Friday 13 November 2020

Of Mice and Marriage: Exploring Late Medieval Scotland Through Two Poems of the Scottish “Makars”



Of Mice and Marriage:

Exploring Late Medieval Scotland

Through Two Poems of the Scottish









Gwen Hamilton


The picture on the cover is from the Ormesby Psalter, late 13th/early 14th century English, (BODL., DOUCE 366, f. 131R)


The Project

Goal 1:  To become familiar with two poems written in the late medieval period by two Scottish “makars” (poets), “The Taill of the Uponlandis Mous and the Burges Mous” by Robert Henryson and “The Tretis of the Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo” by William Dunbar.

Goal 2:  To gain insight into Scottish life in the late Medieval period through the content of the poems.

Goal 3:  To become more comfortable and accurate reading and writing middle Scots.

For background, I read available information about Henryson and Dunbar.

I began the project with the earlier and simpler of the two poems: Henryson’s retelling of Aesop’s “Town Mouse and Country Mouse” fable.  It is also the shorter, at 235 lines.

Both poems are written in middle Scots, which makes casual reading slow and somewhat difficult for me and which makes it very easy to miss or misunderstand parts.  I worked with several printed versions of “The Taill”, one of which glosses a few of the Scottish phrases, one of which has a translation of each verse into modern English prose on the opposing page, and one which is a loose translation into modern English, but maintains the style and rhyme-scheme of the original and uses some Scottish pronunciations and phrases.  In the last-mentioned version, the translation by R.W. Smith is not exact, but the charm and humour come through in a way the exact translation cannot provide.  This last version I chose to memorize.

In order to familiarize myself with the original words and to become more readily comfortable with the style and spelling, I chose to write the poem out by hand several times, using a writing style somewhat approximating (in my mind at least) that of late Medieval private handwriting, using handwriting samples from the period as examples in developing this. 

This process forced me to take my time, to study the spelling, and to focus on each line and verse.  I would attempt to read the verse, and then look up the meaning of any unknown words, and finally compare my translation to the professional one.  I would then copy the verse in the original Middle Scots multiple times.  For my own pleasure, I made a good copy of each poem in this hand.  In the middle ages, people did copy poems into Household Books such as the Hanson Manuscript, which includes several ballads and poems, along with recipes for ink and lists of tenants. 

Now more comfortable with the wording, I was able to study the content and to read available information about the poem.  This process was repeated with Dunbar’s poem, “The Tretis of the Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo”, although this translation was done with glosses and notes alone. 


The ‘Makars’ – Henryson and Dunbar

Very little is known about Robert Henryson.  We know that he died before 1508, because Dunbar wrote a poem by that date, “The Lament of the Makars”, mourning the loss of so many good poets, including Henryson: “In Dumfermelyne he hes done roune, With Maister Robert Henrisoun”.  Writers such as H.H. Wood in Two Scots Chaucerians believe the “maister” title to refer to him as the recipient of a degree. He is associated with Dunferline, as Dunbar says, probably as a schoolmaster, which is supported by title pages of his manuscripts and early printed work. (Gopen, 1987)   Any other information is mainly inferred from his work.  Wood suggests that his works indicate a wry humour and a considerable knowledge of Scottish legal procedure.  Perhaps, as Wood speculates, some lines from The Testament of Cresseid indicate an appreciation of comfort:  “I mend the fyre and beikit me about, Then tuik ane drink my spreitis to comfort, And armit me weill fra the cauld thairout ...” (I mend the fire and make myself snug, Then take a drink to comfort my spirits, and arm myself well against the cold outside.)

But this is indeed speculation.  Around 1640, Sir Francis Kinaston wrote “a gossipy note” about Henryson which says he was very old when he died, which would make a birthdate of 1420-1435 logical and this is accepted by many writers as probable if not certain.  Unfortunately, Kinaston has difficulty with dates, specifying 1532 as the date The Testament of Creseid was written, despite Henryson’s death before 1508, so the information cannot be assumed to be accurate. (Gopen, 1987)  Henryson is also the author of other works such as Orpheus and Eurydice, Robyne and Makyne, Ane Prayer for the Pest, and the Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian, of which “The Taill of the Uponlandis Mous and the Burges Mous” is one of thirteen.

William Dunbar may have been born about 1460 according to internal information in The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy, but we cannot know for certain.  Again from internal evidence in the poems, he is believed to be of good birth, of better family than Henryson, and to generally identify with the nobility.  He may well have travelled overseas on business for the King, with evidence from treasury accounts that he was in England in 1501.  Indeed, Scotland’s accounts are major sources of information about him, as he received a number of pensions and grants from the King.  After the national disaster of the battle of Flodden Field in 1513, in which the king and many members of the nobility died, the accounts are interrupted and Dunbar’s name does not appear again, either because he has died or because more permanent financial arrangements had been made for him.  A few of his poems involve requests for better funding or complaints that he has not been fairly treated financially.  Some of his other works are The Thrissil and the Rois, celebrating the marriage of his patron James IV to Princess Margaret of England, In Prais of Wemen, and The Goldyn Targe.

Both Henryson and Dunbar were greatly influenced by Geoffrey Chaucer, as were other Scottish poets.  Dunbar refers to him in The Goldyn Targe as “reverend Chaucere, rose of rethoris all” (revered Chaucer, rose of all rhetoricians) and “was thou noucht of oure Inglisch all the lycht, surmounting eviry tong terrestriall” (were you not of our English all the light, surpassing every terrestrial tongue).   Again in the Lament of the Makars, he calls him “The noble Chaucer, makaris flour” (the noble Chaucer, flower of poets).  Henryson’s The Testament of Cresseid is a completion of the story in Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida and Dunbar’s The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo appears to owe much to Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue. (Wood, 1967)

Henryson and Dunbar lived in unsettled times in Scotland.  The economy was shifting from agrarian to mercantile and the middle class was rising and becoming wealthier and more important.  The political situation was generally unstable.  The nobility fought each other and the king, and the relationship with England was generally difficult and sometimes broke into open warfare.  The church was in conflict with the government and suffering from internal corruption.  Periodic returns of the plague occurred. 

