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Fiends and Risen Corpses: Introduction

Three of our tales fall apparently into the realm of necromancy. In The Lady Prioress a priest performing a clandestine funeral service is horrified when the devil rushes into the chapel, and further terrified when the corpse jumps up and bolts. Dane Hew, Munk of Leicestre is the story of a corpse that will not stay dead and is killed repeatedly, sometimes more than once by the same person. And in The Freiris of Berwik, a solemn ceremony of black magic is performed to raise a fiend. In all three tales, however, there is only human ingenuity at work in what is really a purely naturalistic chain of events.

The plot of The Lady Prioress combines a widespread story about a woman with multiple unwanted suitors who gets rid of them by assigning each one a role that will frighten the others with another story about the corpse of a man that is forbidden burial because of his unpaid debts. Our heroine sends off the knight who seeks to prove his devotion to lie all night in a chapel in the woods, sewn in a sheet like a corpse; the priest to the same chapel to bury her cousin, whose burial has been forbidden because he owes money; and the burgess, or town merchant, to the chapel dressed as a devil to stop a burial service being held for a man who owes her priory a sum of gold. The suitors terrify each other and fail in their respective tasks; the next day the Prioress sends the three of them packing and also blackmails the third into providing a healthy endowment for her priory.

The story of the multiple suitors has many medieval analogues, the best known today and the earliest being the story of Francesca, Rinuccio, and Alessandro, the first tale of the ninth day in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Pestered by two suitors, the lady Francesca sends word to one, Rinuccio, to take the place of a corpse which she says is to be carried to her house that night. She sends word to the other, Alessandro, to go fetch the corpse. As Alessandro is carrying Rinuccio in his graveclothes through the dark streets to her house, they are surprised by the watch and both flee, thus forfeiting any claim to Francesca’s love by failing to do what she has ordered.

An oral Netherlandish analogue is closer to our tale in that it is the fear of demons and ghosts that afflicts the suitors, unlike the fear of the officers of the watch that scatters Rinuccio and Alessandro. The tale is recorded by Benjamin Thorpe in Northern Mythology, vol. 3 (London: Lumley, 1852), pp. 217–18. The Long Wapper (a malicious spirit) takes the form of a promiscuous lady of Antwerp. The first of her lovers is promised her hand if he will go to the churchyard and sit on the transverse of the great cross. The second is sent, with the same promise, to lie in a coffin under the cross. The third is sent to knock three times on the coffin lid, and the fourth must run three times around the cross, rattling an iron chain. The first three lovers drop dead from fright, and the fourth returns to the lady with the news of the three corpses. But the lady knows nothing of the Long Wapper’s scheme and kills herself in remorse, and in this respect is considerably unlike the lady of our poem.

There are other early versions of the story that are like our poem in having three wooers (rather than the two or four of the first-mentioned analogues) at the gravesite frightening each other: Johannes Pauli’s tale number 220 in his Schimpf und Ernst (1522; ed. by Johannes Bolte [Berlin: Stubenraugh, 1924]); Nicholas de Troyes’s second tale, Les Trois galants au cimitière, in his Grand parangon des nouvelles nouvelles (choix) (1536; ed. by Krystyna Kasprzyk [Paris: M. Didier, 1970]); and the anonymous farce Les Trois amoureux de la croix in Recueil de farces (1450–1550), ed. Tissier. In none of these stories is the lady a nun: in Pauli she is an ugly but rich widow who knows the suitors to be after her money; in Nicholas she is unmarried; in the farce she is a married woman. The roles played by the suitors vary from version to version: in Pauli a corpse, angel, and devil; in Nicholas a corpse, gendarme, and devil; and only in the farce, as in The Lady Prioress, a priest, corpse, and devil. The denoue­ment in Pauli’s tale and that in Nicholas are similar to that in The Lady Prioress; but in the farce, the suitors eventually recognize each other and give up their folly out of a sense that the lady is not worth having. No clear lines of relationship and ancestry emerge out of the similarities and differences in these stories.

