Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York

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Richard Firth Green

  The French of England:
Multilingualism in Practice, c. 1100-c. 1500

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The Genre of the Ordre de bel ayse
Richard F. Green, Ohio State University
  Among the lesser known pieces in Harley 2253 is a curious Anglo-Norman poem called by its first editor, Thomas Wright, The Order of Fair-Ease. Wright’s headnote has set the tone for subsequent evaluations: “the following, ” he writes, “is a bitter satire upon the different orders of monks in England in the reign of Edward I.” In this paper I shall argue that Wright entirely misread the genre of this poem, and that his unfounded claim that it exemplifies a standard medieval type has led later editors and commentators into repeating this misreading. The Ordre de bel ayse, I shall argue, is not a savage satire on monastic orders at all, but an important, and very early, insular witness to what, following Bakhtin, we are now obliged to call a 'carnivalesque' jeu d’esprit. In other words, it offers us a burlesque mockery of monastic asceticism, written more in a spirit of licensed misrule rather than of sober criticism. More specifically, the ending of the poem which records the decision of the brothers of  the Ordre de bel ayse to appoint an abbot for each county to recruit new members and promulgate its regulations (and a provincial to travel around to make sure that they are obeyed), suggests that the poem actually represents the banns of a societe joyeuse, similar perhaps to the Order of  Brothelingham complained of by Bishop Grandison of Exeter in 1348. MS Harley 2253 contains a number of carnivalesque pieces in Anglo-Norman (its four fabliaux, Annot and Gilote, and the Goliard’s Feast in particular); if it is accepted that the Ordre de bel ayse, far from being “a bitter satire upon the different orders of monks in England,” is closer in spirit to what Grandison referred to as the horror of  Brothelingham, then we should add it, too, to this group.  

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