Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Roswall and Lillian, the ‘Lord of Learne’ and the Study of Medieval Romance and the Early-Modern Ballad

Rhiannon Purdie

[1]  The short attractive romance of Roswall and Lillian was first brought to wider scholarly attention in 1805 by George Ellis, who described (but did not edit) it for his Specimens of Early English Metrical Romances (Vol. III: 292-3). Before this, though, it had found an admirer in Sir Walter Scott, who acquired a copy of it as a boy (Corson, 1962: 203): Scott would go on to collect at least two more for his vast library at Abbotsford. The indefatigable nineteenth-century Edinburgh scholar David Laing was also very taken with this romance, publishing two editions in quick succession in 1822 and 1826 (details in Purdie, forthcoming 2013). Brief and charming, Roswall and Lillian is in many ways an exemplary medieval romance, following the exile and return of its modest princeling hero Roswall. After a testing period in which he appears to have been cheated of his birthright by a treacherous steward, he simultaneously wins his true love Lillian and regains his inheritance by fighting incognito in a three-day tournament. Its narrative pace is swift — the longest extant print is only 877 lines — and it adopts a plain diction unadorned by any displays of learned rhetoric. It is also written in the four-stress, or octosyllabic, rhyming couplet that was used regularly for romances and much other narrative material in Middle English, and latterly early Scots, throughout the fourteenth century (see for example Barbour’s Bruce of c. 1375), though its popularity waned in the face of other verse forms — including the five-stress or decasyllabic rhyming couplet — over the course of the fifteenth century.

[2]  It was recognised very early on that Roswall and Lillian was closely related to the early-modern ballad known as ‘The Lord of Learne’ or ‘The Lord of Lorn and the False Steward’ (Child 1965: vol. V, 42-58, Child ballad no. 271). The relationship between the two has accordingly been held up as a good example of either the presumed development of the early-modern narrative ballad genre from that of medieval metrical romance, or at least of a shift in literary taste that is assumed to have taken place between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, during which the ballad finally overtook its moribund sibling romance as the popular narrative vehicle of choice. The nature of the relationship between medieval romance and the narrative ballad remains an open question. It becomes even more open if we are forced to revise our view of the relationship between one particular romance and a ballad that is supposed to have developed from it: Roswall and Lillian and the ‘Lord of Learne’. This article presents a reconsideration of the evidence for the relative datings of Roswall and Lillian and the ‘Lord of Learne’ and a discussion of the consequences of this investigation, which finds that these texts are sixteenth-century contemporaries, with the ballad as likely to antedate the romance as the other way around.

[3]  Ironically, Ellis’s long-rejected suggestion that Roswall dated from the second half of the sixteenth century may well be correct (1805: III, 292-3). But David Laing, who edited Roswall from an Edinburgh black-letter print of 1663 (its earliest witness), knew that Ellis had only seen a poor eighteenth-century print of an abridged version of the text (D in Purdie, forthcoming 2013) and accordingly disagreed with him, stating that the text’s composition ‘must be referred to a still earlier age that that which [Ellis] specifies, as it might be difficult to prove that any tale of a similar description belonged to a period so recent as the sixteenth century’ (1895: vol. II, 240, italics mine). Sir Walter Scott commented in passing that ‘Within the memory of man, an old person used to perambulate the streets of Edinburgh, singing, in a monotonous cadence, the tale of Rosewal and Lilian, which is, in all the forms, a metrical romance of chivalry’ (1868: vol. V, 407; note to Fytt II, str 13 of Sir Tristrem [originally published 1804]: italics mine).

[4]  Although neither Scott nor Laing specify which aspects of Roswall they had in mind when they wrote of a ‘tale of similar description [to what Ellis had summarised]’ or a ‘metrical romance of chivalry’, it is manifestly the case that Roswall resembles other medieval metrical romances of chivalry in its content, sparse narrative style, and even in its verse form, as noted above. It is Roswall’s combination of features characteristic of the medieval ‘metrical romance of chivalry’ that Laing must have meant when he proposed that ‘any tale of a similar description’ could not have been composed as recently as the later sixteenth century. At any rate, Roswall and Lillian has ever since been accepted by modern scholarship as a late-medieval text, despite the fact that no copies or other evidence whatsoever for its existence survive from before its earliest witness, the 1663 Edinburgh print from which Laing had edited it.

