John Lydgate is known primarily for his more serious works such as Troy Book, the Fall of Princes, and the Siege of Thebes. The heavy moral didactic emphases in these works are something of a Lydgate trademark. Even in the more amusing works, including the debate poems “The Churl and the Bird” (179ff) and “The Debate of Horse, Goose and Sheep” (48ff), this tendency is apparent. Based on the majority of his work, Lydgate seems to have a hard time writing ‘just for fun’ pieces.
“The Churl and the Bird” is told in the style of a fable, and in accordance with this tradition, Lydgate includes a moral at the end of the poem. The final three stanzas specifically label the poem as a fable, and present four lessons to be taken from the poem. The first is “Now forged talis I counsaille you to fle”, and the second “For losse of goode takethe not to gret hede” (192). This second lesson is reiterated as “Coveitethe no thing that may not be” (192). The third lesson is “Bettir is freedom withe litelle in gladnesse/ Than to be thralle withe al worldly richesse” (193).
The fourth and final lesson is less direct. In the final stanza of the poem, Lydgate presents the traditional sending of his book to his patron. Conventional though this conclusion may be, the final lines still contain instructions. Lydgate says, “And as touching the translacioun/ Oute of Frenshe, hough ever the Englisshe be,/ Al thing is saide undir correctioun/ With supportacion of your benignite.” (193) The humility and self deprecation are conventional, but the comment about the imperfection of translation contains the suggestion that the reader needs to take some responsibility for their own reading and interpretation.
In “The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep”, the moral is more direct. After the narrative of the court case has concluded, Lydgate adds another section, fourteen stanzas long, to explain ‘the moralite’ of the debate. The moralite opens with the lines, “Of this fable conceyveth the sentence,/ At goode leyser doth the matier see,/ Whiche importith grete intelligence,/ Yif ye list take the moralyte,/ Profitable to evry comunaulte;/ Whiche inculdith in many sundry wyse:/ Noman sholde, of high or low degre,/ For no peragatif his neyhbour to despise.” The rest of the lesson in interpreting the debate never refers to the actual debate, and instead presents a sermon on social equality.
There are very few texts by Lydgate in which the author does not indulge in his monkish habit of turning everything into a lecture. Lydgate wrote a series of ‘mummings’ (alternatively titled ‘disguisings’) which make up the majority of his ‘just for fun’ work. The Mumming at Hertford will serve as an example. Mummings are a kind of dramatic performance intended for entertainment purposes often produced on commission. What kind of performance will be coming in this particular example is made clear by the prologue, which explains, “Nowe in þe vigyle of þis nuwe yeere/ Certeyne sweynes ful [froward of ther chere]/ Of entent comen, [fallen on ther kne],/ For to compleyne vn-to Yuoure Magestee/ Vpon þe mescheef of gret aduersytee,/ Vpon þe trouble and þe cruweltee/ Which þat þey haue endured in þeyre lyves/ By þe felnesse of þeyre fierce wyves;”
A series of caricatures follows the prologue, but Lydagate does not rely exclusively on wife-bashing for the entertainment. After all of the husbands present their complaints, the wives get a chance to respond. This group of women appear more educated than their husbands, which off-sets the shrewish characterizations. All though it is a collective speech, as opposed to each woman getting her own response, the women make references to literature as opposed to pure folklore and convention at the beginning of their defense: “And for oure partye þe worthy Wyff of Bathe/ Cane shewe statutes moo þan six or seven,/ Howe wyves make hir housbandes wynne heven,/ Maugre þe feonde and al his vyolence;/ For þeyre vertu of parfyte pacyence/ Parteneþe not to wyves nowe-adayes,/ Sauf on þeyre housbandes for to make assayes./ Þer pacyence was buryed long agoo,/ Gresyldes story recordeþe pleinly soo.” The ladies clearly have read Chaucer.
The decision by the ‘king’ also supports the idea that the women have outsmarted their husbands: “Wher-fore þe Kyng wol al þis nexst[e] yeere/ Þat wyves fraunchyse stonde hoole and entier,/ And þat no man with-stonde it, ne with-drawe,/ Til man may fynde some processe oute by lawe,/ Þat þey shoulde by nature in þeyre lyves/ Haue souerayntee on þeyre prudent wyves,/ A thing vnkouþe, which was neuer founde.” In contrast to this potentially feminist stance, the final words of the performance return to the traditional view of women causing men nothing but trouble: “Let me be-ware þer-fore or þey beo bounde./ Þe bonde is harde, who-soo þat lookeþe weel;/ Some man were leuer fetterd beon in steel,/ Raunsoun might help his peyne to aswaage,/ But whoo is wedded lyueþe euer in seruage.”
“The Mumming at Hertford” shows that Lydgate was capable of composing a text purely for entertainment, with no lecture or overall moral. One wonders what the effects might have been if he had allowed “The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep” or “The Churl and the Bird” to stand without the emphasis and re-emphasis on the specific lessons he wanted his reader to take away.