Background on The Bowge of Courte

Connected Background


Introduction and Background to

The text is taken from a copy of Wynkyn de Worde’s 1499 printing in Advocate’s Library Edinburgh, collated with the second edition of this (c. 1510) in the University Library Cambridge, and with Marshe’s edition Workes of 1568 (Scattergood 395).

Scholars have generally dated The Bowge of Courte between 1499 and 1521. Helen Stearns Sale (1937) suggests a more specific date by placing the production of the poem between 1499 and 1503, since during this time Skelton must have been at court as the tutor for Prince Henry. She, moreover, states that the first print must have been before 1500. Her final conclusion places the writing of the poem in the year 1499. Sale disconnects the poem, subsequently, from a similarly written work by Barclay’s Ship of Fools, a translation of Brandt’s Narrenschiff (1494). Scattergood, however, links Brandt’s text and Skelton’s poem together and indicates that it may have derived from the Latin version of Locher: Stultifera Navis (1497). According to Scattergood, the theme is already apparent in Jacquemart Gielé’s Renard le Nouvel and could, therefore, easily been an influence for The Bowge of Courte.

According to the MED, the title of the poem Bowge of Courte refers to the word bouche: mouth, and more specific to the phrase: bouce/bouge of court, an allowance of food and drink granted by a king or nobleman to a member of his household or of the retinue of a guest (MED). Translated in a free manner, the phrase could mean the “mouths of court” indicating the people who can voice their opinion at court. In the poem, the title refers to the ship on which the Drede and the vices are situated.

The allegorical setting of the poem plays on a medieval and early-modern tradition. Firstly, it has similarities with morality plays from the fourteenth- and fifteenth centuries in which the characters of the play often personify vices, virtues, and other worldly elements. The Bowge of Courte uses this structure to characterise seven court-vices/dangers by whom the personification of Drede is tested: Favel (flattery), Suspycyon (suspicion), Hervy Hafter, Disdayne (disdain), Ryote (riot), Dyssymulation (disguise), and Disceyte (deceit). Furthermore, a clear moral can be found at the end of the text. “In analyzing these characters, one can find that the true purpose within the text of Skelton’s work was to portray a moral through surface level reading of the text, and mostly to parallel the crimes handled by the Court of the Star Chamber, and which was begun by King Henry VII, under whom he served for years, and portray the issues of the constant threat of treason in any monarchy” (Fink).

The allegorical setting, furthermore, deals with the theme of folly which was prevalent in both medieval literature as well as early modern literature. The theme of folly has changed in such extremity that many changes can be found between the usage in the Middle Ages and the way in which writers used it in the early modern period (West 23). Michael West argues that “Skelton’s fools often “show close affinity to the Brandtian fool” since “they also manifest kinship with those Renaissance fools whose folly approaches wisdom” (24).

Finally, even though it is only a small part of the poem, The Bowge of Courte clearly shows connection with the medieval genre of dream visions. At the beginning, Drede falls asleep “at Harwyche Porte … In myn hostes house called Powers Keye” (ll.34-5). Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and House of Fame start in similar ways.