[5]  Laing and other scholars also commented on its demonstrable connection to the ballad the ‘Lord of Learne’ or ‘The Lord of Lorn and the False Steward’. Although the texts are not so close as to share any actual lines, ‘The Lord of Learne’ consists of a simpler version of the plot of Roswall, and the two have some crucial correspondences. The young, exceptionally well-educated hero is sent from his native kingdom to another country (from Scotland to France in ‘Lord of Learne’; from Naples to  ‘Bealm’ – probably ‘Bohemia’ – in Roswall) in the company of a trusted steward. But when they stop for a drink at a stream, the steward threatens to drown him, steals his clothes and papers, swears him to silence, and continues to their original destination impersonating the hero. The unhappy hero also travels to France/Bealm and lives anonymously under the name of ‘Dissawar’ (in both texts) until his learning and innate nobility attracts attention. The daughter of the lord of the land falls in love with ‘Dissawar’ although she becomes engaged to the steward who is pretending to be the real Roswall/Lord of Learne’s son. The deception is revealed at the eleventh hour when messengers, who know Roswall/the Lord of Learne’s son by sight, arrive and bow to the incognito hero rather than to the steward-impostor; the wicked steward is hanged and the hero and heroine are wed.

[6]  A similar plot occurs in several otherwise unrelated folktales (Child 1965: vol. V, 45-8), but the elements that the ‘Lord of Learne’ and Roswall have in common – among them the hero’s learnedness, the traitor-steward, the threatened drowning and swearing to silence, the identity revealed by bowing messengers, and above all the fact that the hero takes the unusual name ‘Dissawar’ while penniless and in disguise – combine to indicate that there is a more direct relationship between these texts. The ‘Lord of Learne’ is, however, much shorter than the full version of Roswall – 432 lines in its longest version compared to the 880-odd lines that can be reconstructed from the extant prints of Roswall. The additional plot-elements in Roswall are:

  • that the hero has not been sent away on a whim, but banished for freeing three lords whom his father had imprisoned.
  • While working as the heroine’s chamberlain under the name of Dissawar (during which period they secretly fall in love), a three-day tournament is called to celebrate her impending marriage to the false steward impersonating Roswall.
  • Roswall does not intend to take part in the tournament, but while out in the woods hunting, he encounters a strange knight who gives him horse and armour and promises to hunt for him so that he can bring back game and keep his tourneying activities a secret. Each day brings a new mysterious knight bearing armour in the morning and victory at the tournament for Roswall by evening; he fights successively in white, red, and multi-coloured red, gold and green armour, escaping each time without claiming his prize, to the great frustration of the king.
  • The three forest knights reveal themselves to Roswall as the grateful lords whom he had once freed from his father’s prison. Lillian, meanwhile, desperately tries to persuade her father to allow her to marry Dissawar, who is stubbornly refusing to admit either to his tournament victories or to his noble birth, a fact of which she became convinced very early on (in the ‘Lord of Learne’, by contrast, she merely overhears Dissawar say that he is a lord, extracts his story from him, then writes directly to his parents in Scotland). The king says she cannot turn down a king’s son (as he takes the steward to be) so the marriage goes ahead. In the nick of time, however, the three knights appear at court and refuse to bow to ‘Roswall, prince of Naples’.

With its traditional tournament, its miniature scenes of love-longing and its structurally central theme of spontaneous generosity rewarded (Roswall is meticulous in rewarding all those who have helped him), Roswall and Lillian clearly deserves the label ‘a romance of chivalry’ and these elements are precisely what are missing from the cognate text the ‘Lord of Learne’.

