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Mum and the Sothsegger: Introduction


1 The origins of the quest in PPCr may be found in Piers Plowman B VIII.1-61 (A IX.1-52).

2 Day and Steele, p. x.

3 Day and Steele, p. xn3 (continued from p. ix) and note 1 (which includes Bale's translation into Latin of the first two lines of RiR). See also Barr's discussion, p. 15. Embree points out that the title Bale cites is appropriate only for the Mum text and not at all for RiR ("Richard the Redeless and Mum and the Sothsegger," p. 5).

4 See "The Law Courts and Their Abuse," in Day and Steele, pp. xxvi-xxix; Barr, with help from John A. Alford (Piers Plowman: a Glossary of Legal Diction [Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1988]), has chronicled the many legalisms and words with legal nuance to be found in both poems. Of RiR she says: "Throughout the poem a keen interest in legal matters and an abundance of legal diction suggest that its author could have been a parliamentary clerk. There is no evidence of the advanced learning that would have come from a university education" (p. 17). See also her Chapter 5, "Legal Fictions," in Signes and Sothe, pp. 133-66.

5 For the case for two separate poems, see Dan Embree, "Richard the Redeless and Mum and the Sothsegger." Doyle may have it right when he characterizes Mum as a "sequel" to RiR ("The Manuscripts," p. 98).

6 Another way of stating the dilemma: do the corrections indicate the author's final intentions or are intentions better reflected in the marginal corrections? A case could be made for each. I emend only if a corrector suggests a reading or if a previous editor has resolved a great difficulty in the MS.

7 See Lawton's analysis in "Lollardy and the Piers Plowman Tradition," p. 788. For a discussion of this crux, see James Simpson, "The Constraints of Satire," p. 14n7.

8 Of this list Chaucer and Gower use only man/mon and wight. The others are "upland" terms appropriate to the "rum, ram, ruf" of alliterative verse. Of the list, freke, kempe, segge, and wyghte do not appear in RiR.

9 But see Chaucer's The Reeve's Tale I [A] 4161: "hem nedede no dwale" (they did not need a sleeping potion), perhaps an imitation of Midlands speech.
Mum and the Sothsegger, ostensibly a debate poem on the merits of holding one's tongue (keeping mum) or speaking out (soothsaying or telling the truth), is in fact an alliterative verse meditation on statecraft and an often satirical anatomy of contemporary institutions, especially the estates and courts of law. The anonymous early fifteenth-century author does include the trappings of a debate between Mum and the Sothsegger, hence the poem's conventional (and scribal) title. But as with the "debate" between Griffon and Pelican in the pseudo-Chaucerian Plowman's Tale, the debate in Mum is one-sided: the scorned, derided Sothsegger is a figure of truth, a voice crying in the wilderness, whereas the popular, influential Mum is an exemplar of all that is wrong with the author's society. The narrator of Mum goes on a search for the nature and qualities of both Mum and the Sothsegger with the particular goal of determining which of these two ways of self-expression should, in the poem's words, "have / The maistrie" (lines 574-75). Although the poem is fragmentary - we have neither the beginning nor the end of it - the clear victor is the Sothsegger. An interesting feature of the poem is that the narrator, who seeks the Sothsegger, represents himself as a truth teller.

Mum upholds the virtues of reticence and silence, which can be admirable qualities. No less an authority than "Cato" - pseudonymous author of the Distichs of Cato whose sayings appear several times in Mum - championed speaking little. Probably the best known of Cato's adages (1.3 of Cato major) proclaims, "I think the first virtue is to guard your tongue: he is close to God who can be advisedly silent." Every medieval schoolchild encountered this and other distichs of Cato among their very first exposures to studying Latin. Yet in Mum those who are guarded in their speech get no credit for it: they are time-servers, men too timid or duplicitous to speak the truth forthrightly and sincerely. Mum becomes a synonym for hypocrisy and fraud. Unlike a soothsayer, who is difficult to find, figures of "mum" abound and are everywhere prosperous. They are, like Placebo from Chaucer's The Merchant's Tale, the yes-men who advise the king, princes, and dukes of the realm with flattery. Their teachings undermine the commonwealth, rather than sustain it.

