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'Judas': the first English ballad?

Hit wes upon a scereporsday pat vre louerd aros,(1) Ful milde were pe wordes he spec to Judas: |Judas, pou most to Jurselem oure mete for to bugge; Pritti platen of seluer pou bere up o pi rugge. pou comest fer i pe brode stret, fer in pe brode strete, Summe of pine cunesmen per pou meist imete.' Imette wid is soster, pe swikele wimon: |Judas, pou were wrpe me stende pe wid ston,


For pe false prophete pat tou bileuest upon.' |Be stille, leue soster, pin herte pe tobreke! Wiste min louerd Crist, ful wel he wolde be wreke.' |Judas, go pou on pe roc, heie upon pe ston, Lei pin heued i my barm, slep pou pe anon.' Sone so Judas of slepe was awake, Pritti platen of seluer from hym weren itake. He drou hymselue bi pe top, pat al it lauede ablode. pe iewes out of Jurselem a wenden he were wode. Fforet hym com pe riche ieu pat heiste Pilatus: |Wolte sulle pi louerd pat hette Jesus?' |I nul sulle my louerd for nones cunnes eiste, Bote hit be for pe pritti platen pat he me bitaiste.' |Wolte sulle pi lord Crist for enes cunnes golde?' |Nay, bote hit be for pe platen pat he habben wolde.' In him com ur lord gon as is postles seten at mete: |Wou sitte ye, postles, ant wi nule ye ete? .ii.

Ic am iboust ant isold today for oure mete.' Vp stod him Judas: |Lord, am I pat [freke]? I nas neuer o pe stude per me pe euel spec.' Vp him stod Peter ant spec wid al is miste: |Pau Pilatus him come wid ten hundred cnistes,


Yet ic wolde, louerd, for pi loue fiste!' |Stille pou be, Peter, wel I pe icnowe. pou wolt fursake me prien ar pe coc him crowe.' The Middle English poem known as Judas is found in a manuscript of the late thirteenth century (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.14-39; no. 323 in James's catalogue).(2) Its thirty-three lines seem an unlikely source of controversy, and indeed it would probably not have attracted much attention from scholars were it not that Francis J. Child included it (as no. 23) in his epoch-making collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.(3) No other b ad text in this collection is older than the first half of the fifteenth century(4) and altogether fewer than twenty texts that could be considered ballads can be dated to before 1600. Judas itself occurs nowhere else in manuscript or in oral form; in fact, there are very few religious ballads extant in any form.

A ballad, in the definition of Gordon Hall Gerould, is |a folk-song that tells a story with stress on the crucial situation, tells it by letting the action unfold itself in event and speech, and tells it objectively with little comment or intrusion of personal bias'.(5) It is evident at first reading that most of this fits Judas admirably: the poem is clearly a narrative poem; it stresses the actual betrayal of Christ by Judas for thirty pieces of silver; it is composed almost exclusively of event and speech with the presence of the narrator reduced to a bare minimum and very little overt indication of personal bias. The question of whether Judas is a ballad can, in fact, be reduced to the issue of whether the poem can be considered a |folksong'.

The overwhelming majority of English and Scottish popular ballads were collected in the late eighteenth century by antiquarians, both scholars and amateurs, in northern England and Scotland. At that time the ballads were being transmitted orally; even ballad singers who were literate(6) made it clear to the collectors that they distinguished between the ballads they had learned by ear and committed to memory, and the broadside and chapbook ballads which they knew but did not bother to learn by heart.(7) This tradition of oral transmission(8) can be traced back directly to around 1700, and through the Percy Folio MS London, British Library, MS Add. 27879), which contains written versions of ballads found later in oral tradition, more indirectly to around 1650.

There is considerable debate among scholars concerning the earlier ancestry of the ballads. Simplifying a little to clarify the case, we could say that, on the one hand, the folklorists consider that ballads like those found in later oral tradition were circulating in the same manner among the illiterate |folk' from very early times(9) (the more ambitious attempts to trace the tradition consider it as already in existence in the very early eleventh century).(10) On the other hand, David Fowler argues that the ballad as an oral genre developed out of a combination of the Middle English metrical romances with folksong, a process, begun in the mid-fifteenth century, in which the late mediaeval minstrels played the leading role and of which they as professional poets and entertainers remained the main agents until |the long-standing supremacy of minstrelsy ended' at the end of the seventeenth century.(11) Judas is in a sense the victim of this debate. If Judas is recognized as a ballad, it would lend legitimacy to the existence of a popular, oral tradition of narrative song some 150-200 years earlier than is warranted by any other texts, and thus reshape the discussion over the origins of the popular ballad.

