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Middle English Debate Poetry: A Critical Anthology.

Ed. by John W. Conlee. (East Lansing, Michigan: Colleagues Press, 1991; distributed outside the US by Boydell & Brewer). xlii + 329 pp. ISBN 0-937191-18-3; ISBN 0-937191-23-x. 29.50[pounds] (hard covers); 14.95[pounds (p/b).

This anthology contains a fascinating and hugely enjoyable range of texts. Over one-third of them have hitherto been available only in rather inaccessible nineteenth- or very early twentieth-century editions. A wide range of debate poetry is represented: the disputants range from various pairs of birds to two factions of very specialized carpenter's tools. Many of the poems merge debate with other genres such as pastourelle, instruction, beast fable, lyric and dream vision. The anthology is a cornucopia, though the absence of a |flyting' is a pity. I would sooner have seen one of Dunbar's scurrilous slanging matches than one more bird debate, especially his (if indeed he was the author) comparatively pedestrian The Merle and the Nightingale.

Many of the texts provide analogues for rather better-known works: the bird debates for The Owl and the Nightingale and Chaucer's Parlement of Fowles, for instance. In their own right, however, the debate poems are richly rewarding. Als I Lay Dying is a chillingly effective account of the recognition of the consequences of sin. The devilish torments must rank as one of the most vivid scenes in Middle English literature. All the while that the soul calls on Christ for mercy, bristlingly nailed fiends force it to drink hot lead and brand it with heated coulters. Well might the narrator awake bathed in a cold sweat! Many texts contain interesting roles for women. In what is arguably the first trades union debate in English, The Debate of the Carpenter's Tools, the carpenter's wife interrupts the debate but is seen as on a par with the carpenter's apprentices, and the typical misogynist association of the female with the body or flesh is well documented in a twist to the body and soul debate: A Disputation between the Body and the Worms casts the body as a woman to explore antifeminist ideas in a fashion which anticipates Marvell's |And worms shall try thy long preserved virginity'.

Each of the poems is preceded by a clear introduction, and the whole volume is prefaced by an accessible outline of the debate tradition. Overall, however, I found the critical apparatus much less impressive than the texts themselves. There are factual errors: the remark that one of the stylistic traits common to alliterative poems is |a rich and rather archaic alliterative vocabulary' (p. xxvii) is clearly not true of the poems concerned with social and didactic matters (namely Piers Plowman and poems inspired by it) which are cited in the same paragraph.

More pervasively, there is a simple lack of basic information. For instance, in the introduction I was tantalized by a mention of a debate between a crab and a rainbow (p. xviii) but could find no indication of where I might find it. Choice of base-text is insufficiently documented (for instance, of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Tanner 346 for The Curkoo and the Nightingale), and annotation to the poems is patchy (for instance, in Winner and Waster there is no mention of Nicolas Jacob's article on |The typology of debate in Wynnere and Wastoure', and, despite the debt of gratitude recorded to Elizabeth Salter in the introduction, no mention of her published work). This is particularly important in the note to line 117 of Winner and Waster. The three wings of the heraldic shield are attributed to the Prince of Wales, despite Salter's argument (Medium AEvum, XLVII (1978)), which shows more plausibly that they belonged to the Wingfield family. Parallels cited to other medieval works are characterized by similar lacunae: in Mede and Moche Thank, (57-8) the flatterer is likened to a weathervane but there is no cross-reference to the identical image in the same context in The Crowned (King III).

Animal symbolism, so often crucial to the interpretation of debate poetry, is also insufficiently referenced. In The Cuckoo and the Nightingale, the popingay, or parrot (222) is glossed as a lecherous bird; but in bestiary tradition from Pliny onwards, this bird is known for its garrulity, an association much more appropriate for the context. In The Ballad of the Crow and the Pie, the lady's insult to the clerk that he is fit food for crows (8) is fully brought out only by knowing that traditionally crows were thought to feed on carrion and venomous meat (as in Bartholomaeus Anglicus' De Proprietatibus Rerum).

Many difficult words are glossed in the footnotes to the texts, and the earliest texts are accompanied by translations, but the glossing is often inconsistent or odd. In The Cuckoo and the Nightingale, A! (126) is needlessly translated on the page as |Oh!'; makin agrise (15) is omitted from the glossary, and lay (2 8 5) in the sense of |lawn' (MED, s.v. |lei', n., 3) is not glossed anywhere. Throughout the anthology, words which present difficulties, even if only through spelling, are not explained. Examples from the early poems include: vrec, due, suale (In a Theshi Stude 41, 61, 80); biwente, bihelod, bigete, skek, stilly (Als I Lay Dying 10, 11, 48, 117, 174). Specialized meanings often go unrecorded. There are puns: for example, arayed (The Body and the Worms 32), in the senses of |dressed' and |attacked' (cf. the religious lyric Wofully araide): and words with precise legal senses which are left unglossed, such as mater, tale, acord and assent (The Cuckoo and the Nightingale 265, 272, 280, 271).

Overall, it is good to see many of these poems back in print, and it is very handy to have a range of debate poetry collected in a single volume. That said, the quality of the poems deserves a fuller and more consistent apparatus.
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Author:Barr, Helen
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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