The anonymous poet has taken cues from other literature, the most obvious being from Chaucer for the suggestion of a prioress as an out-of-place romance heroine. Another influence may account for the Prioress’s fiction of the man whose corpse is being forbidden burial because of his debts. A corpse who has been denied burial but is then treated reverently by a pious hero is a recurring folklore motif (see ATU, motif 505), a motif that goes back at least as far as the book of Tobit. But it is also a prominent feature of Sir Amadace, a late fourteenth-century romance of the northwest Midlands. In The Lady Prioress, as in Sir Amadace, the corpse lies on a bier in the chapel, with two candles burning beside it; in Sir Amadace the corpse is refused burial because of debt. It seems likely that the poet had this particular romance in mind as he wrote. In making the knight vow to stay in the chapel all night, the poet may have remembered The Avowyng of King Arthur, an early fifteenth-century romance in which the three principal characters make vows, Gawain’s being to watch all night at Tarn Wadling. The Avowyng, Sir Amadace, and The Awntyrs off Arthur (a late fourteenth-century alliterative romance with a horrifying ghost returned from the dead and a stanzaic form somewhat like that of The Lady Prioress) all appear in the first section of Princeton University, MS Ireland Blackburn. MS Ireland Blackburn probably originated at Hale, southern Lancashire, and is dated in the third quarter of the fifteenth century: see Ralph Hanna’s introduction to his edition The Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyn (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1974), pp. 6–7. The last potential influence is the romantic literature of questing knights in general, which provides the knight in this tale with the comically pointless service he has to offer in contrast to the religious function of the priest and the monetary protectionism of the burgess.

Dane Hew, Munk of Leicestre tells of a lecherous monk who is manipulated by a virtuous wife, then murdered by her outraged husband. His corpse is then shuffled furtively by night from the murder scene to his abbey, from his abbey back to the murder scene, and from there towards a millpond in a sack. When the sack containing Dane Hew’s corpse is switched with a stolen sack containing the miller’s bacon, the thieves promptly return the sack with the corpse to the miller’s rafters. In a final blaze of chivalric glory the dead monk, tied to a horse with a lance under his arm, charges the abbot and is dragged from his horse and beaten to death again. The basic folktale motif is of a corpse (often a hunchback, but not so here or in the closest analogues) that is “killed” several times. Dane Hew is most closely related to several earlier French fabliaux, though none of these is clearly its source: Le dit dou soucretain by Jean le Chapelain, Du Segretain moine, and Du Segretain ou du moine. These stories can be found as number 74 in the Nouveau recueil complet des fabliaux (NRCF), ed. Willem van Noomen (Assen: van Gorcum, 1993), 7:1–189. The French stories differ in certain minor details from the English version, and in every case but one the French stories are more detailed, more rationalized. In the French versions, the wife who is the focus of Dane Hew’s lust is given a motive for her pretended yielding to the monk’s bribery: she and her husband have fallen into poverty. The monk’s corpse is not simply leaned against the abbey wall but perched on a privy in the abbey. The swapping of the corpse for a side of bacon is also more plausibly done in the French versions. But in Dane Hew, the horse that carries the monk’s corpse onto the grounds of the abbey is after the abbot’s mare, so that both his movements and the abbot’s terror are more understandable. Because of this detail of the horse’s pursuit of the mare, which does not occur in any of the extant French fabliaux but which does occur in a late fifteenth-century Italian novellino by Masuccio Salernitano (the first in Il Novellino di Masuccio Salernitano), Archer Taylor posits a common French ancestor to the English Dane Hew and the Italian novellino in “Dane Hew, Munk of Leicestre.” Taylor also argues that the later occurrences of the tale in English are all descended from Thomas Heywood’s story “The Fair Lady of Norwich” in his History of Women (1624), and it in turn is descended from Masuccio’s novellino, retaining features which Dane Hew does not. Dane Hew has therefore no direct descendants but many analogues.

