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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

V. The Progress of Social Literature in Tudor Times

§ 1. Cocke Lorell’s bote

THE POPULAR literature of each nation does not begin or end: it evolves. One generation hands down to the next a store of sentiment, humour and worldly wisdom which, together with a spirit of investigation and ridicule, slowly change their form and scope with every stage of civilisation. But it is almost impossible definitely to mark out an epoch of popular thought. The middle classes entered on the sixteenth century with the same tastes as their forefathers; a love of romantic ballads and fables, together with the satirical humour and practical sagacity which had always found expression in a literature quite separate from monastic culture and the civilisation of the court. The invention of printing greatly multiplied the production of tracts and, all through the century, the commons continued to demand their own kind of books. This literature remained practically untouched by the renascence, but gathered new depth and meaning from the throes of transition which the people underwent during the reign of the Tudors.

One of the most important influences was the growth of city life, which always develops a curiosity in the eccentricities of commonplace character, and leads men to take an increasing interest in their neighbour’s lives. A striking example of this development is Cocke Lorell’s bote. The tract is a burlesque rhapsody on the lower middle classes; they are grouped under the classification of a crew which takes ship and sails through England. The idea of satirising the follies of mankind under the heading of a mock order or fraternity comes from the Middle Ages, and, as has been seen, a new impulse was given to this conception by Brant’s Narrenschiff. But Cocke Lorell’s bote is not a mere imitation of the German school. Its author does not portray moral perversity; nor has he a touch of the German’s pedantic wealth of classical allusion. His sentiment is medieval and goes back to the traditional satires on shopkeepers, bakers and millers, which had been a commonplace since the days of Joannes de Garlandia. But, above all, we can trace the long conflict between immemorial paganism and the institutions of a civilised Christianity. This was still an age of blasphemous and saturnalian parody, when feasts of the ass, the bull and the Innocents were celebrated before cathedral altars. The spirit of the children of Thor appears again and again in sixteenth century literature; in the glorification of drunkenness, the ferocious conflicts between husband and wife; the buffoonery and bestiality of the jest-books and the superstitions displayed in the witch-controversy. In Cocke Lorell’s bote we have the parody of the pope’s bull and the grant of privileges. Besides, the author is not a reformer or a moralist. His tradesfolk are knaves rather than fools. He shows the spirit of the time by being in thorough sympathy with their roguery, ruffianism and immorality. The captain of his “bote” is the notorious Cocke Lorell, a tinker after Overbury’s own heart (probably a historical personage), who was a byeword as late as Jacobean times. And yet the tone is not that of a preacher or a satirist: the ship comes to no misfortune. It is a sermon on the text:

  • Mery it is wan knaves done mete.
  • The conception of the “bote” and the fraternity is mere literary conventionality. But the style of portraying low-class character is full of interest. The writer delights in curriers and cobblers, whose only possession is a bleaching-pot; in a shoeman who quarrels with them for a piece of leather; a farmer whose odour makes the crew sick; a miller who substitutes chalk for flour. Personal peculiarities also appeal to him. We hear of “goggle-eyed Thompson,” “Kate with the crooked foot” and “Alys Esy, a gay story-teller,” in fact a crew not unlike Harman’s list of vagabonds. Thus, the butcher:

  • All begored in reed blode;
  • In his hande he bare a flap for flyes,
  • His hosen gresy upon his thyes,
  • That place for magottes was very good;
  • On his necke he bare a cole tre logge,
  • He had as moche pyte as a dogge.
  • It has already been shown that Brant and Barclay substituted the type for the abstraction which was a familiar feature of medieval literature. Cocke Lorell’s bote marks a further advance. Its crew are no longer types; they are almost individuals. Moreover, their personality is not elaborately described, but merely indicated by a few suggestive traits, thus illustrating how literary impressionism was finding its way in the coarse, doggerel verse of the people.