[Back] [Blueprint] [Next]


Elf.Ed. Note: Click on the headings and you'll jump to the page, use your back button on your browser to return to this page.

From Legends and Satires From Mediæval Literature, edited by Martha Hale Shackford; Ginn and Company; Boston; 1913; pp. 161-176.




  FRONTISPIECE. “The Last Judgment” is an early work by Fra Angelico (1387-1455), who was a member of the Dominican order, and who spent his monastic leisure in painting visionary scenes. The picture represents Christ on the judgment seat, encircled by cherubim and seraphim, with saints and apostles seated on either side. Below are open graves. On His left devils are driving sinners into hideous torments; on His right angels are conducting the blessed across the flowery meadows of the earthly paradise toward the gleaming gates of the celestial city. The detail given here is sometimes called “The Dance of the Angels.” The robes of the angelic beings who go singing and caroling are in the colors characteristic of Fra Angelico, — azure, green, and rose, irradiated by countless golden stars.



This introductory bit of mediæval lore is translated from “Cursor Mundi” (Over-runner of the World), a long poem, probably written in the early fourteenth century. The author says plainly at the beginning of his work that he is vying with romances and other secular tales which draw the thoughts of men away from spiritual matters. The poem, written in 24,000 verses in the short couplet, tells the history of the seven ages of the world, from the Creation to Doomsday, covering very much the same matter as that presented in the miracle plays. The “Cursor Mundi” has been edited by R. Morris for the Early English Text Society. Lines 511-584 are here translated.



“De Phillide et Flora,” Latin poem of the twelfth century, perhaps, was translated about 1595 by George Chapman. In 1598 a certain “R. S.” republished this translation with a few minor changes, but the work is essentially Chapman’s. The present reprint follows the text in Thomas Wright’s “Latin Poems commonly attributed to Walter Mapes.” 162 Camden Society, Vol. XVI. London 1841. The translation reproduces the stanza and rime form of the original. Although the Elizabethan language may present some difficulties, they are not very serious to any one who will read slowly enough to enjoy “the proud full sail of his great verse” who may have been the rival of Shakespeare, and who was certainly one of the inspirers of John Keats.

The poem itself is of significance because, as forerunner of poems of the order of “The Romance of the Rose,” it illustrates significant mediæval traits. The attitude towards nature, classicism, love, war, and learning is of great interest, and so, too, is the position of women in that sophisticated world. The disputation gives a pretty picture of the seriousness of feminine thought. The account of the court of the god of love and the power ascribed to him are a good introduction to the conventions of love poetry.

Readers of Theocritus will recall how his shepherds contend in song over the charms of their beloved maidens, in Idyll V and elsewhere. (See Lang’s translation, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1889.) A study of the evolution of the debate, or disputation, will prove a good introduction to the world of late classical and of mediæval literature. There are many examples of debate, such as those between “The Heart and the Eye,” “The Body and the Soul,” “The Water and the Wine,” “The Owl and the Nightingale,” “The Thrush and the Nightingale,” The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools,” “The Dispute between Mary and the Cross,” and many others. Birds, flowers, animals, inanimate objects, human beings, and even virtuous abstractions were turned into mediæval disputants.

For information regarding debates, and for bibliographies of edited debates, see

MERRILL, E. The Dialogue in English Literature. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1911.

WELLS, J. E. Editor. The Owl and the Nightingale, p. liii. D. C. Heath & Co., Boston, 1907.

SCHOFIELD, W. H. English literature from the Norman Conquest to Chaucer, p. 485. The Macmillan Company, New York, 1906.


Jean Froissart (1338-1410) was a distinguished French author who is best known for the famous “Chronicles of England, France, and Spain,” which picture with extraordinary vividness scenes which Froissart actually witnessed.


