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The Tournament of Tottenham and The Feast of Tottenham: Introduction


1 Reproduced by Hazlitt in his edition of 1866 (pp. 368-69).

2 Considering the highly personal content and tone of the letters, Meale is probably right that they are more likely to be drafts of letters written by the scribe of the manuscript than copies of letters written by someone else. Meale's description and subsequent discussion of the two manuscripts, H and C, should be consulted for further details (Meale, "Romance and Its Anti-Type?" p. 114n38).

3 Meale, "Romance and Its Anti-Type?" p. 114.

4 This conclusion leaves unaccounted for such typically northern forms as the -a in words like twa, sa, tha and ga, all in rhyming position (lines 181-84). Compare Meale, "Romance and Its Anti-Type?" pp. 113-14.

5 Meale, "Romance and Its Anti-Type?" p. 111.

6 Furrow, Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems, p. 47.

7 Meale thinks there were four ("Romance and Its Anti-Type?" p. 111n30), Furrow five hands (Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems, p. 46).

8 Furrow, Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems, p. 48.

9 Furrow, Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems, pp. 46, 48.

10 Klausner, "Harvard Manuscript," p. 677.

11 In the manuscript these b-lines are written beside the quatrain and triplet respectively, and are connected by a red bracket. For examples (sometimes far more complicated) of this stanza form, see, e.g., Turville-Petre, ed., Alliterative Poetry of the Later Middle Ages.

12 Zaerr and Ryder, "Psycholinguistic Theory and Modern Performance," p. 28.

13 Ramsey, Chivalric Romances, p. 213. Both Mehl (Middle English Romances, p. 114) and Pearsall (Old English and Middle English Poetry, p. 265) call it a burlesque; Thomas Cooke is more wary when he says that "its humor seems to stem from both a burlesque of popular poetry and an affectionate satire of peasant life" ("Tales," p. 3164). Meale rejects both satire and burlesque on the grounds that they are nonmedieval genre indications, and prefers parody, since this is "[t]he critical concept which best encompasses the function of Totenham" ("Romance and Its Anti-Type?" pp. 121-22).

14 For the text, see Bowers, ed., The Canterbury Tales: Fifteenth-Century Continuations and Additions, pp. 60-79.

15 Tournament of Tottenham, ed. Garbáty, p. 410.

16 Meale, "Romance and Its Anti-Type?" p. 117.

17 W. Cooke, "Tournament of Tottenham" (1986), p. 2.

18 W. Cooke, "Tournament of Tottenham" (1986), pp. 2-3.

19 Jones, "Tournaments," p. 1126.

20 Private correspondence with Zaerr, 11/11/04. See her website ( for details of her performances and recordings of the Tournament as well as performances of numerous other pieces of medieval literature.
Burlesque is not a genre of which much survives in Middle English, and most reference works by necessity limit their examples to Chaucer's Tale of Sir Thopas, or The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, a few short poems like The Man in the Moon, and, in some cases, The Tournament of Tottenham. Another reason why the Tournament takes a place of its own is because it belongs to that small group of Middle English texts that was printed as early as the seventeenth century. In a letter prefaced to his edition of 1631, "To the Courteous Reader,"1 William Bedwell informs us that the manuscript (Harley 5396) belonged to a friend of his, who had recommended the poem to him. After transcribing it in his leisure moments, for the interest of himself (he was rector of Tottenham) and the other inhabitants, he made it public "for the honour of the place."