There was an oft-quoted saying in Ecclesiastes, “Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child, and this was unfortunately well proven in Scotland.  James I succeeded to the throne of Scotland at a young age, but was almost immediately captured by the English and held in captivity for many years.  He eventually regained his throne after paying a heavy ransom, with a brief period of stability and freedom from foreign pressure following, but he was murdered by unhappy nobles in 1437 and was succeeded by his six-year-old son, James II.  This second minority of the period was filled with strife among the barons, as they fought for control of the regency.  As an adult, James II asserted himself and gained control of the country, but died at 30, leaving yet another minor heir, James III, only eight years old.  James III died in 1488 during a rebellion led by his son and a number of barons.  His heir, Dunbar’s patron, James IV, was able to stabilize the country to a great degree and was interested in and supportive of culture.  However, James IV died in the battle of Flodden Field, leaving the throne to his year old son.  (Gopen, 1987)





Robert Henryson’s The Taill of the Uponlandis

Mous and the Burges Mous

(Appendix I contains the complete poem, in the original Middle Scots, with a translation.)


This artful retelling of Aesop’s familiar fable is one of the most lasting and popular of Henryson’s poems.  Tytler says that “our ancient Scottish bard” need not fear comparison with versions of the story by Pope and La Fontaine, “...there is a quiet vein of humour, a succession of natural pictures, both burgh and landward, city and rural; and a felicity in adapting the sentiments to the little four-footed actors in the drama, which is peculiarly its own.” (Tytler, 1833)   Wood comments that “in the Fables we have Henryson at his most a countryman, he knows his animals; as a Scot, he knows his fellow-men; and as a poet he observes them all with a tolerant understanding and amusement.”  (Wood, 1967)


“The Taill” is written in Rhyme Royale, which was popularized by Chaucer and called “royal” because of its use in The Kingis Quair, traditionally held to have been written by James I of Scotland.  This form has stanzas of seven ten-syllable lines, rhymed ABABBCC.  As well as rhyme, Henryson also makes good use of alliteration, which Parkinson praises:  “Alliteration is never far away in Henryson’s verse...the interplay of the pentameter line and extended alliteration can generate considerable force...alliteration distinguishes his verse from Chaucer’s...and becomes key to his own stylistic legacy for subsequent Scots poets.” 


Two aspects of Henryson’s retelling are very specific to the middle ages: “the relationship of the rising Third Estate and their peasant origins” (Scott) and the role of food in this relationship.   


For the peasant class, food was a matter of survival and basic wellbeing.  The country had been primarily agrarian and the majority of Scots were still living in rural situations, where it was an ongoing battle to produce enough grain to feed the family, have seed for the following year, and possibly have some to sell.  Birds and other animal scavengers, like the mice in our story, were competition for this precious food.  Henryson refers to the mice as thieves on several occasions in the poem.


J.P. Pals of the University of Amsterdam estimates that the daily provisions for a medieval peasant in a good year were 13 ounces of bread, a quart of beer, an ounce and a half of cheese, a quarter pound of peas or other legumes, and a little less than four ounces of mixed meat and fat, which only provides between 2,000 and 2,100 calories to support the heavy physical labour necessary for a medieval farmer.  This would mean that even in a year of plenty, much of the population would be at least mildly hungry.   Religious fast days also affected this, particularly protein intake, and a year of bad harvests could make the situation desperate. (Rosen, 2014)   Medieval fantasies of the “battle between Carnival and Lent” and the “Land of Cockayne” understandably involved an excess of food and especially meat.     


The neat arrangement in theory of the Three Estates, those who fight, those who pray, and those who work, was challenged by the rise of the middle class, which ranged from very wealthy merchants to successful artisans to farmers with many acres of land.  The Guilds, which controlled the work of the artisans, gained increasing political power in the towns.  


The Paston family, believed to have started as small landowners, rose in status and accumulated wealth through the practise of law and through careful marriages, their upward path well documented in their letters.  By the third generation of Pastons we are familiar with, they are highly indignant at a daughter of the family’s misalliance with a mere steward working for the family, causing one brother to say scornfully “he should never have my good will to make my sister sell candles and mustard in Framlingham.”  (Davis, 1983)


Chaucer makes humorous references to the airs of three wealthy artisans in the prologue to the Canterbury Tales: “Their weapons were not cheaply trimmed with brass, But all with silver; chastely made and well their girdles and pouches too, I tell.  Each man of them appeared a proper burgess, To sit in guildhall on a high dais.  And each of them, for wisdom he could span, Was fitted to have been an alderman;  For chattels they’d enough, and too, of rent; To which their goodwives gave a free assent...It’s good to hear “Madam” before one’s name, and go to church when all the world may see, Having one’s mantle borne right royally.”


  As well as fancy clothing – unsuccessfully combated by sumptuary laws – wealthy members of the middle class indulged in impressive meals.  Food is a major status symbol of the period, with elaborate dishes served in large amounts designed to impress.    The menus and recipes in Le Ménagier de Paris give some idea of what sort of meals were possible for a common, but wealthy household.   The diet described is about pleasure and status, not basic needs.


Henryson begins his story by mentioning the source, perhaps more to establish his academic background than to give credit, since Aesop was commonly taught in schools and the source would be recognized readily by the educated. (Tytler, 1833)

Esope, myne author, makis mentioun                                    Aesop, my authority, makes mention    

Of twa myis, and thay wer sisteris deir,                                  Of two mice, and they were sisters dear,

Of quham the eldest duelt in ane borous toun;                  Of whom the eldest lived in a Burgh,

The uther wynnit uponland weill near...                                                The other in the countryside quite near...


