This glossary entry tells the tale of a ghost, a pseudo technical term of Middle English poetics, conjured into being (well, so I would argue) by well-meaning lexicographers. The Middle English Dictionary defines raf as ‘crude, worthless verse; a pejorative term for alliterative poetry’. The Oxford English Dictionary goes a little further, glossing raff as ‘Alliteration; verse, esp. alliterative verse, of a crude kind, or in which sound is more prominent than sense; an instance of such verse.’
Where does this idea that raf(f)(e) means alliterative verse come from? The word appears in seeming opposition to rhyme in two late medieval poems. The first is in Þe Disputisoun betwen þe Bodi and þe Soule, a fourteenth-century debate poem which survives in a number of manuscripts. The Soul derisively asks the Body a series of ubi sunt questions, as if the body in question were a courtly nobleman. Where are your musicians, where are your trumpeters, and where are your tregetours (your entertainers, often meaning magicians, jugglers, tricksters, as well as minstrels)? Such manipulators, in return for reward, publicised the lord’s reputation during his lifetime ‘And maky of þe rime and raf’ [and make up rhyme and raff about you]?
Does this set out two literary forms as alternatives, i.e. the tregetours make both couplet-verse and alliterative verse about the lord? It could be, though the heavily pejorative context makes it seem unlikely. Another way to read these lines is that the tregetours, who are generally seen as skilled deceivers (whether magical sleight of hand or other kinds of verbal deception), make verse which is both merely rhyme (as opposed to reason) and also something worthless or rubbish. Raff in slightly later English (and especially in Northern dialects of English) is a word like draff and chaff which means ‘rubbish’. In particular, raff may mean that which is swept up, floor-sweepings.
The morality play Mankind has Mischief parody Mercy’s explanation of the Last Judgement as a time in which ‘The corn shall be savyde, the chaffe shall be brente’ with the following string of nonsense: ‘Mysse-masche, dryff-draff, / Sume was corn and sume was chaffe, / My dame seyde my name was Raffe.’ This name probably puns on both Ralph and raff, my name was nonsense. Raff is on this evidence a word for something of little value, here associated with chaff and draff.
This latter interpretation, that raff means ‘worthless stuff’, seems more likely, given the second instance of the word. John Page, at the end of his 1419 poem about the Siege of Rouen, apologises for the rough form of his poem and blames his lack of time:
Thys processe made John Page, Alle in raffe and not in ryme, Bycause of space he hadde no tyme. But whenne this werre ys at an ende, And he haue lyffe and space, he wylle hyt amende.
As you can see, Page’s verse does rhyme – it’s in couplets. So Page must mean something else by ‘ryme’. But it’s not that he is writing in alliterative verse (and so that’s what ‘in raffe’ means), and it would be a bit odd for him to say that he had time for unmetrical but rhyming alliterative verse but intended to convert it at a later point into what it already nearly is, four-stress couplets. Some of Page’s lines (about a third, according to his new editor, Joanna Bellis) have ornamental alliteration (as does rather a lot of non-Chaucerian lyric and narrative verse). But he isn’t attempting classical alliterative verse and so this usage can’t be distinguishing between rhyme and alliteration.
It’s more likely then that ‘ryme’ for Page means something like ‘polished poetry’ (i.e. with full rhyme rather than assonance and with a more regular syllable-count). In raffe thus means in unmetrical doggerel couplets in loose dolnik metre. Like the Bodi and Soule debate, the usage is pejorative (and indeed Page may have remembered the phrase from this earlier debate).
One reason why raffe became associated with alliteration might lie in Chaucer’s Parson’s derisive caricature of alliterative geste as ‘rum, ram, ruf’. The logic seems to be something like: Chaucer uses words which sound a bit like raf so that makes it more likely that raf means ‘alliteration’. You will note that Chaucer doesn’t use the syllable ‘raffe’, however. You would think that if raf(f)(e) were a term for alliterative verse that scribes might have substituted it in: rum, raf, ruf. But they don’t, and there is surprising consistency and accuracy in how these parody sounds are copied.
Only one early scribe (MS Harley 7334, Scribe D who may or may not be John Marchaunt) writes ‘rum, raf, ruf’. This scribal error (influenced by ruf or by draf several lines above) is given the status of a fully-fledged word in MED, but that seems unwarranted. Chaucer may be caricaturing alliterative verse here in the Parson’s Prologue, but he doesn’t use the syllable raf. He is mostly thinking of sounds ending in –m (so that even the noun rym in the next line sounds momentarily nonsensical), with ruf only for variation. These –m sounds influence the later caricature of verse which privileges sound over sense as rumming or rumbling (which might explain the surname of Skelton’s Eleanor Rummyng).
The Body and Soul debate uses raf in the context of flattery, whilst Page uses it to say that he has focused more on content than form in describing the events of the siege in haste and hence his verse is doggerel. My searches have not found other literary uses of raffe which might help us. Raf(f)(e) (I think) means worthless and any connection with alliterative verse is not really there.
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As longtime riffraff, I found this fascinating. Thank you