La Belle Dame sans Mercy: Introduction


1 See Eleanor Prescott Hammond (1908), p. 432, though, as Hammond notes (p. 65), the poem was also left out of John Leland's list of Chaucer's works, which appeared in his Life of Chaucer in Com-mentarii de Scriptoribus Britannicis, posthumously published in 1709 (Leland died in 1552; Hammond, pp. 1, 7). Hammond reprints Leland's Life of Chaucer (pp. 1-7) and includes a table comparing the lists of Thynne (1542), Leland, and John Bale (1557-59; 1548) (pp. 61-62).

2 See Keats' letter to George and Georgiana Keats of 14 February-3 May 1819 (in Letters of John Keats: A Selection, ed. Robert Gittings [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970; rpt. with corr. 1979], pp. 210-56, at pp. 243-44). In his Life of John Keats, William Michael Rossetti says that the title "was suggested to Keats by seeing it at the head of a translation from Alain Chartier in a copy of Chaucer" (London: Walter Scott, 1887), p. 112.

3 See paintings by John William Waterhouse (1893), Frank Herbe Dicksee (1902), and Frank Cadogan Cowper (1926).

4 Lewis, pp. 245, 246. Critical responses to the French poem have been more abundant, but they too reveal as much about our expectations and biases as modern readers as they do about the poem's own preoccupations or concerns.

5 Skeat (1897), pp. lii and liii.

6 Skeat gives the order of the lines: 1-428, 669-716, 525-572, 477-524, 621-668, 573-620, 429-476, 717-856, which, he explains, reflects the copying of this group of manuscripts from an exemplar in which "three leaves, each containing six stanzas, were misarranged" (1897, p. liv).

7 This is clear from the pre-1480 inventory of their library, printed in The Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, ed. Norman Davis, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971-76), 1.516-18 (see items 3 and 5). It is not possible to know for certain whether the Pastons owned French or English versions of the poem, since the two share the same title. Nevertheless, the fact that only one copy of the French poem survives in an English manuscript, while there are seven manuscripts that include at least a part of the translation, suggests that the English translation is more probable in the case of the Pastons as well.
   The French poem that Roos translates itself enjoyed enormous popularity on the continent some fifteen or twenty years earlier, inspiring, amongst other things, a host of literary rebuttals.

8 Boffey (1994), p. 120.

9 Arthur Piaget gives a list of the French reworkings of and reactions to Chartier's poem, pp. xii-xiv.

10 Brown, pp. 119-20.

11 Brown, p. 119.

12 Above citations and summary of the various arguments on Chartier's poem are from Brown, p. 120.

13 William Shakespeare, As You Like It, IV.i.101-03 (ed. Agnes Latham [London: Methuen, 1975]).

14 Brown, pp. 128, 129, 130, and 139, respectively. Brown maintains that "[a]lthough the translation [of Chartier's poem] is inaccurate in a number of places, altogether it is accurate enough to justify using criticism of Chartier in discussing Roos" (p. 119). She also looks in Chartier's other writings for clues to the interpretation of both the French and English versions of the poem. Rossell Hope Robbins characterizes Roos' translation as differing from the French poem in that "the woman is to be praised for exposing the fatuity of amor cortois" (1973, 4.1094). In addition, Brown's own reading suggests that the two poems differ significantly enough to invite hesitation before relying mainly on criticism of Chartier's poem in reading Roos' translation.

15 Brown, pp. 126, 130.

16 Brown, p. 131.

17 Brown, pp. 132, 134.

18 Lewis, pp. 245, 246.

19 Skeat (1897), pp. lii, liii.

20 Stanley, p. 34. Compare, for example, the numerous proverbs used by the birds in The Owl and the Nightingale.

21 For more discussion of this issue, see Archer Taylor, The Proverb (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931), especially pp. 4-5; Susan E. Deskis' introduction to Beowulf and the Medieval Proverb Tradition (Tempe, AZ: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1996), pp. 1-10; and Wendy Pfeffer's introduction, "The Definition of a Proverb," to Proverbs in Medieval Occitan Literature (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997), pp. 1-11.

22 See the description of the contents in Bradford Y. Fletcher's introduction to the facsimile volume.

23 See p. 28.

24 Interestingly, though the stanzas are taken from entirely different parts of the poem, they make a coherent complaint in the lover's voice against a heartless beloved.

25 Harley 372, fols. 61r-69v.

26 For the above details, see Ethel Seaton's biography of Roos, Sir Richard Roos: Lancastrian Poet, especially chapter 2, "Sir Richard Roos (c. 1410-81/2): Gloucester's Man and King's Knight," pp. 60, 63, 73 ff.