The rural mouse is described as solitary, moving furtively about in order to steal grain, and enduring hunger, cold, and great distress in the winter.  Her elder sister, on the other hand, is a Guild Brother and Free Burgess, free from taxes and free to go into any larders and sample the food.  Scott calls the elder mouse being the Burgess an “artistic flaw” as peasants existed long before burgesses, but I think Henryson makes the Burgess mouse the senior because of perceived status rather than such a point of history. 


The elder sister, when ‘full and unfute-sair’ (full and her feet didn’t hurt), thinks of her sister and wonders about her life in the countryside.  Dressed as a pilgrim, barefoot and with staff in hand, she searches for her through ‘banks, bush and briar’, calling for her.  The younger sister hears her and recognizes her voice, ‘as kinsmen naturally do’.  They have an emotional reunion, both laughing and crying with joy, and then enter the younger sister’s home.   This is described as roughly made of moss and ferns, tucked under a stone, with a small doorway.  There is no fire or candle “for such petty thieves do not love light”.  The younger mouse brings out nuts and peas to feed her sister, who expresses dismay at being offered such plain food, saying, “By my soul, I think it but a scorn!” 


“My fair sister,” quod scho, “have me excusit;                    “My fair sister,” said she, “pray excuse me.

This rude dyat and I can not accord.                                         This rude diet does not agree with me.

To tender meit my stomok is ay usit,                                       My stomach is only used to tender meat,

For quhy I fair als weill as ony lord.                                           For every day I eat as well as any Lord.

Thir widderit peis and nuttis, or thay be bored,                  These withered peas & nuts, ere they be cracked,

Wil breik my teith and mak my wame ful sklender,           Will break my teeth and make my belly thinner,               

Quhilk usit wes before to meitis tender.”                             Which has been used before to tender meat.” 


“Weil, weill, sister,” quod the rurall mous,                             “Well, well, sister,” said the rural mouse,

“Geve it yow pleis, sic thing as ye se heir,                             “If it please you, such things as you see here,

Baith meit and dreink, harberie and hous,                            Both meat and drink, lodging and house,

Sal be your awin, will ye remane al yeir.                                 Shall be your own, though you remain all year.

Ye sall it have with blyith and mery cheir,                              You shall have them with blithe and merry cheer,

And that suld mak the maissis that are rude,                       And that should make the dishes that are coarse,

Amang freindis, richt tender, sueit, and gude.”                  Among friends, right tender, sweet, and good.” 


The peasant diet would indeed have included both legumes such as beans and peas and what might be described as “found” food, such as grain gleaned from the fields after harvest, and nuts, berries, and mushrooms from nearby wooded areas.  (Cowan, 2011)  For all the Burgess mouse calls her hostess “fair sister”, her lofty airs and her discourtesy in refusing the food offered certainly compare to her disadvantage with her sister’s gracious and kindly offer of the best she has for however long her sister stays.  However, the rural mouse’s references to “for landis have we nane in property” and “a gentil hert is better recreate (pleased)” may be reminders to her sister that such airs are inappropriate, indeed vulgar. 


The elder mouse urges her sister to return to the town with her, to see just how different, how much better, her life could be.


“Lat be this hole and cum unto my place:                              “Leave this hole and come to my place;

I sall to yow schaw, be experience,                                          I will show you by experience

My Gude Friday is better nor your Pace;                                               My Good Friday is better than your Easter feast;

My dische likingis is worth your haill expence.                    The licking of my dish is worth your whole budget.

I have housis anew of grit defence;                                          I have houses enough that are very safe.

Off cat, na fall, na trap, I have na dreid.”                                                Of cat, or snares, or traps I have no fear.”

“I grant,” quod scho, and on togidder thay yeid.                “I will,” said she; and off they went together. 


They head for the town, with the elder leading, skulking through grass and bush by night, hiding by day.  Once in town, the Burgess mouse leads her sister to a merchant’s house and its well-stocked larder.  Henryson comments that they take up residence without so much as “God speed” and that they begin to eat without saying grace, although they do wash.  Possibly the washing is in imitation of courtly manners, as there was no mention of washing when they were in the rural mouse’s home.  The variety and amount of food is certainly just as the Burgess mouse has bragged about:


In to a spence with vittell grit plenty:                                                      In to a larder with victuals in great plenty;

Baith cheis and butter upon skelfis hie,                                                  Both cheese and butter on high shelves,

And flesche and fische eneuch, baith fresche and salt,                   And flesh and fish aplenty, both fresh and salt,

And sekkis full off grotis, meill, and malt.                                              And sacks full of groats, meal and malt.

...                                                                                                                            ...

Withoutin grace, thay wesche and went to meit,                              Without grace, they washed & went to meat,

With all courses that cukis culd devyne,                                                 With all courses cooks could devise,

Muttoun and beif, striking in tailyeis greit,                                            Mutton and beef, cut in great slices.

A lordis fair thus couth thay counterfeit...                                             A lord’s fare thus could they counterfeit...


The Burgess mouse cannot resist teasing her sister by asking if she sees a difference between the larder and her “sorry nest”.  The practical rural mouse replies, that yes she does, but wonders how long it will last.  Her elder sister responds that it will last for “evermore, and longer too”.    


To the food they have already eaten, the Burgess mouse now adds a plate of groats, a dish of meal, many unleavened cakes, fine wheat bread for a sweet, and then steals a white candle out of a box to finish off the meal with something special.  The quality of the bread is an indicator of the household’s wealth, as is the availability of candles, which were extremely expensive.  The candles would be kept in a box to protect them from rodents – not very successfully in this case.  The two mice indulge themselves thoroughly until unexpectedly interrupted.


