Courtesy Books, Comedy, and the Merchant Masculinity
of Oxford Balliol College MS 354
The pedagogical principle of teaching by delight is hardly a new
one, and late medieval/early renaissance instructors, including
parents, were surely not unfamiliar with the concept. During a time
when much teaching of children and apprentices was done at home,
the household commonplace book was an important tool, and may now
serve as a textual artifact of the process of socialization of young
people of the time.1
Oxford Balliol College MS 354, the commonplace book of Richard Hill,
London grocer, was produced during the years 1503-1536. This homemade
anthology demonstrates the potential educational value of a compilation
of "dyveris tales & balattis & dyueris reconyngis,"
as Hill himself identified the book. While this book was definitely
not produced only as a textbook (indeed, that purpose may have been
incidental to the motives behind its original assembly), I believe
there is sufficient evidence to consider the potential of the book
as a teaching tool, at least in part. I am particularly interested
in the relationship between the courtesy books and the comic literature
found in the manuscript. While some have seen the collection as
random or simply a set of greatest hits, approaching
the manuscript from the perspective of considering ideologies of
class and gender that might be passed on to subsequent generations
in their moral instruction reveals more unity between the texts
Richard Hill may have, even subconsciously, been collecting literature
that spoke to his reality as a man and a merchant in late medieval/early
modern London. This collection process may have been determined
by his multifarious use of the book, including using it as a text
to read to, or have read by, his childrenparticularly his
sons. This would allow the book not only to reflect the principles
of his public and private life, but also to direct other
readers towards those principles. The literature would therefore
have a prescriptive, as well as descriptive, function. Caxton's
Book of Curtesye, which Hill included in Balliol 354, tells
us that reading assisted in the moral education of the young. Not
all lessons came from immediate experience; some lessons were learned
from the page:
Excersyse also your selfe in redyng
Off bokes enorned with eloquence,
ther shall ye fynde both pleyre & lernynge,
so that ye may in euery good presence
Some-what fynde as in sentence
that shall accorde the tyme to occupye,
That ye not nede to stonde ydellye. (309-15)
The idea that an overtly didactic text like a courtesy book might
perform in a directly prescriptive manner in constructing a vision
of social roles and responsibilities is fairly obvious. Similarly,
the plethora of religious and moral poems in Hills manuscript
is immediately applicable to the project of ethical development
in adult and child readers alike. This article will explore, however,
how comic texts that might appear to be merely for amusement might
also act in a didactic capacitynot despite their humour, but
because of it. The comic texts compiled in Hills manuscript
share an interest in social commentary and moral development through
their implicit reinforcement of the social directives found in the
courtesy books in the collection.
With the courtesy books establishing the core of the directives
regarding public conduct, social responsibility and personal character,
the comic texts in Balliol 354 dramatize and embellish the messages
with laughter. Both the courtesy books and the comic texts tend
to focus on the control of the body, positing the potentially riotous
body as antithetical to the gentil man. The word man
is quite specific to the male sex here, for while the comic texts
use female bodies to demonstrate the dangers of the ungentle world,
the message is that the control of these women is not the obligation
of the women themselves, but rather of the men who are supposed
to rule over themspecifically, husbands. In Richard Hills
book, the control of ones own body, and the bodies of ones
family, impacts directly on the social world in which one operates:
in Hills case, the mercantile community of early Tudor London.
In this respect, comedy functions as much as a social text as do
courtesy books, and laughter is used as a social control of male
and female bodies, which are potential sites of moral transgression.
The manuscript Oxford Balliol College 354 is usually referred to
as a commonplace book, and includes a wildly diverse range of textsfrom
literature to mathematics, religious verse to bawdy carols, practical
recipes to frivolous riddles.2
At first glance, it might appear that the book was meant to be a
textual catch-all for a man who could not afford a larger library,
a repository for anything and everything that Hill came across on
paper. On closer examination, however, Hill's production methods
are revealed to be more discriminating and deliberate than they
might first appear.3
We can discern some general textual directions for the book: rough
categories of business or household records, educational tools and
literary texts.4 Many
items relate directly to Hill's social and professional milieu,
including lists of merchant groups and fair locations; lists of
taxes and assizes; information about the parishes, wards, mayors
and sheriffs of London; and scores of recipes for medicines and
other products. Some of this, as Collier has explained, was copied
by Hill from Arnold's Chronicle (or, The Customs of London,
STC 782) of 1502, which was printed in Antwerp by Van Berghen (323).5
Moving from items of obvious practical value for merchant business
to the literature, we see that even there, business interests are
presented in some texts. In one case, the rules for purchasing land
have been set in verse (Dyboski 137-38). There is Dunbars
Treatise of London that describes the city's mercantile
glory, of which Hill obviously felt himself to be a part. There
are also a number of texts that address historical and political
events. The practical items, then, meld with the literary ones to
present a vision of a man in the middle of mercantile England, a
man who is quite aware of his own "politics of location."
Historically, Balliol 354 inhabits the cusp of the Middle Ages and
the Renaissance. Most of the literary material is medieval, yet
it may have been entered from early print sources, and the medieval
literature shares page-space with records and historical material
from the early Tudor period. Ideologically, as David Parker notes,
Hill appears to have been primarily interested in looking
backwards much more often than forwards, having, perhaps,
a fundamentally medieval view of the world
In his commonplace book, Hill kept records of the births of his
seven children: five boys and two girls, four of whom survived past
the age of eight (Dyboski xiii-xiv).6
Therefore, his family is "textualized" alongside songs,
prayers, historical information and business memoranda in this collection.
Also set down in these entries are his connections to other members
of the community, via the gifts from the children's godparents that
he records by the births. Thrupp notes that some of the godparents
of Hill's children came from higher ranked families (38). This could
have been one of the reasons why Hill was so careful about making
note of the baptismal gifts: he did not want to lose track of social
debts and thereby lose face to those above him.7
This personal record of his children's births and
baptismal gifts provides an autobiographical intersection with the
two key themes that run throughout many of the literary entries
in Hill's book: the role of the father, and the issue of a man's
standing in his community. Richard Hill's own hand is the primary
hand in the manuscript, with only a little marginalia from later
owners of the book, including the signature of his eldest son, John
Hill ("John Hylles boke"), to whom the book was passed
on (Dyboski xiii-xv; Mynors 353).
