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Mumming at Bishopswood


ABBREVIATIONS: CA: Gower, Confessio Amantis; FP: Lydgate, Fall of Princes; MED: Middle English Dictionary; MP: Minor Poems of John Lydgate, ed. MacCracken; TB: Lydgate, Troy Book.

Shirley describes the Mumming at Bishopswood as a balade made by Lydgate for a May Day dinner of London’s sheriffs and their bretherne being held at Bishop’s Wood, a place owned by the bishop of London outside London in what is now Stepney (see I. Lancashire, Dramatic Texts and Records, no. 1414). MacCracken calls Bishopswood a mumming (MP, 2:1668), but Shirley does not, and, unlike most other fourteenth- and fifteenth-century mummings, it did not take place during the Christmas season, although it does feature the visit of out­siders bearing gifts (in this case, seemingly just abstract ones, but see Norton-Smith, John Lydgate: Poems, p. 123) that is characteristic of the genre. No presenter is identified, but the messenger (poursyvant) who brought the balade may have read it aloud while silent characters impersonated Ver (Spring) and possibly Flora (although the text implies that she is not present), as well as May (if May is a figure distinct from Ver); there may also have been a musical interlude by figures from classical mythology (Venus, Cupid, and Orpheus, at lines 99–105), although these lines are probably meant merely as a poetic description. If Bishopswood had four performers (a presenter and three silent actors) it would match the size of the usual London performing company of the period (A. Lancashire, London Civic Theatre, pp. 120 and 262n27).

Bishopswood is undated, but Pearsall (Bio-Bibliography, p. 51) places it in May of 1429, arguing that it might have accompanied the mummings for the Mercers and Goldsmiths earlier that year in honor of William Estfeld; if Pearsall is correct, the actual date would have to be May of 1430, since as Anne Lancashire has pointed out Estfeld was mayor from October 29, 1429, to October 29, 1430. Noting that the coronation of Henry VI in London on Novem­ber 6, 1429, might have raised ordinary festivities to a higher level in the next six months, Lancashire (London Civic Theatre, pp. 121–22) posits May Day of 1430 as a likely date for a special commission from Lydgate for the sheriffs’ dinner, especially since he had provided entertainments for the coronation ceremonies and had written the mummings for the mercers and goldsmiths for performance in early 1430 as well. A wider range of dates for the mumming cannot be ruled out, however, since the sole extant copy is in Bodley Ashmole 59, which Shirley compiled in 1447–49 while resident in the close of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London (see Connolly, “John Shirley,” p. 152); Shirley’s inclusion of Bishopswood while he did not recopy any of the mummings from Trinity R.3.20, which he used as a partial exemplar for Ashmole 59, perhaps suggests that he did not have a copy of the mumming when he made Trinity R.3.20 in the early 1430s. Stow included the first two stanzas, derived from Ashmole 59 which passed through his hands, in his Survey of London (1598), as an example of the “great Mayings and maygames made by the gouernors and Maisters of this Citie” (p. 99), although the earliest recorded May game in London dates to 1458 (in the parish of Saint Nicholas Shambles) (see Clopper, Drama, Play, and Game, p. 160n57).

The poem consists of sixteen rhyme-royal stanzas that offer political and social com­mentary embedded within praise of the coming of spring, in the guise of Flora’s daughter Ver, who bids flowers to bloom and birds to sing, as signs that winter has fled. Ver also ushers in prosperity, peace, and unity after the adversity and troubles of winter, and the nature imagery soon develops into a social and political commentary that imagines all estates united, with each fulfilling its proper duties so that righteousness destroys the “darkness” of extortion and leads to a joyful summer (see Wickham, Early English Stages 3:50, and Ebin, John Lydgate, p. 87). While much of this commentary deals with conventional themes of the proper roles of the various estates, it may also address real contemporary concerns, especially in its references to discord and dissension. Like many of Lydgate’s other poems for Londoners, Bishopswood speaks to the concerns and aspirations of the city’s elites, particularly for order and prosperity. The poem ends with a four-stanza envoy addressed to all the estates who are present, proclaiming that May has now come to bring them “joye and fresshnesse.” By adding an elevating classical note in the description of Parnassus and the muses, the envoy also seems designed to make clear to the audience the values of the poetic conceits to which they have listened.

