiences a serious fever. In Troilus, the descriptive focus is on the general imagery of love’s fire and heat: love’s fire burns Troilus so that he loses his color “sexti tyme a day”; he wishes to see Criseyde, “his hote fir to cesse” (line 445) but the “ner he was, the more he brende” (line 448). In the Fabula, Lydgate converts the imagery of love’s burning fire into the literal fact; his merchant becomes ill with a real, “brennyng fevere” (line 202) which threatens his life. In his employment and description of this fever, Lydgate skilfully synthesizes medical theory and literary convention.46


The Consolation of Philosophy of 6th-century philosopher Boethius provides a significant background for understanding the Fabula. In the Consolation, Lady Philosophy appears to Boethius,47 who, imprisoned and facing execution for treason, bewails the loss of his riches, position, and friends, blaming his present unwarranted adversity and the injustice of his situation on bad fortune. Through a series of dialogues, Lady Philosophy leads Boethius to an understanding of the nature of Fortune, happiness, free will, evil, and God’s providence. One of her first lessons is that bad fortune is actually good fortune because it reveals that only things of true value — virtue, love, friendship — are not subject to the mutability characteristic of the sublunary world ruled by Fortune.48 This is, of course, also the lesson learned by both merchants in the second part of the poem, which traces the Egyptian’s fall from prosperity into poverty, his bitter complaints against Fortune, his despairing bid for death by confessing to a murder he did not commit, and his redemption, brought about by the same friendship he thought he had lost. Lydgate ties the Egyptian’s losses to the theme of worldly instability and sharply contrasts the stability of friendship with the instability of the sublunary world. Only when the Egyptian is at his lowest point can he be rescued from despair and certain death by the Syrian’s selfless act of friendship, which act in turn prompts the true murderer to confess his guilt, thereby saving the Syrian through the virtue of truth.

That Lydgate may have drawn on the Consolation to shape the Fabula is not surprising; this popular and enormously influential work was readily available in Latin and had been translated several times into both French and English by the fifteenth-century.49 Three of the most significant were the French translation of Jean de Meun, continuator of the Romance of the Rose, Chaucer’s English prose translation, Boece, and John Walton’s 1410 English verse translation.50 Lydgate’s own monastic library at Bury St. Edmund’s had at least a partial Latin copy of the Consolation, British Library, MS Royal 8.B.4, as well as a copy of Nicholas Trevet’s commentary.51 This library, one of England’s largest and best, almost certainly would have had a complete copy as well. Yet Lydgate seldom mentions Boethius. In the vast corpus of his work, Lydgate refers to Boethius only four times, just twice as the author of the Consolation.52 And in the Fall of Princes, Lydgate shortens the tragedy of Boethius to only five stanzas and makes no reference to the Consolation, though he does mention Chaucer’s Boece briefly in the Prologue to the work.53 This led Henry Bergen, the Fall of Princes’s editor, to remark rather dryly that “Lydgate’s knowledge of Boethius as a philosopher . . . does not seem to have been very profound. He must have known something about Chaucer’s [Boece] . . . yet he may never have read it.”54 It may have been this comment to which Richard Dwyer refers in the only article of which I am aware on Lydgate’s specific use of the Consolation.55 The Fabula may now provide a similar example. Lydgate may have turned to the Consolation to provide gravitas to his romance, particularly in the light of its resemblances and persistent allusiveness to Chaucer’s two great philosophical romances, The Knight’s Tale and Troilus and Criseyde. Like these, the Fabula examines virtue, love, friendship, and human experience within a philosophical context provided by Boethius.