The Tournament of Tottenham is extant in three manuscripts, one in the British Library in London (MS Harley 5396; H), one in the University Library in Cambridge (MS Ff.5.48; C), and one in Harvard University Library (MS English 590F; E). In MS Harley 5396 three unrelated manuscripts are bound together; The Tournament of Tottenham is found in the third. Besides this poem the manuscript contains a peculiar mixture of accounts of trading transactions, two letters, and a variety of religious and other lyrics, as well as a few more longer poems like The Adulterous Falmouth Squire and How the Wise Man Taught his Son. The collection has received a personal stamp through the two letters, in one of which the author tells his parents that he has been to the writing school and has written this letter himself. Carol Meale, on the basis of the presence of such personal traits alternating with accounts and copies of poems,2 would see the manuscript as possibly produced "by a scribe who was associated in some capacity with men engaged in trade, although it is not clear whether he himself was an apprentice, or whether he was training as a clerk or a scrivener whose potential employers were merchants."3 Another question that cannot easily be resolved is whether the scribe made this collection at the request of the people who employed him or because he had an interest in poems himself. Again the presence of the letters, and the sudden appearance of a page and a half of business notes interrupting the text of the Tournament, point to a document made for the scribe's personal use, but one which came in handy when unexpectedly some paper was needed for taking down a commercial transaction or something else for his merchant employers. What certainly adds to the impression that the person who wrote the texts was relatively untrained is the type and the number of mistakes, such as the misreading of letter(s) (e.g., dabnsed for daunsed, line 16), the transposition of letters, and the like. In view of the fact that the two private letters were written in Northampton and that the business contacts mentioned in the accounts concern people from London and places like Banbury, Northampton, and the Gloucester area, a general Midland provenance is probable.4 The dating of the text is easier: in the same hand as the rest of the text there are "various memoranda dated 34 Henry VI," which Meale interprets as 1455.5

The Cambridge manuscript is a miscellany consisting of almost thirty poems and a few prose fillers (two in Latin). The range of the poems is wide, from Mirk's Instruction for Parish Priests, with which it opens, to A Little Jest of Robin Hood and the Monk, the last item. The manuscript is made up of five sections, which may have existed as separate booklets,6 and was written by at least four, possibly five, different hands.7 In the manuscript the Tournament and The Feast of Tottenham do not occur together, but if Meale is right that scribes 1 and 4 are the same person, and Furrow that the booklets were originally independent entities, then this physical distance may be unintentional, since the Tournament is the last piece of booklet 1, and the Feast the first of booklet 4. Unlike H, the Cambridge manuscript cannot be dated with any certainty, for even though the name of scribe 1 is given in an explicit as Gilbert Pylkyngton, such knowledge does not bring us any further than the suggestion that he may have belonged to a "distinguished family by that name [who] lived in the town of Pilkington, Lancashire, in the fifteenth century."8 Still, the suggested date, late fifteenth century, is in keeping with the script of the other scibes, while the dialect of at least the texts written by scribe 1 would tally with the supposed West Midlands provenance.9

The third manuscript, E, is "essentially a modernization of the C text,"10 made in the second half of the sixteenth century, and due to that has played only a minor part in the editions of the poem.


The author of the Tournament has chosen to use one of the most complex stanza forms available to a Middle English poet. It is a slightly simplified version of what is the "trademark" of the Wakefield Master, the author of, among other works, The Second Shepherds' Play. It has a rhyming quatrain and a triplet (called the wheel), each followed by a single line, rhyming with each other, giving the rhyme scheme: aaaab-cccb.11 The meter of the quatrain is four-beat, i.e., it has four stressed syllables. That of the other lines is more difficult to establish. Normally speaking the triplet consists of three-beat lines, while the b-lines are even shorter with only one or two beats. In the case of the Tournament the opening stanza, where one would expect that the meter is determined for the rest of the poem, both the b-lines and the triplet have two beats. On the other hand, in the fourth stanza the meter shows the "regular" pattern of 4-2-3-2 beats.

In addition to a rhyme scheme that shapes stanzas, the poet has used alliteration; but although he has used it abundantly it is not consistent. Rather, it serves the purpose of ornamentation, of a little extra value added to entire lines or to specific phrases. If we look again at the first stanza we see that in three of the four lines of the quatrain all four beats partake in the alliteration; the exception is the third line, in which only the first two beats alliterate. When we read on, we soon discover that two alliterating syllables is the norm but that any number from zero to four alliterating syllables may be found (with four alliterations constituting a very small minority):

Four alliterating syllables:
It were harme sych hardynes were holden byhynde (line 4)
Ther was clynkyng of cart-sadellys and clattiryng of connes (line 163)
Three alliterating syllables:
For to wynne my doghter with dughtyness of dent (line 48)
Saw thu never yong boy forther hys body bede! (line 119)
Two alliterating syllables:
Theder com al the men of tho contray (line 12)
A gay gyrdyl Tyb had on, borwed for the nonys (line 82)
Zero alliteration:
Tyl the day was gon and evynsong past (line 19)
With tho haly rode tokenyng was wretyn for tho nonys (line 85)
Double alliteration occurs too, as in the following line (Coppeld-Kent and brode-broght):
And Coppeld, my brode henne, was broght out of Kent (line 49)
It goes without saying that the shorter lines may show alliteration as well, but here there are also entire passages without any alliteration at all, as in the following wheel lines (lines 78-81):
For cryeng of al the men
Forther wold not Tyb then,
Tyl scho had hur gode brode-hen
       Set in hur lap.