Critical opinion on the aesthetic qualities of Bishopswood has been mixed. While Pearsall admires the learned philosophical and scientific description of spring, he finds the verses to be “cumbersome and awkward” (John Lydgate, p. 186). Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, pp. 123–24) points out, however, that while the poem may seem diffuse and repetitive there is a progression from Ver (who presides over March and April) to May (whom he takes to be a separate figure), with verbal repetition of words such as lusty, swote, ermonye, and lustynes, which builds to the core of the poem in stanza fifteen where earthly harmony and unity are related to heavenly Parnassus. And Schirmer (John Lydgate, p. 104) argues for its innovative blending of pantomime-type pageants such as those found in royal entries and didactic scholastic drama such as the Pageant of Knowledge.

The base text for this edition is Ashmole 59, fols. 62r–64r (MP, 2:668–71). In Ashmole 59, Shirley does not separate the verses into stanzas but does include a mark (which resembles an “m” or an “n” with a front tail) to the left of the first line of each stanza. See the discussion of this mark in the Introduction; I have followed MacCracken in creating stanza divisions.

running titles: Lydegates balade sente / to the Shirrefe dyner / At the Shirreve dyner / Lidegates balade; not noted by MP.

headnote A poursyvant was a messenger, an attendant on a herald, or a junior heraldic officer attached to a royal or noble household. Besides administering tourna­ments, heralds also made announcements and proclamations, carried letters, and served as masters-of-ceremonies; in wardrobe accounts they are often grouped with minstrels and other performers, underscoring the confusion between heralds and minstrels. According to Shirley, the Mumming for the Mercers was also brought by a pursuivant “in wyse of mommers desguysed” while the Mumming for the Goldsmiths was “brought and presented” by a herald called Fortune. Schirmer (John Lydgate, p. 103) thinks the occasion was a kind of picnic, and that the balade was “pre­sented by a page who steps out of the wood into the clearing” and then reads the poem or hands it to a narrator to read while Ver dances and pantomimes, but the dinner was almost certainly indoors (see Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 186). Stow identifies Bishopswood as being in the parish of Stebunheath [Stepney], further elaborating: “Bishops wood / Bishops hall / by Blethenhall greene” [Bethnal Green] (Survey of London, 1:99). Barron notes that Londoners claimed their principal hunting rights on the lands of the bishop of London in Stepney (London, p. 192). On May Day in 1430 the two sheriffs were a goldsmith and a merchant taylor (A. Lancashire, London Civic Theatre, p. 276n32).

1 Flora was the Roman goddess of flowering plants and fertility. The syntax of the first stanza is confusing and apparently led Shirley to make a mistake in copying the verb in line 2 (see Textual Notes) and caused MacCracken (MP, 2:668) and Ebin (John Lydgate, p. 87) to think that Flora is a character in the mumming (sent by her mother Ver, Ebin says); but the correct reading, corroborated by repeated men­tions of Ver later in the verses, seems to be that Flora has sent her daughter Ver to the sheriffs’ feast.

5 entent. I.e., [hir] (Flora’s) intention.

6 th’estates wheoche that nowe sitte here. A reference to the occasion and to the assembled audience. Here and in other lines, Lydgate presents an inclusive, if hierarchical, view of society, one in which all estates are supposed to perform their roles properly and to treat even the lowliest as “truwe comunes” (line 55).

7 Veere. Ver, or springtime personified. Although Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, p. 124) claims that Ver is an uncommon personification in Middle English verse, with only one reference to her in Gower (CA, 7.1014, where Ver is not gendered female) and in Chaucer (Troilus and Criseyde, 1.157), the MED cites a number of other examples. In FP, Lydgate imagines Ver as male (5.1509).

9 vertue vegytable. Animating, or life-giving, force (see MED, vegetable, adj. a.). Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, p. 125) notes that Lydgate often shows “a scientific interest” in botanical processes, as in this stanza; compare TB, 2.3915 ff. and Reson and Sensuallyte, line 2747.

15 swaged. Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, p. 125) notes that this is a term used to describe frost, as in TB 2.5067 ff.

17–18 For the notion that birds choose their mates in the springtime, see Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls.

27 proygne. “Preen”; usually used of birds, as here, but occasionally applied to humans (MED, proinen v.).

29–35 This stanza introduces the idea that Ver offers an escape from the adversity and troubles of winter by bringing not only springtime but also prosperity, peace, and stability.