27 Seaton notes that Roos was one of the retinue that came to witness the proxy marriage of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. The entourage then escorted her to England, and Lydgate wrote various com-positions for the celebrations on her arrival in London on 28 May 1445 (pp. 65-67).

28 It is unclear whether Roos would have known all of these poets, but they were moving in the same circles. Richard Roos' older brother Robert "escorted Charles d'Orléans to Burgundy on his liberation," and Seaton suggests that Richard may have accompanied them (pp. 45, 61). Seaton speculates that they probably knew each other in any case by the time Orléans accompanied Margaret of Anjou for part of her journey to England (p. 279). Seaton identifies Ashby, who was also in Queen Margaret's retinue during her journey to England in 1445, as "Writer to the Signet to Margaret of Anjou, known to us as a would-be poet" (p. 64). Metham's patron was Sir Miles Stapleton, married first to Elizabeth Felbrigg and then, when she died, to Katherine de la Pole (see Stephen F. Page, Amoryus and Cleopes [Kalama-zoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999], pp. 3-4); Richard Roos' wife was related by marriage to Elizabeth's Felbrigg's father, Sir Simon Felbrigg, who also had connections through marriage to the de la Pole family (Seaton, p. 39). Burgh (1413-83) supposedly dedicated two of his poems to William, Lord Bourchier (d. ?1472), and was at one point a tutor for the Bourchier family, which had connections to Roos' family (William's mother, Isabel, was a cousin of Richard Roos [they shared the same paternal grandmother, Lady Beatrice Roos] and his grandfather was Sir William Bourchier, count of Eu, who married the widow of Edmund, earl of Stafford, a nephew of Lady Beatrice Roos); see Seaton (pp. 140, 487) and George Saintsbury's entry on Burgh from "The English Chaucerians," in The Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. 2, The End of the Middle Ages, ed. A. W. Ward, A. R. Waller, et al. (New York: Macmillan, 1933), pp. 238-39.

29 See Derek Pearsall's introduction to The Floure and the Leafe, where he points out that the contemporary table of contents in Longleat 258 lists The Floure and the Leafe, although the poem is no longer in the manuscript (1990, p. 1).

30 Pearsall (1990), p. 30.

31 Piaget, p. ix.

32 See Boffey (1994), pp. 114-15. Pearsall notes that "[d]eep into the century, French remains as a permanent backcloth to English as the language of a superior culture, frequently the basis for translation, as in poems like Sir Richard Roos's La Belle Dame sans Merci and the anonymous Eye and the Heart, and frequently invoked in courtly contexts" (2001, p. 22.

33 See Boffey (1994), pp. 114-15.

34 Hammond (1905) gives a detailed description of Longleat 258 in "MS. Longleat 258 - A Chaucerian Codex"; see also J. Schick's brief description in his edition of Lydgate's Temple of Glas (pp. xxiv-xxv), and Julia Boffey and John J. Thompson's discussion (pp. 281-82).

35 These groupings are from Boffey and Thompson, p. 283.

36 It is also missing a stanza (lines 213-220). This is not a matter of leaves misordered and then misbound, since these jumps occur in the middle of pages, though, as Skeat points out, misordering of some past exemplar would account for this type of error (1897, p. liv).

37 Frederick J. Furnivall, not realizing this, used it as the basis of his 1866 edition.

38 For example, "eyen" ("eyes") instead of "pen" in line 47, where the French has "plume" ("pen").

39 Boffey and Thompson note, "a sixteenth-century reader appears to have collated the copy in the B-group [i.e., Fairfax 16 and Harley 372] MS Harley 372 with one of the A-group texts (possibly a print) and to have made appropriate emendations in the manuscript" (p. 302n24).

40 James E. Blodgett points out that Thynne relied on Longleat 258 for the final six stanzas, since Pynson had replaced these lines with his own Lenvoy de limprimeur.

41 Boffey and Thompson discuss the relationships between Fairfax 16, Harley 372, Longleat 258, CUL Ff.1.6 (Findern), Trinity R.3.19, Sloane 1710, as well as the early prints of Pynson and Thynne, pp. 282-83.

42 Beadle and Owen, p. xv.

43 Skeat (1897), p. liv.

44 Robbins (1973), p. 1301; Schick, p. xxiv.

45 Findern appears to be a largely amateur production that involved more than 30 different hands (Beadle and Owen, p. xi) and contains a large number of scribal cancellations and revisions.