In the case of educating male children the book could have provided
history, language, mathematics and business lessons, as well as
a moral education regarding the responsibilities of masculinity
in merchant London.8
Many texts in the manuscript probably served dual functions as educational
and memoranda items. Take, for example, the mathematical tables.
While undoubtedly useful for a businessman and grocer, they would
have become superfluous to daily work that was based on a few stock
transactions. But these pages of mathematical calculations would
have been ideal for teaching children, especially a son or apprentice
who was expected to take over the business. Other items, like the
medical recipes, the recipes for dyes and the treatise on grafting
trees, also could have acted both as a record for Hill and as an
educational resource for others. As Parker notes, in some cases
it seems unlikely that the recipes and instructions were directly
applicable to Hills life (53-54). Their inclusion may have
been motivated out of general interest, or an interest in providing
a more broad-based resource for younger people who should acquire
as many skills as possible before settling into a particular trade.
In a time where there was little distinction made between adults
and children's literature, Balliol 354 is distinctive for its frequent
references to child readers. It contains four courtesy books, one
of the few forms of literature in Middle English that addressed
itself specifically to young people. While adults certainly read
courtesy books, the compilation of four such books in this one manuscript
suggests that it may have been used as a tool for teaching childrennot
necessarily the collections only purpose, but an important
one. A humorous reference to this use of the book as a educational
resource is found in The Birched Schoolboy, which is
the lament of a lad whose schoolmaster has pepered my arse
with well good spede. While Hills book is not a childs
book in the sense that we would understand it today, chock-a-block
with of colour and light-hearted commentary, it contains a sufficient
number of light moments, including a number of magic tricks and
riddles, that suggest children may have been included in the books
readership, and that perhaps comedy was seen as a form particularly
appropriate to younger readers and adults alike (Dyboski xxxiii).
The use of humour is not only external to the courtesy books, for
they too have incorporated comic moments wherein unacceptable behaviour
is demonstrated by laughably uncouth characterschurls, in
both deed and status. While not consistently funny texts, references
in the courtesy books to picking ones nose or spitting at
the dinner table were meant to evoke the same kind of ridicule as
they do today. Balliol 354 supplements this comic reflex in courtesy
books with comic lyrics and longer pieces, including Lydgates
Churl and Bird and the fabliau Jak and his Stepdame.
But the laughter inspired by the courtesy books, the lyrics and
the fabliau is not merely to amuse. In combination, these texts
produce a pointed social commentary on the ways of men, particularly
men in the merchant community. Together, the courtesy books and
the comic texts in Balliol 354 send very clear signals to the reader
about ideal masculinity in Richard Hills early sixteenth-century
Table Manners: A Gentyllman was Heere
The four courtesy books of Balliol 354 appear in the following order:
a bilingual version of The Lytylle Childrenes Lytil Boke,
(called The Boke of Curtasye in the manuscript), How the
wyse man tawght his son,9
Stans Puer ad Mensam by Lydgate, and Caxton's Book of
Curtesye (or Lytill John).10
Although not anthologized continuously, the courtesy books appear
fairly close together (between folios 142r and 165r) in this "dyverse"
Hills collection of courtesy books is textual proof of the
transmission of courtesy books from the court to the mercantile
milieu.11 In the
fifteenth century, however, there was "an enormous explosion
of books of advice for training children, as well as books for youth
who wished to make their way up the social ladder, or find profitable
positions" (Hanawalt, Repute 173). This involved the "middle
ranks of English society," especially merchant communities
(179). It is interesting that Hill copied The Lytylle Childrenes
Lytil Boke into the manuscript when the printed version was
obviously circulating in the merchant community of London at the
time (Nicholls 70). Furthermore, Caxton's courtesy book and Stans
Puer ad Mensam were also copied from printed sources (Blake
425). The fact that he took the time to copy these texts meticulously
into the manuscript indicates, as Nicholls notes, "the lengths
to which Hill was prepared to go in search of personal improvement"
or, I would add, the personal improvement of his children (72).
In general, the backbone of courtesy books is the detailed description
of manners and good conduct at the dinner table. As Ozment has noted,
the formal dinner table was the arena where the rituals of rank
and class were acted out. Hill, like others, might well have been
of the opinion that the table was "the most regular occasion
and the most structured setting for teaching a child his place in
the family and in society" (140). In Hill's case, the courtesy
books he collected share this concern regarding table etiquette
with two other entries: a list of the "howshold stuff as must
nedis be occupied at [th]e mayres fest yerely kepte at [th]e Yelde
hall," and a book of precedence, which gives the social "ordre
of goyng or sittyng" at social occasions, starting with a pope
(later scratched out in the manuscript) and ending with a "yeman
of good name."12
In this latter item, "marchant" is placed towards the
bottom of the list, but right above "a gentylman." Parker
notes that All of this indicates that Hills acquaintance
with the feast was more than nodding; he may have been the equivalent
of a committee chairman for the feast, a position that would suit
his social standing (57).
This designation of placing the merchant ever so slightly above
the gentleman may reflect some class aspirations on the part of
the mercantile community. But the two ranks are in close proximity,
and in general, appear in the manuscript to be on par with each
other. The use of the courtesy books by a merchant indicates this,
as the express goal of the texts is to form gentlemen,
which Hill would have seen as a reasonable goal for himself and
his sons. Both the courtesy books and the comic texts set up an
opposition between the gentleman (/merchant) and the churl.
The churl is a character of low moral standing, but also of low
economic status. The designation of churl is clearly aligned with
the lower class, from which the merchant class would wish to distance
itself. Poor table manners, warns the Lytil Boke, might cause
men to "sey [th]ou come of cherlis." Churlish behaviour
would include stuffing one's face with food "as done brothellis"
[as is done by "rude low people"] (38) and belching, "As
a karle [th]at comys oute of a cot" [as a churl from a cottage]
(48) (Furnivall, Babees 18).