This maid thay merie, quhill thay micht na mair,                 Thus they made merry until they could eat no more,

And “Haill, Yule, hail!” cryit upon hie.                                      And “Hail, Yule, Hail,” they loudly cried.                

Yit efter joy oftymes cummis cair,                                            Yet after joy ofttimes comes care,                          

And troubill efter grit prosperitie.                                             And trouble after great prosperity.

Thus as thay sat in all their jolitie,                                              Thus, as they sat in all their jollity,

The spenser come with keyis in his hand,                             The steward came with keys in his hand,

Oppinnit the dure and thame at denner fand.                    Opened the door and them at dinner found. 


Thay taryit not to wesche, as I suppose,                                                They tarried not to wash, as I suppose,

Bot on to ga, that micht formest win.                                      But ran off, each trying to be the fastest.

The burges had ane hole, and in scho gois;                           The Burgess had a hole and in she goes;

Hir sister had na hole to hyde hir in.                                         Her sister had no hole to hide herself in.

To se that selie mous, it wes grit sin,                                       It was a great shame to see that simple mouse,

So desolate and will off ane gude reid;                                   So desolate and without any good advice;

For verray dreid scho fell in swoun near deid.                     For very dread she fell into a swoon, near dead.


However, the terrified mouse is saved because the steward simply doesn’t have the time to chase mice; he is far too busy.   He departs to do his work, leaving the door open behind him.  The Burgess mouse scurries out of her hiding place to help her sister, who is lying flat on the ground, trembling and with her heart pounding fiercely.  The elder mouse comforts her sister, then persuades her to finish their feast, although the younger initially protests that she is far too frightened to eat:  “I may not eit, sa sair I am agast.”  They sit down again, but the meal is once more interrupted, this time by Gib, or Gilbert, the cat.  The Burgess mouse flees back to her hole, but the rural mouse is caught. 


Anyone who has ever seen a cat play with its prey can well visualize Henryson’s description of Gib tossing the rural mouse from paw to paw, briefly letting her escape and then capturing her again, to play some more.  Once again the mouse has the good fortune to evade danger, climbing up the panelling out of reach and clinging there until Gib gives up and goes away.  She has had more than enough of the “good life” at this point and pauses only to tell her sister her opinion, concluding with “Almighty God keep me from such a feast!”  She gratefully makes her way home, where Henryson predicts she will live in “quiet and ease, without fear”.


This ends the fable, but the Moralitas remains.  The four verses giving the moral of the story have a different format to that of the fable itself, each containing eight lines.  Henryson points out that no life, of whatever state, is completely free from adversity, but that this is especially true for those discontented with their place in life, striving to rise in status and gain more possessions.  The second verse of the Moralitas is one of the most frequent quotes from Henryson:


Blissed be sempill lyfe withoutin dreid,                                  Blessed be the simple life without dread;

Blissed be sober feist in quietie.                                                                Blessed be the humble feast in quietness;

Quha hes aneuch, of na mair hes he neid,                            Who has enough, needs no more,

Thocht it be littill into quantatie.                                                Though it be but little in quantity.

Grit aboundance and blind prosperitie                                   Great abundance and blind prosperity

Oftymes makis ane evill conclusioun.                                      Oftimes make for an evil conclusion:

The sweetest lyfe, thairfoir, in this cuntrie,                          The sweetest life, therefore, in this country,

Is sickernes, with small possessioun.                                       Is security with few possessions. 


The poet continues with more warnings against ambition and greed, finishing the last verse with the words, “...the highest degree of earthly joy is to have happiness in heart, with few possessions.”


The poem provided insight into some attitudes about food and ambition in this period, as well as a description of the contents of a well-furnished medieval larder. 


Interestingly, the religious references are mostly casual, cultural rather than pious.  The Burgess mouse is described as “a poor pilgrim”, but her goal is not religious.  Neither mouse bothers to say grace, although they stop to wash.  The references to Good Friday, Easter, and Yule really just paint a picture for the medieval audience of the quantity and quality of food likely to be available.  “God” is used as an exclamation in one case, but may be intended rather more devoutly in two instances, “ God willed...” and “...Almighty God keep me...”  The impression is of a society very strongly influenced by the church in its cultural practices, calendar, and speech patterns, but not necessarily in every case very devout.  However, since the poem is intended to be light and humorous and is developed from a story by a pagan author, any conclusions on that subject would be inappropriate. 


I thought the poem very accessible to a modern audience once the language barrier was overcome.  The charm and the humour still come through, making it thoroughly enjoyable to study.









William Dunbar’s The Tretis of the

Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo

(Appendix II contains the complete poem, in the original Middle Scots, with a translation.)


The editors of the New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse call Dunbar “the most gifted poetical craftsman Scotland has ever produced: his range encompasses satire, the courtly love poem, bawdry, the dream allegory, a ‘flyting’..., the superb music of his sacred poems, the trivial complaint...and the desolate meditation on death.”  (Crawford, 2000)  Wood says, “’The Tretis of the Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo’ Dunbar’s longest poem, and has been regarded by many critics as his masterpiece.” (Wood, 1967)


Dunbar wrote this as an alliterative rather than rhymed poem.  “Dunbar has rejected rhyme and stanza form in favour of the traditional alliterative line, which he uses with incredible variety and virtuosity.” (Wood, 1967)  Old English poetry, such as Beowulf, was alliterative.  In later Middle English – and Middle Scots – there was a revival of this form.  Piers Plowman, which is alliterative, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, alliterative with some rhyme, are examples of this.


“The Tretis” was a much more difficult poem to read or study than Henryson’s “The Taill”.  At 530 lines it is more than twice as long and has a more complicated, sometimes obscure vocabulary, than “The Taill”.   The version I was using, from The Trials and Joys of Marriage, edited by Eve Salisbury, provided glosses for difficult words, notes for difficult passages, and notes on text that is disputed.  There is disagreement among the critics on a number of words and passages, partly caused by differences between manuscript versions. 


