In this episode, we take on medieval rap battles- that is, Middle English debate poetry! The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools provides a humorous look inside the medieval guild life, carpentry’s specific tools, and the dangers of the love of ale.
This text is found in the Codex Ashmole 61, called by George Shuffleton “a compilation of popular middle english verse.” The codex itself is a collection not unlike the Gesta Romanorum— it contains stories of saints’ lives, moral tales, Latin epigrams, romances, and fun little tales like the Debate.
This work itself is undated, but since it is Middle English, it can broadly be dated to the late 15th century. The poet is anonymous, but some scholars believe he signed his name as “Rate” in the manuscript. Furthermore, according to Dr. Angus McIntosh, the spellings throughout the debate place the poem’s copying (if not the poem’s original penning) to north east Leicestershire.
While most Middle English debate poetry centers around love and romance, the debate of the Carpenter’s tools is more akin to the Tournament of Tottenham. The personified carpenter’s tools hurl insults at each other, have no courtesy, and all subvert the gentlemanly expectation of the genre.
The debate itself displays many unique themes that give medievalists a peak into the life of medieval carpenters. The value of labor and its connection to morality is especially prominent. The carpenter is not just a bad carpenter, he’s also a drunkard and immoral man; his skill at carpentry and moral value are inherently connected.
This poem was also likely penned and performed for a carpentry guild, given its comic style and specify in language, notably the names of each of the tools. The poem also holds the carpenter in a higher light than his wife, despite his moral lapses and her urging him to get back to work. This illustrates the shift in guild culture and law from the early middle ages to the later middle ages. While women could once be part of guilds throughout Europe, they were eventually pushed out and banned from participating and being craftswomen themselves. However, the laws at the time demanded that a man have a wife in order to attain the honor of being a master craftsman. Thus, women became necessary pieces to a successful career rather than partners in life and work.
The poem itself is a dialogue between the crowd of tools, some of whom reprimand the carpenter as a drunk, and others who support the carpenter in his work and habits. The wife enters at the end of the poem and the supporting tools are revealed to all be drunks themselves, and the poem closes with a brief appeal to the audience. The work, however, never dictates a winner of the debate… We’ll leave that decision to you.
Final Rating: 7
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