Item 16, The Debate of the Carpenter's Tools: Introduction


1 Wilson, “Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools,” p. 453. The material in the Explanatory Notes, particularly the consideration of obscure vocabulary, is heavily indebted to Wilson’s edition.

2 Phythian-Adams, Desolation of a City, p. 110.

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Item 16, The Debate of the Carpenter's Tools: Introduction

Origin, Genre, and Themes

The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools, of unknown date and authorship, survives only in Ash­mole 61 and is unique in many other respects as well. The poem’s list of tools pro­vides a major source for the understanding of medieval English carpentry; many of these names are unat­tested elsewhere or only dimly recognizable from medieval glossaries and docu­ments. But the literary form is as idiosyncratic as the vocabulary is valuable. Though Mid­dle English and continental medieval literature feature a great many debate poems, no other surviving text reproduces the odd configuration of this one.

Like The Carpenter’s Tools, some of these other debate poems involve inanimate parti­cipants, such as The Debate between Water and Wine. But in this tradition, the objects debate their own merits as refreshment, whereas the carpenter’s tools discuss their master’s ability and willing­ness to make a living. The raucous spirit of the debate, including the insults hurled back and forth between the tools and the many other insults directed at their master, resembles two of the most famous examples of Middle English debate poetry, The Owl and the Night­ingale and the final section of Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowles. But both of these vigorous debates are concerned with love, the favorite subject of debate poetry, and thus gain some of their comic effect from the divergence between the churlishness of the debate and the loftiness of the subject. In The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools the parti­cipants and the subject are equally humble; we do not expect genteel courtesy or crafty rhetoric from a crow­bar, and we do not get either.

The debate, like many others in the Middle English tradition, has no clearly-deter­mined winning side, but it certainly produces a loser. Despite the spirited defense of his industri­ous­ness taken up by many of the tools, the carpenter’s drunken shiftlessness seems well-established by the end of the poem. The narrator recognizes as much when he closes with a direct address to carpenters, begging that they not take offense, but merely mend their ways and remember the shame they have already done to him. These curious lines have prompted the one modern editor, Edward Wilson, to suggest that it was written for a feast of a carpenters’ craft guild.1 Wilson sees the narrator as someone whose past efforts to entertain have not been fully paid for, and certainly the history of craft guilds and their feasts lends plausibility to this speculation.

By the fifteenth century, craft guilds of carpenters existed in many English towns; though carpenters rarely had the wealth and political power of the more important guilds involved in cloth making and mercantile trading (e.g., the Drapers, the Grocers, and the Mercers), they nevertheless had a place in civic life and shared many of the same rituals as the mightier crafts. These rituals included feasts, and Charles Phythian-Adams’s description of the Carpenters’ Guild of Coventry suggests that such an occasion might provide plenty of opportunity for jokes about inebriated craftsmen: “at their Har­vest Dinner in 1524, for example, thirty-three members and some outsiders were served with seven pigs, two and a half lambs, six joints of beef, thirteen chickens, and sixteen geese, . . . and finally two and a half sextaries of ale or, by the standards laid down in 1521, thirty-five gallons.”2 This offers some context for the Chisel’s claim that his master can drink several gallons of ale a day (line 77).

Whether or not The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools was composed for this kind of gathering, it does offer (perhaps counterintuitively) evidence for the value of labor to a middle-class audience. Though this carpenter seems to be a feckless alcoholic who has doomed his tools, his apprentices, and his bitter wife to a life of mediocrity, the more opti­mistic tools suggest that hard work might radically change him. While labor was always believed to have an important spiritual function (as both a punishment for sin and a means of spiritual reform), here the rewards of hard work are imagined primarily in terms of wealth and status.

Manuscript Context

Though the form and the style of The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools distinguish it from most of the other items in Ashmole 61, and its placement between two prayers seems coin­cidental, the subject of the debate places it at the center of the collection. In its em­phasis on labor as a social responsibility and the sign of respectability, as well as its denun­ciation of drunkenness, the text closely relates to the behavioral treatises of the first three quires, including How the Wise Man Taught His Son, How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter, and Dame Courtesy (items 3, 4, and 8). Drinking features prominently in King Edward and the Hermit (item 41), and the inability of the carpenter to uphold the ideals of his craft recall the similar failures listed in Lydgate’s Right as a Ram’s Horn (item 2). In its broad humor, the debate resembles Sir Corneus (item 21), another text that may have been intended for reading aloud at raucous feasts.


Ashmole 61 preserves the only surviving text of this poem, but Rate was probably not its composer. He makes his usual scribal errors, including the omission of final abbrevi­ations, and his grasp of the technical vocabulary seems slightly shaky at points, though the scarcity of other surviving attestations of some of these words makes this uncertain. The text seems to be complete and unabridged in its current form.

Printed Editions

Conlee, John W., ed. Middle English Debate Poetry: A Critical Anthology. East Lansing, MI: Colleagues Press, 1991. Pp. 222–35.

Halliwell, James Orchard, ed. Nugae poeticae. Pp. 13–20.

Hazlitt, W. Carew, ed. Remains of the Early Popular Poetry of England. 4 vols. London: J. R. Smith, 1864–66. 1:79–90.

Wilson, Edward. “The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools.” Review of English Studies n.s. 38 (1987), 445–70.

Reference Works

NIMEV 3461
MWME–09, 869

See also M. Bossy, Goodman, Phythian-Adams, Reed, and Salzman in the bibliography.

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