Whilst cataloguing manuscripts at the British Library, I had the pleasure and privilege of laying my hands on a book which inspired great awe in me – perhaps the greatest feeling of awe since I began this research position. Perhaps because of its age, perhaps because of it’s content, either way, it made me feel very inspired and thus I’m writing about it here. The manuscript is British Library, Ms Arundel 292, and it is a thirteenth-century manuscript in its oldest parts, with ‘younger’ entries up until the fifteenth century. The oldest texts in the book are a copy of the Apostles’ Creed, an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and other such prayers. Further in to the manuscript is a bestiary, with lovely accounts of a lion ‘standing on a hill’, a snake, a dove, and many many more. There’s a heart-wrenching fourteenth-century account of a young choirboy’s suffering as he struggles with his notes and fails to impress his choirmaster with his singing. And finally, the text of which I am writing – ‘A Satire on the Blacksmiths’. This is a text that is absolutely unique to this one manuscript – there is no other surviving record of the poem anywhere else. This always makes my job more special to me – I occasionally get to touch a book that is the only record that we have of the manuscript culture of a piece of literature.
I admit that I did not transcribe the poem, I took it from Sisam’s Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose, but I have tried to give a rendering into modern English below, which is my own work. So, enjoy!
Swarte smekyd smeþes smatyd with smoke
Dryue me to deth wyth den of here dyntes
Swech noys on nyghtes ne herd men neuer
What knauene cry and clateryng of knockes!
Þe cammede kongons cryen after ‘col, col!’
And blowen here bellewys þat al here brayn brests
“Huf, puf!” seith þat on; ‘haf paf’ þat oþer
Þei spytten and spraulyn and spellyn many spelles
Þei gnawen and gnacchen, þei gronys togydere
And holdyn hem hote wyth her hard hamers
Of a bole-hyde ben her barm-fellys;
Here schankes ben schakeled for the fere flunderys
Heuy hamerys þei han, þat hard ben handled
Stark strokes þei stryken on a stelyd stokke
Lus, bus! las, das! rowton be rowe.
Swech dolful a dreme þe deuyl it todryue!
Þe mayster longith a lityl, and lascheth a lesse,
Twyneth hem tweyn, and towchith a treble,
Tik, tak! hic, hac! tiket, taket! tyk, tak!
Lus, bus! lus, das! swych lyf thei ledyn
Alle cloþmerys*: Cryst hem gyue sorwe!
May no man for brenwaterys on nyght han hys rest!
Black, smokey smiths sooty with smoke
Drive me to death with the din of their blows
Such a noise at night men have never heard
What, the cry of boys and clattering of hammering
The pug-nosed changelings* cry after ‘col, col!’
And blow their bellows so all burst their brains
“Huf, puf!” says that one “haf, paf”, that other
They spit and loll about and tell many tales
They gnaw and gnash, they groan together
And keep themselves hot with thier hard hammers
Their aprons are made from bull hide
Their shins are protected from the fire’s sparks
They have heavy hammers, that are handled hard
Stark strokes they strike on an anvil
Lus, bus! Las, das! Sung be the song.
Such a painful dream, drive it to the devil!
The master (smith) hits for long, and makes little,
the two join to touch a treble note:
Tik, tak! hic, hac! ticket, taket! tyk tak! Lus, bus! lus, das! Such a life they lead
All blacksmiths: Christ give them sorrow!
May no man for water burners* on a night have rest.
*”changelings” – I got this from an ink-pen annotation in the edition (whereas I got most other readings from the Middle English Dictionary), but I thought that this sounded likely.
*”cloþmerys” – what an amazing name for a blacksmith! It means, literally, ‘he who clothes mares’!
*”water burners” or “brenwaterys” – this refers to the hissing sound of the blacksmith cooling his irons in water.
Well, I do believe that I felt rather sorry for the poor blacksmiths, going about their business (albeit noisily). The verse conjured up for me an image of a curmudgeonly old man, whose precious nerves are disturbed by the sights and sounds of the working man. The grouchy man rises from his disturbed slumbers to pen this attack on these animalistic men, with their songs that are even reminiscent of a beast’s call! What a piece of poetry!
(Above: an image of a blacksmith at work, in another British Library manuscript: BL Harley 6563 f.68v)