Furthermore, much of what distinguishes the gentleman from the churl
relates to control over his body. The courtesy books as a group
warn against belching, spitting, breaking wind, and over-eating
(Nicholls 40-1). In the courtesy books of Hill's manuscript, table
manners make the man; his manners display his moral state, his political
rank, and his socio-economic position. Reputation gained at the
table was everything, and a man's goal was to impress his peers:
"Then men wylle say therafter / That a gentyllman was heere"
(Furnivall, Babees 22). Should one be so ill-advised as to
eschew the standards of manners and conduct prescribed in the text,
then "He is not worthy, [. . .] / Nether at good mannes tabulle
to sitte, / Ner of no worship for to wytte" (22). That is,
the churlish man is exiled from good company and thus from important
Obviously, such social exile would be a devastating blow to a merchant
whose success depended on business connections. As Caxton's courtesy
book makes clear, one can never be too attentive to the observances
Reward also thy loke & contenavnce,
Off you master or of your soverayne,
so shall ye best preve what ys his plesavnce
or ellis his dysplesavnce: this ys sertayne,
The chere discovereth oftyn bothe twayn,
& eke the chere sumtyme may yow addresse
In thyngis the language may not then expresse. (127-33)
While the original direction was written for a noble household,
where one might hope to impress a lord to the extent that privileges
and benefits are awarded, in the mercantile milieu the benefits
of political courtesy might yield similar results. Patronage, contracts
and other forms of social and financial support would be established
(and dissolved) at formal functions of the city and fraternity.
Another of the central concerns of the courtesy books is the manner
in which a young man presented himself in speaking. Gentlemen were
supposed to be well-spoken, courteous, and not overly verbose. All
of the courtesy books address this issue, sometimes quite extensively.
While prohibitions on the speech of women is well documented in
patristic, legal and literary texts, here it appears that male verbal
transgression was also the cause of anxiety and social disorder:
"with moche speche," warns the Lytil Boke, "[th]ou
mayste do synne"(Furnivall Babees 20) . There is a long
section in Caxton's courtesy book on various verbal infractions,
such as lying, gossiping, spreading rumours, whining, interrupting,
being vague or unclear, and not keeping secrets (127-75, 273-94).13
In the context of the rank-sensitive mercantile culture, the warning
that the wrong word can "hurte or bryng folke to disparge"
(161) would certainly be salient. Prudence is always the better
part of valour here, and the texts recommend an extremely high level
of self-monitoring of public speech:
Avyce ye well what ye say, & in what place,
Off whom, & to whom, in your mynd compace;
How ye shall speke, & whan, take good hede:
this cownsyled the wyse man withowten drede. (44-47)
Speech is an indicator of class standing, and churls do not have
the requisite rhetorical abilities. They are therefore prevented
from formulating gentil precepts and are in their very
nature uncouth. The literary text that focusses most directly on
the churl figure is Lydgate's "Churle and the Byrd," wherein
a labourer is outwitted by a bird, who notes the impossibility "to
teche a cherl termys of gentilness." In this poem, which is
set up as a mock pastorale, the quick-witted and smooth-talking
bird displays the sort of verbal and mental dexterity that would
have been expected of a gentleman. The lower-class plowman is proven
to be even less than bird-brained when he runs afoul
of the birds wit; she manages to talk herself out of her cage.
Thou were, the bird remarks, a verry natural foole
(Lydgate 478). In the end, the moral cautions that while one must
not covet the impossible, there is no excuse for not being as gentil
as one may be, for wheer that euer ye gon,/ A cherlis cherl
is always woo-begon (484). Ones conduct, therefore,
will influence ones opportunities. A man might not step out
of his station, but he may raise his station generally by his good
conduct within it, thereby attaining personal success and fulfilment.
It is quite clear that courtesy was not simply a matter of assuming
standardized manners and gestures, for courtesy also developed the
moral and ethical foundation intrinsic to the "gentleman's"
character. Courtesy books in a merchant readership hint at a world
strained by class anxiety, where the slightest misstep in conduct
could result in disgrace and banishment to the realm of the ever-present
churl who inhabited margins of good society, as well as the courtesy
text. The churl is a figure of ridicule and admonishment: our laughter
is meant to condemn. As we will see, the lyrics and the fabliau
Jak & his Stepdame provide reinforcement for this theory
by illustrating the deeds and consequences of churlish behaviour.
Drinking: Gentill blode loveth gentill drynk
One of the most conspicuous conflations of courtesy, morality and
class in Balliol 354 occurs in representations of drinking. A number
of texts in the manuscript address the subject of drunkenness and
the tavern sub-culture of early Tudor London. In his extensive study
of English alehouses, Clark makes the distinction between inns,
taverns and alehouses, but notes that these terms were frequently
conflated or confused, and that the establishments themselves sometimes
defied definition (5).14
Furthermore, he posits that alehouses (as opposed to taverns) emerged
during the waning of the Middle Ages, in the sixteenth century,
exactly when Hill compiled his manuscript (31-4). Clark speculates
that one of the reasons the alehouse did not develop earlier in
the Middle Ages was that public drinking might have been done in
other social situations, for example guilds (33). Therefore, the
emergence of the alehouse in the sixteenth century might have been
perceived as a threat to guild solidarity. Although not originating
from the guild milieu, How the wyse man dictates that a good
man will avoid the taverns, gambling and "letcherie,"
advice in keeping with the tone of courtesy books generally (57-64).
Yet this advice appears initially to contradict the manuscript's
small collection of drinking songs. In Richard Hills collection,
the reader seems to be pulled in two directions on the subject of
drinking,which possibly reflects some broader social conflict on
As Lyndal Roper has demonstrated in the case of sixteenth-century
Germany, drinking was a cause of some anxiety in urban, guild-and-fraternity-based
While ritual drinking was in some cases constructive because it
ritualized male bonding and acted as a sort of social glue, alcohol
was also a threat to public order when it led to excessive drunkenness
(Clark 27-8). Guilds in medieval England, Hanawalt demonstrates,
were similarly concerned about maintaining public order.16
Legal steps were taken to control drinking, focusing on controlling
the public spaces designated for drinking: the taverns (Hanawalt,
Repute 111-16; Roper 111).17
Religious authorities also attempted to intervene. Owst gives numerous
examples of English sermons which portrayed drunkenness as the "modir
of vices"(431) and condemned tavern culture (425-49).
Male drunkenness did not just threaten status and health of individuals
and families, but also the well-being of the community at large.