35 youre hye renoun. A form of honorific address, similar to those in lines 80 and 111. It is unclear in these three instances precisely who is being addressed. Although the phrase could be directed to the two sheriffs, it may be that the mayor, or another high-ranking person, was present; see A. Lancashire, London Civic Theatre, p. 71, for prominent guests, including royalty, at company feasts and compare the Mumming for the Goldsmiths, in which the mayor is addressed as “youre Hyeghnesse” (line 75).

42 The dangers of discord and division are explored at length in Lydgate’s Serpent of Division. Compare with lines 47 (“for to exyle duplicytee”), 63 (“That noone oppression beo done to the pourayle”), 70 (“Represse . . . al extorcyoune”), and 72 (“Troubles exylinge”).

51 the hede. Oblique reference to the notion of the body politic; see FP 2.827–903 for a fuller version of the same conceit.

55 truwe comunes. Compare the language of commonalty found in the Disguising at London and Mesure Is Tresour.

75 mynistre of lustynesse. Ver was often viewed as the season of youth, regeneration, mating, and procreation; see MED, n. 1(c).

76–77 These lines possibly refer to the presence of someone actually impersonating Ver, but they are too vague to let us say for sure.

80 May. The introduction of May, who has not been mentioned up to this point, is somewhat confusing. Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, p. 124) argues that there is a progression from Ver (who presides over March and April) to May, who presides over the day and the following season, but it seems odd that Lydgate would devote eleven stanzas to Ver and just one to May before turning to the envoy (in which May, but not Ver, is mentioned); May is possibly a synonym for Ver, rather than another character. Perhaps Shirley’s age at the time of copying the mumming (he would have been over eighty) explains this and other confusion that crops up elsewhere in Ashmole 59 (see Connolly, “John Shirley,” p. 152).
youre Hye Excellence. See note to line 35.

84 ff. L’envoye to alle th’estates present. This rubric may perhaps have been misplaced by Shirley, as it makes better sense following line 105.

85 This Princesse. A reference to May; see also line 78. The MED notes that the word princes(se) (n. [d]) is often used with personifications of fortune, nature, wisdom, and so forth, particularly by Lydgate.

92 motleys. From the noun motle, meaning “variegated cloth,” here used in the sense of a multicolored blanket of flowers covering the hills; see FP, 6.183.

95 Tytane. Titan, a name for the sun.

99 The muses were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Lydgate’s descrip­tion of Parnassus here and in the Mumming for the Mercers echoes Chaucer’s in Anelida and Arcite, lines 15 ff., and derives from Servius’ commentary on Virgil and Isidore’s Etymologiae, 14.8, lines 11–12 (see Norton-Smith, John Lydgate: Poems, p. 126). While this stanza introduces new imagery to the poem (Schirmer, John Lydgate, p. 103, describes it as “a touch of humanistic fantasy”), its linking of earthly harmony and unity with heavenly Parnassus is typical of Lydgate’s tactics of elevation that both flatter and instruct his audiences.

100 Citherra. An alternate name for Venus, derived from the name of the island of Cythera.

102 wellis. As Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, p. 126) notes, this is a reference to the rivers Helicon and Hippocrene, sacred to the Muses.

103 hem. Refers to Venus and her son, Cupid.

104 Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, p. 126) observes that Lydgate here combines two passages from Chaucer on Orpheus’ music, from House of Fame, 1201 ff., and the trans­lation of Boethius’ De Consolatione, III.M.2.21 ff.

108 tofore yow. Perhaps a reference to the presence of someone who is impersonating May; compare with lines 76–77.

111 youre Hyenesse. See note to line 35.


ABBREVIATIONS: B: Bodley Ashmole 59, copy text for the Mumming at Bishopswood; M: MacCracken’s 1934 edition.

2 hast. Stow silently emends to hath (Survey, p. 100); Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, p. 124) notes that Shirley has misread þ in his exemplar as long st, on the assumption that Flora is in the vocative and the verb should thus be second person singular.

4 sonne. M’s emendation; B reads sonnes.

10 trascende. Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, p. 124), emends to transcend, on the assumption that B has omitted the stroke over the a, and following Stow (Survey, 100), who silently expands to “transcends.” Under transcenden v., the MED lists trascender as a variant form and suggests that “it may show the influence of ME ascenden,” but since Bishopswood is the sole example it cites, Norton-Smith’s conjecture may be correct.