It is thus with good reason that Fowler refuses to call Judas a ballad and classifies it as a religious folksong; he also disqualifies other texts of the Child canon by grouping them as |riddle songs' or |songs of romance and comedy' under the |folksong tradition'.(12) There is no doubt that Fowler's placing of Judas in the context of other mediaeval religious lyrics is a fruitful aid to interpretation (I shall use it myself further on in this article), and the relationship of the poem to the folksong tradition should indeed be explored. Classifying Judas as a re-religious folksong does not, however, vitiate the possibility that it is an ancestor of the popular ballad, since the ballad is in any case a form of folksong.

But even optimistic views of the popular ballad find Judas troublesome. Buchan, who places the origins of the popular ballad somewhere between 1200 and 145 , calls Judas |such a singular piece that most modem critics are chary of budding anything upon it. It is a classic example of the written text that invites the question "But is it a song?" and "Is it traditional?"'(13) We recognize its narrative character, but it is not easy to interpret the narrative itself. The ending is sudden, and has given rise to doubts as to whether the text is complete.(14) Child considers that there are lines missing and indicates where a lacuna should be assumed. He relates the story to apocryphal and popular legends about Judas and the thirty pieces of silver, but has not been able to find this particular story elsewhere.

Some of these objections are less problematic than they seem at first sight. Richard Axton, following Skeat, interprets the marginal mark |.ii., which appears three times in the manuscript, as an instruction to a singer to repeat the second line of the melody, which would indicate that the poem is complete as it stands and was indeed meant to be sung.(15) The long couplet stanzas of the poem are considered by ballad scholars to be older than the more usual quatrain form of the ballad stanza.(16) And the story is not completely without parallels in popular tradition. Both Child and Baum mention a nineteenth-century Wendish folksong which is quite close in plot to the Middle English poem,(17) and Axton convincingly relates the story to the apocryphal life of Judas, which was known in mediaeval England.

The most successful approaches to the poem have undoubtedly been those (such as Axton's, Gray's, and Fowler's) which have seen it in the context of other mediaeval texts to which it might be fruitfully related. Continuing in this direction, then, I shall first look for an appropriate context for Judas and then attempt an interpretation of the internal structure of the poem with this context in mind. Such an analysis incidentally might also contribute something to the ballad debate.


What sort of context should we relate Judas to in order to interpret it? The obvious context, which with few exceptions seems to have been largely neglected by criticism, is the manuscript in which it is written.(18) The next relevant context consists in other kinds of Middle English verse, religious and secular, of the thirteenth century, many of which are represented in the same manuscript; of these, some may provide us with a fruitful comparative approach to an interpretation of Judas.(19)

Trinity MS B.14-39 consists of two volumes on vellum bound together. The first volume is dated in the catalogue to the thirteenth century; Reichl, in his edition of the material, argues for a date of 1255-60. It contains a miscellany of items written in different hands but showing a certain continuity of interest; because of the evident close collaboration of the main scribes, Reichl finds it probable that the volume originated in a monastic scriptorium. Both Woolf and Wenzel consider it a preacher's notebook; Russell judges it to be of Dominican origin, while Reichl argues for the Franciscans of Worcester.(20)

The first item in the manuscript is a Latin treatise entitled De Ordine Creaturarum; other longer items are an English Life of St Margaret; a verse history of the world in English ending with the life of St Cuthbert; a legend of St Nicholas in French verse; tales from the Gospels in French verse; and a poem in French on the Passion of Christ. Between the longer pieces are inserted a multitude of short items, mostly in verse, in Latin, English and French. Many of the short poems are macaronic. The shorter pieces are often given in two versions, Latin and English translation. As one would expect in a manuscript of clerical provenance, the material is predominantly religious: the longer items are mainly religious narrative and the shorter pieces about equally divided between devotional lyrics and moral or didactic verse.

However, the manuscript also contains some material not directly religious. In particular, after the first long item and items 2-4 there is a whole section containing mostly shorter pieces (ff. 20-35). Among them we find the following couplet:

Ic chule bere to wasscen doun i the toun

[th]at was blac ant that was broun. After two more notes, another hand continues in die same vein, with verses, couplets and dicta in Latin and English. This group includes an English poem, |longe scleparis ouer leparis & ouer kipparis' (item 13n on f. 28). Here we also find the following verse:

Sath me viit in the brom

teche me wou i sule don

that min hosebonde

me louien wolde.

Hold thine tunke stille & hawe al [th]ine wille. Stuck in among the religious and scholarly material which predominates in the manuscript, there are thus a number of pieces which seem to bear a close relationship to an oral poetic tradition. The verse |Sath me viit in the brom ...' exists in other manuscripts and may thus have had some currency as a sermon topic, but it is difficult to imagine that it was originally composed by a scholarly monk for distribution among his colleagues in written copies. |Ic chule bere to wasscen' may be a fragment of a longer poem, or it may be a riddle and complete as it is, but in either case it appears to be closer to oral than to written literary forms. Given the presence of such items, I think we can take it that, as Reichl argues, the Trinity MS follows the common practice of the friars in including items from an oral vernacular tradition that can be turned to didactic use in a sermon. I would propose (again with Reichl) that the poem known as Judas is precisely such an item. The occurrence of other material of this kind in the same section of the manuscript makes it more likely that Judas could itself be from the oral vernacular tradition. It does not constitute proof that Judas is a ballad, but it provides us with a legitimate interpretative context for the poem in vernacular folksong.

