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XVI. Later Transition English

§ 15. Laurence Minot

The most important national poems of the first half of the fourteenth century are the war songs of Laurence Minot, preserved in MS. Cotton Galba IX in the British Museum. The author twice mentions his name; from internal evidence it is probable that the poems are contemporary with the events they describe; and, as the last of them deals with the taking of Guisnes, in 1352, it is supposed that he must have died about this time. Diligent research has failed to discover anything further about him, but Minot was the name of a well-known family connected with the counties of York and Norfolk. The language of the poems is, in its main characteristics, northern, though with an admixture of midland forms; and, in three of them, the poet shows detailed acquaintance with the affairs of Yorkshire. Thus, the expedition of Edward Baliol against Scotland, to which reference is made in the first poem, set sail from that county; in the ninth poem the archbishop of York receives special mention; and, in the account of the taking of Guisnes, Minot adopts the version which ascribes the exploit to the daring of a Yorkshire archer, John of Doncaster.

The events which form the subject of these poems all fall between the years 1333 and 1352. The first two celebrate the victory of Halidon Hill, which, in the poet’s opinion, is an ample recompense for the disgrace at Bannockburn; the third tells how Edward III went to join his allies in Flanders, and how the French attacked Southampton and took an English warship, the Christopher; the fourth relates the king’s first invasion of France, and Philip’s refusal to meet him in battle; the fifth celebrates the victory at Sluys, mentioning by name the most valiant knights who took part in it; the sixth is concerned with the abortive siege of Tournay in the same year; and the seventh tells of the campaign of 1347 and of the battle of Crecy. Then come two poems on the siege of Calais and the battle of Neville’s Cross. These are followed by an account of a skirmish between some English ships and some Spanish merchantmen; and the eleventh and last poem relates the stratagem by which the town of Guisnes was surprised and taken.

The poetical value of these songs has been somewhat unduly depreciated by almost every critic who has hitherto treated of them. Their qualities are certainly not of a highly imaginative order, and they contain scarcely one simile or metaphor; but the verse is vigorous and energetic and goes with a swing, as martial poetry should. The author was an adept in wielding a variety of lyrical measures, and in five poems uses the long alliterative lines which occur in such poems as William of Palerne and Piers Plowman in rimed stanzas of varying length. The other six are all written in short iambic lines of three or four accents, variously grouped together by end-rime. Alliteration is a very prominent feature throughout, and is often continued in two successive lines, while the last words of one stanza are constantly repeated in the first line of the next, a frequent device in contemporary verse. The constant recourse to alliteration detracts, somewhat, from the freshness of the verse, since it leads the author to borrow from the romance writers wellworn tags, which must have been as conventional in their way as the hackneyed pastoral terms against which Wordsworth revolted. Such are “cares colde,” “cantly and kene,” “proper and prest,” “pride in prese,” “prowd in pall”; with many others of a similar nature.

In spite of the highly artificial structure of the verse, however, the language itself is simple, even rugged, and the poems dealing with the Scottish wars bear a strong resem balance to the rude snatches of folk-song which have already been mentioned in connection with Mannyng’s translation of Langtoft’s chronicle. There is the same savage exultation in the discomfiture of the Scots, the same scornful references to their “rivelings” (impromptu shoes made of raw hide) and the little bags in which they were wont to carry their scanty provisions of oatmeal. And the very simplicity of the narrative conveys, perhaps better than a more elaborate description, the horrors of medieval warfare; in reading these poems we see the flames spread desolation over the country, while hordes of pillagers and rough riders are driven in scatered bands to their own land; or we behold the dead men “staring at the stars” or lying gaping “between Crecy and Abbeville.” Nor is the pomp of military array forgotten; we see the glitter of pennons and plate armour, the shining rows of shields and spears, the arrows falling thick as snow, the red hats of the cardinals who consult together how they may beguile the king, the ships heaving on the flood, ready for battle, while the trumpets blow, and the crews dance in the moonlight, regardless of the waning moon that foretells disaster on the morrow. Strange merchantmen, transformed, for the time, into war vessels, loom in the Channel, hiding in their holds great wealth of gold and silver, of scarlet and green; but in vain do these pirates come hither with trumpets and tabors, they are already doomed to feed the fishes. There is no thought of mercy for a fallen foe; only in one place does any sense of compassion seem to affect the poet. When he tells how the burgesses of Calais came to demand mercy from Edward, he puts into the mouth of their leader a pitiful description of their plight. Horses, coneys, cats and dogs are all consumed; the need of the petitioners is easily visible in their appearance; and they that should have helped them are fled away. But Minot says nothing about the intercession of queen Philippa, related by Froissart.

Minot seems to have been a professional gleeman, who earned his living by following the camp and entertaining soldiers with the recitation of their own heroic deeds. It is possible, however, that his skill in versification may have led to his promotion to the post of minstrel to the king, and that he held some recognised office about the court. His poems, unlike those of Barbour, which were composed long after the occasions they commemorated, were, probably, struck off to celebrate the events as they arose, and in one of them, that on the siege of Tournay, his exultation seems to have been somewhat premature. While Barbour’s Bruce is a long, sustained narrative, composed in the same metre throughout, the verse of Minot is essentially lyric in character, and, as has been seen, ranges over a large variety of measures.

Minot’s patriotism is everywhere apparent. His contempt for the “wild Scots and the tame” (the Highland and Lowland Scots) is undisguised, and he has equally small respect for the lily-flowers of France. When the English meet with misfortune, he always finds plenty of excuses for them. Thus, in the fight at Southampton, the galleymen were so many in number that the English grew tired, but, “since the time that God was born and a hundred years before, there were never any men better in fight than the English, while they had the strength.” His admiration and loyalty for the king are without measure. The most is made of Edward’s personal bravery at Sluys, his courteous thanks to his soldiers and the esteem shown him by foreign dignitaries, while the poet continually insists on the righteous claim of his sovereign to the throne of France. And, though his poems are sometimes quite unhistorical in matters of fact, they are important in that they evidently reflect the growing feeling of solidarity in the nation, and the patriotic enthusiasm which made possible the victories of Sluys and Crecy.