fitt (noun), also fytte, fytt

Fitt is used in the Old English translation of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae to mean ‘song, verse’.  It re-emerges in Middle English as a term for a subdivision of a poem or romance.  Fitt divisions are the subject of a very useful article by Phillipa Hardman, to which this glossary entry is indebted.

1.  Fitt can refer to a subdivision of a long alliterative poem, an equivalent of Latin passus and used interchangeably with Middle English pas. These subdivisions often correspond to chapter or book divisions in these poems’ Latin or French sources. The term is used by the narrator to announce the end of such sections in the Wars of Alexander (1361 x circa 1450) and the Gest Hystoriale of the Destruction of Troy (?later 15thC), often in a single brief concluding line (e.g. ‘And now fynes here a fitt & folows anothire’, WA, 5752).

The alliterative dream vision Wynnere and Wastoure (1352 x 1370) calls attention to fitts supposedly ending at points in the narrative.  When men bring the king wine, the narrator imagines himself drinking it and then addresses the audience: ‘And he that wilnes of this werke to wete any forthire, / Full freschely and faste, for here a fitt endes’ (and to he that wishes to know any more of this work, fill up [my cup] quickly and fast, for here a fitt ends).  Later in the poem, when Winner is complaining about Waster’s feasting, Winner cites a proverb (‘Better were meles many than a mery nyghte’) which prompts an almost identical pair of lines.  As the poem is too short to need fitt divisions, these lines must be either oddly meta-fictional imitations of minstrel address, prompted by the thought of drinking and feasting, or are perhaps later scribal additions which have been incorporated into the poem.  As Hardman suggests, they may ‘allude to the poem’s place in the alliterative tradition’ (p. 80), in combination with a playful or ironic allusion to minstrel calls for a refilled drink.

Fitt divisions also occur in Thomas of Erceldoune (earliest manuscript circa 1440).  As Helen Cooper has described, Thomas of Erceldoune begins with a chanson d’aventure-style opening followed by a romance journey to another world, before two sections of political prophecies.  It is written in quatrains rather than tail-rhyme, with an odd switch from first- to third-person narration.  The end of sections are marked by the narrator, for example ‘loo here a fytt more es to saye, / All of Thomas of Erselldowne.’  Rather than representing remnants or imitations of minstrel composition or performance, these fitt divisions may likewise allude to the more learned alliterative tradition.

2.  Chaucer uses the term in Sir Thopas, the parody romance told by Chaucer the Pilgrim in the Canterbury Tales.  As J A Burrow has shown, Chaucer divided this tale into sections, each one half the length of the proceeding one, indicated in many of the manuscripts by larger or decorated capitals and in the text by the narrator’s address to his audience.  When he announces ‘Loo, lordes myne, heere is a fit!’ just before the third of these sections, he may be indicating a potential pause (imitating minstrels who formulaically threaten to pause their recitation, and then demand a refilled drink and/or their audience’s attention before recommencing).  Alternatively, he may be heralding the arrival of a new section, as if he is such an incompetent narrator that he is surprised by his own narrative.  It is also possible that ‘fit’ here means simply ‘event, piece of fortune, occasion’ (MED fit n. 2).

There is little surviving evidence of fourteenth-century usage of fitt to refer to a section of a romance pre-Chaucer, though romances are certainly subdivided by various narrative formulae (including calls for audience attention) and by decorated capitals and/or paraphs in their manuscripts.  The term, which is not used for example in the Auchinleck manuscript, might conceivably be explained by Chaucer’s eclectic parodying of other literary traditions.  Just as he has both tail-rhyme AND bobs in Thopas (which, as Rhiannon Purdie and Ad Putter have pointed out, do not usually appear together), he may also be borrowing a term more used in alliterative verse.

3.  The term fitt is used in later Middle English romances to refer to a subdivision of the narrative. The term appears in the main text of the narrative itself and also in section headings and marginal rubrics. The fourteenth-century tail-rhyme romance Sir Eglamour has, in two of its mid-fifteenth-century manuscripts, passages which divide the poem into four parts. Two of these passages name parts of the poem as ‘fyrst fytte’ and ‘secund fytte’.  These lines are not in the earliest surviving manuscript (circa 1400), so it is possible that these are later insertions.  The version of Ipomydon written in octosyllabic couplets in the second half of the fifteenth century is divided into sections by narrative markers.  One refers to the next section as a fitt: ‘And of Ipomydon here is a fytte.’

The Greene Knight, composed circa 1500, is divided into two halves named as fitts: ‘Listen Lordings & yee will sitt, / & yee shall heere the second Fitt, / What auentures Sir Gawaine befell.’ Such fitt divisions are parodied in the Heege manuscript’s Hunttyng of the Hare (copied 1475–1500): ‘Here is a fytte, have hit in mynde, / Yette þe best bowrd is behynde [i.e. still to come], / Y tell yow for þe nonus.’  Some of these later uses, especially those with the phrase ‘here is a fitt’, may conceivably have been inspired by Chaucer’s Thopas which may have popularised the term in connection with romance.

Some fifteenth-century scribes also added fitt divisions as rubrics when copying romances.  Phillipa Hardman explains how Robert Thornton, perhaps inspired by the passus divisions of the Siege of Jerusalem, adds divisions to some of the romances he subsequently copied, calling them both fitts and passus.  The scribe of the Ireland Manuscript (as Hardman and Michael Johnson have discussed) divides into three fitts three romances which were originally structured in two halves.  In these cases, fitt divisions are imposed on texts which did not originally have them.

4.  In the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the term fitt is used as a synonym for a subdivision of any work, used interchangeably with book or part, for example by John Bale and George Puttenham. The term is used for prose works and for non-narrative texts.

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