As Roper explains, it was perceived as leading to a destructive
sort of hyper-masculinity stemming from lack of control over the
male body. She states that to the early modern mind:
Man is understood as a creature who is always breaking through
the boundaries of his own body, to the point that he threatens
social order. He is a volcano of drives and fluids which constantly
threaten to erupt, spilling outwards to dirty his environment
through ejaculation, bloodshed, vomiting, defecation. Drinking,
which, in the view of the preachers, released all social inhibitions,
gave free rein to lusts. (112)
English clergy were highly aware of the transgressions that could
stem from drinking, especially sexual violations: "First, [drink]
deranges man's senses: secondly, it alienates the mind: thirdly,
it excites to shameful and improper things" (Master Ralph of
Acton, cited in Owst 427).
The Balliol drinking songs exemplify the ambivalence of such civic
attitudes in late medieval and early modern merchant culture. They
are humorous and (being drinking songs) invite the reader to participate
in the revelries. There is, for example, the cheerfully ironic "A
treatise of wyne" that asserts that "Gentill blode loveth
gentill drynk" (Dyboski 105-6). Posing as a practical treatise,
this text does not comment on specific types of wine (as one
might expect in the book of a grocer); instead it sounds
like a drinking song (Parker 56).
The laughter around these songs when they were sung may have been
convivial, but in the context of Hills collection, removed
from the original performance space, laughter is directed at the
speaking subjects of the lyrics, who become ridiculous and uncouth.
There is a realistically belligerent edge to the character of the
drunk in these songs, such as a man who harangues his fellow drunken
Be gladly, masters, euery-chon; [sic]
I am cum my self alone,
To appose you, on by on;
Let se who dare say nay!
Sir, what say ye?
Syng on, lett vs see.
Now, will it be
Thys or another day? (Dyboski 117)
Another song portrays merrymakers bawling repeatedly for the butler
to come and replenish their bowls, not their cups ("let the
cup rowght"), which would be more appropriate vessels for gentlemen
(Dyboski 118-19). The behaviour of the speaker here would have been
condemned by the courtesy books. While the songs are humourous and
nonsensical rhymes, they also mock the characters who engage in
inappropriate drunken behaviour. Public drunkenness would be a concern
for a professional man raising his family, especially his sons,
in one of the most vibrant and intense urban cultures of the time,
where the temptations of the taverns were a constant threat to the
social well-being of the family.18
In his social history of English alehouses, Clark
remarks that life in the alehouse was "an alternative to, rather
than an extension of, established family life" (132).
The seriousness of the anti-drinking message is made more explicit
in two extracts of the Confessio Amantis: the Tale
of Pirotous and Ipotacie, and the Tale of Gabla and
Vitellus, where the anxieties regarding drinking and the masculine
body are manifested in profoundly unfunny ways. In these pieces,
drunkenness leads men to acts of horrific violence and psychotic
sexuality. In the first tale, drunken wedding guests abduct and
gang-rape the bride. Similarly, Galba and Vitellus, two rulers of
Spain, are drunken, habitual rapists who are eventually put to death
by their own people. In these two Confessio tales, inebriation
is aligned explicitly with excessive and destructive male sexuality.
But these are counterpoints to the more comic touch of the drinking
songs, although certainly the texts work together to paint a unfavourable
portrait of the male drunk. Overall, we are meant to laugh at, not
mortally fear, the drunken churl.
Concern over the effects of drinking on sexual behaviour is not
restricted to men in Balliol 354. A number of songs also portray
women acting outside socially accepted behaviour in the mercantile
milieu. These female characters, commonly called "gossips"
in the texts, embody male anxiety about women and female sexuality;
specifically, they depict male fears of the unruly wife. As in the
songs about male drinking, the message is transmitted humourously.
Unruly Wives and Whipped Husbands
How the wyse man tawgt his son is the only courtesy book in Balliol
that gives more than brief mention of the relationship between a
husband and wife. While the other texts are primarily focussed on
men's public behaviour, How the wyse man also focuses on
domestic conduct, recognizing that private conduct affects public
standing. Since marriage, as a legally sanctioned relationship,
is one of the obvious points at which civic interests intersect
with the private life, the poem values "pees" between
spouses (Furnivall, Babees 51) so that peace in the community
can be maintained. In choosing a wife, for example, the book advises
that compatibility is more important than the wife's wealth (50).
How the Wyse man also stresses that a man should be kind
and soft-spoken to his wife and consider the nature of her needs
and abilities when making decisions regarding the household (50-51).
Overall, Hills book firmly places responsibility for public
representation of the family in the hands of the husband, who is
to monitor his family in the public sphere. Wyse man warns
against permitting one's wife to speak for the family in the community
(51). In case this last point is not made clear enough for the reader
of Balliol 354, Hill's manuscript contains texts that clearly demonstrate
the negative consequences of allowing a wife too much freedom in
public places. These texts are the songs of the gossips and unruly
wives. As these songs comically illustrate, the poorly governed
household, especially one with an unhappy wife, can wreak havoc
on civic order; "pees" in the family means "pees"
in the community.
While most of these songs are anti-feminist, they carry a message
that is as much about the failures of husbands as the unruliness
of wives. The anti-feminism, like the humour of the songs, is not
directed simply at immoral women, but rather at the potential of
an unruly wife to destroy a man's public reputation, as well as
his private life. Our laughter is channelled through the women toward
the failed men who have permitted public breaches of authority and
respectability by their wives. As with the male-focused drinking
songs, some of the anti-feminist lyrics are set in the tavern-house,
focusing on the drunkenness of women, especially the wives of (we
are to assume) hard-working men. In the famous "Good Gossips"
song, a group of wives meet in a tavern to drink, squandering their
Now be we in [th]e tavern sett,
A drawght of [the] best lett hym fett,
to bryng owr husbondis owt of dett;
For we will spend
Till God more send,
Good gossippis myn, a! (Dyboski 107)
The comic irony of the wives plan to solve the problem of
their husbands debts by spending more money is obvious.
This kind of humour is seen in another poem, which contains the
burden "Of all creatures women be best/Cuius contrarium verum
est." With heavy-handed irony, this poem echoes the grievances
against drunken gossips found in the Good Gossips poem:
To [th]e tavern they will not goo,
Nor to [the] ale-hows neuer the moo,
For, God wot, [ther] hartis wold be woo
To spende ther husbondis money soo (Dyboski 113)
And in yet another song we find the burden "Women women, love
of women / maketh bare pursis with sum men." The poem specifies
that "Sum will be dronkyn as a mowse" (Dyboski 113). Female
drinking is connected directly to male bankruptcy in these songs.