The poem is structured around the narrator's travels to individuals and groups who might help illuminate the nature of Mum and the Sothsegger; these travels include a series of powerful scenes or vignettes as part of estates satire. After the initial section on protecting the crown and the necessity of identifying truth tellers, the narrative moves to a dialogue between the narrator and Mum, a sequence identified by a scribe as "the disputacion bitwyne Mum and the Sothsigger." This encounter leaves the narrator troubled - "in a wyre" (line 296), in perplexity. He wanders to universities in search of enlightenment about keeping silent or speaking out, and he consults the Liberal Arts, including a curmudgeonly Grammarian ("Sire Grumbald" [line 330]) and an unharmonious Music (line 332). A rather too literal-minded and narrowly focused Doctor of Philosophy (lines 360 ff.) acknowledges that he has never heard of this debate, so the narrator travels to his next chosen group, the friars (lines 392-535). The narrator's movement from one group to the next as he seeks instruction is reminiscent of another poem in the "Piers Plowman tradition," Piers the Plowman's Crede.1 In the latter a narrator visits four orders of mendicants trying to learn the Creed, all to no avail because the friars spend their time attacking the other orders rather than teaching him his Creed, which they do not seem to know in any case. He finally learns the Creed from Piers the Plowman, who instructs him on the evils of friars as well. The friars in Mum similarly have no good answer for the narrator but they have more of an answer than the academic clerks. "Bestow the prize on Mum," they urge, "since he generously endows our convents." The narrator regards friars as hapless: they interpret riddles as poorly as Lollards, and for their ineptitude they end up just as dead. He takes the opportunity to deliver a philippic against mendicants which includes the familiar charge that friars take their origins from Cain, architect of the City of Man. He fares no better among the monks (lines 536-52), for they are interested only in enhancing their great monastic houses, or among the secular clergy and those who hold more than one benefice (pluralists).

When the narrator tires of his search, he listens to a parish priest's sermon, which concerns tithing and offering gifts to the priest. Instead of finding solace in his local church, he is asked to offer gifts of all kinds, including, in a bizarre passage, a cornucopia of vegetables and meats. For this parish priest the road to heaven is paved with grapes, garlic, geese, and pigs (line 604). When the narrator reflects upon virtuous ecclesiastics of previous eras, Mum (or one of his students) drifts in like an unwanted alter ego to debate him. This section provides a conclusion to the narrator's inquiries among clerics. His next stop on his picaresque journey to learn answers about Mum and the Sothsegger is the town and its citizens (lines 788-840). As was the case with the friars and monks, Mum is master in the towns as well, for he controls the mayor and city councils with the result that the poor never receive a proper hearing concerning their grievances. Soothsayers do not sup in the halls of burgesses; the Sothsegger "[d]yneth . . . with Dreede" in a separate room and drinks not fine ale but "dum-seede" or a drink of silence (line 838-39). The narrator is outraged and ponders all the places he has been (lines 841-70). In a long sequence reminiscent of Will's dream of the world in Piers Plowman B XI, the narrator falls asleep and dreams about the commonwealth in a moralized allegory of bees and a beekeeper (lines 871-1287). The beekeeper stands for the prudent sovereign who exterminates, ruthlessly if need be, the unproductive drones who infiltrate the hive bent on taking the honey the other bees have worked so hard to manufacture. The drones represent the wasters in Henry's realm - those who subvert the commonwealth by despoiling its substance. The beekeeper - a sage and "An olde auncyen man of a hunthrid wintre" (line 956) - is a version of the Sothsegger. He is also a gardener, who roots out "the wedes that wyrwen my plantes" (line 979).