46 Roger Dahood's discussion of this problem has proved extremely useful ("Abbreviations, Otiose Strokes and Editorial Practice: The Case of Southwell Minster MS 7," in New Perspectives on Middle English Texts: A Festschrift for R. A. Waldron, ed. Susan Powell and Jeremy J. Smith [Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer], pp. 141-49).

47 In Wallace, 1999, pp. 852-80, at p. 874.

48 Skeat (1897), p. lii; Furnivall, p. 51. Both Skeat and Furnivall identify the wrong Richard Roos, thus put-ting the translator's birth at 1429 rather than 1410. It is therefore not surprising that their dating of the poem would also be significantly later than Seaton's. See Seaton's introduction, pp. 15-16, for discussion of this error.

49 John Norton-Smith (1979) puts the date at c. 1450 in his introduction to the facsimile volume, p. vii; Edwards (1996) dates it in the 1440s (p. 56); Boffey (1994) in the late 1430s or 1440s (p. 114); Robbins (1973) gives it a date range of 1425-50 (p. 1301).

50 A fact which neither Hammond (1908) nor Robbins (1973) notes.

51 See Blodgett.

Print Copyright Info Purchase

La Belle Dame sans Mercy: Introduction

In the 150 years after its probable date of composition, Richard Roos' mid-fifteenth-century Belle Dame sans Mercy enjoyed a robust popularity. The poem, a translation of Alain Char-tier's poem of the same name, appeared in a spate of manuscripts and early prints, and was frequently attributed to Chaucer until Thomas Tyrwhitt's 1775-78 edition of The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer excluded it from the Chaucer canon, along with a number of other spurious materials.1 In 1819, John Keats used the title (though not the plot) of it for his poem "La Belle Dame sans Merci,"2 which in turn inspired a number of painters.3 But Roos' effort has not excited much attention (or admiration) from more recent readers. C. S. Lewis viewed the poem as "an admirable exercise in poetical style . . . [whose] content is of no great significance" and "an essentially second-rate theme redeemed by sheer good writing."4 Walter W. Skeat's impression was that "[m]any of the stanzas are, in fact, remarkably modern, both in grammar and expression; we have only to alter the spelling, and there is nothing left to explain," adding, "It is a pity that the poem is somewhat dull, owing to its needless prolixity."5

The Middle English poem's effect on medieval readers is harder to gauge. On the one hand, the fact that two of the manuscripts misorder the lines so badly that the bulk of the poem is presented out of proper narrative sequence is suggestive; scribes were perhaps merely copying mechanically, but the lack of notation to correct this kind of error in either manuscript raises questions about whether medieval readers noticed or cared about inconsistencies in dialogue and plot.6 On the other hand, the number of extant versions of Roos' translation in English manuscripts (seven) and early printed books (four) points to its popularity among medieval English readers. In addition to extant manuscripts, it is known that the Paston family in the fifteenth century owned two codices that included the poem,7 and "John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, was to take copies of 'La belle d. s. mercy' and 'Les Acusacions de la d.' with him on an embassy to Scotland in 1481."8 The fact that recent readers have not displayed the level of interest that the poem sustained among medieval audiences suggests that those early readers had access to some source of pleasure in this poem that twentieth- and twenty-first-century ones apparently overlook. The fact that we so clearly miss the point is the very reason it seems to me crucial to decipher what pleasures the poem might have offered its medieval audiences.

The French poem was clearly popular, generating a storm of protest amongst readers and writers, and its central debate was continued in a number of adaptations and responses in French, as well as Chartier's own responses to these reactions.9 Like its French precursor, Richard Roos' Middle English Belle Dame sans Mercy contains at its core a love debate. This inner dispute between l'amant ("the lover") and la dame ("the lady") is flanked by an "eyewitness" narrator, framed in turn in Roos' translation by a second narrator, whom I will call the "translator." The layered - or embedded - quality of the narrative, though entirely conventional, speaks to the debate's preoccupation with surface and depth, as it insistently calls into question the "true" meaning of the honeyed phrases of lovers. The translator begins by describing his half-sleeping state, which gives way to his sudden memory of an assignment to "translat . . . as part of [his] penaunce, / A boke called La Belle Dame sans Mercy" (lines 8-10). His conventional concern over whether or not he has the skill to execute this "commaundement" (line 18) confuses him momentarily, but finally he throws on his clothes and walks out into a vale of flowers; "bolded" (line 26) by this pleasant site, he determines to go ahead with the project.

