Select Secular Lyrics of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries


1 For "had I known" comes too late in order to loosen it (the nuptial bond)

2 She thought she had "honored" all her "family"

Notes to In Praise of Women

Abbreviations: Ro: Rossell Hope Robbins; Gr: Richard Leighton Greene; C&S: E. K. Chambers and F. Sidgwick; L&H: Maxwell S. Luria and Richard L. Hoffman; MS: British Library MS Harley 4294, fol. 81a; Ty: William Tydeman; Ut: Francis Lee Utley; Wr: Thomas Wright and James Orchard Halliwell.

1-2 I am as lyght as any roe / To preyse women wher that I goo. The first two lines constitute the burden or refrain which is customarily repeated after every stanza. As many scholars suggest, the burden marks a generic relation of lyrics to carols, both of which were sung as well as accompanied by dance. Secular lyrics often emerge from the oral tradition, though, as Ro notes, "there are a few literary pieces which have had some influence on the shaping of a literary corpus. These include pieces found in MS Harley 2253, the Vernon MS, two items in St. John's College Cambridge MS 259, Cambridge University MS Addit. 5943, Sloane MS 2593, and pieces in two late Scottish texts" (p. 237), many of which are listed in Robbins' Index (see above). Gr notes a similar text from the Vernon MS called Deo Gracias II, edited by Carleton Brown in Religious Lyrics of the Fourteenth Century, second edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), p. 138:
Though I beo riche of gold so red,
And liht to renne as is a ro. (Lines 9-10)
3 To onpreyse women yt were a shame. The poet takes an apparent stand against the anti-feminist slander more typical of popular lyrics and folk song, arguing that everyone is born of woman, including saints. Ro remarks: "The tendency seems to have been to divert the praise of women in general to the particular praise of the Blessed Virgin as the exemplar of women. The poems praising a mistress have little to do with these general praises - 'they do the wash and do the wring' is a conception not known in courtship and wooing" (p. 237). Ty sees the lyric as representing "the other side of the anti-feminist debate," and notes that "as is usual in this kind of retort, the virtues of the Virgin Mary are advanced to strengthen woman's claim to respect from her husband and men in general" (p. 187). Ut is somewhat skeptical about the poet's sincerity and points out the ambiguity of line 8: "They do the washe and do the wrynge." He explains: "the" may be the article, it may mean "for thee," or it may be accusative and mean simply "thee" (p. 272). It may be possible to read the three instances as dative forms: "do thee washe . . . do thee wringe . . . [and] do thee singe" (in each instances the MS reads "the"); the sense being, women "do the washing for you and the wringing, and she sings lullabies to/for you." This maintains the syntactic parallels where the article does not, in that the syntactic shift to "she does the singing" in line 9 otherwise makes little sense. L&H read the first two instances as articles (p. 40) and the third as the pronoun "thee," which breaks the syntactic parallel. The syntactic parallel is already broken, however, by the shift from "they" in line 8 to "she" in line 9. The woman's doing the wash and the wringing makes good sense, though the tone of the poem certainly suggests that the lines are being addressed to a somewhat jaded male, as the dative pronouns would make more clear.

8 They do the washe and do the wrynge. The domestic economy suggested here is of the lower classes and offers support for claims of the lyrics' "popular" origin. That women do laundry, both the washing and the wringing, challenges contemporary stereotypes of medieval people as disinterested in personal hygiene. There may also be an echo of Lydgate's "A Mumming at Hertford" printed in The Minor Poems of John Lydgate, ed. Henry Noble MacCracken, EETS o.s. 192 (London: Oxford University Press, 1934), p. 680:
Whoo cane hem wasshe, who can hem wring alsoo?
Wryng hem, yee, wryng, so als God us speed.
Til that some tyme we make hir nases bleed,
And sowe hir cloothes whane they beothe to-rent,
And clowte hir bakkes til somme of us beo shent. (Lines 190-94)
Ut notes that: "when Chaucer's Clerk concluded his counsel to archwives with 'And lat hym care, and wepe, and wrynge, and waille' he touched the spark of the Merchant's married discontent, and the great debate over marriage began to rise to the status of a holocaust" (p. 272). See also note to line 3.

