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Art. 40, Ne mai no lewed lued libben in londe: 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 richly comic satire complements a host of works found elsewhere in MS Harley 2253: the antifeminist French poems, the alliterative English monologues set for dramatic performance, and the many items that voice a person’s needs, frustrated desires, or oppressed victimization at the hands of authoritative officialdom. In itself, the poem presents a biting satire of the ecclesiastical court system. It is here copied by a man with legal and clerical training, who himself performed duties as a legal scrivener (Revard 2000b).

The anonymous poet’s awareness of the power of literacy is striking. He fashions a bewildered, angry, entrapped speaker who finds himself destroyed by books, “disempowered by a culture controlled by a clerical and intellectual elite, based on writing and documentation, which is alien to him” (Scattergood 2000b, p. 39). He has been hauled into court to face a judge (“an old cherl in a blake hure,” line 19) and a row of smug, self-important summoners. Books are open, wherein are recorded his name and crime. He is in this predicament for what is, to his thinking, a trivial act: sexual dalliance with a girl on the ground (line 4). The girl takes the matter quite seriously, however, and demands justice in the form of marriage — something the narrator may have casually promised in the act of seduction. Because this is a comic monologue, the whole scene is constructed and colored through the lens of the speaker — an aggrieved, lewed man with disdain for a court system that would side (for its own extortionist gain) with a foolish woman. A riotous scene unfolds, one “alive with noise and movement: the bustle of the judicial officers, the jilted, bedraggled women vulgarly bawling their accusation across the courtroom” (Turville-Petre 1996, pp. 201–02). The accuser called to bear witness is summoned by two generic names, Maggie and Moll, which probably does not connote more than one accuser but does suggest the repetitive nature of such a scene in the ecclesiastical courts, where loose morals become grist and income for corrupt judicial officers.

As an English alliterative satiric complaint constructed as a dramatic monologue, this item is comparable to Harley arts. 25a, 31, 45, 81, 88. There is metrical similarity as well to An Old Man’s Prayer (art. 45). Satire on the Consistory Courts is also sensitively counterpoised with the item that follows it, The Laborers in the Vineyard (art. 41), which is copied in parallel columns. Laborers handles similar themes in contrastive, nuanced ways. For commentary on Satire on the Consistory Courts, see Turville-Petre 1997; Scase 2007, pp. 38 n. 130, 143; and Scattergood 2000a, pp. 197–99, and 2000b, pp. 27–42. For this poem and English ecclesiastical statutes on marriage, see McCarthy, pp. 78–82, 210–13.

[Fols. 70va, 71ra, 71va. IMEV, NIMEV 2287. MWME 5:1406 [30]. Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 8. Meter: Five 18-line alliterative stanzas, rhyming aabccbddbeebfgggf, with concatenation at lines 12–13 and a complex metrical pattern. Lines rhyming a, c, d, and e are long, 4-stress lines. Lines rhyming b are short, 2-stress lines. Lines 11–17 form a wheel in 2-stress lines with a final bob (line 18) that rhymes with line 13 and alliterates with line 17. Layout: Written in left columns of double-column pages. Editions: Wright 1839, 155–59; Böddeker, pp. 109–12; Robbins 1959, pp. 24–27 (no. 6); Turville-Petre 1989, pp. 28–31. Other MSS: None.]

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