Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Cacophonous Catalogues: The Complaynt of Scotland and the ‘Monologue Recreative’

L.A.J.R. Houwen

vehicles, such as the omnibus, the phaeton, the hackney, the landau, the coupé, the cabriolet, the sulky, the stagecoach, the Etruscan chariot, the Roman biga, the elephant tower, the carroche, the berlin, the palanquin, the litter, the sleigh, the curricle, and the oxcart (Eco 2004:110).

[1]  A pivotal passage that nevertheless does not immediately participate in the larger debate that lies at the heart of the Complaynt of Scotland (c. 1449–50) is the so-called ‘Monologue recreative’ (chapter 6). The Complaynt is not easy to characterise; it is a piece of political propaganda modelled on Alain Chartier’s Quadriloque Invectif as well as a sermon on the desperate state of Scotland; a historical work as well as a defence of the use of the vernacular, and in the middle of it all there is a pastoral section in which the author conducts an encyclopedic tour de force in which astronomy, cosmography and meteorology are some of the broader topics discussed.[1] This core encyclopaedic part is embedded in a conventional pastoral framework which in poetry is often the precursor to a dream-vision, and this section is characterised by its catalogues devoted to such topics as bird and animal sounds, technical terms, dairy products, stories, songs, dances and musical instruments. At first sight the arbitrariness of the selection makes them somewhat reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’s fictional ancient Chinese encyclopaedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, on whose ‘remote pages’ all animals are classified as follows:

(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance (Borges 1964: 103).

Yet, this amusing classification raises some serious questions about taxonomy, and it is no surprise it has been reproduced again and again, from Foucault’s Les mots et les choses (1966) to Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Other Dangerous Things (1990). In what follows the taxonomy of the catalogues and more specifically those that deal with sounds will be the focus of attention. I will argue that the author’s main interest is not an encyclopaedic but a rhetorical one and that he uses lists to display his powers as a writer, while at the same time underscoring his fascination with music and sound.

[2]  One of the vexing problems of the ‘Monologue’ is that we do not know much about its sources. As Michael Twomey noted recently in his discussion of the cosmographical and meteorological sections of the ‘Monologue’, the problem is that ‘[i]n Chartier’s Quadrilogue we have a model for the Complaynt as a whole, but we lack a model for the “Monologue”’ (2012: 98), so an examination of the source of the catalogue of sounds is a prerequisite for an evaluation of its function.

The Catalogue(s)
[3]  The ‘Monologue’ starts with the narrator or ‘Actor’ who — weary from his work on the Complaynt — resolves to revive body and spirit by going for a walk in the countryside which leads him in Dantesque fashion into a dark forest. Once dawn breaks he emerges from this selva oscura and is struck by the noise the birds and beasts make while foraging on verdant banks. He describes how the sound reverberates off the cliffs and crags and creates an echo. Following a brief reference to Narcissus the catalogue truly begins and the next half page or so records a great many beasts and birds and the sounds they make, from the lowing of cattle, the neighing of horses and mares and the snickering noise produced by foals, to the great tit crying ‘tweet’ and the screeching of the herons:

for fyrst furtht on the fresche feildis, the nolt maid noyis vitht mony loud lou. baytht horse & meyris did fast nee, & the folis nechyr, the bullis began to bullir quhen the scheip began to blait, be cause the calfis began tyl mo, quhen the doggis berkit. than the suyne began to quhryne quhen thai herd the asse tair, quhilk gart the hennis kekkyl quhen the cokis creu, the chekyns began to peu, quhen the gled quhissillit the fox follouit the fed geise & gart them cry claik. the gayslingis cryit quhilk quhilk, & the dukis cryit quaik. the ropeen of the rauynis gart the crans crope the huddit crauis cryit varrok varrok, quhen the suannis murnit. be cause the gray goul mau pronosticat ane storme. the turtil began for to greit quhen the cuschet ȝoulit. the titlene follouit the goilk ande gart hyr sing guk guk. the dou croutit hyr sad sang that soundit lyik sorrou. robeen and the litil vran var hamely in vyntir. the iargolyne of the suallou, gart the iay iangil than the maueis maid myrtht, for to mok the merle. the lauerok maid melody, vp hie in the skyis. the nychtingal al the nycht sang sueit notis, the tuechitis cryit theuis nek, quhen the piettis clattrit. the garruling of the stirlene gart the sparrou cheip the lyntquhit sang cuntirpoint quhen the osȝil ȝelpit. the grene serene sang sueit quhen the gold spynk chantit. the rede schank cryit my fut, my fut, & the ox ee cryit tueit. the herrons gaif ane vyild skrech as the kyl hed bene in fyir, quhilk gart the quhapis for fleyitnes fle far fra hame (30-31).

[4] This list is remarkable in several respects. First, there is the clear division made between beasts and birds, with only one exception, namely the fox, who appears among the birds. In the context this is inevitable since he is said to pursue the geese which causes their honking. The fox’s pursuit of the geese also demonstrates one of the more unusual aspects of this list of animal sounds, namely the introduction of causal connections between the different animals. Other examples of this abound, in fact the great majority of the animals are linked in one way or another. One of the most complex associations has the braying of the ass make the pigs squeal, which in turn makes the hens cluck, the cocks crow and the chickens cry out. Not only does the narrator here causally connect five different species, he also elegantly bridges the divide between the animals of the land and those of the air.

