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John the Reeve: Introduction

1 Douglas, Palis of Honoure, lines 1711–12.

2 Dunbar, “To the King [Exces of thocht dois me mischeif],” line 33.

3 Lyndsay, Testament of the Papyngo, from Sir David Lyndsay: Selected Poems, line 560.

4 Unger, Beer in the Middle Ages, p. 99.

John the Reeve appears on pp. 357–68 of the Percy Folio Manuscript (London, British Library, MS Additional 27879). That seventeenth-century manuscript, besides containing one of the later versions of Jack and His Stepdame, also contains The Boy and the Mantle, and a description of the manuscript and its history is to be found in the introduction to that poem. One scribe writes the whole of the manuscript, but it should be noted that his or her transcription of John the Reeve shows conservatism, preserving words and forms that are not the scribe’s own: grammatical forms such as the northern imperative brings at line 707 and words such as archaic outcept (line 156), archaic or Scottish pallett (line 599), and archaic ryke (line 266). Final e on words like soe and doe, mee and hee is scribal, as is the occasional spelling the for they.


John the Reeve appears, with different names as noted below, in the following early or otherwise useful editions:

1822. John the Reeve. David Laing, ed. Select Remains of the Early Popular Poetry of Scotland. Edinburgh: privately printed. I have not seen this edition.

1868. John de Reeve. John W. Hales and Frederick J. Furnivall, eds. Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript: Ballads and Romances. London: N. Trübner. 2:550–94.

1885. John the Reeve. David Laing and John Small, eds. Select Remains of the Ancient Popular and Romance Poetry of Scotland, collected and edited by David Laing, Edinburgh; re-edited by John Small. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons. Pp. 42–79.

1895. John the Reeve. David Laing and William Carew Hazlitt, eds. Early Popular Poetry of Scotland and the Northern Border, edited by David Laing, reedited by William Carew Hazlitt, 2 vols. London: Reeves and Turner. 1:250–83.

1985. John the Reeve. Melissa M. Furrow, ed. Ten Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems. New York: Garland. Pp. 177–234.

That it had an early circulation in Scotland is clear from the references to it in the early years of the sixteenth century. Gavin Douglas, in his Palis of Honoure (1501) sees “Johne the reif” and “Raf Coilyear” in his magic mirror with the other great figures of world literature.1 William Dunbar mentions “Rauf Colyard and Johnne the Reif” in an address to the king (c. 1520).2 And Sir David Lyndsay describes an archbishop as “dissagysit lyke Jhone the Raif” in his Testament of the Papyngo (1530).3 But despite these references, and David Laing’s inclusion of it among “early popular poetry of Scotland,” a poem calling Edward I (the Hammer of the Scots) “our king” (line 12) and referring to him with admiration is unlikely to originate from Scotland.


John the Reeve is NIMEV 989.

It is addressed by Thomas Cooke in volume 9 (1993) of the Manual, section 24 Tales [12], John the Reeve.


John the Reeve was committed to the Percy Folio Manuscript long after it was originally composed. As discussed above in the Kings and Commoners Introduction, the poem must have been composed between 1377 and 1461. The earliest citation in MED of the term handful as a linear measurement (see hondful), as it is used in John the Reeve in lines 326 and 608, is in 1439, in a context that clearly marks it as a new concept: “‘They were wonte to mete clothe by yerde and ynche, now they woll mete by yerde and handfull’ (Rotuli Parliamentorum 5.30b).” Moreover, at lines 140–41 John distinguishes between ale (which he drinks) and beer (which he does not). The two terms were synonymous in Middle English until the introduction from the Low Countries of the use of hops in brewing (see MED, ale); the old-fashioned drink was then called ale and the new drink with hops, beer. Beer was imported into England in the fourteenth century, but only began to be made there, usually by foreigners, in 1391 in London, and then gradually after 1400 in “other English towns, but there were still very few of them outside London,” according to Richard W. Unger. Not until 1441 were beer-brewers established enough to begin to be regulated.4 The date for the composition of the poem therefore seems likely to be mid-fifteenth century rather than much earlier.

As to where it was composed, the second stanza connects the poem with Lancashire:
As I heard tell this other yere,
A clarke came out of Lancashire;
A rolle he had reading.
The story is set in and near Windsor (see lines 570 and 575), but there are many signs that the poet’s origins are farther north: the language, the choice of the bishop of Durham as a character, the swearing by St. William of York, and the perplexing assertion in the last stanza that John the Reeve lived in the “south west countrye,” attributable only to an ignorance of exactly where Windsor is.

As for the language, any dialectal analysis of it is complicated by both the lapse of time between composition and manuscript, a lapse that would encourage scribal revision where forms have changed, and the poet’s looseness in rhyming. In this poem there are rhymes on nd/ng (e.g., wand/gange, lines 346–47), d/t (e.g., byte/syde, lines 325–26), th/f (e.g., wrothe/loffe, lines 147, 150), and wl/w (e.g., bowle/know, lines 531, 534). There are also nonce inexact rhymes: greeffe/office (lines 205–06), prime/line (lines 559–60), abacke/rappe (lines 727–28). The poet sometimes rhymes on syllables that are normally unstressed (e.g., bringe/likinge, lines 3, 6). And there are repeated rhymes of long close e with long or short i (e.g., hye/thee, lines 88–89 and mee/I, lines 175–76).

Perhaps the most that can be said is that features of the language are compatible with a Lancashire origin. Lancashire is within the northern area where descendants of Old English long a still can appear with an a spelling in the late Middle English period (LALME, Q47), and in John the Reeve there are rhymes of descendants of Old English long a with long a from other sources: e.g., dame/home at lines 220–21, with dame from Old French, and home from Old English ham. A more restrictive rhyme is abone/warrison at lines 565–66. The area where the form abone appears for above is a much smaller one, but does include Lancashire (LALME Q66). The rhyme miss/penyles (lines 276, 279), if we could rely on it to be an exact rhyme for the poet, would suggest an original -lis or -lys ending for pennyless, and LALME puts such endings in Derby, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Lancashire, the East Riding of Yorkshire, and northern Middle English (Q277). This too works well with a Lancashire ascription but a loose rhyme would also be consonant with the poet’s practice. The poem is composed of six-line stanzas rhyming aabccb, usually with the a and c lines having four stresses and the b lines three but with variation. Occasionally the poet lengthens the stanza to aabccbddb (e.g., at lines 211–19). The tendency to reach for a rhyme or to use fillers like “as I trow” or “certaine” contributes to the general laxness of the poetry.

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