Another context also indicated by the manuscript consists in vernacular saints' lives and tales from the Gospels which it contains. Their presence would indicate that Judas could be compared to saints' lives and legends, and indeed several recent studies have done so successfully. Axton clarifies several obscure points in the poem by reference to the apocryphal life of Judas (one version of which is included in the South English Legendary, a compilation of saints' lives and legends of the late thirteenth century). Reichl discusses both Judas and Meidan Margerete, the version of the life of St Margaret written by the same scribe in the Trinity MS, as |geistliche Spielmannsdichtung' (and considers this an indication of the poems' popular provenance). Mary-Ann Stouck finds support for her interpretation of the poem in the Southern Passion, a vernacular collection of legends and apocryphal material connected with the story of the Passion which is roughly contemporary with Judas, as well as in the South English Legendary.(21) Judas reflects the predominant concern of thirteenth-century manuscripts with religious narrative, and in its retelling of a biblical story in more immediate and familiar terms it follows a common thirteenth-century practice. It can thus profitably be related to the saints' legends and the vernacular narrative poems based on biblical and apocryphal material that form the main body of Middle English literary production in the thirteenth century. But it should be added that there are notable differences as well: for one, Judas is much shorter than any of these texts, and, though Fowler finds echoes of quatrain stanza form in the northern Childhood of Jesus (which, however, dates from the fifteenth century), none of the thirteenth-century religious narratives seems to be composed in stanzas.

There are, however, plenty of short mediaeval religious lyrics in stanza form, many of them evidently meant to be sung. Most of them are carols, which date mainly from the fifteenth century and are thus generally of too late a date to be useful in an interpretation of Judas. In addition, as Richard Leighton Greene has argued,(22) most of the carols that have been preserved have all the characteristics of written compositions, created (probably to a large extent by Franciscan friars) in imitation of, and as intentional replacements for, popular secular songs. Many carols attempt to imitate the stylistic features of traditional folksong, especially incremental repetition.(23) However, in the carols repetition tends to be rather mechanical and without dramatic quality; the didactic desire to drive home a point and concern to get the doctrinal content right (or to fill out the stanza form) seem to dictate the organization of the text. It is more likely that folksong provides an interpretative context for the carols than vice versa.

The other Middle English religious lyrics that date from the thirteenth century appear very different from Judas they are mainly lyrical and devotional in nature, even when they contain an occasional narrative element. Most thirteenth-century lyrics, as Rosemary Woolf has shown most convincingly, are meant as texts for meditation. The majority of them concentrate on the Passion, since the goal of this kind of devotional poetry is to stimulate the reader's emotional identification with the suffering Christ or the Virgin. They are often related to a liturgical or devotional Latin text, which they re-work in the vernacular, and in this sense they may be comparable in a general sense to the reworking of the Gospel story in Judas, as Stouck points out. But Judas is not structured as a meditational poem. It is not so much its narrative form that precludes this (many of the devotional lyrics contain a good deal of narrative) as what we might call its point of view: the character we are invited to identify with in the poem is Judas, and this is clearly in opposition to the fundamental intent of the devotional poetry. Only in one point are the devotional lyrics similar to Judas. namely, in the quality of their language. Woolf writes of the |unique and fortunate coincidence between religious theory and literary potentialities' in the thirteenth-century Middle English devotional lyrics.(24) The lack of a literary tradition in the vernacular meant that the writers of devotional lyrics had only the language of everyday life to use, and it is such simplicity and familiarity that give the poems their immediacy, directness and emotional appeal -- qualities which are also present in Judas.

Finally we should consider as a possible context of interpretation for Judas the handful of preserved religious ballads. There are altogether nine or ten of these, and most of them were recorded no earlier than the eighteenth century, though there is often good reason to suppose that they are much older in origin. There are two possible religious ballad texts which date from before 1600. The Corpus Christi Carol (from Oxford, Balliol College, MS 3 5 4, the commonplace book of Richard Hill, from the early sixteenth century) is apparently a folksong but difficult to interpret, and it is debatable whether it is sufficiently narrative in character to qualify as a ballad. St Stephen and Herod (from London, British Library, MS Sloane 2593), which is included by Child as a ballad and accepted as such by most recent scholarship,(25) shows more resemblance to Judas. Both are based on biblical stories which are elaborated by apocryphal sources and mediaeval legend. Both show the same reliance on direct description of action, the same use of dialogue and direct speech, the same element of incremental repetition for dramatic effect. If St Stephen and Herod is accepted as a ballad, this would strengthen the possibility that Judas also is one.