[5]  Second, when we examine the nature of the different causes and their effects they turn out to be a bit of a mixed bag, but in many cases the association is traditional. As we shall see, this is certainly the case for the domestic animals with which the lists starts. In a few other instances the notion of antipathy determines the connection,[2] as between the fox and the geese, and possibly the kite and the chickens.[3] A few others are based on sympathy or shared characteristics, like the robin and the little wren both of which are ‘domesticated’ in winter and are not only often found together in medieval literature, but also in art,[4] the crane and the raven (corvus) who, a fable tells us, had a deal whereby the latter with its prophetic powers would warn the former of any impending danger (Rodríguez Adrados 1999: III, 426, 657 (not.-H. 78 and M. 182), or the linnet who sings counterpoint to the blackbird. For others no clear raison d’être can be found.

[6]  It is also remarkable how very ordinary the animals are; they are all native to the British Isles and most of them are either domestic or must have been a familiar sight. None of the more exotic species that are commonly found in such catalogues are present here. There are no lions, elephants or parrots, no lynxes, leopards or wolves. As we shall see later, this is most unusual and sets this catalogue apart from others. Finally, we should note the discrepancy in numbers between beasts and birds with only 10 animals being listed against some 38 birds.

[7]  One might have thought that the clamour produced by all these birds and beasts would have made the narrator stop his ears with wax, but he seems to be enjoying the tumult and when he continues his melancholic perambulation he finds himself on a beach where he is struck by yet another sound, that of the pebbles which are moved to and fro by the rolling of the waves. It is on the shore that he spots a war-galley that has dropped anchor far off at sea. He overhears the words of the mariners but ‘vist nocht quhat thai menit’:

there i beheld ane galiasse gayly grathit for the veyr. lyand fast at ane ankir, and hyr salis in hou. i herd mony vordis amang the marynalis bot i vist nocht quhat thai menit. ȝit i sal reherse and report ther crying and ther cals (31).

What follows is an interesting, if somewhat confusing, report of what he hears and sees. With both senses involved it is not always easy to distinguish between what he (thinks he) hears and what he (thinks he) sees happening out at sea. In fact the author confuses senses more often, as when he observes that he cannot see the war-ships any longer for the stench of the gunpowder: ‘and the stink of the gun puldir fylit al the ayr … quihilk generit sik mirknes & myst that i culd nocht see my lyntht about me’ (33). Facts mingle freely with interpretation as when he describes how the captain (‘master’) of the war-ship orders the boatswain to climb the mast to survey for other ships in the vicinity. When he does spot a white sail, he cries out that he saw a great ship, at which point pandemonium ensues, both on board and on paper. Whilst the war-ship is rigged in a hurry and prepared for battle, the frenzied cries of the sailors follow each other in quick succession. The fact that their exclamations fluctuate between incomprehensible gibberish, words and phrases that sound more or less intelligible and proper Scots only makes the whole scene more frantic:

Than quhen the ankyr vas halit vp abufe the vattir, ane marynel cryit and al the laif follouit in that sam tune. caupon caupona, caupon caupona. caupun hola, caupun hola caupon holt, caupon holt, sarrabossa, sarrabossa. … than ane of the marynalis began to hail and to cry and al the marynalis ansuert of that samyn sound. hou, hou. pulpela, pulpela. boulena, boulena. darta, darta. hard out steif, hard out steif. afoir the vynd, afoir the vynd, god send, god send, fayr vedthir/fayr vedthir. mony pricis, mony pricis. god foir lend. god foir lend. stou, stou. mak fast & belay. Than the master cryit and bald renȝe ane bonet vire the trossis, nou heise. than the marynalis began to heis vp the sail, cryand, heisau, heisau. vorsa, vorsa. vou, vou. ane lang draucht, ane lang draucht. mair maucht, mair maucht. ȝong blude, ȝong blude. mair mude, mair mude. false flasche, false flasche. ly a bak, ly a bak. lang suak, lang suak. that that, that that, thair thair, thair thair. ȝallou hayr, ȝallou hayr. hips bayr, hips bayr. til hym al, til hym al. viddefullis al. viddefuls al. grit and smal, grit and smal. ane and al, and ane al. heisau heisau. nou mak fast the theyrs (32).

The tumult reaches a crescendo in the actual naval battle when the war-ship with billowing sails and a hundred oars on either side fires all it has got:

than quhar i sat i hard the cannons and gunnis mak mony hiddeus crak duf, duf, duf, duf, duf, duf, the barsis and falcons cryit tirduf, tirduf, tirduf, tirduf, tirduf, tirduf, than the smal artailȝe cryit, tik tak tik tak tik tak tik tak (33).

And it has quite a lot. Murray, the nineteenth-century editor of the Complaynt, notes that the artillery ‘seem to comprise most of the various kinds of guns then known’ and compares it to the artillery found on the Great Michael built by James IV (Wedderburn 1872: lxxi). There were canon, bastard culverins, culverins-moyen and many others, which the narrator dutifully lists together with an array of hand-held weapons:

mak reddy ȝour cannons, culuerene moyens, culuerene bastardis, falcons, saikyrs, half saikyrs, and half falcons, slangis, & half slangis, quartar slangis, hede stikkis, murdresaris, pasuolans, bersis, doggis, doubil bersis, hagbutis of croche, half haggis, culuerenis ande hail schot. ande ȝe soldartis & conpangȝons of veyr, mak reddy ȝour corsbollis, hand bollis, fyir speyris, hail schot, lancis, pikkis, halbardis, rondellis, tua handit sourdis and tairgis (33).