The story of the Tournament is a simple and straightforward narrative. All three manuscripts contain the complete text, and there are no major discrepancies between them. The only significant differences are found in the wheels describing the mock coats of arms of the contestants. Since there is no logical connection between the owner and his escutcheon they could easily be switched around, and thus lines 104-08 in H correspond to lines 113-17 in C, and lines 121-26 in H to lines 104-08 in C. Such differences typically point to oral transmission, as was argued by Zaerr and Ryder.12

There is one other place where the texts diverge significantly. It occurs towards the end, when Perkyn and Tyb withdraw for the night:

Thay gaderyd Perkyn about everych syde,
And grant hym ther the gre, the more was hys pride.
Tyb and he with gret myrthe homward con thay ryde,     
And were al nyght togedyr tyl the morntyde,
       And thay in fere assent.
So wele hys nedys he has sped
That dere Tyb he had wed.
The pryse folk that hur led
       Were of the tornament. (lines 208-16)
gathered around; [on] every
granted; prize
together; daybreak
agreed with each other
     he has obtained what he wanted

excellent; accompanied them

They gedurt Perkyn aboute on every side
And graunt hym ther the gre, the more was his pride.
Tib and he with gret myrth hamward can ride,
And were alnyght togedur til the morow tide,
       And to chirch they went.
So wel his nedis he hase spedde
That dere Tibbe he shall wedde.
The chefe men that hir thider ledde
       Were of the turnament. (lines 208-16)
According to canon law a marriage consummated in bed but not solemnized in church was valid but not licit. In C it is stated explicitly that the couple, after their night together, go to church to get properly married; in H this is merely implied.


For any audience of the Tournament the humor is inescapable: the bumpkin heroes in their stuffed sheepskins fighting with flails for the reeve's daughter, who is watching them with her pet hen on her lap, are a spectacle not easily forgotten. When the reeve announces that a tournament will be held for the hand of his daughter the idea is accepted as a matter of course. At this point the audience has not yet been prepared for a mock knightly combat, but in what follows it appears that the word "tournament" has been taken literally by the "bachelery" (line 25), who in all seriousness start to equip themselves as if they were real knights. Yet when we look at the main characters we see that they are consistently depicted as what they are. Their outfit is completely composed of what is at hand locally, and there is not the slightest trace of the typical romance style in the way the contestants speak and behave, or in the description of the tournament itself and its outcome. The humor, therefore, is in the discrepancy between the social setting, a village community, and the concept of a tournament in such an environment, and with such fighters, but not only in that: it is as much in the casualness with which the proposal of a tournament is accepted by everyone, and the way in which they set to work to prepare themselves, as if it were the most natural thing to do. With such a description terms like "parody" or "burlesque" come easily to mind, and have been used by critics. It has also been called a satire, for instance by Lee C. Ramsey, who compares it to Chaucer's Sir Thopas because both employ the device of "romance conventions in the hands of the lower classes" although in the Tournament "the humor is much cruder."13 Other texts that could be mentioned here are Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale, in which the cock Chantecler and his lady Pertelote are described both as courtly lovers and as chickens in a farmyard, and the "Canterbury Interlude" preceding the pseudo-Chaucerian Tale of Beryn, where the Pardoner arms himself with a pan and a ladle to ward off the man whose girl he had tried to meet for the night.14

In an often quoted article George F. Jones has tried to link up the Tournament with the German mock-epic genre of the "peasant-tournament," a phenomenon with a long folkloristic and literary tradition in Germany. In spite of the geographical distance between the two countries there are many parallels with the Tournament, and these are certainly useful in that they help the reader to visualize a tournament as described in the English text, which stands unique of its kind.