Since Judas is a narrative poem, it should respond well to narrative analysis. Its actantial structure, according to the method developed by A. J. Greimas,(26) runs as follows:

Subject: Judas

Object: food for the Last Supper

Sender: Christ

Receiver: Judas

Adversary: Sister, [Pilate], Jews

Helper: [Pilate], [Christ] Judas, the |hero' of the story, is sent by Christ to buy food for the Passover meal. He is warned by Christ that he may meet some of his kinsmen. He meets his sister, who declares herself an enemy of his lord, Christ. She tricks him into falling asleep and steals the money for the food he has been told to buy. Judas is terrified of what will happen when Christ asks him for the money, and turns to Pilate (the |riche ieu', the stereotyped mediaeval moneylender, as Dronke points out),(27) to recover the money. Pilate appears as false Helper, though of course he is in fact one of the Adversaries, and gives Judas the money in return for the betrayal of his lord. Judas then apparently returns with the provisions, for the next scene is the scene of the Last Supper, when Christ comes into the room and makes it clear that he knows what has happened. Judas again tries to save face by denying that he has done anything wrong. Peter offers to fight to defend his lord, but Christ answers that before the cock crows Peter will deny him thrice.

This last episode, part of the Gospel narrative of the Last Supper which the poem seems to be following, is at first glance difficult to relate to the story of Judas. I think Stouck is right in interpreting it as the traditional mediaeval contrast between the betrayal by Judas and the denial by Peter:(28) Judas sinned and despaired, while Peter sinned but repented and therefore became even stronger in his faith. The last episode, therefore, points out the alternative choice of action that Judas had and did not make: that of confessing and asking for forgiveness; or, in terms of the actantial analysis, of turning to Christ as Helper instead of to Pilate. It is Judas' tragedy that he, so to speak, got the roles mixed up. But there are of course reasons for this |mistake', reasons which the poem indicates in the motivation it ascribes to Judas.

This brings us to the second aspect of the internal structure of the poem, the semantic content with which the actantial roles are invested. What are the semantic isotopes, the |codes' as Greimas calls them, that can be found in the text?

There is, first, immediate and clear reference to a religious code: the names, places, incidents are all well known from the biblical narrative and the teachings of the Church. The religious code provides supernatural ethical sanctions for or against some of the characters and actions, so that the audience knows how to react; this in turn reinforces the somewhat understated ethical directives within the poem itself. Closely connected to the religious code are the spatial and temporal codes: the time is given as |a scere thorsday' and further defined by the well-known sequence of events as the Scerethorsday, the Maundy Thursday before Christ's Passion, and the space of the action is divided between the |brode strete' and |roc' of |Jurselem' and some place outside the town where Jesus and the apostles are lodging.

The social world of the poem is organized in two separate ways. The first division is that indicated by the contrast between |min louerd Crist' and |Pine cunesmen', and this is quickly defined as a conflict of loyalty: Judas has a lord on the one hand, a family on the other. |Lord', I would suggest, is to be understood in this poem in the feudal sense of the lord to whom you have sworn fealty, whom you are bound to follow, obey and defend, and who is in turn bound to protect and defend his vassal. The apostles are Christ's vassals; hence Peter's promise to |for thi loue fiste' when Pilate and his knights attack them. His enemies are their enemies, and when Judas follows his sister he is, on the simplest level, consorting with the enemies of his lord; this is also what he denies when he defends himself against Christ's implied accusation: |I nas never o the stude ther me he euel spec' (|I was never in the place where you were in spoken of'). The apostles are opposed to the Jews and Pilate; even if we did not know this from the implied knowledge of the religious code, it is clear both from the spatial division of |Jurselem' vs. Bethany, where the followers of Christ are lodging, and from Peter's speech predicting that they will be attacked by Pilate and his knights. The social world of the poem is thus divided in two ways: first into lord vs. family, then into followers of Christ vs. Jews of Jerusalem. A relationship between Judas' kinsmen and Pilate's Jews is implied by their spatial proximity as citizens of Jerusalem (and by Pilate's apparent acquisition of the precise thirty |platen' that were stolen from Judas);(29) but independently of his, as a loyal follower of his lord Judas should consider them both his enemies.

The code of loyalty is also connected to one of the major codes governing the action of the poem, the economic code. All the action of the poem is in fact expressed in terms of buying and selling: buying food for the Last Supper, setting one's lord, stealing the thirty pieces of silver. The issue of loyalty enters the economic translations of the poem in several ways: Judas' sister is swikele |false' and tricks him and steals the money; the expression |sulle thi louerd' with its shocking juxtaposition of contraries is repeated three times; and, above all, Judas as Christ's |man' is accountable to his lord for the money he has lost, and |is terrified of what will happen when Christ demands it back: when |he habben wolde' the thirty pieces of silver which he had |bitaiste' to his steward. He does not sell Christ out of greed -- he refuses |enes cunnes golde' -- but to save his own skin at the accounting.