It hardly needs mentioning that even James’s Great Michael did not have all this weaponry on board, just as it is not very likely that the narrator could have encountered all the animals listed earlier. In fact, mimesis does not appear to be high on his rhetorical agenda. If anything, the whole episode is more akin to a dream-vision, and that includes a conclusion to match: the use of gun-powder created such a murky atmosphere that he was unable to see anything anymore, so he leaves the shore and returns to the sweet fields. Indeed, the parallels with the Prologue to Sir David Lyndsay’s Dreme which antedates the Complaynt (1549–50) by some twenty-five years are quite striking. Lyndsay’s narrator, in good Chaucerian fashion, is unable to sleep and like our narrator goes for a walk and ends up on the beach; on his way the lark complains about the season (Winter). Resting in a cave, he decides to pass the time by writing but the weltering of the waves sends him to sleep. The dream ends shortly after ‘The Complaynt of the Comoun Weill of Scotland’ when the dreamer is startled by a ship that fires all its canons and its sailors who did so ‘youte and yell / That haistalie I stert out of my drame’ (Lyndsay 2000: 37, ll. 1027-28).

[8]  As will be clear from the examples already given, catalogues feature prominently in our author’s literary toolkit. In addition to the ones discussed already we should not overlook the list of maritime terms that has been artfully woven into the nautical tableau vivant which we have been presented with here. Nor is this the end of the lists either. After the naval battle the narrator returns to the fresh fields where he meets a group of shepherds. Following the principal shepherd’s cosmographical and meteorological ‘sermon’, further catalogues of tales (> 40), songs (some 40), musical instruments (8) and dances (30) follow; and even after the narrator bids the shepherds farewell he cannot stop himself from naming the herbs he encounters in a meadow, together with their medicinal properties. It is not just that the narrator has a taste for cataloguing, but his fondness for catalogues seems to be increasing as he goes along, so much so that he even feels called upon to list the different types of milk the shepherds drink as part of their breakfast; something that quickly develops into a small catalogue of milk products that would not be out of place in a commercial for a dairy farm:

[…] quhar thai maid grit cheir of euyrie sort of mylk baytht of ky mylk & ȝoue mylk, sueit mylk and sour mylk curdis and quhaye, sourkittis, fresche buttir ande salt buttir, reyme, flot quhaye, grene cheis kyrn mylk (33-34)

[9]  But what purpose do these lists serve? Alasdair Stewart bravely attempts to link them to the main theme of the Complaynt and argues that they do not just add to the readers’ knowledge of the (Natural) world, but also serve to demonstrate the divine character of creation:

Classification into categories is the expression of a conviction that categories give insight into the divine plan. This view of an ordered universe reveals the confusing troubles of the time as being symptoms of a spiritual disease which can be cured only by a spiritual remedy which deals not only with accidental manifestations, but eradicates the basic causes and restores the order of things. (Stewart 1979: xli. See also Stewart 1981: 94)

This may be true for the cosmographical and meteorological section (and I have some reservations about these too), but I do not think this holds true for the musings of our author, if only because of the haphazard nature of the catalogues under review, which do not attempt in any way to be either systematic or anywhere near comprehensive.

[10]  Although the immediate sources for the ‘Monologue’ are not known, the catalogue of animal sounds does not appear out of the blue. It emerges that our author participates in a rich, learned tradition of discourse that has its roots in ancient Greece (the first recorded catalogue in western literature may well be the list of ships in the Iliad II, 484 ff.) (Klenner 1958: 6). Examples of such catalogues from classical Latin are rare but medieval Latin lists survive in large numbers, both in prose and in verse. Even when some are embedded in works on natural history, like Reifferscheid’s Suetonius fragment 161, De naturis animantium (Suetonius 1860; cf. Benediktson 2000: 71), their main purpose, it has been argued, is a grammatical and/or lexical one (Klenner 1958: 7, 30, 43). This helps to explain why in some catalogues the animals appear in the nominative singular with the verbs in the third person singular indicative, whereas others give animals in the nominative plural with the verbs in the third person plural. Lists that use the accusative plural for the animals with the verbs in the infinitive, treating such lists as an indirect statement, are also found, as are those that use the dative or the genitive (Benediktson 2000: 71).

[11]  Goetz (1923: I, 91–93) has divided the various catalogues, which he mistakenly derives from Suetonius (or  Hugutio of Pisa, see Benediktson 2000: 72), into three different classes to which Marcovich (1971: 399-400) has added a fourth:

  1. Class I: the two-list catalogues, first birds’ voices, then quadrupeds’ sounds, or vice versa (sounds of men and noises of inanimate objects are excluded). Main representative: the fifth century grammarian Phocas (?) in Liber Glossarum (between 690 and 750).
  2. Class II: various versified catalogues, the most important among them being the eighth century (?) Carmen de Philomela (70 lines).
  3. Class III: mixed catalogues (sounds of birds, animals, men, and inanimates). Main representative: Aldhelm of Malmesbury (ca. 640­–709), a huge alphabetical catalogue consisting of 77 lemmata, very popular in the Middle Ages.
  4. Class IV: a small catalogue of 25 mixed items, as, for instance, in Polemius Silvius, Laterculus anni 449.

[12]  Our author appears to be indebted to several of these classes: like some of the above-mentioned lists he places such domestic animals as cattle, horses, and dogs in prime position (Klenner 1958: 19). His intermingling of human and other sounds in the sea-side scene suggests he may have been inspired by catalogues of the third class in which both animate and inanimate sounds appear, but such mixtures are also found in the much smaller list of Polemius Silvius, which lists quadrupeds first, followed by birds, the frog, humans, natural forces and ends with two man-made objects (‘iron grates’ and ‘copper rings’). The list is short enough to be given here in full:

Voces uariae animantium:
Ouis balat, canis latrat, lupus ululat, sus grunnit, bos
mugit, equus hinnit, asinus rudit, ursus saeuit, leo
fremit, elefans barrit, coruus croccit, merulus frindit,
turtur gemit, turdus trucilat, anser clingit, grus gruuit,
miluus linguit, apis bobit, hirundo minurrit, rana coaxat,
populus strepit, ignis crepitat, cursus aquarum
murmurat, ferrum stridit, aes tinnit (Reconstructed in Benediktson 2000: 74).