The translator gives way at this point to the "eyewitness" narrator who ultimately relates the debate between lover and coveted lady. Much of the balance of the English poem follows Chartier. Like Chartier's narrator, this narrator appears at first to suffer from lovesickness, complaining that he is "[o]f al lovers the moost unfortunate" (line 32), but it quickly becomes clear that he takes no active interest in love because his own lady is dead, and his heart is "with hire undre hire tumbe igrave [buried]" (line 60). He declares that he should give up writing because he cannot understand or relate anything joyful. If forced to write something cheerful, his pen could never understand it, any more than his tongue could enjoy it. His mouth, laughing a little or a lot, would be belied by his eye, and his heart would resent such expressions of gladness (lines 47-52). In fact, his time as a lover has passed altogether.

These thoughts preoccupy the narrator as he rides looking for lodging. Arriving at a suitable spot he hears minstrels playing in a garden and at once determines to dodge the festivities. Instead he finds himself unexpectedly roped in by two friends. At the feast the narrator observes the lover (l'amant) serving at table with such a wretched expression that, if one were to judge by it, the main course would seem to be "a piteuous entremesse" ("a pathetic between-courses entertainment," line 156). After watching for a while the narrator escapes the feast for a seat alone in the arbor. Soon, however, l'amant and la dame conveniently approach the spot where the narrator is hiding so that he overhears their conversation.

The narrator sees the lover "As oon that hade ben ravisshed utterlye" (line 111), so that his "desire fer passed his reason" (line 114). The narrator's suggestion that women are responsible for excessive male desire parallels the lover's own subsequent declaration to the lady that "Fortune nat oon by his chaunce / Hath caused me to suffre al this payne, / But youre beauté" (lines 273-75). As in many medieval love debates, reason and will stand in opposition. La dame, having no desire "[t]o be rewled by manis goveraunce" (line 315), is characterized by a Boethian frame of mind in which reason is paramount, and she refuses to be swayed from "undreneth the standart of Daungere [Resistance]" (line 180) by any of l'amant's feints or ploys. Not only does she repeatedly tell the lover he is wasting his time in pursuit of someone who remains indifferent to him, but she also distrusts his motives, at once expressing an utter lack of concern over the lover's antics and an anxiety about his potential to mask dishonorable intentions behind a seemingly straightforward countenance. Repeatedly she questions the depth of his "sickness" and suggests that his claims are unreliable, both because lovers often say more than they really mean with words said in jest ("wordis whiche said ben of the splene" [line 327]), and because love takes "gret plesaunce" (line 342) in lying while appearing to be sincere, adding that "Fayned Chere [Counterfeit Expression] right sone may . . . apeyse" the "currysshe [cur-like] hert [and] a mouthe that is curtese" (lines 391, 389).

L'amant, on the other hand, decries la dame's restraint as that of a "marble hert, and yet more harde, perdé, / Whiche mercy may not perce for noo laboure" (lines 717-18). At the end of the long debate, the lady has the last word when she tells the lover, "Ye noye me sore in wasting al this winde" (line 795). This insult leaves the lover in tears to tear "his heere, for anguissh and for payne" (line 810) and causes him to plead for death. According to the narrator, who reports that "afterwarde oon tolde me this expresse" (line 809), the lover dies within a day or two of the debate (line 812). After cautionary statements to both lovers and ladies, the narrator ends his tale, and a few stanzas conclude the translator's frame.

In her summary of the criticism on Chartier's poem, Melissa L. Brown notes that in France it was "a literary sensation" and generated a great deal of response; women of the court supposedly took such strong exception to its depiction of a merciless lady that Chartier was expelled from the royal "Cour d'Amour."10 Brown reads this turmoil as more in fun than in earnest protest, though many scholars have regarded the controversy as genuine.11 Brown further suggests that scholarly readers of Chartier's poem frequently wonder whether or not the lady's "reasoning is meant to be taken seriously." At the same time, their disparaging remarks echo the lover's censure of her preternaturally cold heart, as her reasoned responses are taken to be representative of "emotional and sexual 'coldness,'" or as "camouflage for her sexual and emotional fears." Other discussions of Chartier's poem have assessed the lady as frigid, sophistic, deceitful, cynical, and hard. Brown argues in opposition to these views that "[t]o equate feminine strength and reason with a destructive cynicism that reveals a frigid and corrupt nature is to take a witty and clever poem far too puritanically."12 In fact, to read the character in this way is more than puritanical: it is to understand her in twentieth-century terms, as a tease whose come-ons promise much but deliver nothing. In such a reading of her character, la dame is all about enjoying the game without paying up. Whether a consequence of fear or deceit, her refusal to give in to l'amant suggests in this schema a refusal to participate honestly in the game of love, as if she deliberately sets out to encourage the lover's parries and feints only for the enjoyment of refusing him. Stringing him along, she seduces the lover without any intention of ever letting him have his way with her - a regular "dame," who, beneath her stunning exterior, suppresses heart-stopping manipulative skills and an empty shell of a heart in the best noir tradition.

