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The Lady Prioress: Introduction


The Lady Prioress appears in a single manuscript, London, British Library, MS Harley 78, fols. 74 r–77 v. Harley 78 is a collection of miscellaneous papers; some of the papers are poetry, some are matters of political or historical interest, and the sheets were probably not bound together until they were assembled from various sources by a sixteenth-century collector of old documents, John Stow. The part of the manuscript that concerns us is a booklet of only six leaves, on which are written both The Lady Prioress, which takes up six and a half pages of the twelve in the booklet, and a short poem by Lydgate known as “A Ditty against Haste” (which begins “All hast is odyus where as dyscrecyon”). Below the “Ditty” is written the name “lydgatt.” Presumably it is Lydgate’s name at the end of this booklet that has caused a later reader to understand both poems to have been his, and to have written “Lydgate” over The Lady Prioress, which is otherwise untitled in the manuscript. We are left with very little context to speculate on this text’s readers and their other inter­ests: the only item compiled with The Lady Prioress in the Middle Ages was Lydgate’s poem, and we have no evidence of ownership of the little booklet before Stow.

Two scribes are responsible for the booklet, the main one having written both poems, and the second having corrected only The Lady Prioress. The main hand is an informal book-hand of the last quarter of the fifteenth century. The corrector’s hand is similar and contem­porary but his spelling is more conservative, using the symbols þ (thorn) and 3 (yogh), while the main scribe does not. At lines 24–26, both scribes seem to be struggling to make sense of a damaged exemplar. Sometimes the corrector appears to be emending from conjecture.

The form in which the main scribe wrote out the poem sometimes conceals its stanzaic shape. She or (much more probably) he often divides long lines into two short lines or runs two short lines together. At lines 200–01, where the lineation is particularly confused, the corrector adds a short line (an obviously faulty emendation) to provide a rhyme for a word that ought to fall in the middle of line 201.

The spelling of the main scribe has some distinctive features that allow his location to be pinned down using LALME. He has a glide vowel with -w-, with -y-, and with -r-, as in the following examples: pewer (line 20), blowen (86), dowen (111); begyen (27), fayer (28), skyen (170); thoren (181), boren (183), scoren (184). The Appendix of Southern Forms in vol. 4 of LALME attests the glide vowel with -y- in Devon, Norfolk, and Somerset (p. 319). The glide vowel with -w- and with -r- is further spread, but both cases appear in manuscripts from Devon and Somerset. These locations in the southwest of England are also compatible with the scribe’s use of a double consonant after long vowels, e.g., fett (106), shett (104), wyff (233) (LALME, 4:320). The difficult rhyme sequence at lines 208–11 reads goyth/deth/mette/breth in the manuscript, for goeth, death, mead, breath. The rhyme depends on a widespread form of mead, meth(e), but also a form of goeth, geth, that was not the usual one for this scribe, who has switched the spelling to his own goyth (compare doyth for doth in line 7). The spelling goyth is attested in LALME in five counties, among them Devon and Somerset (Q138).

The corrector evidently came from the same area as the main scribe. He uses the form softe for sought at line 26; an f spelling for the Middle English fricative /x/ is most often found in Somerset or Devon.


The Lady Prioress appears in the following early or otherwise informative editions:

1806. The Pryorys and her Thre Wooyrs. Robert Jamieson, ed. Popular Ballads and Songs, from Tradition, Manuscripts, and Scarce Editions. Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, and London: Cadell and Davies, and John Murray. 1:249–65.

1840. The Tale of the Lady Prioress and her Three Suitors. J. O. Halliwell, ed. A Selection from the Minor Poems of Dan John Lydgate. London: Percy Society. Pp. 107–17.

1911. A Tale of a Prioress and her Three Wooers. Johannes Prinz, ed. Berlin: E. Felber.

1985. The Lady Prioress. Melissa M. Furrow, ed. Ten Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems. New York: Garland. Pp. 1–28.

Reference Tools

The motif of the corpse denied burial is listed in ATU as 505, and “The Three Suitors in the Cemetery” as ATU 940.