[The sounds of different animals:
Sheep bleat, dogs bark, wolves howl, pigs grunt, oxen low, horses whinny, ass bray, bears growl, lions roar, elephants barr, ravens croak, blackbirds warble, turtledove cry plaintively, thrushes whistle, geese cackle, cranes crunk, kites shriek, bees hum, swallows twitter, frogs croak, poplars rustle, fire crackles, streams murmur, iron hisses, money tinkles.]

The distinction between beasts and birds, not found in Aldhelm’s alphabetical list, is also typical for catalogues of the first class.[5] Even if we cannot assign a specific class to our catalogue, it observably partakes of the same tradition, not only in that it places domestic animals first but also in the choice of animals. However, there are also some important differences that might help to shed some light on the author’s intentions. Three differences stand out. To state the obvious first, unlike the texts mentioned so far ours is in the vernacular. Moreover, if we take Polemius’s list as an example, we shall also quickly see that unlike the Scottish one it contains several exotic animals and this also holds true for Aldhelm’s much larger list. Finally, there is no attempt in the Latin catalogues to connect the different items in any logical fashion.

The Sounds
[13]  There are several grounds for thinking that the grammatical and/or lexical aspects of the lists do not play a prominent part in the Scottish text. First, there is the fact that the list appears in the vernacular, which would seem to rule out a possible grammatical purpose. One might argue that this still leaves its lexical function unimpaired, but against that speaks the choice of animals, all of which are of the common farm or garden type and would therefore have been well known and not deserve any special attention. Moreover, by connecting the various animals the author also diminishes their possible mnemonic and therefore pedagogic impact, because the resulting bare-bones narrative destroys the iterative aspect of the list, which would have facilitated the learning of it by heart.[6]

[14]  Nevertheless, I would argue that our author did not stray that far from the ars grammatica in that his interest appears to be not so much grammatical or lexical but rhetorical. Apart from the negative evidence mentioned earlier there are many pointers that suggest the author’s main interest goes in this direction. One of the first things that strikes one are the at times highly ornate, aureate, passages in the ‘Monologue’. One example would be the description of the silvery fish with their vermillion red fins or the chronographiae that follow closely on its heels at the beginning of the ‘Monologue’:

there ran ane fresche reueir as cleir as berial quhar i beheld the pretty fîsche vantounly stertland vitht there rede vermeil fynnis, ande there skalis lyik the brycht siluyr (29)

in this glaidful recreatione i conteneuit quhil phebus vas discendit vndir the vest northt vest oblique oriszone, quhilk vas entrit that samyn daye in the xxv degre of the sing of gemini, distant fiue degreis, fra oure symmyr solstice, callit the borial tropic of cancer the quhilk be astrolog  supputatione, accordis vitht the sext daye of iune (29-30)

Ande als fayr dyana the lantern of the nycht, be cam dym ande pail, quhen titan hed extinct the lycht of hyr lamp on the cleir daye. for fra tyme that his lustrant beymis var eleuat. iiii degres abufe oure oblique oriszone, euery planeit of oure hemespeir be cam obscure, ande als al corrupit humiditeis ande caliginus fumis & infekkit vapours, that hed bene generit in the sycond regione of the ayr quhen titan vas visiand antepodos, thai consumit for sorrou quhen thai sau ane sycht of his goldin scheaip (30).

Passages such as these would not be out of place in some of the poetry by Henryson, Dunbar, Douglas and others.[7] Their narrative function is minimal and they do not offer much in terms of descriptive contents, yet they are high in what Scott with reference to Dunbar’s aureate diction called ‘sheer lovely verbal noise for its own sake’ (1977: 304).

[15]  It is this fascination with sound that informs much that ensues at different levels. The list of animal sounds and the sea soundscape that follows it bear witness to this, but so do the catalogues of songs, musical instruments and dances that come after the lengthy astronomical excursus. We have already seen that the author signals his interest in the topic right from the onset with his classical digression on the nature of sounds reverberating in caverns and hollows. He even goes into some detail when he observes that the resulting echo is weaker than the original (‘half ansueir’) and he may also suggest that its quality changes in frequency when he notes that the returning sound is of ‘ane hie not’:[8]

there eftir i herd the rumour of rammasche foulis ande of beystis that maid grite beir quhilk past besyde burnis & boggis on grene bankis to seik ther sustentatione. there brutal sound did redond to the hie skyis, quhil the depe hou cauernis of cleuchis & rotche craggis ansuert vitht ane hie not of that samyn sound as thay beystis hed blauen. it aperit be presumyng & presuposing, that blaberand eccho hed beene hid in ane houhole, cryand hyr half ansueir (30).

Nor does it stop there; the nature of the sounds these animals create is further described in (negative) musical terms when they are said to keep neither time nor tune: ‘ther syndry soundis hed nothir temperance nor tune’ (30). The combined effect of all these natural sounds is addressed through such terms as ‘rumour’, ‘beir’, ‘brutal sound’, and ‘dyn’ (30). One might be forgiven for thinking that these sounds create an unpleasant experience for the narrator, and if that were to be so, this would fit the narrator’s sad mood, but no such interpretation is necessary here, since all the terms used either just stress the loudness produced by the combined sounds or merely emphasise their confused, animal nature.[9] Moreover, they describe the sounds of animals and birds at dawn, when the din they create is at their loudest. That these same birds can produce a heavenly harmony that can stand comparison with man-made music had already been noted the day before in the sketch of the pleasant landscape at the foot of a hill with its river ‘cleir as berial’ that also harbours many a bird singing ‘melodius reportis of natural music in accordis of mesure of diapason prolations tripla ande dyatesseron’ (29). The bird-song trope associated with the landscapes of dream-visions is here raised to a higher rhetorical pitch that serves the aureate diction well with its technical references to musical time values and intervals.[10] The later musical references to the linnet singing ‘cuntirpoint’ and the goldfinch’s chanting (31) are mundane by comparison. The high number of song-birds in the catalogue proper provides further evidence of a musical interest. In fact, passerines dominate the bird section, where we find the pipit (if indeed this species rather than just any small bird is intended), robin, wren, swallow, jay, song thrush, blackbird (2x), lark, nightingale, starling, sparrow, linnet, greenfinch, goldfinch and great tit.