What this suggests is that these critics have read the lady in much the same way that the character of the lover understood her. To them, as to him, she has a heart harder than marble. L'amant's claim that la dame is somehow to blame for his desire for her, and that this in turn obligates her to take pity on him, is a stereotypical one that critics reproduce when they argue that her rejection should be read as frigid or hard. Usually in courtly laments it is the woman who dies, thereby creating a proper object for unrequited love/desire, because, after all, a dead woman cannot refuse the lover's advances and will never argue with him. This is the case, for example, in Chaucer's Book of the Duchess or Charles d'Orleans' fifteenth-century balade sequence, as well as for the narrator of this poem. But la dame's response is similar to that of Shakespeare's Rosalind when she scorns the hyperbolic claims of sonnet writers in As You Like It: "men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love."13 La dame has her own version of this: "This sikenes is right easé to endure - / But [Only a] fewe people it causith for to dye" (lines 293-94). In fact, one of the problems the lover has with the lady in La Belle Dame sans Mercy is the lady's refusal to "play dead"; not only is she very much alive, but she also categorically declines to be a passive recipient of the lover's desire. Neither lover nor critics seem willing to take seriously her statement that she does not wish "[t]o be rewled by manis goveraunce" (line 315). She reminds l'amant that she has a will of her own, and that it may not agree with his:
As for pleasaunce, it is not alwey oon;
That to you is swete me thinke a bitter payne.
Ye may not me constrayne (ner yet right noon)
After youre list to love, that is but vayne.
(lines 357-61)
pleasure; always the same
What; sweet
nor; anyone
According [to]; desire; futile
All of this points to her unequivocal resistance to being "remade" by the male gaze into a suitable object of desire: one passive and agreeable, lacking in agency, a vessel to be filled, without desires of her own.

In Brown's reading of Roos' translation, la dame is a "Dame" of another sort: a great lady, who distinguishes "charitable love" from "cupidinous love," rejects "courtly language" and its idolization of women, identifies "true courtesy" as stemming from character rather than class, and in general "exposes the follies of erotic courtly rhetoric in her debate with the Lover."14 In this recovery operation, la dame's "harmonizing of words and action would inspire an active, virtuous response to both public and private temptation," and the lady is a realistic portrayal of a person who displays both individuality and depth of character and who understands "liberality as a personal value she has internalized as her own."15 The lover, on the other hand, is "a static, unambiguous type" unable "to take responsibility for himself."16 Displaying "a narcissism typical of the courtly lover," he suffers from "a case of 'arrested' development,"17 for he is merely a conventional portrait wholly composed by courtly rhetoric and lacking any capacity for interiority. At some level Brown's interpretation simply inverts the arguments of critics who faulted la dame for her attachment to reason. Brown tries to recuperate the lady by suggesting that the lover's desire is fatuous, and that what other critics saw as the lady's coldness is really strength of character.

No matter how we read it, la dame's studied indifference has spurred readers, both medieval and modern, to take sides. Such responses point to one of the pleasures of the poem: that is, its entertainment value as debate. So much critical response to debate poetry has spent itself in attempting to decide the winner of any given quarrel, and in this respect the response to La Belle Dame sans Mercy is no different. That scholars' engagement in the poem consists in either defending or attacking la dame therefore points to taking sides as one of the satisfactions common to debate poetry, evident from the relish with which readers reproduce in their own responses the debate of the principles. What critics of la dame and l'amant fail to notice is that the pleasure of the poem is dependent on the intractability of the characters - without it there would be no debate. Perhaps the point is not to choose the winner but to enjoy the battle.

