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Art. 31, Ich herde men upo mold: 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).

Set amid love lyrics, this item of English peasant complaint is usually labeled historical or political, and then occluded from consideration with the lyrics that occur near it in quire 7. However, its tones of discontent and thwarted desire complement the immediate context (Fein 2000c, pp. 357–58, 368). Generically, Song of the Husbandman belongs with a distinctive set of Harley poems in English alliterative verse that lodge protest by means of earthy vernacular idiom. These poems tend to be vivid monologues (e.g., arts. 25a, 40, 81, 88). Here, the anonymous poet gives voice to English farmers who find themselves impoverished and victimized by oppressive taxation and extortion. As in Satire on the Consistory Courts (art. 40), illiteracy is wielded as a weapon against the speaker. Of the tax collector’s hated bill, which the husbandman cannot read, Scattergood observes that those “who collected the king’s taxes were exploiting their literacy and the illiteracy of the peasantry by not entering records for payment, appropriating what was paid for their own use, and demanding the money all over again on the strength of the ‘writ’” (2000b, p. 41). What illiterate farmers could read all too well was the fearsome sign of green wax sealing the document (Green 1999, p. 200).

Song of the Husbandman aligns with other works in MS Harley 2253 that vociferously register moral objection to oppressive, corrupt taxation: the Latin All the World’s a Chess Board and the French/Latin Against the King’s Taxes (arts. 109, 114). These combined selections would seem to reflect the compiler’s own attitude about authoritarian abuse of power. Meanwhile, this poem’s dense alliterative lines deliver hints of biting moral allegory, rather like Piers Plowman (Newhauser). In ways resembling Trailbaston and Satire on the Retinues of the Great (arts. 80, 88), the poet adopts a tone of legal plaint. For further commentary, see Turville-Petre 1996, p. 197; Scattergood 2000a, pp. 188–89; Fein 2007, pp. 91–93; and Scase 2007, pp. 33–41.

[Fol. 64r. IMEV Suppl., NIMEV 1320.5. MWME 5:1404 [26]. Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 7. Meter: Six 12-line stanzas in alliterative long lines, rhymed ababababcdcd. Layout: No columns; written two lines per ruled line. Editions: Wright 1839, pp. 149–53; Böddeker, pp. 102–05; Brandl and Zippel, pp. 134–35; Robbins 1959, pp. 7–9 (no. 2); Turville-Petre 1989, pp. 17–20; J. M. Dean, pp. 251–53. Other MSS: None.]

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