Back to top

Item 16, The Debate of the Carpenter's Tools


1 If he ever thrives, then he bears himself well [Presumably ironic]


Abbreviations: MED: Middle English Diction­ary; OED: The Oxford English Dictionary;

Title No title or incipit. Halliwell, the poem’s first editor, gave the poem this title, which has been favored in subsequent references. The text begins one-quarter down the page of fol. 23r, with no space separating it from the previous item.

1 Shype-Ax. Most likely an ax used for chipping or trimming. See MED, “chip-ax.”

3 Clene hose and clene schone. The sense of these lines appears to be “I will earn you food and drink, but you’ll have to work harder to earn yourself clothing.”

6 Thall. “Thou will.” See MED, “thou.”

7 longys the crafte. Crafte may here refer to the profession of carpenters in general, or the local craft guild of carpenters more specifically.

9 Belte. An “allet maul, hammer; also, a bat or club.” See MED, “betel.”

13 Twybyll. A “kind of ax with two cutting edges; formerly used for cutting mor­tices”; see OED, “twibill,” 1.

17 Wymbyll. A name applied to several different kinds of boring tools; see OED, “wimble.”

22 twenti pounde. This is an outlandish sum, perhaps double the amount of an ex­perienced master carpenter’s yearly wages.

31 Groping-Iren. A chisel or gouge.

43 ale-wyffe. Brewing ale was a common household industry for women.

48 twenti merke. A mark was two-thirds of a pound; since the Whetstone is speaking of yearly wages, this boast seems more plausible.

53 Adys. An adze is an ax-like tool with a curved blade, used for cutting away wood.

77 seven pens drynke. Seven pence, the rough equivalent of a carpenter’s daily wages, would purchase up to seven gallons of ale (depending on its strength), a comic­ally extravagant amount.

79 Lyne and the Chalke. Strings coated in chalk are still used by carpenters for drawing lines on wood to be cut.

87 Prykyng Knyfe. MED and OED quote only this line; if not an awl, this tool is likely to be some other instrument for marking wood.

93 Persore. “An awl, a gimlet, an auger”; see MED, “percer(e).” Lines 100–04 sug­gest that this is a drill.

106 schyreff of the toune. Sheriffs originally had considerable local authority in admin­istering the royal legal system, but by the later Middle Ages, their impor­tance had waned. Nevertheless, the job was typically held by minor gentry, and being ap­pointed sheriff would be an honor considerably beyond the hopes of carpenters.

107 Skantyllyon. A gauge, used for measuring the depth of mortises (recesses made in wood for joinery).

120 drynke never peny. A penny’s worth of ale might vary between one-third and one gallon.

139 Brode-Ax. Salzman describes this as “made with a chisel edge, beveled only on one side, which enabled it to follow a marked line accurately” (Building in England, p. 342).

145 Twyvete. Uncertain. OED suggests that this is a double-edged axe, via an etymology endorsed by Wilson (“Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools,” p. 406). Salzman argues plausibly that the tool is a mallet (Building in England, p. 344).

162 a knyght. Though late medieval knighthood was a marker of wealth rather than birth, carpenters would have been extremely unlikely to rise to this rank. The Windlass’s disbelief in lines 167–68 is entirely justified.

163 Wyndas-Rewle. A windlass is an axle or roller used for winding or moving.

179 The devyles dyrte. This expression appears in the Towneley Plays, in the Play of the Buffeting, ed. England, p. 233, line 170. The sense of the insult is “something wretched or excremental.”

183 This seven yere. The customary duration of an apprenticeship.

199 Nother the mayster ne the man. I.e., “neither the master nor his apprentices and journeymen.”

221 Draught Nayle. Uncertain. MED and Salzman suggest that this is a punch for countersinking nails (Building in England, p. 345). Wilson argues that the etymol­ogy favors the interpretation of the phrase as a nail-drawer (“Debate of the Carpen­ter’s Tools,” p. 468).

279 hym that it dud make. See the introduction to this item.


Abbreviations: see Explanatory Notes

1 MS: Initial T is two lines tall.

4 wheresoever. MS: wherasever.

8 nothyng. MS: nothnyng.

12 clothe and fede. MS: clothe fede.

41 dey and nyght. MS: dey nyght.

82 thryve. MS: thryv.

124 hym owght. MS: hy owght.

183 prentys. MS: puntys.

224 mayster. MS: maystys.

237 wyrke not. MS: wyrke no.

245 Groping Iren. MS: iren is added above the rest of the line.

268 off. MS: of.