The narrator asks the beekeeper to explain the "proprieté" (lines 990, 993) of bees, which leads to a lengthy description chiefly drawn from a medieval encyclopedia by Bartholomaeus Anglicus (Bartholomew the Englishman). After a brief discussion of medieval dream theory concluding that dreams are significant, there is an anticlerical passage on abuses within the church hierarchy, including visitations by the archbishop that fail to uncover patent wrongs. The narrator claims to have found secret written documents that detail these abuses - "a pryvé poyse" (line 1344) and "a volume of visitacion" (line 1353). These are the first of a number of alleged documents he will cite in his satirical critiques. In some the narrator learns of false rumors told about lords and the king, which leads him to muse that such rumor-mongers would not thrive under the regime of Genghis Khan; as an exemplum for rulers, he tells the story of the Great Khan (derived from the popular Travels of John Mandeville). This section harmonizes with the beekeeper episode, since Genghis as a ruler governs on the principle that might makes right, a philosophy that the author of Mum seems to endorse. Genghis demands that his lords slay their sons as proof of their loyalty, and this they do. "Thay sparid not to spille blode that spronge of thaymself" (line 1442), declares the narrator approvingly. He deplores pride and lack of humility shown by some who refuse to yield to authority; and he observes that this surquidry has damaged the crown on many occasions. He finds other documents, including a "raggeman rolle" (line 1565) composed by the devil himself which brings everyone to ruin. In a most interesting passage toward the end of the extant fragment, he archly dissects a Merlin prophecy. He identifies the prophecy as popular - "how the peuple construeth / And museth on the mervailles that Merlyn dide devyse" (lines 1723-24). The result of their confused musings is lethal - "heedes been hewe of and hoppe on the grene" (line 1732).

Richard the Redeless contains specific allusions to events and personalities of Richard II's reign, but this is not the case with Mum, at least not in the same way. One passage - lines 206-31 - includes cautious praise of Henry IV, especially of his martial, manly qualities. The author of Mum claims he described Henry's court and its ministers in detail before the poem as we have it begins. He says: "And next I have ynamed as nygh as I couthe, / And the condicions declarid of alle, / Rehershing no rascaille ne riders aboute" (lines 208-10). It is significant that precisely those names and the conditions "of alle" have not survived in the manuscript, either because that section is missing (by accident or design) or because the author never got around to writing it. The author himself may have reconsidered the passage - to be a truth teller and name names may have proved too much for him. He prefers more general, satirical attacks to explicit personalities or incidents. He does mention taxation on several occasions; and the extant part of the poem begins with this financial issue. Those who petition the crown for monies the crown does not have will eventually come to grief when tax "collectours comen to caicche what thay habben" (line 8). The author observes that the commons are especially hard hit by some levies: "Of custume and of coylaige the comunes shuld be easid" (line 149), and these folk "collectours haten" (line 1663). There is also a significant anticlerical strain in Mum that manifests itself not only in criticism of the friars but also the portrayal of Mum as a bishop ("Mum with his myter" [line 579]; "Mum wol be no martir while mytres been in sale" [line 1236]).

Since the discovery of the British Library manuscript, scholars have identified and proclaimed connections between Richard the Redeless and Mum. Often when people speak of Mum they mean both poetic fragments; and Day and Steele and others were convinced that "the two fragments form part of one larger composition."2 John Bale (1495-1563), an important early antiquarian and bibliographer, identified what Skeat named Richard the Redeless as "Mum, Soth-segger!"3 The two alliterative fragments do have much in common. They both presume to advise a king, include satirical critiques (for example, clothing satire), and imitate Piers Plowman, by far the most important source for both poems. They both have an intimate knowledge of law and the courts, which has led some to believe that the author or authors were law clerks.4 Both poems manifest a delight in word play, though this is typical of alliterative poems generally. But the differences between the poems are striking as well. Richard the Redeless focuses wholly and exclusively on Richard II and the latter part of his regime, whereas Mum ignores Richard's rule to concentrate exclusively on problems during Henry IV's administration.5 It seems best to hold open the possibility that there may be a connection between them, but there may not be.