In 1392, probably, Froissart wrote his “Plaidorie de la Rose et de la Violette,” which is here translated from his “Poésies,” edited in three volumes, with an excellent introduction, by A. Scheler, Brussels, 1872. The value of his poetical works lies in their revelation of the literary taste of the court and of the fashionable world of the day, for he employed the artificial sentiment and the conventional forms of dream and allegory very pleasantly. The Plaidorie is not a famous poem, but it is chosen because it serves to illustrate a combination of various important traits. It is one of the many mediæval poems in which the flower motif is perëminent. Here Froissart introduces rather charming personifications, especially significant in the case of the fleur-de-lys, the national flower of France. In spite of the trivial and sentimental attitude towards nature there are many passages of genuine feeling. The poem should be compared with Chaucer’s “Prologue to the Legend of Good Women,” where the cult of the daisy is represented. Valuable aids to this study will be found in the following articles:

LOWES, J. L. The Prologue to the Legend of Good Women as related to the French Marguerite Poems. Publications of the Modern Language Association, XIX, 593-683.

MARSH, G. P. The Sources of the Flower and the Leaf. Modern Philology, IV, 121-167, 281-327.

Furthermore, the jesting mockery of legal procedure should be noted. Chaucer’s “Fortune” employs legal phraseology, and although Froissart’s poem may never have been known to Chaucer, the use of the terms and the associations of law was frequent among poets. Readers of Shakespeare’s “Sonnets” will recall his use of legal imagery, but of course he was uninfluenced by this poem.



This translation is a free rendering of a poem found in the famous Auchinleck manuscript, a collection of popular poetry copied in the fourteenth century. A description of this manuscript will be found in Scott’s edition of “Sir Tristem.” The poem is in the six-line, tail-rime stanza which was much used in the romances of the day. There are other versions of this legend in Latin, in French, and in English. Because of its detail, this version, of the late thirteenth century, edited by E. Koelbing in Englische Studien, I, 98, has been chosen, although in some respects it is inferior in style to the other English versions. 164 Especially interesting is the picture of the earthly paradise, which is nowhere else described so fully as it is here by catalogues and other means. As an introduction to mediæval religious beliefs the poem is almost unequaled. Pilgrimages, even to this day, are made, by the faithful, to Lough Derg, in Ireland, where Saint Patrick’s Purgatory is still continuing its saving grace.

Students of comparative literature recognize in the story a body of tradition reaching back into remote times and forward to the Renaissance, finding its most perfect expression in Dante’s “Divine Comedy” (1321). Mediæval descriptions of hell and heaven were made more vivid by adopting the literary form known as the vision. The most familiar sort of vision is that which describes things seen in a dream, after the author has fallen asleep. “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” is an example of this type. Another sort of vision is that which relates what has been perceived by some one in a state of mystical exaltation, as in the Apocalypse of Saint John. The most realistic form of vision is that of “Saint Patrick’s Purgatory,” where the experiences are described as if actually undergone, and yet they so transcend human probability that the reader recognizes the apocalyptic element. The term “vision” is usually applied to poems describing mysteries of religious or moral truth, and “dream” is applied to secular works such as “The Romance of the Rose,” and many other popular poems. Examples of visions from various epochs should be read in order to trace the history. Easily accessible texts in translation are

ST. JOHN. Revelation. (King James Version.)

HOMER. Odyssey, Book XI (translated by G. H. Palmer). Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1891.

VIRGIL. Æneid, Book VI (translated by J. Conington). The Macmillan Company, New York, 1910.

CICERO. Scipio’s Dream (translated by C. R. Edmonds in the Bohn Library Cicero). The Macmillan Company, New York.

BEDE. The Vision of Dryhthelm (in Cook and Tinker’s “Old English Prose,” p. 58). Ginn and Company, Boston, 1908.

DANTE. The Divine Comedy (translated by C. E. Norton). Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1893.

The Pearl (translated by S. Jewett). Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York, 1908.

For critical studies of the vision and for exhaustive bibliographies of the subject, see

Apocalypse. Encyclopædia Britannica.