[7]  It has always been assumed that the ‘Lord of Learne’ was a popularised ballad descendent of the older ‘metrical romance of chivalry’ Roswall and Lillian, one that was presumably created by jettisoning the more courtly elements of Roswall and recasting the whole in the looser four-line stanzas of early modern balladry. This assumption itself derives from certain wider beliefs about the relationship between the genres of medieval romance and the narrative ballad more generally. Holger Olof Nygard remarks: ‘It must be made clear […] that all scholars must perforce agree that a few ballads are derived from romances; the evidence is to all appearances too conclusive for anyone to think otherwise’ (1976: 2), and it has therefore — to quote Child — been ‘somewhat hastily assumed, that when romances and popular ballads have anything in common, priority belongs to the romances’ (vol. I, 98, in discussion of Child ballad no. 7, ‘Earl Brand’). Well known examples of such romance-ballad pairings are the Middle English romance of Sir Orfeo (extant by c.1330, the date of National Library of Scotland, Advocates MS 19.2.1), the fragmentary Older Scots King Orphius (National Archives of Scotland, RH 13/35, copied c.1582-6) and the nineteenth-century ballad King Orfeo (Child ballad no. 19; Lyle 2009; Stewart 1973); or Chaucer’s ‘Clerk’s Tale’ from the Canterbury Tales and the seventeenth-century Percy Folio ballad ‘Patient Grizzel’, a ballad of a mere 182 lines against Chaucer’s loquacious 1086 (Furnivall and Hales 1867: vol. III, 421-30). Another significant ballad-romance pairing, that of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ and Thomas of Erceldoune, will be discussed further below. Child notes that although the nineteenth-century ballad ‘Hind Horn’ is clearly the same basic narrative as that found in the climax to the thirteenth-century Middle English romance of King Horn, and even closer to the fourteenth-century Horn Childe and Maiden Rimnild, none of these texts can be shown to have descended from any other or, for that matter, from the earlier Anglo-Norman Roman de Horn (Child ballad no. 17: vol. I, 193). He argues instead for oral tradition as the independent source for all four of these Horn narratives. The real question that has troubled many scholars of the history of balladry is, according to Nygard, whether the entire genre of the narrative ballad owes its origins to romance, or merely blends with it occasionally (1976). Nygard seems to favour the latter scenario, as does Child, but does not feel that there is enough evidence to make a definitive statement. Ballad historian David Fowler, on the other hand, seems to favour the romance-to-ballad theory of development: ‘The English and Scottish ballads originated in the fifteenth century when the metrical romance tradition of the later middle ages joined the mainstream of folksong to create a type of narrative song which we now call the ballad’ (1968: 18).

[8]  The evidence, such as it is, seems to demand a more complex view of the ballad-romance relationship than this. Dronke has argued strongly for a continuous (albeit difficult to trace) tradition of what can be called balladry throughout the middle ages, and furthermore one which drew constantly and copiously upon ‘higher’ literary art forms (1976). Richard Firth Green has mounted a more recent argument, from English evidence, for the deep medieval roots of narrative balladry (1997). As Thomas Garbáty puts it:

The idea of an “organic” evolution of oral literature, from epic to romance to ballad – commonly held and first suggested possibly by W. J. Courthope – is an enticing one, but in truth the only evolution we can vouch for is one of literary taste for a specific genre, not of the genre itself (1984: 285).

Nevertheless, the impression that the genre of medieval romance was succeeded, in the early modern period, by the now more vigorous tradition of narrative balladry remains even in Garbáty’s carefully nuanced account:

From the textual evidence, the romance can be seen as the big brother to the ballad, which expropriated romance vocabulary, tags, and clichés, until it finally supplanted its sibling in public taste by the end of the fifteenth century. […] After 1500 the floodgates of balladry were opened, and the springs of romance ran dry. […] We can but conjecture as to why this transfer of literary favor away from romances occurred, but, whatever the reason, these poetic dinosaurs died in the fifteenth century (Garbáty, 1984: 285).