9 Lullay, lullay. The woman's singing belies the hard life she lives which is acknowledged by the lyricist in the next line: "And yet she hath bot care and woo." The allusion to song is another means by which the genre announces its intrinsic link to popular song. As Gr suggests: "The burdens of the lullaby carols form a class by themselves. Their characteristic feature is a free use of the soothing onomatopoeia 'lullay.' This is, of course, in imitation of real folk lullabies" (p. cxlii).

11 A woman ys a worthy wyght. Despite the implication of strength conveyed in the word wyght, the rhyme of "myght" (line 13) with "nyght" (line 12) suggests that a woman's energy seems to be directed toward sexual service.

12 She servyth man. Ro adds an indefinite article before man to render it singular. However, since the woman here represents all women such a distinction is not needed.

nyght. MS: nygh. I have followed Ro's emendation to restore the end rhyme.

Notes to Abuse of Women

Abbreviations: Dy: Roman Dyboski; Gr: Richard Leighton Greene (1962); L&H: Maxwell S. Luria and Richard L. Hoffman; MS: Bodleian Library MS Engl. Poet. e. I (SC 29734), fols. 55b-56a; Ro: Rossell Hope Robbins; Ut: Francis Lee Utley.

2 Cuius contrarium verum est. "Of whom the contrary is true." This refrain or burden, repeated after every stanza, negates what precedes. Ro notes: "As with poems attacking marriage and poems treating of love in a mocking fashion, so here in poems of attacks on womankind, there are two main classes: popular poems and sophisticated poems. In the minstrel collection, Bodl. MS Eng. Poet. E. I, a MS containing the popular songs of the day, collected to meet a genuine popular demand, and not collected because they appealed to the interests of a single literate poetaster, there are many attacks on women. . . .These poems quickly developed stereotyped conventions, and the sophisticated attacks parallel the set descriptions of the beloved and of the routine love epistle" (p. 239). Gr's comment is also worth noting: "[T]he regular return of the constricting or 'destroying' burden makes the carol-form a good one for the employment of this particular type of humour. One can see the possibilities of mirth raised by its performance before women who might not at first understand the Latin of the burden" (p. 240). Ut calls the work an "ironic defense" (p. 165).
    The Latin line employed here recalls Chaucer's Chanticleer whose assertion to Pertelote is made under the assumption that neither hens nor women could understand Latin:
For al so siker as In principio,
Mulier est hominis confusio
Madame, the sentence of this Latyn is,
"Womman is mannes joye and al his blis." (VII[B2] 3163-66)
To this Pertelote might respond: Vir est feminae confusio. There were women who could read and write Latin well in the Middle Ages. Hildegard of Bingen and Heloise are among the better-known examples.

4 tirtyll. The reference is to the turtledove, a symbol of fidelity and affection used frequently in courtly literature.

5 Not lyberall in langage. That women could not keep a secret or that they gossiped at every opportunity is a stereotype, reiterated frequently in anti-feminist literature. The counter-stereotype based upon the ideal of the Virgin Mary, i.e., that women are patient, meek, silent, soft, and innately circumspect, seems to be negated by the repetition of the burden after every stanza.

secree. MS: secrete. Ro's emendation retains the end rhyme as well as the sense.

25 curtes Gryzell. If these secular lyrics derive from the oral, popular tradition as Ro suggests, then the reference to patient Griselda suggests that the negative feminine stereotype is culturally predetermined.

33 list to smater. See Chaucer's The Parson's Tale for a similar sentiment: "[T]hise olde dotardes holours, yet wol they kisse, though they may nat do, and smatre hem" (X[I]857).

34 Or agaynst ther husbondes for to clater. The rhetorical question is answered in the next line. The stereotype of woman as gossip resonates in Mirk's Festial: "A mayden ys lytyll worthe that . . . ys a claterer, a jangular, a flyter" (lines 229-33).

38 paciens. A virtue thought to be feminine.

