The Lady Prioress
THE LADY PRIORESS: EXPLANATORY NOTES
Abbreviations: CT: Chaucer, Canterbury Tales; MED: Middle English Dictionary; OED: Oxford English Dictionary.
18 A prioress was a leader of nuns, either the superior in a daughter house or the second in command to the abbess in a mother house. This prioress is the superior in a daughter house, a particular “plase.”
19–20 Like a heroine of romance, the prioress is lovely and well born. But nuns, particularly those in positions of power, often did come from noble families.
21 Gan is a past tense marker in this poem: gan chase means “chased.”
37 narrow tornyd and went. Literally, “turned this way and that in tight circles” (from the phrase “turn and wind,” with confusion from the verb “wend”).
38–41 The wooers are clearly differentiated from each other, down to the presents they bring: the knight brings game, the parson rosaries, candles, and wine, and the merchant brings gold and rent. In The Long Wapper they are not distinguished at all; in Les Trois galants au cimetière there is no systematic distinction, and in the Decameron and the farcial Trois amoureux de la croix the lovers are distinguished only by name. In Schimpf und Ernst they are distinguished only by status (a student, a nobleman, and a burgess’s son who belongs to a regiment).
52 To make the Jues there heddys hyde. Saracens were more usual adversaries, since they held the Holy Land throughout most of the medieval period. Compare Les Trois galants au cimetière, in which the young woman says to the first lover “vous me prometès tant de bien et mesmes pour aller en Jerusalem” (pp. 33–34) [you promised me much and even to go to Jerusalem]. The last abortive crusade began and ended in 1464 when its leader, Pope Pius II, died before his ship left port at Ancona. The combination of Jews and huge giants as the knight’s potential adversaries must have seemed comically odd, like a boast now that one will fight Belgians and space invaders.
76 The boastfully fierce knight, eagerly sewing himself into a winding sheet to be like a corpse ready for burial, has turned himself into a comic figure. Since a winding sheet could have been wound and knotted rather than stitched, perhaps the stitching here is reminiscent of the young man Amans at the beginning of the French text that did so much to define fin’ amours for northern Europe, the thirteenth-century Roman de la rose
82 Syr John. The conventional title and name for a priest.
90 Hys beryng ys forbode. Refusing burial to a corpse because of debt was a literary theme, not a historical reality. See the introduction to The Lady Prioress for an instance of the theme in contemporary romance.
121 In a devellys garment ye shall be arayed. The devil’s garment here is made of rags, as implied in line 154. In contemporary art the devil was usually portrayed as bestial, with shaggy fur, and costumes in contemporary plays undoubtedly tried for the same effect. In 1393 Charles IV of France and five of his lords were acting as “hommes sauvages” in a “ludus” at court, and imitated the fur also associated with the wild men by coating themselves with pitch and, stuck in that, frayed linen. The results were tragic: the duke of Orléans brought a torch too close to one, trying to guess who he was, and a fire spread among them, killing four of the courtiers. Probably a costume made of real fur was more usual (and safer). The Lucifer in Les Actes des apôtres (played at Bourges in 1536) “estoit vestu d’une peau d’ours, ou à chaucun poil pendait une papillotte” [was clothed in a bearskin, where from each hair hung a curl of paper] (cited by Gustave Cohen, Histoire de la mise en scène dans la théâtre religieux français du moyen age, second ed. [Paris: Libraire Honoré Champion, 1951], p. 95). But perhaps the merchant’s rags formed a cloak meant loosely to suggest rough fur.
138 Rynnyng, roryng wyth hys rakyls as devyllys semyd to doo. The merchant carries chains, a symbol of the bonds of hell, as do the pretended devils in The Long Wapper and the farcical Trois amoureux de la croix. In the account book of expenses for the playing of the mystery of the Passion at Mons in 1501, a major expense is for the devil’s chains: “Item pour iii kaisnes de fer, pesant ensemble cxx livres, servant pour le deable Lucifer d’Enfer en hault, à iii s. la livre, xviii l.” [Item, for three iron chains, weighing together 120 pounds, serving for the devil Lucifer of Hell above (?), at three sous the pound, 18 livres] (ed. Gustave Cohen, Le Livre de conduite du régisseur, Publications de la Faculté des Lettres de l’Université de Strasbourg 23 , p. 507).
180 In a bokys snarre. A snare was not a usual way of catching bucks. Snares were set for birds and for small animals, but deer were hunted by driving them into enclosures or by shooting with bow and arrows. But this snare has to be big enough to catch a man, and so it is a buck’s snare.