Control of the household expenses and ones personal economic
standing in the mercantile community would have been central to
the public and private identity of a merchant like Richard Hill,
or his sons. But other songs in his manuscript demonstrate the potential
of the unruly wife to ruin a mans social currency, along with
his economic standing.
The women in many of Hills lyrics represent an unholy alliance
of bad wives who have wrenched the control of virtually every aspect
of the households from their husbands. They are portrayed in a way
that aligns them with other negative female archetypes, especially
the scold and the alewife, which are conflated in medieval legal
records as well as literature (Karras 139). The gossips' presence
in the tavern makes them sexually suspect as well, since all women
associated with taverns had "a very bad reputation" (Hanawalt,
Repute 105; Clark, 131-2). Merely displaying themselves in public
places puts the gossips on par with prostitutes, and the husband's
inability to control his wife's sexuality cuckolds him by default
(Karras 138). Hanawalt notes that women "stepping outside physical
boundaries and becoming transients [. . .] connoted a moral lapse
in itself" (Repute 73). Guilds enforced these ideals
of female conduct amongst women in their community. Hanawalt gives
the example of one goldsmith who was fined for making his maid venture
inappropriately into a public space, "to the dishonour of all
the fellowship" (73).19
Further evidence that the husband has lost control of his wife is
his inability to discipline her. In the "Good Gossips"
poem the women complain about beatings from their husbands, and
one woman boasts of hitting back:
Margret meke said: "So mot I thryve,
I know no man [th]at is a-lyve,
[Th]at gevith me II strokis, bvt he haue V:
I am not afferd,
Thowgh he haue a berde. (Dyboski 108)
This passage depicts a man who, without spousal authority over his
wife, is literally and figuratively "whipped."
In another poem, Alas, sayd the gudman, a quarrel between
husband and wife starts when she attacks him as a "thef"
and a "traytor" for having disposed of some property that
she perceived to be hers:
"Thou knave, [th]ou churle," gan she say,
"In the XXte devyls way,
Who bade the geve my gud a-way
At the townys end? (Dyboski 110)
The wife makes clear the lower-class nature of such public quarrels
when she directs the word "churle" at her hapless husband.
When the husband attempts to reassert his authority by striking
his wife, she calls him a "stynkyng coward" and swears
vengeance on him by threatening to spread malicious gossip about
his thievery and abuse (110-11). This causes the man to lose his
temper so completely that he beats his wife about the head. She
falls to the ground, claiming to be mortally wounded, although,
as the text notes, "yet [th]er was no blod shed. The
text does not tell us if the wife really dies, or if she is simply
faking (probably the latter, as she's yelling for a priest to "shryve"
her). Either way, the implication is that the husband is now in
serious trouble and a figure of ridicule. The refrain makes it clear
who is the winner of the quarrel: "`Alas,' sayd [th]e gudman,
`this ys an hevy lyff'; / `And all ys well [th]at endyth well,'
said [th]e gud wyff" (110-11).
The wife's verbal aggression in this poem reflects another concern
expressed in other anti-feminist lyrics in Hills book: the
issue of female verbosity and deceptive language. There was considerable
anxiety in medieval culture and law about the alleged tendency of
women to slander men. Karras notes that "women were accused
of defamation far more often than men," although whether that
is because defamation was a particularly female tactic, or because
female defamers were more likely to be prosecuted than male ones,
is difficult to say. Karras suggests that accusations of defamation,
scolding, gossiping and disturbing the peace may have been crude
legal methods of labeling unruly women (139). As the "Good
Gossips" song suggests, the tendency to talk too much is symptomatic
of women who are beyond the rightful control of their husbands and
society in general (Karras 111).
Owst gives an example of the explicit class associations of women's
speech. He cites the Speculum Laicorum: "There are two
kinds of dogs, for some are well-bred, others low-bred. The well-bred,
indeed, are silent and free from guile; the low-bred are ill-tempered
and fond of barking. So is it with women: the daughters of nobles
are artless, silent, and lovers of solitude; the ignoble to be sure
are loud and roamers in the streets" (386-87). Perhaps, then,
attitudes like these caused the socially anxious merchant class
to be concerned about the public reputation of their womenfolk.
One Balliol poem, In villa. In villa, quid vidistis in villa?
is devoted exclusively to this subject of female verbosity:
On thyng for-soth I haue esspyed;
All women be not tong-tyed;
For yf they be, they be by-lyed
Yff owght be sayd to them, sertayn,
Wene you [th]ei will not answer a-gayn?
Yes for euery word, twayn!
In villa. (Dyboski 109)
Not only do women talk too much, but the intent and meaning of their
words is not to be trusted. In "Of all creature women be best/"Cuius
contrarium verum est," four of the ten stanzas are directly
concerned withthe dishonest or inappropriate female speech. So untrustworthy
are women, the texts suggest, that wise husbands should not delegate
any of their authority to their wives, nor should he seek their
counsel in household matters. Thus, the poem "Whan netillis
in wynter bere rosis rede" warns:
Whan netillis in wynter bere rosis rede,
& thornys bere figgis naturally,
& bromes bere appyllis in euery mede,
&lorellis bere cheris in [th]e croppis so hie,
& and okys bere datis so plentvosly,
And lekis geve hony in [th]er superfluens;
Than put in a woman your trust & confidens. (Dyboski 114)
Another text in Balliol 354 that warns men not to trust the words
of women is an extract from an English version of the Gesta Romanorum.
This is not a comic tale, but it shares many aspects with the fabliau
Jak & His Stepdame. In the Gesta Romanorum tale,
called "Godfirdus A Wise Emperoure," a son loses his father's
inheritance (three magic items that brought him wealth and respect
merely through their possession) because he hands it over to his
girlfriend, who tells him that she will take care of it. Instead,
she steals it, and abandons the youth, who repeatedly bewails his
foolish trust in her. Eventually, the inheritance is restored, and
the youth gets revenge on the scheming girl (Herrtage 180-93). In
the original version of the complete Gesta the tale is accompanied
by a moral which glosses the story as a parable of the Fall, but
in the Balliol excerpt this moral is missing. Therefore, in Balliol
354, the tale reads more as a warning about women generally than
a religious parable. Both Godfirdus and Jak &
his Stepdame involve the loss of patriarchal power through misplaced
trust in a woman, but in the fabliau, like the lyrics, the moral
is rendered in burlesque.