If modern readers join in the fray as eagerly as their medieval counterparts once did because la dame provokes us so, there are nevertheless aspects of the poem that do not inspire such energetic reactions. Lewis' assessment of it as "an admirable exercise in poetical style" but "an essentially second-rate theme,"18 along with Skeat's impression of it as "remarkably modern" but "somewhat dull" and needlessly prolix,19 both suggest that modern readers still just don't get it. On the other hand, Brown's attempt to redeem the poem by recuperating it not only in feminist terms but also in aesthetic ones seems like wishful thinking. Her argument that the lady shows depth of character simply does not fit well with the sententious style la dame and l'amant both routinely employ. Many of their remarks to one another can be linked to proverbial expressions, and even when no specific proverb is invoked, much of what the lady and lover say has a proverbial quality - as if the two were continually speaking in the rhetoric of common sayings. This is to some extent true of any medieval debate poem, since the form reproduces this practice from "scholastic disputation, as well as pleading in a court of law."20 But in La Belle Dame sans Mercy, the flooding of the narrative with proverbs has the effect of eliding individuality or uniqueness of voice. In comparison to the cuckoo and the nightingale's rhetoric in The Boke of Cupide, for example, where the two birds' responses seem as distinct and emphatic as their respective qualities of voice, the lady and the lover seem no more than mouthpieces for a conventionalized argument about love. Many of the sayings that the characters hurl at one another occur in both the French and the English versions. The fact that occasionally the English poem offers an entirely different proverb rather than translating the one that occurs in the French demonstrates Roos' awareness at some level of this proverbial quality, whether deliberately preserved or unconsciously imitated.

In some ways, la dame and l'amant seem to exist agonistically, through the necessity to come up with another saying to counter one proffered by the opponent. This imparts a quality of performance to the roles of la dame and l'amant. The poem does not so much invite exploration of what constitutes the identity of the two as the recognition of both the lady and the lover as verbal virtuoso performances. As with other medieval debates, part of the pleasure for contemporary audiences must have been to follow the pattern of argument and refutation; the fact that critics of Chartier's poem often wonder whether or not the lady's "reasoning is meant to be taken seriously" testifies to the power of this form to engage audiences interested in such linguistic pyrotechnics. At the same time, the heavy use of proverbs and proverbial rhetoric suggests that another aspect of the pleasure this poem might have provided includes the use of proverbial expressions as a kind of "spectacle"; for medieval audiences such riffs would resonate (both with everyday sayings as well as literary ones) in ways that we find hard to capture now - an extravaganza of the lover and lady "one-upping" each other not only through their use of the highly intricate rhetoric of debate, but also with everyday sayings complicated by their embeddedness within a literary form.

Differences between folk sayings and literary ones (or literary versions of the former) prove hard to capture,21 but it is fair to say that a number of the proverbs used in this poem must have been commonly known, as they survive today. Versions of "love at first sight" (Whiting L496), "love binds" (Whiting L497), "better bow than break" (Whiting B484), and "better said than done" (Whiting S73) punctuate the narrative alongside those more difficult to assess, such as "love puts reason away" (Whiting L533) or "who seeks sorrow, his be the receipt" (Whiting S523). At the same time, the way in which proverbs are situated and frequently recast suggests that even the most common of these have been fine-tuned to literary advantage. For example, when the lady advises the lover, "To overcome is good, and to refrayne / An hert whiche is deseyved folely" (lines 489-90), she adds to this, "For worse it is to breke than bowe, certayne - / Better bowe than falle to soudenly" (lines 491-92). Although there is only one identifiably proverbial saying here, "worse it is to breke than bowe" (Whiting B484), the other lines are constructed in such a way as to make them sound proverbial even if they are not. Such common sayings in the poem often cloak themselves in just this way within similarly worded for-mulations, and at the same time they often participate in a more literary kind of complication. For example, sandwiching the commonplace maxim between "[t]o overcome is good" and "[b]etter bowe than falle to soudenly" sets up a verbal play between "good," "worse," and "better." The effect of this rhetoric on the modern reader seems at best a kind of mind-numbed admiration. Lewis' and Skeat's reactions, cited earlier, suggest that the frequent use of proverbs makes the poem at once accessible and tedious. But for medieval audiences, this verbal play must have been at least part of the appeal of both English and French versions of the poem.

Perhaps in some measure because of its later date, and in part because of its two ventrilo-quized, lyric voices, Roos' poem finds itself in more diverse contexts than the other poetry in this volume. The earlier manuscripts, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Fairfax 16; London, British Library MS Harley 372; and Longleat House MS 258, place it in the familiar Chaucerian context, while the later ones bring shorter lyric poetry to the fore. Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.3.19 offers poems by Chaucer and Lydgate alongside a number of unique lyrics,22 much in the manner of the Findern manuscript (Cambridge University Library MS Ff.1.6), discussed in detail in the Introduction to The Boke of Cupide, above.23 This pattern culminates in London, British Library MS Additional 17492, from the first half of the six-teenth century, where two lone stanzas from Roos' poem keep company with the lyrics of Sir Thomas Wyatt, Lord Surrey, and other early Renaissance poets.24 Here, in its drastically shortened form, Roos' poem takes on a lyric identity in keeping with the poetry of the early sixteenth century that accompanies it.