WRIGHT, T. Saint Patrick’s Purgatory. London. 1844.

KRAPP, G. P. The Legend of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory. John Murphy Company, Baltimore, 1900.

BECKER, E. Mediæval Visions of Heaven and Hell. John Murphy Company, Baltimore, 1899.

LANGLOIS, E. Origines et sources du Roman de la Rose, chap. v. Paris, 2890.

For information regarding the dream motif in mediæval poems, see

OWEN, D. Piers Plowman, A Comparison with some Earlier and Contemporary French Allegories, pp. 134-167. Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1912.

NEILSON, W. A. The Origins and Sources of the Court of Love. (See “Dream-setting” in the index.) Ginn and Company, Boston, 1899.

Accounts of purgatory and of the terrestrial paradise will be found in “The Catholic Encyclopaedia.” Further details regarding the earthly paradise are in Genesis ii, 8-17; Ezekiel xxviii, 13; “Phœnix,” in Cook and Tinker’s “Old English Poetry,” “Mandeville’s Travels,” XXXIII, and in Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” IV. Two critical studies of importance are

GOULD, S. B. Curious Mythos of the Middle Ages. London, 1874.

COLI, E. Il Paradiso Terrestre. Florence, 1897.



Brandon, Brendon, or Brandan, was an Irish Odysseus whose journeyings in search of the Land of Behest have a lasting fascination for all lovers of romantic adventure. The atmosphere of sanctity which made this legend approved reading for the mediæval Christian gives a quaint irony to the accounts of fairies, demons, enchanted birds, and other marvels which betray a frankly superstitious spirit. Traveler’s records have a distinct place in literature, as the names Ohthere, Marco Polo, Mandeville, Hakluyt, Robinson Crusoe, Stevenson, Hearn and many others prove, and when the voyage is undertaken because of mingled love of excitement, passion for the sea, zeal for discovery, and deep longing to find the ideal land, it has potent appeal to those who stay at home. In almost every language there are tales which picture an earthly paradise. The Fortunate Isles, the Garden of the Hesperides, Calypso’s Isle, Avalon, Hy Brasail, Tir-na’an-Og, are names given in Greek and in 166 Celtic story to the abode of those who have won release from earthly cares and hardship, and have entered the realm of perfect terrestrial peace and beauty.

The translation is William Caxton’s version of the life of Brandon based upon some source not yet satisfactorily determined. Caxton’s rather rambling but most charming rendering was included in “The Golden Legend,” mentioned below.

An exhaustive study of the Irish story upon which this legend is based, and much other material relating to this theme, will be found in Meyer and Nutt’s “The Voyage of Bran. Edited and translated by K. Meyer. With an Essay upon the Irish Version of the Happy Other-world and the Celtic Doctrine of Rebirth, by A. Nutt.” 2 vols., David Nutt, London, 1895. Interesting also in connection with Brandon is the story of Sindbad, in “The Arabian Nights.”


Jacobus de Voragine (1230-1298), Archbishop of Genoa, was the author of “Historia Lombardica seu Legenda Sanctorum,” popularly known as “Legenda Aurea.” When William Caxton set up his printing press and began to multiply copies of the English classics, he included among his publications an English rendering of the Latin text, “The Golden Legend,” (1483), which he based upon a French translation. The present version is from Caxton’s text, as printed in the Temple Classics.

The great popularity of lives of the saints is due partly to that trait, inherent in human nature, of genuine devotion to any one of proved courage, especially when that courage is of the spirit, an invincible religious faith and fortitude. Weak and unstable Christians found inspiration in these saintly lives, and by continued meditation learned many lessons of deep meaning. But, in addition to the ethical interest, there was sympathy for the human experiences and the strange and fearful adventures of these elect of the Lord. As the metrical romances ministered to popular delight in knightly deeds, so, too, these legends of the saints satisfied the world-old love of struggle and of victory. Saint Margaret, Saint Katherine, Saint Juliana, were the women saints whose lives were best known to the Middle Ages, but the many legendaries of the day gave ample record of scores of other saints.

