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Art. 23, Sitteth alle stille ant herkneth to me: Introduction

ABBREVIATIONS: AND: Anglo-Norman Dictionary; ANL: Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts (R. Dean and Boulton); BL: British Library (London); Bodl.: Bodleian Library (Oxford); CCC: Corpus Christi College (Cambridge); CUL: Cambridge University Library (Cambridge); IMEV: The Index of Middle English Verse (Brown and Robbins); IMEV Suppl.: Supplement to the Index of Middle English Verse (Robbins and Cutler); MED: Middle English Dictionary; MWME: A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050–1500 (Severs et al.); NIMEV: A New Index of Middle English Verse (Boffey and Edwards); NLS: National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh).

A Song of Lewes is the earliest surviving English sirventes, that is, a poem made to mock a beaten enemy. The rowdy refrain seems to call for loud singing by a group of like-minded partisans, everyone chiming in to deride “Richard the trichard.” Scattergood notes that the rhyme naming Richard of Cornwall a traitor had widespread valence (2000a, pp. 180, 183). This song and the Anglo-Norman one that comes next relive decisive moments in the Second Barons’ War (1264–67). Both focus on the exploits of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester and leader of the barons against the forces of Henry III. A Song of Lewes celebrates the baronial victory over Richard, the king’s brother, at Lewes on May 14, 1264. This win prompted shows of exultation. The song’s refrain ends every stanza on the word nevermore, declaring that the royalists will never recover, but this assertion was mistaken.

The song must have been composed somewhat later than the battle itself, that is, after Henry’s son Edward was imprisoned at Dover (January 1265), but yet before Montfort’s fall at the Battle of Evesham (August 4, 1265) the event lamented in the next poem. Therefore its period of composition occupies a narrow window of only seven months (the first half of 1265). Although highly partisan and selective, the poet is also well-informed, for the details he introduces corroborate accounts found in Latin chronicles (Brown 1932, pp. 222–24). Crowned German king in 1257, Richard of Cornwall had become unpopular on account of his foreign schemes of ambition. When the king’s party had been defeated, he ignominiously took shelter in a windmill, from whence he was captured and then imprisoned till September 1265. The poet’s invectives tend to spare the ruling monarch Henry III (referred to as “Windsor”), but they scathingly accuse his brother of thievery, debauchery, oath-breaking, and cowardice. Lesser targets of scorn are Lord Edward, John de Warenne, and Sir Hugh Bigot.

The events of 1264–67 hold great importance for English constitutional history. As the barons fought what was seen as royal oppression, many contemporaries read God’s presence in the victory at Lewes. Many celebrated Montfort and his fellows as heroes united in faith and courage, prepared to die for country, as they fought for English rights against a misdirected monarchy. A long Latin poem, The Battle of Lewes, sets out the legal principle they championed: “law is above the king, and in principle a weak or bad king can be forced by his subjects to obey the law” (A. Taylor 2002, p. 124). The Battle of Lewes appears in MS Harley 978, a book probably owned by William of Winchester, a monk of Reading who in 1280 was subprior at Leominster, a dependency of Reading in Herefordshire. The Ludlow scribe of MS Harley 2253 displays an avowed interest in Leominster by his inclusion of The Legend of Saint Etfrid, Priest of Leominster (art. 98).

For comment on this item and its historical background, see Scattergood 2000a, pp. 178–85, esp. pp. 182–83; Jeffrey 2000, p. 263; and A. Taylor 2002, pp. 93, 110–26. For background on Montfort, see Labarge; and Maddicott.

[Fols. 58v–59r. IMEV, NIMEV 3155. MWME 5:1404 [25]. Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 6. Meter: Eight 8-line stanzas with refrain, aaa4b3C1C3B4; the last stanza contains two extra lines before the refrain, aaa4b3a4b3C1C3B4. Layout: No columns, line 5 of each stanza written to right. The refrain (lines 6–8) is also written to the right, in full for stanzas 1–2, abbreviated for stanzas 3–8.The poem appears on a verso opposite Lament for Simon de Montfort, in diptych fashion. Editions: Wright 1839, pp. 68–71; Ritson 1877, pp. 11–13; Böddeker, pp. 98–100; Brandl and Zippel, p. 129; Brown 1932, pp. 131–32, 222–24 (no. 72). Other MSS: None. Cognate Latin Works: Three Latin pro-baronial poems are ed. and trans. Wright 1839, pp. 72–125; the longest is The Battle of Lewes, in London, BL MS Harley 978, fols. 75a–117v (ca. 1275–1300; ed. Kingsford).]

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