[16]  The musical effect is further reinforced by the use of assonance and alliteration. Alliteration is ubiquitous:

the grene feildis for grite droutht, drank vp the drops of the fresche deu quhilk of befor hed maid dikis & dailis verray donc (30)

nou to tel treutht of the beystis that maid sic beir & of the dyn that the foulis did, ther syndry soundis hed nothir temperance nor tune (30)

Examples of assonance and rhyme are less frequent but add to the total effect; they range from the ‘brutal sound’ that ‘did redound’ (30) and ‘hie skyis’ (30), to ‘swyne’ beginning to ‘quhryne’ (‘squeal’; 31). The use of onomatopoeia in the catalogue of sounds also contributes to the musicality of the whole with mooing calves, cackling hens and quacking ducks. Onomatopoeia merges into sound symbolism in such cases as the jangling of the jay, the bleating of sheep and the barking of dogs, where the verbs used suggest rather than imitate the cry of the animals in questions. In all these cases the sound is the meaning, but in a few cases the words or phrases used carry additional meaning such as when the goslings cry ‘quhilk quhilk’, the redshank cries ‘my fut, my fut’ or the lapwing is said to shriek ‘theuis nek.’ The last is also used in Holland’s Buke of the Howlat as a term of abuse (Bawcutt and Riddy 1987: 77 (l. 822)).

[17]  If the opening sections of the ‘Monologue’ still depend largely on alliteration, assonance and the occasional rhyme, by the time we reach the sea scene the repetition of relatively short and sonorous words and phrases, many of which have little or no meaning at all, creates a rhythm uniquely appropriate to the scene at hand. Sometimes their effect is further enhanced by the use of alliteration, as in:

veyra veyra, veyra veyra gentil gallandis, gentil gallawdis. veynde i see hym, veynd i see hym. pourbossa, pourbossa. hail al ande ane, hail al and ane. hail hym vp til vs, hail hym vp til vs. (32)

Rhyme also helps to ‘punctuate’ particular passages, as when the mariners are hoisting the sails:

heisau, heisau. vorsa, vorsa. vou, vou. ane lang draucht, ane lang draucht. mair maucht, mair maucht. ȝong blude, ȝong blude. mair mude, mair mude. false flasche, false flasche. ly a bak, ly a bak. lang suak, lang suak. that that, that that, thair thair, their thair. ȝallou hayr, ȝallou hayr. hips bayr, hips bayr. til hym al, til hym al. viddefullis al. viddefuls al. grit and smal, grit and smal. ane and al, and ane al. heisau heisau. nou mak fast the theyrs. (32)

Even when the passages make (some) sense, their inclusion, I would argue, is also motivated in part by the rhythm the repetition of short sonorous words and phrases imposes on the sentences, as when the master instructs the sailors on how to handle the various types of ropes (topinellis, scheitis, trossis, boulene, linche(?)):

Than the master cryit top ȝour topinellis, hail on ȝour top sail scheitis vire ȝour liftaris and ȝour top sail trossis, & heise the top sail hiear, hail out the top sail boulene, heise the mysȝen and change it ouer to leuart, hail the linche and the scheitis, hail the trosse to the ra (32).

The use of alliteration here also accentuates the rhythm of the episode. Obviously such passages also provide some much-needed structural coherence to what would otherwise have been little more than a cacophonous catalogue.

[18]  By the time the author commences on the catalogues that follow the astronomical excursus he seems to have run a little out of prosodic steam; but even here one gets the impression that in the list of stories (50), for example, many a tale is included not only for its fame and reputation but because of its acoustic properties. Here we have tales of ‘quhou Hercules sleu the serpent hidra that hed vij heydis’, of ‘the bald braband’, ‘roy Robert’ and of ‘the meruellis of mandiueil’. The list of songs (51) has less need for such devices as alliteration, assonance and rhyme because the tunes associated with the song-titles will suggest the music, but it is somewhat surprising that no attempt is made to liven up the list of instruments (51–52). Perhaps the brevity of the catalogue with only eight instruments plays a part here. However, the last two catalogues of dances and herbs are equally bare with the latter reading like a proper herbal except that it limits itself to the operationes that describe the efficacy of the herbs and omits the description of their qualities. Nevertheless, even without the additional help on the phonic level, lists, by their very nature, have a strong rhetorical impact, which is one reason why they are such a universal literary phenomenon (Brogan 1994: p. 34 (Catalog), and especially Eco 2009).[11] When a modern author provides his readers with a list of railway stations along a route he used to travel this list will be meaningless to all readers except those who are familiar with the journey, yet the shared knowledge of train journeys combined with the effect of the list of stations enables the author not just to evoke the illusion of an actual journey but also to create an enchanting rhetorical effect that receptive readers can easily enhance by projecting their own emotions associated with train journeys and travel in general onto. Other lists, like Eco’s catalogue of vehicles cited at the start of this article, are similarly efficacious.

