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Chaucer's 'Malkin' and Dafydd AP Gwilym's 'Mald y Cwd.'

The female name Malkin has an unusual history in Middle English. It derives from a form brought by the Normans which gave Latinized Matilda and Old French Mahhild, Mahault, Molde, and Maud, but was out of fashion between about 1300 and 1750.(1) Hence OED calls Malkin a diminutive of Matilda/Maud 'applied typically to a woman of the lower classes', with a later sense, first attested in 1586, of 'untidy woman; slut, slattern, drab'. Yet the meaning 'slut' may be much older, as medieval writers use the name contemptuously.(2) A Lutel Soth Sermun, no later than c. 1270, declares priests' wives are not spared from Hell,

Ne thees prude yonge men that luvieth Malekin, And thees prude maidenes that luvieth Janekin.(3)

In Interludium De Clerico et Puella a student tells a bawd he is dying from love

For a maiden whit and sheen - Fairer o land have I none seen. Ho hat maiden Malkin, I wene .... (4)

Bennett doubted if Malkin had ill repute at this date (the later thirteenth century).(5) Yet Malkin here is hardly a high-born lady. With Chaucer's Host, speaking of time to the Man of Law, the name's implications are very clear:

It wol nat come agayn, withouten drede, Namoore than wole Malkynes maydenhede, Whan she hath lost it in hir wantownesse.(6)

The disparaging associations of Malkin are confirmed by its variant Malin in the Reeve's Tale, of a miller's broad-buttocked, camus-nosed daughter.(7) Malkin and Malin were names for plain-looking girls.(8) Further derogatory use of Malkin occurs in the Nun's Priest's Tale (she is the wench who chases the fox with her distaff), and Piers Plowman, which tells Christians who do not love the poor,

Ye ne have na moore merite in Masse ne in houres Than Malkyn of hire maydenhede, that no man desireth.(9)

Langland implies Malkin is ugly, so her chastity is no virtue? Later examples of Malkin and its variants occur in the Wakefield First Shepherds' Play (the story of Mall and her broken pitcher); the Wakefield Play of Herod, where a mother is abused as Mawd 'hag'; and Skelton's Bowge of Courte, where the 'lemman' Malkyn lives in 'the stewys syde'.(11)

The bad reputation Malkin gained in Middle English is evident. Yet English scholars have not noticed that the same process took place with the Welsh equivalent Mald, casting light on the English word's history. The earliest evidence for this seems to be in a poem addressed by Dafydd ap Gwilym (fl. 1330-60) to Gruffudd Gryg (fl. 1340-80), part of a verse debate on the nature of poetry. In some robust verbal sparring, Dafydd describes Gruffudd as

Mab cryg, nid mewn diwyg da, Gruffudd liw deurudd difrwd, Mold y ci, fab Maid y Cwd.(12)

That is, 'a hoarse lad, in no good condition, Gruffudd with his cold-cheeked face, a dog-shape, son of Mald y Cwd'. Parry argued 'Maid of the Bag' was some stock satirical character of the time, and the context shows she must have been a harridan, her age and bad character insinuated by Gwyddelyn 'the Irish boy', the name of her son, 'Irish' in medieval Welsh usually being a term of abuse.

In a mock-elegy written for the Gwynedd squire Ithel Ddu, Iolo Goch (fl. 1345-1400) pretends to lament the fabulous Hersdin Hogl 'Backside of the Hovel' (Hers<Middle English ers 'backside'), claiming she had two ugly women in her.

Dwy daerwrach dew eu derwraint, Meheldyn, gefryn heb gig, Meingroen neidr min grynedig, A merch Rwsel, sorel soeg, Gwrach fresychgach frau sechgoeg.(13)

They are 'two importunate hags with fat ringworms: Meheldyn, a skinny little goat, a thin snakeskin trembling at the edge, and Russell's daughter, dregs of sorrel, a rotten dried-up one-eyed hag voiding cabbage'. Who Russell's daughter was is unknown, but Meheldyn is certainly the diminutive of Mald.

The longest Welsh text on Mald occurs in a parody by Madog Dwygraig (fl. 1360-80) of the apple-tree poem attributed to Merlin.(14) Madog writes a screed of abuse leaving no doubt of Mald's lewd character. Its comparatively restrained last lines serve as a sample:

Achub drycbarabyl uchel A medw weithret a medwl A llwytffoll olwc lletffol Ac ystlomgwthyr gast lemgul.(15)

They refer to her as 'saving up loud and evil speech, and drunk in deeds and thought, and old and foolish in appearance, half-witted, and the bat's gut of a scraggy lean bitch'.

Welsh Mald and English Malkin therefore show an English tradition being absorbed within another language, a curious tribute to the vigour of English vernacular culture. Dafydd ap Gwilym's allusion also indicates Malkin had a bad sense long before Chaucer wrote, strengthening the case for seeing an innuendo in Interludium De Clerico et Puella. Finally, the Welsh forms Mald and Meheldyn show the link is with Matilda/Maud/Malkyn, not Mary. On this the various authorities (but not OED) deriving Malkin from Mary are thus in error.(16)

ANDREW BREEZE University of Navarre, Pamplona

1 Elizabeth Withycombe, The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, 3rd edn (Oxford, 1977), 212.

2 Early Middle English Verse and Prose, ed. J. A. W. Bennett and G. V. Smithers (Oxford, 1966), 373.

3 The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse, ed. Celia and Kenneth Sisam (Oxford, 1970), 12.

4 Sisam and Sisam, 52.

5 J. A. W. Bennett, Middle English Literature (Oxford, 1986), 21.

6 The Riverside Chaucer, ed. L. D. Benson (Oxford, 1988), 87.

7 J.A.W. Bennett, Chaucer at Oxford and at Cambridge (Oxford, 1974), 115.

8 Contrast Sisam and Sisam, 107.

9 The Vision of Piers Plowman, ed. A. V. C. Schmidt (London, 1978), 15-16.

10 T. F. Mustanoja, 'The Suggestive Use of Christian Names in Middle English Poetry', in Medieval Literature and Folklore Studies, ed. J. Mandel and B. A. Rosenberg (New Brunswick, 1970), 51-76; Piers Plowman, ed. J. A. W. Bennett (Oxford 1972), 116; Piers Plowman, ed. D. A. Pearsall (London, 1978), 52.

11 The Wakefield Pageants, ed. A. C. Cawley (Manchester, 1958), 33, 73; John Skelton, Poems, ed. R. S. Kinsman (Oxford, 1969), 23.

12 Gwaith Dafydd ap Gwilym, ed. Thomas Parry (Caerdydd, 1952), 412.

13 Gwaith Iolo Goch, ed. D. R. Johnston (Caerdydd, 1988), 161.

14 The original verses are translated in Geoffrey of Monmouth, Life of Merlin, ed. Basil Clarke (Cardiff, 1973), 235.

15 The Poetry in the Red Book of Hergest, ed. J. G. Evans (Llanbedrog, 1911), col. 1276.

16 Early Middle English Texts, ed. Bruce Dickins and R. M. Wilson (Cambridge, 1951), 242; Macbeth, ed. Kenneth Muir (London, 1951), 4 (on Graymalkin); Bennett and Smithers, 618.
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Author:Breeze, Andrew
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Jun 1, 1995
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