Echoes of Boethius lie behind the Egyptian merchant’s plunge from prosperity to poverty. At the nadir of his fortunes, he resembles those figures whose falls from high to low form the de casibus tradition of which Lydgate’s monumental Fall of Princes is the fullest (and lengthiest) fifteenth-century English expression.56 De casibus narratives like Lydgate’s Fall of Princes and Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale are based on a concept of tragedy that comes ultimately from Boethius: “What other thynge bywaylen the cryinges of tragedyes but oonly the dedes of Fortune, that with an unwar strook overturneth the realmes of greet nobleye.”57 The merchant is not a noble, though both friends have been presented as such over the course of the poem, but perhaps that is the point: all who live under the sway of the blind goddess are subject to the turning of her wheel. Like the eminent men whose falls are recorded by de casibus literature, he too has been blind-sided by the “unwar strook” of Fortune; and like them too he is an exemplar of those who think their positions can be secure in a sublunary world. Lydgate spells this out for us: “Take heed, ye ryche, of what estat ye bee / For in this marchaunt your myrour ye may see” (lines 664–65). The merchant is a mirror as much as are those “pryncis” of the Fall of Princes, whose stories show “a merour how al the world shal faile / And how Fortune . . . Hath vpon [them] iurediccioun.”58

But although the Fabula may gesture toward de casibus tragedy, the Egyptian merchant’s story does not end at the bottom of Fortune’s wheel. Unlike the unfortunates whose falls are permanent, and unlike Boethius himself, the merchant is restored to happiness. Paradoxically, it is in his redemption and the means by which it is achieved that the influence of the Consolation can most clearly be seen. The Fabula demonstrates in the Egyptian’s downward plunge and restoration that when the illusory gifts of “worldly blisse” (line 565) are withdrawn, all that remains is friendship, a virtue which, existing outside of Fortune’s domain, is the only thing each merchant has that is truly valuable. This is exactly what Lady Philosophy points out to Boethius in the Consolation of Philosophy at the end of Book 2: “Now pleyne the [thee] nat thanne of rychesse ylorn, syn thow hast fouwnden the moste precyous kynde of rychesses, that is to seyn, thi verray freendes.”59

The Egyptian merchant’s situation in particular recalls that of Boethius. Having lost his wealth, his position, and, most importantly, his friends, the Egyptian wanders alone and homeless in the wilderness, his misery made more acute by the remembrance of “oold prosperité” (line 533). Like Boethius, who explains to Philosophy that “in alle adversites of fortune the moost unzeely kynde of contrarious fortune is to han ben weleful [i.e. prosperous],”60 the merchant blames fortune for his desperate condition, bewailing his situation in a long lament (lines 549–88) decrying the instability of the world. Both men at this stage understand their situations in terms of the “sodeyn turn” (line 566) of Fortune’s wheel. Each is more acutely aware of his misery because he was formerly fortunate, and each blames fortune for his desperate condition.

Both Boethius and the merchant move toward enlightenment through wise philosophical counsel. Philosophy teaches Boethius that so-called bad fortune reveals what is truly worthwhile, and the Fabula’s narrator, addressing the merchant, counsels patience in adversity. Quoting Seneca,61 the narrator explains that no one can be virtuous “withouten assay” (line 609), particularly if he has been weighed down by too much plenitude and “fals felicité” (line 614). The merchant now recognizes that the world is “ful unstable” (line 622). Having achieved this insight, he falls to his knees, putting himself under God’s protection and praying for hope. Significantly, he does not ask for his riches to be restored. He receives immediate “consolacioun” (line 640) in the form of a new understanding about those fleeting gifts, and he determines to seek his friend’s help. Like Boethius, the merchant has moved from misery and complaint to the beginnings of recognition that friendship is outside of Fortune’s domain.

Yet the Egyptian suffers a further setback. Arriving in Baldac, he suddenly feels deeply ashamed and finds that he cannot, after all, forget his former wealth and position. Shrinking from the possibility that his friend might turn him away, he resolves to spend the night in a temple where he witnesses a murder. In deep despair, he confesses, hoping death will bring a final end to his suffering. Here we encounter a striking parallel between the Fabula and the Consolation in the words of the merchant as he is led to the gallows:
O deth, desyred in adversité,
Whan thu art callyd, why nylt thu wrecchys heere?
And art so reedy in felicité
To come to them that thee nothyng desire?
O com now, deth, and maak of me thy feere!
(lines 743–47)

happiness (prosperity)