* * *

MS BL Additional 41666 exists in a unique vellum manuscript, whose quality has deteriorated over the years. Editing Mum requires a different approach from editing Richard the Redeless. A reader or editor has carefully marked up the British Library manuscript, perhaps preparing to recopy it. Sometimes the corrector seems to want to alter spellings (e.g., "Hough" is marked for replacement with "How" in line 1); sometimes, to gloss or replace an unfamiliar word (e.g., "caicche" is marked as "caste" in line 8); and sometimes, to substitute a reading that makes better sense to him (e.g., manuscript "come yn and" of line 5 is marked to be replaced with "comyn," the commons). A modern editor's dilemma is knowing when to retain the manuscript reading and when to emend based on a corrector (or to emend not based on a corrector).6 Previous editors have many times chosen to adopt readings based on a corrector; and I do the same for this edition but more conservatively than previous editors. Because of uncertainties as to the status of corrections, I have as much as possible kept to the manuscript readings, explaining early corrections and modern emendations in the Notes. Test cases occur at lines 5 and 169. Line 5 reads, in the manuscript, "Leste vncunnyng come yn and caste vp þe halter," which Day and Steele and Barr, based on a corrector, emend to "Leste uncunnyng [comyn] caste vp þe halter." I retain the uncorrected manuscript version (save for the normalized orthography) and read "uncunnyng" as a substantive - ignorant people - rather than an adjective modifying "comyn" (commoner). Line 169 in the manuscript reads "Or y blent or y shent or sum sorowe haue." A corrector or editor has placed a dot over "blent," blinded, to be replaced with "brent," burned. This is a plausible emendation, and Day and Steele and Barr adopt "y brent" for their editions. Barr, following David Lawton, notes that blinding was not a legal punishment at the time of Mum's composition but that William Sawtrey was burned as a heretic in 1401 just prior to the statute De haeretico comburendi, which licensed the burning of heretics.7 I retain MS "y blent" (spelled "yblent") on the grounds that historical circumstances may not govern word choice here.

The BL Additional MS contains a number of pertinent Latin quotations and English remarks which, in the manner of PP, Friar Daw's Reply, or Upland's Rejoinder, comment on the main action of the text and offer biblical support and proverbial wisdom. In the manuscript the quotations appear in the margins with indications as to which line they illuminate, but I have placed them within the text and in italics at the indicated locations. Following the precedent of PP editions, I assign line numbers to these quotations with a. I have also placed one English marginal comment at line 205 - "Here bigynneth the disputacion bitwyne Mum and the Sothsigger" - in the text, something that previous editors have not done. It furnishes a point of reference in a poem without passus.

The dialect of Mum, like that of Richard the Redeless, is Midlands. Like most other Midlands poems it contains words not found, or found only rarely, in Chaucer's London vocabulary. The distinctive Midlands vocabulary can be observed in the many words for "man" that appear in the work: berne (also spelled barne and burne), fode, freke, gome, kempe, lede, renke, segge, and wyghte (wight, wy) alongside man.8 Some other words to be found in Mum and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight but not in Chaucer's or Gower's writings include melle, to speak (OE meðlan); laughte, took (OE læccan); dwele, illusion (OE gedwela).9

Some eccentricities of spelling by the manuscript's scribe include separating the y- prefix for the past participle from the verb form. Hence y shent and y kidde, which I have rendered yshent and ykidde. I have used a hyphen to join the y- prefix to a vowel, however (y-usid rather than yusid at line 1463). The scribe also separates the possessive form is from the noun or pronoun it modifies: kyng is for kyngis, which is how I spell such possessives. Line 880 in the MS reads "By a cliffe vn y knowe of Crist is owen makyng," which I have spelled "By a cliffe unyknowe of Cristis owen makyng." I have not, however, elided the possessive form when the noun ends with an e; hence wyke-is not wykeis ("week's," line 10). I have rendered MS ff with capital F at the beginning of lines except in Latin marginal comments included in the text. I have not recorded mid-line virgules (caesurae), although I have sometimes taken my cue for punctuation from these, with a comma or even a semicolon. For example, on a number of occasions I have followed the scribe's practice of using virgules or caesurae as partial stops in mid-line. On the basis of virgules, I have rendered MS line 1312, "Dreemes / and vndide þaym / as deede provid after," as "Dreemes, and undide thaym, as deede provid after." I transcribe MS line 1573, "And drawen hym clene fro his dees / he dysneth þere nomore," as "And drawen hym clene fro his dees; he dysneth there nomore." At key moments in the MS, the scribe left a small letter indicator, along with two lines of indent, for the rubricator to fill in with a larger letter later on. I have inserted large capital letters at these points, as did Day and Steele in their edition for EETS.