Although he does not mean to suggest by this that romances immediately ceased to be read, the overriding impression remains one of a kind of evolutionary progression from romance to ballad.

[9]  It is this general understanding of the relationship between romance and ballad that tends to be transferred unthinkingly to that between Roswall and Lillian and the ‘Lord of Learne’, leading scholars to treat any information about the date of the ballad as an automatic terminus ad quem for the composition of the romance. Hales and Furnivall, who edit the ballad for their four-volume Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript, describe it straightforwardly as being ‘founded on the romance of Roswal and Lillian’. They note further that ‘it differs from its original in a manner characteristic of the change that had passed over the public taste’ (vol. I, 181), a description that would be echoed in more general terms by Garbáty. David Fowler conceives of the relationship between Roswall and ‘The Lord of Learne’ in similar terms to those of Hales and Furnivall:

‘The Lord of Lorn’ illustrates the achievement of the new minstrelsy, unhampered by melodic restrictions, in transforming late medieval romance into ballad form. (1968, 163: italics mine)

In the case of the other romance and ballad pairings cited above, however, at least one extant copy of the romance substantially predates the earliest known version of the ballad. This is not the case with Roswall and Lillian and ‘The Lord of Learne’. The only thing that seems to have prevented scholars from looking more closely at the evidence for the relative datings of these two texts, and at the implications of that evidence, is the strength of this conviction that a metrical romance – at least one that is as typically ‘medieval’ in content and poetic form as Roswall — must necessarily predate a related ballad. It is clearly time to reexamine the dating evidence for each text.

Roswall and Lillian: the witnesses
[10]  Roswall and Lillian comes down to us in two distinct versions, a long one of between 846 and 877 lines depending on which print is consulted (it is 884 in Lengert’s composite edition [1892] and 885 in the Scottish Text Society edition by Purdie, forthcoming 2013), and a short one of 412 lines. The five known extant copies of the Short Version — all from the second half of the eighteenth century — represent four separate prints, two certainly and a third probably from Scotland: textual variation between them is almost entirely confined to punctuation, occasional spelling variants and the odd missing line. Since almost every line of this Short Version is drawn verbatim from the Long Version, and those very few that are not have a distinctly modern feel to them (e.g. ‘Love warm’d her veins, and made her think / Him better worth than fill a drink’, lines 147-9), there is no reason to suppose that the Short Version is anything other than a later abridgement of the Long Version, probably designed to fit the twelve-page duodecimo format of so many of these cheap, popular eighteenth-century chapbook tales. It thus need not be considered further in this study of the origins of Roswall and Lillian.

[11]  There are five known printed copies of the Long Version surviving from before 1800, though they represent only two textual traditions:

1.  An 846-line black-letter print of 1663 from Edinburgh, by an unidentified ‘I. H.’ (now Edinburgh, NLS H.29.e.38)

2.  A closely related version represented by two eighteenth-century Newcastle copies extant in four copies:

a) A print of 877 lines by John White from c. 1711-60 (now Edinburgh, NLS L.C.2936).

b) A print of 873 lines by one T[homas] Saint of Newcastle from c. 1775-88, of which three copies are now known to exist: Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce PP173[6]; British Library Cup.408.i.47 (6),and item 9 of Vol. V of the six-volume Histories of John Bell of Newcastle in the Abbotsford Library of Sir Walter Scott. It is a paginary reprint — albeit with several errors introduced – of White.

Links between all three Long Version texts are readily explained. John White, who was working as a printer in Newcastle upon Tyne 1712-69, went into partnership with Thomas Saint from 1761 – from which date both names appear on their prints –and died in 1769 (Plomer 1922: 309-10; Hunt 1975: 95), after which Thomas Saint continued to print under his own name until his own death in 1788 (Hunt 1975: 81; Plomer, Bushnell, and Dix 1932: 221). John Feather describes Newcastle upon Tyne in the eighteenth century as the greatest English centre of chapbook printing outside London, a tradition which began in about 1712 with John White (1985: 101). He notes that not only do a large number of Newcastle chapbooks and ballads have a ‘distinctly Scottish flavour’, but many of the actual prints ‘especially the great output of chapbooks, are in types which appear to be of Scottish origin’ (1985: 101). Part of the incentive for Newcastle printers to produce so much Scottish material was doubtless the Scottish market. Roswall is by no means the only Scottish text to have ricocheted back and forth across the border.

