08 September 2017

Thomas of Erceldoune IV -- The Prologue (lines 1-24)



The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Ercledoune is divided into three 'fitts', a word used in Middle-English to describe a canto or large section of a poem. Of the five MSS containing all or part of this poem, the oldest, the Thornton Manuscript, stands alone in beginning with a 24 line prologue in which a minstrel addresses his audience. Fitt I then tells of Thomas' experience with the elf queen, and Fitts II and III record his prophecies. As I mentioned in outlining Murray's Introduction to his edition, Thomas was famous as a prophet in Scotland and Northern England well into the 19th Century.

The prologue provides a good example of the poetic form used throughout.  What we have is basically an iambic meter with some variations. So four beats per line.  Murray calls this 'long measure'. This might lead us to expect eight syllables per line, but that is not what our eyes or ears find. There are extra unstressed syllables. Now some of these syllables get lost 'as you articulate the line out loud', as Jenni Nuttall tells us at her marvelous blog on Middle English verse:
A vowel at the end of one word can run together with the vowel at the beginning of the next word (this is called elision).   An unstressed syllable can be slurred over within a word (i.e. deliv’ren rather than deliveren).
If we take the first four lines and mark out the elisions and slurred syllables, and compare the text with and without these marks, we can see that the rhythm tightens up considerably. Yet there are still 'extra' syllables, which, as Jenni Nuttall has pointed out to me, suggest that this is more of a 'dolnik verse', in which the four beats are the main thing, but which is rather footloose when it comes to the number of unstressed syllables.  Another variation is also visible in the first half of the first line, which is trochaic rather than iambic. I have also added marks to the second sample to show the beat.
Lystyns, lordyngs, bothe grete & smale,
And takis gude tent what j will saye:
I sall ȝow telle als trewe a tale,
04 Als ever was herde by nyghte or daye:


Lýstyns, lórdyngs, bothe grét' & smál',
And tákis gude tént what í will sáy':
I sáll ȝow téll' als tréw' a tál',
04 Als é'er was hérde by nýght' or dáy':
  letter key: þ = a voiced th, as in this; ȝ = y as in you; j alone = I, the pronoun.

In considering the rhyme scheme -- ABAB -- we need to bear in mind that the pronunciation of English 600 years ago was rather different than now, even leaving aside any distinctions between northern and southern dialects. Thus smale in line 1 and tale in line 3, done in line 10 and schone in line 12, rhymed as much in the ear as the eye.  Even though Murray printed the text without any kind of breaks, the rhyme scheme allows us to see that it falls naturally into quatrains. Murray, however, did number the verses just so -- the line numbers in red are his -- and I will take the liberty of setting it down this way. Doing so will, I hope, aid those (like me) whose understanding of Middle English isn't perfect or immediate.

Lystyns, lordyngs, bothe grete & smale,
And takis gude tent what j will saye:
I sall ȝow telle als trewe a tale,
04 Als ever was herde by nyghte or daye: 
And þe maste meruelle ffor owttyne naye,
That euer was herde by-fore or syene,
And þer-fore pristly j ȝow praye,
08 That ȝe will of ȝoure talkyng blyne
It es an harde thyng for to saye,
Of doghty dedis þat hase bene done;
Of felle feghtyngs & battells sere;
12 And how þat þir knyghtis has wonne þair schone
Bot jhesu crist þat syttis in trone,
Safe ynglische mene bothe ferre & nere;
And j sall telle ȝow tyte and sone,
16 Of Battels donne sythene many a ȝere
And of Batells þat don sall bee;
In what place, and howe, and whare;
And wha sall hafe þe heghere gree,
20 And whethir partye sall hafe þe werre;
Wha sall takk þe flyghte and flee,
And wha sall dye and by-leve thare;
Bot jhesu crist, þat dyed on tre,
24 Saue jnglische men whare-so þay fare.

tent -- heed, attention
meruelle -- a marvel, a wonder
ffor owttyne naye -- forouten naye = without a no, undeniably
syene -- since
pristly -- eagerly
blyne -- cease
wonne þair schone -- won their shoes, i.e., proved themselves
tyte -- quickly, soon
sythene many a ȝere -- many a year ago/since
gree -- victory

There is probably no way of telling whether the prologue was added to the poem by Robert Thornton, the English scribe responsible for the oldest manuscript, or whether it was a part of the poem he received and copied, but which later scribes omitted. (The scribe of Sloane MS 2578, for example, left out the first fitt entirely, and copied only the prophecies.) To be sure, the two prayers to Christ to save Englishmen (13-14, 23-24) suggest an English rather than a Scottish audience, but Murray rightly points out in his notes that Thornton could have easily substituted 'ynglische' for an original 'Scottismen' (lxix).*

The two prayers are also carefully placed at the beginning (13-14) and end (23-24) of the second half of the prologue. We may thus see it as a separate unit, which expands upon the briefer battle references in lines 9-12 of the first half and shifts the focus of the prologue more to the prophecies of fitts two and three.  So no matter how true and wondrous the fairy story of the first fitt may be, it appears to have less of the attention of the prologue's author, whoever that may be.

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* I am also reminded, however, of the irony in Peadar Kearney's 'Whack Fol the Diddle' (recorded by The Clancy Brothers and many others), but that seems unlikely to be in play here.

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