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Ballad of a Tyrannical Husband


1 "Dame, be sure our dinner is ready on time, for God's sake"

2 Then I milk our kine (lactating livestock, such as cows, sheep, goats) and turn them out into the field

3 Lines 59-60: I comb the pounded but unworked flax, I separate the chaff from the grain, and I stir the pot, / I pull apart wool and card it and spin it on the wheel

4 You need not bake nor brew more than once every fourteen days




Abbreviations: MS: Chetham Library MS 8009, fols. 370-372; W&H: Thomas Wright and James Orchard Halliwell.

1-8 The first two stanzas serve as a prologue in defense of women. The exhortation to Christ as the "joy" of his mother is a conventional invocation with a particularly appropriate emphasis on the Virgin Mary. It would certainly appeal to an audience of women as has been suggested for the manuscript in which this narrative is found. See Rhiannon Purdie, "Sexing the Manuscript." Other items found in the manuscript include "Life of St. Dorothy," "Assumptio sancte marie," "Lyff of Seynt Anne," "Lyf of Seynt Katherin," "Liber Catonis," Torrent of Portyngale, "A Lamentation of Our Lady," "A Prayar of Oure Lady," Beves of Hamptoun, Ipomadon, "A Good Boke of Kervyng and Nortur," "The Book of the Duke and the Emperour," and "The Namys of Wardeyns and Baylyffs" [of London, 1189-1217].

8 songe. MS: song.

9 Lystyn good serrys. After having made concessions to the much maligned women and those who would find fault and blame, the poet constructs a male audience.

10 By. Or about? There seems to be an omniscient speaker here.

17 befelle. MS: befell. W&H have added final -e, no doubt for consistency.

20 denner. The noontime meal, when the farm hands come in to eat, as opposed to supper at the end of the day.

21 The goodman an hys lade. That the husband has an apprentice/helper while the wife must do all the housework herself is not unusual, since according to Judith M. Bennett, "the husband's work took on primary importance; the wife's work both supplemented and conformed to the demands of the husband's tasks" (Women in the Medieval English Countryside: Gender & Household in Brigstock Before the Plague [New York: Oxford University Press, 1987], p. 119). A plowman's job resembled that of a farmer: plowing the fields, sowing seeds, harvesting crops, though the plowman worked for the lord of the manor and rented out his land. Because a plowman did humble work, his occupation was used as a metaphor for the good Christian, the most famous example in Middle English being William Langland's Piers Plowman.

goodman. A synonym for "the head of the household," which does not necessarily define his moral standing. Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" reflects the term's traditional meaning.

22 goodwyfe. MS: goodwyf. Goodwyfe is a common generic term for a married woman. See How the Goode Wife Taught Hyr Doughter, included in this volume.

she. MS: se.

38-40 The husband's assumptions about women's work are part of a masculine ideology that presumed the inferiority of domestic work not necessarily because it was gendered feminine but because it was less strenuous and demanding of physical strength than agricultural chores could be.

43 smalle. MS: small. W&H have added final -e.

45 cheylde. Since there are other children mentioned in line 51, this child is probably a nursing infant. It was not uncommon for unweaned children to be taken into the conjugal bed.

50 play. Further evidence that the husband does not consider domestic chores "real" work but rather something done for sport.

56 goslyngs that gothe on the grene. The green is a common area which all can use. Some might have a goose girl to look after the flock to make sure all get home, but the goodwife, having no servant, has to be in two places at once.

57-60 I brew . . . spyn het on the wheylle. It was common for women to brew beer as well as be in charge of the baking. Witness Margery Kempe's failed attempt in her autobiography. Preparation of flax and wool was time-consuming and arduous work done in stages during which time the raw material was progressively refined until the threads could be spun on a wheel by hand. See the dame in The Wright's Chaste Wife, who gets help for the multiple tasks through her clever entrapment of men to do her bidding.

58 heylle. MS: heyll. W&H have added final -e.

59 keylle. MS: keyll. A final -e in the preceding line and in lines 57 and 60 determines the need for consistency here.

68 yere. W&H have conjectured and added the word.

69 Whan I have so donne, I loke on the sonne. The goodwife does all this before the sun comes up.

72 that. W&H have omitted this word in the line.

81 The husband proposes a role reversal to which the wife acquiesces without hesitation. Perhaps she relishes the change despite the hard labor.

