This morning lots of us will be waking up with Christmas party hangovers (not me, our Christmas Dinner at St Edmund Hall isn’t till next weekend…). To help distract those so afflicted from their throbbing headache, this post translates the beginning of a little-known fifteenth-century poem called Colyn Blowbol’s Testament. The poem is a piece of mock-Chaucerian entertainment, featuring a character called Colin Belch-bowl who has drunk so much that he is really really suffering. His confessor tells him to make his last will and testament, and so the main part of the poem is Colin’s will. He leaves his body to the temple of Bacchus and bequeaths money for the setting up of a Drunks’ Institute. The first section (and a Modern English translation) can be found if you scroll down the page, and the whole poem can be read here (starting on p. 22).
Watercolour copy (c. 1900) of an illustration from John of Arderne’s De arte phisicale et de chirurgia, (England, c. 1412 )
The poem is preserved in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson C 86, a late-fifteenth -century miscellany composed of various booklets. Carol Meale and Julia Boffey have linked the manuscript to a London mercantile readership. Daniel Mosser’s website has a very comprehensive description of its construction, date and contents. I came across the poem when hunting for the first use of the phrase ‘mad as a March hare’, but it’s also interesting for my research because of its use of parody.
I’m interested in parody because it shows how aware fifteenth-century readers were of poetic style — to get the joke you need to know what is being parodied. Anyone who knows the famous When that… opening sentence of the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales will hear it being imitated in the opening lines of the Testament. The rest of the poem is crammed full of many allusions to Chaucer’s works, not only Troilus, but also the House of Fame (Colin’s house for drunks is reminiscent of the houses of Fame and Rumour in various ways). But even if you are not interested in all that literary allusion, it is a very entertaining read, full of all-too-graphic descriptions of being sick as a dog from far too much booze…
Whan that Bachus, the myghti lorde,
And Juno eke, both by one accorde,
Had sette a-broche of myghti wyne a tone,
And afterwardys into the brayn ran
Of Colyn Blobolle, whan he had dronke ataunt
Both of Teynt and of wyne Alycaunt,
Till he was drounke as any swyne;
And after this, with a mery chere,
He rensyd had many an ale picher,
That he began to loken and to stare,
Like a wode bole or a wilde mare;
So toty was the brayn of his hede,
That he desirid for to go to bede,
And whan he was ones therin laide,
With hymself mervailously he fraide;
He gan to walow and turn up and downe,
And for to tell in conclucioun,
Sore he spwed, and alle up he kest
That he had recevyd in his brest,
So that it was grete pite for to here
His lamentacion and his hevy chere.
An hors wold wepe to se the sorow he maide,
His evy countenaunces and his colour fade.
I trow he was infecte certeyn
With the faitour, or the fever lordeyn,
Or with a sekenesse called a knave ateynt;
And anon his herte he gan to faynt,
And afterward their toke hym many a throw
Of good ale bolys that he had i-blowe;
He lokyd furyous as a wyld catt,
And pale of hew like a drowned ratte,
And in his bake their toke hym one so fell,
That afterward folowed a very stynkyng smell […]
[When that Bacchus, the mighty lord, and Juno also, in agreement with each other, had tapped open a large barrel of strong wine, which afterwards ran into the brain of Colin Belch-bowl, when he had downed in one [a cup] both of vino tinto and of wine from Alicante, until he was as drunk as any swine; and after this, with a merry expression, he had emptied many a pitcher of ale, then he began to look and to stare as if he were a mad bull or a wild mare; so dizzy was the brain in his head that he wished to go straight to bed, and when he was soon laid down therein, within himself he began to suffer extraordinarily; he began to writhe and turn up and down, and to cut a long story short, he vomited violently, and threw up everything that he had ingested into his body, so that it was really piteous to hear his lamentation and his sorrowful behaviour.
A horse would have wept to see his distress, his his offensive looks and his pale colour. I’m certain he was infected with the ‘malingerer’ or the ‘rascal’s fever’, or with a sickness called ‘a corrupted knave’; and soon his heart began to be exhausted, and afterward there seized him many a convulsion of good cupfuls of ale which he had belched; he looked as crazy as a wild cat, and pale in colour like a drowned rat, and in his backside there afflicted him something so intense that afterwards a very stinking smell followed […]]