[19]  Assonance, alliteration and rhyme are generally associated with poetry rather than prose. Yet such prosodic features can function very effectively in prose, as I have tried to show. Northrop Frye, inspired by Aristotle’s six elements of poetry among which melos with its connection to music is the pendant of opsis connected to the visual arts, calls this type of prose ‘rhetorical prose’ or ‘prose melos’ and it is worth quoting his characterisation here because it lends support to a number of issues discussed here as well:

A tendency to long sentences made up of short phrases and coordinate clauses, to emphatic repetition combined with a driving linear rhythm, to invective, to exhaustive catalogues, and to expressing the process or movement of thought instead of the logical word-order of achieved thought, are among the signs of prose melos (Frye 1957: 266).

Alliteration, assonance, rhyme, iteration, aureate diction, the use of technical musical terms, all emphasise the rhetorical nature of the lists in the Complaynt and help to set them apart from the rest.

Further analogues
[20]  Earlier the voces animantium tradition was adduced as an important source for the catalogue  of animal cries, but that was not the only influence that can be brought to bear on the ‘Monologue’. We saw that the idea of inserting a list of animal cries into a locus amoenus setting is one that can also be found in many a medieval dream-vision. Indeed, Matthew of Vendôme starts his Ars versificatori with a chapter devoted to the writing of descriptions. As an example of how to depict a locus amoenus he sketches such a place along topographical lines and includes a catalogue of bird sounds for good measure. He also draws an explicit parallel between bird song, poetry and music:

Still another of Nature’s gifts is the birds
Whose ardent chirping crowns the beauty of the place.
Crying out, ‘I perish,’ the sad nightingale sings
And bemoans her plight with melodious plaint.
Now there sounds forth the song of the wild blackbird,
Which when tamed is usually renowned for his harsh cry.
Now the parrot, a fit exhibit for Caesar’s triumph,
Exclaims in a tongue not its own, ‘Farewell.’
Next Tereus appears armed for crime or for conflict.
… No crow, no raven, no owl
Blasphemes this sacred place with harsh cries.
Here no eagle holds sway; no distinctions of rank
Trouble the songs of the multitude. Thus when
Each bird voices its complaint in moving notes, that song
Comes to the aid of the musician. (Vendôme 1980: 59 (§111))

But we do not only need to look back; it may also pay to consider the work of (near) contemporaries. Besides, an author who uses Alain Chartier’s Quadrilogue invective as an important source for the rest of the Complaynt may well have turned to other French sources for inspiration for the ‘Monologue’. And interesting analogues can indeed be found for both the voces animantium list as well as the sea-battle scene. Similar lists also appear in the work of the great master of the Renaissance catalogue, Rabelais. His great satirical work Gargantua and Pantagruel sports numerous catalogues, from lists of games (some 220), to lists of (useless) books at the Library of Saint Victor (c. 150), lists of words for Friar John’s or Panurge’s testicles (c. 160 each), and lists of adjectives describing Triboulet’s so-called virtues (200) (Sayre Schiffman 1995: 139; cf. Eco 2009: 249). Add to this numerous other lists ranging from a genealogical list of giants in the opening chapter of Book One, to a description of the internal and external parts of Quarêmeprenant that covers the best part of three chapters (30–32) in Book Four. Rabelais’s liberal use of lists even made Umberto Eco characterise them as ‘the beginning of a poetics of the list for the list, written for the love of lists, of the list by excess’ (Eco 2009: 251). In chapter thirteen of Book Three Rabelais, in good classical and medieval fashion, speculates on the nature of dreams and their possible prophetic power, and whether perchance it is better to dream such dreams on an empty or a full stomach. Pantagruel then cites the example of a philosopher whose need for solitude is disturbed by hunger:

They cite us the example of a philosopher who, the better to medi[t]ate, reason and write, persuades himself that he is in solitude, far from the crowd, yet all about him dogs are barking, wolves howling, lions roaring, horses whinnying, elephants trumpeting, snakes hissing, asses braying, grasshoppers stridulating, turtle-doves uttering their lamentations: that is to say, he is more disturbed than he would be at the fairs of Fontenay or Niort, because hunger is in his stomach: to remedy which, his stomach barks, his eyes are dazzled and his veins suck out some of the substance proper to the flesh-creating organs and draw down the wandering mind which is neglecting to look after its nurseling and natural host which is the body (Rabelais 2009: 459).

Although Rabelais enumerates fewer than a fifth of the animals described in the ‘Monologue’ the circumstances in which they are recounted are somewhat suggestive of those of the ‘Actor’ who also seeks the solitude required to revive his lagging spirit in the countryside, only to be confronted by the clamour of animals and birds.[12]

[21]  The second analogue appears in Book Four. Here the sounds associated with a sea-battle no longer accompany the battle itself but are heard long after the event by Pantagruel when they melt in his presence, having been deep-frozen when the battle took place:

When they had been all melted together we heard: Hing, hing, hing, hing: hisse; hickory, dickory, dock; brededing, brededac, frr, frrr, frrr, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou. Ong, ong, ong, ong, ououououong, Gog, magog and who knows what other barbarous words; and the pilot said that they were vocables from battles joined and from horses neighing at the moment of the charge; and the we heard other ones, fat ones which made sounds when they melted, some of drum or fife; others of bugle and trumpet (Rabelais 2009: 830).[13]

In neither of these analogues are the parallels such that one must necessarily think in terms of a possible source, although the first analogue is suggestive. Were we to contemplate the influence of Rabelais on our author (the reverse seems less likely) we would run into a problem with the dates. Although the list of animal cries appears in Book Three of Gargantua and Pantagruel and this book was published a few years before the suggested date of composition of the Complaynt, the frozen battle cries appear in Book Four which did not appear until 1552, that is to say well after the date 1549–50 date proposed for the Complaynt. It is true that a shorter and unfinished version of Book Four was published at Lyon in 1548, but this version does not contain the relevant chapters.[14] The Lyon print does include the storm at sea scenes, which are rife with nautical terms. When the pilot foresees a storm he

struck the sails: mizzen-sail, mizzen-topsail, lugsail, mainsail, lower-after-square-sail and spritsail; he had the men furl in the topsails, foretop and maintop and lower the great storm-mizzen, leaving aloft none of the yards save the ratlings and the shrouds (Rabelais 2009: 719 (Ch. 18); for a brief discussion of Rabelais’s use of and sources for nautical terms, see Plattard 1910: 42–46).

