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Art. 36, A wayle whyt ase whalles bon: 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 Beauty White as Whale’s Bone is a boisterous love song in carol form, goliardic in spirit. Recapturing its original structure requires a reordering of the stanzas as they are found in MS Harley 2253. Written at the end of the poem are its incipit, first two stanzas, and lively refrain (lines 1–22). The error was apparently caused by the scribe copying a double-sided song sheet in reverse order (Degginger, pp. 84–90; Duncan, pp. 4–6). Here, the text has been reconstructed. For the actual manuscript arrangement, see textual notes.

The male speaker declares in the refrain that he wishes he were a bird hidden between the lady’s kirtle and smock, with a erotic pun playing on the rhymewords threstelcok and lavercok. His desire becomes funnier by rollicking repetition. The poem is a parody of derne love set in a bourgeois world: the lady is a woman of the town, and she is apparently married; the lover faces her hostility and also her husband’s. Undaunted, however, he declares himself wounded by her eyes, feels himself dying before his time, and dreams of how kissing her would be murthe. In the final stanza, the hyperbole of love verse turns absurdly mercantile: to have his lady, the lover swears he would trade, without haggling, three ladies for one, for there is, from heaven to hell, from sun to sea, none so prudent as himself.

For commentary on A Beauty White as Whale’s Bone, see the bibliography in MWME 11:4330–31; and also Ransom, pp. 69–70; D’Arcy, p. 318; and Scattergood 2005, pp. 58–59.

[Fol. 67r. IMEV, NIMEV 105. MWME 11:4181[9]. Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 7. Meter: In reconstructed form, there are eight 6-line stanzas, a2–4aa4b2a4b2, with a 5-line burden, CC4D2C4D2. The last stanza has an added seventh line, aaa4b2a4ba2. Layout: No columns; written as prose with line breaks marked. (The order of stanzas has been altered according to the reconstruction proposed by Degginger, pp. 88–90.) Editions: Wright 1842, pp. 38–40 (no. 11); Böddeker, pp. 161–63; Brook, pp. 40–41 (no. 9); Bennett and Smithers, pp. 117–19; Stemmler 1970, pp. 18–20; Millett, online edition. Other MSS: None.]

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