The Prioress and her Three Suitors is IMEV 2441 (see Carleton Brown and Rossell Hope Robbins, The Index of Middle English Verse [New York: Columbia University Press, for the Index Society, 1943]); it is not listed in NIMEV.

It is addressed by Thomas Cooke in volume 9 (1992) of the Manual, section 24 Tales [16], The Lady Prioress and her Suitors.


The poet begins ambitiously, attempting the alliterative long line rhymed, in stanzas with a rhyming wheel of five short lines, and an effort at concatenation, or stanza linking by repetition. The nine-line stanzas rhyme aaaabcccb, as do those in The Tale of the Basin in the current volume, The Tournament of Tottenham (another comic poem), and the Towneley Secunda Pastorum (a Corpus Christi pageant). A contemporary romance, The Awntyrs off Arthur, though it rhymes ababababcddc and has only four short lines rather than The Lady Prioress’s five, has not only rhyme, alliteration, and a short-line wheel like our poem, but also stanza-linking through the repetition of a part of the last line of one stanza in the first of the next; thus it could have served as a model for our poet. But in The Lady Prioress the stanza-linking does not last long, appearing only in lines 9–10, 18–20 (one word only, and skipping a line), and 45–46 (again one word only). And the alliteration is a secondary consideration for the poet: there are many lines which do not alliterate at all, or in which the alliteration does not cross the caesura between the half-lines; and the poet recognizes no restrictions on which lifts, or stressed syllables, can alliterate. Even the rhyme scheme occasionally breaks down as well, and the poet resorts to an aaAAbcccb variant, as in lines 55–63, 127–35, and 163–71. In the edition that follows, the long lines are split at the caesura and the second half lines are deeply indented, to allow room for the glosses in the right margin.

The meter of the poem is based on rhythms of late Middle English alliterative verse, the long lines having two lifts in each half-line (but very often with three lifts in the first half-line), and the short lines having two or three lifts. There can be a clash between lifts (that is, they can be next to one another), or there can be one, two, or several unstressed syllables making up the dip preceding or following a lift. The most common rhythms in The Lady Prioress are rising in both half-lines (a rising half-line has dips followed by lifts), and rising-falling in the first half-line (a dip followed by a lift, then a dip, lift, dip sequence):

  There was no hegge for me to hey                                               line 229a
  To meve you of a matter                                                               line 13a

Less frequent are second half-lines with a single dip
  clen he had forgett                                                                        line 154b
falling half-lines
  “Do thy dever,” the lady sayd                                                        line 100a
and half-lines with a clash
  The pryst demyd them devyllys both                                             line 156a.

There are, as well, over-heavy lines, such as a four-lift short line
  Hys hartte hoppyd, hys wyll to-woke                                           line 96
and a three-lift second half-line
  busche, gryne, nor grett                                                                line 157b.
But the poem sounds unlike more traditional alliterative verse for a number of reasons. It does not use the special vocabulary, the hosts of synonyms beginning with different phonemes (like burn, lede, freke, and gome for man) that survive only to serve the alliterative poet’s needs; nor does it use the convenient alliterative tags like hardy under helm or stiff in stalle. More traditional verse would have a greater incidence of falling rhythm in both half-lines. In the second half-line, unrhymed alliterative verse would have more rising-falling and fewer rising rhythms: The Lady Prioress tends toward masculine rhymes, final -e no longer being pronounced.

The date of the poem must be no later than the last quarter of the fifteenth century, given the handwriting of the manuscript, but after some of the important phonological shifts of the fifteenth century, such as the Southumbrian silencing of fricatives (as in the rhyme lyght/quyt at lines 167, 171).

The poet’s dialect is hinted at by the sequence goyth/deth/mette/breth at 208–11. The form meth(e) for mead is widespread, but geth for goeth is not so: it appears in LALME in various spellings (geeþ, geth, and geþ) from the southwest Midlands to the southeast, but not the scribe’s Somerset or Devon (Q138). The poet thus came evidently from somewhere other than the scribe’s location. But the restricted areas in which forms like geth are used do not match up to the restricted areas in which, among others, wenter for winter is used (wyntter rhymes with venter at lines 55–56, and inexactly with intent and precedent at lines 57–58; see Appendix of Southern Forms): Ely, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Surrey. 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.

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