The poem begins with a description of the narrator walking alone in a beautiful place on Midsummer Eve.


Apon the Midsummer evin, merriest of nichtis,                 Upon Midsummer Eve, merriest of nights,

I muvit furth allane in meid as midnicht wes past,             I walked alone in a meadow as midnight passed,              

Besyd ane gudlie grein garth, full of gay flouris,                  Beside a goodly green garden, full of bright flowers,

Hegeit of ane huge hicht with hawthrone treis;                 Hedged to a great height with hawthorn trees;


He describes a scene of dream-like beauty, made more wonderful by the scent of the many flowers and the sound of birdsong.  He hears loud and haughty speech nearby and hides in order to see who is speaking. 


I saw thre gay ladies sit in ane grein arbeir,                            I saw three gay ladies in a green arbour,

All grathit into garlandis of fresche gudlie flouris.                All arrayed in garlands of fresh, goodly flowers.               

So glitterit as the gold wer thair glorius gilt tressis,            As glittering as gold were their glorious gilt tresses.

... Of ferliful fyne favour war thair faceis meik,                   ...Their faces were wondrously fair and gentle,

All full of flurist fairheid as flouris in June –                            As full of flourishing loveliness as flowers in June –

Quhyt, seimlie, and soft as the sweit lillies...                        White, seemly, and soft as the sweet lilies...


The speakers are not only very lovely, but richly dressed; their descriptions sound like those of heroines in a romance.  They are seated at a handsomely decked table, which has precious cups filled with rich wine.  Two of the “beautiful creatures” are married to lords, the third is a widow, “of amorous behaviour”.   They continue drinking, speaking more rapidly and openly. 


“Bewrie,” said the wedo, “ye woddit wemen ying,             

Quhat mirth ye fand in maryage sen ye war menis wyffis 


“Tell me,” said the widow, “you young wedded women,

What mirth you find in marriage since becoming wives


She asks if they rue their marriages, not finding it a “blessed band”, and would they choose better if they could choose again.  One young wife immediately says that she finds the band “bare of bliss and wretched”.  She suggests that birds have a much better idea, changing their mates each year (on St. Valentine’s Day) and she wished her country had the same custom, so that one could “embrace a new lover, energetic and constant, and let their worn-out mates go where they please.”  She describes a fantasy of her being beautifully dressed, going to “plays, and preachings, and pilgrimages” to show off her beauty and to attract new lovers, so that she always had a vigorous man available.


She goes on to describe her husband as “a slob, a worm, a hairy old rustic, a used up boar good for nothing but to grunt, a drone, a bag of phlegm, a scabby monster, a scorpion, a filthy behind”.  She is disgusted when he scratches himself, hates his kisses, and finds his bristly beard painfully rough on her skin.  He is also impotent – “not worth a bean in bed” – as well as jealous and easily angered.  She continues in this vein for another 30 lines. 


Although impotent, he still attempts to exercise his marital rights, which she only permits when he bribes her. 


For, or he clym on my corse, that carybald forlane,                           For before he climbs on my body, that monster,

I have conditioun of a curche of kersp allther fynest,                       I have promise of a kerchief of finest fabric,

A goun of engranyt claith, right gaily furrit,                                           Or a gown of scarlet cloth, well and gaily furred,

A ring with a ryall stane, or other riche jowell...                                  A ring with a goodly stone or other rich jewel...


She ends by saying, “From such a lord God save you, my sweet sisters dear!”  The ladies praise her and they all laugh and continue to drink. 


The widow encourages the other lady to tell them about her marriage.  She agrees to do so, but asks first for assurance they are trustworthy and will keep her secrets.  When they agree, she expresses relief that she can now have the release of talking about the distress that is so great it is making her ill.  Her husband is a young and attractive man, but his past lechery has made him incapable in bed.


“My husband wes a hur maister, the hugeast in erd,       My husband was a whoremaster, the greatest on earth,

Tharfor I hait him with my hert, sa help me our Lord!      So I hate him heartily, so help me our Lord!

...                                                                                 ...

He has bene lychour so lang quhill lost is his natur,           He has been a lecher so long, his sexual power is lost,

His lume is waxit larbar and lyis into swonne:                      His tool is exhausted and lies in a swoon:

Wes never sugeorne wer set na one that snaill tyrit,       Rest was never less use for that tired snail,

For efter seven oulkis rest, it will nought rap anys;           For after seven weeks rest, it will scarce thrust once. 

He has bene waistit apon wemen, or he me wif chesit,  He was wasted upon women ere he chose me as wife,

And in adultré, in my tyme, I haif him tane oft;                   And I have caught him in adultery often.  


In spite of this, he dresses well, makes flirtatious glances at fair women, and boasts of sexual prowess.  He looks the part of a lover, but lacks the ability.  His wife comments that ‘he is like a dog that goes to all the bushes and lifts his leg, but cannot piss’.  She feels that at least a woman married to an old man is not deceived and knows what to expect.  She herself thought she was getting a jewel, but was given jet, that he shone like gold but was only glass.


She agrees she also would like to change mates on St. Valentine’s Day, to always have a lusty mate.  At night, she thinks about her situation mournfully, angry that ‘my wicked kin...cast me away and bound my bright beauty to an impotent coward.’ All these thoughts make her restless at night, so that her husband is concerned for her health, asking the reason for her distress and holding her in his arms: “he tenderly turns toward me his feeble person and with an exhausted yard takes me in his arms”.   She replies with pretended affection and feigns a faint.


She wishes that her husband had fallen to the lot of a young maiden who was afraid of sexual relations, fearing pain, since there was no chance her husband would be able to cause her to flinch in the least.  For herself, she would like a lover who pleased her.  Finishing her story, she was also greatly praised by the others.  


