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Items 9-11, Latin Epigrams and The Rules for Purchasing Land: Introduction


1 Quintus Ennius, Annales, book 6, line 167, p. 86.

2 Cicero cites the line only to ridicule the implausibility of Ennius’ account; see book 2, chapter 56 of De divinatione, p. 500. Boethius cites the line in book 2, chapter 4 of his Commentarii in librum Aristotelis Peri hermeneias, 2.82. Augustine cites it in book 3, chapter 17 of De civitate dei, 1.344.

3 The attribution to Fortescue appears in Oxford, Bodleian Library MSS Latin miscellany c.66 and Rawlinson B 252. Most of the manuscripts containing the text date from the middle decades of the fifteenth century to the early sixteenth century.

Origin, Genre, and Themes

These four items appear on fol. 21v and may have been added to the blank space left after the completion of Dame Courtesy, perhaps even some time after the completion of the rest of Ashmole 61. Three of the texts are Latin epigrams which circulated very widely throughout the Middle Ages. The first and the last, “Tempore felici” and “Tres infelices,” express the kind of common wisdom found in every collection of proverbs. Proverbs held a much higher status in medieval culture than they do now. Proverb collections were ascribed to Solomon, King Alfred, and other legendarily wise men, and the Distiches attrib­uted to Cato were a standard educational text. The puns of many Latin epigrams made them popular with generations of young medieval scholars. The classical origins of many of these epigrams also lent them an air of learned authority, thus making a claim to truth more august than any bit of folk wisdom, even if the sentiments were entirely familiar.

“Tempore felici” is an elegiac couplet, and bears some resemblance to lines from Ovid’s Tristia. In the Tristia and in the form used here, the couplet reveals a common classical and medieval idea of true friendship as a rare and valuable commodity. Fifteenth-century humanism tended to concentrate on Fortune and the inevitable fall of the mighty, and this couplet may have been read as an allusion to the loneliness so vividly described by many accounts of famous men.

“O Asside Asside,” while not a proverb, aims at a similar form of wisdom about the un­knowable future and the tendency of human beings to assume the best. It is a response of the Delphic oracle to Pyrrhus, king of Epirus and descendent of Aeacus (here rendered as Assidus), who asked whether or not he should invade Italy. The line ultimately derives from Ennius’ Annales, which survives only in fragments, but the line was very widely known as an example of amphiboly, or ambiguous grammatical structure.1 Pyrrhus chose to inter­pret it in his favor, and won a “Pyrrhic victory” at the battle of Asculum before finally being forced to abandon the peninsula and return to Greece. The prophecy was quoted by Cicero in De divinatione (On Divination), and by Boethius and Augustine.2

A source for the four hexameter lines that make up the final Latin text, “Tres infelices,” has not been identified, but the ideas are commonplace and this quatrain survives in various forms in many other manuscripts. It suggests the moral dimension of teaching and educa­tion as understood in the Middle Ages, and lays out the obligation of teachers (usually clerics) to share their knowledge and live up to their own precepts.

The Middle English text added here, The Rules for Purchasing Land, was also a very popular text. Though two manuscripts ascribe the poem to the political theorist Sir John Fortescue, this is almost certainly a misattribution, and the poem likely dates from earlier in the fifteenth century.3 Despite the steady rise of the mercantile sector, late medieval En­gland’s economy remained heavily dependent on agriculture. Land served as the solid foundation of many family fortunes, the most desirable marker of status, and the favorite investment of both merchants and gentry. But as the Rules suggest, investors had to nego­tiate the many perils of the land market before they could expect to turn a profit — Rate’s version of the text warns that a return on investment could not be expected for the first ten years. Wars and plagues produced unpredictable fluctuations in wages, rents, and prices for crops throughout the fifteenth century. But the biggest dangers lay in the dark corners of the legal system, where rival claimants might emerge years after the transfer of land. Many disputes, often between competing branches of the same family, lasted for years or even decades. Since demonstrating seisin (occupation) of property was often crucial for the success of a legal claim, land disputes occasionally turned violent, as one suitor forcibly evicted another. The Rules for Purchasing Land advise methodical attention to detail and prudent caution; purchasers must learn everything possible about the legal status of the land they plan to buy, and then obtain every possible security to ensure they keep the land after buying it.

Manuscript Context

Though all four texts may have been added here as an afterthought, they develop interests treated elsewhere in the manuscript. “Tempore felici” shares its emphasis on the vulnerability of human happiness with Sir Orfeo and Vanity (items 38 and 39). “Tres infel­ices” quite naturally follows the didactic conduct works of the preceding folia, including How the Wise Man Taught His Son, How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter, and Dame Courtesy (items 3, 4, and 8). The reasons for “O Asside Asside” being added here seem less clear, though the text may have ser­ved as either a lesson for young students of Latin grammar or as a reminder of the vanity of human wishes. The Rules for Purchasing Land resembles some of the conduct texts in its prag­matism and also makes an interesting counterpoint to romances such as Sir Isumbras, Lybeaus Desconus, and Sir Cleges (items 5, 20, and 24). In those texts, heroes gain and lose lands and property with remarkable speed. Romances may have helped English audiences dream about the benefits and consequences of possession, but The Rules for Purchasing Land faces the hard-nosed realities.


Each of the three Latin texts survives in many manuscripts in England and on the continent; data on the exact number of surviving copies is unavailable. Though Rate’s Latin is unsteady and his awareness of Latin meter seems nonexistent, he does not seem to have introduced many changes to these texts. The Rules for Purchasing Land survives in fourteen other manuscripts, including several copies scribbled on flyleaves or in blank spaces, much as it seems to have been added here. The text appears in several different lengths, though none varies by more than a few couplets. Ashmole 61’s text most closely resembles those of Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 54 and London, British Library MS Lansdowne 762. Rate has avoided or misunderstood certain legal words and phrases but has not otherwise revised the text.

Printed Editions of The Rules for Purchasing Land

Alsop, J. D. “A Late Medieval Guide to Land Purchase.” Agricultural History 57 (1983), 161–64. [Prints the text of Cambridge, Trinity College MS O.2.53.]

Dyboski, Roman, ed. Songs, Carols, and Other Miscellaneous Poems from Balliol College MS 354. Pp. 137–38. [Prints the text from the commonplace book of the London merchant Richard Hill.]

McFarlane, K. B. England in the Fifteenth Century. London: Hambledon, 1981. P. 193. [Prints the text of London, British Library MS Royal 17.B.47 in discussion of Sir John Fastolf’s participation in the risky English land market of the fifteenth century].

Robbins, Rossell Hope, ed. Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries. Pp. 70–71. [Prints the text of MS Douce 54; also prints the text of Cambridge University Library MS Hh 2.6 in the notes, pp. 249–50.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 4148. [The Rules for Purchasing Land]
MWME 10.25.438.3691, 3905. [The Rules for Purchasing Land]
Walther, Hans. Proverbia Sententiaeque Latinitatis Medii Aevii. Carmina Medii Aevi Posterioris Latina II/1. 5 vols. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1963–69. [For item 9, “Tempore felici,” see entry #31228. For item 11b, “Tres infelices,” see entry #31559; see also entry #12306 for a similar text.]

See also Harvey, Mate, and Palmer in the bibliography.

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