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From Legends and Satires From Mediæval Literature, edited by Martha Hale Shackford; Ginn and Company; Boston; 1913; pp. 139-160.




SIR ORFEO,< COLOR="330033">*




Orfeo was a king,
In Inglond an heighe lording,
A stalworth man and hardi bo,2
Large and curteys, he was al so;
His fader was comen of king Pluto
And his moder of king Juno,
That sum time were as godes y hold,
For aventours that thai dede and told.
This king sojurned in Traciens,
That was a cite of noble defens,
For Winchester was cleped3 tho
Traciens, with outen no.
The king hadde a quen of priis,
That was y cleped dame Herodis.
The fairest levedi4 for the nones5
That might gon on bodi and bones,
Ful of love and godenisse
Ac no man may telle hir fairnise.

Bifel so in the comessing of May,

When miri and hot is the day,
And oway beth winter schours,
And everi feld is ful of flours,
And blosme breme6 on everi bough,
Over al wexeth miri anough,
This ich7 quen dame Heurodis,
142 Tok to maidens of priis,
And went in an undren tide.8
To play bi an orchard side
To se the floures sprede and spring,
And to here the foules sing:
Thia sett hem doun al thre,
Under a fair ympe9 tre,
And wel sone this fair quene,
Fel on slepe opon the grene.
The maidens durst hir nought awake,
Bot let hir ligge and rest take,
So sche slepe til after none,
That under tide was al y done;
Ac as sone as sche gan awake,
Sche crid and lothli bere gan make;
Sche froted10 hir honden and hir fet,
And crached her visage, it blede wete,
Hir riche robe hye al to rett,11
And was reneyd12 out of hir witt.
The two maidens hir biside
No durst with hir no leng abide,
But ourn13 to the palays ful right,
And told bothe squier and knight,
That her quen awede14 wold,
And bad hem go and hir at hold.
Knightes urn,13 and levedis al so,
Damisels sexti and mo,
In the orchard to the quen hye come,
And her up in her armes nome,15
143 And brought hir to bed attelast,
And held hir there fine fast;
Ac ever sche held in o cri
And wold up and owy.
When Orfeo herd that tiding
Never him nas wers for no thing;
He come with knightes tene
To chaumber right bifor the quene,
And biheld and seyd with grete pite:
O lef16 liif, what is te,17
That ever yete hast ben so stille,
And now gredest18 wonder schille19;
Thi bodi, that was so white y core,20
With thine nailes is al to tore,
Allas! thi rode,21 that was so red,
Is al wan as thou were ded;
And also thine fingres smale,
Beth al blodi and al pale;
Allas! thi lovesum eyghen22 to
Loketh so man doth on his fo;
A dame, Ich biseche merci,
Let ben al this reweful cri,
And tel me what the is, and hou,
And what thing may the help now?
Tho lay sche stille attelast,
And gan to wepe swithe23 fast,
And seyd thus the king to:
Allas! mi lord, sir Orfeo,
Seththen24 we first to gider were,
144 Ones wroth never we nere,
Bot ever Ich have y loved the
As mi liif, and so thou me,
Ac now we mot25 delen ato,
Do thi best, for y mot go.
Allas! quath he, forlorn Ich am,
Whider wiltow go and to wham?
Whider thou gost Ichil with the,
And whider Y go thou schalt with me.
Nay, nay, sir, that nought nis,
Ichil the telle al how it is:
As Ich lay this under tide,
And slepe under our orchard side,
Ther come to me to fair knightes
Wele y armed al to rightes,
And bad me comen an heighing,26
And speke with her lord the king;
And Ich answerd at wordes bold,
Y durst nought, no y nold.
Thai priked oghain27 as thai might drive,
Tho com her king also blive,
With an hundred knightes and mo,
And damissels an hundred al so;
Al on snowe white stedes,
As white as milke were her wedes,
Y no seighe never yete bifore
So fair creatours y core!
The king hadde a croun on hed,
It nas of silver, no of gold red,
Ac it was of a precious ston;
145 As bright as the sonne it schon:
And as son as he to me cam,
Wold Ich, nold Ich, he me nam,
And made me with him ride,
Opon a palfrey bi his side,
And brought me to his pallays,
Wele atired in ich ways;
And schewed me castels and tours,
Rivers, forestes, frith28 with flours;
And his rich stedes29 ichon,
And seththen me brought oghain hom,
In to our owhen orchard,
And said to me after ward:
Loke dame, to morwe thatow be
Right here under this ympe tre;
And than thou schalt with ous go
And live with ous ever mo,
And yif thou makest ous y let,
Where thou be, thou worst y fet30
And to tore thine limes al,
That nothing help the no schal,
And thei thou best so to torn
Yete thou worst with ous y born.