279 gest. MS: yet. Wilson’s emendation.








fol. 23v









fol. 24r










fol. 24v










fol. 25r









fol. 25v









fol. 26r     





The Shype-Ax seyd unto the Wryght,
“Mete and drynke I schall thee plyght;
Clene hose and clene schone,
Gete them wheresoever thou kane.
Bot for all that ever thou kane,
Thall never be thryfty man,
Ne none that longys the crafte unto,
For nothyng that thou kane do.”
“Wherfore,” seyd the Belte,
“With grete strokys I schall hym pelte.
My mayster schall full well thene,
Both to clothe and fede his men.”
“Ye, ye,” seyd the Twybyll,
“Thou spekys ever ageyn skyll.
Iwys, iwys, it wyll not bene,
Ne never I thinke that he wyll then.”
“Yis, yis,” seyd the Wymbyll.
“I ame als rounde as a thymbyll.
My maysters werke I wyll remembyr;
I schall crepe fast into the tymbyr,
And help my mayster within a stounde
To store his cofer with twenti pounde.”
“Ye, ye” seyd the Compas,
“Thou arte a fole in that case.
For thou spekys without vysment;
Therfor thou getyst not thi entent.
Wyte thou wele it schall be so,
That lyghtly cum schall lyghtly go.
And thou gete more than other fyve,
Yit schall thi mayster never thryve.”
The Groping-Iren than spake he:
“Compas, who hath grevyd thee?
My mayster yit may thryve full wele;
How he schall I wyll thee telle.
I ame his servant trew and gode;
I suere thee, Compas, by the rode,
Wyrke I schall bothe nyght and dey;
To gete hym gode I schall assey.”
“Ye, ye,” seyd the Saw,
“It is bote bost that thou doyst blow.
For thofe thou wyrke bothe dey and nyght,
He wyll not thé, I sey thee ryght.
He wones to nyghe the alewyffe
And he thouht ever for to thryffe.”
Then seyd the Whetston,
“Thof my mayster thryft be gone,
I schall hym helpe within this yere
To gete hym twenti merke clere.
Hys axes schall I make full scharpe,
That thei may lyghtly do ther werke.
To make my master a ryche man
I schall asey if that I cane.”
To hym than seyd the Adys,
And seyd, “Ye, syr, God gladys.
To speke of thryfft, it wyll not be,
Ne never I thinke that he schall thé.
For he wyll drynke more on a dey
Than thou cane lyghtly arne in twey;
Therfor thi tonge I rede thou hold
And speke no more no wordys so bold.”
To the Adys than seyd the Fyle,
“Thou schuldys not thi mayster revyle;
For thoff he be unhappy,
Yit for his thryft thou schuldys se.
For I thinke or tomorow at none
To arne my mayster a payre of schone.
For I schall rube with all my myght,
My mayster tolys for to dyght,
So that within a lytell space,
My mayster purce I schall encrece.”
Than seyd the Chesyll,
“And ever he thryve, he berys hym wele.1
For tho thou rube to thi hede ake,
His thryfte fro hym it wyll be take.
For he loves gode ale so wele
That he therfor his hode wyll selle.
For some dey he wyll seven pens drynke;
How he schall thryve I cane not thinke.”
“Ye, ye,” seyd the Lyne and the Chalke,
“My mayster is lyke to many folke.
Tho he lufe ale never so wele,
To thryve and thé I schall hym telle.
I schall merke well upon the wode,
And kepe his mesures trew and gode;
And so by my mesures all,
To thé full wele my mayster schall.”
Than bespake the Prykyng Knyfe,
“He duellys to nyghe the alewyfe.
Sche makys oft tyme his purse full thyn;
No peny some tyme sche levys therin.
Tho thou gete more than other thre,
Thryfty man he cane not be.”
“Ye, ye” seyd the Persore,
“That at I sey it schall be sure.
Whi chyd ye iche one with other?
Wote ye not wele I ame your brother?
Therfor none contrary me,
For as I sey, so schall it be.
My mayster yit schall be full ryche;
Als fer as I may stret and streche,
I wyll helpe with all my myght,
Both by dey and by nyght,
Fast to runne into the wode
And byte I schall with moth full gode.
And thus I trow, be my crowne,
To make hym schyreff of the toune.”
“Soft, syr,” seyd the Skantyllyon
“I trow your thryft be wele ny don.
Ever to crewyll thou arte in word,
And yet thou arte not worth a tord.
For all the gode that thou gete myght,
He wyll spend it on a nyght.”
Than the Crow bygan to speke,
Forwhy is herte was lyke to breke
To here his brother so revyld,
And seyd, “Thou spekys lyke a chyld.
Tho my mayster spend never so faste,
Inoughe he schall have at the laste.
May forteyn as mych as ever schall he
That drynke never peny to that he dyghe.”
“Ye, ye” seyd the Rewle,
“Ifeyth, thou arte bot a fole.
For and he dyghe and have ryght nought,
Who trowys thou wyll gyfe hym owght?
Thus schall he ly upon the grownd,
And be beryd lyke an hund.
For and a man have ought befor,
When he has nede it is gode store.”
“What, Syr Reule?” seyd the Pleyn,
“Another reson I wyll thee seyn:
Thoff my mayster have no happe,
Yit thi mayster thou schuldyst not lake.
For yit a mene I schall se
That my mayster schall wele thé.
I schall hym helpe both dey and nyght
To gete hym gode with all my myght.
I schall clens on every syde
To helpe my mayster in his pride.”
The Brode-Ax seyd withouten mysse;
He seyd, “The Pleyn my brother is;
We two schall clence and make full pleyn,
That no man schall us geynseyn,
And gete oure mayster in a yere
More sylver than a man may bere.”
“Ye, ye,” seyd the Twyvete,
“Thryft, I trow, be fro you sette.