As Eleanor Hammond recognized, these lines appear to be a “close and spirited translation”62 of several lines from the opening meter of the Consolation of Philosophy.63 Chaucer translated the lines in the Boece64 and adapted them in the Troilus,65 but Lydgate’s lines are closer to the original than they are to either the literal prose of the Boece or the eloquence of Troilus. Lydgate’s version captures, at a dramatically and contextually appropriate moment, the fervency and emotion of the original, drawing a contrast that emphasizes death’s cruel irony: it too often comes unbidden but too seldom comes to those who desire it. The lines aptly parallel those of the Consolation in context and tone, and their appearance here is strongly suggestive.66

Striking imagery that seems rooted in the Consolation prepares for and underlines this turning point in the text. Just before the merchant witnesses the murder, the forward movement of the narrative is halted for a digression on Fortune and the movements of the stars. Fortune’s assaults on both “free and bonde” (line 670) are vividly described, setting up two stanzas implicitly suggesting that Fortune does not, after all, rule the world. There is a plan, and the universe is orderly, despite our inability to maintain a constant awareness of this truth:
For by exaumplys Nature doth declare,
Which is of God mynystir and vikeer,
Withoute tonge she biddith us beware
By thylke sterrys that shynen briht and cleer,
Which, by her concours and mevyng circuleer
In her discens, westyng undir wavys,
Us to enfourmen by chaungyng of hir lawys.

And fewe of hem alway to us appeere,
But yif it be the bere briht and sheene
In thilke plow that Arthow doth it steere;
For yit Boetes, that twynkelith wondir keene,
Somwhile is dym that men may nat hym seene;
Eek Lucifeer, at morowhil prymycere,
By nyht hym hidith undir our empeere.
(lines 673–686)

minister and vicar
be aware
their courses and circular motion

inform us

Unless it is the bear (the Big Dipper)
In addition; Boötes; wonderfully bright
the morning star
hides himself under the empyrean
In imagery and context, these stanzas are very close to Meters 5 and 6 of the Consolation’s Book 4, which reassure Boethius that the stars and constellations move according to God’s plan. They are orderly, even if they do not always seem so: “Whoso that ne knowe nat the sterres of Arctour, ytorned neyghe to the sovereyne centre or poynt . . . and wot nat why the sterre Boetes passeth or gadreth his waynes and drencheth his late flaumbes in the see; and whi that Boetes, the sterre, unfooldeth his overswifte arysynges, thanne schal he wondryn of the lawe of the heie eyr.”67 The courses of the stars are designed to ensure concord: Ursa “nis nevere mo wasschen in the depe westrene see, ne coveyteth nat to deeyen his flaumbes in the see of the Occian, although it see othere sterres iplowngid in the see. And Hesperus the sterre bodith and telleth alwey the late nyghtes, and Lucyfer the sterre brygneth agein the clere day.”68 It is not just the striking similarity in image; in context, too, the references are appropriate. Philosophy is responding to Boethius’s question of why the good are punished and the evil rewarded in what appears to be a random universe. The Fabula’s narrator is likewise signaling that Fortune’s power is limited — and it is significant that Fortune is not mentioned again in the poem.

This cluster of images is immediately followed by an extended reference to Jupiter’s two casks, one filled with honey and the other with gall, an image also found in the Consolation.69 The figure is a medieval commonplace,70 and Lydgate used it several times, most significantly for this discussion in his “Disguysing at London.”71 In her cogent analysis of how Lydgate’s conception of tragedy is articulated in the “Disguysing,”72 Maura Nolan shows how the topos of the two casks connects Fortune with Boethian tragedy. When Philosophy in the voice of Fortune asks Boethius somewhat mockingly what right he has to complain if he has consumed too much from the cask of sweetness, the question, Nolan notes, “is consistent with the providential vision of the Consolation, in which lament is repeatedly set aside in favor of a philosophy of world rejection, a turning away from earthly matters and toward the divine, toward a universe bound up by love.”73 In the Fabula, the two tuns are also intimately connected with worldly rejection and universal harmony. After hearing of the reassuringly orderly universe, we are urged to “despise . . . erthly lustys” (lines 691–92) and are reminded that we cannot have the sweet without the bitter: “who that wil swetnesse first abroche, / He mot be war, or bittir wol approche” (lines 706–07). The Egyptian has drunk deeply from both (line 708) and is about to utter the despairing lament translated from Boethius. Thus both the “Disguysing” and the Fabula make use of the same cluster of Boethian images and to the same ends. Nolan recognizes Boethius as one of Lydgate’s three main sources for the “Disguysing,” along with Chaucer and Jean de Meun.74 It is significant that Fortune, who no longer has any power over either merchant, disappears from the Fabula at this point. The Syrian’s enduring friendship rescues the Egyptian from the gallows and prompts the true murderer to confess, causing the king, amazed at the willingness of one friend to die for another, to release all three men. The power of this friendship to redeem and remove the men from the unstable world governed by Fortune has been aptly demonstrated.