When king Orfeo heard this cas,

O we!31 quath he, allas! allas!
Lever me were to lete32 mi liif,
Than thus to lese the quen mi wiif,
He asked conseyl at ich man,
Ac no man him help no can.
A morwe the under tide is come.
146 And Orfeo hath his armes y nome,
And wele ten hundred knightes with him,
Ich y armed stout and grim;
And with the quen wenten he,
Right unto that ympe tre.
Thai made scheltrom33 in ich aside,
And sayd thai wold there abide,
And dye ther everichon,
Er the quen schuld fram hem gon:
Ac yete amiddes hem ful right,
The quen was oway y twight,34
With fairi forth y nome,
Men wist never wher sche was bicome,
Tho was ther criing, wepe and wo,
The king into his chamber is go,
And oft swoned opon the ston
And made swiche diol35 and swiche mon,
That neighe his liif was y spent;
Ther was non amendement.
He cleped to gider his barouns,
Erls, lordes of renouns,
And when thai al y comen were:
Lordinges, he said, bifor you here
Ich ordainy min heigh steward
To wite36 mi kingdom after ward,
In mi stede ben he schal,
To kepe mi londes over al,
For now Ichave mi quen y lore,37
The fairest levedi that ever was bore;
Never eft y nil no woman se,
147 Into wildernes Ichil te,38
And live ther ever more,
With wilde bestes in holtes39 hore;
And when ye under stond that y be spent,
Make you than a parlement,
And chese you a newe king:
Now doth your best with al mi thing.

Tho was ther wepeing in the halle,

And grete cri among hem alle;
Unnethe40 might old or yong
For wepeing speke a word with tong.
Thai kneled adoun al y fere,41
And praid him yif his wille were,
That he no schuld nought from hem go.
Do way! quath he, it schal be so:
All his kingdom he forsoke,
But a sclavin42 on him he toke;
He no hadde kirtel, no hode,
Schert, no nother gode,
Bot his harp he toke algate,43
And dede him barfot out atte gate:
No man most with him go.
O way! what the was wepe and wo,
When he that hadde ben king with croun,
Went so poverlich out of toun.
Thurch wode, and over heth,
Into the wildernes he geth,
Nothing he fint that him is ays,44
Bot ever he liveth in gret malais45;
148 He that hadde y werd the fowe46 and griis,47
And on bed the purper biis,48
Now on hard hethe he lith,
With leves and gresse he him writh49:
He that hadde castels, and tours,
River, forest, frith with flours;
Now, thei it commenci to snewe and frese,
This king mot make his bed in mese50:
He that had y had knightes of priis.
Bifor him kneland, and levedis,
Now seth he no thing that him liketh,
Bot wild wormes by him striketh:
He that had y had plente
Of mete and drink, of ich deynte,
Now may he al day digge and wrote,51
Er he finde his fille of rote;
In somer he liveth bi wild frut,
And berren, bot gode lite;
In winter may he no thing finde,
Bot rote, grases, and the rinde;
Al his bodi was oway dwine
For missays,and al to chine,52
Lord! who may telle the sore
This king sufferd ten yere and more:
His here of his berd, blac and rowe,53
To his girdel stede was growe;
His harp, where on was al his gle,
He hidde in an holwe tre;
And, when the weder was clere and bright,
149 He toke his harp to him wel right,
And harped at his owhen wille,
Into alle the wode the soun gan schille,
That alle the wilde bestes that ther beth,
For joie abouten him thai teth54;
And all the foules that ther were,
Come and sete on ich a brere;
To here his harping a fine,55
So miche melody was ther in.
And when he his harping lete wold,
No best bi him abide nold.

