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Art. 25a, Lord that lenest us lyf: 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).

This satire on women’s dress is first and foremost a comic piece that defuses the tension brought on by the preceding item on the execution of Scottish traitors — a piece that had dramatically raised an audience’s disquieting fear of border wars and rebellions. In juxtaposition to that poem, this one delivers a funny vernacular satire, a tour de force of alliterative humor on the trivial subject of how foolish English girls aspire to affect the French fashions of Anglo-Norman noblewomen.

On the Follies of Fashion begins by repeating the lyf/knyf/strif rhyme that had concluded The Execution of Sir Simon Fraser (art. 25), with wyf now added as a rhyme-word. God is told that he may withdraw his knife and withhold strife, because all folks know the law and hold a properly fearful respect for his power, as they have since Adam and Eve (evoking, coyly, the point of origin for human dress). Meanwhile, pride is still a problem, as the example of women’s fashion will illustrate. Girls make themselves strumpets and unwitting targets of the devil in their vain desire to imitate the rich and noble. The object of particular ridicule is an extreme hairstyle of large buns worn over each ear, which make the bearer seem a “slat swyn,” a baited pig (line 36). This outrageous fashion is in fact a throne for the devil, an invitation for him to hold court on the foolish girl’s head and secure her entrapment.

Critics tend to take this piece more seriously than is necessary. It does indeed share some of the antifeminist strains found elsewhere in MS Harley 2253 (see, for example, Bozon’s Women and Magpies [art. 78]), but only if its comedic performance value (with its huge dollop of social humor) is heard first. Turville-Petre remarks how the abuse of dress skewered here is “grounded in the disparity between French elegance and English plainness” (1996, p. 202), a disparity reenacted in colorful English idiom. Readers often hear stern moralism in the satire. Scattergood, for example, identifies an essentially conservative viewpoint: fashionable dress is critiqued as “conducive to lechery, hence the accusation that the woman is a whore in the company of dissolute people”; the poem is therefore “driven by the author’s perception that these new fashions are a threat to social order” (2000a, p. 200). Sumptuary laws of the time dictated what could lawfully be worn by rank and income. Fashions worn by ladies were not permissible for the lowborn.

The primary motive of the piece is, however, to entertain a sophisticated audience. The butts of the joke are an exaggerated fashion and the misguided creature trying to attain it in an obviously tasteless manner. As Revard remarks, the invectives grow “increasingly vituperative” as the poem proceeds; he attaches the poem’s content to its political/moral context in the manuscript: “The proud women, like the proud Scots, and perhaps like the proud rebel barons, have over-reached and been made fools by the powers of the world, the flesh, and the devil” (2007, p. 111). Maybe so, but the target here is small, like the gossip in church (whom, by long comic/moral tradition, the devil also entraps), and pleasure outweighs seriousness. Every stanza ends with a surprise, a punch line, revealing this poem as an English script for a performer of precise linguistic skill and impeccable comic timing.

[Fol. 61v. IMEV, NIMEV 1974. MWME 5:1407 [32]. Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 6. Meter: Five alliterative 11-line stanzas, a3b2a3b2a3b2a3b2c1cc2–4. Layout: No columns, two lines per manuscript line, bob written to the right (compare art. 27). Editions: Wright 1839, pp. 153–53; Böddeker, pp. 106–7; Brown 1932, pp. 133–34 (no. 74); Turville-Petre 1989, pp. 12–13. Other MSS: None.]

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