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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.

XVIII. Political and Religious Verse to the Close of the Fifteenth Century—Final Words

§ 8. Didactic Literature

Of the purely didactic literature that was intended for daily needs, a typical example may be seen in John Mirk’s Instructions for Parish Priests, a versified translation from Latin of a very practical kind, concerned with the things that are to be done or left undone, the duties of priests and what they are to teach and all such items as entered into the daily religious life of the people. To this we may add “babees’s books” and poems of homely instruction, in which the wise man teaches his son and the good wife her daughter. For those who were soon able to buy printed books, there were works like the first dated book published in England, the Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, whilst Caxton’s Book of Curtesys, addressed to “lytyl John,” and his printing of a Great and Little Cate sufficiently indicate the popularity of precept and wisdom literature. The middle of the fifteenth century gives us the Book of Quinte Essence, and early treatise on “natural science,” in which, among other wonderful things, we learn how “to reduce an oold feble evangelik man to the firste strenkthe of yongthe” and how “to make a man that is a coward, hardy and strong.” And, in a fourteenth century MS. you may run your eyes over medical recipes, which vary between cures “for the fever quarteyn” and devices to “make a woman say the what thu askes hir.” Woman was ever a distrubing factor, and the songs of medieval satirists do not spare her. One of them ends his verses with the counsel of despair:

  • I hold that man ryght wele at ese,
  • That can turn up hur baltur and lat hur go.