Urbane Boys and Obedient Stonemasons: An Adapted Courtesy Poem in British Library Royal MS 17.a.I

By Foster, Michael | The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

Urbane Boys and Obedient Stonemasons: An Adapted Courtesy Poem in British Library Royal MS 17.a.I


Foster, Michael, The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History


British Library Cotton Caligula A.II preserves a short poem on good behavior entitled "Urbanitatis" (fols. 88-89v). (1) This poem is also preserved in National Library Scotland Advocates 19.3.1 (the "Heege manuscript"), where it is given the title "Stans puer ad mensam," possibly because it was confused (intentionally or not) with Lydgate's poem for boys of that title. Advocates 19.3.1 is a family anthology compiled mostly by Richard Heege for the Sherbrooks, a family with connections to Nottinghamshire. (2) It also includes "The lyttyl childrens book," (3) another courtesy poem addressed specifically to boys. The presence of this poem and the Latin title for "Urbanitatis" in the Heege manuscript suggest that "Urbanitatis" was copied into that book to be read by young boys in the Sherbrook household.

"Urbanitatis" also survives in British Library Royal MS 17.A.I (the "Regius manuscript"), which Lisa H. Cooper reads as a textual project to create a sense of community among a group of stonemasons in Shropshire. (4) This manuscript consists of thirty-three folios, thirty-two of which preserve 794 lines of untitled verse copied by a single scribe. Although in the manuscript these lines appear to be a single long poem, they are a composite of three texts found independently in other manuscripts. (5) The first group of verses (ll. 1-592) comprises a history of stonemasons and stonemasonry in Europe and England and an outline of fifteen articles and fifteen points on the proper and improper practices of stonemasons and their apprentices. (6) A prose analogue of this text is found in British Library Additional 23198 (the "Cooke manuscript").

The second group of verses (ll. 593-694) is an adapted version of John Mirk's Instructions for Parish Priests. The text has been heavily truncated and revised in the Regius manuscript for its lay readership. For example, the couplet "whenne be gospelle I-red be schalle,/Teache hem benne to stonde vp alle" found in other manuscripts (7) becomes the following in the Regius manuscript: "And when be gospel me rede schal/Fayre bou stonde vp fro be wal" (ll. 629-530). Mirk's advice to the parish priest has been altered in Regius to become an imperative to a lay churchgoing audience, implying that the Regius compiler envisioned the same audience for this text as for the verses on stonemasonry to which Mirk's Treatise is attached in the manuscript. (8)

The third group of verses in Regius' composite poem (ll. 695-794) is an adaptation of "Urbanitatis," which is for the most part similar to the versions found in Caligula and Heege except for two significant variations. The introductory couplet of the poem in Caligula ("Who-so wylle of nurtur lere / Herken to me & 3e shalle here"), which is absent in Heege, is rendered in Regius as:

   Forbur-more 3et y wol 3ow preche
   To 3owre felows hyt forto teche (ll. 693-694)

This address to the reader and his "felows" suggests that the text's advice applies to the adult masons and apprentices addressed in the rest of the composite poem and not to the general boy-reader implied by the Latin title in Heege. Similarly, it lacks the implications of Caligula's title for the poem, "Urbanitatis." This word, with its implication of refinement (cf. Cicero, Pro M. Caelio Oratio 6.25) (9) and its echoes of the Latin for "city" (urbs) and the Old French for "city government" (urbanite), implicitly confirms the poem's relevance to the realms of the burgesses, aristocracy, and monarchy of London and Westminster while giving it a cosmopolitan air. (10) The untitled and incorporated Regius text suggests none of this.

We also find two added couplets near the end of the Regius text that are not found in Caligula or Heege. These lines extend the applicability of the text's advice to a broader social setting:

   When bou metyst a worby mon
   Cappe & hod bou holde not on
   Yn churche yn chepyns or yn be gate
   Do hym reuerans aftur hys state (ll. … 

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