He might se besides

Oft in hot under tides,
The king o fairy, with his rout,
Com to hunt him al about:
With dim cri and bloweing,
And houndes also with him berking;
Ac no best thai no nome,
No never he nist whider thai bi come.
And other while he might him se
As a gret ost bi him te,
Wele atourned56 ten hundred knightes,
Ich y armed to his rightes;
Of cuntenaunce stout and fers,
With mani displaid baners;
And ich his swerd y drawe hold:
Ac never he nist whider thai wold.
And other while he seighe other thing:
Knightes and levedis com daunceing,
In queynt atire gisely,
150 Queyitt pas, and softly:
Tabours and trimpes yede him bi,
And al maner menstraci.

And on a day he seighe him biside

Sexti levdis on hors ride,
Gentil and jolif, as brid on ris57;
Nought o man amonges hem ther nis;
And ich a faucoun on hond bere,
And riden on haukin bi o rivere,
Of game thai founde wel gode haunt,
Maulardes, hayroun, and cormeraunt;
The foules of the water ariseth,
The faucouns hem wele deviseth,
Ich faucoun his pray slough:
That seighe Orfeo, and lough.
Par fay, quath he, ther is fair game!
Thider Ichil bi Godes name,
Ich was y won58swiche werk to se.
He aros, and thider gan te;
To a levedi he was y come,
Biheld, and hath wele under nome,
And seth, bi al thing, that it is
His owhen quen dam Heurodis.
Yern he biheld hir, and sche him eke,
Ac noither to other a word no speke:
For messais that sche on him seighe,
That had ben so riche and so heighe,
The teres fel out of her eighe;
The other levedis this y seighe,
And maked hir oway to ride,
151 Sche most with him no lenger abide.
Allas! quath he, now me is wo!
Whi nil deth now me slo,
Allas! wroche, that Y no might
Dye now, after this sight!
Allas! to long last mi liif
When Y no dar nought with mi wiif,
No hye to me, o word speke,
Allas! whi nil min hert breke!
Parfay, quath he, tide what bitide,
Whider so this levedis ride,
The selve way Ichil streche,
Of liif, no deth, me no reche.
His sclavin he dede on, all so spac,59
And henge his harp upon his bac,
And had wel gode will to gon;
He no spard noither stub no ston.
In at a roche the levedis rideth,
And he after, and nought abideth;
When he was in the roche y go,
Wele thre mile, other mo,
He com in to a fair cuntray,
As bright so sonne on somers day,
Smothe, and plain, and al grene;
Hille, no dale nas ther non y sene;
Amidde the lond a castel he sighe,
Riche, and real,60and wonder heighe;
Al the ut mast wal,
Was cler and schine as cristal;
And hundred tours ther were about,
152 Degiselich61 and bataild stout;
The butras com out of the diche,
Of rede gold y arched riche,
The bonsour62 was avowed63 al,
Of ich maner divers animal;
With in ther wer wide wones,64
Al of precious stones,
The werst piler on to biholde,
Was al of burnist gold;
Al that lond was ever light,
For when it schuld be therk65 and night,
The riche stones66 light gonne,
As bright as doth at none the sonne,
No man may telle, no thenche in thought,
The riche werk that ther was wrought,
Bi al thing, him think that it is
The proude court of paradis.
In this castel the levedis alight,
He wold in after, yif he might.

Orfeo knokketh atte gate,

The porter was redi ther ate,
And asked, what he wold have y do.
Parfay, quath he, Icham a minstrel lo,
To solas thi lord with my gle,
Yif his swete will be.
The porter undede the gate anon,
And lete him in to the castel gon.

Than he gan bihold about al,

And seighe full liggeand67 with in the wal,
153 Of folk that were thider y brought,
And thought dede and nare nought:
Sum stode with outen hade68;
And sum on armes nade;69
And sum thurch the bodi hadde wounde;
And sum lay wode70 y bounde;
And sum armed on hors sete;
And sum astrangled as thai ete;
And sum were in water adreynt71;
And sum with fire al for schreynt72;
Wives ther lay on child bedde;
Sum ded, and sum awedde73;
And wonder fele ther lay bisides,
Right as thai slepe her under tides;
Eche was thus in this warld y nome,
With fairi thider y come.
Ther he seighe his owhen wiif,
Dame Heurodis his liif liif
Slepe under an ympe tre;
Bi her clothes he knewe that it was he.

