Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University


Courtesy Books, Comedy, and the Merchant Masculinity
of Oxford Balliol College MS 354

Janine Rogers

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 (Parker 55).

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 children–particularly 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 Hill’s 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 capacity—not despite their humour, but because of it. The comic texts compiled in Hill’s 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 them–specifically, husbands. In Richard Hill’s book, the control of one’s own body, and the bodies of one’s family, impacts directly on the social world in which one operates: in Hill’s 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 texts—from 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 Dunbar’s “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” (83-84).

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 Hill’s 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 children—not necessarily the collection’s 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 Hill’s book is not a child’s 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 book’s 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 characters—churls, in both deed and status. While not consistently funny texts, references in the courtesy books to picking one’s 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 Lydgate’s “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 Hill’s early sixteenth-century London.

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" manuscript.

Hill’s 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 Hill’s 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 professional opportunities.

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 of rank:

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 bird’s 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). One’s conduct, therefore, will influence one’s 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 Hill’s collection, the reader seems to be pulled in two directions on the subject of drinking,which possibly reflects some broader social conflict on the subject.

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 culture (111-112).15 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 Hill’s 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 singers:

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, Hill’s 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 husband's income:

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 one’s 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 man’s social currency, along with his economic standing.

The women in many of Hill’s 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 Hill’s 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
In villa.
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 women’s bodies. The domineering wife is punished by Jak’s wish that whenever his evil stepmother gives him a dirty look, she breaks wind:

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 body–associated with her bad counsel–is 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 Hill’s book, a woman's deceptive mouth is equated with her "ars."20 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 can’t 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 fairly explicit.

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 Hill’s 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 Parker’s 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 “Hill’s 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 book’s only, or even primary, use. But it is not surprising that over the thirty-odd years of its construction, Hill’s 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” Fraser’s 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 Hill’s Commonplace Book, EETS e.s.101 (1908, 1937; London: Oxford UP, 1981); Heather Collier, "Richard Hill—A 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 Hill’s 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. Return

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). Return

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). It’s 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. Return

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 ass—are 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

Works Cited

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 U, 1935.

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 Hill’s 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.

-----. Caxton’s Book of Curtesye. EETS e.s.3. London: Trubner, 1868.

Hanawalt, Barbara."Of Good and Ill Repute": Gender and Social Change in Medieval England. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

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, 1991
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 Hill—A 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.” Fraser’s 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, 1987: 39-72.

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.










Updated 9/30/02