One of the seven manuscripts containing copies of the English version of La Belle Dame sans Mercy attributes the poem to Sir Richard Roos.25 Ethel Seaton has argued convincingly for a knight by this name favored by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who in 1438 granted Roos an annuity of £20 and then enfeoffed him with a manor in Kent in the following year. Roos later served as a King's Knight under Henry VI (1442 until about 1460/61). Little is known of the last twenty years of his life, doubtless disrupted by the Wars of the Roses and especially the capture in 1460 of Henry VI and the declaration of Edward IV as king in 1461. Roos' nephew Thomas, Lord Roos, was executed in 1464, and Sir Richard Roos himself seems to have been at one point imprisoned, although his will shows that by the time of his death he had a position of some sort at the court of Edward IV.26

Roos may have encountered John Lydgate towards the end of Lydgate's life,27 and he was a contemporary of poets such as Charles d'Orléans, George Ashby, John Metham, and Bene-dict (or Benet) Burgh.28 Later poems such as The Floure and the Leafe and The Assembly of Ladies show that courtly love poetry continued to generate interest in the second half of the fifteenth century. In fact, The Assembly of Ladies appears in Longleat 258, one of the earlier manuscripts containing a copy of La Belle Dame sans Mercy, while The Floure and the Leafe may once have been included as well in pages now lost.29 As Derek Pearsall notes, the debate around women's fidelity, popularized by the poetry of Chaucer and Gower, persisted in the fifteenth century through "the controversy provoked or supposedly provoked by Alain Char-tier's portrayal of the cruel mistress in La Belle Dame sans Merci."30

It is difficult to assess which elements in a translation are not simply derivative of the original work. Both French and English versions take their part in the debate to which Pearsall alludes. Arthur Piaget, who edited the French poem, more specifically draws a parallel between Chartier's poem and Christine de Pisan's Débat de deux amants.31 But it is also likely that Roos' English poem was not solely the product of French sources and influences. As Julia Boffey argues, the prologue to the translation "vaguely echoes the preludes to Chaucer's dreams"; at the same time, she suggests that the poem's French background provides a connection with other English poems that are also translations or adaptations of French works.32 The presence in the latter half of the century of poems such as The Assembly of Ladies implies that Roos, whether directly or not, shared in contemporary poetic engagement with the themes of courtly love played out here. The grouping in manuscripts of La Belle Dame sans Mercy with dream visions, with other adaptations and translations of French works, or with poems containing similar themes suggests that the compilers of late-medieval codices at any rate saw the poem in a context of shared interests and generic similarities.33 And, judging by the frequency with which they reproduced Roos' translation, they appear to have appreciated the poem.

Note on the text

Copies of La Belle Dame sans Mercy occur in seven manuscripts, listed in detail below. The poem also appears in several early printed editions, including Richard Pynson's The Boke of Fame (1526) and the editions of Chaucer printed by William Thynne, John Stow, and Thomas Speght. The text of the poem here is based on the copy in Longleat 258,34 with emendations and some alternate readings from selected manuscripts recorded in the textual notes, according to the practices laid out in the General Introduction. The manuscripts can be divided into two groups: group A, comprised of Longleat 258, CUL Ff.1.6, Trinity R.3.19, and London, British Library MS Sloane 1710 (and the related prints by Pynson and Thynne); and group B, which includes Fairfax 16 and Harley 372.35 Although Fairfax 16 is the earliest manuscript and seems marginally better metrically than some of the others, it must be discarded on the basis of its severe misordering of the lines: 1-428; 669-716; 525-572; 477-524; 621-668; 573-620; 429-476; 717-856.36 The order is plainly unintelligible and represents a serious scribal error. Harley 372 shares this problem,37 and these two manuscripts further contain some errors in comparison to the French.38 Interestingly, a later hand has corrected Harley 372 in a number of such cases to the same readings as in Pynson and Thynne (which are themselves occasionally errors), though no correction of the misordered lines is evident.39

Longleat 258, the Findern manuscript (CUL Ff.1.6), Trinity R.3.19, Sloane 1710, and Pyn-son's edition (and Thynne's, which is based on Pynson)40 all avoid the problems in order of Fairfax 16 and Harley 372, and clearly represent a different lineage.41 Of the manuscripts in this group, Longleat 258 and Findern are closest in their readings, while Trinity R.3.19 has many unique errors. Sloane 1710 is defective at both beginning and end (missing the first and final twelve stanzas), and is also missing lines 141-90, while BL Add. 17492 contains only lines 717-24, followed by lines 229-36, and appears to use the stanzas as a stand-alone lyric piece rather than as an excerpt from a larger work. The high level of unique errors in Trinity R.3.19, dated by Beadle and Owen at about 1478-83,42 makes it unfeasible as a base text, despite its relatively early date.