184 For now I goo to the devyll bycause I dyd hym scoren. Feeling the bull’s horns, the priest assumes he is being carried off to hell on a devil’s back, as Vices traditionally were in morality plays. The priest also assumes that he has offended the devil by daring to imitate him.
189 Tyll that he herde a bell. A bell was a sanctified object, and its ringing had power against demons. The bell would have been heard from the church or the convent, ringing to signal a service.
196 Ye, and eke the calltrape. The precise sense is unclear, since a caltrop is usually a spiky trap on the ground. The general sense must be that the knight accidentally undoes or detaches the snare that has hauled him up into the tree top, and so he will fall out of the tree and crash to the ground. Likely the line is corrupt in its current form.
208–09 The prioress of course speaks with double meaning: she has never had a lover who died a good death, in God’s grace, because she has never had a lover, but the unprincipled and superstitious priest is quick to swear off pursuing her any further because he now sees his night’s misadventures as diabolic retribution for his attempt to violate a nun’s vows of chastity.
228–35 The merchant makes a last-ditch attempt to turn his flight from the risen corpse into a demonstration of his love for the prioress: no hedge is too high, no body of water too broad, for him to cross to win her. Her response is a brusque instruction to be quiet, and a threat of exposing him to his wife and the people on whom his business depends, those in the countryside and the local market town.
236 Therwyth he gave her twenty marke that she shold hold her pese. A mark was a large unit of money, worth two-thirds of a pound.
THE LADY PRIORESS: TEXTUAL NOTES
Abbreviations: MS: London, British Library, MS Harley 78, fols. 74r–81v; MED: Middle English Dictionary; OED: Oxford English Dictionary.
title No title in the MS. Instead appears the heading: Lydgate.
5 MS reads: Of resons x or xii.
24–26 This area is a mess, with layered conjectures trying to restore an unrecovered original text. The main scribe has written this:
Grett gyftys to here they putThe corrector has made insertions and deletions:
Many men lowyth here out of mynd
How here selfe myght from shame shytt
Grett gyftys to here they put browghthAccepting that “brought” is probably a good guess by the corrector as to what the original might have read before the line endings in this area were damaged, I have made highly conjectural emendations to the other two lines, trying to make sense of them, guided by the rhyme scheme and the first parts of the lines.
Many men lowyth there out of mynd thei hir softe
How here selfe myght from them shame shytt wrowthe
28 This line is written as two separate lines, broken after knyght. In the first half of the poem many long lines after this are similarly broken. They are: 37, after love; 46, after mervelously; 58, after lord; 64, after chapell; 65, after nyght; 73, after gent; 74, after borne; 76, after shett; 82, after go; 84, after do; 101, after me; 102, after this; 103 after showyll; 109, after gon.
33 Evyre more thei went and com. This is inserted by the corrector. The main scribe has: They goo and com. The corrector’s version restores a consistency of tenses: “went,” “came,” “desired.” Agreement of tenses is not necessary in Middle English, but it is plausible that the main scribe read com as present tense and thus changed to goo from went, but that the corrector habitually used com as a past tense. Middle English com as a past tense had long o (unlike the more central vowel in com as a present tense or infinitive), which would have rhymed with the vowel in moon and soon.
40 MS reads: beddys brochys and botellys of wyen he to the lady sent. The second part of the line virtually repeats the second part of line 38. The sense requires naming the presents that the burgess offers. The emendation is conjectural.
42 MS reads: Thus they trobylyd her thorow tene; “her” added above the line by the corrector.
46 MS reads: The young knyght bethought hym mervelously wyth lady for to mell. Emendation for sense.
48 MS reads: lessyngys lepyd out of amonge as sowend of a bell.
49 Madam but I haue my lyst of yow I shall myseleff quell: added between lines by the corrector.
51 MS reads: In batyll bolde there abyde. Emendation for sense, taking there as a form of the verb tharf (OED; confused with dare v.1), thurven (MED, def. 8).
52 MS reads: To make the
53 With gret strokes and bloddy syd: added between lines by the corrector.
64 MS reads: Dowen in the wode there ys a chapell / ryght as I you hyght lett. The word lett is in the hand of the corrector, but hyght is not canceled. The form hyght (instead of hett) is doubtless influenced by the appearance of nyght at the end of the half line immediately below.
72 In that quarrell for to fyght: for inserted above the line.
79 MS reads: Wyth ij tapers bornynge bryght.
85 MS reads: Syr sche sayd hyt schall tell you my conssell sone. These words were added by the corrector between lines, and have been emended for sense.