What is Judas so afraid of? The poem makes quite a point of telling us that Christ is |ful milde', and when Peter jumps up to fight, Christ's command is only |Stille thou be, Peter'. In contrast to the evident peacefulness of Christ, a code of violence appears very frequently in the speech and behaviour of Judas and his sister. She says he deserves |me stende the wid ston'; he tells her to shut up or |thin herte the tobreke'; she steals his money; he pulls his hair so that |al it lauede ablode' and the Jews think he has gone mad. This violence is apparently what Judas expects from jesus: |Wiste min louerd Crist, ful wel he wolde be wreke.' As Stouck says, he sees Christ as the vengeful God of the Old Testament,(30) and this misconception of the nature of his master is, in part, what makes him want to hide his guilt at all costs, and eventually prevents him from seeking forgiveness and leads him to despair.

The situation is ironic, since the poem makes it clear from the beginning that Christ already knows. The first, understated, appearance of this code of knowledge is in the implied warning of Christ to Judas that he might meet with |summe of thine cunesmen'. In spite of Judas' efforts to hide it, Christ knows he has been betrayed: |Ic am iboust ant isold today for oure mete.' But the final blow for Judas is the last stanza of the poem, when Christ says to Peter, |wel I the icnowe. / thou wolt fursake me thrien ar the coc him crowe', since this indicates that Christ's knowledge includes the future. What hope does Judas have of hiding anything from this master?

In contrast to Christ's knowledge is the blissful ignorance of Judas. In spite of the warning indicating need for vigilance, he walks right into the trap and falls asleep in the arms of his sister. Judas' sister is the only female character in the poem, and her appearance signals a sexual code of male vs. female; any mediaeval Christian would know that woman is the source of original sin, false and deceitful, the |swikele wimon' as the poem puts it. Her deceit here takes a specifically erode form: |Lei thin heued i my barm, slep thou the anon.' Dronke has proposed that |sister' in this poem is to be read as a cuphemism for |mistress';(31) Axton sees the sister as a variant on Judas' incestuous relationship with his mother in the apocryphal legends. But whether she is his sister or his mistress or both, the poem makes skilful use of both the family code and the erotic code, so that Judas is faced with both a conflict of loyalties and a sexual temptation, and the loss of the money threatens to expose both his disloyal behaviour and his sexual guilt. Mediaeval readers would not miss the parallelism with Adam, who was also seduced by a woman away from his lord.

Behind the text, then, lies a traditional doctrinal interpretation of the nature of the betrayal of Christ, an interpretation which makes sense of Judas' action essentially unmotivated in the Gospel account) by turning it into a version of the original and universal sin: deception by a woman, betrayal of an acknowledged master, and fear of admitting guilt. However, the poem has a way of turning this tidy theological equation into something distinctly more open-ended. The apocryphal stories of Judas, as Axton points out, are not always as theologically consistent as official doctrine, and speculate on the paradoxical role of the betrayal of Judas as necessary to the successful outcome of the divine plan of redemption.

In addition, the plot structure of Judas bears a very close resemblance to a certain type of the later popular ballad. There are as we saw really only three primary characters (Jesus, Judas, sister) and one secondary character (Pilate) in the poem; Peter is less a character than a kind of symbolic double for Judas, an indication of |the road not taken'. Buchan analyses the plot structure of the earliest corpus of popular ballads collected from oral tradition, a corpus which consists almost entirely of tragic romantic ballads. He finds that |every ballad in this corpus has as its narrative base a relationship between two people; normally a third person then threatens to disrupt this relationship. The story hangs on the threat, and the central pair's reactions to the threat.'(32) The model |is flexible enough to accommodate two, four or six characters', but generally |when a fourth character comes to the forefront, one of the original three fades into the background'. This is, of course, exactly what happens in Judas. The original relationship between Christ and Judas is effectively disrupted by Judas' sister; Pilate enters the story only when the sister leaves it; and the resolution is tragic because the relationship between Christ and Judas is not restored but destroyed.

There is, however, an interesting difference between Judas and the later ballads. In Buchan's corpus the central relationship is always between a man and a woman, and in the overwhelming majority of cases their relationship is erotic, either forced or voluntary. The third character is most commonly a member of the family who opposes this erotic relationship or, alternatively, someone who competes for the love of one of the central pair. In Judas the central pair are both male, but the third character is indeed a member of the family(33) who opposes their relation, and the technique she employs to lure Judas away from his lord is that of seduction.