The question of the nature of the humor is closely related to that of the intended audience, or, in the words of Thomas Garbáty: "Knightly rituals of tournaments . . . are obviously being burlesqued. But whether the tournaments of gentry are being satirized, or the rustics themselves, is open to question."15 When we look at the opening lines we meet a poet who speaks somewhat condescendingly (but not unaffectionately) of the "subjects" of his story. But how high above them is his own position in the social hierarchy? There may be some internal evidence that renders a hypothesis of upper-class authorship untenable: the idea of a courtly tournament is evoked more by the actions leading toward the fight and the tournament itself than by the vocabulary of the poet, while also the attitude towards the characters is too sympathetic for an author belonging to (or residing in) the circles of the court. Additional evidence, like the other texts in the manuscripts, especially in the case of H, points more to a mercantile or urban context. In order to get a grip on the intended readership of the Cambridge manuscript, Meale considered the kinds of compilations in which five texts from C occurred elsewhere. No solid evidence emerged from her investigation, but enough to warrant the general conclusion that they may "all be representative of the expanding burgess and lower-gentry classes of book-buyers and/or commissioners."16 Nonetheless, it is clearly evident that both the Tournament and the Feast lend themselves well to sophisticated entertainment. Support for an urban audience is found in a reference to a fifteenth-century performance of The Tournament of Tottenham in Exeter Castle. As W. Cooke points out, "there is much dramatic potential in the description of the peasant champions' array, and in their boastful speeches."17 The piece might have been delivered as a dramatic recitation, or it might have been acted out with a stylized melée. There is ample evidence that such spectacles were common features of court activity, from royal receptions - even coronations - to manor-house entertainments.18 Jones notes the popularity of "peasant tournaments" in German literature, though he also observes that "I have not yet found any convincing proof that the peasants actually indulged in this kind of sport, since I doubt that these passages can be accepted as evidence."19 The entertainment value of a small-scale production of the poem as we have it has been made brilliantly apparent in the work of Linda Marie Zaerr, whose recitation of the poem with harp accompaniment has been highly successful. Zaerr recorded her performance with the Quill Consort on an album entitled "Three Middle English Romances"; she has also successfully directed a production of the Tournament with a cast of twenty students.20 And see her discussion of the performative qualities of the piece, co-authored with Joseph Baldessare. If the rude mechanicals might successfully have performed before Theseus and Hippolyta in Midsummer Night's Dream, surely the satiric wit and comedy of the Tournament might well have appealed to a broad fifteenth-century audience, cutting across many social barriers.


If the scribe of C was indeed of the opinion that the Feast was the sequel to the Tournament, as was argued above, then what made him think so? At first sight the two texts have little in common: the meter changes from a rare and intricate 9-line stanza to the extremely common and simple 6-line tail-rhyme stanza of the popular romances, and the narrator shifts his stance from an observing reporter to a persona involved in the action of the poem, as the caterer of the party he tells us about, his best ever. On the other hand, the opening line does assume a continuation of the dramatic action when the narrator says that he will tell of this feast, but he does so without as much as a hint at what feast is meant. It is only towards the end, in line 80, that an explicit link is found: here the Tournament's hero, Perkyn, is mentioned, followed by a reference to Tybbe (line 91).

Here, in this part of the Feast, with the clumsy dancing of the men and a farting Tybbe stumbling over a stool, for the first time a congeniality with the general tone of the Tournament is felt. There is a marked contrast between these lines and the body of the poem, ten of the seventeen stanzas, which is taken up by an endless list of impossible courses, presented with much gusto as delicacies not to be despised. The basic pattern is that of an incongruous object, e.g., a ladle or a saddle, as the main substance of a dish of which the other ingredients are given in detail, and if there is one thing that can be deduced about the poet it is that he must have had a sound knowledge of contemporary recipes. The same cannot be said of the copyist, who has given us a text with many insolvable semantic riddles (for examples, see the notes to the text, e.g., to line 40).


As in practically all preceding editions, the text of the Tournament is based on H; where C (or E) offers interesting variant readings, these are discussed in the notes. The text of the Feast is based on C, the one surviving manuscript.


Indexed as items 2354 and 2615 in Brown and Robbins, eds., Index of Middle English Verse, and Cutler and Robbins, eds., Supplement to the Index of Middle English Verse:
  • London, British Library, MS Harley 5396, fols. 306r-310r. [H, the base text for this edition].
  • Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, MS Ff.5.48, fols. 62r-66r [the Tournament]; 115r- 116r [the Feast]. [C]
  • Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Library, MS English 590F. [E]

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