Go To Mum and the Sothsegger
Select Bibliography


British Library MS Additional 41666, fols. 1a-19b.

Printed Editions

Barr, Helen, ed. The Piers Plowman Tradition: A Critical Edition of Pierce the Ploughman's Crede, Richard the Redeless, Mum and the Sothsegger, and The Crowned King. London: J. M. Dent, 1993.

Day, Mabel, and Robert Steele, eds. Mum and the Sothsegger Edited from the Manuscripts Camb. Univ. Ll. iv. 14 and Brit. Mus. Add. 41666. EETS o.s. 199. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936. [An edition that combines the Cambridge University Library MS of RiR with the British Library MS Addit. - "Fragment M" - to form a single work called here Mum and the Sothsegger.]

Studies of Mum and the Sothsegger

Barr, Helen. Signes and Sothe: Language in the Piers Plowman Tradition. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1994. [The major study of RiR and Mum in the context of other alliterative poems after Piers Plowman.]

Bitterling, Klaus. "Mum and the Sothsegger und Bartholomaeus Anglicus." Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literatur 216 (1979), 345-56. [Despite D&S's contention, the name "Bartholomew the Bestiary" (Mum, line 1054) appears in other texts.]

Blamires, Alcuin. "Mum and the Sothsegger and Langlandian Idiom." Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 76 (1975), 583-604. [Finds many parallels between PP and Mum - in theme, structure, and language.]

Doyle, A. I. "The Manuscripts." In Middle English Alliterative Poetry and Its Literary Background. Ed. David Lawton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Pp. 88-100. [Argues that the corrections were executed in preparation for recopying and they may be in the same hand as the main text but in a later script.]
Eckhardt, Caroline D. "Another Historical Allusion in Mum and the Sothsegger." Notes & Queries 225 (1980), 495-97. [Finds an allusion to the house of Percy in lines 1731-33 and the reference to the "mone," since the Percies wore a well-known crescent moon on their badge; suggests dating the poem after the battle of Shrewsbury.]

Ferguson, Arthur B. "The Problem of Counsel in Mum and the Sothsegger." Studies in the Renaissance 2 (1955), 67-83. [The poem is almost a "treatise on counsel except for the fact that the author is concerned less with the technicalities of government than with the general problem of truth-telling in public life" (p. 67). He regards the poem as neglected but as interesting and important for social and political theory.]

Mohl, Ruth. "Theories of Monarchy in Mum and the Sothsegger."PMLA 59 (1944), 26-44. [Believes that same author wrote both RiR and Mum but that he was bold in the first part of the poem and circumspect in the second. Monarchy is the best form of government to check abuses of "feudalism."]

Simpson, James. "The Constraints of Satire in Piers Plowman and Mum and the Sothsegger." In Langland, the Mystics and the Medieval English Religious Tradition. Ed. Helen Phillips. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Pp. 11-30. [Argues that the theological and political constraints to silence in PP and Mum arise from real, historical threats and not fictions.]

Wawn, Andrew. "Truth-Telling and the Tradition of Mum and the Sothsegger." Yearbook of English Studies 13 (1983), 270-87. [Sets Mum in a specific tradition of telling the truth and the consequences of failing to be truthful. The formula "who sayth soth he shalbe shent" occurs in collections of proverbs and in literary works such as The Plowman's Tale, On the Times, and as a refrain in a Vernon MS lyric and in a Simeon MS poem.]

Wenzel, Siegfried. "Mum and the Sothsegger, Lines 421-422." English Language Notes 14 (1976), 87-90. [In an antifraternal passage Mum preserves a proverbial saying that appears, ironically, in Friar John Bromyard's Summa praedicantium.]

For Source and General Studies of Mum and the Sothesegger in relation to Richard the Redeless, see Select Bibliography for Richard the Redeless.