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  • The Inharmonious Choristers and Blacksmiths of MS Arundel 292
  • Richard J. Schrader

BRITISH Library MS Arundel 292 contains two short alliterative poems on leaves left blank by the original scribe. Unique to this manuscript, they were the last additions to the miscellany, by two different scribes (Hand 4 and Hand 5), and have been little studied, although the second, conventionally called “A Complaint (or Satire) Against Blacksmiths,” has been frequently anthologized. Elizabeth Salter sums up its appeal: “Much admired for its ‘magnificent realism,’ it has been used as material evidence by both literary and social historians, who have seen in it a proof of the vigor of alliterative verse ‘on the eve of the alliterative revival’ no less than an account of the actual conditions of English urban life in the later Middle Ages.”1 The first, “The Choristers’ Lament” (or “Monks’ Complaint”) requires so much knowledge of musical terminology that it may have been incomprehensible even to many in the monastic audience of the manuscript. That fact could well have been part of its agenda and could also have occasioned “Blacksmiths” as a comment and pendant.2 [End Page 1]

The manuscript dates from around 1300, with additions in four later hands.3 As it happens, the two poems follow a Latin piece (also an addition) on what to do in case of accidents at the Eucharist, and they precede another Latin work, St. Patrick’s Purgatory.4 The trilingual miscellany probably originated at the Benedictine priory of Norwich cathedral, and Salter has remarked on the ease with which “Choristers” can be “contexted”: “This wry and technically expert satirisation of the rigorous training imposed in monastic or cathedral song-schools presents no problems as an item in a miscellany of monastic provenance: moreover, the clerkly and essentially orthodox tradition of impudent criticism to which it subscribes provides it with a network of relationships in an established literary mode.”5 “Blacksmiths” is far less easy to account for unless it continues the same satire.

“Choristers” consists of fifty-two rhyming long alliterative lines in thirteen aaaa stanzas, dating from the middle or later fourteenth century; the dialect is Northeast Midland.6 Editors have difficulty glossing and punctuating it, but at least three voices are heard: the disgruntled choristers Walter and William, along with their French choirmaster. The poem is salted with musical language, and its humor stems from the juxtaposition of “proficient use of technical terms for musical pitch and notation with [an] inability to comprehend their meaning and perform accordingly.”7 For example, William says, [End Page 2]

Of bemol and of bequarre. of boþe i was wol bare Qwan i wente out of þis word [sic] and lifte til mi lare Of effau and elami ne coudy neuer are I fayle faste in þe fa it files al mi fare.


[I knew nothing of either B-flat or of B-natural when I went out of this world and began my music lessons. Before that I knew nothing of F-fa-ut and E-la-mi. I completely fail with fa; it muddies my whole journey.]

The dialect of “Blacksmiths” is Southeast Midland, and its twenty-two long alliterative lines are probably from the later fourteenth century, though the hand may be from the second quarter of the fifteenth.8 The poem’s memorably echoic language and vivid representation of the energies of metalworkers do not suggest a monastic connection at first glance: “‘Tik, tak! hic, hac! tiket taket! tyk, tak! / Lus, bus! lus, das!’ swich lyf þei ledyn” (19–20) (“Tik, tak! hic, hac! tiket taket! tyk, tak! / Lus, bus! lus, das!” such a life they lead). But as Salter argues, the “preservation in a strongly traditional and moral setting” of this denunciation of blacksmiths raises the possibility that it was “fed, in part, by older religious attitudes.”9 Her argument, the only extended analysis of the poem and its context, takes her in directions that need not be retraced in detail here, but the case I will make for the dependence of “Blacksmiths” on “Choristers” for its full point relies indeed on a learned (religious) tradition that would have occurred to any...


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