For versions of the life of Saint Margaret, see Early English Text Society, No. 13. “The Golden Legend” in seven volumes (Temple Classics, E. P. Dutton and Company, New York) contains the fullest collection of lives of the saints. Middle English collections have been edited by Carl Horstmann. Fox’s “Book of Martyrs” should be remembered, also.


The superstitions of the Middle Ages reveal themselves very fully in the various accounts of miracles performed by God, Christ, the Virgin, the saints, or by the relics treasured in churches and religious houses. The study of mediæval religious life must include an examination of some of these fervent and naïve records of the supernatural power of holy objects and holy folk. The intense reverence accorded to sanctified things created, among mediæval Christians, a passionate disregard for the dictates of human reason. At first this blind faith and total abasement before sacred relics was a triumph of the spirit, but before long it became a triumph of the body, for physical well-being and material prosperity were sought rather than spiritual enlightenment. In Chaucer’s Pardoner’s “Prologue” and in Erasmus’s account of his journeys to Walsingham and to Canterbury one finds pictured the credulous and wholly unlovely side of the subject. When idealism declines and becomes sheer bigotry, without the charm of imaginative power, it must have its Wiclif and its Luther.


“A Miracle of God’s Body” is translated from Robert Mannyng of Brunne’s “Handlyng Synne” (Manual of Sins). Early English Text Society, No. 123, p. 333. See also p. 172 under Homily.


“A Miracle of the Virgin” is from a group of eight miracles, printed in Horstmann’s edition of “The Minor Poems of the Vernon Manuscript.” Early English Text Society, Part I, No. 98, pp. 138-166.

Other legends connected with the Virgin are to be found in the following volumes:

UNDERHILL, E. The Miracles of Our Lady. E. P. Dutton & Company, New York, 1906.

VINCENT, E. The Madonna of Legend and History. T. Whittaker, New York, 1899.

KEMP WELCH, A., Translator. The Miracles of Our Lady, by Gautier de Coincy. Duffield & Company, New York, 1911.



“The Translation of Saint Thomas of Canterbury” comes from Caxton’s “Golden Legend,” which should be consulted for a long account of the life of Thomas. Dean Stanley’s “Memorials of Canterbury,” now published in Everyman’s Library, is an indispensable volume for the student.


The popularity of allegory, in Middle Ages, as a means of conveying religious and moral truth, led to the production of many very complex narratives and sermons. An acquaintance with “Piers Plowman” will reveal the character of these works where the reader is soon lost in the labyrinth of abstract names. “The Romance of the Rose,” translated by F. S. Ellis (Temple Classics, 3 vols., E.P. Dutton & Company, New York), is the most important example of secular allegory in the Middle Ages. “The Order of Chivalry,” a poem that defines the symbolism of the knightly habit, will be found in Miss Butler’s “Tales from the Old French,” Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1910, and also (as “Sir Hugh of Tabarie”) in E. Mason’s “Aucassin and Nicolette and Other Mediæval Romances” (Everyman’s Library, E. P. Dutton & Company, New York, 1909).

For discussion of the origin and development of mediæval allegory, the reader should consult

NEILSON, W. A. Origins and Sources of the Court of Love. See “Allegory” in the index. Ginn and Company, Boston, 1899.

LANGLOIS, E. Origines et sources du Roman de la Rose, chap. iv. Paris, 1890.

OWEN, D. Piers Plowman, A Comparison with French Allegories, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1912.


