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Art. 25, Lystneth, lordynges! A newe song Ichulle bigynne: 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).

In characterizing this poem, Scattergood aptly cites Foucault on the show of political power that is a public execution: it “is to be understood not only as a judicial, but also as a political ritual. It belongs, even in minor cases, to the ceremonies by which power is manifested” (2000a, pp. 175–76). The Execution of Sir Simon Fraser is a poem about viewing events of national import, hearing them recounted in vivid detail, and, especially, taking notice of them. The author writes as if he were actually present in London during the executions of Wallace and Fraser. Adopting the style of an oral performer, he certifies an authority as witness and truthful reporter. The account itself is up-to-date and well-informed.

As background, the poet describes the August 1305 capture, execution, and quartering of Sir William Wallace, termed a traitor from Scotland. The second half of the poem narrates the June 1306 capture and September execution of Sir Simon Fraser (or Frisel), another Scottish traitor, taken at the Battle of Methven (or Kirkencliff). The gruesome details of each man’s public death are dwelt on. Each torture is performed according to the new fashion of drawing and disemboweling the victim while still alive. Wallace and Fraser are transformed from dangerous men into sobering public examples, purveyors of a grim moral and political message. The point is to warn everyone — Scots, French, even fellow English — of the state’s ultimate power in quelling uprisings and unrest. At beginning and end, the author paints a picture of proud Wallace and Fraser brought low in public view, their severed heads displayed on London Bridge.

The tone of the piece is vigorously nationalistic and anti-Scots. Scattergood 2000a places its composition in the autumn of 1306, close to the events described (p. 174). Revard notes how the portrait of Edward undergoes some alterations in MS Harley 2253: “By 1305 the English Prince Edward, scorned and mocked in the ME sirventes of 1264 [art. 23], has become the great and pious king who rightly punishes Scots rebels” (2007, p. 110). The Execution of Sir Simon Fraser concludes with a warning to the French and the Scots to beware so long as Edward of the “longe shonkes” is alive. By 1306, Edward I was ill and had not long to live; notably, the roles in suppressing the Scots taken by Edward of Carnarvon (the future Edward II) and by Sir Aymer de Valence (Edward’s guardian) are the ones spotlighted here.

The scribe’s interesting arrangement of material conveys many messages in itself. The trilingual meditation on mortality (arts. 24a, 24a*, 24b) points forward to this poem of public execution as well as backward to the death in battle of Simon de Montfort, who was also dismembered. Thus do two Simons die ignobly, one French, one Scottish, both enemies of the Crown. The scribe also connects the ending of this poem to the opening of the next one, a comic satire. One of the closing rhymes (strif/knyf/lyf) is reprised at the start of On the Follies of Fashion (art. 25a).

For further commentary on this poem, see Robbins 1959, pp. 252–56; Turville-Petre 1996, pp. 12–13, 21, 196–97; Scattergood 2000a, pp. 174–77; Revard 2007, pp. 110–11; and Cannon, p. 89. For another Harley item with Scottish concerns, see The Prophecy of Thomas of Erceldoune (art. 90).

[Fols. 59v–61v. IMEV, NIMEV 1889. MWME 5:1405 [28]. Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 6. Meter: Twenty-nine 8-line stanzas, aabb4c1ddc2–3 (rhymes a and b are frequently combined), in non-iambic, tumbling rhythm; the last stanza contains an extra line with d-rhyme. Layout: No columns, lines 6–8 of each stanza are written as one line, bob written to the right of lines 1–4. Editions: Wright 1839, pp. 212–23; Ritson 1877, pp. 25–34; Böddeker, pp. 126–34; Brandl and Zippel, pp. 129–33; Robbins 1959, pp. 14–21 (no. 4). Other MSS: None.]

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