There is thus a whole set of structural narrative elements which Judas shares with one sub-genre of the popular ballads. The poem's seeing the betrayal of Christ in terms of feudal conflicts relates it, as has been mentioned, also to non-religious mediaeval narrative verse, but the very limited set of characters, the concentration on only one central action, and the characterization of Judas' sister as both a family member opposed to the relationship between Judas and Christ and a lover trying to seduce Judas away from Christ, result in a plot structure identical in all but one respect (the non-erotic nature of the relationship between the two main characters) to that of the most common form of the later popular ballad, the romantic and tragic ballads.


Rosemary Woolf's comments on the concrete and everyday nature of thirteenth-century Middle English literary language have been noted above. The effects of the lack of an abstract vocabulary on the use of the vernacular in thirteenth-century Middle English religious lyrics are apparent in Judas as well, but the directness and familiarity of the language only partly explains the unsettling effect it has on the reader. The poem has a particular stylistic quality which makes it unusually suggestive and, I feel, rather haunting. There is a distinct air of ironic understatement in Christ's comments to the apostles at the Last Supper: |Wou sitte ye, postles, ant wi nule ye ete? / Ic am iboust ant isold today for oure mete'. The fact of the matter is of course that Christ was |sold' to provide mankind with spiritual nourishment, the major symbolic form of which, the sacrament of the altar, was instituted at precisely this Passover meal. The literalness of the phrasing, reinforced by the plot structure of the poem, brings alive a theological commonplace.

Though this may be the most unexpected, it is not the only case of striking stylistic effect achieved by the poem. Like many other mediaeval poems, Judas conceives of the relationship between man and God as analogous to that of vassal and lord, but it then goes on to explore certain aspects of this analogy in rather original ways. The shocking implications of betraying feudal loyalty for money are reinforced by the insistent repetition (|Wolte sulle pi louerd ... ?' / I nul sulle my louerd for nones cunnes eiste'; |Wolte sulle pi lord Crist for enes cunnes golde?'). Another use of incremental repetition, with the effect this time of stressing the dramatic urgency of the situation and speeding up the action, can be found in the last stanzas: |Vp stod him Judas'; / |Vp him stod Peter'; /|Stille pou be, Peter'. The sudden shifts of scene, the lack of transitions, and the consistent use of direct dialogue place the entire action, as in the mediaeval drama, squarely in the everyday world of ordinary men and women to give the familiar narrative and doctrine fresh impact.(34)

Presenting Christ as a feudal lord also opens up other possibilities to the poet. There are mediaeval epics (Quatre fils Aymond for example) in which the conflicting loyalties due to feudal lord and to family members lead to disaster and tragedy; even more common are the tragic stories (such as the Arthurian romances and the story of Tristan and Iseult) of conflict between loyalty to lord and loyalty to lover or mistress. Seeing Christ as feudal lord, the poem takes this analogy one step further and presents the betrayal of Christ as caused by a typically feudal conflict of loyalties, deliberately ambiguous in that it contains elements of both family and erotic relationships.

There is, further, a sense of dramatic irony about Judas, if only owing to the fact that the story is told from Judas' point of view, with Judas in the role of the acting subject, the hero. There is a sense of tragic failure in the aborted plot structure, of a disastrous mistake the full consequences of which become evident to the hero only when it is too late to change things, Axton suggests that Judas' experience is a kind of parody of the Passion of Christ, as he climbs up to the high rock with the burden of the pieces of silver loaded on his back, and as he tears his hair so that the blood flows down his face (an image more commonly associated with the head of Christ crowned with thorns), and this is a parallel with very disturbing theological implications. The text itself moves exclusively on the human level; whatever divine resolution the reader wants to find he must provide himself by referring to the shared knowledge implied in the religious code.

Now it is intriguing to note that many of the characteristics of the text which have been mentioned here are in fact derived directly from those stylistic qualities of the poem that are most closely related to the techniques of oral composition. Much of mediaeval religious vernacular literature presents theological doctrine in everyday human terms, but it cannot be denied that the economy of narrative method which Judas displays, the almost exclusive use of action and direct speech often without any transitional phrases at all, the systematic parallelism of incremental repetition, and the resulting dramatic intensity of both phrasing and situation, are all characteristics of the ballad. Further, they are characteristics not because they happen to be conventions of the genre, but because they are aspects of the process of oral composition and performance; aspects which it is extraordinarily difficult to copy when working within a written literary tradition, as so many literary imitations of folksong show.

This direct, objective, dramatic style of the folksong and the simple plot structure of the ballad are significant factors in the sense of tragic failure that the poem conveys. The folksong style keeps the action resolutely in the world of events, out of the realm of theological abstraction: we may know that Judas is doctrinally wrong, but that is not the aspect to which the poem draws our attention. The ballad plot structure drives the narrative towards tragedy, and since Judas is the subject of the action, it will inevitably be his tragedy. The poem ends, abruptly, where the story, if it were to continue, would cease being his tragedy and begin to be the Divine Comedy of the Passion.