The same chapter has several other lists of nautical terms and even ends in a few lines of otherwise meaningless sounds that Screech says are partially indebted to Greek tragedy: ‘I am messing myself from a frenzy of fear. Bou, bou, bou, bou. Otto to to to to ti. Otto to to to to ti. Bou, bou, bou, bou; ou, ou, ou; bou, bou, bous, bous. I’m drowning; drowning’ (These lines are only found in the 1552 edition; Rabelais 2009: 721 (Ch. 18)). Moreover, like our author, Rabelais includes a (brief) list of dances, but that appears in Book Five; herbs are discussed in Book Three (ch. 30), where they are classified according to their etymology into such groups as herbs that were given the name of those who first associated with them, or herbs named after the countries from which they were first exported. Only some eight herbs are named after their ‘operations.’ In none of these cases are there any verbal parallels. More interesting than the identification of a possible source is the fact that both our author and Rabelais seem to be participating in the same tradition that drives the medieval rhetorical concept of enumeratio to its limits and even beyond. Both authors are acutely aware of the acoustic dimensions of some of the lists they present, but only in the ‘Monologue’ is this foregrounded, whereas in Rabelais’s case this aspect is merely one of many others.[15]

[22]  In view of the above what can we conclude about the creation and use of lists in the ‘Monologue recreative’? It will be clear that here we have an author who is not only heavily indebted to medieval traditions but also one who is innovative enough to develop these traditions into something new and special. This special element is not to be sought in an attempt to show God’s divine plan by an encyclopedic listing of (related) terms derived from a variety of fields. Nor is it an attempt to ‘destroy the old picture of the world that had been formed in a dying epoch, and to create a new picture, at whose center we have the whole man, both body and soul,’ which Bakhtin alleged was the point of Rabelais’s lists (1981: 205). Rather, it would be much more likely that our author sets out to refresh his literary spirits by means of a rhetorical tour de force in which he shows his readers what he is capable of as a writer when he embeds his catalogues in a framework that borrows freely from earlier poets and genres, especially dream-visions with their loci amoeni, catalogues of birds and generally didactic contents.[16] However, by concentrating on the rhythmic and poetic qualities of language rather than on what it signifies he turns his language into a kind of rhetorical or poetic prose. It is the prosodic quality of the text that is foregrounded here and which creates the poetic prose that turns his excursus in the ‘Monologue’ into something more akin to a symphony than a homily on the wonders of God’s creation. It is the ‘quhilk, quhilk’ of the goslings, the ‘guk, guk’ of the cuckoo and the ‘tirduf, tirduf’ and ‘tik tak’ of the guns that stand out. In this he is not alone; other sixteenth-century authors also used catalogues to represent ‘acoustic impressions, depictions of Nature’ (Klenner 1958: 83). As we have seen, this musical effect is not limited to the sound-catalogues either as the catalogue of maritime terms demonstrates. Catalogues in general have a mesmerising effect; the mere iteration of items belonging to the same sphere of discourse creates a rhythm all its own, which in turn enchants as well as comforts the listeners and readers. In his wonderful book on the infinity of lists Eco argues that catalogues are an attempt to express the physical infinity of the items listed, and this, as he himself acknowledges, is indeed a theme he explores in many of his own novels, none more so than in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2009: 17, 122). This book does not only teem with catalogues, it is a catalogue (of long-forgotten memories). But that is not why its protagonist Yambo at a very early age was so enchanted by the 1905 edition of the Nuovissimo Melzi. Its many illustrations may have had a lot to do with that, but so did its seventy-eight tables of illustrated nomenclature (2009: 107), among which the list of vehicles is one. Catalogues in their arbitrariness and inevitable incompleteness may hint at infinity, but first and foremost they enchant and this enchantment is founded on their prosodic qualities; they are veritable little verbal symphonies.[17]


[1] The Complaynt of Scotland is generally attributed to Robert Wedderburn (c. 1510–c.1553), but since it is no more than an attribution I would be loathe to help turn it into a fact by using it; I shall therefore only refer to him as ‘the/our author’. For a discussion of the Complaynt’s contents see Stewart 1979: xxix–xlvii. All references to the Complaynt, unless otherwise stated, are to this edition. [back to text]

[2] This concept goes back at least as far as Aristotle and proved to be instrumental in the organisation of Pliny’s encyclopedia of natural history. Cf. Houwen 2002: 26–29. [back to text]

[3] Others may be the crow and the swan where the enmity goes back to a fable in which the crow (corvus) is jealous of the swan’s purity and paints it black. The fable is attested in, for example, Esser and Blanke 2008: 204-07 (item 70); another may be the ‘titlene’ (small bird) who follows the cuckoo about, maybe because the latter deposited her egg in its nest. [back to text]

[4] These two birds are often found together in a love-context or even as the cock and the hen of the same species. For the former see for example Lydgate’s Floure of Curtesye and The Court of Love; cf. Wentersdorf 1977: 196–97; Rowland 1978: 150. In the visual arts they can for example be found together in the Sherborne Missal, for which see Backhouse 2001: 25. [back to text]