This extract from a long and very complex poem illustrates significant aspects of mediæval religious allegory. The poem itself was written in French by Robert Grossteste, Bishop of Lincoln, (who died in 1253), and was translated into English several times because of its great popularity. Beginning with an account of the Creation and of the Fall of Man, the poet went on to tell a parable of a Being who had one Son, 169 His equal in all ways, four daughters (named Mercy, Truth, Right, and Peace), and a thrall (named Adam), who was in prison. Mercy and Peace pleaded for the thrall’s release, but Truth and Right objected, so the thrall was punished. Mercy and Peace fled from the land, and the world (except Noah and his family) was drowned. Peace once more appealed for the ransom of the thrall, and the King’s Son, hearing the dispute of the four sisters, said He would put on the garments of the thrall and force Peace and Right to be reconciled, and the world would be saved. So Christ entered into the Castle of Love, and was born on earth for the redemption of mankind. An account of the life and passion and resurrection of Christ is given, and the poem concludes with a prayer that we may all be led by Him to everlasting bliss.

The best edition of the English version is

HORSTMANN, C. “The Minor Poems of the Vernon Manuscript,” Part I, Early English Text Society, No. 98. This edition contains a version made in the latter part of the thirteenth century, and also a version by a monk of Sawley, in Yorkshire. The present extract is taken from the Sawley monk’s translation (11. 361-452) because that version gives the allegory in more coherent and careful detail than do the other versions, which fail to explain some of the symbolism.



From earliest times animals have been employed as symbolic figures by teachers and preachers, and the interest of the present day in animal life and lore is evidence of the never-failing pleasure humanity finds in beast books. Æsop’s “Fables,” “The Little Flowers of Saint Francis,” “Reynard the Fox,” and “The Jungle Stories,” illustrate various sides of the literature about the lesser folk. The mediæval bestiary was a book which sought to enunciate religious instruction by an appeal to the curiosity of credulous people. The didactic interest far exceeded the scientific in these allegories which, to us, are most diverting matter. The source of the bestiary is to be found in the Greek “Physiologus” (second century A. D.), which was translated into Latin by Theobaldus in the late Middle Ages, and then into other languages. In Old English literature “The Whale” and “The Panther” and a fragment of “The Partridge” are all that remain of the version in that language. The Middle English bestiary of the thirteenth century contains descriptions, 170 followed by explication, of the lion, the eagle, the adder, the ant, the hart, the fox, the spider, the whale, the siren, the elephant, the turtle dove, the panther, and the culver. There is a French bestiary written in England by Philippe de Thaün, about 1120, which contains a portion of a lapidary also. A translation is in T. Wright’s “Popular Treatises on Science written during the Middle Ages.” London, 1841.

The text of the Middle English bestiary may be found in

MORRIS, R. An Old English Miscellany, Early English Text Society, No. 49.

MAETZNER, E. Altenglische Sprachproben, I, 55. Berlin, 1867.

WRIGHT, T., and HALLIWELL, J. O. Reliquiae Antiquae, I, 208. London, 1845.

Suggestive studies on the subject are

KITTRREDGE, G. L. Beast Fables, in Johnson’s Universal Cyclopædia.

LAND, J. P. N. Physiologos, in Encyclopædia Britannica.

LAUCHERT, F. Geschichte des Physiologus. Strassburg, 1889.

In the popular mediæval epic, “Reynard the Fox,” animals, very realistically portrayed, yet with satirical symbolism, are the actors in a story full of interest to the modern reader. This is accessible in the following English versions:

CAXTON, W. Reynard the Fox. Percy Society, Vol. XII. London.

MORLEY, H. Early English Prose Romances. E. P. Dutton and Company, New York, 1912.

JACOBS, J. The Most Delectable History of Reynard the Fox. Macmillan and Company, London, 1895.