90 MS reads: hys beryng ys for good bode.
92 MS reads: therfore we send for you ouer worshype for to save. for is inserted above the line.
96 MS reads: hys hartte hoppyd hys wyll toworke worke. An r is added in the corrector’s hand between the o and k of towoke; then the whole word worke is added in the corrector’s hand beside the line.
101 MS reads: and serten to I the saye. The word to is added above the line.
103 MS reads: Wyth a mttake and a showyll.
107 MS reads: The knyght lyeth styll and dremyd byt. The b of byt is corrected to h with an exaggerated downstroke.
112 MS reads: Therin lyeth a ded corse; thefore must ye stere ye.
113–14 These lines are written as one line in the MS. After this point no more long lines are broken in half by the scribe, but short lines are combined into one. They are lines 122–23; 124–25; 131–32; 133–35; 140–41; 142–43; 149–50; 151–52; 158–59; 160–61; 168–69; 170–71; 176–77; 178–79; 186–87; 188–89; 193–94; 195–96; 197–98; 203–04; 205–06; 212–13; 221–22; 223–24; 230–31; 232–33; 238–39; 240–41; 242–43.
119 MS reads: Yt were a fowlle sham for us so for to be bytrayed. The by of bytrayed has been inserted above the line.
122 The word full has been added above the line.
127 MS reads: Madam for your love soen I ye shall be tryed tyryd. The corrector adds tyryd above the line but does not cancel tryed. The I is squeezed in after soen; ye is scraped to obliterate.
134 The words sade he are added above the line in the corrector’s hand.
138 MS reads: Rynnyng raoryng wyth hys rakyls as devyllys semyd to doo.
139 MS reads: The pryst brayed up as a boke hys hartt was all a most goo. The word most is added above the line.
143 The word at is added above the line.
147 MS reads: I trow I had my damys curse I myght haue byn better beddyd. Emended for rhyme.
150 MS reads: the devyll se the rose body rose. Emended for rhyme.
154 MS reads: Hys Ragys and hys Rattellys clen he had forgett. Emendation for sense (compare line 138).
158 MS reads: lord he was fowle scrapyd. The second r is added above the line.
160 MS reads: they sparyd nethe styll ne sherd. Emendation for sense.
165–67 MS reads:
he ran in a fyrryd gowen he cast of all hys clothys all hys body gan rekeEmended to restore stanza form and sense.
to the bare breke be cause he wolde goo lyght.
182 MS reads: he fell apon a bollys bake he causte hym apon hys hornys. Emendation for rhyme.
183–85 These lines are broken in the wrong places. MS reads:
Out alas he sayd that euer I was boren for now I goo to the devyll193–94 MS reads: the best jowell that he had fayn he wolde for sake for to com dowen. Emendation (the addition of yt) for rhyme.
by cause I dyd hym scoren vnto the pytt of hell.
199 Above be gylyd and be glued appears in the corrector’s hand: by feldys and by felldys and by forrow.
200–01 The four half-lines appear in scrambled order in the MS, with a caret and line running up between the two pairs as an attempt to indicate the right order. Here is how they appear in the MS:
nether on other wyst \ the person tolde the lady on the morrowEmendation to restore stanza form and sense.
hom they went be shrewyd ^ what myschyf ther was shewed.
206 MS reads: To se all thys my hart grese. Emendation for rhyme.
208 MS reads: Remember the lady sayth / what mysschyfe heron goyth. Emendation for rhyme, and removal of what seems to be a meaningless penstroke.
209 MS reads: had I neuer louer yt that euer dyed good the deth.
210 MS reads: be that lord sayd the pryst that shope both ale and mette. Emendation for rhyme and sense.
214–16 These lines are misdivided in the MS. They appear thus:
ffurthe he went wyth out the corse then com the knyghtEmendation to restore stanza form.
for hys purpos and told her of hys fare.
225 MS reads: And of hys hyght aventure.
227 MS reads: when the body ded rise a grymly gost agleed. Emendation for sense and rhyme.
231 MS reads: the lady said f pese full bleth. Emendation for sense and rhyme.
234–37 These lines are misdivided in the MS, ignoring the stanza break altogether. They appear thus in the MS:
And all the contre yt tyll and proclaymytte in the markyt towenEmendation to restore stanza form and (for proclamytte to proclaym yt) sense.
they care to encrese ther wyth he gaue her xx marke
that she shold hold her pese thus the burges of the borrowe after hys dyses.