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Mosti ryden by Rybbesdale: introduction
London, British Library, Harley MS 2253, f. 66v

Wall-painting (c. 1250) from St Faith's Priory, NorwichThe apparently local and individual voice of this poem becomes more impersonal on closer study. It follows the pattern of a standard exercise in medieval Latin rhetoric, the description of a woman's beauty. In these exercises, the woman is systematically described from head to toe (clothes are an optional extra), usually, as here, with a discreet gap in the middle---although the gap is filled by the fifteenth-century Welsh woman poet Gwerful Mechain in her erotic poem Cywydd y cedor, which 'suggests that certain parts of the female body have been left unsung by male poets, but that they merit the same praise as a woman's hair, eyebrows, and so on' (Lloyd-Morgan (1993)). Most of the details in the Middle English poem can be paralleled in the model description of a woman given by the rhetorician Geoffrey of Vinsauf in his Poetria nova (c. 1200-1215), translated by Nims (1967); the relevant extract is reprinted in Miller (1977).  

One notable feature of the Middle English poem is an element of exaggeration (the neck over nine inches long (44), the forty-five-inch arms (52)); another is a tendency to discontinuity in the sequence of thought (e.g. 25-36) or even phrasing (19-22), probably because the poet is having difficulties with the tight constraints of his chosen verse-form.

Set up by Bella Millett, enm@soton.ac.uk. Last updated 30 July 2003 . Detail of wall-painting (c. 1250) from St Faith's Priory, Norwich, reproduced by permission of English Heritage; no further reproduction permitted.