43 To the tavern. Women were cautioned not to go to taverns since they were imagined to be places of iniquity and prostitution. See How a Goode Wife Taught Hyr Doughter. Gr notes that "[T]he love of women for the ale-house and the conversation there is one of the most frequent objects of derision among their satirical critics" (p. 240). Perhaps a more sympathetic view may be found in A Talk of Ten Wives on Their Husbands' Ware, also known as "The Gossips' Meeting," included in this volume.

49 fyne kyrchers. The admonition against ostentatious dress, particularly for women, is commonplace. Sumptuary laws of the time imposed dress codes on the general population in order to define people by class. The puritanical tone evinced here is typical of much homiletic material of the time.

Notes to The Trials of Marriage

Abbreviations: Ro: Rossell Hope Robbins; Wr: Thomas Wright.

1 thou wynk whan thou a wyf toke. The wink is significant, setting up the subject of marriage; the rhetorical question constructs a silent dialogue between the married man and the speaker. Ro notes that the first printing of this brief admonitory lyric appears in Wright's Songs and Carols "as part of a 'carol' with the burden 'man be war or thou knyte the fast'" (p. 239).

2 ned brodde to loke. The implication that the man about to be married needs to enter into the relationship with his eyes wide open is consistent with the sentiment of other admonitory pieces cautioning men to prudence, which, as a symbolic figure, has three sets of eyes, looking simultaneously to the past, the future, and the present. There is an analogous passage printed in Reliquiae Antiquae which is included in a longer, macaronic poem Wr entitles "Memorial Verses" (vol. 1, p. 289):
I winked, I winked whan I a woman toke,
Sore me for-thinked, that I so moche wynked,
For had I never more nede than nowe for to loke.
4 wonder me thynketh. The sense may be the speaker's own wonderment as well as a "marvel" or "amazing happening." The wink of an eye suggests that what is being undertaken is not to be understood as a binding, serious event.

Notes to Against Hasty Marriage, I

1 Know or thow knytte. Like the proverbial axiom, "look before you leap," the opening line suggests caution. Likewise prove or thow preyse yt suggests that the relationship should be experienced, the potential bride known before the bridegroom consents rendering the nuptial ceremony legal and binding. Compare the Wife of Bath's amusing tripping up of her old husband as she puts her wares out for trial, according to the principles of premarital "use" of the wares, as advocated by the "olde dotard shrewe" (CT III[D]291) himself. See CT III(D)285-92.

5 had y wyst. The narrator seems to speak from experience. The sense is that foresight is too often missing before irreversible mistakes are made. Hence "had I only known beforehand" becomes a wistful lament.

Notes to Against Hasty Marriage, II

1-2 Man, bewar of thin wowynge / For weddyng is the longe wo. The burden, repeated after every stanza, reinforces the cautionary sentiment. Because marriage was considered to be a monogamous, lifetime commitment, it was not to be entered into without careful forethought.

6 Knet up the heltre. The verb knet, in this line, means to hang or put aside. The heltre is a common piece of saddlery used to restrain large farm animals.

11 Wedowis be wol fals, iwys. The admonition against widows is based upon the assumption that widows seeking remarriage were doing so under false pretenses, i.e., not for love, but for other reasons, such as financial security or sexual satisfaction. Chaucer's Alisoun of Bath is a good example of the widow who has made her living by marrying older men for their wealth and younger men for their sexual stamina, while the widow of The Nun's Priest's Tale suggests that a widow's life could be autonomous yet subject to poverty. Widows had more freedom under the law than wives since they were not bound to obey a husband (see Dunbar's The Tretis of the Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo), but their financial status was often tenuous and dependent on the charity of others. For several perspectives on this matter, see Sue Sheridan Walker, ed. Wife & Widow in Medieval England (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), and Louise Mirrer, ed. Upon My Husband's Death: Widows in the Literature & Histories of Medieval Europe (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992).

15 Of madenys. The description - "bothe fals and fekyl" (line 16) - marks another feminine stereotype of the deceptive, lascivious female.