To kepe my mayster in his pride,
In the contré ye canne not byde
Without ye stele and be thefys
And put meny men to greffys.
For he wyll drynke more in a houre
Than two men may gete in fowre.
When ye have wrought all that ye canne,
Yit schall he never be thryfty mane.”
Than bespake the Polyff
With gret strong wordys and styffe:
“How, Syr Twyvet? Me thinke you grevyd.
What devyll who hath you thus mevyd?
Thof he spend more in a yere
Of gold and sylver than thou may bere,
I schall hym helpe with all my myght;
I trow to make hym yet a knyght.”
“What, Syr?” seyd the Wyndas-Rewle,
“Me thynke thou arte bot a fole.
For thou spekys oute of seson;
He may not thé therfor by reson.
A carpenter to be a knyght?
That were ever ageyn ryght.
Therfor I schall telle thee a saw:
Who so wold be hyghe he schall be law.”
“Ye,” than seyd the Rewle-Stone,
“Mayster hath many fone,
And ye wold helpe at his nede,
My mayster schuld the better spede.
Bot whatsoever ye brage or boste,
My mayster yet schall reule the roste.
For as I ame a trew man,
I schall hym helpe all that I cane.”
The Gowge seyd, “The devyles dyrte
For any thyng that thow cane wyrke!
For all that ever thou canne do,
It is not worth an old scho.
Thow hast be prentys this seven yere,
And yit thy crafte is for to lere.
And thou couthe wyrke als wele as he,
Yet schall thi mayster never thé.”
“Softe, syr,” seyd the Gabull Rope,
“Me thinke gode ale is in your tope.
For thou spekys as thou wold fyght,
Therto and thou hade any myght.
I schall tell thee another tale:
My mayster how I schall aveyle.
Hayle and pull I schall full faste
To reyse housys whyle I may laste.
And so within a lytell thraw,
My mayster gode schall not be know.”
Than spake the Wryghtys Wyfe,
“Nother of you schall never thryfe,
Nother the mayster ne the man,
For nothinge that ye do canne.
For ye wyll spend in a moneth
More gode than thre men hath.”
The Squyre seyd, “What sey ye dame?
Ye schuld not speke my mayster schame.”
“Squyre, I have non other cause,
I suere thee by Seynt Eustase;
For all the yerne that I may spynne,
To spend at ale he thinkys no synne.
He wyll spend more in an owre
Than thou and I cane gete in fowre.”
“Yit me thinke ye be to blame
To gyffe my mayster syche a name.
For thoff he spend more than ye have,
Yit his worschype ye schuld save.”
“Mary, I schrew hym and thee to,
And all them that so canne do.
For hys servant I trow thou be,
Ther thou schall never thé.
For and thou lerne that craft at hym,
Thy thryft I trow schall be full thine.”
The Draught Nayle than spake he,
And seyd, “Dame, that is no le.
Ye hafe the maner of this frekys
That thus for my mayster spekys.
Bot lythe to me a lytell space:
I schall yow tell all the case,
How that they wyrke for ther gode —
I wyll not lye, be the rode.
When thei have wroght an oure or two,
Anon to the ale thei wyll go
And drinke ther, whyle thei may dre
‘Thou to me!’ and ‘I to thee!’
And seys, ‘The Ax schall pay for this;
Therfor the cope ons I wyll kys.’
And when thei come to werke ageyne,
The Belte to hys mayster wyll seyne,
‘Mayster, wyrke not oute of reson;
The dey is vary long of seson.
Smale strokys late us hake,
And sum tyme late us es oure bake.’
The Wymbull spekys lyke a syre:
‘Sevyn pens of a dey is smale hyre
For wryghtys that wyrke so faste
And in owre werke have grete haste.’
The Groping Iren seys full sone,
‘Mayster, wyll ye wele done?
Late us not wyrke to we suete
For cachyng of over-gret hete.
For we may after cold to take,
Than on stroke may we no hake.’
Than bespake the Whetston,
And seyd, ‘Mayster, we wyll go home,
For fast it draw unto the nyght;
Our soper by this I wote is dyght.’
The Lyne and Stone, the Perser and Fyle,
Seys, ‘That is a gode counsylle.’
The Crow, the Pleyn, and the Squyre
Seys, ‘We have arnyd wele our hyre.’
And thus with fraudys and falsyd
Is many trew man deseyvid.
Therfor, by ought that I canne se,
They schall never thryve ne thé.
Therfor the craft I wyll go froo
And to another wyll I goo.”
Than ansuerd the Wyfe in hye,
“And I myght, so wold I,
Bot I ame to hym bounde so faste
That off my halter I may not caste.
Therfor the preste that bounde me prentys,
He schall treuly have my curse,
And ever schall have, to that I dyghe,
In what contré that ever he be.”
Therfor, wryghtys, take hede of this,
That ye may mend that is amysse,
And treuly that ye do your labore,
For that wyll be to your honour.
And greve you nothing at this song,
Bot ever make mery yourselve amonge,
Ne gest at hym that it dud make,
Ne envy at hym ye take,
Ne non of you do hym blame.
For-why the craft hath do hym schame
By mo weys than two or thre,
Thus seys the boke, serteynlye.
God, that is both gode and hend,
Gyff you grace that ye may mend,
And bryng us all unto His blysse,
That never fro us schall mysse.
Chip-Ax; Carpenter; (see note); (t-note)
Food; promise
stockings; shoes; (see note)
[You will need to]; (t-note)
you can ever do
Thou shall; prosperous; (see note)
Nor any who belongs to the trade; (see note)
For anything; (t-note)
Thus; Mallet; (see note)
Double-edged Ax; (see note)
against reason
Surely, surely, it will not be so
Nor; prosper
Boring tool (drill); (see note)