And when he hadde bihold this mervails alle,

He went in to the kinges halle;
Then seighe he ther a semly sight,
A tabernacle blisseful and bright;
Ther in her maister king sete,
And her quen fair and swete;
Her crounes, her clothes, schine so bright,
That unnethe bihold he hem might.
When he hadde biholden al that thing,
He kneled adoun bifor the king;
154 O Lord, he seyd, yif it thi wille were,
Mi menstraci thou schust y here.
The king answerd, what man artow,
That art hider y comen now?
Ich, no non that is with me,
No sent never after the.
Seththen that ich here regni gan,
Y no fond never so fole hardi man
That hider to ous durst wende,
Bot that Ichim walde of sende.
Lord, quath he, trowe ful wel,
Y nam bot a pover menstrel,
And, sir, it is the maner of us,
To seche mani a lordes hous,
Thei we nought welcom no be,
Yete we mot proferi forth our gle.

Bifor the king he sat adoun,

And tok his harp so miri of soun,
And tempreth his harp as he wel can,
And blisseful notes he ther gan,
That al that in the paleys were,
Com to him for to here,
And liggeth adoun to his fete,
Hem thenketh his melody so swete.
The king herkneth, and sitt ful stille,
To here his gle he hath gode wille.
Gode bourde74 he hadde of his gle,
The riche quen al so hadde he.
When he hadde stint75 his harping,
Than seyd to him the king,
155 Menstrel, me liketh wele thi gle,
Now aske of me what it be,
Largelich Ichil the pay,
Now speke, and tow might asay.
Sir, he seyd, Ich beseche the,
Thatow woldest give me,
That ich levedi bright on ble,76
That slepeth under the ympe tre.
Nay, quath the king, that nought nere,
A sori couple of you it were,
For thou art lene, rowe, and blac,
And sche is lovesome with outen lac;
A lothlich thing it were forthi,77
To sen hir in thi compayni,

O sir, he seyd, gentil king,

Yete were it a wele fouler thing
To here a lesing78 of thy mouthe,
So, sir, as ye seyd nouthe,79
What Ich wold aski have Y schold;
And nedes thou most thi word hold.
The king seyd, seththen it is so,
Take hir bi the hand, and go;
Of hir Ichil thatow be blithe.
He kneled adoun, and thonked him swithe.80
His wiif he tok bi the hond
And dede him swithe81 out of that lond;
And went him out of that thede,82
Right as he came the way he yede.83
So long he hath the way y nome,
157 To Winchester he is y come,
That was his owhen cite,
Ac no man knewe that it was he,
No forther than the tounes ende,
For knoweleche no durst wende,
Bot with a begger y bilt ful narwe,
Ther he tok his herbarwe,84
To him, and to his owhen wiif,
As a minstrel of pover liif,
And asked tidings of that lond,
And who the kingdom held in hond.
The pover begger, in his cote,85
Told him everich a grot86
How her quen was stole owy,
Ten yer gon with fairy,
And how her king en exile yede,
Bot no man niste in wiche thede,
And how the steward the lond gan hold,
And other mani thinges him told.

A morwe ogain none tide

He maked his wiif ther abide,
The beggers clothes he borwed anon,
And heng his harp his rigg87 opon,
And went him in to that cite,
That men might him bi hold and se.
Erls, and barouns bold,
Burjays, and levedis, him gun bi hold;
Lo! thai seyd, swiche a man,
How long the here hongeth him opan!
Lo! how his berd hongeth to his kne,
157 He is y clongen88 al so a tre.
And as he yede in the strete,
With his steward he gan mete,
And loude he sett on him a crie,
Sir steward, he seyd, merci,
Icham an harpour of hethenisse,
Helpe me now in this distresse!
The steward seyd, com with me, come,
Of that Ichave thou schalt have some;
Everich gode harpour is welcom me to,
For mi lordes love, sir Orfeo,

