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Item 2, Right as a Ram's Horn: Introduction


1 See, for examples, Robbins, Secular Lyrics, pp. 101–02.
Origin, Genre, and Themes

A ram’s horn is notoriously curved, not “right” or straight, and this poem is an ironic list of all that is right in the world. Attributed to the prolific fifteenth-century poet John Lydgate, Right as a Ram’s Horn belongs to the capacious family of medieval estates satire. These works imagine the social order as composed of various classes or professions, with wo­men usually lumped together in their own, widely criticized, estate. Estates satire typically pro­ceeds by depicting each estate as acting against the interests of the commonweal and failing to serve its appointed role. With deep roots in Latin and French writing, the English tradition of estates satire includes Chaucer’s General Prologue, Langland’s “fair field of folk” in Piers Plow­man, and Gower’s review of the social order in his Latin work, Vox Clamantis.

Lydgate, a monk of Bury St. Edmunds, was the single most important English poet of the fifteenth century and a self-espoused follower of Chaucer. His work spans nearly all of the genres of medieval writing, and his well-known longer works such as The Siege of Thebes were matched or even superseded in popularity by his shorter, pragmatic or didactic texts (such as Stans Puer ad Mensam and The Dietary, items 7 and 31 in this volume). His authority was widely recognized by scribes and fellow authors, but his poetry also circulated widely without attribution, as it does in Ashmole 61. Though not particularly innovative, the estates satire of Right as a Ram’s Horn accurately represents Lydgate’s poetic style, a style more aureate (lofty and Latinate) than virtually all the other texts contained in Ashmole 61. Its complex ballade stanza (ababbcbc) and pentameter lines also distinguish it from most of the other texts in the manuscript, which use more traditional English verse forms (e.g. tail-rhyme).

The poem offers a condensed list of some of the most widespread complaints about the social order. Insofar as these grievances about the failure of the various estates are entirely typical of the genre, they have little historical specificity or radical edge. At its heart, estates satire tends to be deeply conservative and rarely presents a sharp or dangerous critique of anyone in particular. Right as a Ram’s Horn shifts this approach further towards abstraction by attacking allegorical figures — Idleness, Usury, Deception — as well as estates, though Rate’s added stanzas target estates left out by Lydgate. But what marks Lydgate’s Ram’s Horn as novel is its per antifrasim (by opposite) form, a list of ideal social harmonies and virtues repeatedly undercut by the refrain. This was largely a French tradi­tion. Lydgate himself produced the closest Middle English analogues to this poem, A Ballade per antiphrasim and So as the Crabbe Goth Forward, a translation of a French poem. So as the Crabbe Goth Forward features a similarly sarcastic refrain, lauds the same kinds of miracu­lous harmony, and has many lines that closely resemble those in Ram’s Horn. Other English analogues include the “punctuation poems” that present law courts and women in idealized perfection, but undercut these readings with their punctuation.1

Manuscript Context

Right as a Ram’s Horn can be seen as preparing the way for the conduct poems later in Ashmole 61, including the two poems that immediately follow, How the Wise Man Taught His Son and How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter (items 3 and 4). By presenting a world out of joint, in which no one behaves properly, Rate has readied his audience for corrective alternatives. The poem may also stand in symmetrical relationship to the penultimate poem in the manuscript’s current format, Vanity (item 40), which lists the estates to establish their fundamental transience. The stanza on minstrels, a profession that appears widely through­out the texts of Ashmole 61 but is less commonly discussed in estate satires, is probably Rate’s own composition (see below).


Though Lydgate’s Ram’s Horn is preserved in ten other manuscripts, Ashmole 61’s text differs significantly from all of the others. Besides many variant lines, the Ashmole text adds three stanzas not included in any other text (the fifth, sixth, and seventh stanzas here); these are most likely Rate’s own composition and may suggest a personal interest in the law courts and in minstrelsy. The text here is also missing two stanzas included in many other copies, one on the benevolence of the rich towards the poor and one on hypocrisy. One stanza lacks a line, and many of Lydgate’s original lines have been extensively altered, almost certainly by Rate’s own revisions.

Printed Editions

Hargreaves, Henry. “Lydgate’s ‘A Ram’s Horn.’” Chaucer Review 10 (1975), 255–59. [Prints the text of Ashmole 61.]

Lydgate, John. The Minor Poems of John Lydgate. 2:461–64. [Prints the more common version, based on the text of San Marino, CA, Huntington Library MS El. 26.A.13; Ashmole 61’s text not collated.]

Rigg, A. G. A Glastonbury Miscellany of the Fifteenth Century. London: Oxford University Press, 1968. Pp. 57–59. [Prints text of Cambridge, Trinity College MS O.9.38 and discusses the genre of per antifrasim poetry.]

Ritchie, W. Tod, ed. The Bannatyne Manuscript. 4 vols. Scottish Text Society n.s. 22–24, 26. Edinburgh: W. Blackwood, 1928–34. 2:201–02. [Prints the text of Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 1.1.6.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 199.
MWME, 2149.

See also Ebin, Mann, Pearsall (1970 and 1997), Renoir, Scattergood, Schirmer, and A. Taylor (1992) in the bibliography.

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