[12]  Although the Edinburgh print by and large supplies the better text, corruption in it can sometimes be repaired by White’s text, demonstrating that the latter is not based directly on some copy of the former, and that both probably lie at a reasonable distance from their common printed (or manuscript) ancestor. On the other hand, Edinburgh, White and Saint all open with title-pages of virtually identical wording despite the century that lies between them, so the textual tradition of Roswall is more stable than the differing opening and closing sections of Edinburgh and White/Saint initially suggest. When might Roswall have been composed? Hornstein, in the ‘Romances’ volume of A Manual of Writings in Middle English, guesses ‘probably in the late fifteenth century’ (1967: 152), but on what basis? Neither physical witnesses nor indirect references to it predate the 1663 Edinburgh print. This is the point at which the ballad ‘The Lord of Learne’ gets drawn in and where arguments begin to get circular, so let us turn to ‘The Lord of Learne’for a moment.

The ‘Lord of Learne’: the witnesses
[13]  The earliest extant copy of ‘The Lord of Learne’ or ‘The Lord of Lorn and the False Steward’ is in the famous Percy Folio manuscript of c.1650 (British Library Addit. MS 27879, pp. 73-9). The ESTC records nine separate prints of this ballad, seven of which date from the second half of the seventeenth century and the earliest of which is roughly contemporary with the Percy Folio (‘A pretty ballad of the Lord of Lorn, and the fals steward’, [London]: Printed for F. Coles, T. Vere and W. Gilbertson, [1658-1664]). The latest print recorded by ESTC is, as it happens, by the same Thomas Saint of Newcastle upon Tyne [1761-88] who published one of the three known editions of the Long Version of Roswall and Lillian. Unlike Roswall, however, the evidence for the existence of this ballad pre-dates the extant witnesses. ‘The Lord of Lorne and the false Steward’ was entered in the Register of the Stationers’ Company to the London printer John Walley, 6 October, 1580 (Timperley 1839: 386-7). The Elizabethan writer Everard (or Edward) Guilpin (born c. 1562: Hobsbaum, ODNB) compares ‘th’ olde Ballad of the Lord of Lorne, / Whose last line in King Harries dayes was borne’ to his grandfather’s doublet and hose in his 1598 poem Skialetheia Or, A shadowe of Truth, in certaine Epigrams and Satyres (‘Satyra Prima’, lines 107-8): in other words, he believed the ballad to date from the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47). Both of these early citations are quoted by Hales and Furnivall (1867: vol. I, 180-98). This would date the ‘Lord of Learne’ to no later than the mid-sixteenth century.

[14]  The dating of Roswall has thus far depended on that of the ‘Lord of Learne’. The romance’s nineteenth-century editor Lengert showed (and he is not wrong) that its rhymes could not be earlier than the fifteenth century (1892b: 366-9), but since he assumed that the associated ballad ‘Lord of Learne’ had to derive from it, he dated Roswall to some time before c. 1547 at the latest (1892b: 356-7). Hornstein converts Lengert’s cautious summary of this evidence to a composition date ‘probably in the late fifteenth century’ for Roswall and Lillian. A late-fifteenth-century – and therefore medieval — dating accords nicely with Laing’s belief, quoted above, that ‘it might be difficult to prove that any tale of a similar description belonged to a period so recent as the sixteenth century.’