A date for the composition of the Fabula has not been satisfactorily established. The manuscript texts of the poem contain no headings, marginal glosses, or other notations that might indicate an occasion, a commission, or a patron for the poem. Only Pearsall and Schirmer address the question,75 and Pearsall considers it a non-issue. Grouping the poem the poem with Lydgate’s “Fables and Didactic Poems,”76 Pearsall says, “the moralistic and didactic preoccupations of these poems are the permanent preoccupations of Lydgate . . . and the manner in which he wrote changed little through the years.”77 Schirmer, treating the Fabula in the last chapter of his book on Lydgate’s last works, clearly thought that the Fabula was a very late work, after 1440, but he offers little reliable support. His assessment of Lydgate’s later style is clearly influenced by his interest in depicting Lydgate as a forerunner of humanism,78 and his description of the poem itself is flawed by several inaccuracies.79 Speculations about date on the basis of style and theme must be treated cautiously.

It may, however, be reasonable to make some suggestions about audience and period of composition if the poem is seen, as the foregoing introduction has suggested, as a philosophical romance rather than a fable or purely didactic work. The treatment of love, the contextualizing of the merchants’ behavior within a courtly setting, and the Boethian shape of the narrative all suggest connections with Lydgate’s courtly poems such as “A Complaynt of a Lover’s Life” and the Temple of Glas as well as his mummings, including the “Disguysing at London,” works probably written before 1430.80 Also belonging to this period are “The Mumming at Bishopswood,” “The Mumming for the London Goldsmiths,” and “The Mumming for the Mercers of London.” Wealthy merchants would certainly have been part of the audience for these performances.81 It might not be unreasonable to suggest a similar audience and date in the late 1420s for the Fabula, which, in its portrayal of merchants’ noble, virtuous, and gentle behavior, might have spoken to the aspirations of the merchant class.

There is what seems to be a contemporary reference near the poem’s end. The king, reflecting on the virtue and faith of the merchants, wishes
that thoruh his regioun
Were ful affermyd an obligacioun
Of such enteernesse fro man to man aboute;
Of tresoun than ful litil wer to doute.

Ful hard it were tacomplisshen his desyr,
Or in his rewm such a bargeyn dryve,
The aeyer infect, the wedir is nat cleer,
Ne nevir ne shal whil tresoun is so ryve.
For now, of trowthe, no man can contryve
A verray seel, or thenpreent igrave,
Withoute a label his armes hool to save.
(lines 858–68)

complete loyalty

It would be hard
is infected
nor will it be; rife
produce (create)
A true seal or engraved imprint

While the complaints about treason seem generalized82 and could refer to any number of events during the reigns of Henry V or VI (including his minority), they are coupled here with some fairly specific concerns about creating and preserving seals, their imprints, and coats of arms. Seals were used to authenticate official letters and documents and were often engraved with armorial bearings or heraldic devices; and labels refer to marks of cadency on heraldic arms that usually indicated the bearer as the eldest son.83 The use of seals and armorial bearings was not limited to kings, nobility, or the knightly classes; the merchant class and the newly emerging gentry had been increasingly adopting armorial bearings of their own volition throughout the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries and imprinting these on their seals.84 Whether the lines above refer to the upper or middle classes is not clear; nor is it clear whether the treason spoken of might refer to a case of counterfeiting or forging. At this point, no particular historical occurrence or set of circumstances can be identified that would help explain the context of these lines, though they would seem to point to something specific and current.