The Freiris of Berwik is a comparatively long tale, with more richly developed characters and situation than the others in this collection. The plot begins with two friars, old Allane and younger Robert, returning home to Berwick after an excursion into the countryside, and seeking lodging at the house of Symon Lawrear when night approaches while they are still well outside the town walls. Symon’s wife Alesone refuses them lodging on the grounds that her husband is away from home and she does not want to be blamed for having the friars under her roof in his absence, but old Friar Allane plays upon her sympathies with his fatigue. She agrees to let them stay but insists they must be closed up in the loft. Friar Robert, who is curious, pierces a hole in the floor of the loft and sees her real reason for getting them out of the way: extensive preparations for a feast as she welcomes her lover, Friar Johine, from a rival order. When Symon knocks at the gate shortly after Friar Johine settles in for the evening, Friar Robert sees Alesone hide Johine under a trough and get her maid to stow the rich food and drink in a cupboard. Alesone lets Symon stand and call for a long while before she lets him in and insists she has nothing good for him to eat. A strategic cough from Friar Robert leads to the two friars in the loft being invited down to share Symon’s cold leftovers. Friar Robert proposes to amend the meal by practices he has learned in Paris. After a display of his magic procedures, Alesone is visibly surprised to find her cupboard full of excellent food and wine. A night’s carousing follows, and then Symon wants to know how Robert did it. He asks to see the fiend who is Robert’s servant. Robert reluctantly agrees to bring him forth, dressed as a Black Friar, with his hood pulled over his fiendish face so that Symon will not be too terrified. Robert performs an impressive conjuration, and the fiend arises from under the trough and dashes out the door, while Symon beats him with a cudgel and manages to knock himself out in the hullaballoo.

There are analogues to this tale that have a hidden lover and a stashed-away feast both exposed to an outraged husband, but not until the mid-fifteenth century is there one close to The Freiris of Berwik in its dramatic revelation and eating of the food, and release with physical punishment of the hidden lover, both without getting the wife into trouble and betraying her adultery: Hans Rosenblüt’s “Von einem varnden Schüler.”

The earliest known instance of the tale is the Latin version told in a collection of sermon exempla of the mid-fourteenth century, the Scala Celi of the Dominican “Johannes Junior,” i.e., Johannes Gobius. This is a very brief version, as befits an exemplum, and lacks many of the details found in The Freiris of Berwik, but there is a clerk fed sour wine and hard bread by the wife, who then hustles him into a separate room because she expects her lover; the husband does come back unexpectedly and bang on the door; the woman gets her lover to hide under a bench; the clerk claims to be student of necromancy; he points to the hidden food; and he conjures the hidden devil to come forth in the form of a monk and leave but orders the husband and wife not to look at him because he is so horrible. No mention is made of such matters as how the clerk sees the assignation, where precisely the food is hidden, or how the lady feels about the situation, nor of the episode in which the husband strikes at the devil. The Latin Scala Celi was widely used across medieval Europe as a source of engaging exempla of human behavior and misbehavior for preaching friars to use in their sermons. The barebones plots would be expanded as appropriate. Although after some of the exempla there is a brief allegorical interpretation, for this one no moral is drawn by Gobius himself: the tale is simply given to be used as the preacher sees fit and is classed under the heading “De Clerico,” “About a Clerk.” There is an edition by Marie-Anne Polo de Beaulieu, La Scala coeli de Jean de Gobi; this tale is number 207.

The relation of the tale to the earlier medieval French genre of fabliau and Chaucer’s revival of that genre in The Canterbury Tales has been the focus of most of the criticism on the poem. W. M. Hart gives a sensitive reading of The Freiris of Berwik in the context of genre history in “Fabliau and Popular Literature.” C. S. Lewis, in perhaps the most influential comment on the poem, calls it “an excellent fabliau” and considers it “above all other attempts to continue the tradition of the comic Canterbury Tales” (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p. 106). R. D. S. Jack argues that a comparison of the poem and what he calls its closest analogue, the fabliau Le Povre clerc, shows “the Scottish author to be following many of the devices initiated or perfected by Chaucer in those of the Canterbury Tales, which have obvious connection with the fabliau” (p. 145). But actually the story in the Scala Celi is closer than that in Le Povre Clerc, where there is no pretense of necromancy, for example; but if the story in the Scala Celi is more closely analogous, the way the story is told is, as Jack makes a good case, similar to the way fabliaux are. R. James Goldstein follows Jack in placing The Freiris of Berwik within the fabliau tradition, but adds some Lacanian observations and the comment that “The return to a threatened patriarchal order depends on a fiction so preposterous as to reveal the precariousness of that order” (p. 274).