Now the widow begins her tale, with a pious preamble:


Than said the Weido, “Iwis ther is no way other;                               Then said the widow, “Indeed there is no other way;

Now tydis me for to talk; my taill it is nixt.                             Now it is time for me to talk; my tale is next.

God my spreit now inspir and my speche quykkin,           God my spirit now inspire and my speech quicken,

And send me sentence to say, substantious and noble; And send me wise words to say, weighty and noble;

Sa that my preching may pers your perverst hertis,          So that my preaching may pierce your wayward hearts,

And mak yow mekar to men in maneris and                        And make you meeker to men in manners and

conditiounis.                                                                                      dispositions.


She tells the two young women that she herself was always a shrew, but far too clever to show it.  Though her thoughts were stubborn, haughty, bold, and contemptuous, she always appeared sweet, simple, and saintly, utterly without guile, fooling many who were considered very crafty.  The widow advises the younger women to counterfeit good manners and amiability, “by your look be innocent, though you have evil minds”. 


The widow then recounts her history, of which she is obviously proud.  She has had two husbands, both of whom loved her, and both of whom she despised without them realizing it.  The first was an elderly, worn out old man.  She would scratch his back, kiss and fondle him, while making faces and mocking gestures when he could not see her.  He was convinced she loved him and she was in fact quite happy because she had a young lover to “slake her lust”, one she could trust to keep their relationship secret.  When her husband was angry with her, she would skilfully coax him into a better mood, appearing meek and loving.  She did this so well that he left an excellent inheritance to her son, who had in fact been conceived after his supposed father was impotent. 


Her second marriage was to a wealthy merchant, although “we were not equals in kinship nor blood nor freedom, nor bearing nor fairness of person” – which she reminded him of frequently.  “Though I say it myself, the difference was great between his bastard blood and my noble birth.”  She had him so thoroughly convinced of her superiority that he became compliant to her every wish, which made her despise him, although she had liked him before they married.  The more he tried to please her, the less she thought of him, but carefully hid her dislike until he had handed over his wealth, although she found hiding her feelings more and more difficult.  After she had control of his worldly goods, she became very demanding, setting him unpleasant and degrading tasks.  Thanks to the many gifts with which he attempted to please her, she had a wonderful wardrobe.


He grathit me in a gay silk and gudly arrayis,                         He adorned me in gay silks and goodly clothing,

In gownis of engranyt claith and gret goldin chenyeis,     In gowns of crimson cloth and great gold chains,

In ringis ryally set with riche ruby stonis,                                                In rings royally set with rich ruby stones,

Quhill hely raise my renoune amang the rude people... Which highly raised my reputation among common folk.



Having cowed him and deprived him of his wealth, she found him less and less appealing in bed, always imagining he was someone else during sexual relations.  She dressed her own children beautifully, like nobility, but dressed the first wife’s children like rustics.  She prevented his family from visiting and discouraged his friends.  He has died and she is dressed in mourning: “I dress as I were sad, but my heart is cloaks are mournful, coloured sable, but my body is beautiful under them”.  She keeps up a front of deep sorrow, going to church with a woeful expression.  Her beautiful psalter is open on her lap, with bright gold letters catching the eye.  She hides her face behind her cloak so she can privately look about her for attractive men, casting kind glances on ones she likes.  When friends of her late husband come in, she wets her cheeks with a little sponge full of water and looks unhappy, so that all commend her for her love and fidelity. 


She praises the craftiness of wise women, who can do whatever pleases them and cover it with good acting.  Young women, however, may act foolishly if they fall in love with worthless fellows and should learn better.


Faith has a fair name, bot falsheid faris bettir:                     Faith has a fair name, but falsehood fares better:

Fy one hir that can nought feyne her fame for to saif!    Fie on any her who cannot deceive to save her fame!

Yit am I wise in sic werk and wes all my tyme;                     Yet I am wise in that way and was always;

Thought I want wit in warldlynes, I wylis haif in luf,           Though I lack wit in worldly matters, I have wiles in love,

As ony happy woman has that is of hie blude:                    As any happy woman has who has noble blood;

Hutit be the halok lase a hunder yeir of eild!                       A woman who is old and still foolish should be mocked!


She has a secret lover who comforts her in the night for the day’s cares, but the entire shire believes her to be a holy woman, compassionate to the poor and taking pride in going on pilgrimages, although her main reason for both is to win praise.  Her greatest delight is when all the young men who desire her visit her home, when she can flirt with them and exchange caresses and heated glances.


“Thar is no liffand leid so law of degré                                    “There is no living person so low of status

That sall me luf unliffit, I am so loik hertit;                             That shall love me unloved, I am so warm-hearted.

And gif his lust be so lent into my lyre quhit,                        And if his lust be so fixed on my white face,

That he be lost or with me lig, his lif sall nocht danger.    That he be lost unless he lies with me, his life shan’t be

...                                                                                                            in danger...

Ladyis leir thir lessonis and be no lassis fundin:                   Ladies learn their lessons and are not ignorant girls.

This is the legeand of my lif, thought Latyne it be nane.”               This is the story of my saintly life, though not in Latin.”


Her companions applaud her and say they have learned from her.  They spend the rest of the night drinking and dancing, and then return home at dawn.


The narrator speaks once more of the beauty of the place and the fresh morning, then slips away to write their stories.  He closes with these words:


Ye auditoris most honorable, that eris has gevin                                You auditors most honourable, who have given ears

Oneto this uncouth aventur, quhilk airly me happinnit;  To this strange adventure, happening to me early,

Of thir thre wantoun wiffis, that I that I haif writtin heir,                Of these three wanton wives, that I have written of,

Quhilk wald ye waill to your wif, gif ye suld wed one?     Which would you have for wife, if you should wed one?


Aside from the language being more difficult in this poem, the attitudes expressed belong to a period far distant from our own.  My intent was to learn about those attitudes rather than to judge them from a modern standpoint. 