The Fabula is indexed in IMEV 1481. The poem is found in seven fifteenth-century manuscripts: London, British Library, MS Harley 2251 (Ha); London, British Library, Additional MS 34360 (A); London, British Library, MS Lansdowne 699 (L); Leiden, University Library, MS Vossius Germ. Gall. Q. 9 (V); Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson Poetry F. 32 (R); Cambridge, University Library, MS Hh.4.12 (C); and London, British Library, MS Harley 2255 (H). The text is complete in only three of the manuscripts, H, C, and V. L is missing eight stanzas, Ha and A are missing one each, and R is missing the final two. Five of these manuscripts (Ha, A, L, V, and H) are part of a larger group of interrelated fifteenth-century English manuscripts. Many are Lydgate anthologies, a number are directly or indirectly connected with John Shirley, and several significantly overlap in terms of the number and order of their Lydgate items, which in some cases are also strikingly similar in text and textual variants.85 With respect to our group, L and V, often called “sister manuscripts,” share closely similar Lydgate texts and variants; Ha and A, both derived from Shirley manuscripts, share the same scribe and a number of Lydgate items; and H has twelve Lydgate poems in common with Ha.

London, British Library, MS Harley 2251 (Ha): 293 leaves, on paper, dated by Manly and Rickert after 1464 and by Hammond to “during or after the reign of Edward IV.”86 Both this volume and A belong to a group of manuscripts which in whole or in part were copied by the Hammond scribe, so called because he was first identified by Eleanor Hammond. This scribe was active in London between the 1460s and 1480s and copied a large variety of works, including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, Fortescue’s Governance, Lydgate’s and Burgh’s Secrees, and many others.87 Harley 2255 contains 133 religious and secular items, most of them Lydgate’s. The Fabula appears on fols. 55r–70r and ends with this colophon: Explicit ffabula duorum mercatorum De et super gestis Romanorum. Lines 100, 171, 214, and 484–90 are missing, and stanza 17 appears after stanza 12.

British Library, MS Additional 34360 (A) (olim Phillips 9053): 116 leaves, on paper, with a terminus ad quem of 1485.88 This MS, also copied by the Hammond scribe, contains 24 items in common with Ha, eleven of which appear in the same order in both. Like Ha too, it contains mostly Lydgatian works. The Fabula appears on fols. 4r–18v and ends with the same colophon as appears in Ha. The text is also missing the same lines, with the exception of 171, and stanza 17 is also misplaced.

London, British Library, MS Lansdowne 699 (L): 176 leaves, on paper, quarto, mid to late fifteenth-century. The manuscript consists of two main parts, the first (fols. 1–94) containing Chaucer’s “Fortune,” “Truth,” and sixteen Lydgate items (all of which also appear in V), and the second (fols. 96r–176r) containing Lydgate’s Life of Saint Albon and Saint Amphibalus.89 The Fabula appears on fols. 3r–18r. Stanzas 41–48 are missing, owing to a leaf lost between folios 7 and 8.

Leiden, University Library, MS Vossius Germ. Gall. Q. 9 (V): 135 leaves, quarto, late fifteenth-century. Like L, V consists of two parts, distinguishable on the basis of hand, paper, and gatherings. The first part of the manuscript (fols. 1–116) contains the same eighteen items as appear in L, ten of them in the same order. The second part contains Lydgate’s Testament and eight anonymous short works. The parallels with L in the first part of this manuscript, not only in content but also in the frequently similar texts and variants, led Van Dorsten to posit a common ancestor.90 The Fabula appears on fols. 49–65.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson Poetry F. 32 (R): a small volume, on paper and parchment, dating from perhaps the mid to late fifteenth-century.91 Its contents are varied, including several shorter religious and didactic pieces, four by Lydgate, and two longer works, Brut and Libelle of English Policy. The Fabula appears on fols. 38r–53v, with the last two stanzas of the poem missing, owing to a lost leaf after fol. 53. (Folio 54r is blank, save for an indecipherable scribble; a new text, the “Prouerbis of Wysdom” (IMEV 3502) begins on fol. 54v.)

