Medieval Nonsense!


(image from Évrart de Conty, Les Échecs amoureux, BnF, Français 143,
fol. 130v, France 1496–98, discovered via @discarding_imgs’s
wonderful tumblr site)

Now a bit of fun.  This is a rough translation of part of a late Middle English nonsense poem.  I have nothing very scholarly to say about it, other than to point out the way in which rhyme and rhythm hold the poem ‘together’ as its content leaps around the random and the absurd.  In even less scholarly fashion, I have left out a particularly difficult bit!  As far as I know, the poem survives in two versions in two manuscripts, the Heege miscellany (National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.3.1, my translation is of this version of the poem) and National Library of Wales MS Brogyntyn ii.1.  Both these manuscripts have other parodic texts, including a mock sermon in the Heege manuscript and a mock letter in MS Brogyntyn ii.1.

This poem was likely composed in the second half of the fifteenth century.  Nonsense verse, or poems about impossibilities, seem to have been increasingly popular in this period.  They are, I suppose, the verbal equivalent of all the mad antics you can find in manuscript marginalia illuminations.  Anyway, before I get too solemn, herewith some marvellously madcap nonsense:

Listen to my tale that I will to you show,
For of such marvels you have heard but a few,
If any of them be untrue which I will tell you after,
Then I will grow as poor as the bishop of Chester.
As  I rode from Durham to Dover I found by the high street
A fox and a polecat which had fifteen feet;
The skate scalded the red ling and peeled off his skin;
At the church door the young cod called and bade “let him in”.
The salmon sang the high mass, the herring was his clerk,
On the organ played the porpoise – that was a merry work!
There was a great offering in the church that day;
There were all these of which I’m about to tell you in fine array:
There were weasels and wasps offering cart saddles,
Sparrowhawks and merlins giving caldrons and ladles,
The pike and the perch, the salmon and the roach,
The plaice and the mackerel, the flounder and the loach,
The haddock hid himself, behind he would not be,
With him rode the stockfish who was beautiful to see.
Yet there were more, if I correctly tell my tale:
A conger and a cockle rode on a plough-malle;*
The turbot and the thornyback and the great whale;
The oyster had two horseshoes, and offered therewithal;
The crab and the lobster were there with all.
I took a penny from my purse and offered it to them all.
For this offering was made, if the truth I will say,
When Midsummer evening fell on Palm Sunday.
Further on I went, and more marvels I found:
An urchin/hedgehog by the fire roasting a greyhound.
There were various foods, tell them if I shall,
There was raw bacon, and new [sorwde]** all.
The bream went round about and let all their blood;
The sow sat on the high bench and told the story of Robin Hood;
The fox fiddled, the rat ribibed, the lark sang with all;
The bumble bee played the hornpipe because
her fingers were so small.
The sturgeon stood behind the door sharpening stakes;
The bear was the good cook who all this food makes;
The hare with her long goad came driving the harrows
And twenty-six salt eels, each with a sheaf of arrows.
In a symphony sang the snape with notes from the nightingale.
If all these things are true which are in this tale,
God as he made us, amend us as he may,
Save us and send us some drink for today.

* a ‘plough-malle’ is a mallet carried on a plough for breaking up clods of earth
** I cannot work out what this word means!  Suggestions welcome…

One thought on “Medieval Nonsense!

  1. “There was raw bacon, and new [sorwde]** all.”
    …could it be a reference to sow or “sowed” as in ‘raw bacon all fresh from a sow”?

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