I do not want to suggest that by this analysis I have in any sense |proved' that Judas is a ballad. Short of finding the music to the poem -- and perhaps the singer and audience as well -- there can probably be no such thing as |proof' in this case. I do want to point out, however, that precisely those features which make the poem memorable, which make it richly suggestive and perhaps in its way unique, are the features that it has in common with the popular ballad. Many of its characteristics can be related to the context of mediaeval narrative verse and of mediaeval lyric poetry, as Stouck and Fowler and Dronke have admirably demonstrated. But in plot structure, in much of its semantic universe, and in all aspects of its style and form, Judas resembles nothing so much as the tragic popular ballad.

If I may be permitted a personal speculation as a coda to this argument, I should like to revive (in a somewhat different sense) a suggestion made by Chambers that Judas may in fact have been composed by a cleric.(35) Unlike Chambers, however, I do not mean this as an argument against the ballad nature of the poem. Buchan's discussion of Anna Gordon Brown and her ballad corpus makes it clear that one does not necessarily have to be illiterate in order to be a ballad singer or composer: |It is only when a person ceases to be re-creative along traditional lines and accepts the literate concept of the fixed text that he or she can no longer be classed as oral.'(36) Buchan also points out that the division of eighteenth-century Scots culture into a written culture using the English language and an oral culture in Scots dialect would encourage this |double life' of ballad singers for a time.(37) A cleric in late thirteenth-century England, whose written culture would be primarily Latin, but whose spoken language and culture were Middle English, would have been in a very similar linguistic and cultural situation. His knowledge of Latin would have given him access to a written literary culture, but as a speaker of Middle English this hypothetical cleric may well have continued -- if he had the artistic talent and inclination -- to participate in a vernacular oral tradition of poetic composition. The Franciscan policy of using vernacular materials for didactic purposes might well have provided fruitful ground for such talent. Such a cleric, it seems to me, would be an excellent candidate for the tide of either collector or composer of Judas. It is not impossible that he might have been one of the Anglo-Norman scribes of the manuscript. But if a cleric is in fact the composer of the poem, he is composing from within the oral tradition, and the poem remains a product of this tradition even if it never circulated orally.

Quite apart from such a scenario, which is purely hypothetical, it is encouraging to see that recent criticism has given Judas some prominence in Middle English poetry. It seems a pity to relegate the poem to a kind of critical limbo simply because it refuses to fit pre-conceived categories of what it should or should not be. Precisely because it is a singular piece, it should not be ignored.


