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  • Writer's pictureZoe Franznick

Episode One: The Tournament of Tottenham

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

Welcomen! We're kicking off the Maniculum Podcast with a suitably festive text: the Middle English poem known as the Tournament of Tottenham! This episode, Mac introduces our work, which he has graciously translated himself.

A little background on the text: while the author is anonymous, the poem was written for the middle-class merchants of the fifteenth century. The tale pokes fun at both the aristocracy and the lower classes by depicting a farcical tournament for the right to marry the daughter of the local reeve (a town official). Given that Tottenham is north of London, this tale may also poke fun at communities in that area that were known for being more backwater, or, as we said in the episode, hickish. Think bonfires and farm country.

The story itself depicts a small "tournament" wherein the local lads fight for the honor of marrying Tyb- and inheriting her large dowry of farm animals and livestock (which may be the greater motivation). On the day of the challenge, the boys appear wielding farm equipment and wearing bowls for helmets. Tyb also appears wearing some gems and a "garland of bones" for good measure. The lads make their knightly proclamations of courage, or at least a willingness to participate, and set about beating one another. Ultimately, Perkin wins the tournament and the two presumably live happily ever after, while the rest of the women in town drag the others back home.

There are a few big ideas to break down in this text, which we've listed below in sequence of when they pop up in the podcast:

"Swearing by the Straw": This saying became an idiom when Christians, Muslims, and Jews worked and lived together and needed to swear an oath. Not wanting to swear on anyone but their own God, they would hold onto a piece of straw and swear "by whomever created this straw," thereby relieving the hassle of having a theological debate when there was business to attend to.

Adumbrated Arms: a blackened or silhouetted shame on a coat-of-arms, indicating lost honor or pedigree. In the Tournament, one of the fighters has a 'shadow of a bell' on his coat-of-arms.

Common Law Marriage: believe it or not, a priest wasn't needed in a marriage before the Council of Trent in the 16th century. Before that, there were common law marriages, which were established through verbal oaths and local tradition. Two types of common law marriage were present-tense marriage and future-tense marriage. The specific language used in the oath was important, and legally binding.

In a present-tense marriage, the words were "I marry you," and indicated that a marriage began at that moment, and was incredibly difficult to annul even before the marriage was "in fair assent" (i.e. consecrated).

In a future-tense marriage, the words were "I will marry you." This was effectively an engagement, and was easier to annul. The men who were dragged back by the women of town were presumably in future-tense marriages with the women, as they were technically fighting for the hand of Tyb in marriage. Casting their nets widely, we suppose.

Use of Torches: while torches were used during the medieval period, they were not as an effective or long-term light-source as video games or Game of Thrones may have us believe. Here's a brief list of usual light sources used during the Middle Ages:

  • Fire: a fireplace provided most of the light and warmth within small homes, and would serve as a social hub, especially if the fireplace doubled as hearth for cooking.

  • Candles: the most common light source, especially indoors. Candles could be cheap or expensive, and could be set inside lanterns or in candelabras or candleholders and carried around. Rush candles were a good option for those of the lower classes.

  • Lanterns: whether oil or a candle set inside a frame, lanterns were protected against wind or being tipped over and setting other things on fire.

  • Sconces: whether inside or outside, sconces would protect torches and larger fires from uncontrolled burning, debris, and falling ash.

  • Torches: yes, torches were used. Torches could be wood, wound with linen and soaked in sulfur to provide a longer light, but wouldn't last much longer than ten or fifteen minutes. Cheaper torches would have also been made out of reeds rather than wood.

The Rooster's Egg: This mythical creature- well, the mythical produce of the creature, anyway- was served at Tyb's wedding feast, as an indicator that there weren't enough eggs to go around. Misshapen eggs were thought to be laid by roosters, not hens.

Thanks for joining us this week on our first episode of The Maniculum Podcast. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia!

Searching for our sources? Read 'The Tournament of Tottenham' here, and check out our Library for more. Additional references for interested scholars:

  • Cooke, William G. “The Tournament of Tottenham: an Alliterative Poem and an Exeter Performance.” Records of Early English Drama, vol. 11, no. 2, 1986, pp. 1–3. 

  • Cooke, William G. “The Tournament of Tottenham: Provenance, Text, and Lexicography.” English Studies, vol. 69, no. 1, 1988, p. 113-6.

  • French, Walter Hoyt, and Charles Brockway Hale. Middle English Metrical Romances. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1930.

  • Kooper, Erik. Sentimental and Humorous Romances: Floris and Blancheflour, Sir Degrevant, the Squire of Low Degree, the Tournament of Tottenham, and the Feast of Tottenham. Kalamazoo, Mich: Medieval Institute Publications, 2006.

  • Sands, Donald B. Middle English Verse Romances. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966.

We do our best to accurately research, source, and cite the works we use, and make them available to you, too! Each episode has a corresponding blog post which includes further breakdowns of the big ideas in each text as well as cites our sources and references. We also have the Maniculum Library, which actively collects resources and recommendations for writers, scholars, and geeks alike! We update our collection of Master Lists after each new episode, so be sure subscribe and stay updated!

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