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Tale of the Basin: Introduction

1 Ohlgren, Robin Hood: The Early Poems, p. 29.


The Tale of the Basin is found in Cambridge University Library MS Ff.5.48, fols. 58 r–61 v. The King and the Shepherd, in the current collection, is also from this manuscript. CUL MS Ff.5.48 has been of interest to a number of scholars; it has been fully described by Manfred Görlach in Textual Tradition, pp. 126–27. Janay Y. Downing has edited the whole manuscript as a Ph.D. dissertation, “A Critical Edition of Cambridge University MS Ff.5.48.” My earlier edition, Ten Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems, describes the manuscript and lists its principal contents on pp. 45–49. Thomas Ohlgren analyzes it in his chapter “‘lewed peple loven tales olde:’ Robin Hood and the Monk and the Manuscript Context of Cambridge, University Library MS Ff.5.48,” in his Robin Hood: The Early Poems, pp. 28–67.

The language of the manuscript has been analyzed by the editors of LALME, who find that the manuscript has two “hands” (though Hand A, the relevant one to us, is described as having similar, but not identical, language in different places, and it is my belief that there are two principal hands included in this section, A1 for 2 r–56 v, 58 r–66 r, and 93 r–112 r; A2 for 67 r–78 v, and 112 v–the end). Hand A is said in LALME to be responsible for fols. 1 r–78 v, and 93 r–135 v, including the signature of the scribe, Gilbert Pylkyngton, on folio 43 r (1:67). The language of Hand A is said to be from Derbyshire. Lister Matheson has done a further analysis of the language of Robin Hood and the Monk from fols. 128 v–135 v of the manuscript, using the methodology of LALME, and finds the scribal language to be more specifically from West Derbyshire, near the Cheshire or Staffordshire borders. His analysis is part of an appendix to Ohlgren’s Robin Hood: The Early Poems, “The Dialects and Language of Selected Robin Hood Poems,” that seeks to bolster Ohlgren’s claim that Gilbert Pilkington was “Hand A”; that he was the Gilbert Pilkington ordained as a sub­deacon, then deacon, then priest in 1463–65 in the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield; and that he may have belonged to a family of Pilkingtons from Mellor, Derbyshire (see pp. 194–200). The detective work on Pilkington’s identity is convincing and of great interest. That Pilkington was the scribe for the whole manuscript is not probable. Ohlgren himself sees “two main scribal hands: Scribe A (fols. 2r to 78v) and Scribe B (fols. 95r to 135v)”;1 by implication, at least one more hand is involved in fols. 79r to 92v, before the missing fols. 93 and 94. I would argue that there are three principal hands and a couple of minor ones, but I accept as likely that Pilkington was involved with only a small group of people in its planning and production.

It is not surprising that The Tale of the Basin should have survived in a manuscript associated with a parish priest. Like other bourdes, it has a morally corrective conclusion, and the hero of the story, the one who sets matters to rights, is himself a good parish priest, even if the transgressor in the story is also a priest. The tale is lively and amusing enough to have served as attractive sermon material.


The Tale of the Basin appears, with different names as noted below, in the following early or otherwise useful editions:

1806. The Enchanted Basyn. Robert Jamieson, ed. Popular Ballads and Songs, vol. 1. Edinburgh: Constable. Pp. 272–82.

1829. The Tale of the Basyn. Charles Henry Hartshorne, ed. Ancient Metrical Tales. London: W. Pickering. Pp. 198–208.

1836. The Tale of the Basyn. Thomas Wright, ed. The Tale of the Basyn and The Frere and the Boy. London: W. Pickering. N.p.

1866. The Tale of the Basyn. William Carew Hazlitt, ed. Remains of the Early Popular Poetry of England, vol. 3. London: John Russell Smith. Pp. 42–53.

1969. The Tale of the Basin. Janay Y. Downing, ed. “A Critical Edition of Cambridge University MS Ff. 5. 48.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington. Pp. 166–75.

1985. The Tale of the Basin. Melissa M. Furrow, ed. Ten Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems. New York: Garland. Pp. 43–64.


The motif “objects (people, animals) stick to magic object” is listed in ATU as 571. The Tale of the Basin is 571B, “All Stick Together; Lover Exposed.”

The Tale of the Basin is NIMEV 2658.

The Tale of the Basin is addressed by Thomas Cooke in volume 9 (1993) of the Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050–1500, section 24 Tales [17], The Tale of the Basin (also The Enchanted Basin).”


A brief poem, The Tale of the Basin presents few clues as to date and origins, let alone poet. Since the manuscript is late fifteenth-century, the poem can be no later. The poem likely belongs to the North or north Midlands area, as demonstrated by the rhymes wyfe/stryfe/fyfe at lines 220–22. Forms of five with –f(f)(e) are found in those areas (LALME Q126). This localization is compatible with the third person singular verb ending –ys (–is) seen in rhyme in lines 1–4 (tellys/ellis/dwellis/spellis; LALME Q59). The form “thou may,” in rhyme at lines 148–50 (fay/may/awey), suggests a northern origin, though if the poet is from the North, it is surprising that far from treating descendants of Old English long a as rhymes with long a from other sources, he rhymes them instead with long close o.

The stanza form of The Tale of the Basin is the same as that of The Lady Prioress, rhyming aaaabcccb. The four-stressed a lines have the rhythm of alliterative long line, with a cæsura between the two half-lines. The c lines, while they too might have as many as four stressed syllables, sound markedly different because there is no caesura and there are fewer unstressed syllables, or dips. The b lines are short, usually with two stressed syllables. The overall effect of the bcccb part of the stanza is like that of the bob and wheel in stanzaic alliterative poetry, although the a lines are rhymed rather than alliterative. The poem gives a perfunctory nod to its indebtedness to alliterative poetry in the first line:
Of talys and trifulles many man tellys.
But after that there is little other than occasional decorative alliteration, and there is no attempted concatenation as in The Lady Prioress.

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