“A Mirror for Young Ladies at their Toilet” (DIMEV 3454)
A Mirror for Young Ladies at Their Toilet: FOOTNOTES
1 This is the mirror for young ladies to behold in the morning for arranging their hair beautifully
2 To look on me, who will discolor your face
3 O thought, take proper refuge in this, although you say no
4 Nor can [even] one lifetime leap from my snare (i.e., death is unavoidable)
A Mirror for Young Ladies at Their Toilet: EXPLANATORY NOTES
ABBREVIATIONS: A version: Lydgate, Dance of Death (Selden); B version: Lydgate, Dance of Death (Lansdowne); CT: Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, ed. Benson; D: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 322 (SC 21896); DMF: Dictionnaire du Moyen Français (1330–1500); DOST: Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue; FP: Lydgate, Fall of Princes, ed. Bergen; Gray: “Two Songs of Death,” ed. Gray; Hassell: Hassell, Middle French Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases; MED: Middle English Dictionary; ODNB: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; OED: Oxford English Dictionary; Whiting: Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases.
This short lyric is extant in a single manuscript dated after 1461 to 1500 (based on its inclusion of a chronicle mentioning Edward IV: see “Detailed Record for Harley 116” in the British Library’s online manuscript catalogue), which also includes Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, a frequent manuscript companion to Lydgate’s Dance of Death.
The poem is an address by Death to young women who pay attention to their good looks. To underscore the transitory quality of their beauty, Death implicitly compares the young women to ephemeral creatures, whose time on earth is fleeting (“Sone shalte thu flytte . . . Shorte is thy sesoun here . . . ,” lines 4–5). In the second and third stanzas, Death’s relentlessness emerges in stark contrast to the fragile beauty evoked in the opening stanza, as Death describes his actions and attributes in increasingly violent terms: “I marke thee with my mace . . . I manace . . . my lace [snare] . . . I smyte, I sle . . . ” (lines 6–14), which we also see in the danse macabre tradition. The use of “pray” in line 9, in address to the young women, further underscores Death as a predator or hunter stalking after defenseless animals about to be caught in his trap. In this way, articulating the familiar characterization of women as prey before a predator, the lyric evokes connotations of sexual violence, suggesting that Death here is being gendered male. The lyric goes on to exhort the young women to “awake” from their vanity and pay heed to their eternal salvation (line 15).
The lyric’s French rubric is noteworthy given its explicit address to a female audience. Its use of French speaks to the preponderance of French-language conduct literature aimed at women that was composed and consumed during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, of which Watriquet de Couvin’s Miroer as dames (1324), Le Livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry (1371–72), and Le Menagier de Paris (c. 1393) are prime examples. For discussions of these and other texts see, in particular, Medieval Conduct, ed. Ashley and Clark; and Burger, Conduct Becoming.
The French rubric of our English poem also points to the French cultural context of the danse macabre tradition. As Francis Utley notes, the French rubric to this poem evokes a French poem on similar themes, which opens with the lines, “Mirez vous cy, dames et damoiselles, / Mirez vous cy et regardés ma face. / Helas! pensez, se vous estes bien belles, / Comment la mort toute beauté efface” (lines 1–4: Behold yourselves here, ladies and maidens, / Behold yourself here and look at my face. / Alas! consider, if you are very beautiful, / How death effaces all beauty) (Crooked Rib, pp. 190–91, for full text of poem see Söderhjelm, “Le miroir des dames,” pp. 31–35, translation our own). This similar French poem features a female speaker mourning the imminent progressive decomposition of her body in a French iteration of the Signs of Death genre. It is, furthermore, found in a manuscript (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, naf. 10032) that also contains the Danse macabre and the Danse macabre des femmes, which opens with almost the same wording.
Our English work is further distinguished by its formal complexity. Unusually, the lyric inverts its rhyme scheme in the second stanza, thus abbba-baaab-abbba (see further Cutler, “A Middle English Acrostic,” pp. 88–89). Through this inversion, the lyric fosters a sense of the middle stanza’s being caught by the tight framing of stanzas 1 and 3, thus formally mirroring the lyric’s claustrophobic theme of Death as a hunter seizing his prey. In keeping with the notion of catching or binding and its formal reflection within the lyric’s structure, the entire work itself is an acrostic evidently intended to spell out MORS SOLVIT OMNIA, or “death loosens all,” although the lyric’s only manuscript substitutes a “B” for the necessary “N” in OMNIA. Cutler notes that this phrase is also associated with the well-known lyric “Erthe upon Erthe,” similarly a work that treats the transitory and fleeting nature of earthly possessions (“A Middle English Acrostic,” p. 89). Thus, this lyric’s content emphasizes the capture of living creatures in the tight grip of Death, as mirrored on the metapoetic level by the lyric’s internal rhyme structure. Meanwhile, in contrast, the lyric’s superstructure of the acrostic highlights the notion of death as the ultimate release from earthly bonds.
