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Item 35a-b, The Sinner's Lament and the Adulterous Falmouth Squire: Introduction


1 Fein’s recent edition of The Sinner’s Lament (Moral Love Songs) ought to set the matter at rest, but Rosemary Woolf pointed out the error nearly forty years ago, and the claim that The Sinner’s Lament is “The Lament of William Basterdfeld” or “The Prologue of The Adulterous Falmouth Squire” still appears regularly in print; see, for example, Duffy, Stripping of the Altars, p. 340.

2 For a brief discussion of the exemplum as a literary form, see the introduction to The Knight Who Forgave His Father’s Slayer (item 18).

3 On the economics of purgatory, see the introduction to The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls (item 25).

4 Though the living compelled each other to uphold their responsibilities to their dead kindred, the dead were believed to have their own means of enforcing kinship bonds from beyond the grave; see Schmidt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages, pp. 185–94.

5 For complete details of the manuscripts and the textual variants of The Sinner’s Lament, see Fein’s METS edition (Moral Love Songs).

Origin, Genre, and Themes

Though these two texts are entirely independent, Rate has deliberately fused them to­gether in this manuscript. His conjunction of these two texts, paired in no other manu­script, has confused scholarship for over a century. The first text, The Sinner’s Lament, has mistakenly been considered a “Prologue” for the second text, The Adulterous Falmouth Squire, solely on the basis of their appearance together in Ashmole 61.1 Readers may choose whether or not to read them as a continuous text (as Rate seems to have intended).

The Sinner’s Lament was probably written in the first half of the fifteenth century, and is one of a vast number of contemporary lyrics concerned with mortality, sin, and the punish­ments of the afterlife. The fiction that gives shape to the lyric is its speaker from beyond the grave, whose opening lines suggest a sudden appearance before a surprised audience, who must return to hell at the end of the poem, called by Death’s (or the devil’s) trumpet. The punishments he describes — biting snakes and toads, fetters, a cage of fire, flaying — recall the many similar lists of punishments in the popular descriptions of hell and purga­tory, yet he offers just enough vivid detail to particularize the horrid suffering of the damned. The speaker’s apparent individuality even prompted Rate to give him a name — Sir Wylliam Basterdfeld — though this appellation appears in no other manuscript.

This name suggests the centrality of adultery in Rate’s version of The Sinner’s Lament; he has tailored it to strengthen its imagined connections to The Adulterous Falmouth Squire. But even in Rate’s altered version, The Sinner’s Lament lays out a wide array of sins that, if unre­pented, will be punished in hell: gluttony, vanity, sloth, a lack of generosity to the poor, and the dangerous indifference of youth in its “flowres” to the seriousness of death. Time, as the Lament makes clear, is the central problem of human existence. In this life, all is mutable and sins may come and go; at the unpredictable moment of death, humans suddenly enter eter­nity, burden­ed forever with their sins and fixed in an ines­capable afterlife. The Lament plays off this antithesis in stanza after stanza, contrasting the impermanence of life and the finality of death. The language is often formulaic, but anguished outbursts of colloquial dir­ectness lend the poem emotional power, as in line 35: “Than was to late off ‘Had I wyste!’”

The themes and images of The Adulterous Falmouth Squire follow on from The Sinner’s Lament in many ways that Rate must have appreciated. Here too is the grotesque punish­ment of the damned and a renewed emphasis on the permanence of their fate. When the title character delivers his mournful address in hell, The Adulterous Falmouth Squire briefly resembles the Lament as a dramatic monologue. But as the narrator states in line 52, its fully formed narrative makes The Adulterous Falmouth Squire a “sampull,” or exemplum, the short narrative form that was the stock-in-trade of medieval preachers.2

A simple antithesis lies at the heart of the story. Two brothers die at the same moment, and the only stated difference between them is that the elder brother was an adulterer; their differing fates in the afterlife thus demonstrate the devastating effects of adultery. As the opening stanzas acknowledge, lechery may be the “least” (or easiest to excuse) of the deadly sins, but it is no less deadly for that. Though medieval societies often tolerated the extra­marital affairs of well-born men (but not of women), canon law and religious doctrine made few distinctions between men and women who broke the bonds of marriage. All adult­ery, as lines 40–44 make clear, endangers the entire family, including both legitimate and illegitimate children.

Perhaps it is with this in mind that the exemplum then focuses on the adulterer’s son. The son’s pity for his father and his shock at finally seeing his father in the most grotesque of infernal punishments lead to the climax of the poem’s pathos. The father explains to his son that the damned lie beyond the help of the saints or priestly intervention. He ends by plead­ing with his son not to pray for him: “For ever the more thou prayst for me, / My peynes schall be more and more” (l34–35). For a medieval audience, accustomed to the comforting rituals of Masses for the dead, indulgences, and the economy of purgatorial time, this would surely have been the text’s most chilling message.3 One of the crucial functions of the late medieval family was to remember (and thus protect) its dead; here the adulterer has cut himself off from the remedies the family could provide.4 The remainder of the poem further emphasizes the limits of the family’s power by keeping the son at a dis­tance from his uncle; the two do not speak, and the bleeding Tree of Knowledge signals the son’s exclusion from the community of heaven, at least while he remains burdened by sin. The text as a whole is a picture of a family divided by sin into three worlds, each in­capable of assisting the other.