First of all, “The Tretis” does not stand alone in extant medieval literature in content.  For example, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath also advises women to deceive their husbands:


Now herkneth, how I bar me proprely,                                  Now, listen to how well I bore myself,                  

Ye wyse wyves, that can understonde                                   You wise wives that can understand

Thus shul ye speke and bere hem wrong on honde;        Thus should you speak and wrongfully demand;

For half so boldely can ther no man                                         No man can half so boldly

Swere and lyen as a womman can...                                        Swear and lie as a woman can....              

A wys wyf, if that she can hir good,                                          A wise wife, for her own good,

Shal beren him on hond the cow is wood,                            Will convince him the cow is wood. 


She also talks about the pleasure she takes in sexual relations and how she used her “bele chose” to control her five husbands and to enrich herself with their money. 

It is useful to remember when reading this type of medieval literature that in that period Galen’s theory of humours, which was accepted as authority, said that women had colder and wetter humours than males: “females were too cool to produce semen, resulting in soft, weak bodies, and inferior intellects, with a fickle character that contrasted with the morally steadfast male.”  “The colder, more changeable humours of women were believed to render them intensely sensual and lustful.”  (Gilchrist, 2012)

The church taught that husband and wife owed each other sexual release, since one of the goals of marriage was to prevent lustful thoughts and actions outside of marriage.  Given this, the two young wives had reason to complain that their husbands were not paying their marriage debt, leaving them sexually unsatisfied. 

The same complaint arises in other works, such as Chaucer’s “The Merchant’s Tale” about the marriage of January and May.  In the Decameron, a similar story of an elderly husband unable to satisfy his wife describes the relationship as being against the laws of nature.  The first wife in “The Tretis” makes a very similar remark:  “It is against the law of love, of nature, and of natural law, to force together hearts that strive against each other.” 

Salisbury’s The Trials and Joys of Marriage includes a poem called “A Talk of Ten Wives on Their Husband’s Ware”, a simple and rather coarse poem.  In it, each wife speaks in an unflattering manner about the size or endurance of her husband’s “tool”.  Although “The Tretis” is also bawdy satire, disparaging of the desires and fidelity of women, Dunbar expresses very different views about women in other poems, such as “In Prais of Wemen”, when not writing in this genre.

In her notes to “The Tretis”, Salisbury attributes the following opinion about the last line to Priscilla Bawcutt and Felicity Riddy:  Quhilk wald ye waill to your wif, gif ye suld wed one?  B&R suggest that the posing of such a question was ‘both a literary game and a social pastime’.  Formally called a demande d’amour, this marks a satiric response to the earlier question posed by the widow [to the young wives].” This would imply a back and forth exchange of opinions, as in flyting (a contest in which witty insults are exchanged), at which Dunbar excelled.


Here is a small sample of the many barbs exchanged in The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy, translation by Kent Leatham:


Dunbar:                                                                   Kennedy:

Brigand, Irish bard, vile beggar with your brats,                             Dread, dirty-faced dwarf, that you have disobeyed
Cunt-bitten coward, Kennedy, naturally weak,                              My cousin Quentin (also my commissar);
Dismal-eyed and anused, as Danes upon the racks,                      Fantastic fool, trust that your fears shall invade;
You look like the crows already ate your cheeks;                         Ignorant elf, ape, owl most irregular,
Renounce, rebel, your rhymes and sorry shrieks,                         Scurrilous vulture, and common sponger;
Mismade monster, mad out of your mind;                                      Poorly-fucked foundling, that nature made a runt,
Your traitor’s tongue sings with a Highland screak;                       Both John of Ross and you shall squeal and grunt,
A Lowland ass could make a sweeter sound.                  If I hear aught of you ever writing more.


Both Dunbar and Kennedy were well thought of poets at the royal court and their mock battle of words was considered extremely clever.  Put in this context, the long list of extravagant insults about their husbands from the three ladies in The Tretis is more comprehensible. 


If this was indeed part of a game, setting up a playful discussion, would Dunbar’s courtly audience perhaps have shared some of the ladies’ other views as well as their view about the foolishness of impotent men trying to keep healthy young women satisfied and faithful?  The merchant class certainly married into the upper class, but would a group of courtiers have seen the widow’s snobbish thoughts about her merchant husband as entirely inappropriate?  Dunbar himself makes remarks about upstarts in other works, so perhaps his sympathies lie more with the widow than a modern audience would think. 


An unstated element of the ladies’ stories that struck me was the essential powerlessness of the three women, given the widow’s instructions on the importance of deception in succeeding as a wife.  Trickery is the weapon of the underdog.  This has historically often been used in humour, going back at least to Roman times.  A play by Plautus, the plot of which is somewhat familiar to modern audiences through A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, features the slave Pseudolos tricking his master to help the master’s son rescue his lover.  A Roman pater familias had life and death control over his household, including his wife, adult children, and slaves.  Trickery is the only option for resistance and the play shows the underdog on top for once, through his cleverness.  


In some of the notes on “The Tretis” by Galbi, the question of whether the women had a choice in marrying their husbands is raised, as marriages were usually arranged, particularly in the upper classes.  In theory at least, willing consent of both parties was needed to make a marriage valid.  However, family pressure could be an issue, especially since the legal age for marriage for a woman was 12 and for a man 14.  Another problem could be a lack of full information about the prospective spouse.  In the Paston letters, there is a letter John Paston received sometime before 1498 from a cousin, suggesting that he hurry to find his sister a husband, as she was very unhappy with her mother: “She hath [since Easter] beaten once in the week or twice, and sometime twice on a day, and her head broken in two or three places.”  Despite this, the family, including the prospective bride, made anxious inquiries about the financial concerns involved in the proposed matches.  The second young wife of “The Tretis” obviously feels that her family has failed her in arranging her marriage: “my wicked kin that cast me away and bound my bright beauty to an impotent coward”.  Since her remarks about thinking he was shiny gold and turned out to be glass imply some participation in the choice, presumably she feels that they were careless in investigating him or possibly did not see his lecherous past as a problem.  The widow’s second marriage certainly seems to be her own choice. 