Rubric C’est le myrroure . . . testes bealment adressere. There seems to be a play on words here as adressere can have both a literal meaning of arranging something, such as hair, as well as a more figurative meaning of moral rectitude, apt for a work suggesting leaving behind worldly vanity for spiritual progress. Thus, we could gloss the second half of the rubric as “instructing/rectifying their heads (i.e., minds) virtuously.”
13 Ne. The text seems somewhat corrupt here, as the only manuscript reads “Be” for “Ne”, which ruins the acrostic (see Textual Note to this line).
lace. The poem’s use of the imagery of a snare seems to be playing with the idiomatic expression dethes las, which the MED defines as “death’s grasp” (las (n.), sense 4).
A Mirror for Young Ladies at Their Toilet: TEXTUAL NOTES
London, British Library, MS Harley 116, fols. 128r–v
Brown, Carleton Fairchild, ed. “A Mirror for Young Ladies at their Toilet.” In Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century. Oxford: Clarendon, 1939. P. 241.
Cutler, John L., ed. “No. 2136, A Mirror for Young Ladies at their Toilet.” In “A Middle English Acrostic.” Modern Language Notes 70.2 (1955), 88.
Silverstein, Theodore, ed. “Cest le Myrroure pur les Iofenes Dames.” In Medieval English Lyrics. London: Edwin Arnold Ltd., 1971. Pp. 121–22.
ABBREVIATIONS: A1: London, British Library Additional 37049 fols. 31v–32r (basis for “Dawnce of Makabre”); A2: London, British Library Additional 15225, fols. 15r–16r (basis for “Shaking of the Sheets”); BD: Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates’ 1.1.6 (Bannatyne MS Draft), pp. 43r–44r; BM: Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates’ 1.1.6 (Bannatyne MS Main), fols. 56r–57r (basis for “Resoning betuix Death and Man”); Brown: Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century, ed. Brown, p. 241; Brunner: “Mittelenglische Todesgedichte,” ed. Brunner, pp. 27–28, 30; C: Cambridge, Cambridge University Library Ff.5.45, fols. 13r–14r; Cov: Coventry, Coventry Archives Acc. 325/1, fols. 70rb–74vb; Cutler: Cutler, John L. “A Middle English Acrostic,” p. 88; D: Oxford, Bodleian Library Douce 322 (SC 21896), fols. 19vb–20ra (basis for “Death’s Warning to the World”); Doty: “An Edition of British Museum MS Additional 37049: a Religious Miscellany,” ed. Doty, pp. 206–11; Dufour: La dance macabre peinte sous les charniers des Saints Innocents de Paris, ed. Dufour; F: Bibliothèque nationale de France fonds français 14989, fols. 1r–12v (basis for French Danse macabre); Fein: The Danse Macabre Printed by Guyot Marchant, ed. Fein; Furnivall: “Of Þre Messagers of Deeth,” ed. Furnivall, 2:443–48; H1: London, British Library Harley 1706, fols. 19v–20r; H2: London, British Library, Harley 116, fols. 128r–v (basis for “A Mirror for Young Ladies at their Toilet”); Horstmann: “Nachträge zu den Legenden 5: The Messengers of Death,” ed. Horstmann, pp. on 432–34; L: British Library MS Lansdowne 669, fols. 41v–50v (basis for Lydgate, Dance of Death, B version), fols. 41v–50v; Lincy: “La danse macabre reproduite textuellement d’apres l’unique exemplaire connu de l’édition princeps de Guyot Marchant,” ed. Le Roux de Lincy, pp. 291–317; N: New Haven, Beinecke Library MS 493, fols. 51v–60v; P: Cambridge, Magdalene College, Pepys Library, Pepys Ballads 2.62; R: Oxford, Bodleian Library 4o Rawl. 566 (203); RV: Rome, Venerable English College (AVCAU) MS 1405, fols. 111r–21r; S: Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Selden Supra 53, fols. 148r–58v (basis for Lydgate, Dance of Death, A version); Saugnieux: “La danse macabre française de Guyot Marchant (1486),” ed. Saugnieux, pp. 143–64; Silverstein: “Cest le Myrroure pur les Iofenes Dames,” ed. Silverstein, pp. 121–22; Sim: London, British Library Addit. 22283 [Simeon MS], fols. 88vb–89ra; V: Oxford, Bodleian Library Eng. poet. a.1 (SC 3938) [Vernon MS], fols. 297vc–98rb (basis for “Three Messengers of Death”); Warren: The Dance of Death, ed. Warren and White; W1: Oxford, Bodleian Library Wood 401 (60) (Wing H2013A); W2: Oxford, Bodleian Library Wood 402 (48) (Wing H2013B).
Title A Mirror for Young Ladies at their Toilet. This title was coined by Brown in his edition of the work.
11 Wel thee. H2, Brown, Cutler: welthe. We have chosen to emend for clarity, agreeing with Silverstein.
13 Ne lengthe. H2, Brown, Silverstein, Cutler: Be lengthe. We emend to Ne given the acrostic.