Lost and Found

Sometimes I worry that I am too obsessed with getting things exactly right in my forthcoming Big Bumper Book of Middle English Poetics (TM).  But making sure you understand something, which for this project often means painstakingly learning about forms in other languages and media, can ultimately pay off. For far too long I have been getting to grips with what defines a roundel, the English name for a French lyric called the rondeau (and the related form sometimes called the chanson).  The form is rare in Middle English, except for the series of roundels which Charles of Orleans includes in Fortunes Stabilnes, many of which are translations of French originals.

There was, so I thought, one roundel in the Findern manuscript, a volume put together by gentry families in Derbyshire in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.  Findern testifies to the literary tastes not only of gentry readers but also of women readers.   Women appear in the manuscript as owners, readers and  scribes.  What’s more, Sarah McNamer has argued that some of the lyrics unique to the Findern manuscript, in which female speakers address male lovers, are composed by women.

Harley 4867
Hermione writing, BL MS Harley 4867 (Ovid, Heroides, trans. Octavien de St-Gelais), fol. 60v

While I was checking out that supposedly lonely roundel, I re-read a group of four lyrics in the same manuscript which each have a first stanza of five lines, then a stanza of three lines, then another stanza of five lines. Editors have found the poems unsatisfactory and thus interfered with them, moving the first lines of the poem to the end of the sequence or reordering the lyrics to produce a ‘happy ending’.  Their form has been dismissed as inexplicably ‘unusual’.

Looking at them afresh, I am pretty certain that they are roundels which have lost the cue for their refrains (i.e. a word or word signalling the repetition of already copied lines).  Such loss of cues does happen elsewhere: John Shirley, for example, copies a French rondeau without any marking of the repeated sections (see here, p. 25 for no cues at all and p. 33 for only the final cue).  But roundels can always be reconstructed if you know the musical structure which underpins the literary form.  There are two musical elements in a rondeau/roundel and they are arranged like this: I+II I+I I+II I+II.  In terms of their words and rhyme, a roundel beginning with a five-line stanza thus takes the form AAB+BA aab+AAB aab+ba AAB+BA (where the letters indicate the same rhymes with the upper case letters indicating the repeated lines of a refrain).  There was variation as to how much of the refrain was repeated and what rhyme scheme was used, but the basic structure applies whether the first unit has two, three, four or five lines.

Through such reconstruction, these four supposedly irregular poems are in fact a series of four roundels.  That’s pretty exciting as we don’t have much direct evidence of medieval women writing lyric poetry in English (though Margaret, princess of Scotland could supposedly write 12 rondeaux in a day).  Of course a female speaker does not necessarily guarantee a female author: male poets can ventriloquise female voices. See what you think: at the foot of this blog, you will find the last roundel in the sequence with a modern English translation.   The lines in italics are those which I have added in order to reconstruct the form.

With their form restored, we can see that these lyrics don’t just express emotion in a rough and ready fashion but refine those feelings through the constraints of a fixed form lyric. What might look like amateur work is in fact expertise hiding in plain sight.  If the four lyrics were written by a woman, she knew exactly what she was doing.

Roundel IV from the Findern sequence:

There may areste me no pleasaunce
And our be our I fele grevaunce.
I not to whome I may complaine,
For he that may my woo restreine
Wol have of me no remembrance.

[There is no kind of pleasure which can sidetrack me and hour by hour I feel despair. I don’t know to whom I can complain, because he who can diminish my sorrow will have no thought of me.]

Sith I ame under his governaunce,
He shuld sett me suche ordinaunce,
As I might have ease of my paine.
There may areste me no pleasaunce
And our be our I fele grevaunce,
I not to whome I may complaine.

[Since I am under his control, he should bestow on me such government that I might have some relief from my pain.  There is no kind of pleasure which can sidetrack me and hour by hour I feel despair. I don’t know to whom I can complain.].

Me þinketh he might have conscience
And of my woos sum suffisance,
Considering that I ame so plaine
To hym ever, with joye or paine.
Let hym have therof repentance.

[It seems to me he should have some scruples and find some way of placating my sorrows, considering that I am always so faithful to him, for good or ill.  Let him have remorse for that.]

There may areste me no pleasaunce
And our be our I fele grevaunce.
I not to whome I may complaine,
For he that may my woo restreine
Wol have of me no remembrance.

[There is no kind of pleasure which can sidetrack me and hour by hour I feel despair. I don’t know to whom I can complain, because he who can diminish my sorrow will have no thought of me.]

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