[5] Determining the precise genesis of our text is something that still requires some study, but it seems likely that Renaissance catalogues like ours adhere much less strictly to the medieval classification. This would also be in keeping with what our author does elsewhere in the ‘Monologue’. Twomey suggested that whatever the source of our author’s cosmography, he ‘did not copy it verbatim but re-worked it into a new form’ (2012: 105). [back to text]

[6] Mary Carruthers observes that ‘Ordered lists of this sort […] were deliberately memorized in order to serve as potential mnemonic heuristics, the seats (sedes) into which one could place the variety of diverse material one would acquire in one’s education and reading’ (2008: 138). [back to text]

[7] Stewart regards the use of aureate terms and catalogues as ‘common Renaissance aids to copiousness’ (1979: xxxi)  but neither is unique to the Renaissance as the works of Chaucer and many another medieval poet reveals. Cf. also the reference to Matthew of Vendôme, par. 20. [back to text]

[8] Sounds heard at a distance or echoed tend to lose some of their lower frequencies, which do not carry so well, and therefore the result may appear to be higher in pitch. DOST hie a., does not offer this sense and appears to favour the interpretation ‘loud sound’ (see Note n2. 3, where this line is cited), but compare MED heigh (adj.) 7. Available: and Accessed 26 May 2012. Describing the echo as loud, though not impossible, seems to me somewhat less likely since even a casual observer will notice that an echo is less loud than the sounds that produced it. For a medieval scholarly perspective on echoes see, for example, Questio N 22 in Lawn (ed.) 1979: 293; Neckam 1863: 66–67 (ch. XX), and Nicholas Oresme’s De causis mirabilium (1985: 188–89 (ch. 2). [back to text]

[9] See DOST Rumo(u)r, n.: 3c. ‘The crying of birds; the roaring of animals’; Bere, Beir n.5: ‘Outcry, clamour, shouting; the sound or cry made by men, animals, or birds; noise or din’; Din, Dyn, n.: ‘1. A loud confused noise. Sometimes coupled with synonymous terms, as noyis, etc’; Brutal(l, Brutell, a. and n.: ‘3. Proceeding from, made by, beasts’; Temperance, n.: ‘2b Keeping of time in music.’. Accessed 19 May 2012. [back to text]

[10] Bird song, sometimes combined with other sounds (and catalogues), also features prominently in The Cuckoo and the Nightingale for example where the noise of a river blends in harmoniously with the song of the birds resulting in the ‘best melodye / That might be herd of eny man’ (Scattergood (ed.) 1975: ll. 81–85. Cf. also Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, ll. 295–96, The Parliament of Fowles, ll. 190–91 in Benson 1987, and The Flower and the Leaf, ll. 94–105 in Pearsall 1990). For a later example that borders on the dream-vision genre see Alexander Montgomerie’s Cherrie and the Slae (1597) and Burel’s inversion of that in his Passage of the Pilgremer. Montgomerie not only includes a reference to reverberating sounds but he also makes good use of the voces animantium and in the 1636 print even alludes to a dream vision in l. 14 (Parkinson 2000: 179). For Burel’s indebtedness to Montgomerie, see Reid-Baxter 1999: 233–35. [back to text]

[11] I owe the reference to Eco to my Ph.D. student Eva von Contzen. [back to text]

[12] Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty (1611–c.1660) in his translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel greatly expands Rabelais’s lists. Rabelais only mentions nine animals but Urquhart has seventy-one; and the sea-battle scene is almost twice as long (Urquhart and Motteaux 1904: II.103, III.150). Ian Ross may well have put his finger on it when in connection with Dunbar and the Scots ‘Flyting’ tradition he observed that this tradition of verbal fantasy not only extends into the work of Rabelais but also that ‘his Scots translator … exploits a rich store of native verbal fantasy’ (1981: 185 n. 40). [back to text]

[13] I owe this reference to Dr. Theo van Heijnsbergen. For other examples of catalogues in Gargantua and Pantagruel see Eco 2009: 256–271. [back to text]

[14] For an edition of Book Four and a detailed discussion of the contents, see Plattard 1910: 23–58. Book One was first published in 1531 or 1532; Books Two and Three appeared in 1534/35 and 1546 respectively. The authenticity of Book Five is disputed; it was published posthumously in 1564. For the dates see Screech in Rabelais 2009: xxvi–xxxvii. For the dates of the Complaynt, see Stewart (ed.) 1979: x–xi. [back to text]

[15] The use of a lamentation taken from Greek tragedy as part of an otherwise meaningless list of sounds made by a drowning man already shows that Rabelais has both an acoustic and a literary use in mind. [back to text]

[16] At the end of the ‘Monologue’ the author introduces Morpheus, ‘that slepye gode’, who assails his vital and animal spirits to such an extent that he becomes even more melancholic than he was at the beginning of the ‘Monologue’ whereupon he promptly falls asleep and has a vision (53–54). Consequently, the ‘Monologue’ should be read as a much-expanded version of a traditional introduction to a dream-vision as we encounter them in Chaucer and elsewhere. [back to text]

[17] We can only speculate what role the rhetorical fireworks of the ‘Monologue’ play in the Complaynt as a whole, but it is not unreasonable to assume it ties in with the author’s defence of the vernacular in the ‘Prolog to the Redar’. If that is accepted it would show what the vernacular is capable of in the hands of a skilled rhétoricien even if, as the author acknowledges, Scots cannot always compete with Latin or French (13). Cf. Stewart’s discussion of the Complaynt as ‘Defence and Illustration of the Vernacular’ (1979: xxix-xxxiii). [back to text]


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