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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XVI. Transition English Song Collections

§ 6. Satires against Women

The songs warning young men to avoid matrimony belong to the satires against women, a poetical tradition which was one of the contributions of France to Buranic verse. In no class of songs is the esprit gaulois more evident. That sly distrust of woman which early insinuated itself into French romances, and which grew bolder and harsher as the ideals of the renascence encroached upon medievalism, in the poetry of the common people found expression in blunt and broad satire. This tradition was augmented, however, by a native English contribution, for the satire which gives evidence of the greatest antiquity of all is strongly alliterative, and observes the repetitions of early communal verse:

  • Herfor & therfor & therfor I came,
  • And for to praysse this praty woman.
  • Ther wer III wylly, 3 wyly ther wer,—
  • A fox, a fryyr, and a woman.
  • Ther wer 3 angry, 3 angry ther wer,—
  • A wasp, a wesyll, & a woman.
  • Ther wer 3 cheteryng, III cheteryng ther wer,—
  • A peye, a jaye, & a woman.
  • Ther wer 3 wold be betyn, 3 wold be betyn ther wer,—
  • A myll, a stoke fysche, and a woman.
  • Several different types of these satires are to be recognised, but the style best designed to endear itself to the popular taste was that used in little dramatic narratives of the Punch and Judy school of comedy, in which the poet tells the story of a family quarrel, wherein the good man is invariably worsted by his muscular and shrewish helpmeet. This broad farce finds its dramatic counterpart in those brawling scenes in the mystery plays which pleased the rude populace, and, like the scenes from the plays, the songs are not without clever and humorous touches, as when the hen-pecked husband is sent flying from his door, only to discover his doleful neighbour in a similar plight. Does not such a song perpetuate a tradition of the Latin stage, which the joculatores, with their rude performances, carried to the Gallic provinces, and eventually bequeathed to the minstrels?

    In another class of satires, women are praised ironically, the refrain serving to turn the apparent praise to dispraise; thus:

  • For tell a woman all your cownsayle,
  • & she can kepe it wonderly well;
  • She had lever go quyk to hell
  • Than to her neyghbowr she wold it tell.
  • Cuius contrarium verum est.
  • To the tavern they will not goo,
  • Nor to the ale-howse neuer the moo,
  • For God wot ther hartes wold be woo
  • To sspende ther husbondes money soo.
  • Cuius contrarium verum est.
  • The third type of the satire against women is pretentious and artificial. It consists in proposing impossible phenomena, and then concluding that when such phenomena actually exist, women will be faithful. These poems are drawn out to an interminable length; a few specimen lines may suffice:

  • Whan sparowys bild chi[r]ches & stepulles hie,
  • & wrennes carry sakkes to the mylle,
  • & curlews cary clothes horsis for to drye,
  • & se mewes bryng butter to the market to sell,
  • & woddowes were wod knyffes theves to kyll,
  • And griffons to goslynges don obedyence,
  • Than put in a woman your trust & confidence.
  • These poems are scarcely more than translations of the many French poems of the same kind.