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Art. 34, Most I ryden by Rybbesdale: 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).

The Fair Maid of Ribblesdale is a secular lyric that describes the lady in terms of her physical attributes. Its distinctive feature is hyperbole. The portrait moves from the head downward, dwelling on each of her parts and growing incrementally more exaggerated so as to suggest, ultimately, that the maid can hardly be mortal: she must be a fairy or else the speaker is so smitten he cannot perceive her otherwise. The lyric dissolves into fantasized ecstasy that ultimately conflates physical eroticism and mystical experience: the man so favored by Christ as to lie one night beside the Ribblesdale maid will attain heaven there. As Turville-Petre comments, “Divine love and sensual love are now indistinguishable, so that earth has become heaven and Christ died on the Cross in order that a lover might spend the night in the arms of his mistress” (1996, p. 216). A similar ending is found in The Lover’s Complaint (art. 30).

Two other Harley lyrics match this one in stanza form and extensive alliteration — Spring and Advice to Women (arts. 43, 44) — but they differ in vocabulary. The scribe may be grouping this lyric with the two that follow it: The Meeting in the Wood and A Beauty White as Whale’s Bone (arts. 35, 36). He copies them together in one opening, fols. 66v–67r. The first two have chanson d’aventure openings, and all three open in praise of a woman’s beauty (Stemmler 2000, p. 117). For further recent commentary, see the bibliography in MWME 11:4326–28, to which may be added Turville-Petre 1996, pp. 214–16; Kinch, pp. 143–46; Scattergood 2005, pp. 57–58; and Choong, pp. 17–21.

[Fol. 66v. IMEV, NIMEV 1449. MWME 11:4180 [8]. Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 7. Meter: Five 8-line and two 4-line stanzas, abab(abab)3–4, with verbal and alliterative linking of stanzas’ last and first lines. Each line possesses two to four alliterating syllables. Layout: No columns; written two lines per ruled line. Editions: Wright 1842, pp. 33–36 (no. 9); Böddeker, pp. 154–60; Brook, pp. 39–40 (no. 8); Bennett and Smithers, pp. 113–15; Stemmler 1970, pp. 16–18; Millett, online edition. Other MSS: None.]

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