(1) The text is as presented in Richard Axton, |Interpretations of Judas in Middle English literature', in Religion in the Poetry and Drama of the Late Middle Ages, ed. by Piero Boitani and Anna Torti (Cambridge, 1990),pp. 179-97 (pp. 191-2), but I have retained Carleton Brown's emendation, adding |freke' at the end of line 27 (English Lyrics of the Thirteenth Century, ed. by Carleton Brown (Oxford, 1932.), pp. 38-9 and note, p. 184 n.). (2) The manuscript has been edited with an extensive comparative and critical introduction in Karl Reichl, Religiose Dichtung im englischen Hochmittelalter. Untersuchung und Edition der Handschrinft B.14.39 des Trinity College; Cambridge, Texte und Untersuchungen zur englischen Philologie, 1, Munchener Universitats-schriften (Munich, 1973). M. R. James, The Western Manuscripts in the Library of Trinity College (Cambridge, 1904), pp. 438-49, gives a detailed description of the contents with some transcriptions of shorter items. (3) The English and Scottish Popular Ballads ed. by Francis James Child, 5 vols. (New York, 1883-98) (4) Child prints as an appendix to The Wee Wee Man (no. 38) a text from London, British library, MS Cotton Julius A.v of the fourteenth century, but considers it only as related to the later ballad, not as a ballad text in itself. (5) Gordon Hall Gerould, The Ballad of Tradition (Oxford; New York, 1932.), p. 11. (6) In the eighteenth century it was possible, for a few generations, to be both literate and a ballad performer in the oral tradition. Anna Gordon, a clergyman's wife and professor's daughter, could still know and enjoy the old songs without any sense of incongruity, though she did not want her name published in association with them: see David Buchan, The Ballad and the Folk (London; Boston, Mass., 1971), pp. 61-73. (7) Ibid., pp. 66-7. (8) The relationship between written and oral tradition in the transmission of the traditional ballads is a complex one, and I do not mean to imply that the ballads belong to a purely oral culture. Even in mediaeval England, Douglas Gray speaks of |a constant interaction between the "oral" and the "literary... (|Medieval English ballads', in Actas del Primer Congreso International de la Sociedad Espanola de Lengua y Literatura Inglesia Medieval, ed. by Santiago Gonzales F.-Corugedo (Oviedo, 1988), pp. 129-54 (p. 133)). (9) E.g., Wolfgang D. Muller, Die englisch--schottische Volksballade (Berne, 1983), pp. 93-100; see also M. J. C. Hodgart, The Ballads (London, 1962), pp. 70-3. (10) See Ernst Erich Metzner, |Lower Germany, England, Denmark and the problem of ballad origins', in The European Medieval Ballad: a Symposium, ed. by Otto Holzapfel, Julia MacGraw and Jorn Pio (Odense, 1978), pp. 26-39. (11) David C. Fowler, A Literary History of the Popular Ballad (Durham, NC, 1968), pp. 3-19. (12) Ibid., pp. 21-64. (13) David Buchan, |British balladry: medieval chronology and relations', in The European Medieval Ballad, ed. Holzapfel, McGraw and Pio, pp. 98-106 (p. 101). Buchan's own chronology for the development of the popular ballad in Britain is as follows: |In England, the thirteenth century has the arrival of the carole form by its beginning and the controversial text of Judas at its end; the fourteenth century has in its second half the Robin Hood ballads and probably two historical ballads; and the middle of the fifteenth century has four written-down ballad texts. In Scotland the thirteenth century has the arrival of the carole form by its beginning and possibly one historical ballad [Sir Patrick Spens] at its end; the late fourteenth century probably has the two historical ballads shared with England; and the early fifteenth century fairly certainly has a historical ballad ... To sum up ... in Britain the ballad genre had just possibly evolved by the late thirteenth century, had probably evolved by the second half of the fourteenth century, and was definitely in existence by the mid fifteenth century' (ibid, pp. 103-4). (14) See E. K. Chambers, English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages, Oxford History of English Literature, Vol. II: 2 (Oxford, 1945), p. 153. (15) Axton, |Interpretations of Judas' p. 191. (16) See Buchan, The Ballad and the Folk, pp. 167-8. (17) Paul Franklin Baum, |The English ballad of Judas Iscariot', PMLA, XXXI (1916), 181-9. (18) Gray, |Medieval English ballads', p. 143, accepts the poem as a ballad partly on the basis of the other contents of the manuscript. Chambers, English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages, pp.151-3, relates Judas to the poem on Twelfth Day written in the same hand in the manuscript. (19) It is perhaps worth recalling that the thirteenth century effectively sees the beginning of Middle English literature. (20) Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1968), p. 373; Siegfried Wenzel, Preachers, Poets, and the Early English Lyric (Princeton, NJ, 1986), p. 8; G. H. Russell, |Vernacular instruction of the laity in the later Middle Ages in England: some texts and notes', Journal of Religious History, II (1962/3), 98-119 (p. 111); Reichl, Religiose Dichtung, pp. 46-54. (21) Reichl, Religiose Dichtung, pp. 115-39; Mary-Ann Stouck, |A reading of the Middle English Judas', JEGP, LXXX (1981), 188-98. (22) The Early English Carols, ed. by Richard Leighton Greene (Oxford, 1977). (23) For a discussion of incremental repetition, see Gerould, The Ballad of Tradition, pp. 105-12; also Hodgart, The Ballads, pp. 32-3. (24) Woolf, The English Religious Lyric, pp. 23-4. (25) Most of the pieces in the Sloane MS are carols, but there are a few pieces that are probably folksongs and two pieces (Robyn and Gandeleyn and St Stephen and Herod) which Child considers to be ballads, though Fowler argues that St Stephen and Herod is a carol. (26) In A.-J. Greimas, Semantique structurale (Paris, 1966). (27) Peter Dronke, The Medieval Lyric (London, 1968), p. 68. (28) Stouck, |A reading of the ME Judas, pp. 196-7. (29) CE Baum, |The English ballad of Judas Iscariot', p. 182; Axton, |Interpretations of Judas', pp. 193-4. (30) Stouck, |A reading of the ME Judas', p. 195. (31) Dronke, The Medieval Lyric, p. 61. (32) Buchan, The Ballad, pp. 83-4. (33) That |Familiarismus', the setting of the action within the confines of the family, is a characteristic which Judas shares with the ballad is pointed out also in Muller, Die englisch--schot Volksballade, p. 95. (34) Donald G. Schueler writes: |We are required by the off-center perception of a familiar story to respond to it in an unfamiliar way' (|The Middle English Judas: an interpretation', PMLA, XCI (1976), 840-5 (p. 844)). (35) Chambers, English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages, p. 153. (36) Buchan, The Ballad and the Folk, p. 64. (37) Ibid., pp. 68-9.
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Author:Boklund-Lagopoulou, Karin
Publication:Medium Aevum
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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