[15]  In my own examination of the language of Roswall, I have found ten separate examples of words, expressions or rhymes which, as far as DOST and the OED indicate, would seem to have been obsolete by seventeenth century and are therefore often mangled in the surviving prints (see further Purdie, forthcoming 2013: 74-78). Such items include eke ‘also’ line 73; sheen ‘beautiful’ rhymed with queen (lines 730, 788) and green (line 382); God you foryield  ‘May God repay you’, line 259; the rhyme in fear ‘together’: there, lines 79-80 in Edinburgh only, replaced by an inane defer: dinner in White/Saint; fay n. ‘faith’ rhymed with play, line 443 in Edinburgh but replaced by say: play in White/Saint (perhaps the end result of misreading f as long s in the by-then unfamiliar fay); deliverlie ‘nimbly’ at line 167 in Edinburgh, replaced by a nonsensical deliberately in White/Saint; the phrase ran lansand through the mied, ‘went bounding through the meadow’, reconstructed for line 432 out of Edinburgh’s ran lances… and White/Saint’s ran alane out…. On the other hand, staid ‘paused’ at line 37 (rhymed with pa.t. said) is recorded by DOST only from the 1540s (stay v.1).

[16]  One might be tempted to discount that final, post-fifteenth-century item as a later intrusion were it not for another bit of evidence missed by Lengert. Among the many names of romance heroes and heroines cited in Roswall and Lillian is ‘Clariodus’: its first occurrence  — as the gentle Clariadus — is in the White/Saint prints only (line 18a) but a second reference to the happiness of Meledas (White Velias, Saint Vebas) when she marries Claudias is present in all three Long Version prints, with Edinburgh having the least corrupt forms of the names (lines 779-80). These references are to Clariodus and his beloved Meliades from the Older Scots romance of Clariodus. Although Clariodus is based on the fifteenth-century Burgundian romance of Cleriadus et Meliadice, there is no evidence whatsoever that the author of Roswall knew works in French himself or expected his audience to do so: this must be a reference to the Older Scots Clariodus whose composition is securely dated between 1503-50 at the widest. Its terminus a quo is provided by the palpable influence of William Dunbar’s poetry on the Clariodus-poet’s diction throughout the romance, with recognisable borrowings from the ‘Goldyn Targe’ and ‘The Thrissill and the Rois’ in particular (Purdie, 2002). Borrowings from the latter provide the specific terminus a quo of c. 1503, since ‘The Thrissill and the Rois’ was written to celebrate the marriage that took place that year between James IV and Margaret Tudor (Bawcutt 1998: vol. II, 395). That Clariodus was not only extant but relatively famous by c. 1550 is shown by the citation of ‘claryades and maliades’ in the Complaynt of Scotland (Stewart 1979: x-xi and 50). The Complaynt-author’s keen advocacy of the Scottish vernacular makes it almost certain that the list of forty-seven tales ‘told’ by his fictional shepherds refer to Scottish and English narrative works available in Scotland at that time (he includes works by Chaucer and Lydgate), rather than in Latin or French (Stewart 1979: xxix-xxxiii). The window for the composition of Clariodus can thus be fairly safely narrowed to c. 1510-40. This means that Roswall cannot be placed any earlier than the second quarter of the sixteenth century: there would be no point in alluding to a Clariodus so new that half of Roswall’s audience would fail to get the reference.

[17]  The Complaynt of Scotland’s fulsome list of the secular vernacular works that were current in Scotland in c. 1550 has proved enormously useful to scholars in dating specific texts such as Clariodus. Roswall and Lillian is not among its forty-seven titles, however, and nor is the ‘Lord of Learne’. Is this because one, or perhaps both, had yet to become famous in Scotland — or even be composed — by 1550? It is normally a dangerous thing to place much weight on negative evidence such as this, but the comprehensiveness of the Complaynt’s lists (there are additional ones for dances and songs) gives the absence of Roswall and the ‘Lord of Learne’ a significance that it would not have in a more selective list.