88 alle. MS: all. W&H have added final -e in this line and the next.

That she needs to prepare everything for him before she goes off to plow suggests his unfamiliarity with the tasks at hand.

93 fulle. MS: full. The word appears with a final -e in the next line in the manuscript. W&H have imposed consistency.

112 The balladeer calls for ale before proceeding further - a common and practical convention.

The poem is unfortunately unfinished but leaves an enticing gap for an audience to fill.

























Jhesu that arte jentylle, for joye of Thy dame,
As Thu wrought thys wyde worlde, in hevyn is Thi home,
Save alle thys compeny and sheld them from schame,
That wylle lystyn to me and tende to thys game.

God kepe alle women that to thys towne longe,
Maydens, wedows, and wyvys amonge;
For moche they ar blamyd and sometyme with wronge,
I take wyttenes of alle folke that herythe thys songe.

Lystyn good serrys, bothe yong and olde,
By a good howsbande thys tale shal be tolde;
He weddyd a womane that was fayre and bolde,
And hade good inow to wende as they wolde.

She was a good huswyfe, curteys and heynd,
And he was an angry man, and sone wold be tenyd,
Chydyn and brawlynge, and farde leyke a feynd,
As they that oftyn wyl be wrothe with ther best frend.

Tylle itt befelle uppon a day, shortt talle to make,
The goodman wold to the plow, his horse gan he take;
He calyd forthe hys oxsyn, the whyt and the blake,
And he seyd, "Dame, dyght our denner betyme, for Godes sake."1   

The goodman an hys lade to the plow be gone,
The goodwyfe had meche to doo, and servant had she none,
Many smale chyldern to kepe besyd hyrselfe alone,
She dyde mor then sho myght withyn her owne wone.

Home com the goodman betyme of the day,
To loke that al thing wer acordyng to hes pay,
"Dame," he sed, "is owr dyner dyght?" "Syr," sche sayd, "naye;
How wold yow have me doo mor then I cane?"

Than he began to chide and seyd, "Evelle mott thou the!
I wolde thou shuldes alle day go to plowe with me,
To walke in the clottes that be wette and mere,
Than sholdes thou wytt what it were a plowman to bee."

Than sware the goodwyff, and thus gane she say,
"I have mor to doo then I doo may;
And ye shuld folowe me foly on day,
Ye wold be wery of your part, my hede dar I lay."

"Wery! yn the devylles nam!" seyd the goodman,
"What hast thou to doo, but syttes her at hame?
Thou goyst to thi neybores howse, be on and be one,
And syttes ther janglynge with Jake an with John."

Than sayd the goodwyffe, "Feyr mot yow faylle!
I have mor to do, who so wyst alle;
Whyn I lye in my bede, my slepe is butt smalle,
Yett eyrly in the morneng ye wylle me up calle.

"Whan I lye al nyght wakyng with our cheylde,
I ryse up at morow and fynde owr howse wylde;
Then I melk owre kene and torne them on the felde.2
Whyll yow slepe fulle stylle, also Cryst me schelde!

"Than make I buter ferther on the day;
After make I chese, - thes holde yow a play;
Then wyll owre cheldren wepe and upemost they,
Yett wyll yow blame me for owr good, and any be awey.

"Whan I have so done, yet ther comys more eene,
I geve our chekyns met, or elles they wyl be leyne:
Our hennes, our capons, and owr dokkes be-dene.
Yet tend I to owr goslyngs that gothe on the grene.

"I bake, I brew, yt wyll not elles be welle:
I bete and swyngylle flex, as ever have I heylle:
I hekylle the towe, I kave, and I keylle,
I toose owlle and card het and spyn het on the wheylle."3

"Dame," sed the goodman, "the develle have thy bones!
Thou nedyst not bake nor brew in fortynght past onys;4
I sey no good that thou dost within thes wyd wonys,
But ever thow excusyst thee with grontes and gronys."

"Yefe a pece of lenyn and wolen I make onys a yere,
For to clothe owreself and owr cheldren in fere;
Elles we shold go to the market, and by het ful deer,
I ame as bessy as I may in every yere.

"Whan I have so donne, I loke on the sonne,
I ordene met for owr bestes agen that yow come home,
And met for owrselfe agen het be none,
Yet I have not a feyr word whan that I have done.