In Jak & His Stepdame a stepmother mistreats her husband's
son, slandering him to his father, even persuading the foolish man
to deny the boy food and drink. When this son is sent out into the
fields at her insistence, he meets an old wanderer who, in reward
for the boy's charitable gesture of sharing food with him, grants
the boy three wishes. In this tale of patriarchal rights, it is
significant that the granter of wishes is an old man, instead of
the seductive young female fairy-figure of many other fairytales,
since the exchange of power is kept between men. All of Jak's wishes
are meant to regain patriarchal power. He is given an enchanted
pipe, which causes animals to follow him when he plays, thus establishing
his control over lesser beings. Another gift is a magic bow that
always hits the bird at which it has been aimed. This gives the
boy his rightful control over food, which had been denied him by
his slandering stepmother and hen-pecked father.
One wish in particular, however, most clearly reflects masculine
anxiety about the disruptive potential of women, and womens
bodies. The domineering wife is punished by Jaks wish that
whenever his evil stepmother gives him a dirty look, she breaks
Full angerly loked she on hym tho,
An-o[th]er ffarte lete she goo,
And fowle she was shent.
The goodman said: "By my lyff,
I know not what eileth my wiff;
I trowe her arse be rent." (Dyboski 123)
In this story, the disruptive female bodyassociated with her
bad counselis ultimately turned against the woman herself.
The father, repulsed by his wife's loss of control over her body,
switches his allegiances back to his son, and the rightful patriarchal
and patrilineal nature of the household is restored. The woman's
attempt to control the house is punished with the loss of all control,
even of her own body.
The image of the farting, shrewish wife is a coarse reminder that
women's words are nothing but hot air. In another, equally crude
text in Hills book, a woman's deceptive mouth is equated with
This short carol is a condensed version of
the Absolon/Alison kiss in Chaucer's "Miller's Tale."
In the poem "Old Hogyn and his Girl a foolish old man
(a churl, to be exact) attempts to bed a young woman, only to find
himself impotent: "When [th]ei were to bed brought, [. . .]
The old chorle he cowld do nowght." The woman, apparently disgusted
by his failure, takes revenge on him by humiliating him. She sticks
her rear end out the window and has him kiss it. He suspects something
is amiss but cant quite figure it out: "Ywys, leman,
ye do me wrong, he cries, Or ellis your breth ys wonder
strong (Dyboski 111-12).
Although the Hogyn is the victim of the more powerful woman in this
text, there is no sympathy for him. His sexual humiliation is his
own fault, because he attempted to take an inappropriately young
mate. Like the other male victims of women in this collection, Hogyn
has only his weak and churlish behaviour to blame. While this and
many other lyrics in Balliol depict unflattering images of women,
depictions of men in these texts are hardly complementary. Men who
run afoul of abusive and destructive women are ridiculed for their
stupidity and ineptitude, and our laughter is meant to censure them,
as much as the women portrayed in the text. Overall, depictions
of women in Balliol, whether they are anti-feminist or not, seem
to speak (in the context of the dominant masculinity of the manuscript)
not so much to an anticipated female readership, but to a male readership.
It possible that the book was sometimes read by daughters as well
as sons, but the repeated references to boys and masculine conduct
in the four courtesy books in Balliol make the intended male audience
Courtesy books aimed at women did exist, such as How the Good
Wijf taugte hir Dougtir.21
How the wyse man tawght his son was transmitted in some manuscripts
along with How the Good Wijf taugt hir Daughter, in BL Ashmole
61 and Lambeth 853 for instance. Given Hills fairly complete
collection of courtesy books, the exclusion of Good Wijf
in Balliol 354 may be deliberate, and a reflection of the intended
readership. Other texts in the manuscript concerned with women are
few, and include two poems in women's voices: Thomas More's "The
Lamytcion off Quene Elyzabeth" (Dyboski 97-9) and the anonymous
"The Lamentacioun of the Duches of Glossester" (95-6).
These poems certainly have didactic, as well as historical, interests,
but their gender-issues are subsumed, I believe, to more generalized
ethical issues. More than commentaries on the nature of women, they
act as sister poems to texts such as "Earth upon Earth"
(90-92), a meditation of the transitory nature of worldly wealth
and prestige in the face of mortality. We might quarrel with Parkers
designation of the dialogue poem "The Nutbrown Maid" as
unabashedly pro-woman, as the abject Maid does not reflect
a realistic female model, but an almost sickening idealism of femininity
that serves male, not female interests. Parker is quite right, however,
in pointing out that Hills view of women was likely
fragmented in a way wholly consonant with the times (72),
and I would add to this that both the idealized and vilified perspectives
of women in this volume are directed towards a male undertaking
to control wives and daughters, more than an attempt to incorporate
female interests into the collection.
As these comic texts and courtesy books make clear, men must take
individual responsibility for their own reputations, and the reputations
of their families. The control of women and children had special
significance for merchant culture in the late medieval/early modern
period, as the community found itself at the unstable crossroads
of class. Hill's book demonstrates that female public disorderliness
was explicitly associated with the lower classes, especially gossips
who drink in taverns, or wives who brawl with their churlish husbands
in the streets. Therefore, the unruly merchant wife reflects poorly
not only on her own husband, but on the merchant community generally.
In Balliol 354, even discussions of female conduct can be read as
illustrations of ideal masculine ideology. A good merchant citizen
keeps his woman in line.
The book as a whole directs moral and social lessons at the young
male reader, using humour to supplement the didacticism of the courtesy
texts. An ideal masculinity of sobriety, frugalness and prudence
is constructed by the courtesy books and comic literature to reflect
and reinforce the values of the mercantile community. The book appropriates
the concept of the noble gentleman for the mercantile
community at the waning of the Middle Ages. The construction of
a commonplace book is, by nature, a result of a mix of premeditated
choices and haphazard opportunities. Richard Hill may not have set
out deliberately to construct a book of moral instruction, and that
was almost certainly not the books only, or even primary,
use. But it is not surprising that over the thirty-odd years of
its construction, Hills book should come to reflect more and
more his personal and professional interests. Likewise, as at least
one son grew up, the book became a lens through which a young reader
might view the expectations of his social world, and through which
we today may see the process and result of a social education.