[18]  To recap, then: Roswall must have been composed somewhere between the second quarter of the sixteenth century at the very earliest, and the end of that century at the latest: the negative evidence of the Complaynt of Scotland  may suggest, though it cannot prove, that it was in the latter half of the century. The ‘Lord of Learne’, meanwhile, was certainly in existence in England by 1580 when John Walley of London was granted a license to print it, and Guilpin’s description of it in the 1590s as a venerable old text suggests – though again it cannot prove — that it was composed several decades before this, perhaps even as early as the reign of Henry VIII, as Guilpin supposed. The absence of both texts from the comprehensive list in the c. 1550 Complaynt of Scotland may indicate that neither was yet known in Scotland by then. All of this combines to demonstrate that Roswall and Lillian is either the mid-sixteenth-century contemporary of the ‘Lord of Learne’ (without saying any more about which came first), or that it post-dates it by up to half a century. What we can now rule out, absolutely, is the scenario of a sixteenth-century balladeer constructing his populist new-fangled work out of a venerable medieval romance. The datings simply do not support it.

[19]  But we also cannot separate the ‘Lord of Learne’ and Roswall and Lillian and treat them as completely independent developments from the same pool of common narrative motifs: the heroes’ shared disguise-name of Dissawar, ‘deprived of wealth’ (see the MED entry for disawairre, n.), is unique in literature as far as I know, even if it follows the pattern of other disguise-names such as ‘Egaré’ for the lost heroine of Emare or ‘Sir Degaré’ in the eponymous early-fourteenth-century romance (both from OF e(s)garer, ‘to lose one’s way’), or ‘le pauvre perdu’ as used by the hero of the Old French Florimont (a 504-line fragment of a Scots translation, Florimond of Albany, survives), or ‘Le Despurveu’ (‘deprived’, cf. MdnF dépourvu) for the modest hero of The Three Kings’ Sons as translated from the French c. 1480 (Grinberg 1975: 521-2). The fact that this last name is used by a hero who would later (under yet another pseudonym) fight for heroine in a three-day tournament might make one wonder whether The Three Kings’ Sons provided the primary inspiration for both the tournament and the name ‘Dissawar’ in Roswall.  If so, this would in turn imply that the ‘Lord of Learne’ was indeed derived from Roswall as has always been assumed, since the ballad contains the disguise-name of Dissawar without the attendant tournament. However, this theory dissolves on closer inspection: the name ‘Dissawar’ is no more similar to ‘Le Despurveu’ than to the other possible sources of inspiration listed above, while Roswall’s tournament itself is a composite of several well-known romance tournaments, some of which offer parallels considerably closer than that of The Three Kings’ Sons. In Sir Degare itself, the disguised hero accidentally wins his own mother in a single day’s tournament: they marry but are saved from incest in an eleventh-hour recognition scene, a ‘mistaken marriage’ motif that recalls Lillian’s unwilling (and fortunately unconsummated) marriage to the false Roswall. Among other medieval romances featuring three-day tournaments — Chrétien de Troyes’ Old French Cligés, Richard Coeur de Lion and Partenopeus de Blois,for example — the closest parallel is with the romance of Ipomadon, a text whose Scottish circulation is confirmed by, amongst other things, its citation in the Complaynt of Scotland (ed. Stewart 1979: 50). The hero disguises himself as ‘Drew le Reine’ (the joke-lover of the Queen of Sicily) and he pretends to the bemused Sicilian court to have spent each day hunting in the forest rather than participating in the tournament for which the prize is his secret beloved (ed. Purdie 2001: lines 2990-5091). In fact, Ipomadon triumphs at the tournament in successive disguises of white, red and black arms while his faithful retainer brings back game from the forest each day, just as in Roswall. There is thus no reason to assume that the name Dissawar was inspired by The Three Kings’ Sons, used for Roswall and subsequently inherited by the ‘Lord of Learne’. Indeed, it is striking that the only proper name in the ‘Lord of Learne’ is ‘Dissawar’ itself: if a balladeer had based his text on the romance of Roswall and Lillian, it seems odd that he would have retained this temporary pseudonym while dropping both hero’s and heroine’s real names. This is not, after all, what happens with the romance-derived ballads of ‘Hind Horn’, ‘King Orfeo’ or ‘Patient Grizzel’. But someone expanding a ballad into a romance, with all the generic expectations that this will invoke, might well feel the need to give them proper names that could be added to the kinds of lists of famous lovers that Roswall itself so enjoys making. The same would apply if we were to complicate the proposed genesis of Roswall by positing a lost common source for both ballad and romance.