23 payne. M prints as payne, but B reads peyne, as Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, p. 7), agrees.

24 sugre. Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, p. 7) emends to sugred, a favorite past participial adjective of Lydgate’s, on the grounds that if sugre is correct, this attributive use of the noun would be unique (125). But the MED cites several examples of the adjectival use of sugre, as here (see sugre, n. [i]).

27 morwenyng. M’s emendation; B reads morowneydge.

44 Flowres. M’s emendation; B reads fowers.

46 blosme. M’s emendation; omitted in B.

53 constreynen. M’s emendation; B reads consteynen.

55 beo. Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, p. 125) emends to have to suit the sense of the line that judges protect the commons.

58 parseveraunce. M’s emendation; erasure in B.

59 vertue. M’s emendation; B repeats parseveraunce from the preceding line, with something written over it that seems to end in [tu]; Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, p. 8) emends to hir [vertu].

70 Represse the derknesse. Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, p. 8) omits the.

73 hert. Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, p. 9) emends to herte.

87 And foolis. Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, p. 9), inserts [smale] before foolis.

88 ermonye. My emendation; M follows B’s reading of enemye, which is written over an erasure. Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, p. 125) also emends to ermonye, reasoning that Shirley’s exemplar probably read “ermonye” but that the contraction for r disappeared from the first e, the second e is a misreading of o, and m and n have been transposed.

91 shoures. M’s emendation; B repeats odoures from the preceding line.

92 Topyted. Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, p.125) emends to Tapyted; compare Troy Book 1659 ff. and 1.2611, where Lydgate imitates Chaucer (see the Book of the Duchess, 258 ff.). The MED cites this line from Bishopswood as the sole example under the verb topiten.

95 And. Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, p.10) emends to Whan, and prints the whole line as: Whan firy Tytan shews h[i]s tresses sheene.

104 heos. Norton-Smith (John Lydgate: Poems, p. 10) prints as h[i]s.
  [Nowe here nexst folowyng ys made a balade by Lydegate, sente by a poursyvant (sent by a messenger) to the Shirreves of London, acompanyed with theire bretherne upon Mayes daye at Busshopes wod, at an honurable dyner, eche of hem bringginge his dysshe. (see note)























Mighty Flourra, goddes of fresshe floures,
Whiche clothed hast the soyle in lousty grene,
Made buddes springe with hir swote showres
By influence of the sonne so sheene;
To do plesaunce of entent ful clene
Unto th’estates wheoche that nowe sitte here,
Hathe Veere doune sent hir owen doughter dere,

Making the vertue that dured in the roote,
Called of clerkes the vertue vegytable,
For to trascende, moste holsome and moste swoote,
Into the crope, this saysoun so greable.
The bawmy lykour is so comendable
That it rejoythe with the fresshe moysture
Man, beeste, and foole, and every creature

Which hathe repressed, swaged, and bore doune
The grevous constreinte of the frostes hoore;
And caused foolis, for joye of this saysoune,
To cheese theire makes thane by natures loore,
With al gladnesse theire courage to restore,
Sitting on bowes fresshly nowe to synge
Veere for to salue at hir home comynge;

Ful pleinly meninge in theire ermonye
Wynter is goone, whiche did hem gret payne,
And with theire swoote sugre melodye,
Thanking Nature theire goddesse sovereyne
That they nowe have no mater to compleyne
Hem for to proygne every morwenyng
With lousty gladnesse at Phebus uprysinge.

And to declare the hye magnifysence
Howe Vere inbringethe al felicytee,
After wynters mighty vyolence
Avoydinge stormys of al adversytee;
For sheo hathe brought al prosperitee
To alle th’estates of this regyoun
At hir comynge tofore youre hye renoun:

To the mighty prynces the palme of theire victorie;
And til knighthode nowe sheo dothe presente
Noblesse in armes, lawde, honnour, and glorie;
Pees to the people in al hir best entente,
With grace and mercy fully to consente
That provydence of hye discressioun
Avoyde descorde and al devysyoun.

Wynter shal passe of hevynesse and trouble,
Flowres shal springe of perfite charité,
In hertes there shal be no meninge double,
Buddes shal blosme of trouthe and unytee,
Pleinly for to exyle duplicytee,
Lordes to regne in theire noble puissance,
The people obeye with feythful obeyssaunce.