Manuscript Context

These two works share the closest connections with other works in the second half of Ash­mole 61 that treat the consequences of sin, mortality, and the afterlife, including The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls, Stimulus Consciencie Minor, The Wounds and the Sins, and Vanity (items 25, 33, 38, and 40). As an elegy, The Sinner’s Lament closely resembles Vanity and (more loosely) The Lament of Mary as well (item 30). The Adulterous Falmouth Squire can be grouped with other exempla in Ashmole 61, particularly those centered around the family, The Jealous Wife and The Incestuous Daughter (items 22 and 23). The emphasis on adultery and the vulnerability of the family present in both of these texts also connects them to many other texts in Ashmole 61, including Lybeaus Desconus and Sir Corneus (items 20 and 21).


As mentioned above, Rate has radically altered the status of The Sinner’s Lament by adjoin­ing it to The Adulterous Falmouth Squire; only a two-line initial signals the start of the second text. His other major alteration to The Sinner’s Lament is his insertion of three lines in the opening stanza naming the speaker as Sir Wylliam Basterdfeld. Four other manu­scripts (and one frag­ment) preserve The Sinner’s Lament; none has the same num­ber of stanzas as any of the others, though Ashmole 61’s text lacks only one of the stanzas in Oxford, Corpus Christi College MS 237 (the longest version). The stanzas rhyme ababbcbc, but Rate shows his usual inattention to stanzas larger than quatrains, and most of the other scribes who copied the poem also rendered it in quatrains.5

The Adulterous Falmouth Squire appears in seven other manuscripts; Ashmole 61’s text is generally closest to that in Cambridge, University Library MS Ff.5.48 (P), another house­hold manuscript from the northern Midlands. With the ex­ception of one lost line the text is not particularly defective and Rate has engaged in little of his habitual revision.

Printed Editions of The Sinner’s Lament

Fein, Susanna Greer, ed. Moral Love Songs and Laments. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1998. Pp. 361–94. [Collates all MSS including Ashmole 61.]

Furnivall, F. J., ed. Political, Religious, and Love Poems. EETS o.s. 15. 2nd ed. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co., 1903. Rpt. London: Oxford University Press, 1965. Pp. 123–26. [Prints the text of Ashmole 61.]

Horstmann, Carl, ed. Altenglische Legenden, neue Folge mit Einleitung und Anmerkungen. Pp. 367–68, 529–30. [Collates Ashmole 61 and the Lincoln Thornton MS.]

Jansen, Sharon L., and Kathleen H. Jordan, eds. The Welles Anthology, MS. Rawlinson C. 813: A Critical Edition. Binghamton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1991. Pp. 96–100.

Leonard, Anne L., ed. Zwei mittelenglische Geschichten aus der Hölle. Zurich: Orell Füssli, 1891. [Collates Ashmole 61 and 3 other MSS.]

Perry, George G., ed. Religious Pieces in Prose and Verse. EETS o.s. 26. Rev. ed. London: N. Trübner, 1889. Rpt. New York: Greenwood, 1969. Pp. 115–18. [Prints the text of the Lincoln Thornton MS.]

Printed Editions of The Adulterous Falmouth Squire

Furnivall, F. J., ed. Political, Religious, and Love Poems. EETS o.s. 15. 2nd ed. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co., 1903. Rpt. London: Oxford University Press, 1965. Pp. 126–32. [Prints the text of L, with collation of Ashmole 61.]

Hartshorne, Charles Henry, ed. Ancient Metrical Tales: printed chiefly from original sources. London: William Pickering, 1829. Pp. 169–78. [Prints the text of P.]

Horstmann, Carl. “Nachträge zu den Legenden.” Pp. 411–70. [Prints the text of Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson poet. 118, pp. 419–21.]

Leonard, Anne L., ed. Zwei mittelenglische Geschichten aus der Hölle. Zurich: Orell Füssli, 1891. [Collates Ashmole 61 and all other MSS.]

Wright, Thomas. “Anecdota Literaria.” Retrospective Review n.s. 2 (1854), 101–04. [Prints the text of C.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 172 (The Sinner’s Lament); 2052 (The Adulterous Falmouth Squire)
MWME–60, 3552 (The Sinner’s Lament);, 3552–53 (The Adulterous Falmouth Squire)

See also Brundage, Duffy (2005), E. Foster (2004), Gray (1972), Keiser (1987), Tristram, and Woolf (1968) in the bibliography.

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