[20]  This is not the first time someone has claimed that a narrative ballad could predate the romance on which it was previously supposed to have been based. Emily Lyle has argued that the ballad ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ (Child ballad no. 37, vol. I, 317-28), though first recorded only at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, represents a survival (inevitably modified) of a genuine medieval text, and that the closely related late-medieval romance of Thomas of Erceldoune (or at least the c. 350 lines of romance narrative preceding the supposed prophecies of Thomas in that text) is not the source of this ballad but rather an ill-executed expansion of it (Lyle 1970, and see further Green 1997: 168-9). A parallel might be drawn with the way in which the fourteenth-century poet Thomas Chestre expands an earlier Middle English couplet romance Sir Landevale into his tail-rhyme romance Sir Launfal by interpolating episodes from other identifiable romances, although Chestre’s work involves no wholesale shift of literary genre. Lyle’s place-name evidence for the antiquity of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ (1969) was strong enough to persuade David Fowler to retract his original argument that the ballad was ‘composed directly from the romance rather than from a generalized conception of the story’ (1968: 321, retracted 1980: 1803).

[21]  There are, however, some differences between the Rhymer-Erceldoune pairing and that of Roswall and the ‘Lord of Learne’. In the former case, the romance of Thomas of Erceldoune has a genuine medieval witness in Lincoln Cathedral MS 91 (the ‘Thornton’ manuscript, copied in the second quarter of the fifteenth century); it is already in ballad measure, something relatively unusual for the written texts of this period, and the ballad and romance are close enough to share recognisable lines. What it offers, with Lyle’s arguments for the medieval origins of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, is evidence for the antiquity of the ballad genre, and evidence, too, for the likelihood that some medieval romances were indeed influenced by a largely oral (and therefore largely invisible to us) body of medieval narrative ballads. In the case of Roswall and Lillian and the ‘Lord of Learne’, on the other hand, the hard evidence for the existence of the ballad unequivocably predates that for the romance, but neither text is medieval. Roswall and Lillian is either the mid-sixteenth-century contemporary of the ‘Lord of Learne’ (perhaps from a lost common source) or it was composed later than – and perhaps then directly inspired by — the ballad. While Thomas of Erceldoune –whatever inspired it –was composed during the fourteenth century, the heyday of medieval English romance composition, the apparently medieval romance of Roswall and Lillian was actually composed during the sixteenth century. Roswall and Lillian has been mistaken so readily for a genuine medieval romance by modern scholars because there is nothing recognisably ‘renaissance’ in its content, form or style, something that sets it entirely apart from other Scottish early-modern romances such as John Stewart of Baldynneis’s Roland Furious, a partial translation (via a French intermediary) made in the 1580s of Ariosto’s Orlando furioso of 1532 (McDiarmid 1948: 17). But if, as in fact seems more likely, the ‘Lord of Learne’ predates Roswall and was therefore – given the direct links between the two – the inspiration for it, we are confronted with a situation in which a mid- to late-sixteenth-century poet has taken a contemporary narrative ballad and fashioned from it a brand-new text in the supposedly dead genre of medieval metrical romance. No one has denied that original medieval metrical romances continued to be published in inexpensive prints throughout the sixteenth century and beyond, as even a cursory search of ESTC will confirm, but fresh composition is something different. Was the creation of the archetypically ‘medieval’ romance of Roswall and Lillian a unique, quirky antiquarian impulse on the part of its author to revive this ‘poetic dinosaur’ of a genre? If not, rumours of the genre’s death by the end of the fifteenth century would seem to have been exaggerated.

University of St Andrews


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