Go to Works Cited
1 See Barbara Hanawalt, Growing Up
in Medieval London (New York: Oxford UP, 1993) 69-87. Shulasmith
Shahar, Childhood in the Middle Ages. Trans. Chaya Galai
(Routledge: London, 1990) 170-9. Return
2 A.G. Rigg asserted that Balliol was
one of the "best examples" of a commonplace book (26).
Similarly, Parker, who provides the most complete recent discussion
of the book identifies Balliol 354 as The richest example
of the English commonplace book (37). The manuscript is kept
with a typescript copy by D.C. Browning who provides commentary
in his Balliol College dissertation of 1935. Other descriptions
are available in J.A. Froude The Commonplace Book of Richard
Hilles Frasers Magazine (August 1858): 127-45;
R.A.B. Mynors, Catalogue of the Manuscripts of Balliol College
Oxford (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963) 352-54; Henry Octavious Coxe,
Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Oxford Colleges, Vol. 1
(Wakefield: E.P. Publishing, 1972) 110-15; S.J. Ogilvie-Thomson,
A Handlist of Manuscripts Containing Middle English Prose in
Oxford College Libraries, The Index of Middle English Prose,
Handlist 7 (Cambridge: Brewer, 1991) 8-14; Roman Dyboski, Songs
Carols and Other Miscellaneous Poems from the Balliol MS 354, Richard
Hills Commonplace Book, EETS e.s.101 (1908, 1937; London:
Oxford UP, 1981); Heather Collier, "Richard HillA London
Compiler," The Court and Cultural Diversity: Selected Papers
from the Eighth Triennial Congress of the Courtly Literature Society,
eds. Evelyn Mullally and John Thompson (Cambridge: Brewer, 1997)
319-29. Dyboski transcribes most of the short poems, which are the
versions cited in this paper, unless otherwise indicated. Return
3 Carol Meale groups Balliol 354 with
other manuscripts from London which "share the interest in
history and topography [. . .] and occasionally they also contain
items of concern to merchants" (100). She connects items in
Balliol to Harley 2252, a book compiled by another London merchant,
John Colyns, although she notes that the two compilations differ
in scope, as "the literary taste of Richard Hill ran to both
the popular lyric and aureate traditions," while Colyns's book
"seems to have been largely subsumed to his dominant interest
in the world of practical affairs in which he lived" (101).
See The Compiler at Work: John Colyns and BL MS Harley 2252,
Manuscripts and Readers in Fifteenth Century England. Ed.
Derek Pearsall (Cambridge: Brewer, 1983) 82-103. Parker gives extensive
discussion to the issue of the mercantile imperative behind Hills
compilation in his third chapter. For other books associated with
London merchants see M.B. Parkes (283-4, 291-3). Return
4 See Dyboski, xxxiv-lix, for a complete
list of the one hundred and forty-six key items in the book (most
lyrics, of which there are scores, are not numbered separately).
Parker divides the items into 12 sections of the manuscript, although
there is much overlap between the types of texts found in each part.
5 Collier notes that it "is clear
that Arnold's Chronicle acted as a source for Hill and not
vice versa since the earliest date that can be assigned to Hill's
manuscript is 1503 and Arnold's book first appeared in print in
1502" (323). A second edition of the Chronicle was printed
in 1521, STC 783. See Collier's detailed discussion of Hill's use
of the Chronicle, 323-28. Return
6 The deceased children's entries are
crossed out in the manuscript, with additional notes recording the
deaths. Two of the remaining four may have died later, as their
birth entries have been crossed out in the manner of the three dead
younger children, but without definitive records. This leaves only
the entries of son John and daughter Kateryn uncrossed in the records.
Perhaps they were the only ones to survive to full adulthood, or
to survive their father (or whoever took over the family records).
Dyboski transcribes the records and other Hill memoranda on xiii-xv.
See also Collier 322. Return
7 On the role of godparents in late
medieval London see Hanawalt, Growing Up 45-51. Return
8 Although it is not impossible, I think
it is unlikely that the women of Hill's family participated to any
great extent in production or readership of the book. Not only is
there a significant absence of codicologial evidence for their reading
presence, but also because of the nature of the material it contains.
As the book is so obviously a business tool, it would be surprising
that a merchant's wife would use it, at least while her husband
and son were alive, since historical evidence suggests that wives
did not participate in merchant business (Hanawalt, Repute 82).
9 Jonathan Nicholls places How the
wyse man tawght his son on the margins of the courtesy book
genre, on the grounds that it is less focused on the practical rituals
of courtesy and more on morality generally. But he notes that such
books are very closely aligned with the courtesy book tradition,
and are really "neither fish nor fowl" (Nicholls 16-17,
n.34). Its clear that Wyse man was seen beby medieval
readers as part of or related to the courtesy tradition, and often
accompanied courtesy books in manuscripts. This is certainly the
case in Balliol 354, and for the purposes of this discussion, Wise
man is included as a courtesy book. Return
10 Frederick Furnivall collects the
first three of these texts in The Babees Book. The Lytylle
Childrenes Lytil Boke is anthologized in two versions on facing
pages of 16-24. Neither of these versions is from Balliol 354. For
the purposes of citation, I have used the version BL Harley MS 541.
How the wyse man taught his son is on 48-52 (from Lambeth 853),
and Stans Puer ad Mensam is on 26-33 (from Harley 2251).
Caxton's Book of Curtesye was published separately by the
EETS, edited by Furnivall. This version contains the Balliol version
of the text, and it is my source for Caxton's courtesy book. Return
11 See also Seth Lerer, Chaucer
and His Readers: Imagining the Author in Late Medieval England
(Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993). Other merchant-associated manuscripts
with courtesy texts include Colyns's manuscript, BL Harley 2252
(Meale 94), Trinity College, Cambridge MS R.3.19, and Lambeth MS
853 (Riddy 80-5). Return
12 Both of these items are transcribed
from Balliol by Furnivall, Babees Book 378-81. On the "ordre
of goyng and sittyng," and other books of precedence in Middle
English, see Nicholls 197. Return
13 G.R. Owst demonstrates that one
verbal transgression in particular, swearing, was perceived by English
clergy as a growing problem, and that concern over this matter was
finding its way into Middle English literature (for instance the
Gesta Romanarum, an extract of which is found in Hill's manuscript
(414-25). Owst also includes discussion on condemnations of slander
and "back-biting" in English sermons (450-8). Return
14 On the economic and social world
of women involved in brewing professionally, see Judith Bennett,
Ale, Beer and Brewsters: Women's Work in an Changing World 1300-1600
(New York: Oxford UP, 1996). Return
15 On the social and legal implications
of medieval taverns in London, see Hanawalt, Repute 104-23.