Marbodus, Bishop of Rennes in the twelfth century, was the author of the lapidary which was best known during the Middle Ages. This book, called “De Gemmis,” was written in Latin verse, and gives the strange superstitions about the virtues and efficacies of sixty stones. Many of these stones are now unknown to us. There was so much interest in this lapidary that it was frequently translated into French, both in verse form and in prose, and was popular in England as well as in France. The traditions about stones developed two sorts of treatise: one in which the purely pagan beliefs are represented, as they were handed down by Aristotle, Pliny, Marbodus, and others; and a second in which the pagan superstitions are inwrought with Christian 171 teachings and associated with Scriptural passages. In translating Marbodus, a Christian clerk would add and alter material in such a way as to impress religious symbolisms upon his readers, through the popular interest in all the lore of stones.

Information regarding the lapidaries, as well as editions of various French and other lapidaries, will be found in the following books:

PANNIER, L. Les Lapidaires français du moyen-âge des XIIe, XIIIe, et XIVe siècles. Paris, 1882.

MEYER, P. Les Plus Ancien Lapidaires français. Romania (Jan., Avril, Oct.). Paris, 1909.

KING, C. W. Antique Gems. Contains a translation of the work of Marbodus. London, 1860.

STREETER, E. W. Precious Stones and Gems, their History, Sources, and Characteristics. Illustrated in color. London, 1898.

WRIGHT, T. Popular Treatises on Science written during the Middle Ages. London, 1841.

The accounts of diamond, sapphire, amethyst, geratite, chelidonius, coral, heliotrope, pearl, and pantheros are translated from a French prose version of the Latin of Marbodus. The French translation was made, perhaps, in England during the twelfth century. The text will be found in Meyer, pp. 271-285. The French prose lapidary has been chosen rather than that in verse form, because it has fewer tags and circumlocutions, and can be more faithfully rendered into English.

The diamond, or adamant, was a favorite stone. “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville,” pp. 105-108, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1905, has an interesting account of this.

The pearl has been the subject of much discussion. The present translation omits several lines in the French version which do not appear in Marbodus and which seem to be due to confusion with another stone. Consult Kunz and Stevenson’s “The Book of the Pearl,” The Century Company, New York, 1908, and pp. 599-610 of Schofield’s article “Symbolism, Allegory, and Autobiography in The Pearl.” Publications of the Modern Language Association, Vol. XVII.

The extract describing the carbuncle is from Pannier, p. 295, where a prose fragment of a Christian lapidary is given. The carbuncle was frequently mentioned in mediæval romances, and was supposed to give success in battle, and also in lawsuits (see Meyer, p. 67).

The account of the symbolism of the twelve stones comes from Philippe de Thaün’s “Bestiaire,” verses 2977-3004. The Oxford Bible gives classified lists of stones mentioned in the Scriptures.



Homilies in prose and in verse were a common means of instruction. They were usually more popular than mere sermons and sought to hold the attention by the use of copious illustration. The following extract is from “Handlyng Synne” (Manual of Sins), translated in 1303 by Robert Mannyng of Brunne, from a French original, and edited by Dr. Furnivall, Early English Text Society, No. 119. “Handlying Synne,” a collection of homilies, denounces the seven deadly sins, citing many concrete instances of fact and of fable in order to enforce the moral lessons. The translation below interprets lines 4637-4774 (pp. 155-159), where the sin of sloth is under discussion.

For information about minstrelsy the student should consult

CHAMBERS, E. K. The Mediæval Stage, Vol. I, bk. i. Oxford University Press, 1903.

GALPIN, F. W. Old English Instruments of Music. A. C. McClurg & Co., Chicago, 1911.

DUNCAN, E. The Story of Minstrelsy. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1907.

CUTTS, E. Scenes and Characters of the Middle Ages. Vertue and Company, London, 1886.