Cambridge, University Library, MS Hh.4.12 (C): a quarto volume on paper and parchment, dating from the late fifteenth-century,92 with many poems by Lydgate; it also includes Burgh’s Cato and ends with an incomplete copy of Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. The Fabula appears on fols. 61r–77r and is not titled. It ends simply with a scribal ffinit.

London, British Library, MS Harley 2255 (H): Harley 2255 is an illuminated volume of 157 leaves, on vellum, measuring 10 3/4 by 7 5/8 inches. Most of the forty-five items are religious and didactic poems; of these, twenty-five are specifically marked explicit quod Lidgate, and in two more Lydgate names himself as author. This is clearly a quality manuscript, with illuminated capitals flourished with green sprays and gold balls, blue or gold paraph marks, and a clear, well-proportioned fifteenth-century hand.93 Formerly thought to have been produced for Lydgate’s abbot, William Curteys, possibly under Lydgate’s own direction, and thus dating to no later than the 1440s,94 the manuscript can now with some confidence be placed in the group of manuscripts written by the “Edmund-Fremund scribe” and dated to the 1460s. It was certainly written at least in part and probably in whole by this scribe, who was responsible for at least ten other manuscripts (including four of Lydgate’s Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund) characterized by hand, decorative program, primarily Lydgatean contents, and probable location in Suffolk, perhaps even in the town of Bury St. Edmunds.95 The text of this edition is based on Harley 2255, the earliest of the seven and one of the best authorities for Lydgate’s work. This is also the text upon which the Schleich and Zupitza (1897) and MacCracken (1934) editions are based. However, neither edition takes account of all seven manuscripts, Schleich and Zupitza omitting V and MacCracken C.


As outlined in the General Introduction, I have followed METS guidelines in preparing this edition of the Fabula. I have based the edition on the text in Harley 2255, emending very little and only when not to do so would cause confusion. I have silently expanded scribal abbreviations, taking the macron to indicate m or n. Strokes ignored as otiose are those occasionally appearing on final r or penultimate r with s, and h with a cross-stroke, which appears frequently but entirely inconsistently. (MacCracken ignores flourished r and generally the crossed h, though not consistently; Schleich and Zupitza are also inconsistent in both cases). I have also silently separated words written as one word where clarity dictates there be two; for example acerteyn (line 26) becomes a certeyn. On the other hand, two-word phrases beginning with for when for is used as an intensifying prefix (see MED for-, pref. 1) have been joined: forwar (line 389), forpossyd (line 532), forblowe (line 563), forwhirlyd (line 574), format (line 662), and fordempt (line 755) on the model of scribal forfareth (line 445), fordoo (line 483) and forwandryd (line 662). For astonyd (line 729), however, as it often appears as a set phrase (see MED astonyd, (ppl)) has been left unaltered. Where the scribe writes the I/i of the past participle signifier as a separate word, I have silently joined these words as well; for example, I fet becomes ifet (line 58). I have also inserted stanza numbers for ease of reference. The textual notes include substantive variants that record significant differences in meaning or form as well as any emendations I have made. I have not included variations in spelling or grammatical form (for example, no/noon, thankyth/thankid), though on occasion I have included an interesting or unusual example. Where the meaning is the same but the form significantly different, I have also included the variant (for example, eke/also). I have ignored spelling differences between variants, including only one form, usually from the sigla that comes first alphabetically. If it is uncertain whether the variant records a different word or simply a different spelling (for example, dool/dulle), I have also included it. I do not make a special point of indicating where my text or collation differs from MacCracken’s or Schleich and Zupitza’s. I have not usually noted whether variants are scribal corrections nor have I included marginalia unless it is of particular interest.

Go To Fabula Duorum Mercatorum