In the castle, the steward sat atte mete,

And mani lording was bi him sete;
There were trompour and tabourers,
Harpours fele, and crouders,89
Miche melody thai maked alle,
And Orfeo sat stille in the halle,
And herkneth when thai ben al stille,
He toke his harp and tempred schille,
The blifulest notes he herped there,
That ever ani man y herd with ere,
Ich man liked wel his gle.
The steward biheld and gan y se,
And knewe the harp als blive;
Menstrel, he seyd, so mot thou thrive,
Where hadestow this harp, and hou?
Ypray that thou me telle now.

Lord, quath he, in uncouthe thede,

Thurch a wildernes as Y yede;
Ther Y founde in a dale,
158 With lyouns a man to torn smale,
And wolves him frete90 with teth so scharp;
Bi him Y found this ich harp,
Wele ten yere it is y go.
O! quath the steward, now me is wo!
That was mi lord, sir Orfeo!
Allas! wreche what schall Y do,
That have swiche a lord y lore,91
A way, that Ich was y bore,
That him was so hard grace y yarked,92
And so vile deth y marked!
Adoun he fel aswon to grounde,
His barouns him tok up in that stounde,93
And telleth him hou it geth,
It is no bot94 of mannes deth.
King Orfeo knewe wel bi than,
His steward was a trewe man,
And loved him as he aught to do,
And stont up, and seyt thus lo,
Steward, herkne now this thing,
Yif Ich were Orfeo the king,
And hadde y suffred ful yore,
In wildernisse miche sore;
And hadde y won mi quen owy,
Out of the lond of fairy;
And hadde y brought the levedi hende,95
Right here to the tounes ende,
And with a begger her in96 y nome,
And were mi self hider y come,
Poverlich to the thus stille,
159 For to asay thi gode wille;
And Ich founde the thus trewe,
Thou no schust it never rewe,
Sikerlich for love, or ay,97
Thou schust be king after mi day,
And yif thou of my deth hadest ben blithe,
Thou schust have voided al so swithe.

Tho al tho that ther in sete,

That it was king Orfeo under gete,98
And the steward him wele knewe,
Over and over the bord99 he threwe,
And fel adoun to his fet;
So ded everich lord that ther sete,
And al thai sayd at o criing,
Ye beth our lord, sir, and our king.
Glad thai were of his live,
To chaumber thai ladde him als bilive,*1
And bathed him and schaved his berd,
And tired him as a king apert*2;
And seththen with gret processioun,
Thai brought the quen in to the toun,
With al maner menstraci;
Lord, ther was grete melody!
For joie thai wepe with her eighe;
That hem so sounde y comen seighe.
Now king Orfeo newe coround is,
And his quen dame Heurodis;
And lived long afterward;
And seththen was king the steward.
Harpours in Bretaine after than
160 Herd hou this mervaile bigan,
And made her of a lay gode likeing,
And nempned*3 it after the king.
That lay Orfeo is y hote*4;
Gode is the lay, swete is the note.
Thus com sir Orfeo out of his care;
God graunt ous alle wele to fare! Amen.


*  For a prose version on Elfinspell, see Early English Romances by Edith Rickert.

1  See Notes.

2  both.

3  called.

4  lady.

5  time.

6  bright, vigorous.

7  same.

8  forenoon.

9  grafted.

10  rubbed, wrung.

11  rent.

12  removed.

13  ran.

14  away.

15  took.

16  dear.

17  thee.

18  criest.

19  shrill.

20  before.

21  complexion.

22  eyes.

23  very.

24  since.

25  must.

26  directly.

27  again.

28  forest.

29  places.

30  taken.

31  woe.

32  lose.

33  defence.

34  taken.

35  dole.

36  order.

37  lost.

38  roam.

39  woods.

40  scarcely.

41  together.

42  pilgrim’s robe.

43  however.

44  ease.

45  discomfort.

46  fur (variegated).

47  fur (gray).

48  linen.

49  wraps.

50  moss (?).

51  grub .

52  shrunken.

53  rough.

54  gather.

