Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 2. Mock testaments

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

§ 2. Mock testaments

This spirit of character-study found expression through another inherited literary form. The fifteenth century had produced devotional and sentimental documents in the form of a will or testament, and these were borrowed from by ribald humorists who grouped the objects of their satire under the heading of a legacy instead of a ship or fraternity. The idea originated among the Romans of the decadence and was developed by French writers of the fifteenth century, especially by Villon in his half serious, half ribald will, Le Grant et le petit Testament (two separate poems), 1489. The first English imitation is Jyl of Breyntford’s Testament, in which Jyl bequeaths an unsavoury and opprobrious legacy to certain typical fools, being particularly careful to bring the number of her legatees up to a quartern. Those for whom she expresses her contempt are either the people who cannot take their place in life—who quarrel without cause, who borrow without paying back, who trample needlessly on their fellows in advancing their own interests—or those who neglect their own interests to serve others.

The Testament of Mr. Andro Kennedy, 1508, to which reference has been made in a previous volume, was possibly influenced by Le Testament de Taste Vin (c. 1488), or both were influenced by earlier drinking songs; just as Taste Vin decrees his body to be buried under the floor of a tavern, Kennedy leaves his soul to his lord’s wine-cellar. The poem is an interesting specimen of macaronic verse devoted to personal satire. But the most important production of this class is Colin Blowbol’s Testament. Colin, just recovering from an appalling surfeit, and looking “pale of hew like a drowned rat,” espies an equivocal confessor, through whose agency a will is finally composed, in which the drunkard bequeaths his soul to Diana (as goddess of the salt seas, in which he expects to do penance for his unflagging indulgence in sweet wine); his lands to the notorious district of “Southwerke”; six marks of spruce to his secretary, “registered a brother in the order of folly”; and a sum to defray a Gargantuan burial feast to be held in a labyrinth such as Daedalus built (this part of the description is reminiscent of Ovid and Apollodorus). A sense of discrimination in character is shown by the provision of a dais for those who wax boastfully loquacious in liquor, a lower table for those who become maudlin and foolish and a third for brawlers over their cups. Just as Cocke Lorell contains a list of sixteenth century trades, so this tract enumerates thirty-two kinds of wines anciently in vogue. Blowbol means a drunkard, and the tract is a parody of more serious things in honour of drink. The original manuscript, as we have it, is badly written and the composition shows traces of confusion or carelessness. Yet the production is worth notice because of the unmistakable evidence it bears to the growing interest in character and in discrimination of types.