LOVE TRUMPS HATE: Dame Custance triumphs over Ralph Roister Doister

apostrophe makes punctuation poem

A neighbor told me that she saw a car with a bumper-sticker proclaiming in all capital letters, “LOVE TRUMP’S HATE.” What kind of person would put that bumper-sticker on a car? Nicholas Udall’s comedy Ralph Roister Doister, written about 1552, points to the answer.

In Ralph Roister Doister, a strange, hateful letter became a proper love letter when read correctly. The title character Ralph Roister Doister is a delusional braggart enamored of Dame Christian Custance, a wealthy widow. He foolishly attempted to woo her like a courtly lover begging for a woman’s love. He even hired a scrivener to compose a love letter. Roister Doister’s jestful, manipulative hanger-on Mathew Merygreeke read the letter to Custance on behalf of Roister Doister:

To mine own dear coney-bird, sweetheart, and pigsney, Good Mistress Custance, present these by and by.
Sweet mistress, where as I love you nothing at all —
regarding your substance and richesse chief of all —
for your personage, beauty, demeanour and wit,
I commend me unto you never a whit.
Sorry to hear report of your good welfare,
for (as I hear say) such your conditions are,
that ye be worthy favour of no living man,
to be abhorred of every honest man,
to be taken for a woman inclined to vice,
nothing at all to virtue giving her due price.
Wherefore, concerning marriage, ye are thought
such a fine paragon, as ne’er honest man bought.
And now by these presents I do you advertise
that I am minded to marry you in no wise.
For your goods and substance, I could be content
to take you as ye are. If ye mind to be my wife,
ye shall be assured, for the time of my life,
I will keep you right well from good raiment and fare —
ye shall not be kept but in sorrow and care —
ye shall in no wise live at your own liberty.
Do and say what ye lust, ye shall never please me;
but when ye are merry, I will be all sad.
When ye are sorry, I will be very glad.
When ye seek your heart’s ease, I will be unkind.
At no time in me shall ye much gentleness find.
But all things contrary to your will and mind
shall be done — otherwise I will not be behind
to speak. And as for all them that would do you wrong,
I will so help and maintain, ye shall not live long.
Nor any foolish dolt shall cumber you but I.
I, whoe’er say nay, will stick by you till I die.
Thus, good mistress Custance, the Lord you save and keep
from me, Roister Doister, whether I wake or sleep —
who favoureth you no less, ye may be bold,
than this letter purporteth, which ye have unfold.

This letter, not surprisingly, didn’t prompt Dame Custance to love. The letter mocked her. Then the scrivener read the letter to her differently:

To mine own dear coney-bird, sweetheart, and pigsney, Good Mistress Custance, present these by and by.
Sweet mistress, whereas I love you nothing at all
regarding your richesse and substance — chief of all
for your personage, beauty, demeanour, and wit
I commend me unto you. Never a whit
sorry to hear report of your good welfare,
for (as I hear say) such your conditions are,
that ye be worthy favour. Of no living man
to be taken for a woman inclined to vice,
nothing at all. To virtue giving her due price.
Wherefore concerning marriage, ye are thought
such a fine paragon, as ne’er honest man bought.
And now by these presents I do you advertise,
that I am minded to marry you — in no wise
for your goods and substance — I can be content
to take you as you are. If ye will be my wife,
ye shall be assured for the time of my life,
I will keep you right well. From good raiment and fare,
ye shall not be kept. But in sorrow and care
ye shall in no wise live. At your own liberty
do and say what ye lust. Ye shall never please me
but when ye are merry. I will be all sad
when ye are sorry. I will be very glad
when ye seek your heart’s ease. I will be unkind
at no time. In me shall ye much gentleness find.
But all things contrary to your will and mind
shall be done otherwise. I will not be behind
to speak. And as for all them that would do you wrong —
I will so help and maintain ye — {they} shall not live long.
Nor any foolish dolt shall cumber you, but I,
I, whoe’er say nay, will stick by you till I die.
Thus, good mistress Custance, the Lord you save and keep.
From me, Roister Doister, whether I wake or sleep,
who favoureth you no less, ye may be bold,
than this letter purporteth, which ye have unfold.

Love wins! But first Dame Custance’s nurse and maids prepared to assault Roister Doister:

Margerie Mumblecrust: I with my distaff will reach him one rap.
Tibet Talkapace: And I with my new broom will sweep him one swap,
and then with our great club I will reach him one rap.
Annot Alyface: And I with our skimmer will fling him one flap.
Tibet Talkapace: Then Trupenie’s firefork will him shrewdly fray,
and you with the spit may drive him quite away.

Roister Doister and his men recognized the “ancient law of honor” that a man shouldn’t strike a woman. Like many other men, they were ignorant of what Achilles did to Penthesileia, or what Arruns did to Camilla. Dame Custance’s fiancé questioned her:  “do ye hate him more than ye love me?” Of course she didn’t. She participated in plans to host and roast Roister Doister for dinner and to be as good friends with him as she ever had been. Love can encompass hate.

Punctuation poems reveal an underside to the dominant order. Roister Doister’s courtly love letter is a punctuation poem that also represents derisive hate. LOVE TRUMP’S HATE. It makes sense.

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Notes:

Ralph Roister Doister is play attributed Nicholas Udall, master of Eton College and Westminster School in England. Udall is thought to have written the play about 1552 for his school students. The text above is from the edition of Child (1912). The edition of Arber (1869) is freely available online.

Ralph Roister Doister was once regarded as the first comic drama in English. A much longer tradition of English comedy, closely associated with Latin literature, is now recognized beginning with The Interlude of the Student and the Girl from about 1300. For text and modern English translation, Wickham (1976) pp. 195-203.

The first version of the punctuation poem in Ralph Roister Doister is from Act 3, Scene 4. The second version is from Act 3, Scene 5. The maids violent assault on Roister Doister and Mathew Merygreeke is from Act 4, Scene 4. Violence against men in medieval Europe contribute to the extraordinary large gender disparity in medieval lifespans. The “ancient law of honor” requires men not to defend themselves even when women violently attacked them. That prevalent norm, as well as women’s power to incite men to violence against other men, is an aspect of truthful understanding of domestic violence and violence in general. Roister Doister refers to the “ancient law of honor” in Act 5, Scene 6. Gawyn Goodluck addressed the question “do ye hate him more than ye love me” to Dame Custance in Act 5, Scene 5.

In Ralph Roister Doister, Roister Doister’s behavior is a comic parody of the courtly lover. The braggart Roister Doister ridiculously complains about the female gaze: “they {women} gaze all upon me and stare.” Act 1, Sc. 2. He begs for Dame Custance’s love like a man ignorant of medieval women’s love poetry. The irreverent Mathew MeryGreeke makes vacuous wisdom from Roister Doister’s courtly love folly:

All men take heede by this one gentleman,
how you set your love upon an unkind woman.
For these women be all such mad peevish elves,
they will not be won except it please themselves.

Act 3, Sc. 3. The “good man” Gawyn Goodluck at least recognized the medieval wisdom “all that glistens isn’t gold.” Act 5, Sc. 1.

Reference:

Arber, Edward, ed. 1869. Nicholas Udall. Roister Doister. London.

Child, Clarence Griffin, ed. 1912. Nicholas Udall. Ralph Roister Doister. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Wickham, Glynne. 1976. English Moral Interludes. London: Dent.

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