The most popular satire in the Middle Ages is found in the fabliaux, short tales which picture, with great zest, racy incidents in the lives of common people whose hidden sins or hypocrisies are suddenly exposed. The satire in these stories is exceedingly broad and attacks, by preference, women and the clergy, painting with vivid realism their immorality and intense selfishness. Readers will find information regarding these in “The English Fabliau,” by H. S. Canby, Publications of the Modern Language Association, XXI, 200-214. Formal satire, which points out abuses and vices by means of exposition, is illustrated In the poems following. Satire against women is most agreeably found in “The Romance of the Rose,” chaps. xlvi-lii (translated by F. S. Ellis, Temple Classics). In Romania, XV, 315, 339; XVI, 389; XXXVI, 1, will be found interesting matter relating to satires on women, in France.



This is freely translated from the French poem of Rutebeuf, written in octosyllabic couplets, about the middle of the thirteenth century. Rutebeuf was a famous minstrel whose vivid wit gave him a distinguished place among mediæval writers. His works are full of autobiographical details; he pictured his unhappy domestic life, his poverty, all his failings, and his virtues with an engaging frankness. In allegory he was a master of the mannerisms of his day. In satire he was original and clever. The monastic orders aroused his fiercest resentment, and he made sharp epigrams at their expense, accusing them of committing the seven deadly sins and more. The dry incisiveness of his ridicule may have impressed Chaucer and also the author of “Piers Plowman,” although we have no proof of this. A very good study of Rutebeuf, has been published by L. Cledat, Paris, 1891. The description of the mediæval student gives a true picture of the day, but Chaucer’s description of the Clerk of Oxford should be read as complement. For details regarding student life of the Middle Ages, consult

RASHDALL, H. The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, 3 vols. London, 1895.

HEWETT, W. T. University Life in the Middle Ages. Harper’s Magazine, 1987.

SYMONDS, J. A. Wine, Women and Song (translations of many student songs of the Middle Ages). Chatto and Windus, London, 1907.


The meaning of Cockaygne is usually understood to be “cookery.” This satire upon the mediæval monks was probably derived from a French original. It illustrates the contemptuous tolerance of that day for the greed, the gluttony, the slothfulness, and the immorality of the inmates of the monastery. The satire directed against literary conventions of the day is particularly amusing, if we notice how the various catalogues of animals, birds, spices, flowers, jewels, and food parody similar catalogues in the romances and in the poems describing paradise. The poem was written, in the short couplet, about the middle of the thirteenth century. It is printed in E. Maetzner’s “Altenglische Sprachproben,” I, 148. Berlin, 1867. Wright’s “St. Patrick’s Purgatory,” London, 1844, contains an interesting chapter on this and similar burlesques.


The “complaint” or “song,” was written during the thirteenth century when the persecutions of the poor farmers by lords and their officers were most extreme. The poem explains very fully the various abuses which finally so incensed the poor that they rose in revolt and won certain rights from their oppressors. The Middle English text is found in K. Boeddeker’s “Altenglische Dichtungen,” p. 102, Berlin, 1878, and in T. Wright’s “Political Songs,” Camden Society, Vol. VI, p. 149.

The meter and rime of the original have been kept, in this translation, even at the risk of a few very slight changes in the order or in the phrasing of the original, because the versification is illustrative of the transition from the old alliterative line to the elaborate stanza forms of the French period.


This satire was evidently a popular one in the Middle Ages; it is found in various forms in Latin, in French, and in English. The following translation is made from a version, probably of about 1350, printed in Thomas Wright’s “Latin Poems attributed to Walter Mapes,” Camden Society, Vol. XVI, pp. 359-361. The poem is written in the six-line, tail-rime stanza of “Sir Thopas,” and the translation seeks to preserve the cadences, movement, and structure of the original. It is interesting in connection with “Piers Plowman” and “The Pardoner’s Tale,” for it shows the great superiority of those satires, in imaginative appeal. The generalizations here are faithful, but they lack point and effectiveness because they do not drive home specific instances about individuals. We have a personal interest in Lady Meed and in the Pardoner, but we care little about classes and types.



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 Text of Legends and Satires
from Mediæval Literature
by Martha Hale Shackford]

[2 blank



[Back] [Blueprint] [Next]

Valid CSS!