sink firmly
fill his coffer; (see note)

You know well

[Even] if you earn; five such

Gouge; (see note)

swear [to] you; cross


only a boast that you blow (brag)
prosper; tell you
lives too near; tavern keeper; (see note)


twenty marks profit; (see note)

Adze; (see note)

easily earn in two

should tend to his work
before noon tomorrow
earn; shoes

to prepare my master’s tools
a short while
master’s purse

rub until your head aches
profit will be taken from him

seven pence worth; (see note)
(see note)
like many
ever so much
urge; (t-note)

Awl; (see note)
too near
Sometimes she leaves
earn more than three others

Auger (drill); (see note)
That which I say will surely be true
argue with each other

strain and stretch

mouth (teeth)
sheriff; (see note)
Softly (Hush); Gauge; (see note)


in a night

[He] may be as fortunate
a penny’s worth until he dies; (see note)
Ruler (Straight-Edge)

believes; anything; (t-note)

buried; hound
[earned] anything
reserve supply

blame (abuse)
yet I will see a means

cleanse (by scraping)

Broad-Ax; with certainty; (see note)

gainsay (disagree with)

Ax (or mallet?); (see note)
Profit, I am sure, is kept from you


Pulley (Block and tackle)

(see note)
Windlass; (see note)

untimely (improperly)

low (humble)
Ruler (Straight-Edge)
fare better


Gouge (Chisel); dirt (filth); (see note)

apprentice; (see note); (t-note)
still to be learned
If you could work as well

Hush; Cable

If you had any strength thereto


short while
be unknown (uncountable)
Neither; ever
(see note)





reputation; protect

if; from him
thin (meager)
Nail Puller; (see note)
know the habits; men
in favor of; (t-note)
listen; short while


while they can continue

cup once I will kiss (i.e., drink)

unreasonably; (t-note)

small wages
carpenters who

Gouge; (t-note)

until we sweat
For fear of overheating
catch a cold
[So] that we cannot hack one stroke

I believe is ready
Crowbar; Plane; Square
frauds and falsehood

loudly (proudly)
If I could

priest who put me in service

until I die

[So] that; what is amiss

           Nor scoff at him that did make it; (see note); (t-note)

Because; has done



Go To Item 17, A Prayer at the Levation, introduction
Go To Item 17, A Prayer at the Levation, text