16 The guilds were interested in maintaining
civic order to avoid royal intervention into city life, or the cancellation
of city charters which gave guilds considerable social and economic
control (Hanawalt, Repute 36-7). Return
17 Clark notes that in England, from
"the mid sixteenth century town governments and country justices
devoted and ever-increasing amount of time to the supervision of
the popular drink trade. [. . .] Most of the initial impetus for
regulation came from the surge of concern about alehouses and drunkenness
among the respectable classes before 1640" (166). Return
18 Hanawalt discusses the kinds of
anxieties medieval fathers, masters and civic authorities had about
the trouble that young men could get into in London, particularly
concerning tavern life (Repute 112 and 187-90). Return
19 See also Ann Roselind Jones, "Nets
and Bridles: Early Modern Conduct Books and Sixteenth-Century Women's
Lyrics," The Ideology of Conduct: Essays on Literature and
the History of Sexuality. Ed. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse.
(New York: Methuen, 1987) 39-72, and Owst 385-9, on clerical concerns
about women roaming about the town in public. Return
20 On the conflation of women's mouths
and women's asses in French fabliau, see E. Jane Burns, Bodytalk:
When Women Speak in Old French Literature (Philadelphia: U of
Pennsylvania P, 1993). Burns remarks that the "defining features
of the female body invoked by [husbands in the texts]head
and assare ciphers for the woman's mouth and vagina, female
orifices that, within the anti-feminist discourses of the French
Middle Ages, typically make trouble for men" (31). Return
21 On women's courtesy books, especially
in a merchant milieu, see Felicity Riddy, "Mother Knows Best:
Reading Social Change in a Courtesy Text." Speculum
71 (1996): 43-65. Return
Blake, N.F. Manuscript to Print. Book Production
and Publishing in Britain 1375-1475. Ed. Jeremy Griffiths and
Derek Pearsall. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989: 403-32.
Browning, D.C. Balliol College MS 354, Diss. Oxford
Clark, Peter. The English Alehouse: A Social History, 1200-1830.
London: Longman, 1983.
Dyboski, Roman. Songs Carols and Other Miscellaneous Poems from
the Balliol MS 354, Richard Hills Commonplace Book. EETS
e.s.101.1908, 1937. London: Oxford UP, 1981.
Furnivall, Frederick. The Babees Book. EETS o.s. 32. 1869. London:
Oxford UP, 1969.
-----. Caxtons Book of Curtesye. EETS e.s.3. London:
Hanawalt, Barbara."Of Good and Ill Repute": Gender
and Social Change in Medieval England. New York: Oxford UP,
Herrtage, Sidney J.H. The Early English Versions of the Gesta
Romanorum. EETS e.s.33. 1879. London: Oxford UP, 1962: 180-93.
Lydgate, John. The Churl and the Bird. The Minor
Poems of John Lydgate. Part 2. EETS o.s.192. 1934. Ed. Henry
Noble MacCracken. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1961. 468-85.
Nicholls, Jonathan. The Matter of Courtesy: Medieval Courtesy
Books and the Gawain-Poet. Suffolk: Brewer, 1985.
Owst, G.R. Literature and the Pulpit in Medieval England.
Oxford: Blackwell, 1961.
Ozment, Stephen. When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation
Europe. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1983.
Parker, David R. The Commonplace Book in Tudor London: An Examination
of BL MSS Egerton 1995, Harley 2252, Lansdowne 762 and Oxford Balliol
College 354. Lanham: UP of America, 1998.
Parkes, M.B. Scribes, Scripts and Readers: Studies in the Communication,
Presentation, and Dissemination of Medieval Texts. London: Hambledon,
Rigg, A.G. A Glastonbury Miscellany of the Fifteenth Century.
Oxford: Oxford UP, 1968.
Roper, Lyndal. Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Sexuality,
and Religion in Early Modern Europe. London: Routledge, 1994.
Thrupp, Sylvia.The Merchant Class of Medieval London 1300-1500.
Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1948.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Bennett, Judith. Ale, Beer and Brewsters: Women's Work in an
Changing World 1300-1600. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.
Burns, E. Jane. Bodytalk: When Women Speak in Old French Literature.
Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1993.
Collier, Heather. "Richard HillA London Compiler,"
The Court and Cultural Diversity: Selected Papers from the Eighth
Triennial Congress of the Courtly Literature Society. Ed. Evelyn
Mullally and John Thompson. Cambridge: Brewer, 1997. 319-29.
Coxe, Henry Octavious. Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Oxford
Colleges. Vol. 1. Wakefield: E.P. Publishing, 1972. 110-15.
Froude, J.A. The Commonplace Book of Richard Hilles.
Frasers Magazine Aug. 1858: 127-45.
Hanawalt, Barbara .Growing Up in Medieval London. New York:
Oxford UP, 1993: 69-87.
Jones, Ann Roselind. "Nets and Bridles: Early Modern Conduct
Books and Sixteenth-Century Women's Lyrics." The Ideology
of Conduct: Essays on Literature and the History of Sexuality.
Ed. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse. New York: Methuen,
Lerer, Seth. Chaucer and His Readers: Imagining the Author in
Late Medieval England. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.
Meale, Carol. The Compiler at Work: John Colyns and BL MS
Harley 2252. Manuscripts and Readers in Fifteenth Century
England. Ed. Derek Pearsall. Cambridge: Brewer, 1983: 82-103.
Mynors, R.A.B. Catalogue of the Manuscripts of Balliol College
Oxford. Oxford: Clarendon, 1963: 352-54.
Ogilvie-Thomson, S.J. A Handlist of Manuscripts Containing Middle
English Prose in Oxford College Libraries. The Index of Middle
English Prose, Handlist 7. Cambridge: Brewer, 1991.
Riddy, Felicity. "Mother Knows Best: Reading Social Change
in a Courtesy Text." Speculum 71 (1996): 43-65.
Shahar, Shulasmith . Childhood in the Middle Ages. Trans.
Chaya Galai. Routledge: London, 1990.
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