The insects and the miller / The krycket & þe greshope

From the sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt.


Here’s a macaronic, presumably late 15th-century poem from Peniarth MS 356b, which I ran across yesterday in Robbins’ Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries (2nd. ed), p. 104.

The krycket & þe greshope wentyn here to fy3ght,

With helme and haburyone all redy dy3ght;

The flee bare þe baner as a du3ty kny3th,

The cherubud trumpyt with all hys my3th.

Salamandraque cicada domitatum perereterunt,

Galiaque cum lorica presto se parauerunt;

Musca vexillum portabat vt miles egregius,

Scarabius buccinauit totis suis viribus.

The hare seyte a-pon þe hyll & chappynd here schone,

And swere by the knappes wich were þer a-pon,

That scho wowld not ryse ne gon

Tyll sche se xx howndes and a won.

Lepus super montem se ipsum collocauit,

Et suos sotulares laquitissinauit,

Et per laquitissos ipsequen iurauit

De lustro surgere nec ire voluit

quousque vigenti canis vnum videret.

Þe myler sedet o-pon the hull

and all þe hennes off the town drew hym tyll;

The mylner sayd, ‘schew, henne, schew!

I may not schake my bage for you.’

Molendinarius super montem sedebat,

gallinarum ville ad se copia currebat;

Molendinarius inquit, ‘sco, galina, sco!

Meum saccum pro uobis vrcillare non possum.’

I love this little poem, written in the end–I think–of a grammar, and therefore, perhaps, intended for children (at least per Nicholas Orme, “The Culture of Children in Medieval England,” Past & Present 148 (1995): 48-88 [82]).

I couldn’t tell you much more than what you see here. Crickets and Grasshoppers go together, as in this children’s natural history, or in this recent nature poem by Dan Beachy-Quick (“The poetry of the earth never ceases / Ceasing” &c., which edit I’m chagrined to have to be reminded, is a play on a little poem by a not-exactly-minor poet by the name of John Keats, as David Hadbawnik had to remind me), and also in scripture, Leviticus 11:22, although not in any version of the Bible, so far as I know, that would have been known in fifteenth-century Wales (Vulgate here; Wycliffite here, for example).

In the absence of any criticism, in the absence of being able to consult the manuscript online, and therefore in the absence of much of the needed cultural context, what can we do with this poem? On twitter, I called it “A great little macaronic poem of manuscript marginalia come to life” (a point, minus the “great,” already made by Douglas Gray), and that might be enough, alone.

If we want to take this as a children’s poem, and still respect it for all that (and why not?), and if we want to take this as a kind of nursery rhyme, with many of the features of the genre, we might observe the close relationship of children and insects, the very small, and the nervous (the hare awaiting the 21 dogs). Children work at a different time than we adults (presuming on my audience!), and a different scale. They’re more vulnerable, smaller, faster, with time moving more slowly (my birthday comes around so quickly these days). My wife recently introduced me to Delmore Schwartz’s “Dogs Are Shakespearean, Children Are Strangers,” whose first line is just that, and whose entirety you really, really need to read if you don’t already know it.

We might take this little poem, in its bizarre resistance to interpretation, as just that, a stranger.

Or we might do more with it, paying attention to its language, form (why the five-line stanza in the middle?), and vocabulary. What, if anything, would you do with it?

(on children and animals, see Jeffrey’s ancient blog post, since turned into an article, most recently reprinted here.

And for more on Villard de Honnecourt, see Haylie Swenson’s essay in postmedieval 4.3)