"Soo I loke to owr good withowt and withyn,
That ther be none awey noder mor nor myn,
Glade to ples yow to pay, lest any bate begyn,
And fort to chid thus with me, I feyght yow be in synne."

Then sed the goodman in a sory tyme,
"Alle thys wold a good howsewyfe do long ar het were prime;
And sene the good that we have is halfe dele thyn,
Thow shalt laber for thy part as I doo for myne.

"Therffor, dame, make thee redy, I warne thee, anone,
Tomorow with my lade to the plowe thou shalt gone;
And I wyl be howsewyfe and kype owr howse at home,
And take my ese as thou hast done, by God and Seint John!"

"I graunt," quod the goodwyfe, "as I understonde,
Tomorowe in the mornyng I wyl be walkande:
Yet wyll I ryse whyll ye be slepande,
And see that alle theng be redy led to your hand."

Soo it past alle fo the morow that het was dayleyght;
The goodwyffe thoght on her ded and upe she rose ryght:
"Dame," seid the goodmane, "I swere be Godes myght!
I wyll fette hom owr bestes, and helpe that the wer deght."

The goodman to the feeld hyed hym fulle yarne;
The godwyfe made butter, her dedes war fulle derne,
She toke agen the butter-melke and put het in the cheryne,
And seid yet of on pynt owr syer shal be to lerne.

Home come the goodman and toke good kype,
How the wyfe had layd her flesche for to stepe:
She sayd, "Sir, al thes day ye ned not to slepe,
Kype wylle owr chelderne and let them not wepe.

"Yff yow goo to the kelme malt for to make,
Put smal feyre ondernethe, sir, for Godes sake;
The kelme is lowe and dry, good tend that ye take,
For and het fastyn on a feyr it wyl be eville to blake.

"Her sitt two gese abrode, kype them wylle from woo,
And thei may com to good, that wylle weks sorow inow."
"Dame," seid the goodmane, "hy thee to the plowe,
Teche me no more howsewyfre, for I can inowe."

Forthe went the goodwyff, curtes and hende,
Sche callyd to her lade, and to the plow they wend;
They wer bese al day, a fytte here I fynde,
And I had dronke ones, ye shalle heyre the best behund.

A fytte

Here begenethe a noder fytte, the sothe for to sey. . . .
who; gentle; (i.e., Mary); (see note)
give themselves over

widows; wives

who hear; (see note)

Listen [attentively] good sirs; (see note)
husband; (see note)

had sufficient [wealth] to go

housewife; clever
Chiding; [he] behaved like

tale; (see note)

(see note)

and his young male servant; (see note)
much; (see note)
than she; dwelling

i.e., when dinner time came
his pleasure

may you suffer
clumps of earth; swampy

If; one full
weary; head; wager

sit here at home; (see note)
neighbor's house, repeatedly

short; (see note)

child; (see note)
in disarray

soundly; protect

Next; cheese; sport; (see note)
weep at the top of their lungs
if; misplaced (missing)

remains more to do
chickens food; scrawny (lean)
all together
geese; (see note)

(see note)
pound flax; health; (see note)
(see note)

spacious dwellings
yourself; grunts; groans

If; linen; wool
buy it full dear (pay full price)
(see note)

see the dawn; (see note)
provide food; before
before it is noon
kind; (see note)

outside; inside
nothing missing neither more or less
debate (argument)

before; six a.m.
since; your part

soon; (see note)

rise while you are still sleeping
laid; (see note)

until it


quickly; (see note)
one pint; sire

made an observation
meat to marinate
Keep well

Make; fire
watch it carefully
if it catch on fire; too burnt


know enough

And [if]; hear; that follows; (see note)

another fit (section)
Ballad of a Tyrannical Husband, Select Bibliography


Chetham Library MS 8009, fols. 370-372 (c. 1500).


Wright, Thomas, and James Orchard Halliwell, eds. Reliquiae Antiquae. Scraps From Ancient Manuscripts, Illustrating Chiefly Early English Literature and the English Language. 2 vols. London: John Russell Smith, 1845. Vol. 2, pp. 196-99.

Related Studies

Purdie, Rhiannon. "Sexing the Manuscript: The Case for Female Ownership of MS Chetham 8009." Neophilologus 82 (1998), 139-48.