Medieval husbands did not have the power of life and death over their wives that the old Roman patriarchs did, but they could legally beat them and certainly controlled finances and property.  They were the legal guardians of any children and could leave control of property and children away from their wives in wills, although wives were entitled to their dower property.  Many wills in fact show great respect for the wife and often command the son and heir to obey his mother, but that generosity was in the gift of the husband, not something the wife could insist upon or take for granted.  The audience of “The Tretis” would have seen this as the natural order of things, but might well have admired the widow’s cleverness in getting her own way  and thought her two husbands deserved their fate through their own weakness and foolishness.  The widow refers to making her second husband do the tasks of a boy, a woman, and a wife and despises him for accepting that status.   The audience may have seen that as a justified opinion.  They certainly would not have considered his actions to be appropriate masculine behaviour, even for a man who was not of gentle birth and who was gaining wealth through trade.


They may also have seen the young wives’ rather earthy comments on their husbands as a reasonable vent for their lack of sexual satisfaction, just as the Boy Bishops and Lords of Misrule provided occasional release from the usual strict obedience to one’s superiors in a very hierarchical society.   



Did I achieve my goals?

Goal 1 – becoming familiar with the poems:  I feel that I gained reasonable familiarity with the two poems and would be able to describe and discuss them.  I also feel that I know Henryson’s poem considerably better than Dunbar’s.  I became quite comfortable with Henryson’s delightful mice, his light humour, and his language, and then tackled Dunbar’s satire.  It jolted me out of my comfort zone with much more difficult language – some of which the critics find obscure – and with a type of humour I found much less understandable and much more difficult to enjoy.


Goal 2 – learning about the period from the poems:  While I enjoyed Henryson’s poem much more than Dunbar’s, I feel I learned much more about the late medieval period in Scotland through studying “The Tretis”.  Because the content and the mind set behind the content were more foreign to me, I needed to spend more time looking at it and thinking about it, looking into similar works by other authors, and considering how the attitudes of Dunbar’s period differ from my own. 


Goal 3 – improving my reading and writing of Middle Scots:  I thoroughly enjoyed developing a handwriting style in which to copy these two works.  I do not flatter myself that the result is very period, but the process provided information about medieval handwriting that I appreciate knowing.  The process of copying the poems several times has improved my knowledge of the vocabulary and spelling of Middle Scots and improved my ability to read it.   I had read previously about the randomness of medieval spelling, but finding that Henryson and Dunbar not only spelled some common words quite differently from each other, but could spell the same word several different ways in the same work, certainly brought the fact home to me as I copied.  I found myself reading aloud, as we believe medieval readers did.


Working with the translations was interesting.  With the earlier poem, there was a translation available, as well as glosses, but I compared it carefully to the original, especially as I became more comfortable with the language and spelling.  When I had questions, I used translation sites on the internet to check some words, such as “skaith” and “waith” where the meaning of specific words was unclear to me from the provided translation.  I sometimes altered words or word order to get a version as close as possible to the original as was understandable to someone speaking modern English.  For instance, “had na laser to byde” was rendered in Gopen’s translation as “had no time to stop”, but “had no leisure to bide” was closer to the original in wording and made a better connection for me in going over the line later, while still conveying the meaning correctly.

 Working with “The Tretis”, I did not have an available translation and needed to work only from the glosses and notes, but again I went over the material several times to get as close a match as I thought possible. 

I have attached scans of the first pages of my handwritten copies of both poems.  I very much enjoyed doing the manuscript copies.

I feel that I accomplished what I set out to do in the project. 


Gwen Hamilton (MKA Lynn Johnson)





Cowan, Edward J., & Lizanne Henderson,  A History of Everyday Life in Medieval Scotland, 1000 to 1600, Edinburgh University Press, 2011


Crawford, Robert, and Mick Imlah (editors), The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, The Penguin Press, 2000


Davis, Norman, (introduction, editor) The Paston Letters,

Oxford University Press (1983)


Galbi, Douglas, Is The Tretis of Twa Mariit Wemen and a Wedo Meninist?,

Internet, 2015


Gilchrist, Roberta, Medieval Life:  Archeology and the Life Course

The Boydell Press, 2012


Gopen, George G. (introduction, translation, notes): Henryson, Robert

Moral Fables, University of Notre Dame Press, 1987


Jonson, Will (editor): Henryson, Robert, Moral Fables,

ISBN 978-1492738411, First Edition 2013


Mackenzie, W. Mackay (editor):  Dunbar, William, The Poems of William Dunbar, Publishing, 2011

Ebook ISBN 13:978-1-4209-4201-9 (According to an internet source on, this ebook is based on the Farber & Farber edition of 1932, edited by W. Mackay Mackenzie)


Parkinson, David J., Introduction to Robert Henryson, The Complete Works, University of Rochester, River Campus Libraries (Internet)


Rosen, William, The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century, Viking Penguin, 2014


Scott, Tom, Tom Scott on Robert Henryson: The Moral Fables, University of Glasgow, (Internet)


Salisbury, Eve (editor):  The Trials and Joys of Marriage, University of Rochester, River Campus Libraries, 2002


Smith, R.W., The Thirteen Moral Fables of Robert Henryson, A Modernised Edition (Internet)


Tytler, Patrick Fraser, Lives of the Scottish Worthies: James I, Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, Gavin Douglas, Sir David Lindsay, London, John Murray Albemarle Street, 1830/e-edition Hard Press 2017


Wood, H. Harvey, Two Scots Chaucerians, Longmans, Green & Co Ltd, 1967


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