Frederick J. Furnivall based his second EETS edition (1903) on Findern, which Skeat identified as "in some respects, the best MS," although he based his own edition on Thynne.43 Skeat was unaware of the copy of the poem in Longleat 258. Longleat 258, according to the dates given by both Rossell Hope Robbins and J. Schick, is the earliest manuscript of these three (c. 1460-70).44 The Findern manuscript (c. 1500) would seem to be about 30-40 years later than Longleat 258 and would make a good base manuscript. Findern's availability in facsimile and its later date,45 however, have led me to select Longleat 258 instead, despite the fact that it is missing six stanzas due to a lost leaf. Ultimately my intention here is to provide a reasonable reading text based on a manuscript whose version of the poem is little known and would not otherwise be available. Though it is notoriously difficult to determine whether such strokes are meaningful, I have interpreted the L scribe's curls on final -r as final -e.46 In cases where a horizontal stroke above a vowel might indicate a nasal consonant (n/m), I have expanded only in places where the stroke is more intensified in thickness and curvature than the scribe's usual hairline strokes, and this would seem to reflect the scribe's usage in spelled-out forms. Other strokes and flourishes are disregarded as otiose.

Alain Chartier's poem was written in 1424, and Ethel Seaton argues that Roos' translation probably dates to about 1441-42, just before Roos became a King's Knight; William P. Marvin, on the other hand, in his "Chronological Outline of Historical Events and Texts in Britain, 1050-1550," places it at 1450.47 Skeat proposes 1450-60, while Frederick James Furnivall suggests simply 1460.48 It is difficult to argue for one date over another on the basis of the poem's content, but one good reason for assigning an earlier rather than a later date is the presence of the poem in Fairfax 16, which is variously dated somewhere between the late 1430s and c. 1450.49 Even if the latest date for Fairfax 16 is accepted, the fact that this copy of the poem has the lines misordered,50 while a number of others have the correct order, shows that the Fairfax 16 version was itself copied from an imperfect exemplar, and thus the date of the poem's composition could be even earlier than Seaton suggested, but is probably not significantly later.

Indexed in

IMEV 1086.


Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Fairfax 16 (SC 3896), fols. 50r-62v (1430-50). [Stanzas disarranged.]

London, British Library MS Harley 372, fols. 61r-69v (1450-75). [Stanzas disarranged.]

Longleat House MS 258, fols. 120r-136v (1460-70). [Base text for this edition.]

Cambridge University Library MS Ff.1.6 (Findern MS), fols. 117r-134v (c. 1500).

Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.3.19 (599), fols. 98r-108v (1500-25).

London, British Library MS Additional 17492, fols. 29v (lines 717-24) and 30r (lines 229-36) (1529-37).

London, British Library MS Sloane 1710, fols. 164r-176v (fifteenth century). [Bound with later materials, including seventeenth-century letters. Lines 93-140 and 191-764.]

Early printed editions

Pynson, Richard, ed. and printer. [Chaucer's] The Boke of Fame. London, 1526. [STC 5088. Includes Lenvoy de limprimeur of 6 rhyme royal stanzas replacing Roos' final 6 stanzas.]

Thynne, William, ed. The Workes of Geffray Chaucer Newly Printed: With Dyuers Workes Whiche Were Neuer in Print Before. London: T. Godfray, 1532. [STC 5068. Rpt. 1542, STC 5069; ?1550, STC 5071. Based on Pynson, with the final six stanzas from Longleat 258 (to replace Pynson's Lenvoy de limprimeur).]51

Stow, John, ed. The Workes of Geffrey Chaucer: Newly Printed, With Diuers Addicions, Whiche were Neuer in Printe Before: With the Siege and Destruccion of the Worthy Citee of Thebes, Compiled by Jhon Lidgate. London: J. Wight, 1561. [STC 5075. Based on Thynne.]

Speght, Thomas, ed. The Workes of our Antient and Lerned English Poet, Geffrey Chavcer, newly Printed. London: G. Bishop, 1598. [STC 5077. Rpt. 1602, STC 5080; 1687. Based on Thynne.]

Go To La Belle Dame sans Mercy