Of alle estates there shal beo oone ymage,
And princes first shal ocupye the hede,
And prudent juges, to correcte outrages,
Shal trespassours constreynen under drede,
That innosentes in theire lowlyhede
As truwe comunes may beo theire socour,
Truwly contune in theire faithful labour.

And by the grace of Oure Lorde Jhesu
That Holly Chirche may have parseveraunce,
Beo faythfull founde in al vertue,
Mayre, provost, shirref, eche in his substaunce;
And aldremen, whiche have the governaunce
Over the people by vertue may avayle,
That noone oppression beo done to the pourayle.

Thus as the people, of prudent pollycye,
Pryncis of the right shal governe,
The Chirche preye, the juges justefye,
And knighthode manly and prudently discerne,
Til light of trouthe so clerely the lanterne:
That rightwysnesse thorughe this regyoune
Represse the derknesse of al extorcyoune.

Theos be the tythinges, wheoche that Weer hathe brought.
Troubles exylinge of wynters rude derknesse;
Wherfore rejoye yowe in hert, wille, and thought,
Somer shal folowe to yowe of al gladnesse;
And sithen sheo is mynistre of lustynesse,
Let hir beo welcome to yowe at hir comyng,
Sith sheo to yowe hathe brought so glad tythinge.

The noble princesse of moste magnifisence,
Qweene of al joye, of gladde suffisaunce,
May is nowe comen to youre Hye Excellence,
Presenting yowe prosperous plesaunce,
Of al welfare moste foulsome haboundance,
As sheo that hathe under hir demayne
Of floures fresshe moste holsome and soveraine.

     [L’envoye to alle th’estates present.

This Princesse hathe, by favour of nature,
Repared ageine that wynter hathe so fade,
And foolis loustely recuvre
Theire lusty notes and theire ermonye glade,
And under braunches, under plesant shade,
Rejoyssing thaire with many swote odoures,
And Zepherus with many fresshe shoures.

Topyted fayre, with motleys whyte and rede,
Alle hilles, pleynes, and lusty bankes grene,
And made hir bawme to fleete in every mede,
And fury Tytane shewe oute heos tresses sheene,
And uppon busshes and hawthornes kene,
The nightingale with plesant ermonye
Colde wynter stormes nowe sheo dothe defye.

On Parnoso the lusty muses nyene,
Citherra with hir sone nowe dwellis,
This sayson singe and theire notes tuwyne
Of poetrye besyde the cristal wellis;
Calyope the dytes of hem tellis,
And Orpheus with heos stringes sharpe
Syngethe a roundell with his temperd herpe.

Wherfore to alle estates here present,
This plesant tyme moste of lustynesse,
May is nowe comen tofore yow of entent
To bringe yowe alle to joye and fresshnesse,
Prosparitee, welfare, and al gladnesse,
And al that may youre Hyenesse qweeme and pleese,
In any parte or doone youre hertes eese.
Flora; (see note)
Who has clothed; vigorous; (t-note)
her sweet
bright; (t-note)
To bring pleasure with completely pure intent; (see note)
the estates which; (see note)
Ver (i.e., Spring); her (i.e., Flora’s); (see note)

life-giving force; (see note)
ascend; sweet; (t-note)
season so pleasant
fragrant sap
makes happy

diminished; (see note)

(see note)
choose; mates; command


meaning; harmony
them; (t-note)
sugary; (t-note)

preen; morning; (see note); (t-note)
at the sun’s rising

high; (see note)
ushers in all happiness


before; (see note)

Nobility in battle, praise

sound judgment
discord; dissent; (see note)

perfect; (t-note)
deceitful feelings
unity; (t-note)


head; (see note)

commons (subjects); succor; (see note); (t-note)

may persevere; (t-note)
Be; (t-note)




These; tidings; Ver

rejoice; heart; (t-note)
since; pleasure; (see note)
(see note)
such a

(see note)

plentiful abundance

epilogue; the estates; (see note)

(see note)
that which; has so withered
birds; recover; (t-note)
harmony; (t-note)

showers; (t-note)

Covered attractively; multicolored flowers; (see note); (t-note)

fragrance; waft over; meadow
the fiery sun; his; (see note); (t-note)

pleasure-loving; nine; (see note)
(see note)
springs; (see note)
stories; (see note)
(see note); (t-note)
harmonious harp

with the intent; (see note)

satisfy; (see note)
heart’s ease


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