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Item 21, Sir Corneus: Introduction


1 Both of these features of Sir Corneus also distinguish it from its closest relative in surviving Middle English literature, The Boy and the Mantle. There, a young man brings a magic mantle (robe), knife, and cup to Arthur’s court, which test the faithfulness of women. Arthur is enraged to discover that he is a cuckold, until everyone else’s wife ends up equally condemned, except for the wife of “Craddock” (Caradoc). See Furrow, Ten Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems, pp. 295–311.

2 For a brief comparison of these two traditions, see Pearsall, Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction, pp. 60–61.

Origin, Genre, and Themes

Though the wit of Jonson, Shakespeare, and other Jacobean writers can still amuse readers four centuries later, modern audiences can find their innumerable jokes about cuck­olded husbands a little wearying; this vein of humor has not lasted as well as others. But medieval and Renaissance audiences clearly found cuckoldry highly amusing, an even more popular source of humor than corrupt clergy or cunning peasants (though the ideal medieval joke combines all three tropes). If Chaucer’s stories of cuckoldry are exceptional for their comic precision, their subject was certainly a very familiar one. Sir Corneus is slightly unusual for jesting about cuckoldry in a locale not ordinarily associated with low humor, the Arthurian court.

As an Arthurian burlesque, Sir Corneus is not a pioneer; the thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman Lai du Cor tells a very similar story, in which a young man gives Arthur a magic horn which no cuckold can drink from without spilling. Arthur drinks, spills, and nearly stabs Queen Guinevere before being restrained. When nearly all the other men present fail to drink from the horn without spilling, Arthur’s mood lightens and he for­gives his wife. Another thirteenth-century text, the French Livre de Carados, features a similar episode. While either text may be the source for Sir Corneus, it contains major dif­ferences present in no other analogue. Arthur already owns the horn at the start of Sir Corneus, and he does not react angrily to his exposure as a cuckold.1 This may reduce the dramatic progression of the story, but it preserves the general atmosphere of low comedy throughout. This is a genial, frivolous world, where cuckolds sit in the seats of honor and are entertained by minstrels before dancing for the entertainment of everyone else. It is not unlike the Arthurian court at the start of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in its youth­ful silliness, though in that text there is a competing sense of chivalric pride that only appears in Sir Corneus when the Duke of Gloucester politely refuses to drink from the horn before Arthur.

The Arthur of Sir Corneus bears little resemblance to the Arthur of much Middle English literature, where he is celebrated as a great warrior-king and national hero. But another Ar­thurian tradition, based in France, often imagines an ineffectual Arthur whose own ex­ploits pale in comparison to those of the other knights of the Round Table.2 In this tradi­tion, which appears in England in the form of the stanzaic Morte D’Arthur and Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, Lancelot’s adulterous affair with Guinevere assumes a greater impor­tance. In Malory’s retelling, Morgan le Fay sends a charmed horn to the court in order to reveal Guinevere’s unfaithfulness. The horn is intercepted and sent instead to King Mark’s court, where it endan­gers another couple, Tristan and Queen Isolde. Yet King Mark and his court decide to ignore the horn’s evidence, thus ensuring that Tristan and Isolde will live and love a little longer. This dismissal, though considerably more self-deceiving than Arthur’s cheerful reaction in Sir Corneus, suggests that medieval literature sees cuckoldry as an inconvenient but unalterable fact, one that must be either suppress­ed for the sake of male pride or ignored for the sake of the glorious plotlines created by adulterous lovers.

Sir Corneus consistently describes the cuckolds who dance in Arthur’s court as a bro­ther­hood, and when Arthur learns that he too is a cuckold, he tells them “We be all of a freyry [brotherhood]: / I ame your awne brother” (lines 215–16). Queen Guinevere appears in the poem only briefly, blushing, and in a real sense women are entirely peripheral in this story. Cuckoldry, a crime against male honor, is by its very nature a male obsession. But this means that men can also choose to ignore it; the system of honor emerges as an arbi­trary male game. Once Arthur declares himself a brother of the cuckolds, rendering them all equal in respect, the poem can (with a straight face) declare that Arthur “Lyved and dyghed with honour, / As many hath don senne [since], / Both cokwoldys and other mo” (lines 251–53).

Manuscript Context

As a burlesque, Sir Corneus resembles the other comic pieces in Ashmole 61, inclu­ding The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools and The King and the Hermit (items 16 and 41). More specifically, it shares those two texts’ associations with drinking (a reliable sign of comedy). It follows di­rectly after Lybeaus Desconus (item 20), which fully idealizes the Ar­thurian world, and another ro­mance, The Erle of Tolous (item 19), in which the chastity of the Empress Beulybone drives the central plot. But in its irreverent detachment from customary moral sanctions and its mild vulgarity, Sir Corneus stands slightly apart from the prevailing spirit of Ashmole 61. The grim punishment of adultery in The Sinner’s Lament and The Adulterous Falmouth Squire (items 35a and 35b) and the idealization of the family in many of the other texts in the manuscript empha­size the idiosyncrasy of Sir Corneus.


Ashmole 61 preserves the only surviving text of the poem, but the text seems rela­tively free from serious defects. If Rate made any extensive revisions, his work is not obvious. It is written in 6-line tail-rhyme stanzas that are carefully rhymed, with only one anomolous 9-line stanza (lines 241–49).

Printed Editions

Child, F. J., ed. English and Scottish Ballads. 8 vols. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1857. 1:24–34.

Furrow, Melissa M., ed. Ten Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems. Pp. 273–91.

Hazlitt, W. Carew, ed. Remains of the Early Popular Poetry of England. Vol. 1. London: John Russell Smith, 1866. Pp. 35–49.

Reference Works

MWME, 3494–95
Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk Literature. [See H411.4]

See also The Boy and the Mantle, Brewer, T. Cross, Furrow, Heller, Kelly, P. MacCracken, Nykrog, Patton, and Rider (1985) in the bibliography

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