55  at last.

56  about.

57  branch.

58  accustomed.

59  speedily (?).

60  royal.

61  grandly.

62  front.

63  adorned.

64  dwellings.

65  dark (?).

66  sapphires are mentioned in one version.

67  lying.

68  head.

69  had no arms.

70  mad.

71  drowned.

72  withered.

73  mad (?).

74  sport.

75  ceased.

76  hue.

77  therefore.

78  lie.

79  just now.

80  warmly.

81  quickly.

82  people, land.

83  went.

84  harbor.

85  cottage.

86  bit.

87  back.

88  withered.

89  players on the crowd, a kind of violin.

90  ate.

91  lost.

92  given.

93  hour.

94  remedy.

95  gracious.

96  inn.

97  awe.

98  understood.

99  table.

*1  quickly.

*2  indeed.

*3  named.

*4  called.





This Middle English version of a French lay seems to offer so few difficulties that it is given in its original form, as it appears in the Auchinleck manuscript. The text is copied from that edited by Laing in “Select Pieces of Ancient Popular Poetry of Scotland,” reprinted in Edinburgh, 1884. A critical edition of the poem was published by O. Zielke, Breslau, 1880. A very charming free translation in stanza form has been made by E. E. Hunt, Cambridge, 1909.


“Sir Orfeo” is the mediæval interpretation of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice (Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” bk. x, ll. 1-77), which was told in French, and then translated by some nameless but immortal English poet. The beauty of this Middle English version is undeniable. Despite its brevity and its occasionally laconic phrases, the poem shows real pathos in the account of the passionate grief of Orfeo, and his desolate wanderings in search of his lady. The concrete vividness of color and fragrance in nature, the dim stateliness of the retinue of the king of fairyland, the magic beauty of his strange abode, are described with true poetic sensitiveness. In choice of detail, in management of incident, in “discovery,” and in conclusion the narrative is singularly well managed.

As a mediæval rendering of a classical tale, the poem has many charms, because it so naïvely and so completely changes the setting and insists upon mediæval towers and dress and customs. Pluto’s dark realm is transformed into a fairy kingdom, Thrace has become Winchester, and the wandering Greek is a Breton harper knocking at the door of a Gothic castle. As a version of one of the most beautiful of the world’s stories, this lay has true imaginative distinction; it pictures the loyalty of love and love’s power over time and fairy spells, but it willfully changes the outcome of the old story to suit the sentiment of high romance in an age when every tale must have a happy ending.

Other lays, or brief tales, are described in W. H. Schofield’s “English Literature from the Norman Conquest to Chaucer,” p. 179. The Macmillan Company, New York, 1906. “Launfal,” a lay of fairyland, is one of the most beautiful. The lays of Marie de France are accessible in the following translations:

WESTON, J. Four Lais of Marie de France (including “Launfal”). Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1901.

RICKERT, E. Seven Lais of Marie de France. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1901.

Fairy lore is discussed by many students. The volumes named below will be found serviceable to the student of English literature:

PATON, L. A. Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance. Ginn and Company, Boston, 1903.

NUTT, A. The Fairy Mythology of Shakespeare. David Nutt, London, 1900.

HAZLITT, W. C. Fairy Tales, Lays, and Romances Illustrating Shakespeare. London, 1875.

SIDGWICK, F. The Sources and Analogues of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Duffield & Company, New York, 1908.


In translating the poem the student should pronounce all the unknown words aloud and he will speedily recognize resemblances to modern words. Y is the pronoun “I,” but sometimes it is part of the past participle, — y-hold = “held.” Ich is “I,” and also “each.” Frequently a pronoun and a verb are combined, as ichil = “I will”; wiltow = “wilt thou”; sometimes the negative particle is combined with a verb, as in nis = “is not”; nil = “will not.” Owhen = “own”; yif = “if.” It is assumed that readers will recognize the words used in the ballads or in Spenser’s works. If there are words which are not recognized they can be found in the New English Dictionary, or in the New International Dictionary, or in Bradley and Stratmann’s Middle English Dictionary.

[The End of the Pieces, but all the Notes combined follow, as in the text]

[2 blank endpapers]


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