The Assembly of Ladies is an anonymous poem in Middle English that exists in three manuscripts dating from the fifteenth century: Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.3.19; Warminster, Longleat MS 258; and London, British Library, Additional MS 34360. (1) The poem is of scholarly interest because, among other features, it has remained in literary canons for largely spurious reasons: the manuscripts containing the poem were preserved not because they contained The Assembly of Ladies but because they contained other works (by Chaucer and Lydgate) deemed to be of literary merit. Likewise, early print editions preserve the poem because it was widely attributed to Chaucer. (2) Later editions and scholarship aligned the poem with another fifteenth-century poem, The Floure and the Leafe, and valued them as examples of women's writing. Walter Skeat famously stated that The Assembly of Ladies and The Floure and the Leafe must have been authored by the same woman because surely there could not have been two women poets in fifteenth-century England. (3) Derek Pearsall suggested The Assembly of Ladies had been written by a woman because the manuscripts in which it appears seem to be amateur compilations. (4) This scholarship has been taken up in recent decades by those pursuing the recovering of medieval women's literature. Ann McMillan, Colleen Donnelly, Ruth Evans, and Jane Chance have all argued in support of the recovery of this poem as an example of women's literature, and Alexandra Barratt has argued, logically, for female authorship simply because the narrator of the poem says she is the author. (5)
This article returns to the manuscripts that contain The Assembly of Ladies because, in the scholarly focus on the question of authorship, it seems to me that there are many other features of this poem that have remained obscured from view. From the content of each manuscript, we can see different thematic concerns, indicating that the compilers of the manuscripts each understood and interpreted The Assembly of Ladies in different ways. If we consider the organizational properties of these three manuscripts and then consider how these properties affect our understanding of the poem, we can see that the poem has been understood in different ways in each of the manuscripts, ways that no other scholars have yet noted.
The poem begins in an autumnal September with the narrator wandering aimlessly through a garden maze with her companions, four ladies, with the narrator describing herself as "I, the fifth, simplest of all" (7), and four gentlewomen. (6) As an afterthought, the narrator mentions that they are also accompanied by a number of knights and squires, one of whom asks the narrator why she is in the maze. She is rather evasive in her answer, but the inquisitive knight pressures her to speak. Eventually she relents and begins her tale, which is the recounting of a dream that took place on a previous occasion in the same maze. In her account, the narrator, the four ladies, and the four gentlewomen negotiate their way through the maze on a spring afternoon. The narrator reaches the center of the maze before her companions and sits down to wait for them. Upon falling asleep, she dreams of a woman who summons the narrator and her companions to an all-female assembly to be hosted by Lady Loiaulte at her castle, Pleasaunt Regarde.
The narrator sets off with Perseveraunce as her guide, and journeys for most of the day before arriving at a "hostel." Here she is met by a gentlewoman who provides her with the appropriate attire for an audience with Lady Loiaulte: a blue dress, although the narrator refuses to wear the additional device and motto. She reaches Pleasaunt Regarde, and when her companions have all arrived and are likewise in blue, they attend the court of Lady Loiaulte, where each presents a bill of complaint against unfaithful lovers. Lady Loiaulte defers her judgment on the bills until another date, and the company of women leaves, content to have been heard. …