The Freiris of Berwik does differ from the other poems in this collection in being racier, in one passage even obscene, as fabliaux characteristically are, and with the hapless husband continuing in his ignorance of his wife’s adultery and with his head split open to boot. It is true, though, that as a group the English language comic poems, even this one, end with a correction of moral wrongs, whereas fabliaux often (though far from always) leave cleverness triumphant at the expense of virtue. Because The Freiris of Berwik is so often identified as a fabliau, a couple of important studies of that genre and its circulation are useful in considering how well it fits that designation, though readers need to remember the difference in context between fifteenth-century Scotland and the French-speaking world of the thirteenth century to which most fabliaux belong. A good place to begin is Charles Muscatine, Old French Fabliaux. For the perennial issue of what audience the genre appealed to, see particularly the discussion “The Social Background” in his chapter 2 (pp. 24–46), which opens with an historical review of the arguments for the genre as a bourgeois one, then an aristocratic one, and develops Muscatine’s own persuasive argument that the genre had “a socially heterogeneous and mobile audience” (p. 46). A stringent structural definition of the genre is attempted in Mary Jane Stearns Schenck’s monograph The Fabliaux: Tales of Wit and Deception. Readers interested in the issues of genre, feminism, and audience of fabliaux would do well to consult Simon Gaunt, “Genitals, Gender, and Mobility.”

On gender issues specifically within The Freiris of Berwik there is an article by Evelyn S. Newlyn, “The Political Dimensions of Desire and Sexuality in Poems of the Bannatyne Manuscript.” It is Newlyn’s argument that the poem “demonstrates the enforcement of patriarchal control over a woman who attempts sexual autonomy” (p. 85).

Dane Hew (under the title Dom Hugh) and The Lady Prioress are both addressed by Derek Brewer in “Comedy of Corpses in Medieval Comic Tales.” They are modernized by him and included in his Medieval Comic Tales, and commented upon in his introduction, specifically pp. xxxii–xxxiii. A useful comparison to some of the analogues of The Lady Prioress is to be found in an article by Ben Parsons and Bas Jongenelen, “Play of Three Suitors,” especially pp. 60–61 on our poem and its feminist sympathies. All three poems are discussed as “true verse fabliaux” of the period by Peter Goodall in “English Fabliau after Chaucer,” especially pp. 8–9 (quotation is from p. 8), and by Marie Nelson and Richard Thomson, “Fabliau,” especially pp. 259–64. The three poems are mentioned in the more general generic discussions of Glenn Wright, “The Fabliau Ethos in the French and English Octavian Romances,” p. 479n3; and Melissa Furrow, “Comic Tales.” The Lady Prioress is addressed by John Hines, Fabliau in English, pp. 207–08; Dane Hew at pp. 208–09; and The Freiris of Berwik at pp. 209–10. But all of these are very brief and tangential discussions, and for Dane Hew and The Lady Prioress there is as yet very little criticism.

According to LALME, all four are possible areas for ren- forms of run (then rhymes with ryen at lines 149, 153; Q208), and Ely, NOrfolk, and Suffolk for places where erd- forms of earth are used (aferd/sherd/erd rhyme) at lines 159–61; see Q155). The poet's own dialect seems to have been a mixed one, perhaps because he moved around during his life, perhaps because he was happy to draw rhymes from wherever he could get them and was not abashed by inexact rhymes. No safe conclusions can be drawn about the origins of this poet.

Go To The Lady Prioress: Introduction
Go To The Lady Prioress
Go To Dane Hew, Monk of Leicestre: Introduction
Go To Dane Hew, Monk of Leicestre
Go To The Freiris of Berwik: Introduction
Go To The Freiris of Berwik