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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

§ 4. The boke of Mayd Emlyn

As in previous centuries, the ale-house continued to figure in popular literature as the scene where character, especially female character, revealed itself in amusing and grotesque colours. Jyl herself was

  • A widow of a homely sort,
  • Honest in substance and full of sport.
  • The out-of-door life which the middle-class husband led and the primitive nature of the home drove the wife to seek the society of her associates at the tavern. The fifteenth century had produced some amusing scenes in these headquarters of female conspiracy against men, and the sixteenth century followed its lead. Skelton’s Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng contains a coarse, graphic picture of the manners and morals of the low-class women who frequented that lady’s establishment near Leatherhead. Higher in the social scale, we find the traditional character (possibly suggested by the “woman of Samaria”) who has married and cheerfully buried five husbands in quick succession. An anonymous satirist has cleverly crowded all the vices of the middle-class wife into a career of this type in a half moral, half burlesque poem The boke of Mayd Emlyn. Emlyn’s character is vigorously portrayed. She is one of those women who dress gaily, get drunk at taverns, dally with gallants and fling the nearest articles at their husbands when they remonstrate. She is a female Bluebeard, driving her husbands to suicide or disposing of them by direct murder and, after each bereavement, she goes into deep mourning, on one occasion keeping an onion in her handker-chief to stimulate tears. One of her intrigues leads her and her paramour to the stocks, where, true to her character, she immensely enjoys her publicity. Emlyn finally takes up her residence at the stews, and the story closes with a glimpse of the wretched woman begging her bread in her old age.